Nicodemus Came to Jesus by Night…
When I was a child I watched a lot of cowboys and Indians movies, and it was the same thing every time. The cowboys were always the good guys and the Indians were always the bad guys. Simple. Then there was a change of mood in Hollywood, and for a while the good guys were always the Indians and the bad guys were always the cowboys (or the soldiers or whoever was against the Indians). Again, simple. But in both types of movies it was too simple. Reality is seldom like that, and the best movies show more of life’s complexities. There might still be those characters who are mostly good or mostly bad, but in those better movies we are shown the motivations, confusions, and failings, along with the goodness and humanity of those on both side of a conflict.
Sometimes the Bible is read with a simplistic good guy-bad guy approach. In the Gospels, for example, Jesus and his disciples are the good guys, and the Romans and the Pharisees are the bad guys. Simple. But a closer reading of the Bible shows it to be more complex than that.
The Pharisees are often opposed to Jesus, so a casual reader could get the impression that they are his enemies, and therefore, the bad guys. However, the Pharisees usually call Jesus ‘Rabbi’ which is a sign of respect and honor. They engage him in conversation, sometimes to trap him, but usually just to learn from him. And there were times when a Pharisee even invited Jesus into his home for a meal. Pharisees were serious about their faith, and they wanted to understand this brilliant and popular new teacher.
The Pharisees were the most meticulous of all Jews about obeying the Law. This oftentimes made them unbearably self-righteous. If you made even the smallest mistake, they were the first to judge you and look down on you. But they were determined to obey God, and were therefore honest and upright and loyal and generous. They were good citizens and neighbors. You could trust them. They paid their bills. If they borrowed your lawn mower, they’d return it, in good working order and full of gas. That’s the kind of people they were. They were perfectionists, with all the blessings and annoyances that come with being perfect. They’d be the type who would drive you crazy if you had to work with them on anything, but you could trust them to get a job done and done right.
The third chapter of John tells the story of when a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to talk to Jesus. Nicodemus was also a member of the Jewish ruling council, Jesus’ worst enemies. It was this ruling council that condemned Jesus to death. But this was early in Jesus’ ministry, and Nicodemus wanted to get to know him better. So he came to Jesus for a personal conversation, apart from the crowd. But he did come at night, indicating that the tension was building and it was no longer prudent for a Pharisee to be seen having a friendly chat with Jesus.
Nicodemus, therefore, was an honest seeker after truth, and he wanted to know the truth about Jesus. He began with a simple statement, one that pays Jesus the highest respect. “Rabbi,” Nicodemus said respectfully, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you are doing if God were not with him.”
His words were a simple observation about what he had observed about Jesus. But Jesus responded with a rather difficult statement: “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus clearly did not understand what Jesus meant, and the conversation seemed to go downhill for a while. One would think Jesus would be happy with a friendly visit from one of the opposition, but Jesus made it difficult for Nicodemus.
I don’t know why Jesus responded with such confusing language. I am sure he had a good reason. I do know from talking to people who might be trying to understand who Jesus is, that the search for religious truth can be difficult and confusing. You will probably not comprehend it all in just one sitting.
Nicodemus, despite his confusion, kept listening for the rest of what Jesus had to say. His patience was rewarded. After several perplexing statements about being ‘born again’ and ‘spirit giving birth to spirit’ and ‘the spirit blowing like the wind,’ Jesus did get around to some of the simplest, most basic, and best loved words in the whole Bible. Jesus said to Nicodemus those wonderful words we know as John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In this conversation, as in many of Jesus teachings, he went back and forth between tough and tender, and between judgment and grace. He could challenge even the most brilliant scholars, and then, speak in words so simple even a child could understand. (continued…)
John 3:1-4 — Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
John 3:16-17 — (Jesus said), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Merciful God, whose servant Nicodemus was a secret disciple of Christ, meeting him by night to avoid the wrath of the other members of the Sanhedrin, and eventually spoke out to that body to remind them that Jesus had a right to a hearing: Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (source unknown)