Nicodemus was a Pharisee. a member of the religious establishment. He was part of the elite power group of Jesus’ day.
In a superficial reading of the Gospel stories about Jesus, this means Nicodemus was one of the bad guys. He was a narrow-minded religious bigot who hounded Jesus, persecuted him, and eventually demanded his death.
But, as with all human stories, the reality of the Pharisees is more complex than the caricature would lead us to believe.
Nicodemus appears in John chapter 3 as a genuine seeker after God. He is portrayed as a person of real humility and integrity. And yet, at the same time, he is portrayed as failing to grasp the basic reality of the spiritual life.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus with what appears to be genuine reverence and respect.
‘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.’ (John 3:2)
Nicodemus does not appear to be setting a trap for Jesus. He does not pose any ridiculous theological conundrums, or attack Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus seems to feel that Nicodemus is a genuine seeker after truth. So, Jesus responds to the deeper desire that he perceives in Nicodemus.
‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (John 3:5)
“No one can perceive the reality of God without being born anothen.”
The word “anothen” is frequently translated “again”. But, the context suggests that the New Revised Standard Version comes closer to the original intent by translating “anothen” as “from above”.
When Nicodemus responds to Jesus from a literal physical consciousness, Jesus repeats his original assertion saying,
‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ (John 3:5,6)
To be “born of the Spirit”, is to be “born from above”. The ability to perceive the things of God is a gift of God’s Spirit. When we open to a consciousness that is deeper than our physical senses we come alive in the Spirit.
It is important here not to set up a false dichotomy between “water and Spirit”, as if our birth in the flesh is somehow in competition with our birth “from above.” Both constitute an essential dimension of what it means to be fully human. We are spirit and body, not spirit or body, and not spirit in spite of body.
Our problem is that, like Nicodemus, we easily miss the “born from above” part. We are so preoccupied with the physical, so taken up with our material lives, our feelings, and our relationships. We spend so much time preoccupied with building our own little kingdoms and obsessing about how our lives are unfolding. Our lives become so consumed with the clutter we have accumulated that we lose the ability to respond to the mysterious presence the pulsates beneath the surface of life.
It is possible to walk through life as if the realm of the Spirit were simply an illusion. Our hearts need to open; we need to be born not only “of water,” but also of the Spirit.
The thing that makes this process of opening to the Spirit most difficult for us is the we are not in control of the process.
‘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.’ (John 3:8)
If we are to be “born from above”, we must let go of our determination to control the circumstances and forces of our lives. We come alive in the Spirit when we surrender to that power of love and light that is embodied in the person of Jesus and embrace the invisible force of his spirit in our lives.