A Pharisee Named Nicodemus
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
A writer named Dana Tierney described her spiritual upbringing in a New York Times article about her surprise over the faith of her four-year-old son Luke.
“When I was a child in Sunday school, I would ask searching questions like ''Angels can fly up in heaven, but how do clouds hold up pianos?'' and get the same puzzling response about how that was not important, what was important was that Jesus died for our sins and if we accepted him as our savior, when we died, we would go to heaven, where we'd get everything we wanted. Some children in my class wondered why anyone would hang on a cross with nails stuck through his hands to help anyone else; I wondered how Santa Claus knew what I wanted for Christmas, even though I never wrote him a letter. Maybe he had a tape recorder hidden in every chimney in the world.
This literal-mindedness has stuck with me; one result of it is that I am unable to believe in God. Most of the other atheists I know seem to feel freed or proud of their unbelief, as if they've cleverly refused to be sold snake oil. But over the years, I've come to feel I'm missing out.”
1. The Pharisee named Nicodemus too had a literal-minded approach to life. It prevented him from hearing what Jesus had to say about the kingdom of God. When Jesus said that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” the word translated “from above” (anothen) has three meanings. It can mean “again” in the sense of “one more time;” that is, “again” in the sense of chronologically repeated. Or it can mean “from above;” that is, from the realm of the transcendent, from God. Or it can mean “from the beginning, a re-creation, with a new, different nature.” Plainly Nicodemus fastens on the first meaning only, “one more time.” “It’s absurd,” he says in effect, “to suggest that a grown-up like me can enter his mother’s womb one more time and repeat his physical birth.” He’s right: it is absurd.
But this first meaning of anothen is precisely what Jesus doesn’t have in mind. Our Lord is thinking only of the latter two meanings: everyone may, and everyone should, be born from above, from God, and thereby be reborn with a new nature. Jesus maintains that life can begin anew; there can be a fresh beginning for everyone; we can begin again with a new nature, a different nature—and all of this a gift of grace from God’s hand.
It is often the case that we come to Jesus or the gospel with one set of assumptions about the nature of our existence and Jesus and his good news addresses us with a different set of assumptions. Gospel assumptions. Nicodemus in his literal mindedness hears Jesus’ pronouncement as absurd. Jesus speaks of the reality that is God and wants him to experience life in the kingdom. Will Nicodemus be able to see the limitations of his literal-mindedness? On the one hand I applaud literal-mindedness. It’s focused on results. It treats the stuff of flesh and blood and of bricks and mortar as creaturely goods. Intentions may be good but intentions alone don’t put food on the table. On the other hand literal-mindedness is limited. It can’t account for the experience of falling in love or the crazy joy for a grandchild or the apprehension of beauty.
Perhaps, like me, you too were educated to put great stock in science. Last May (2016) the journal First Things published an article by William Wilson titled Scientific Regress. I was intrigued. Wilson wrote: “The problem with science is that so much of it simply isn’t. Last summer, the Open Science Collaboration announced that it had tried to replicate one hundred published psychology experiments sampled from three of the most prestigious journals in the field. Scientific claims rest on the idea that experiments repeated under nearly identical conditions ought to yield approximately the same results, but until very recently, very few had bothered to check in a systematic way whether this was actually the case. The OSC was the biggest attempt yet to check a field’s results, and the most shocking. … Of the studies that had originally reported positive results, an astonishing 65 percent failed to show statistical significance on replication, and many of the remainder showed greatly reduced effect sizes.”
It is a lengthy article in which Wilson cites, (in his words) “example after example of how the human element of this (scientific) enterprise harms and damages its progress, through incompetence, fraud, selfishness, prejudice, or the simple combination of an honest oversight or slip with plain bad luck.” Wilson was not concluding that science should be abandoned but for an honest appraisal of limitations.
Whenever we come to the scriptures and read the witness of Apostle and Prophet to Jesus Christ we bring a mindedness that is influenced by the ideologies and self-understanding of our world. The gospel can sound strange, absurd, and even offensive when judged by the world’s self-understanding. Nicodemus brings his literal-mindedness. Can he suspend it long enough to hear what Jesus says to him? We bring our mindedness. A mindedness different that Nicodemus but perhaps with elements of the literal. Can we suspend such things to be able to entertain the reality from which Jesus speaks to us?
2. I began with the story of Dana Tierney saying how her literal-mindedness prevented her from believing in God. We saw something similar in the story of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. There is a second similarity I invite you to consider. Tierney said that “over the years, I’ve come to feel I’m missing out.” Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews and he comes to Jesus by night. What brings him here? Nicodemus, a mature, middle-aged man, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest religious council, came to Jesus under cover of darkness. What would a sophisticated man like him hope to gain from a thirty-year old peasant with sawdust in his hair, who came from a one-horse town, and whose contacts with religious leaders were consistently negative? Clearly, something within Nocodemus is not satisfied with his present understanding about life.
Patrick Ness is the author of A Monster Calls. In 2016 a movie adaptation, starring Sigourney Weaver and featuring Liam Neeson was released. It is a tale of a boy whose mother is beginning cancer treatment and a monster who visits the boy. Ness’s startling lines is another take of this sense that something is missing or that unsettling feeling of dissatisfaction about life: “Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.” Ness touches insightfully on the internal conflict of things not adding up, even undoing each other.
Consider also how freedom is understood today as the freedom the individual has to believe, do and choose whatever she wants. This freedom to choose trumps all other considerations such that self-determining choice is valued for no other reason than it is a self-determining choice. This issues in a sense of isolation and loneliness. When the only thing that matters is that you made a choice, but whether it was one choice or another matters not at all, you are cut off from anything beyond yourself.
Think about the voracious appetite our world has for entertainment. According to an NPR report, China has a new tourist attraction. It is a full-scale replica of the Titanic docked at a reservoir in Daying County, in the landlocked Sichuan province When it's finished, the tourist attraction will offer simulations of the infamous disaster (without actually hitting an iceberg). Guests will be able to eat on the ship and stay overnight. Consider how it is that we expend a lot of energy and resources on being entertained yet ever remain unsatisfied.
So we know why Nicodemus has come to see Jesus. We have lots of evidence around us of people who long precisely for what Jesus holds out. There is more to this life than that which our literal-mindedness can describe or apprehend. There is a longing that the self-help courses of a thousand different kinds cannot satisfy. Oasis after oasis turns out to be mirage. Everything that’s supposed to advance people to the next level, a higher level, of “being” invariably fails to do so. None of the techniques, programmes or regimens, appears to work.
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night ….” He must have sensed that Jesus had something to offer that he wanted. He was a relatively wealthy well-connected man and on this evening could have been doing any number of other things but he has come to see Jesus. He can say this much of Jesus—“you are a teacher who has come from God.” Now while Jesus is ever so much more that this he doesn’t fault Nicodemus here. “Anyone who comes to me,” said Jesus, “I will never drive away.” (John 6:37)
The journey of faith begins with just a little step in our Lord’s direction. It is later on that we discover he was pursuing us all along. We begin from many places often prompted by a need we perceive but can’t quite describe; propelled by a disquiet we feel and can’t resolve. We have heard of Jesus and sense something is here for us. Faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. For Nicodemus Jesus is a teacher sent from God. But Nicodemus remains hesitant to throw his lot in with Jesus.
Nicodemus has all these hoops, as it were, that he expects Jesus to jump through to prove himself. People do the same today. We have questions we want answered before we go to the next step as if to measure Jesus by our standard before we proceed further. Isn’t that a little foolish to say to God that he needs to prove himself in accord with my measures?
3. There is more in this story that is common then and now. In the article I began with Dana Tierney said that because of her literal-mindedness she was unable to believe in God. She spoke more gospel that she knew. She actually makes Jesus’ point when Jesus said “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” No one beginning from themselves using their best abilities of reason and spirit can make their way to God. The fact that God came among us in Jesus tells us it is the other way around.
In the background of this encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus is the ongoing ministry of John the Baptist who is calling people to a baptism of repentance. Pharisees like Nicodemus stood aloof from this call. Jesus, on the other hand, was baptized and continued the ministry of John’s baptism. When Jesus said to Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” and “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,” these touch on the same reality. “Nicodemus,” says Jesus, “a work of God needs to take place in your life.” The call to baptism is a response of faith to God’s initiative. Nicodemus may have been trusting in his own ability as a right-acting Pharisee. Jesus insists it must come from above.
And Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, should have known. After all, the presence and weight and force of the living God is the context in which Israel’s life unfolds. God has made himself known to Israel in a way that he hasn’t elsewhere. The prophets of Israel speak tirelessly of what it is to have life rooted in, informed by, and conformed to the God who acts upon his people and speaks to them in such a way that they know who he is and what he has done and what he requires of them. Take the opening lines of Psalm 121 for example. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Note that help comes from God. It is gift. It is grace. It is given.
The image Jesus used to speak of this reality is birth. Birth, everyday birth, is plainly a change of context. When a human being is born the context of that person’s life changes from amniotic fluid to air; from confinement to freedom; from darkness to light; from silence to exclamation.
The kind of birth, “new birth,” that Jesus speaks of in his conversation with Nicodemus is also a change of context: from spiritual inertia to spiritual vigour; from culpable ignorance of God to child-like wonder at God; from a human existence that prides itself on being self-sufficient to an existence that humbly thanks God for his condescension and grace. There’s nothing un-understandable or cryptic about this. The prophets know that when God speaks to his people he quickens in them the capacity to respond and the desire to respond. Thereafter what we call “life” is life-long dialogical intimacy with him who comes to us conclusively in Jesus Christ. Such dialogical intimacy means that we live henceforth in God, in a sphere, an atmosphere, whose reality is more vivid than the vividness of our five senses. It issues in new understanding, lively obedience, and profoundest contentment.
Birth always means change of context. To be born from above, born anew, born again is to become involved with God in a dialogue wherein we know our sin pardoned, our way in life made plain (I didn’t say easy; I said plain), our hearts encouraged and our minds informed and our wills fortified.
This birth is received by faith. 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.