[New to our exegesis of John’s Gospel? Try starting at The Beginning — see top menu for John 1:1-2].
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
3 Ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων· 2 οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος· οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ’ αὐτοῦ. 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 4 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ Νικόδημος· Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι; 5 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς· Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 6 τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν. 7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν. 8 τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ’ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 9 ἀπεκρίθη Νικόδημος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι; 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;
Nicodemus was a powerful and wealthy “ruler” of the Jews. The word for “leader” or “ruler” is ἄρχων and implies he was likely a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Judaism. St. Paul had also been a member of this powerful, austere group.
Nicodemus came by the cover of darkness to see Jesus. Two things are likely meant. First, he came out of the darkness into the Light of Jesus. The “darkness” is a realm of ignorance and evil. It is where things are hidden until exposed by the Light. Second, and quite practically, Nicodemus probably didn’t want to be seen talking to a controversial person. Jesus was now showing up on the radar of the Jerusalem religious leaders as one who needs to be watched.
Nicodemus addressd him respectfully. He appeared curious about Jesus. This same language in other instances was used sarcastically to try to trap Jesus in his words (e.g. Mt. 22:15-22). But here it seems more innocent: one seeking truth.
So, the scene begins with a man of great power and authority, sneaking out to see Jesus, a man of near poverty and without worldly power. The contrast would have been stark in terms of the clothes they wore: Nicodemus in his gowns and emblems of wealth and authority; Jesus in a simple cloak and coat. Furthermore, Nicodemus was at the top of his game as a ruler, scholar, and sage in the religion of Jerusalem. Jesus had none of these credentials.
Apparently, the “signs” Jesus was doing made him a curiosity. These signs were likely miracles and perhaps teachings that were so enlightening to some that they were, in themselves, signatory of a special “teacher” (rabbi).
Nicodemus couldn’t resist. Something inside compelled him to learn more.
We don’t know Nicodemus’ thoughts and motivations leading up to this encounter. I don’t think it would be far off, however, to make some assumptions. Perhaps Nicodemus began his faith journey as a boy or young man drawn deeply to God. And then, over the years, as he progressed up the rungs of power, he may have grown weary of the politics, corruption, and petty affairs that plague any such institution. Perhaps his early enthusiasm for the law of God had turned into cold religion, and the high ideals of faith faded into the expediencies of power and institutional survival.
Maybe he came “out of the darkness” of such a world because Jesus’ signs had found their way into an old memory of why he started down the road of devotion to God in the first place — a memory not yet crushed by all the heavy layers of religion that could have flattened it into oblivion.
And Maybe Jesus is touching that memory now in you, recalling that original passion, first love, and eagerness to be close to the One who has the Words of Life! Every now and then we have to throw off the shackles of boring, plain religion that takes the Life out of faith!
It’s time to sneak back into the Light!