A Visit in the Night
The night is good for all sorts of things: staying up until three in the morning reading a good book, writing, or watching infomercials. For students the wee hours are normally filled with finishing up required reading, writing papers and preparing presentations for the class in a few hours. Unfortunately the night is also the time when our worries, doubts, and fears can take on monster size proportions and keep us tossing and turning into the wee hours. Normally that’s when watching infomercials begin. But one particular night a man decided to seek out Jesus.
Nicodemus had heard about Jesus and may have even seen some of his miracles and heard Jesus’ teachings himself. Nicodemus wanted to know more about this itinerant rabbi who disrupted the buying and selling at the temple and was turning the religion that he knew on its ear. Nicodemus came at night. One reason was probably that he didn’t want his colleagues to know. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, and one of the religious leaders of the people. The last thing he should be doing was going to an itinerant no-name rabbi from Galilee. But Nicodemus was also up. Scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law normally studied the Torah at night in preparation for the teaching and debates of the next day. So it was also convenient for Nicodemus to come to Jesus at night. All his duties of the day were over, and he was left on his own to study the Torah into the wee hours. We’ll probably never know exactly why Nicodemus came at night, but it was probably a combination of those two things.
So Nicodemus has come to Jesus and he says that he and other people know that Jesus is a teacher from God. He knows the miracles of Jesus cannot be done apart from God’s presence. Then Jesus throws him for a loop. Jesus starts talking about being born from above to enter the kingdom of God. As far as Nicodemus is concerned, he is part of the kingdom of God. He is a Jew, descended from Abraham. He was born into God’s covenant people. Why would he need to be reborn to enter the kingdom of God? How could he be reborn?
But Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that he had to be reborn. He didn’t need another physical birth. Jesus said he needed to be born from above, by the Spirit. Born of God. John opened his gospel saying, â€œBut to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.â€ Nicodemus had been born a Jew by the blood, but that no did not guarantee that he would see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus needed to acknowledge that Jesus was more than just a teacher sent by God. He needed to see and believe that Jesus is God’s Son. He needed to be born of the Spirit. Like the wind blows and no one knows where it is from or where it is going, so it is with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works as she will birthing and giving new life to those who believe, not only Jesus’ miracles, but that Jesus is the Son of God sent by God to save the world. In fact, according to John believing the miracles is not enough–there must also be faith in the One that God sent.
The last we hear of Nicodemus in this passage is his question: â€œHow can this be?â€ Although Jesus chides him for not understanding, he goes on to further explain to Nicodemus that he has been sent by God into the world. He has descended from heaven, and if Nicodemus will believe this, he will have eternal life. In John, eternal life is not something that begins after death: it begins when we believe that Jesus is God’s Son, and it is through his crucifixion and resurrection that we come into God’s kingdom. Even this early in his ministry, Jesus talks of his death on the cross. Eternal life is not always an easy road. Jesus also lets Nicodemus know that he is not being condemned. God did not send him to condemn the world but to save it. God sent Christ because of God’s love for the world, for those made in God’s image. God’s love has compelled the Incarnation, and it is God’s love that Jesus lives out.
We don’t know what Nicodemus’ decision was. John never tells us. Nicodemus’ last spoken words are â€œHow can this be?â€ But it is not the last we see of him in John. He appears twice more. In John 7:50 he defends Jesus to the Sanhedrin and asks them to hear him out. We last see him at the foot of the cross in John 19 when he and Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body from the cross and prepared it for burial. Nicodemus might have asked questions and had doubts, but he was not given up on. He appears at the beginning of John’s gospel and hears one of Jesus’ first prophecies of his death and resurrection. At the end of the Gospel he at the cross and tomb. Did he become a disciple? Only God knows. The same God who loved him enough to take the time to explain being born from above and eternal life to him.
It doesn’t matter why or when Nicodemus came to Jesus. What matters is that he came. He came to Jesus and listened to Jesus. He may not have understood at first, and he asked questions, but Jesus answered his questions and explained what was necessary for Nicodemus to become part of the kingdom of God and have eternal life. It is the same for us. It doesn’t matter why we come to Jesus or when. The important thing is that we have come and continue to come. We can have our doubts and ask questions just as Nicodemus did. Jesus still gives answers and elaborates. We can even come to Jesus for the wrong reasons: because we want signs or an easier life, money, or health. Jesus will correct us just as he did Nicodemus.
Jesus will not give up on us just as he did not give up on Nicodemus. Although Nicodemus did not seem to get what Jesus was telling him in this chapter, he stands at the cross in chapter 19 and helps lay Jesus to rest. He heard Jesus’ prediction of being raised up for salvation and eternal life. He saw how far God would go to show God’s love for all humanity. He saw first hand God’s great love for the world. In the same way God continues to show us God’s love. Jesus continues to point to the cross and say this is how much God loves you. This is how much I love you. We are never given up on.
Jesus continues to beckon us to come and believe. Not to believe that he will make our lives peachy and nothing bad will ever happen to us again. But to believe that he is the Son of God, the one God sent into the world, so that we can have a relationship with God. We can have eternal life as God’s sons and daughters in God’s kingdom. People will always want signs and miracles and sometimes we do too. And sometimes we get them. But they can never be the basis of our belief. The foundation of our belief must be the Incarnation: that God has become flesh and lived among us. I love how Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14 in The Message: â€œThe Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.â€ God became fully human and moved into our neighborhood. This is the foundation of our faith. The miracles and signs are nice when they come, but we must remember the one sign Jesus gave to believe in him. In John 2 he tells those who ask him what authority he has to disrupt buying and selling in the temple that â€œdestroy this temple, and in three days it will be raised up again.â€ He was speaking of his death and resurrection. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he says the only sign given will be the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the big fish for three days and nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The only sign our faith rests upon is the death and resurrection of Christ. The Incarnation and Resurrection are the signs our faith rests upon–not the miracles of healing, exorcism, or food.
But when we get hung up on those miracles Jesus does not give up on us, just as he did not give up Nicodemus. Remember Nicodemus first came because of the signs and miracles Jesus was doing. That’s how he knew Jesus was sent from God. That’s where Jesus started and lead him to see that wasn’t enough. Nicodemus had to see that Jesus was God. Just as we need to see that Jesus is God.
Although Jesus is a little hard on Nicodemus, he tells Nicodemus God’s motive for sending the Son and for the toughness that tries to change his focus from Jesus being a teacher to Jesus being the Messiah: God’s love. This is what we need to remember too as Jesus continually turns our gaze away from lesser things to remind us of what is really important. Jesus continues to redirect our focus because of God’s love. It is God’s love that compels us to change and become more Christlike. Just as it was God’s love that led us to confess Jesus as our Savior in the first place. Although condemnation and â€œhellfire and brimstoneâ€ are popular ways for some in Christianity to try to get people to come to Jesus, that is not what God did. In fact, John 3:17 makes it very clear that Jesus did not come to condemn anyone in the world, but to show the love God had for the world and give us a way into eternal life with God.
As we walk through Lent, examining our lives, and repenting of the places we have not given to God or walked away from God, we need to remember why God is leading us through this time: because God loves us. God wants to have a more intimate relationship with us. God want us to be more Christlike. God wants us to live in the abundant life and eternal life that we can have in Christ. Walking through Lent can be long and dark, but the God who loves us walks with us, telling us what we need to do, just as Jesus told Nicodemus what he needed to do to have eternal life with God. God’s discipline and judgments are always to lead us deeper into eternal life and closer to God.
The picture is from the St. John’s Bible.