First Mennonite Church
February 10, 2019
“Nicodemus and His Quest for Faith”
Text: John 3:1-21
Today and next Sunday, we will be looking at two characters in the gospel of John. Today we will be looking at Nicodemus, whose name literally means the “Conqueror of people or for the people” and next Sunday we will at the Samaritan woman. There are some contrasting elements between these two encounters Jesus had. The obvious is that the first is with a male person and the second with a female. But if we look closer, we would notice that one happened at night while the other at midday. One is that of a person of great social status, as implied by his name, and the other is that of a nameless person of, apparently, poor reputation. This week you can read the two stories and discover what other contrasting elements you can find. But the point they both have in common is that Jesus was genuinely engaging each of these characters with the purpose of reaching out to them. That is the good news!
According to John, Nicodemus is a learned man with impressive credentials. He is not only a Pharisee, but also a member of the Jewish ruling council. Jesus also calls him “a teacher of Israel.” But some traits of Nicodemus can be like a mirror set before us. Nicodemus has some knowledge about Jesus, but his knowledge is insufficient. Nicodemus has a religion, but he is lacking the kind of faith necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is curious to know more about Jesus but he does not want to be seriously committed to what he might find. And again the good news is that Jesus has the right answer to his needs: to be born anothen, again or anew or from above.
Nicodemus has knowledge. Nicodemus opens his conversation with Jesus by telling him, “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.” And even when Nicodemus ascertains correctly Jesus’ identity as someone who has come from God, he fails to see him beyond that. To Nicodemus, Jesus is one like Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, people whom God had been with too. He fails to see that God is not only with Jesus, but that God is being revealed in Jesus. Jesus is the Word that is God. The verse which is known to be the heart of the gospel: 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, reflects Jesus’ superior status than any of the prophet with whom God had also been present. It is clear that Nicodemus fails to see Jesus for who he really is.
Jesus’ abrupt response to Nicodemus affirms what John had said earlier about Jesus–that he does not depend on others to know who people are, nor does he entrust himself to others, because “he knows all people” (2:24, 25). Jesus readily knows what is in the heart of Nicodemus. So when Jesus responds, he begins with the solemn warning words, “Very truly, I tell you,” which indicate the seriousness of his statement. The knowledge Nicodemus has of Jesus is likely based on what Nicodemus has heard being said about Jesus and not from a firsthand experience of hearing his teachings.
If anyone takes Jesus only as a miracle worker, a great and inspiring teacher, or anything other than Lord and Savior, such a person will not see and much less enter the kingdom of God. That is the situation of Nicodemus and for which, Jesus does not hesitate to tell him right away: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” We will come back to these words further ahead.
Nicodemus is a religious man. He is a leader and a teacher, but it seems that he does not have the faith required to see or enter the kingdom of God. To many Jews, to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. We know the Jews also believed that Gentiles are born “lost.” So, imagine the shocked look on the face of Nicodemus when Jesus tells him that his natural birth (as a Jew) does not guarantees his seeing or entering into the kingdom of God. The implication is clear: Unless Nicodemus is reborn from above, he will not see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus must be born “anothen,” again, anew, or from above. Nicodemus takes Jesus’ word not only literally but only the basic meaning of the word. He wonders how can someone be born again and he asks Jesus, “How can this be?” Nicodemus can only think according to the natural process of life. He could not understand what being born of water and spirit mean. And that is the challenge we all have. But Jesus is simply telling Nicodemus that in order to enter into the kingdom of God one must have a new beginning, a beginning that does not depend on him/us, his/our knowledge, religion, or anything. It is a beginning that only God, through his Spirit can give us if and when we believe in Jesus. This new birth is from above. This new beginning from above invited Nicodemus to give away everything he was clinging to.
Nicodemus is curios as well, but he does not want to commit himself openly and fully, at least at that first encounter. We can only guess why Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus at night. Does he come at night to avoid being seen by others that he is coming to see Jesus, the new and radical Rabbi? Could it be that he comes to Jesus at night on behalf of his colleagues –the other Pharisees? Could it be that Nicodemus is desperate to find out who Jesus is that he rush to Jesus even at night? Later in his conversation, Jesus attempts to pull Nicodemus out of his darkness when Jesus said to him, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” It seems that even at the end this encounter Jesus is reaching out and inviting Nicodemus to come to the light. John leaves us wondering what happened to Nicodemus. Along his gospel, John mentions Nicodemus two more times. At the end of chapter seven, Nicodemus makes an appeal on behalf of Jesus. Although Nicodemus’ appeal appears hesitant, yet the very fact of his doing it reflects a certain affinity or consideration to the cause or person of Jesus. And the other appearance of Nicodemus in the gospel of John is when Jesus is being prepared for burial. And here it seems as if Nicodemus is thoroughly convinced Jesus was gone forever as anyone else who dies. In John 19, Nicodemus brings about seventy-five pounds of embalming ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body for his eternal resting place.
Nicodemus is the perfect example that one can be religious, but not necessarily have the faith to enter the kingdom of God. One can have knowledge, but not the knowledge to understand what Jesus calls, “the heavenly matters.” One can be curios and attracted to religion or Christianity, but not necessarily have a personal relationship with the Christ.
We need to be born of water and the spirit, Jesus says. We tend to talk about “our faith” or “having faith,” assuming that it is a done deal, that believing is as simple as acquiring faith. But the Gospel of John never refers to faith as a noun. Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something that one has–it is something that one does. Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human. In other words, we struggle, we have conflict with our very selves in order to be believers. For that reason we need to ask more often than we are willing to admit, “How can these things be?” We need to take seriously what faith looks like when it is active, living, permeable, and dynamic. We need to consider earnestly that having an incarnated God may require an incarnational faith — that believing is just as complicated as it is to be human. That is because our speech, our daily activities, our values and every dimension in life requires a deliberate and conscious choice that reflects our believing in Jesus Christ.
We need to be born again, which means allowing God to continually transform us into the new man, using Paul’s imagery. To be born again is the ongoing work of the Spirit in our transformation into the likeness of Christ Jesus. Let us therefore remember that to be born again is not a one-time event in our lives. It is the working of God’s Spirit transforming us each and every day. Let us remember that to be born again in the spirit is not something we can do by ourselves or for ourselves. It can only be done by the Spirit of God in us. Jesus reminds us today, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Amen!