Nicodemus knew he was way out of his league compared to Jesus and he clearly respected Jesus as one who had divine authority to speak and to heal. That’s why he broke rank with the rest of the Pharisees to come quietly to speak to Jesus at night. The rest of the Pharisees would try to publically humiliate Jesus by asking him trick questions. Nicodemus knew that was foolish. He knew Jesus could easily embarrass him in public.
And what did Jesus know? Jesus recognized that Nicodemus knew that something was missing in his life and that Jesus probably knew what he needed. Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed to be born of the Spirit, but Jesus also knew how hard it would be for Nicodemus to grasp what that meant. Nicodemus thought he just needed more religious knowledge. He thought it was about things on this earth, something he could see and control. So Jesus was pretty hard on him. Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ credentials as a teacher because Nicodemus didn’t know the basic difference between things on earth and things in heaven. That had to really hurt. But Nicodemus was already hurting, so he took it. I think I know how Nicodemus felt.
So Nicodemus listens and this is what Jesus told him that Jesus tells all of us who are scholars, clergy, bishops, members of church councils, and Sunday school teachers. Religion alone cannot save you or anyone. You have to drop your faith in systems of religious knowledge and rules and draw on salvation from Jesus alone. Being born into a religious family or community is not enough. You have to be reborn from above, through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus teaches us that it is necessary to be reborn to experience the kingdom of God and a new relationship with God. It is not the credentials of this world and human action, but the works of God through the Holy Spirit that saves us. That is difficult for those of us like Nicodemus who like to be in control. We have to recognize that our being in control and our accomplishments can get in the way of our own and others’ salvation. We can’t use our knowledge to put up barriers. We have to let go of all that and let God work through us and others.
Despite his predicament, Nicodemus did something right. His conscience had been awakened and he overcame his arrogance to seek out Jesus. But his approach was still misguided by a desire for more knowledge, not a quest for wisdom. Jesus set him straight. Nicodemus needed to separate his faith from what he could see and control in the natural world and place it in the spiritual world where God is in control. Jesus reminded him that the working of the Spirit is like the working of the wind. You can’t see it and you can’t control it. Our works, our efforts, and our knowledge don’t make it happen. We can’t save ourselves. But by opening ourselves to our shortcomings, we can let the Spirit work in us. That cost Nicodemus his wealth and status, but not his life, in fact, just the opposite, by being born again, he gained his life.
Today I pray a prayer of thanks that even though Jesus is hard on intellectuals, he does not rebuke us in judgment against us, but to show us the greater glory of God. It is a good example of tough love. This story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus comes just before the familiar and comforting words, “For this is the way God loved the world, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but that through Jesus the world might be saved.” That is really good news to me! Amen!
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