Nicodemus was curious. He wanted to find out more about this young rabbi Jesus, who was just beginning to come to the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Had Nicodemus already heard Jesus preach? We don’t know – it’s possible that he knew of Jesus only through second hand reports. But now Nicodemus wanted firsthand knowledge, an opportunity to meet Jesus face to face. So he decided to pay Jesus a visit.
Nicodemus visited Jesus at night. I wonder why? Was he so busy during the day that this was the only time he was free to come – or was he afraid to let people see that he, a member of the Sanhedrin (or ruling council), was associating with Jesus? It’s difficult to interpret Nicodemus’ motives or, indeed, his sincerity. One thing is clear: for whatever reason Nicodemus came to Jesus that night, he would soon find himself engaged in a conversation that would challenge his religious belief to its very core.
We will come to the details of that conversation in a moment. But there is another question we need to ask of this story if we are to begin to understand it. Never mind Nicodemus’ motives – what about the motives of John, the evangelist who tells this story? Why does John give us this account of a night time encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus? What is he trying to tell us?
We can ask this question because we know that John is highly selective in the stories he includes in his Gospel. He tells us that himself in chapter 20 verses 30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, there is lots of stuff that John could have included, but didn’t. Rather than tell lots of short stories about Jesus and little snippets of teaching, as the other gospel writers do, John prefers to tell a few stories at greater length. He calls these signs, because they point towards who Jesus is – the Son of God.
The other thing we need to remember when we are reading John is that he has an eye for the symbolic. Dig beneath the surface meaning of words and you often find that there is a deeper meaning. So, for example, why does John bother to tell us that Nicodemus came at night? Already in the very first chapter John has told us that Jesus is the light of all people. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5). So it may be significant that in the story Nicodemus steps from darkness into light, for he has come into the presence of “the true light, which enlightens everyone.” (John 1:9).
Many Bible interpreters believe that this eye for the symbolic also extends to Nicodemus himself. I think it’s very likely that John is interested in Nicodemus not just as an individual, but because Nicodemus is representative of a certain attitude towards Jesus. Nicodemus represents what John Wesley called the ‘almost Christian’. In other words, someone who is sympathetic towards Jesus, and willing to go so far as to acknowledge him as a great teacher and miracle worker, but stops short of recognising him as Son of God.
By and large in Christian tradition Nicodemus has been treated sympathetically, as someone who is challenged by Jesus but comes to faith. The early church told stories of Nicodemus continuing his story beyond his final appearance in chapter 19, where we find him bringing a substantial quantity of myrrh and aloes with which to bury Jesus. But I wonder whether John is quite so sympathetic.
Many modern scholars agree that John belonged to a community of Jewish Christians who had experienced the trauma of being forcibly ejected from the synagogue because of their profession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. This experience is reflected in the Gospel, in particular its pronounced anti-Jewish stance. As people who had suffered rejection because of their public profession of Jesus, it would not be surprising if John and his community were somewhat impatient with others who claimed to profess Christ but kept their faith a secret.
From this perspective, how would John and his church community understand Nicodemus? Nicodemus reminded them of their neighbours who were interested in Jesus but were unable to make a full commitment. Nicodemus’ discretion is quite understandable – to be identified with Jesus would be, for someone in his position, social and political suicide. And yet, for the evangelist, nothing less than an open confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God is acceptable. John’s Gospel is a call for closet Christians like Nicodemus to stand up and be counted; to confess Jesus not just as rabbi and teacher, but also as Lord; to be baptized and join the church. As far as John is concerned, to fail to do so is to turn one’s back on Jesus and return from the light into the darkness. Nicodemus and all like him have to climb off the fence and make a choice: does Nicodemus love the light or does he love the darkness?
This, I want to suggest, is the underlying meaning of the story, and it raises some very pertinent questions for us: what do we make of Jesus, and how far are we willing to go in confessing him as Lord?
Let’s return to the beginning of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus’ opening statement makes his position clear: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2)
To which Jesus responds:
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (John 3:3)
The word see doesn’t really refer to physical sight – it means experience. Jesus is saying that no one can experience, enter, be part of the kingdom of God unless that person is born again.
Nicodemus seems thrown by this unexpected reply. As often happens in John’s Gospel, he hears Jesus speaking in a grossly materialistic sense, and takes him literally. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)
Of course that’s not what Jesus means. Jesus explains himself to Nicodemus, though I suspect that at the end of the conversation Nicodemus is just as confused as at the beginning.
Nicodemus is not alone. This particular verse about being ‘born again’ has caused not a little controversy and confusion in the church over the years. The phrase ‘born again’ has been removed from its context and has become, for some Christians, a litmus test of faith, or at least a certain sort of Christian faith. “Are you born again?” It has even become a party label. We sometimes hear the phrase “born again Christian” – as if there were any other kind.
So it comes as a surprise to find that the phrase ‘born again’ is completely missing from some translations of the Bible. In the NRSV (which we use in this church) it is consigned to a footnote. This is what we heard read earlier: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
And some translations, such as the Revised Version, offer a third variation: “Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, RV)
So we have three different wordings:
Born from above
Which is correct?
The problem is that the Greek words written by John can mean any of these. John wrote gennethe anothen: gennethe ‘born’, anothen ‘from above’/‘anew’/‘from the beginning’/‘again’. It is ambiguous. I suspect John was being deliberately ambiguous, because if he just wanted to say ‘born again’ there was a perfectly straight forward word he could use instead: anagennethe. But he doesn’t; he prefers the ambiguous gennethe anothen. This shouldn’t surprise us: the evangelist loves word play and revels in words and phrases which are ambiguous and capable of double or triple meaning. I suggest that rather than making a choice we hold together the three alternatives.
But let’s start with what these different translations have in common: they all refer to being born.
All of us have experienced birth, though we probably don’t remember it! When you think about, birth is the most radical change of lifestyle that any of us have gone through. There we are, one minute floating in a safe, warm, liquid environment, umbilically connected to and nourished by the mother who carries us. The next we are thrust into a harsh world of bright lights and loud noises where breathing and feeding now demand an effort. And that’s only in the delivery suite!
But we cannot have it any other way; we have to trade in the cocooned and confined security of the womb if we are to live and grow and reach our full potential. We have to be born.
Birth brings about other changes too. It is the beginning of our relationship with other people in community, starting with our parents. Of course we have, up to that point, had a most intensive relationship with one person – our mother – but a relationship that is, until the hour of birth entirely passive. The most we can do to signal our presence is kick.
From the moment of birth we enter into a world of relationships as we interact with others. And it really is from the moment of birth. Today the importance of the first few minutes after birth as a time of bonding with mum and other adults is recognised. Babies are no longer whisked away to be bathed and put in a nursery; they are brought into physical contact with the one who carried them.
Birth is a powerful image. And it appealed to the early Christians as a way of speaking of the radical spiritual change they themselves had experienced. Not only to describe the sense of a new beginning, but also the new relationships brought about whereby we realise our status as sons and daughters of God and thereby brothers and sisters to one another.
So far so good; now let’s think about that adverb that has given translators so much trouble. As I’ve already suggested, the versions complement rather than contradict each other. So we can affirm, with Jesus:
You must be born again
How? Asks Nicodemus, taking Jesus literally.
Well, not through returning to one’s mother’s womb! This is a spiritual, rather than a physical birth: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6) We need to be born physically and spiritually. The issue is not entering the womb, says Jesus, but entering the kingdom of God.
But what exactly is this spiritual birth, and how does it happen? John Wesley has a sermon ‘The new Birth’, and here is part of his definition:
“It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it to life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is ‘created anew in Christ Jesus’.”
The point here is that being born is not something we do. It is something done to us. That’s true both of physical birth and spiritual birth. We can no more enter the kingdom of God by our own effort than we can re-enter the womb!
New birth, (or if you like, being ‘born again’), is the action and gift of God, although like all of God’s gifts it requires a human response of faith and trust. So Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5) It is possible that ‘water’ here refers to baptism, the rite of initiation into the Church. Nicodemus is being reminded of the need to make a commitment and join the Christian community.
You must be born anew
This wording emphasises that Jesus is talking about being completely and utterly reborn. Jesus calls for more than a reformation or change of life – he calls for a change of heart. No less than the renewal of the whole human nature.
John Wesley observed: “If our Lord, by being born again, means only reformation of life, instead of making any new discovery, he has only thrown a great deal of obscurity on what was before plain and obvious.”
That is why there can be no half measures. Waverers such as Nicodemus must put their faith and trust in the Gospel message. You can’t be half born or partially born, but completely born – anew.
You must be born from above
Whatever Nicodemus thought Jesus was saying, as the conversation continues it is clear that this is uppermost in Jesus’ mind. This birth is from above – in other words it is of God.
Indeed, Jesus specifically directs us towards the work of the Holy Spirit, comparing it to the wind (and here is a second wordplay in this passage, for in the Greek language the word for ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ is the same.) The Spirit, like the wind “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8) As Jirair Tashjian observes: “the activity of the Spirit, much like the wind, cannot be precisely described, defined or contained, but its impact and results can certainly be experienced.”
Here is good news for Nicodemus and for us! We do not need to strive to ascend to heaven or climb up to God. God comes to us, through “the one who has descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13); through the Holy Spirit, who “blows where it chooses”; through the radical transformation of being “born from above” into the fullness of life.
The difficulty for Nicodemus is that his authority as a leader of the Jews and his status as a teacher of Israel counts for nothing when it comes to being born anew. Theological learning, religious piety and good works count for nothing when God simply wants us to start afresh and be born into a new way of living.
Like Abram responding to God’s call to leave familiar places and take a journey into the unknown, the life of those ‘born of the Spirit’ is characterised by faithful, risky living. In the words of Archbishop William Temple: “don’t ask for credentials. Don’t wait till you know the source of the wind before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it.”
Is Nicodemus able to do this? Are we? Because, of course, Jesus isn’t just speaking to Nicodemus. “You must be born again” – in the Greek this ‘you’ is plural, not singular. Jesus is talking to us as well.
How we respond to Jesus’ words depends where we are on our personal journey of faith. We may find ourselves sympathising with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus with all his questions, a seeker after truth. Nicodemus had some hard lessons to learn about himself and about Jesus. When he finally got to bed that night he must have had plenty to think about. We cannot be half-committed to Jesus. If the claims made about him are true, nothing less than 100% commitment is required. Because what Jesus is talking about is a matter of life and death – and it cannot be a matter of moderate interest.
You must be born again – born anew – born from above. Jesus calls us to a new beginning that is a lifetime task, as we ask God to help us grow through the working of his Spirit within us. Whether we can testify to a dramatic experience of being ‘born again’ is perhaps not so important – what does matter is that we accept this gift of new life offered to us, with all the opportunities it brings for the present and all the possibilities it opens for the future; both in this life and beyond.