Nicodemus was confused. He had come to Jesus under the secrecy of the night professing what he thought he knew: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”(1) Nicodemus was a Pharisee in the time of Jesus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He was highly regarded, which most likely explains the veil of night by which he sought to meet the controversial rabbi. He did not want to draw unnecessary attention to his consideration of Jesus. Even so, it was perhaps an act of faith to seek out the divisive young man from Galilee, an act of humility to grapple with a message that thoroughly confused him, a message that seemed to call the very basis of his faith into question.
In reply to Nicodemus’s admission that night, Jesus offered one of his own: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” The ensuing conversation is one of mystery and semantics.
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb.”
Again Jesus answered curiously, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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. 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.”(2)
Nicodemus replied as many of us reply on a journey of faith, belief, doubt, and confusion: as one reaching for light to see dim outlines of a picture before him. “How can this be?” he asked, and the conversation that followed showed a man not asking hypothetically but actually, as one really longing to understand the logistics of rebirth. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the obscurity of darkness and found himself confronted by a conversation about flesh and spirit and light: “[W]hoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
G.K. Chesterton once said that it is important for the landlady who is considering a lodger to know his income, but it is more important to know his philosophy. Likewise, for the general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s worldview. “[T]he question” writes Chesterton, “is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.”(3) The big picture is always the most important picture. And when the picture is God, God outgrows every frame through which our eyes begin to see the divine. In a manner reminiscent of the exchange between Aslan and Lucy, God as noun, verb, and all always moves beyond the God we imagine.
“Aslan,” said Lucy, “You’re bigger.”
“I am not,” said the great lion. “But every year you grow; you will find me bigger.”
For Nicodemus, the entire picture was turned on its head. Everything he knew was cast into shadows by the light who stood before him. “How can this be?” are the last words we hear from Nicodemus this night. The darkened exchange of Christ and the Pharisee is one that ends without clarity. Yet true to our own lives, his confusion does not seem to disperse in the expanse of one chapter. There are two more references to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, and they suggest that that this initial meeting with Jesus was the beginning of something of a journey. In the darkness of faith, Nicodemus seemed to discover the God who is there, the light who draws us further up and further in, until standing before the divine, we ourselves are reborn.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) John 3:2.
(2) John 3:3-21.
(3) G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 15.