Do a miracle, Jesus. Perform a sign. Give us a reason to believe…
Wow, that was impressive. You must really be from God!
Now do another one and we’ll really believe.
In the gospel of John, as we’ve seen in previous posts, Jesus’ first miraculous sign was a quiet one, performed behind the scenes at a wedding in Cana. His next act, however, was headline-making behavior. On a day when the Jerusalem temple was as crowded as could be, when the outer court looked more like a bazaar than a place of worship, he angrily drove some of the people out.
Later, John says, he did other signs, and people believed. But Jesus wasn’t keeping count of how many souls were saved that day, because he knew what was in their hearts. People might be impressed by miracles, and rightly so. But that in itself doesn’t make a person ready for a life of discipleship.
A man named Nicodemus, who was a member of the ruling council, had seen the signs Jesus performed, and was moved to seek a private audience with him. We know from other episodes in John that Nicodemus would eventually become a disciple, so he must have approached Jesus honestly, as one who sought the truth.
He came to Jesus at night. It’s possible he did so for fear of being seen. Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem would have been controversial, though Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, would probably have been less concerned with the temple than with the study of Torah. Still, it would have been impolitic for someone of his rank and stature to be seen chatting amiably with the upstart Galilean.
But there may be more to the story. As we’ll see in a later post, the contrast of light and darkness is an important metaphor in John. Jesus was the true light (John 1:4-9) coming to a benighted world. And the question throughout John’s gospel is how those in darkness respond to the light. Thus, just as John explicitly notes that it was night when Judas left to betray Jesus (13:30), so too does he note that Nick came at night.
“Rabbi,” Nick begins, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2, CEB). He’s seen the signs; he believes that Jesus is from God. So far, so good. But the only category he has for Jesus is that of a rabbi and teacher — not the eternal Word (1:1), not the light of the whole human race.
Jesus accepts Nick’s respectful description. But then he answers, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom” (vs. 3).
I imagine that Nick’s immediate response at this point was a blank stare.
You have to admit that when it comes to taking turns in conversation, Jesus sometimes comes out of nowhere. Here, he seems to answer a question that hasn’t yet been asked.
But it’s the Question, with a capital Q: “What must I do to enter God’s kingdom? What must I do to know eternal life?” And in all likelihood, it’s the question that brought Nick to Jesus in the first place. It’s a bit like a justice of the Supreme Court hearing a moving sermon and seeking out the preacher to talk about the meaning of life.
“Nick,” Jesus is saying, “I know what you want. And believe me when I tell you that you need to be born again.”
Ummm…excuse me? What does that mean? How is that possible?
More on that in the next post.