Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are 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 do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, 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 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 wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
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 they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people 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 their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
This well-known encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is what we are looking at this week. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council. This meant he had gotten on as a Pharisee and started at the bottom of the religious rung and worked his way up from there, likely because he had wealth or connections or possibly both.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, likely because that was the only time that would work for them. Jesus was busy during the day, the Gospel writers make a point of telling us that there were always crowds surrounding Jesus, and surely Nicodemus figured that it would not behoove him to be seen in that crowd trying to get a meeting with Jesus. So night it was.
But things tend to mean more than one thing in the Gospel of John, and time is significant as well, so when John notes that the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus was at night, there is more in play than just night being the only time these two could connect.
Night is the time of darkness (duh). But in the Gospel of John, it is more than just physical darkness. Spiritual darkness. Ignorance. Unbelief. Atheism. Paganism. Idolatry. Knowing much but knowing nothing about God.
Jesus had lots of followers, and many of them were expecting him to at some point show himself as the Messiah, drive out the Romans and reestablish Israel as an independent kingdom, just like in the days of Solomon and David. But the more astute followers suspected that something else was happening here. Nicodemus fell into that category. And he had some questions about Jesus and what he was up to, so he came at night.
He begins: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Note that Nicodemus refers to the miracles, healings, etc. as “signs”. These things were not just willy-nilly displays of supernatural power, but instead there was a method to the madness, as it were. Nicodemus recognized this.
So Nicodemus finally comes to the point of asking his question(s). But the words of his preamble aren’t even out of his mouth when Jesus stops him and goes in a completely different direction: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Jesus did this all the time. He would routinely answer questions by not answering them, or answer questions no one was asking, or go in a completely different direction from what the questioner was asking about. And here we see it happening again.
Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi, sent by God. Nicodemus knew that much. But he didn’t even begin to know the half of it. So Jesus wanted to stretch him, get him thinking in a new direction.
Nicodemus was lost. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” He knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally here. But he didn’t have a clue what Jesus was really saying here.
But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” In other words, nice try. You were born a citizen of Israel–great. But that won’t even begin to get you into the kingdom I’m talking about here.
“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.”
Nicodemus is still lost. So Jesus yanks his chain: “You are Israel’s teacher…and you do not understand these things?” Finally Jesus comes to something Nicodemus can relate to: Moses. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Wait a minute. But for the Son of Man to be lifted up like that…that would require him to be hung on something or impaled on a pole or other such thing. And the Law is clear that anyone who meets that fate is cursed. So you’re saying that the Son of Man is going to be…cursed? And somehow that will bring us eternal life?
Likely Nicodemus left that meeting with a whole lot more questions than answers. We don’t see Nicodemus again until the end when Jesus has died. This was not the ending that anyone was expecting. But this Jesus deserved better than to have his body cast upon a trash heap, as was the typical fate of crucifixion victims. Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb, so he and Nicodemus went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus. Likely this involved a significant bribe, as it was against the law for crucifixion victims to be given a proper burial.
Nicodemus came up that day and saw the Son of Man–lifted up above the crowd. Not the ending he or anyone else was expecting, but when he saw it he doubtless remembered what Jesus had said to him that night, and made the connection.