The saying, “Hindsight is 20/20” provides a good warning. If you wear glasses or are a medical practitioner dealing with the eyes you know that 20/20 is a way of indicating normal – we might even say, perfect – eyesight. Looking back on our salvation history as recorded from Genesis 1.1 to Revelation 22.21, we Christians are often guilty of just such “hindsight”. I say guilty because, as a result of this hindsight, we have often not placed ourselves in such a position that would allow us to experience that history of salvation. And very often the characters who come on this stage of salvation history become one-dimensional – often vilified. We think that they should have known better.
Nicodemus is one such person. There are two main things about him that make us think less kindly of him. First, he comes to Jesus at night. In most places in the Gospel according to John the word ‘night’ carries with it the connotation of darkness. But does that mean it does here?
I remember when I was at seminary, a classmate of mine was grumbling because of the way the professor interpreted John 16.33 “I have conquered the world”. The professor said that Jesus is saying that he has conquered Satan, the ruler of the world, and not the people in the world whom he came to save. My classmate said that if world meant Satan then John 3.16 would mean that “God so loved Satan”!
Ridiculous as that sounds, and is, it serves to underscore the fact that language is fluid. We must let the context in which the word appears dictate what the word means in that context!
Why does John bother to tell us that Nicodemus came at night? He also tells us that Nicodemus was part of the Sanhedrin. Very likely Nicodemus had other responsibilities during the day. And Jesus himself was a busy man during the day! If Nicodemus wanted serious time with Jesus, he could not do it during his coffee break! And at lunch time Jesus was often feeding thousands of people! So Nicodemus came at night. John tells us this because this is something that would stick out as unusual. And it would help us remember him later in the Gospel. He is the only non-disciple character who shows up more than once in John’s Gospel. And his appearance in public at the time of Jesus’ burial should help us see him in a different light. Indeed, even in John 7 after Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” we see Nicodemus restraining the other leaders from falsely condemning Jesus.
The second thing about Nicodemus about which we look down on him are his questions. “How can people be born when they are old?” he asks and then compounds the issue by asking, “How can these things be?” To us he seems like a very dense person, someone incapable of understanding what we take for granted.
But you see, in v.3 Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless one is born anew” by which he does two things. First, he affirms that Nicodemus has been born anew! It sounds strange to us who think of Nicodemus as being an outsider. But Jesus is saying, “You recognize my works as being the works of God only because you have been born anew.” Jesus’ works are the means by which the kingdom of God advances. If Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is doing God’s work, then it must mean that he is born anew.
Second, Jesus throws out a phrase, that we think is uniquely Christian, in order to challenge Nicodemus. Jesus uses the phrase ‘born anew’. I have intentionally said ‘born anew’ rather than ‘born again’ because we have gotten comfortable with ‘born again’. We think we have a firm grasp of what it means.
And so did Nicodemus! You see the phrase ‘born anew’ was used to describe a Gentile convert to Judaism. Any Gentile who wished to start practicing Judaism would have had to be baptized – an occasion considered to be a new birth, just as in biological birth one is taken out of the waters of the womb into the air of one’s life outside the womb.
You see, it was a phrase that had spiritual meaning but one that was never applied to a Jew. It was as shocking as my seeing something called ‘chicken Danish’ at a bakery here. A Danish is sweet. You can fill it with custard or fruits or chocolate, but not with meats! If a Dane walked into the bakery she would certainly ask, “How can these things be?”
We think Nicodemus did not understand. Oh, but he understood. He understood very well. What he did not understand was how this could apply to him. He was asking in effect, “How is this applicable to me when I am a Jew, one who is already an heir of Abraham’s covenant?”
And Jesus responds by asking, “You are Israel’s teacher and even this you do not know?” English is sadly impoverished in many regards and it shows up right in this verse. There are two Greek words that can be used in a question with a negative. One implies a negative answer such as, “Did you not go there?” to which the expected answer is “No I did not.” The other implies an affirmative answer such as, “Did you not go there?” to which the expected answer is “Yes I did.” According to John, Jesus expected Nicodemus to give an affirmative answer. “Even this you do not know” to which Jesus expects Nicodemus to answer, “Yes I do know this”.
And again English shows itself impoverished when we realize that the word “you” could be singular or plural. Jesus expects Nicodemus to say, “Yes I understand.” And then he says, “I tell you (singular) the truth, we – that is, you and I – speak of what we – that is, you and I – have perceived and we – that is, you and I – testify about what we – that is, you and I – have experienced, and yet you (plural) do not accept our testimony. The switch from singular to plural indicates that Jesus has switched to addressing a wider audience that cannot include Nicodemus since Jesus has implied that Nicodemus is already an insider, someone in the know, someone who has perceived and experienced this ‘new birth.’
With this understanding in the background, we have a few questions. “Why did Jesus expect Nicodemus to answer, ‘I am a teacher of Israel and yes I do know of what you speak’?” Also, “What is all this about the wind blowing where it wills?” And finally, “What does this mean for us?”
So why did Jesus expect an affirmative response from Nicodemus? If Nicodemus were a teacher of Israel, he must have been well versed in the scriptures – the Old Testament. After startling Nicodemus with the phrase ‘born anew’ Jesus introduces the Spirit. He is asking Nicodemus, “You are a teacher. What do the scriptures tell us about the Spirit and the people of Israel?
And Nicodemus’ mind would have gone to Isaiah 44.3 “I will pour my Spirit on your offspring” and then to Ezekiel 11.19 “I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them” and also to Ezekiel 36.27 “I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes.” All passages in which God explicitly states that , in order for the covenants to remain intact, the action of the Spirit is necessary even within a Jew. Even the Jews need to be ‘born anew’.
Jesus expected Nicodemus to know this and he gives him a case study – Nicodemus himself. Jesus has already affirmed that Nicodemus has been ‘born anew’. Now Jesus likens the Spirit to the wind, which blows where it wills. What in the world does all this mean?
Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, why do you think I said that you have been ‘born anew’? Your words affirming that I have come from God indicated to me that you were ‘born anew’ just like the sound of the wind indicates that it is there.” The Spirit cannot be apprehended by any specific action. But the Spirit does leave traces of grace.
Paul would speak of the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit. He would write, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit.” And Jesus would elsewhere in John’s Gospel say, “This will be the indication to people that you are my disciples – that you loved one another.”
So what does all of this mean for us? What is Jesus telling Nicodemus and, through him, us? Here are three things we can take away.
First, it is possible to be acted upon by the Spirit without one’s knowing it. Nicodemus had been ‘born anew’ but he did not even know it. Hence, it is possible that someone has been acted upon by the Spirit without our knowing it. We should be very cautious. As Gandalf tells Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Second, it is crucial to develop the ability to discern the effects of the Spirit. Jesus says, “You hear the sound the wind makes.” No matter which direction it is blowing from, the wind causes leaves to rustle. So if we hear leaves rustling it is very likely that wind is blowing! In the same way we must attune ourselves to recognizing the effects of the Spirit.
Third, but at the same time no one can claim to be able to predict or dictate how God will act through his Spirit. If there are no leaves we cannot expect the wind to cause a rustling sound. The wind blows where it wills. “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus and Jesus overturns all his preconceptions. So often we see Christians who have experienced the Spirit in some manner insist that the Spirit must act in that way. We make our experience of the Spirit the template by which the Spirit must act. What idolatry! What presumption! The Dane may just have to come to Bangalore to see that Indians can very well make ‘chicken Danish’!
The new birth is necessary in order to be able to perceive God’s kingdom. And it is an immersion in and emergence through the Spirit. It will always manifest itself. But its manifestations are varied and none of us is qualified to set the bounds or give a checklist.
On our way to Goa this December we saw near Chitradurga a vast array of wind turbines – windmills, you may call them, though there is no milling happening! From inside the car we could not gauge the direction or speed of the wind. However, we could see the orientation of the blades and the direction in which they were rotating and the speed with which they were rotating. And I explained to Prayerna what this told us about the direction and speed of the wind. The same gusts of wind made the different turbines move differently. The same Spirit moves in and through each one of us differently.
The wind blows where it wills!