Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Jesus Teaches Nicodemus
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 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 miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can a person be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 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. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
This passage has one of the most famous verses in all of the gospels – verse 3, in which Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” But before we get to that, it’s probably worth taking a minute to think about what light this passage sheds on the Gospel of John in general.
The Gospel of John is different from the other three gospels. Matthew and Luke were apparently based on Mark, so they all share a common structure. Matthew, Mark and Luke tend to report short blocks of teaching by Jesus, but John tells us about long conversations Jesus had with people – conversations that aren’t in the other gospels. These conversations tend to involve interpretations of the meanings of Jesus’ life and teachings. It almost strikes me as a more ‘advanced course’ in the Christian faith – one meant for people who have already taken Matthew, Mark and Luke.
One of the things that’s particularly interesting about the long conversations Jesus has with people in John is that a lot of the time people don’t immediately get what Jesus is talking about. His listeners are confused, so Jesus has to give further explanations to help them understand what he’s saying.
Which, I suspect, is what a lot of Jesus’ teaching moments were like. Those of us who were raised in the church have been reading and hearing these things all our lives, so we tend to think that everything Jesus said would have been crystal clear to the people he was talking to. But his teachings were presented in such surprising ways that they probably did confuse lots of his listeners.
And this conversation we’re thinking about today is a perfect example. It’s a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is identified as a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. So that tells us that Nicodemus had committed himself to strict obedience of the law of God in the Torah, and that he was well respected by his fellow Jews.
In the story, Nicodemus approaches Jesus very respectfully, acknowledging him as sent by God. And the reason he acknowledges Jesus as sent from God is that he can do miracles. But Jesus seems to reject the idea that the point of his ministry was to do miracles. Instead, Jesus takes the conversation in a completely different direction. He says those famous words, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
And Nicodemus reacts with just the surprise and confusion you would expect from someone who hasn’t been raised with the idea of being “born again” the way modern Christians are. His mind assumes Jesus is talking about repeating his first birth – his emergence from his mother’s womb.
But then Jesus goes on to say that everyone experiences physical birth, but only some are born again – awakened to a new life by the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit operates by its own rules, as unpredictably as the wind.
That’s another idea that would have been more confusing to Nicodemus than it is to us. We understand and accept the idea that the Holy Spirit operates by its own rules, and that its actions will be surprising to our human intellects. We understand our new life in Jesus to be a gift from God’s grace, and that gift is given at unpredictable times and under circumstances that can be startling.
But of course, Nicodemus was a member of a religious tradition that taught that God was orderly and predictable in his dealings with people. The Hebrews understood that you had to be righteous to earn God’s love. If you act righteously, they thought, God will reward you with blessings. But the problem is that this mindset winds up regarding God as sort of controllable. If you do what the Torah says, they thought – and this is the real problem with traditional Hebrew thinking – if you do what the Torah says God will actually owe you blessing.
So, obviously, Jesus would reject that idea. He tells Nicodemus that as a religious leader of the covenant people, he should recognize that the God of Israel was and is a God who sometimes acts in surprising and unpredictable ways. In Jesus, God has come into the world in human form, which was certainly surprising enough in itself. But now Jesus was teaching humankind new and unexpected ways to relate to God.
Of course, the most surprising and unexpected part of the story of Jesus would not unfold for some time to come. That would happen later, when the real glory of God would be revealed, not through heavenly armies or the re-establishment of a powerful Israel or even through everyone obeying the Torah – but rather through a shocking act of self-sacrifice. Jesus would allow himself to be lifted up on the cross, as Moses had lifted up a bronze snake in the wilderness to save the people from punishment for their sins. The death of Jesus on the cross would rescue everyone who is “born again” to a new life in him.
Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you would constantly renew our lives by the power of your Spirit. Help us to open our hearts and our minds to that renewing Spirit, and help us to wait with eager expectation for the new and unexpected things you do in us. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 27 and 147:1-11; Deuteronomy 9:13-21; and