|Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus - Henry Ossawa Tanner
The story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus, told in the Gospel of John, is one of those Bible stories that can easily be lost to our need for a soundbite or two.
There are two in this story: the expression “born again” (more accurately, “born from above” or “born anew”) and the famous John 3:16, probably the most memorized verse in the Bible. We’ve used both of these expressions of our faith as true soundbites, a phrase or two that’s been taken out of its original context and been imbued with all the meaning of its context, at best, and a whole lot more, at worst.
“You must be born again” has acquired the connotation of a certain set of beliefs, a certain way of believing and, most importantly, the exclusivity of access to a new life after we die. John 3:16 has come to be seen as a summation of the Christian faith, all that we believe in a single Bible verse: “For 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.”
Though it makes me sad that “born again” is yet another one of those words or phrases that we’ve lost to a particular interpretation, I don’t want to tackle that here, other than to say that I believe that we are all “born anew.” And John 3:16? One of my favourite verses, and one which I like to talk about at great length, but I don’t for a moment believe that one can reduce the vast wonder and mystery which is expressed in the Bible to a single sentence. I’d also like to add that if you like 3:16, read 3:17, too. That’s the one that says Jesus didn’t come to judge, but to redeem.
But for now, my interest is in the bigger picture.
The story goes that Nicodemus, a leader in the Jewish community, comes to Jesus at night and acknowledges that Jesus must be from God because of all the great things (miracles) he’s been doing. Jesus replies that no one comes to the kingdom of God without they are born “from above” (or anew). Nicodemus assumes a human birth and doesn’t understand. Jesus explains his meaning as being born again in spirit. Still Nicodemus doesn’t understand. Jesus continues to explain that God sent his Son to show us the way to live, to lead us back to God.
I wonder if Nicodemus ever really understood. The gospel doesn’t say. Maybe there’s a reason why.
I think the author of the Gospel of John was all about big metaphors. You can’t get much bigger than Jesus is “the light of the world,” the light that leads us back to God, the light that shows us how to live well. What if Nicodemus wasn’t an actual person? Or, at least, if he was, what if Nicodemus represented all who were, literally, still in the dark about what Jesus really meant to the world. There is something there that draws them from the darkness, something they are seeking.
Like Nicodemus, we are seeking. Perhaps the truth or a better understanding of each other or creation or God. We think we’re seeking boldly. But we fearfully cling to the structures we’ve created to organize our understanding. The rituals and rules and order that keep us comfortable.
But the Spirit blows where it will.
Jesus doesn’t offer organization and structure, he challenges them. He offers instead a new life with the Spirit, he offers truth and love and compassion. And those can be messy. And they can be freeing. And they can be enlightening.