Following Jesus’ first miracle, where he turned water into wine at a wedding celebration in Cana, his “getting acquainted time” with five disciples, and his cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem during Passover – all of which were covered in recent posts, the Apostle John tells about an intriguing conversation held late at night. By the way, it is not clear that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night because he was afraid or wanted to meet Jesus in secret. It is possible that he came to see Jesus at night because he knew he could have a more extensive conversation with him then without crowds of people clamoring for his attention.
In any case, this conversation is very interesting because it shows Jesus relating to an important Jewish religious leader. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of 70 men who were the religious leaders of Israel. It is estimated that there were approximately 7,000 Pharisees during the time of Jesus and they were an influential group in the 1st Century because of their knowledge of the law and Jewish traditions; they were also intellectuals with high ethical standards.
Pharisees play a prominent role in the New Testament – in large part because they are interested in the teachings of Jesus and Jesus takes them seriously. Unlike the Sadducees, who are collaborators with the Roman authorities, or the Zealots, who want to overthrow the Romans by force, or the Essenes, who separate themselves from society and retreat to isolated locations, the Pharisees were active and respected religious leaders.
Read the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus recorded in John 3:1-21. Don’t let your familiarity with this story get in the way of a fresh encounter with Jesus.
Did you notice how Nicodemus addresses Jesus? “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.” Nicodemus knew about the miracles Jesus performed in the early stages of his public ministry and he wants to know more about him. He is courteous and there is no hostility evident in how he approaches the young rabbi.
Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus is short and cryptic. He tells Nicodemus that unless he is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God. By the way, this is only time the Apostle John uses the word “Kingdom of God” is his entire Gospel – unlike the other three Gospels where this term is used frequently.
It is hard to follow this conversation because the contextual framework of 1st Century Jewish religious beliefs is unfamiliar to many of us. Here’s the bottom-line: Jesus says that getting into God’s Kingdom is not the right or prerogative of any particular race or culture and you don’t pass qualifying exams by any legalistic practices. Jesus shares a mystery with this powerful Jewish leader – entrance into God’s Kingdom is by a direct act of God. It’s a gift of God. Being a high-ranking ancestor of Abraham isn’t enough.
As the conversation continues, Jesus explains with great authority that he will be “lifted up” – a direct reference to his crucifixion – and this sacrifice will be a cure for sin. To be a follower of Jesus and a member of his Kingdom require that this gift be received by faith. Jesus offers this gift to Nicodemus and now it is up to Nicodemus to decide for himself.
We don’t know what happens to Nicodemus or what he decides about Jesus’ offer, although I suspect he became a follower of Jesus. He is mentioned two more times in John’s Gospel. During a debate among Jewish religious leaders, Nicodemus takes on his colleagues for condemning Jesus without “finding out what he is doing” (John 7:50-52). But more importantly, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in removing Jesus’ body from the cross and preparing it for burial (John 19:38-42). Why would he do this, why run the risk of an attack from those who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion, if he is not a believer? I think he does accept the offer of salvation from Jesus.
- For some Christians, “born again” are special code words. It is so interesting to me that these words are only used here in Scripture and nowhere else. Have you ever had anyone ask you if you are “born again”? A positive response to this question doesn’t give you free access to the Kingdom of God. A life of faithful discipleship is much better proof!
- There is a powerful mystery in this conversation and it reminds me of what one Biblical scholar wrote: “Is any conversation with Jesus easy?” Jesus’ responses to Nicodemus are hard for him to understand, as they are for us today. Salvation is a gift of God, not something we earn by heredity or legalistic behaviors. It is offered to all of us as a gift, but we need to accept the gift. “Born again” is better translated “born from above” – born by an act of God. Our response needs to be one of acceptance and gratitude.
- How have you responded to this gift of God, this gift of salvation? If you haven’t yet or are uncertain about whether or not you have, this is a good opportunity to do so. There’s so much more to learn, but this is the important first step.