Nicodemus had evidently heard enough about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay the Man a visit and see if it’s all true. On the other hand, as a Pharisee and a distinguished member of the Sanhedrin with a big reputation to uphold, he decided it might be better to make that visit at night. Better to be safe than sorry, he must have thought. So he waited for the cover of darkness.
And Nicodemus was fairly safe, and, at least at the beginning of their nocturnal conversation, Jesus was fairly patient. But suddenly Jesus cut to the chase and said that what the whole thing boiled down to was that unless you were born again, you might as well give up.
That’s all very well and good, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull off a thing like that? How were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing seventy? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? Nicodemus got a little sarcastic. Could an old man “enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” when it was all he could do to get into the chariot and drive over here?
Perhaps a gust of wind happened just then to stir up the dying embers and they burst into flame. Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn’t something you did. The wind did it, that is, the Spirit did it. It was something that happened to you. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked, and then Jesus really got going.
Maybe Nicodemus was a teacher in Israel, had half a dozen doctorates in theology and a long column in Who’s Who, but if he couldn’t see something as plain as the nose on his face, he’d better go back to Kindergarten.
Jesus said, “I’m telling you, God is so in love with this world that He’s sent Me here! So if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe Mine, maybe you’ll believe Me, and maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to life like those embers.”
Read against the backdrop of Nicodemus’ nighttime visit, the famous John 3:16 becomes the culmination of Jesus’ response to him and to people like him; His response to people like us, who believe we know all about Jesus; us who are sorely tempted to come at Jesus to have Him confirm the limits of our own thinking and call them good; to have our own religious biases and our own conclusions about faith affirmed…limited as they are. And then we want Jesus to stay in that little box we have fashioned!
This Nicodemus episode is a realization that instead of having our faith rest upon our own knowledge, on our own beliefs, or even on our own love for God and His Son, faith is, above all, a gift. It’s God’s gift of His love to us; a gift that we are known and loved by Him, that we are drawn by His Spirit into a mystery with His Son that is truly beyond our understanding, no matter how many academic degrees we may pile up!
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, as St. John makes a point to mention. In his Gospel, where Jesus is the Light of all people, a Gospel in which Judas leaves for his betrayal and St. John notes that it was night, this nighttime setting for Nicodemus’ visit more than suggests that the tempter is at work here, just as with Judas. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness, in the limits of his beliefs. He doesn’t ask Jesus who He is, but instead proceeds to tell Jesus what he and the others have concluded about Him.
Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus already certain that he knows all he needs to know about the Man. He is there merely to confirm his own biases and beliefs. He believes he knows where the lines are drawn. He knows what Jesus’ limits are!
But Jesus, as He did with the tempter in the wilderness, Jesus immediately begins to undo Nicodemus’ temptation with a Word. No one knows about God and His kingdom, Jesus tells him, without being born from God. What Jesus tells Nicodemus is that he doesn’t even know how limited he is as a learned man, let alone how extensively he is trying to limit God. And he’ll never know unless he is born a second time, from above.
This passage is marked by a spiraling repetition with some doubles entendres, typical of St. John’s Gospel, as Jesus picks up Nicodemus’ words and repeats them, developing and deepening those words with each repetition. Like a little whirlwind, this conversation whirls around Nicodemus and his limited thinking as Jesus deliberately plays with the man’s own words moving the dialogue toward that famous 16th verse.
And as Jesus picks up on the words and concepts introduced by Nicodemus himself, as Jesus turns the conversation toward deeper and deeper truths, Jesus shifts the whole conversation from the smallness of Nicodemus’ limited view to the unsurpassable greatness of life with God. Jesus turns this temptation with the limits on which Nicodemus and others have based their hope, turns it to the limitless mystery of the Spirit, who gives new birth into the boundless truth which Nicodemus just cannot grasp!
Like a whirlwind, Jesus spins the night’s conversation so fast that poor old Nicodemus gets more and more confused…until, in a creative stroke by St. John’s writing, Nicodemus himself just kind of disappears from the whole episode. It’s as though that whirlwind has demolished the man’s limits, blow down the walls of his conclusions and beliefs and carried him clean away.
And suddenly Jesus is speaking with the royal “we” to no one in particular. The episode moves from the limited analogies of Nicodemus’ confusion, to the limitless perspective of the One who has descended from heaven by the Incarnation and who will ascend there again by His glorification in the great lifting up of the Son on His cross.
And from that cross, from that Son lifted up, shining like a beacon in the darkness, finally come the words of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
This world, as St. John already noted in the first chapter, is cloaked in darkness…like the darkness of Nicodemus’ limited state, like the darkness of all the barriers we place on God. But God, who is not confined in the least by this learned man’s limitations, what God intends for this dark, confused world (for this confused old man) is not condemnation, even when the dark world lifts up His Son to crucify Him. On the contrary, that crucifixion will be the light for the very world that just cannot see it, cannot believe it.
When we become too sure that we know all about Jesus (or about God the Father and God the Holy Spirit), when we believe that we have fully grasped Him, that is when we can expect Him to undo us like Nicodemus.
And the temptation to limit God is so evident these days, especially when you listen to the debates between Christians and atheists, or the arguments over science and the Bible.
Oh…folks on both sides will pontificate at length about what God can and cannot do, what God is supposed to have done and not done. So much heat. So little light. Jesus’ words to the Sadducees come to mind: “You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God!”
But in His love, God does not condemn. He catches us in the whirlwind of His divine mystery, shattering the walls and the limits we impose on Him, on faith and giving a birth from above to our faith, a new birth into a life which no eye has fully seen nor has any mind fully comprehended.
In the course of John, chapter 3, Nicodemus and his limits disappear from this conversation, as though he is picked up by Jesus’ whirlwind and dropped in a far land. Maybe he was. For after Jesus has died upon that cross of divine love, Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, comes to offer his devotion, to carry that sacred body to its rest in the tomb…not by night but in broad daylight.
Because, as St. John implies, Nicodemus is no longer the same man who came to Jesus by night. And, though St. John doesn’t tell us…perhaps Nicodemus, in his newborn limitless faith, born out of that whirlwind conversation with Jesus, perhaps Nicodemus believed what none of the other disciples could quite believe in their limits imposed on God…that this grave was only a temporary home for Jesus.
And very likely then, when Nicodemus heard in the days following Easter that some of the disciples had seen Jesus alive again…well…it’s not hard at all to imagine that the learned old man giggled and laughed like a little child.