What did the Pharisee see?
Nicodemus is in the dark. The fact that Nicodemus visits Jesus at night was probably both a necessity—Nicodemus is fearful of what others may think—but it also resonates with the fact that Nicodemus is in a very real sense in the dark. We don’t expect a member of the Jewish political and religious elite to be in the dark. Most politicians and senior religious leaders by definition consider themselves to be well informed. They expect to be in the know about what is going on around them and confident that they have ‘life, the universe and everything’ sorted, understood and managed.
The very fact that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus points to the fact that Jesus had disturbed this ordered equilibrium. There was something about Jesus that did not fit with Nicodemus’ worldview.
As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was all too aware that things had gone wrong for Israel. The return from exile, centuries ago, had not really delivered on expectation. The Temple was not as good as it had been before the exile and the prophets, and by implication God himself, were all largely silent. The nation was under humiliating Roman occupation which was following close on the heels of a painful period of Greek persecution.
The people were also divided—not everyone saw the world as Nicodemus did. He knew adherence to the Law was the only way that the nation could find its place of blessing before God again. It was hard work, obedience to the Law was demanding and so it was difficult to motivate everyone to do all that was required. Whilst he delighted in the Law he knew that the majority struggled to understand it fully let alone keep it to the letter.
It was far from clear to Nicodemus how an untrained teacher and miracle worker fitted into God’s plans of redemption for Israel and the nations. There is something in the way that Nicodemus seeks out Jesus which echoes the experience of others as they start discovering Jesus—a process which we might describe as ‘faith seeking understanding’. This is an attitude we would do well to cultivate on our journey with God. On the journey of faith we grow in understanding as we continually question God from our stance of faith.
As I pray today I spend far far more time questioning God than asking for things. “Why?” is the one of the most natural words for the journey. The Psalter gives us ample permission to ask “why?”.
Born to give them second birth
Despite faith being a journey and an ongoing process there are also defining moments of discontinuity. And what Jesus explains to Nicodemus is the most fundamental one—being born again. The term ‘born again’ has had a rough time in recent decades in the UK at least. I’ve seen and heard it used disparagingly in tabloid newspapers and soap operas. ‘Born again Christian’ can in secular society be translated “nutter”.
And I’ve also experienced first-hand the discomfort of trying to explain the idea to a rather sceptical audience. It was only an audience of two but it was one of these moments when you find yourself explaining your faith and really wished you somewhere else. I remember it well though it was over 25 years ago—in fact it was September 1988. I was in the back seat of a car, a 3500cc Rover, being driven home from work by my new landlord and landlady—David and Andrea (names changed just in case!). Andrea had a PhD in Nuclear Materials and David was a Maintenance Engineer who worked with two experimental nuclear reactors.
I was explaining that I would be visiting Newbury Baptist Church at the weekend because I was a Christian and wanted to find a church I could go to each week. Their initial puzzlement about why I might want to bother to do this suddenly turned directly to the question of being born again. Two questions came in rapid succession:
“You’re not one of those born again Christians are you? How can someone be born again anyway?”
The two questions arrived with disturbing speed, one on top of the other. I was floored by how to answer the first question—what did these two sceptics understand a born again Christian to be exactly?
So I concentrated on the second question. I like to think I gave a great account of biblical imagery, a rich theology of atonement and clear articulation of the connection between ontology and metaphorical language. But the fact that I have no clear memory of what I said or how the conversation ended makes me think it did not go so well.
Nicodemus asked Jesus out of an attitude of faith seeking understanding—I was asked from an attitude of doubt seeking ridicule. Despite the tone of the questions I faced, it is not an unreasonable question—how can someone be born again?
Jesus refers to a first birth, as mother gives birth to child and the second birth by implication has some characteristics of the first—it is a fresh start in some sense. Jesus also indicates that this second birth has two elements to it: water and Spirit. This is most likely equating being born again with the NT’s twofold view of baptism. Twofold, because there is a water dynamic that we can control and Spirit dynamic which is God’s prerogative. The defining dynamic here is the Spirit. Spirit gives birth to Spirit—the new start comes from God and is affected by the Spirit.
Christians can still do different things with this idea—but ta natural way to appreciate this text is to understand that there is a critical moment in the early life of the Christian in which the Holy Spirit effects a permanent change. Being born means a fresh start—a joining of the kingdom God. We would do well to pay attention to Jesus and not put an emphasis on individual salvation at the expense of a broader concept of the kingdom of God.
A key issue here is that it is helpful to see this second birth as a being ‘born from above’. The Greek is consistent with this translation although the wider sense makes of ‘born again’ is more natural. The language of being born from above usefully deflects the modern baggage of being ‘born again’and it also captures appropriately the way the Spirit works in freedom.
This is the learning experience that Nicodemus had to go through. Devout though he is, he has embraced a theology which places hope in a person’s and a community’s efforts to live up to the Law. Jesus provides the revelation and the means by which we are born from above—it is God’s initiative. Just as the wind comes and stirs the trees unpredictably, to those who are not experts in meteorology, so it is with the Spirit—in Greek and Hebrew this is self-evident as the words for wind and Spirit are the same. Here it is pneuma as in pneumatic —operated by air—and pneumatology—the theology of the Holy Spirit.
The life that comes from being born again is a one-off work of God in which we embrace the kingdom of God. This is not to be confused with the ongoing work of the Spirit. We need to be open to the everyday possibility of the work of the Spirit in our lives.
Christians have often debated the precise nature of the work of the Spirit—sometimes even fallen out over it. Clearly it’s not good to argue, but the Church seems to have become unhelpfully post-doctrine. We don’t disagree much anymore (at least locally within a fellowship), not out of love for one another, but because too few people know, or care, enough about doctrine. This is a serious concern as it makes the Church vulnerable to being led astray.
Sometimes we even use Pharisees like Nicodemus as an excuse to not be bothered. We despise the devotion to the Law of the Pharisees, we avoid discipline by labelling it legalism—we embrace the ‘60 second’ approach to the life of faith which was absent for more than 1900 years of Church History.
Jesus does not indicate that devotion to the law, God’s instruction, is a problem per se. His ability to quote Deuteronomy freely during his Desert experience (Matthew 4:1‒11) very much says otherwise.
The new life of second birth and the ongoing life of the Spirit only make sense in a context of God’s instruction (the literal meaning of torah). The Law is more story than rules and regulations.
Jesus meets Nicodemus where he is at—and where he is at is on a journey in which his heart, mind and spirit have been prepared by the Law. Familiar with the Law he sees in Jesus the extra thing that he needs—to be born from above. Jesus uses the story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21 to teach Nicodemus. How often had Nicodemus chewed on these verses, questioned God’s judgement, been grateful for God’s mercy, wondered at the imagery of a snake, examined his own devotion to God, looked for connections elsewhere in Scripture to this episode and wondered if it had any bearing on the future messiah?
Jesus gives Nicodemus the insight that the frailty we all know from being born of Adam and Eve is addressed in the frailty Jesus showed on our behalf.
The Spirit sent by the Father to Jesus at his baptism is at work in us to renew, to cleanse, to make whole, to wipe clean, lives marred all too often by broken relationships, bad choices, and vain ambitions. The Spirit also sustains us through the difficult times that are not of our making. For we still live in-between the ages—born from above but awaiting the full reality.
The new birth that comes like the wind into our lives means that though we will die physically we will not die spiritually—more than that we will one day be physically reborn on the day of resurrection. Being born from above by the Spirit implies an ultimate physicality in the kingdom of God.