I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking when he went to Jesus that night in Jerusalem. I wonder what he was hoping for.
I find myself feeling quite sympathetic towards Nicodemus. He was an elite member of his society who had a lot to lose. We are told that he belonged to a respected community, that he was a recognized leader and an admired teacher. It would have taken a certain humility for someone with that status to approach a seemingly uneducated upstart from unfashionable Galilee as courteously as he did.
I wonder if Nicodemus had been present when the Jewish leadership confronted Jesus following his recent cleansing of the Temple. Perhaps Nicodemus had seen something in Jesus then that made him think that Jesus might be someone worth approaching more respectfully. I wonder if he went to Jesus at night to escape the notice and probable censure of his peers.
While most of the interactions of the religious leadership with Jesus as described in the Gospels have them challenging him in a group in public, Nicodemus seems to approach Jesus on his own and to do so with admiration. His greeting of Jesus as being a teacher who has come from God seems genuine in its recognition of Jesus’ significance.
Jesus immediately confounds Nicodemus with his talk of the need to be born again from above in order to see and enter the kingdom of God, the need for a new spirit if one is to take one’s place in the family of God. Nicodemus seems unable to expand the categories of his thinking beyond the confines of the traditions that had been passed down to him in order to embrace the new spiritual reality that Jesus is inviting him into, and so Nicodemus is left frustrated.
I don’t think it’s that Nicodemus rejects what Jesus is telling him, but rather that he doesn’t know what to do with it. Even if he could accept the need to be born again from above, he couldn’t figure out how to do it. His loss is our gain, for Nicodemus’ predicament brings forth perhaps the most precious words in all of Scripture, a truth to cling to even if nothing else from this gospel reading:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
I think Paul’s teaching about Abraham in his letter to the Roman church might have been helpful to Nicodemus here. Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase expresses it well: Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.
Nicodemus fades into the background of today’s Gospel reading, but not out of the Gospel story itself. I think there was something about his experience of Jesus, that bewildering man who said he came down from heaven to bring God’s life to the world, something that would not let Nicodemus go. He seems to have maintained his elite social position, perhaps he considered it just too good to risk letting go of, but he also seems to have maintained a high regard for Jesus.
Later in John’s Gospel (7:50-52), we find Nicodemus defending Jesus’ right to be treated fairly according to the very law the other Pharisees were determined to use against him. Those Pharisees respond to Nicodemus’ interjection quite dismissively, but at least he had the courage to speak up against the majority opinion for what he believed was right.
Towards the end of John’s Gospel (19:38-40), after Jesus is lifted up on the cross as he said must happen, Nicodemus re-enters the story once more. This time he is with Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man described as a disciple of Jesus who kept his discipleship secret out of fear of losing his social standing. I guess Nicodemus and Joseph could relate to each other.
They ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, a relatively bold act of identifying with those who cared about Jesus, and they bury Jesus’ body reverently. For all his fear, Joseph is recorded in all four Gospels as being the one who buried Jesus’ body.
I wonder, though, when Jesus gave up his Spirit on the cross, breathing out his life into the world, if Nicodemus didn’t perhaps have some sense of the lifting up being also somehow an exaltation of Jesus. Was he able then, again in the words of Eugene Petersen’s paraphrase, to look up to Jesus, trusting and expectant, to gain a real life, eternal life?
Could Nicodemus somehow feel the wind of the Spirit, blowing where it chooses, bringing to birth a new spirit within him, as he was born again from above? Did that perhaps make all the difference in how he lived the rest of his life, in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist? I like to think it did.