Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and you do not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe it if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.
In this reading Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night for a little head-to-head, rabbi-to-rabbi meeting. Why at night? We don’t know. There would have been legitimate reasons for Nicodemus to come to Jesus at night. Perhaps he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Perhaps it was a matter of convenience and scheduling.
But in John’s writings, things frequently tend to mean more than one thing, and time is frequently significant. So it’s safe to say that there is more to the fact that this meeting is taking place at night than just that Nicodemus didn’t want to attract attention or that he and Jesus were busy people with busy schedules and night was the only time they could connect.
Night is the time of darkness (duh). But for John, the darkness of night is a metaphor for spiritual darkness. Ignorance. Unbelief. Atheism. Paganism. Idolatry. Knowing many things but knowing nothing about God.
To Nicodemus, Jesus was a teacher who had come from God, who performed signs which proved that God was with him. Correct, as far as it goes. But he doesn’t even begin to suspect the full truth of who Jesus is–that Jesus is not just come from God, he IS God. He is more than a rabbi, he is the full embodiment of what the rabbis taught. He is the Torah walking around in human flesh.
Now darkness in itself is not a bad thing. In the hands of God it is full of creative possibility. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2) Then God spoke the creative word “Let there be light”, and there was light. And from there all the world we see and know was created. Ignorance is teachable; darkness is lightable. It is only those who think they know everything who are in trouble.
Jesus wants to call Nicodemus out of his spiritual ignorance. So he answers Nicodemus’ introductory remark with an out-of-left-field remark which has nothing to do with what Nicodemus just said, but everything to do with Nicodemus himself. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. The actual word used here can mean either “again” or “from above”. Perhaps a better rendering would be “unless he is born again from above”. To see the kingdom of God requires a second birth. Your first birth won’t work; that was from below. Unlike your first birth, this birth must come from above.
So what does this mean? John has already clued us in to this back in the intro to his Gospel: “Yet to all who believed him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13) Notice the parallel between verse 13 and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. When you believe Jesus, that is, when you trust in his name, you become a child of God, born not of any human or natural processes but by the action of God. This is what it means to be born again from above.
Now Nicodemus is totally in the dark. He doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about. “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he can’t go back into his mother’s womb and come out a second time?”
But instead of backing up and breaking it down for poor Nicodemus, Jesus pushes him further. “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” In Genesis 1 the Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth waiting for the creative word of God to be spoken. To be born again from above is to be born of water and the Spirit. This is why water is part of the rite of baptism by which a new believer is received into the Church: in baptism the water comes together with the Spirit which you receive upon coming to faith in Christ.
“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Flesh and spirit go together in John just like old man and new man, sinner and saint. Flesh gives birth to flesh. A sinner can produce nothing but another sinner. The curse of Adam is inherited. But the Spirit gives birth to spirit–a new you, free from the curse of Adam. That is what Nicodemus must become. He may be old, but he must become a newborn baby spiritually in order to see the kingdom of God. He may know every verse of the Torah by heart and be a true son of Israel by circumcision, but he must be born again from above, born of water and the Spirit, in order to have any part in the kingdom of God.
Now Jesus really pushes Nicodemus: “You’re the teacher of Israel and you still don’t get it?” He goes back to the Old Testament. As the Israelites were crossing the desert there was an episode where they grumbled against God and he sent snakes. God had mercy and instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and hoist it up: anyone who was bitten by a snake was to look at it and he would live. The same thing is happening again, but on a much broader scale and with a much broader scope: the Son of Man will soon be lifted up on a cross, just like that bronze serpent. All who look at him by faith–that is, by believing Jesus and trusting in his name–will live eternally.
Nicodemus needs to see things in this light and recognize that Jesus is not just a miracle-working rabbi but the very son of God. This is how much God loved the world–that he sent his only Son into the world so that whoever believes may not be condemned but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world–the Law has already done an excellent job of that–but to save it through his suffering, death, and resurrection.
We don’t know anything about how Nicodemus responded to these words of Jesus. But the next time we see Nicodemus, we see him with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he feared the Jews. They went to Pilate to receive the body of Jesus. Nicodemus brought along some fine spices, about seventy-five pounds worth, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. He had seen Jesus lifted up on the cross; no doubt he remembered Jesus’ words about Moses lifting up the bronze snake in the desert and made the connection.