1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up
15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (CEB)
The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is one of the best-known sections of Holy Scripture. It is the story that has the most often quoted Bible verse: be it in Sunday School, Youth Group, Confirmation Classes, Camp, or NFL Football Games. Everyone knows John 3:16. It’s never fun for a preacher to preach on something so well-known because everyone already thinks they know everything about it. It’s so well known that there is the question of whether anything fresh can be gleaned from the text and put into a sermon. It is certainly more challenging to preach on than lesser known texts. But, I’m going to preach on it anyway.
Nicodemus’s comprehension of the way God works seems to be rather shallow and sterile. It is a misunderstanding that is unfortunate, but very typical of so-called ‘literalists’ who inhabit all of the world’s great religions, including Christianity.
Nicodemus is a man who embodies the perspective that faith based on miracles is more than adequate faith. He’s obviously impressed with Jesus’ miracles and healings, and acknowledges that they are proof that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God, “For no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
It’s clear that Nicodemus is curious about Jesus, but we can also see that he is cautious. He goes to the right place: he goes to Jesus, but he does so “by night.” Maybe he doesn’t want the word to get out to his fellow Pharisees that he’s meeting with Jesus, or maybe his day was all booked up with other important appointments. We don’t know, but it seems that his visit to Jesus is overshadowed with a degree of hesitancy.
Nicodemus’s faith in God comes from weighing the evidence of what he has seen—signs, miracles, healings—and what he has studied in the Scriptures and traditions of the Faith, and then drawing logical conclusions from that evidence. With this kind of Missourian faith—you know people from Missouri, the Show Me State where they need you to show them or they won’t believe it—there is no risk involved. There is no risk that you will have to be changed or transformed in ways that might be uncomfortable. Nicodemus can run with his conclusions about how life and religion should work and no more. It is a very comfortable kind of faith, but it’s not a very deep faith. There is no commitment beyond one’s own conclusions.
Jesus didn’t really trust these kinds of people. John 2:23-25 says, “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” Jesus did not entrust himself to people who believed only in signs—things they saw—because he knew the shallowness of their faith, and he knows ours.
Nicodemus has put the issue of faith the wrong way. Something more than just fascination with signs or amazement at Jesus’ healings and miracles is needed. Fascination and amazement are not the same things as being born again, or born from above, which allows a person to enter the kingdom of God. That takes something else entirely: it takes an act of God that will re-organize Nicodemus’s perspective on life and religion. Such an act of God requires openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, something that is indefinable and unpredictable. Nicodemus is stuck in the religious world of definitions, evidence, and conclusions. And, while these things aren’t entirely bad, God and God’s activity are bigger than any definition into which human language could package them. People like Nicodemus don’t want to hear about the strange and unpredictable movements of the Holy Spirit because it might change them. People don’t like change!
As a pastor, I have never gone into a church for the first time and had the people say to me, Pastor, we would like you to change everything about what we do here. Wherever the Spirit leads you, that’s where we want to go. No way! What I usually hear is, This is the way we do things. This is what we’re comfortable with. If you want to change anything, you’ll probably have to do it over my dead body. Seriously, people don’t like change, which is why so many of us resist the movement of the Holy Spirit to change us, change our behavior, change our lives.
Jesus uses a bit of word-play in his response to Nicodemus, and Nicodemus trips all over it. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above or born again.” The Greek word anothen has multiple meanings, and Jesus uses this double meaning in his demand for a rebirth so that a person might see the kingdom of God. This kind of sight requires a complete reordering of how we perceive the world. No one can see the kingdom of God without first allowing God to open our eyes to the possibilities of the kingdom.
Nicodemus thought he already had the kingdom of God nailed down in his neat definitions and conclusions drawn from evidence, and here is Jesus telling him to set his beloved definitions aside for a moment and be open to the idea that God might just transcend everything he has heretofore believed! No wonder Nicodemus fell on his face over the notion of having to be born again and born from above to see the kingdom. It was just too much for him to take in. He couldn’t grasp it.
Nicodemus’s faith is lived out in terms of its own power. It’s organized according to things which are specific and believable, but it’s a faith that is somewhat immune to the renewing power of God. There is plenty of room for religion in this kind of worldview. Nicodemus represents it in every regard. What is lacking is the Spirit of God and openness to the movements of that Spirit. We look around us and we can see plenty of people who have room for religion, but are lacking entirely in openness to the movements of the Spirit. Our pastor at the campus church at The University of Findlay, Pastor Larry White, had a saying: “If you only have the word, you will dry up. If you only have the sprit, you will blow up. If you have both, you will grow up.” Nicodemus was one who seems to have had only the word, and his religion was rather dry.
The term ‘Spirit’ represents an entirely different world, where the blowing of the Holy Spirit causes people to be entirely re-created and made new: born again, born from above. It is a world vulnerable and open to the untamed Spirit of God. The Greek word pneuma also has a double meaning: wind and spirit. The word, by its very definition, suggests movement. Wind moves. If the air isn’t moving, then it isn’t wind.
In the Chronicles of Narnia books, it is said of the Great Lion Aslan, who is a Christ-like figure, over and over again, “It’s not as though he’s a tame Lion.” Aslan is good in every sense of the word, but he is not tame. The Spirit of God is good, but the Spirit is not tame. The Spirit is not like a pet that can be housebroken and trained to do as we command, and then thrown a biscuit and told, “Good Spirit.” The world of the Spirit opens our eyes to incredible and breathtaking new views.
Flesh cannot give birth to Spirit. Nicodemus cannot move from his one-dimensional world of the flesh to the mysterious world of the Spirit apart from an action from above: an act of God. Nicodemus’s canons of knowledge, religious though they are, cannot grasp the strange ways and movements of God who persists in making all things new. Nicodemus has come to Jesus to have an intellectual discussion. But Jesus is having a Spiritual discussion, and the dynamic of the Spirit thoroughly eludes the Pharisee in him.
What is the character of God’s kingdom, this world that we need to be born again and born from above in order to see? Well, we can catch a glimpse of this kingdom by looking at the action of the Son. Jesus tells us that his own revelation about heavenly things is unique. None of Israel’s great teachers, priests, or prophets had ever ascended into heaven, seen the heavenly secrets, and returned to reveal them. No one has ever ascended into heaven and come back. There is only one who has come down from heaven, and he alone is able to reveal God’s kingdom to us.
Here, again, we have another word with a double meaning. The word hupsosen means to physically “lift up” or to “exalt.” The lifting up of Jesus is analogous to Moses’ lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Do you remember that story from Numbers? (c.f. Numbers 21). Whenever someone was bitten by a poisonous snake, they looked upon the bronze serpent and were saved from death. The lifting up of Christ is both exaltation and humiliation. Jesus was to be lifted up on the cross so that all who look upon him might be saved. This is the character of the kingdom of God, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
By the way, Nicodemus wasn’t stuck in his dry faith forever. He became a disciple and helped prepare the body of Jesus for burial with Joseph of Arimathea. The Spirit got to him, somehow, which I think gives us hope that the Spirit might just get to us too. Maybe we’ll even look forward to the changes that will inevitably take place in our lives when the Spirit gets a hold of us. We need the Spirit and the word if we’re going to grow up and be the disciples that Jesus has called us to be.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!