If we had a suspicion that our religion which we had followed for years was not quite right and further that someone else outside the mainstream might have the answer, I wonder what we would actually do…truthfully? Nicodemus was facing that problem. Given what he had at stake, do you think Nicodemus has really deserved quite so much criticism directed his way by countless preachers down through the centuries.
Certainly John implies a furtive visit which is presumably why Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, so it is reasonable to assume Nicodemus did not want anyone seeing his visit. Furthermore, despite Jesus telling Nicodemus the essential nature of rebirth, there is no immediate evidence of him accepting this as a personal challenge and joining his band of disciples. Nevertheless I think it would be a mistake to write Nicodemus off as a timid coward.
We should remember he was a Pharisee and according to John, recognised as a leader of the Jews. According to some commentators I have read, this probably indicated he was a member of the Sanhedrin. This was a seventy-one member supreme council that met in Jerusalem throughout the post-exile period. The Sanhedrin had legislative power over the Jewish community, as well as some judicial authority at a time when Jews living in Judea were dominated by various foreign powers. In Jesus’ time, this Sanhedrin would have had some authority over the community, remembering ultimately Rome held all the power. If Nicodemus was in fact a member of the Sanhedrin, he was about as powerful and influential as a Jew could be under the Romans. John did not explicitly identify Nicodemus as a member of the Sanhedrin, but by calling him “a leader of the Jews” this is likely what he meant.
As far as Nicodemus was concerned, coming to Jesus, a known critic of conventional practice, would have been dangerous because at least according to John’s version of events, Jesus had already confronted the Temple authorities when he cleared the Temple. This visit was tantamount to showing he was moving outside the community whose religious hierarchy would normally have offered Nicodemus support. Visiting Jesus would, at the very least, risk losing for Nicodemus his status as a leader and endangering the current level of goodwill and respect for him within his home community.
To think ourselves into his position, perhaps we should imagine a modern day equivalent whereby one of our senior Church leaders went to a rival denomination – or worse a rival religion – to investigate the possibility of joining up. We should admire the courage of anyone prepared to entertain such a change in direction and perhaps even wonder if we ourselves would be prepared to take such a step.
I guess most of us would be relatively comfortable with our current acceptance of beliefs and customs of whatever Church with which we associate ourselves. Dare I suggest that for some of us at least we may even say Amen to prayers or songs that privately we may doubt, simply as a way of relating to our fellow worshippers. On the other hand since our faith is expected to offer something to our current situation, and since that situation is very different to what our setting would have dictated a few years ago – let alone centuries ago, we shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to assume we have no need for a Nicodemus-type reassessment of where we are going in terms of our beliefs.
One set of changes which has affected many communities is the way in which the population mix has changed in radical ways. For my personal setting of being brought up with a majority mono-cultural nominally Protestant community in Post second World War in Christchurch to my present setting of a multicultural and multi-faith setting of South Auckland – there is every reason to question whether my faith still gives the most appropriate set of beliefs and behaviours. When I add in the new understanding from science and the ready accessibility of new historical insights I should at least ask the question if the teachings I have accepted in the past and now pass on to others are still relevant. To give one specific example. The scientists who study brain function as it relates to behaviour have discovered some biochemical relationships with some addictions and socially undesirable behaviour. This raises the question about whether so acts previous thought to be sin are really committed by free choice.
We may accept as an article of faith that deciding to be called Christian and following the directives of accepted Christian leadership is sufficient, but history should cause us to question that assumption. When in November 1095 Pope Urban II directed the first Crusaders to take their swords, wear the white cross on their right shoulders and cry out altogether “God wills it!” they set out to the Holy land certain that by doing so they were guaranteed a place in heaven. When they unleashed slaughter on the inhabitants of Jerusalem (including the Christians who came out to welcome them) to the point where they were ankle deep in blood they may well have thought they were fulfilling Biblical prophecy from the book of Revelation – yet surely this is not what Jesus had in mind when he said be born again in the Spirit.
So Nicodemus came to Jesus, by night. There is the suspicion that John who so much liked to overlay his gospel with theology visualised the darkness as being the spiritual darkness faced by more than just Nicodemus.
Now Nicodemus tells Jesus why he has come. He acknowledges Jesus as a teacher and says he is impressed by the signs Jesus has been demonstrating as a part of his mission. “No man can do the signs you have done.” Clearly we cannot be certain which signs Nicodemus is referring to. We can only guess that he is talking of Jesus reputation as a miracle worker and a healer.
Perhaps Nicodemus even wants to discover Jesus’ secrets so that he too might be a miracle worker and demonstrator of great signs. If this is his focus, Jesus is not interested. He seems more concerned about Nicodemus sorting out his own attitude and approach to faith. Listen to his reply. There are also the little bits we miss without the Greek in front of us.
Very truly, I tell you, said Jesus. But that is just the translation. The word Jesus used for “You” happens to be you in the plural. I guess that means, at least as far as John was concerned, he was addressing his words, not just to Nicodemus but to the Jewish people. The advice was not exclusively aimed at Nicodemus.
And what was that advice? It was a metaphor that is perhaps stranger to us than it was to John’s readers. You must be born again from above.
And now a puzzle. Nicodemus says he doesn’t understand. The puzzle here is that the being born again before making a new start was standard Jewish teaching. Ezekiel had talked of the need for a new heart and a new Spirit (Ez 18:31). New converts to the Jewish faith were expected to be baptised and instructed that in the baptism they were being born again.
We can only suspect Nicodemus was choosing not to understand, for to admit understanding would be the equivalent of admitting his faith needed putting back on a new track. After Jesus answers in the standard Jewish form, Nicodemus is driven back to another defence. “How can these things be?” And again Jesus uses standard Jewish teaching.
John uses the Greek translation of what Jesus said with the Greek Pneuma which has the dual meaning of spirit and wind. We presume that he was translating the Hebrew word Ruach which also has the dual meaning of wind and spirit. Wind and Spirit, mysterious, able to be sensed, yet unseen.
Even if we think Nicodemus was being deliberately obtuse we can see that his discomfit was understandable. Jesus was offering a way to be changed and recreated, and Nicodemus was balking at it.
It was not that he didn’t understand. The problem was that he wasn’t sure that he wanted the change. Being born again was a leap into the unknown. It is not simple the start of a clearly charted journey. Rather it was a declaration that the old comfortable norms could be set aside and each new situation from that point on to be confronted with the new set of values. This is why following Christ would have been seen as subversive. This is why it may still be subversive today, because accepting Jesus notion of being born again means in effect we cannot have others do our thinking for us.
So was the meeting wasted? Nicodemus leaves John’s gospel at this point, but John hasn’t quite finished with him. Nicodemus returns to the story after Jesus is crucified. This time, he is in the company of another who preferred to be a secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, and together they remove Jesus’ body from the cross and place it in a tomb, with the spices decreed by Jewish custom.
Whether or not the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus affects those of us who read about it almost two thousand years after the event is a different issue. Remember the notion of being born again is not a label we lightly attach to ourselves as some sort of automatic right of passage, and as far as I can tell it was not just Nicodemus who Jesus saw in need of that attitude rebirth. Remember when Jesus addressed his reply to Nicodemus he used the plural for you. Perhaps he also intended it for the generations that followed. Is that rebirth from above to be our rebirth also?
We may well be tempted to dismiss Nicodemus as a timid soul who could only approach Jesus in the shadows. More to the point – it is not so much the questions he asked of Jesus – it is what he then did with the answers – just as it will be what we do with those same answers.