Sermons have been preached on the fact that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night. Usually, the implication is that maybe he did not want the other Pharisees to see him going there. And then the sermon might ask us questions like, are you ashamed of being a follower of Jesus? Or, do you hide your faith in the dark?
But maybe Nicodemus has gotten a bum rap.
Why would you go to see someone at night? We know from the gospels that when Jesus was at the house (in Capernaum) and people knew it, they came by droves to be healed. That too was the order of business when he walked about the countryside with his disciples. People crowded around him all the time.
If you wanted to go to talk to him, wouldn’t you want to pick a quiet time? The Sabbath might be such a time… but then again, isn‘t that the only time he has to spend with family? So, it seems reasonable to me that Nicodemus would wait until the crowds had died out and gone off to their homes for the evening, and then come by to see if Jesus had time to talk.
Instead of being a sign of timidity to go see Jesus at night, I like to think it was an act of courage on the part of Nicodemus. Think about it: He was going to sit one on one with Jesus; with no one else to back him up if he got into an argument, no one to defend him if Jesus brought up some uncomfortable truths.
After all, at the end of chapter 2, John the evangelist tells us:
John 2:23-25 And when he [Jesus] was in Jerusalem, at the passover, at the feast, many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought. But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all [men], and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man.
How comfortable would you be to go talk to someone that already knew you… intimately, both the good and the bad?
There is no such thing as an idle conversation with Jesus. There was no such thing back then. There is no such thing today. I wonder if we sometimes forget that when we pray.
In his letter to the Philippians, after Paul expounds on the marvel of the Incarnation, he says this…
Philippians 2:9-13 Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and granted him a name, that which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of heavenly and earthly and infernal [beings], and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ [is] Lord to God [the] Father’s glory.
So that, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much rather in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both the willing and the working according to [his] good pleasure.
It is almost like Paul is reminding all of us that this relationship to which we have committed ourselves when we chose to follow Jesus, is a relationship with GOD, the GOD who made the universe. He is the One who gives us the will (desire) to follow Him and the power to do so. Fear and Trembling seems a proper description of the attitude required by such a relationship.
You can come by night.
John 3:1-2 But there was a man from among the Pharisees, his name Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; he came to him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God, for none can do these signs that thou doest unless God be with him.
Since it says in verses 22-23 of this chapter: After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he abode with them and baptised. And John also was baptising in Aenon, near Salim, because there was a great deal of water there; and they came to [him] and were baptised…
It follows that the conversation with Nicodemus must be happening in or near Jerusalem, soon after the events of chapter 2; that is, soon after Jesus had his adversarial encounter with the authorities in charge of the Temple complex, and soon after he evidently did many miracles there during the feast. (See John 2:23 above.)
In this context, Nicodemus’ greeting tells us a lot about the man. He says, “we know”, evidently including himself among the many that “believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought.” But also, at the same time, with the same statement, separating himself from those who argued with Jesus.
You see, a Pharisee was easily recognized by his attire and demeanor. Nicodemus didn’t have to introduce himself saying, “Hi, I am Nicodemus, a Pharisee.” It was immediately obvious. And so, his first words are telling Jesus, “Look, I am not one of those other guys; I have seen what you are really doing, and it is obvious it is from God.”
So, at this point, in that brief pause between his statement and Jesus’ response, what was he thinking? Surely, he had more to say. He came to Jesus for a reason. But what was that reason?
We don’t get to hear what else he had in mind because Jesus, as He often did, cuts to the chase. In other words, I think Jesus knew precisely why he came, what he intended to ask, and He begins to answer:
John 3:3 Jesus answered and said to him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God.
If this is the answer to Nicodemus’ real question, then it tells us all the more about the man: Not only had he seen the miracles and accepted them as coming from God, he had therefore decided that this Jesus must be able to tell him more about God.
Think about all the other people in the gospels (other Pharisees, Sadducees, Teachers of the law) who saw Jesus perform miracles, and their reaction was to say, “so what?” Those people were even willing to believe that the miracles were false miracles and not from God because to believe otherwise would require them to reject their pre-formed opinions about this itinerant preacher.
And that is the key difference here with Nicodemus. Even though he begins by saying “we know”, he is – by his demeanor, by his choice of coming to see Jesus, to talk to him – clearly saying: I don’t know it all.
Isn’t that a wonderful thing?
Isn‘t that the attitude we all need?
Isn’t that the attitude of a little child?
What do you think, today? Do you already know everything you need to know to live your life? Do you have all the answers? I know I don’t. So, who are we going to go to, to ask for help?
Nicodemus had that one down: he came to Jesus.
And maybe nighttime is the best time to ask that question: when the hustle and bustle of the day is done; when we know there are going to be no interruptions… when we have the chance to sit down, listen to the answer, and on purpose stay there until it sinks into our heart.
But come humbly.
The answer Nicodemus got, took him by surprise. Jesus essentially said, maybe with a smile on His face: “You think you know what is of God and what is not? Have you ever considered that you cannot even perceive what the Kingdom of God is all about unless you have been born all over again?”
How would we respond to such an answer? I mean, it is plainly telling me I am clueless about the Kingdom of God… and, yet, as a Pharisee, isn’t that my business, my area of expertise?
How would you respond to someone challenging your expertise in your chosen profession? It takes humility to resist the urge to scoff. It takes humility to sit yourself up in your chair and think to yourself: “What did I miss? Have I really messed up this badly?”
It is a good kind of humility to be willing to look at ourselves and accept that we have a tendency to go “nose blind” regarding all the things that we take for granted. Nicodemus was humble.
And a humble person doesn’t care how foolish he looks or sounds when he has to admit he’s lost:
John 3:4 Nicodemus says to him, How can a man be born being old? can he enter a second time into the womb of his mother and be born?
He is not making fun of Jesus’ statement. He is honestly trying to understand. So, he asks!
Asking is the one trait that set apart Jesus’ disciples from the rest of the people in those crowds. They all heard the parables together; but his disciples asked about them. Because if you care about what you are listening to, then you will do whatever it takes to understand it. (See Matthew 13:11).
John 3:5-8 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
If we take the symmetry of these two statements into account, it appears that born of water is an allusion to being naturally born. (After all, when the “waters break” is a sure sign that labor has started and childbirth is about to happen.) Then the contrast is between been natural birth, as a human being, and spiritual birth into the family of God.
John the evangelist has prepared us for this contrast already in chapter 1:
John 1:12-13 but as many as received him, to them gave he [the] right to be children of God, to those that believe on his name; who have been born, not of blood, nor of flesh’s will, nor of man’s will, but of God.
And then Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus that He is not talking about weird philosophies or mysticism.
John 3:7-8 Do not wonder that I said to thee, It is needful that *ye* should be born anew. The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it comes and where it goes: thus is every one that is born of the Spirit
Jesus is telling him: “This is not beyond your capacity to understand. In fact, I bet you have been suspecting this all along; because the things of the Spirit are not really beyond comprehension. Instead, what happens is that you have gotten so used to seeing and hearing the things (noise) of this world that you ignore, or pass by, the things of the Spirit that are there nonetheless.
“It’s like wind, you feel it, you know when it is blowing, you even hear it… but do you stop for a moment to ask yourself, where did it come from so that it could be here to talk to me? Or, where is it going after spending time with me?”
Jesus is alluding to one of my favorite Truths in the Old and New Testament: That God works and speaks to this day. And every human being has the ability to perceive His works and hear His voice.
And Nicodemus, in his humility, admits his ignorance:
John 3:9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, How can these things be?
The reward of humility is revelation.
Nicodemus has admitted ignorance, and does it so, by again asking a question. And Jesus is going to respond to him by asking him another question: “Do you really want to know?”
Jesus did this more than once: One time, a rich young ruler came to Jesus with what you would think is the most crucial question of all:
Luke 18:18 And a certain ruler asked him saying, Good teacher, having done what, shall I inherit eternal life?
“How can I be saved?” Isn’t that the question we wish everyone would ask… honestly from their heart? But look at the way Jesus replied immediately:
Luke 18:19 But Jesus said to him, Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, God.
It is as if Jesus is saying: “You are calling me Good… Does that mean that you will listen to what I tell you, and do it? Good is all about God… are you really willing to hear what His answer is going to be for you?”
There is no such thing as an idle conversation with Jesus.
John 3:10-12 Jesus answered and said to him, Thou art the teacher of Israel and knowest not these things! Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen, and ye receive not our witness. If I have said the earthly things to you, and ye believe not, how, if I say the heavenly things to you, will ye believe?
And this is really the bottom line for all who seek the Truth. You cannot really claim to be seeking the Truth if you have given yourself permission ahead of time to “take it or leave it.”
For the Truth, if it is indeed Truth, demands an Either/Or choice in our lives. I think we can take it, based on the fact that Jesus continued with His answer, that Nicodemus nodded Yes, “Please, go on,” to Jesus’ reply.
John 3:13-19 And no one has gone up into heaven, save he who came down out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, that every one who believes on him may [not perish, but] have life eternal. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal.
For God has not sent his Son into the world that he may judge the world, but that the world may be saved through him. He that believes on him is not judged: but he that believes not has been already judged, because he has not believed on the name of the only-begotten Son of God.
And there, at that final moment of confirming his humility and his teachable heart, Nicodemus became the first disciple to hear the whole Gospel summarized from beginning to end:
The reason Jesus can tell us about the Kingdom of Heaven is because that is where He came from. And though present in this Earth as a human being during that time, He nonetheless was at the same time “present” in heaven. The Son of man never ceased to be the Son of God.
But He became the Son of man so that he could be lifted up on a stake (the cross) like that serpent was lifted up in the wilderness in Numbers 21. At that time, the people of God rebelled against God, in spite of all the miracles and the unending lovingkindness that God showed them during the wandering in the wilderness. And so, God sent poisonous fiery serpents among them throughout the camp. One bite meant sure death… for the wages of sin is death.
But under God’s instruction, Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a tall stake, in the middle of the camp. And he told the people, if you have been bitten, all you need to do is look at this serpent and you will be healed.
It is all up to you. But think about it. You are burning up from that bite, angry at God, and angry at the consequence. And then Moses tells you, “just lift up your eyes and look at this serpent.”
Will you? I bet a lot of people there said, “Are you kidding? A serpent is the last thing I want to look at… Just make me better… there must be another way.”
But there isn’t. Because that serpent is a reminder of the sin that brought that bite. And without admitting the sin, and without believing that looking at that serpent is all that is required, I can’t be saved.
There it was, all the way back in the time of Moses, a picture of the Messiah’s work of salvation. For when He was lifted up on that cross, most people disdained Him… “Look to Him for salvation? That man crucified there? Are you kidding?” And many today still say… “There must be another way.”
But there isn’t. Because any who chose not to look at the bronze serpent went ahead and died in pain. In the same way, he that believes not has been already judged.
But any who turn to Him – and that’s all they have to do – turn to Him, look to Him, believe on Him, they are not judged and therefore have eternal life.
I want to be like Nicodemus
I want to be willing to come to Jesus and ask for help.
I want to be able to listen to His answer in humility, ready to relearn everything from the beginning if that is what it takes.
I want to have my ears open to the voice of the Spirit.
And I want to accept and obey whatever He tells me because I know He loves me. He already proved it on that cross.