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Who’s Teaching Whom?

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:1-21, NIV)

Maybe Nicodemus rarely encountered many setbacks in his life. He was always smart, getting such good grades that he was a shoe-in for rabbinical school. Nicodemus made his family proud and his parents bragged about him because he brought prestige and honor to them often. This lad always wanted to be the top dog in every intellectual contest he ever entered. Nicodemus expected to win debates. If this were not the case, he would not have become a member of the Jewish ruling council. No wonder his parents gave him the name that meant “victory of the people” because he represented the best that Israel had produced.

Why would a smart person like Nicodemus choose the dark night to see Jesus? Why doesn’t he go to see his counterpart in the light of day? He saw what Jesus could do and he knew he had no capacity to perform any of the miracles he witnessed. He surmised a debate with Jesus in front of a prime time audience was a sucker’s deal. Nicodemus recognized Jesus was a different kind of religious man he had not seen - ever. Seeking a secret conversation at night was the best way to gather information about a man who appeared to be the people’s choice. 

Was Jesus trying to pull a fast one? 

With a cool night breeze and the moon for a nightlight, Nicodemus’ anxiety was apparent as he gathered his first words to say to Jesus. Rather than deny Jesus’s feats, Nicodemus admitted the miracles were authentic. He accepted that the people solidified Jesus’s reputation. He had no problem giving Jesus his due as a representative from God. Nicodemus wanted to know if Jesus’ star power could rub off on him. How could a smart person like him get in on Jesus’ miracle tour? 

Maybe Nicodemus expected a formula, technique, or magic incantation from Jesus complete with instructions to get the best results. Jesus listened to Nicodemus intently with no malice and derision. Jesus told him the kind of miracle he needed was not from this earth nor his Midrash textbooks. Nicodemus needed resurrection, not a religious tune-up. The Pharisee was shocked, puzzled by such talk. Nicodemus’s mind went straight to the possible birth of his own children. He knew biological means how children came to be.  Was Jesus trying to pull a fast one? 

Perhaps Jesus’ face and voice was gentle to the man who once had all of the answers. Nicodemus’s entire life story was based on giving right answers about the things of God. Now, the Pharisee became the student and Jesus became the teacher. Nicodemus knew the traditional wisdom of the Old Testament, the sayings of the top rabbis in history, but he could not make sense of Spirit-fused knowledge nor understood the grammar of resurrection. His mind was blown by Jesus’s earth-shattering statement to him. He could only muster a four-word response: how can this be? 

This kind of education was as lost as buried treasure. 

Nicodemus was out of his league with Jesus. Jesus tried to show the rabbi that healing and rebirth comes from the very thing that does not make sense. In other words, resurrection comes from the very thing we fear –death. New life comes from lifting up what one believes is the wrong answer from God. Jesus gave the learned man a summary statement of his entire reason for coming. With great love in his eyes, he said, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” Jesus challenged Nicodemus an opportunity to take the first steps towards the kind of life that doesn’t need a degree on the wall nor trying to become a merit scholar. For the first time, Nicodemus was not working hard for what Jesus gave him for free – God so loved Nicodemus that he gave his only son. Not getting the right answers brought condemnation to many rabbis and scholars. No condemnation was possible for this Pharisee because Jesus told him condemnation was his problem. 

Belief in Jesus was radical to Nicodemus because he never heard of grace before. He lived like all of Israel had for years – transaction than everything was a gift from God. That is the entire message of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy that the Pharisee knew quite well. Except living by grace had fallen on hard times in Israel. This kind of education was as lost as buried treasure. 

Jesus left Nicodemus with two powerful metaphors for him to reflect upon as he made his way back home. Nicodemus received teaching he never dreamed of getting from Jesus. What words in the text struck you right between the eyes about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus? What might you need to unlearn about your own walk with the Lord? What needs to die in your own life for resurrection to happen? Jesus reminded us his verdict is coming.      


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