‘The Good Pharisee’

John 3:1-21

As soon as the today’s text begins with, ‘There was a Pharisee …’ we know where this is going. The Pharisees, a group of very devout and quite legalistic experts in the Hebrew scriptures, are regular foils for Jesus in the Gospels. They always come to him with some sort of flattery, then try to lay a trap for him. We have no reason to expect anything different here. But this Pharisee is different. He really does want an answer to his questions – for personal reasons.

His name is Nicodemus. And he was not just any Pharisee. He was a wealthy and influential man, a highly regarded teacher, and one of the few Pharisees who served on the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem known as the Sanhedrin.

And he comes to Jesus as night. For this act he is forever known. When John introduces Nicodemus twice more later in his Gospel he is always referred to as the one who came to Jesus at night.

Most of us think we know why he came at night. At night, of course, it is harder to recognise people on the street. There is less chance that Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus will be noted and reported to any of his Pharisee friends or his students. And perhaps this was, in fact, the reason he came by night, or at least part of the reason. But if Nicodemus really wanted to have a serious conversation with Jesus, the evening is when he would have come. Firstly, the crowds would have gone and it would be easier to have a private conversation. And secondly, the Pharisees taught that the evenings were the most appropriate time to have serious conversations about theology when the business of life had dissipated and there was time and space to think. So there might have been a very practical reason for Nicodemus to come at night, to find Jesus at home and away from the crowds. He may also have wanted to indicate to Jesus that this was not a set up or shame discussion to try to trap him, but that he really did want to have a serious conversation with Jesus.

Nicodemus would have come to Jesus at some personal risk to his own reputation. So it would have been more than mere curiosity that brought him to Jesus that night, early in Jesus’ ministry.

It seems clear that Nicodemus had a question. And it was a big one. One that kept him up nights. One that he came to suspect that Jesus might be able to answer.

But what was that question?  Ironically, Nicodemus never gets to ask it. Jesus ‘answers’ him immediately after Nicodemus’ polite greeting and his recognition that Jesus must have come from God because of the many ‘signs’ he was able to perform.

But perhaps Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus, which has become both very famous and also much misunderstood in the history of the Christian Church, suggests what Nicodemus’ question was. Perhaps it was Jesus’ way of showing Nicodemus that he knew already exactly what was on his mind, and in his heart.  We read in Luke 17:20 that the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When is the kingdom of God coming?’  They expected, as did most Jews of the day, the coming of a literal, physical kingdom. But this coming had seemed very long delayed. And the Pharisees had come to believe that God would not bring the kingdom until the people all did the right thing – or at least enough of them did the right kind of things. So as a man who had committed his life to teaching about the kingdom of God, and who very much desired to see it come, Nicodemus wanted to know from Jesus – from this man who clearly had been sent by God, just what needed to be done to see the kingdom established. That is most likely the question Nicodemus came to ask Jesus.

But as Jesus often does, he anticipates the question, and takes Nicodemus very quickly beyond it to something deeper and more personal.

Jesus answers Nicodemus: ‘Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being reborn from above.’ (v. 3).

Jesus has now set the tone of the conversation. Nicodemus most likely wanted to know what the people as a whole needed to do to see the kingdom established. Jesus makes the question very personal. He tells Nicodemus what he (or any other individual) must do if they wish to see the Kingdom of God. And it is not what Nicodemus was expecting. It was not any level of good works, or enough people keeping the law, or even the people taking matters into their own hands and beginning an uprising against Rome – for all of these were common ideas at the time for how to hasten the coming of God’s promised Kingdom and the promised Messiah who would usher in the kingdom.

Jesus instead tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, or reborn from above. The language used is deliberately open to more than one interpretation. The Greek word an-o-then that John uses here could mean ‘born again’ as it came to be initially translated into English. But it could also mean ‘born from above’ which makes good sense in light of the many references to ‘above’ in this text. Or Jesus may well have meant both at the same time, hence the translation I prefer: ‘reborn from above’.

In any event, Nicodemus takes the literal meaning and ends up an impossible image. And this is far from surprising if he has come to Jesus with a question about how to see a literal, physical kingdom of God established on earth. That is where his mind and thinking is at. So taking the more literal option, he ends up with a rather ridiculous image in his mind and asks Jesus how it can be possible that he or any other grown person could enter back into their mother’s womb and be born once more. His almost comical misunderstanding then becomes the foil for Jesus to explain what he means in more detail.

So what do we and Nicodemus learn about what it means to be reborn from above in order to see God’s Kingdom? I think there are three main points to be gleaned from Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about being reborn from above.

First, the experience of rebirth from above is a personal one. It is not about what the whole population must do for God’s kingdom to come, it is about what we must experience in order to be a part of God’s kingdom. In Nicodemus’ age there was a tendency to think more communally. So this may have been a difficult concept for Nicodemus to understand. But for us in the modern world, with our emphasis on individualism, this aspect of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be reborn from above is easier to understand. Jesus is talking here about a personal and transforming experience of God.

Second, it is a rebirth of both water and spirit. ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit (vv 5-6). There are two meanings here: First, there is physical birth and spiritual rebirth. We do not need only to be physical beings, born and living in the world. We must also be reborn spiritually. But there is also unmistakable baptismal imagery here. While these story pre-dates Christian baptism, we must remember that John is writing for an audience steeped in the practice and symbolism of baptism, in which baptism with both water and the Spirit is one divine action (from above). Jesus is probably, once more, referring to both, indicating two different levels of meaning here.

Finally, the rebirth Jesus is speaking of is ‘from above’. This means it is something that God does, that God initiates. It is not our work. Jesus seeks to explain this to Nicodemus in his illustration of wind (or Spirit of God) blowing where it choses and in ways we cannot predict. This is the point we have most understood. In the recent history of the church the movement of ‘born again-ism’ has arisen based on this text. And it’s emphasis has been on what human beings must do. It has been used to press people to make a decision. But ironically, the text is making the exact opposite point. Not that there is no personal component of a human decision. There clearly is. But the point here is that the experience of being reborn is something that originates from above, that comes through the free and unpredictable movement of God’s Spirit. Being reborn from above is a profoundly human experience. But it is not a human work.

The dialogue with Nicodemus ends and the voice of John the Evangelist comes through, explaining further point being made. And it what would seem clearly to be the voice of the narrator explaining the significance of these words, we find the famous John 3:16, in which John reiterates that the whole action begins with God’s love for the world. We do not hear anything further about Nicodemus in this story.

So what happens to Nicodemus? Does he finally get it?

Well, yes he did. John mentions him again in 7:45-52 when there is plotting again Jesus by the chief priests and Pharisees (apparently at a meeting of the Sandhedrin), and the question is asked if any Pharisee has ever believed in Jesus. Nicodemus cannot remain silent but is not yet able to commit. He argues instead for a ‘fair hearing’ for Jesus, and is intimidated into silence when asked if he too is one of Jesus’ followers. So at that stage, Nicodemus is not yet there.

But then Nicodemus appears again in John 19:39, together with a man named Joseph of Arimathea. They come forward publicly to Pilate to claim Jesus’ body, and to do the anointing rituals and place him in a tomb. With the disciples in hiding, the masses having abandoned him, and everyone assuming his cause is lost with his death, Nicodemus comes forward publicly as a follower of Jesus.

Why then?

Well, I think it had something to do with the famous conversation with Jesus that occurred almost three years earlier. When Nicodemus asks, ‘how can this be?’ or ‘how can this come about?’ referring to being reborn from above through the power of the Spirit, Jesus reminds him of the story of Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness. In the same way, Jesus says, when the Son of man is lifted up, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. I think that when Nicodemus saw Jesus lifted up on the cross, he remembered these words – words he had been pondering ever since Jesus had spoken them. He understood at that point exactly what Jesus had been referring to and all doubt in his mind about who Jesus was disappeared. It didn’t matter that Jesus was now dead. Nicodemus came forward publicly as one of his followers.

In the same way, Jesus calls each of us to follow the Spirit’s call upon us, to allow God, from above, to make us new, to be reborn through the waters of baptism. The process might be complex and far from straight-forward, as was the case with Nicodemus. But process and time frames are not important. What is important is whether we, like Nicodemus, in the end open our eyes to the Kingdom of God through the work of God’s free Spirit working in us ‘from above’ to make us his children.


Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.