I’ve been thinking about the amazing interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3. There is so much nuance to their conversation, and what I’ve plotted below barely scratches the surface of the deep. This conversation helps me understand why the gospel is so difficult to grasp. Our eyes are open, yet we do not see. Our ears are peeled, yet we do not hear. We are breathing, yet we are not alive. Some of us are wide awake; some are zombies. Many are in between.
Nic waited for the right moment to have an awkward conversation. The days were so bright and busy that an appropriate opportunity never presented itself. He could wait no longer. His mind was filled with thick contradiction that made once clear ideas suddenly blur and formerly unknown possibilities become oddly clear. This was not something to talk about in broad daylight with the prying eyes of his peers and followers. As one of the big wigs on the ruling council, this conversation could not show up in the minutes. What Nic saw, what he felt in his gut, had to be carefully handled or it could cause damage. He wasn’t even sure what it all meant, really. But it was there, like a boulder in his stomach that couldn’t be ignored.
The conversation had to happen at night. It had to be whispered.
There he is, up late. Nic walked over, and cleared his throat. “Rabbi,” Nic said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” The Rabbi watched Nic’s eyes and searched him. Nic was searching, too. Looking for the right words to explain why he just uttered what would be considered to be, in some circles, blasphemy. Nic looked down. The Rabbi looked at Nic, who, after another moment of internal deliberation, looked back and said “no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
It was as if Nic was absolved from the responsibility of his opinion. It was more than just a hunch or gut feeling. Evidence abounded: water into wine, seeing what could not be seen, and that moment with the whips and the yelling at the Temple— that was not… normal. Nicodemus, trained man and leader of the people, trusted member of the council and respected elder, came to the obvious conclusion that the Rabbi was like nothing ever seen before, perhaps not of this world.
If Nic was right and the Rabbi was from God, then it would be, shall we say, interesting to hear what he has to say in response. It was like asking if he was from God without accusing him of being from God. If he was, it would be verified in the moment. If he wasn’t from God, this would give the Rabbi a chance to explain away everything that happened. In fact, if it was some kind of threat, maybe this kind of exposure would diminish the risk to the status quo.
Status quo! What was the status quo anymore, anyway? This guy was really turning things upside down (and not just the tables in the temple courts.)
Nic waited for a response. The Rabbi responded with authority. Totally out of left field, but a response nonetheless. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
How did he do that? Right to the heart of the issue. Nic wonders if he’s looking at the coming Kingdom in this Rabbi. Wait! “Born again?” What does that mean? Nicodemus suddenly felt the wrinkles on his own face. The Rabbi had caused Nic to really scrunch up his old nose.
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. Nic was no doctor, but he knew how babies worked. And he knew where he came from. And he knew he wasn’t going back. Born again. What a ridiculous idea! And what an awkward conversation to have with mother. It was absurd at best. Before he could catch the words, they got out of the gate. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Oh, that was rye. Nic unscrunched his nose just in time to raise his bushy eyebrows, a red carpet rolled out in facial hospitality to a response from the Rabbi.
And respond the Rabbi did. “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases.’”
in that moment, an uncharacteristic wind moved across the place where they were talking. The effect was not lost on Nicodemus. The Rabbi smiled, as if to say “see?” The Rabbi continued. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Born of the Spirit? “How!?! How can this be?”
The Rabbi cocked his head to one side and asked an obvious question. “You are Israel’s teacher, and you do not understand these things?” Nic started thinking back through the years and years of training, practicing, thinking. Nope. This one did not show up on the syllabus, either in classes Nic took or classes Nic taught. This was like a science teacher hearing about another row on the periodic table. It was all too new. Nic thought he might suddenly wake up.
The Rabbi continued. “We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.” Nic thought he did speak of what he knew and testify to what he’d seen. He witnessed the miracles. He said, flat out, that he knew that the Rabbi must’ve come from God. How could he be still be missing something? Yet the Rabbi kept going. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Nic just stood there in the shadows of night, his cover blown. He didn’t understand that he was having a conversation in the dark with Light. He did’t make the connection between Moses, who came from God, and the Rabbi, calling himself the Son of Man, who clearly came from God as well. If the Rabbi came from God, like Moses, then that could mean… well… Oh! And the thing about the Snake. Like Genesis 3 snake? Lifted up? And thrown? And that last bit about eternal life. What did this mean? The wind moved again.
Nic was so deep in thought that he didn’t even notice that the Rabbi had walked on. Worst of all, he was more confused and burdened now than he was before this conversation had started. What would he tell the council? Anything? How would he explain this to his wife? If this is true, what does that mean for him?
Well… that conversation cleared up nothing.
He tried but couldn’t fall asleep that night, but, alas, his eyes would not stay closed.