Face to Face: Nicodemus

 We are in our summer worship series, Face to Face: Divine Encounters.  We have been looking at people who encountered

God in both the Old and New Testaments. What was the encounter like? How did it affect them? What can we learn from them

about our own divine encounters?  


This week we are looking at the Face to Face encounter Jesus had with Nicodemus. We are fairly early in the Gospel of John.

This is a gospel that likely came from a Christian community that had been kicked out of their synagogue, a tearing apart of

community and families. That is part of the reason that we get a lot of “us versus them” language when it comes to the Jewish

or Judean authorities. Many of the events that have happened so far in this gospel directly challenge those authorities.  


John the Baptist has identified Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. (1:29) Jesus has called his first

disciples. When they ask questions, he invites them to come and see (1:39). Then, they attend a wedding where he demonstrates

the superabundance of God’s grace by turning the water into wine (2:3-11). Jesus travels from the party down to Jerusalem where

he drives the people selling sacrifices and exchanging currency out of the Temple (2:13-16). After all, if he is the Lamb of God that

takes away the sins of the world, there is no need for these animal sacrifices. Finally, it says that Jesus performed many miraculous

signs over Passover. It caused many people to believe in his name, but Jesus didn’t trust them because he knew what was in their

hearts (2:23-25). 


Enter Nicodemus. He certainly qualifies as one of the authorities. He was a Pharisee, a teacher, and a member of the Judean legislature,

the Sanhedrin. He comes at night to find out more about this perplexing character of Jesus from Galilee. 


Our Primary Scripture comes from John 3:1-13. I will be reading from The VOICE translation. 


Hear the Word of the Lord… 

 3:1Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, a man with some clout among his people. 2 He came to Jesus under

the cloak of darkness to question Him. 

 Nicodemus: Teacher, some of us have been talking. You are obviously a teacher who has come from God.

The signs You are doing are proof that God is with You. 

 Jesus: 3I tell you the truth: only someone who experiences birth for a second time [from above] can hope

to see the kingdom of God. 

 Nicodemus: 4I am a grown man. How can someone be born again when he is old like me? Am I to crawl back

into my mother’s womb for a second birth? That’s impossible! 

           Jesus: 5I tell you the truth, if someone does not experience water and Spirit birth, there’s no chance he will make

it into God’s kingdom. 6 Like from like. Whatever is born from flesh is flesh; whatever is born from Spirit is spirit.

 7 Don’t be shocked by My words, but I tell you the truth. Even you, an educated and respected man among your

people, must be reborn [from above] by [the Wind of] the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. 8 The wind [of the Spirit]

blows all around us as if it has a will of its own; we feel and hear it, but we do not understand where it has come from

or where it will end up. Life in the Spirit is as if it were the wind of God

.Nicodemus: 9I still do not understand how this can be. 

 Jesus: 10  Your responsibility is to instruct Israel in matters of faith, but you do not comprehend the necessity of life

in the Spirit? 11 I tell you the truth: we speak about the things we know, and we give evidence about the things we have

seen, and you choose to reject the truth of our witness. 12 If you do not believe when I talk to you about ordinary, earthly

realities, then heavenly realities will certainly elude you. 13 No one has ever journeyed to heaven above except the One

who has come down from heaven—the Son of Man, who is of heaven. 


It’s easy to sympathize with Nicodemus. Here’s a man of learning, wealth, and authority, and he is seeing some pretty spectacular

things with Jesus. He’s intrigued, and he wants to find out more. This is one of the few times in the gospels that someone identified

as a Pharisee comes to Jesus to seek information and is not there merely to try to trick or trap Jesus into saying or doing something

that will get him into trouble. 


However, he comes at night. While it may have been dangerous to his position to be seen with Jesus … He might have been thrown

out of the Temple and the Synagogue … night time in John is used to indicate separation from God. We know he starts this way, but

it is also a clue about how this encounter will end. 


Nicodemus starts by praising Jesus highly. Tells him all the things he knows. He’s a man that knows things. He feels that he knows

quite a lot. He has been studying what we call the Old Testament and the Jewish traditions since he was a little boy. Nicodemus calls

Jesus a teacher from God. He is very impressed with the signs Jesus has done. We already know how Jesus feels about those who use

his signs as a means of identification. He doesn’t trust those people. 


Before Nicodemus can ask his first question, Jesus basically tells Nicodemus that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes

God’s realm. Jesus says that he really can’t have a meaningful conversation with Nicodemus about the kingdom of God until he has been

born again from above. 


In so many of our Bibles the phrase is translated as “born again.” That is where we get the term “born again” Christians. That’s a problem

with our English translation Bibles, however. The word in Greeks is anōthen. It has a three part meaning that has no equivalent in English.

It can mean “again,” “from above,” or “anew.” In this passage, it is likely that Jesus means all three simultaneously, but our Bibles often

pick one of these phrases over another adding the others as a footnote. Let’s be honest, when you are reading your Bible how often do you

look at the footnotes unless you are studying a passage closely? 


Since we don’t get to see the full translation, we misinterpret the phrase in the same way that Nicodemus does, and we can get confused

why Jesus seems to be so hard on him. Of course, it is physically impossible to be born again like we were physically born as infants.

Jesus is using a metaphor here, but Nicodemus can’t see it because he is not understanding the born from above definition. When I read

the passage just now, I added the “born from above” where appropriate. And, notice here that Jesus tells him that he can’t even see the

kingdom of God until this new heavenly birth has happened.  


This episode reminds me of a scene from a Star Trek movie. It is an “original cast” movie called The Voyage Home. Mr. Spock had

physically died, but he has been restored. Dr. McKoy is intrigued by Spock’s experience and wants to talk to him about it.  

McCoy : Perhaps, we could cover a little philosophical ground. Life … Death … Life … 

Things of that nature. 

Spock : I did not have time on Vulcan to review the philosophical disciplines. 

McCoy : C’mon, Spock, it’s me, McCoy. You really have gone where no man’s gone before. Can’t you tell me what it felt like? 

Spock : It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame-of-reference. 

McCoy : You’re joking! 

Spock : A joke … is a story with a humorous climax. 

McCoy : You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death? 


Yes, and Jesus is telling Nicodemus and ultimately anyone who hears or reads this Gospel that one must be born from above before

they can begin to have a real personal relationship with God. 


Jesus actually has a very difficult task here. With Nicodemus, Jesus is trying to enlighten someone who, with good reason, thinks he

knows everything. Jesus must show him that he knows nothing. He knows less than a baby. He cannot even begin to learn until this

initial transformation has taken place. Nicodemus does know one thing. There is something special about Jesus, but right now, his pride

is getting in the way. This is in contrast with Abraham who we looked at last week. Abraham had questions, pointed questions for God,

but he was humble. He described himself as “nothing but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27). 


There’s another time when Jesus uses a similar analogy. This time he is with his disciples. They are starting to get a little full of themselves

as they think that they know things and have power. They have attached themselves to the one who they believe will be the conquering king

that is going to throw out the Romans. In Mathew 18, the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He responds by

calling a child to them and says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of

heaven” (Mt 18:13). 


What does Jesus mean by that? Well, for one thing children were not regarded as full human beings. That might tend you keep you more

humble during your childhood. But also, children are little learning sponges. Whether they are good students in a formal school situation

or not, they are constantly learning about the world around them, their place in it, and hopefully the skills that will allow them to thrive as

an adult. They start out not knowing anything, good, bad, or otherwise. They say that no child is born a racist or a sexist that these are learned



I can certainly attest to that. I grew up in a military family. My dad was a first sergeant in the army. When we lived on base, I was surrounded

by kids of many races and nationalities. I played football with the boys, who were African American, Hispanic, Asian, and of European descent.

I was the only girl on the team, but others would have been welcome if they wanted to play. We had a great time together.  


What is the point? Children are blank sheets of paper to write upon. If we approach God with that kind of attitude, we can learn and be changed

by God. When we approach it thinking that we already know it all, that we have it all figured out, we have to stop and re-examine what we are

doing. If we truly want to have a relationship with God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother, we have to take a deep breath and realize that

at best we are infants. God always has something new to teach us, even if that lesson is about pride and humility.  


So, Nicodemus being sure that he knows what is possible with God, shows that he doesn’t understand what Jesus is trying to say by saying

that being “born again” is impossible.  Jesus tries to come at it another way. No, Nicodemus, I’m not talking about a second physical birth.

The physical birth accompanied by birth water comes first. It is being born of water. The second birth is of the Spirit, and that’s what you

need to be able to enter the kingdom of God. 


Nicodemus should be very familiar with the Spirit, and how the Spirit gives us life. From the beginning the Spirit breathed life into Adam.

The LORD said through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart

of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

(Ez 36:26-27) However, as Nicodemus has a firm idea of how things should be, he can’t wrap him mind around what Jesus is telling him.

To his credit, he is willing to confess that he still doesn’t understand. He is beginning to understand that he knows less than an infant when

it comes to the kingdom of God. Here is where I get a glimmer of hope for Nicodemus. 


At this point Nicodemus fades out of this scene while Jesus is still talking, but this is not the last that we hear of Nicodemus. He will return

twice more in John. In John 7:50-52, Nicodemus tells the ruling council that they must hear from Jesus before condemning him (in accordance

with the law). Later in chapter 19, he works with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus’ body an honorable burial. 


That night meeting with Jesus, Nicodemus did not get it. Perhaps, he needed time to think and to process. Maybe, he needed more time for

the Spirit to work on his heart so that he could be born again from above.  


What can that mean for us? I like to think that one of the things is that just because we don’t understand something at first, does not mean

that we never will. We can see a progression for Nicodemus in the Gospel if we want to see it. He starts by coming to Jesus under the cover

of darkness. Next, he is reminding the council of Jesus’ rights knowing that they may condemn him as well as Jesus. They do accuse him of

being one of Jesus’ disciples. Then finally, he publically goes with Joseph to retrieve Jesus’ body in the daylight when the disciples had all

gone into hiding.  


Does that mean that he became a follower of Jesus, or that he had principals and thought that Jesus had gotten a raw deal? We really don’t

know at this point. All we really know is that he believed that Jesus should be buried with honor and dignity.  


What I would like to know is what he thought or believed when he heard the rumors of the resurrection? 


That moment when we are ready to say yes to Jesus, when the Spirit has sufficiently changed our hearts that we are able to see, that is

different for each of us. It is a very personal thing. In this Divine Encounter Nicodemus thought that he knew who and what he was

coming to see. He just had a few dots to connect, or so he thought. That certainty blinded him. Contrast that with the Woman at the

Well, the next story in the narrative. Within a few sentences, she is able to identify Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps, the best thing that

we can learn from Nicodemus is to come to Jesus open and ready to learn, not preoccupied with what we know, but excited about what

we can learn from the Master. 


Then, we will know that we have had a Divine Encounter. 






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