52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #28. Conversing with Nicodemus (Part 1)
by Travis Bookout
It is not unimportant that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” Little details like that are rarely insignificant. They are intentional and need to be noticed. They shape the whole story. When Nicodemus is mentioned again after the crucifixion, he is described as “Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night” (John 19:39). That passage links him to Joseph of Arimathea, who is described as “a secret disciple.” Joseph was like Nicodemus in many ways; a wealthy, powerful man who was also a member of the Sanhedrin and opposed the decision to crucify Jesus (Luke 24:50-51). But he was also unwilling to publicly put his faith in Jesus. Nicodemus put his faith in Jesus, but only at night. Joseph put his faith in Jesus, but only in secret. Following the crucifixion, however, they find themselves together, coming forward to honor Jesus as a king, regardless of what the public thinks.
They weren’t alone in their secrecy by the way. John 12:42, 43 explains, “Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Their silence is explained by two things: what they feared and what they loved. They feared reprimand. They feared expulsion from the synagogue, which would include loss of status, respect, and community. This is the same thing that the blind man’s parents feared (John 9:23). This is the same thing that many in the early church feared, and they clung to passages like this to remind them, not to be motivated by fear, but love. Not love for the approval of men; that love makes you a slave. That love works hand in hand with fear. That love keeps you silent about Jesus. But love for the approval of God, which no hatred, persecution, or fear could ever take from you. Perhaps the cross was exactly what Nicodemus and Joseph needed to move beyond fear, and begin to show their love of Christ openly.
Born From Above:
One of the famous misunderstandings in the Gospel of John centers on the phrase γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, “be born again.” The multiple meanings of the word ἄνωθεν become the main source of confusion. The word could mean “again” and that’s certainly how Nicodemus hears it. But the word could also mean “from above” or “from heaven” which I think is how Jesus actually means it. In John 3:31, Jesus says, “He who comes from above is above all…He who comes from heaven is above all” Guess what that phrase “from above” is in Greek? ἄνωθεν. It’s the exact same word. There is a major theme in John about ascending and descending, up and down, above and below. Jesus comes from above, from heaven, so He brings a heavenly perspective to all his teaching. But those who come from below fail to grasp it.
“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven; the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13). There is a difference between earthly things and heavenly things spoken by Jesus. The misunderstandings in John always occur when people hear the earthly thing instead of the heavenly. That’s why Nicodemus doesn’t hear the heavenly message about being born of God from above, he hears the earthly message about crawling back into his mother’s womb. But to be born from above is the same thing as being born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). God is above, God is Spirit (John 4:24), the one who is born from above, and is born of water and Spirit, is born of God.
That one who is born from above is also born of God, born of Spirit, and born of water is really interesting. We may think that water doesn’t seem to fit well with these other descriptions, water is not God, Spirit, or from above. But water does take on a significant spiritual role in the Gospel of John. Immediately following this conversation with Nicodemus water is linked with baptism (John 3:22-23). The phrase “because there was much water there” (John 3:23) seems like a peculiar detail to add, which means it probably shouldn’t be glossed over. I don’t see any way the early church doesn’t see baptism when they read John 3:5. But water is also connected to eternal life (John 4:10-14), sight for the blind (John 9:7), washing that gives you a part with Jesus (John 13:8), and the blood of Jesus (John 19:34). But most significantly for our passage, it is linked directly to the Holy Spirit, “Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.”’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).
Spirit and Wind:
Jesus then uses another word that has a double meaning: πνεῦμα. This word means “wind” or “Spirit” and Jesus uses it to mean both in the very same verse! “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Imagine Jesus and Nicodemus talking, late into the evening, on a gusty night. They can hear the wind but cannot predict where has come from or where it will end up, nor can they control it. Nicodemus is a man used to authority: making decisions, having control, running his own life. Jesus is telling Him, to be born of the Spirit is to give up control. You have as much control over the Spirit as you do the wind.
By the way, we should always be a little cautious when some teacher or preacher tries to tell us exactly what the Spirit can and cannot do or will and will not do. There is a lot of ambiguity to the work of the Spirit in the Bible. And I believe that’s intentional. To nail down the Spirit is like nailing down the wind (I mean, it’s the exact same word!). Good luck! It is better to watch and see what happens, than to try to control and confine.