This is a translation of a text I wrote originally in German. I tried my best, but some word-plays were impossible to translate.
How can this be? The question sounds clumsy. Still, it’s from the mouth of a “teacher of teachers”Joh 3:10, one highly educated and deeply immersed in the writings of his time. Nicodemus, that’s the name of the questioner, is an example to me, and hopefully us all – for not too often the answer to a simple question, through the twists and turns of history, somehow becomes part of my life’s foundation. And in the humor of this sacred literature, the answerer is none less than the answer himselfJoh 14:6.
But back to the start. Here’s a scribe, a Pharisee, who meets Jesus for a secret appointmentJoh 3:2. The story in John 3:1-12 records the first of very few private consultations of this supposedly man-born GodJoh 1:14; 3:16-17; 6:38, and for now it’s of no relevance who of them is hiding from whom.
The Pharisee’s colleagues put their emphasis on „of Nazareth“ when discussing about this JesusJoh 18:5; 1:45, deciding with their use of language that this human can hardly be from God, let alone be the Almighty himselfEx 33:20; Num 23:19; Hos 11:9; Deut 4:15; Joh 7:40-44; 7:52; 19:7. Too offensive his speechesLk 11:45; Joh 6:60; 6:52-59, too sinful his friendsLk 5:30-31, and his miracles happen on the one day of the week that God would never use to healJoh 9:16; Lk 6:6-7; 13:13-15. Nicodemus, however, looking from the same distance, came to another conclusion: No one can do these signsJoh 3:2 he tells the miracle worker with growing popularity. No one, unless God is with him.
The answer-seeker comes in with an incredible declaration. Long before the unheard news of signs and wonders, and even longer before the unstoppable news of this man who defeated death spread throughout Judea and the world, long before that, there is an intellectual man following a slight hunch to ask a question. A high teacher who – according to my speculation – simply cannot shake this feeling deep inside, overcoming his natural hesitation.
But before the teacher gets to ask the first of his certainly carefully crafted questions, he hears an answer. Unusual, surely not just for Nicodemus. To Jesus, this seems to be a secret hobby – especially the Pharisees, deeply anchored in their thinking, get to hear answers to their silent questionsLk 5:20-25; 6:7-8; 20:23-26.
Jesus agrees and without correction, so the unexpected answer is not a response to a false declaration. The answer is one of those quotes that sound profound but contain no meaning of their own. No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.Joh 3:3 Yeah sure. And Nicodemus thinks yeah sure, as he asks the first question.
Yes, there is a simple misunderstanding going on. In short, in ancient times – just like today – some words had multiple meanings. Having clarified the misunderstood word, Jesus explains it all plainly no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the SpiritJoh 3:5. A little modification within the quote, now indicating not a second natural birth, but a birth from above. Everything is abundantly clear now.
Nicodemus, at this point already my personal hero, just thinks yeah sure and asks once more how can this be?Joh 3:9 Thanks for asking, Nicodemus.
And while, on the pages of my bible, Nicodemus has to listen to a little rebuke from Jesus, saying he as a teacher of Israel really should understand this simple matterJoh 3:10-12, I’m comfortably turning the pages and think rather quietly to myself yeah, but how can this be? Apparently, the all-knowing God is not the best explainer for me either.
Who doesn’t ask stays dumb. At least that’s what a German children’s show says. And while for most modern readers, Nicodemus is just one of those Pharisees, whom the sayings of Jesus warn of with drastic words because of their hypocritical teachingsLk 20:46-47; 11:39-44, he is precisely the one who’s private conversation turned into a gold mine of theology. Quite marginally, it contains a favorite of the modern audience: for God so loved the world …
Nicodemus showed humility that becomes an example to me. Obviously, Jesus had no issue with a scribe who came to find answers. Jesus has no issues with those of us that come with questions, even doubts do not worry Him. There’s just one kind I better not be: the oh-so-highly educated teacher, who’s so caught up in giving answers that he misses the answer himself.
Left for us to wonder is how many other laymen and teachers had heard those same words – unless you are born again. Regrettable would be, if many other conversations missed out on their spot in books of history, just because the others pretended to know for the sake of reputation, instead of asking in humility.
And here we are as modern Christians, pointing to these initially meaningless verses every time we speak of this phrase we derived from them: Born Again. And if one new to faith dares to ask for its meaning, from those same verses the rehearsed answer is given: Well so through the spirit you become new creation and real Christians are born again. Sure. It’s quite funny that we Christians toss around this phrase, considering one of the greatest teachers of Jesus’ time found no better reply than wait, what?
But what if that’s not the point. So reborn or not, the sentence is a bit longer. Enter the kingdom of God, that’s right in there. God’s kingdom, that is where God reigns on earth, of this kingdom the king spoke it’s coming near, it’s standing right hereMt 3:2; Joh 4:26; Lk 17:20-21. This being Jesus’ favorite topic, there is lot’s left to say, but to condense it quite shortly: It’s the reason He came.Dan 2:44; Mt 4:17; Isa 9:6-7.
How can this be? That is the natural question to ask, because without a doubt we are the ones born in error and sinPs 51:7, called sons of the devilJoh 8:44; 1 Joh 3:8. And then we’re suddenly kings and priestsRev 1:6, supposedly ambassadors2 Cor 5:20 of His kingdom. All of the sudden the Bible says that we are sons and daughters of GodGal 3:26; Rom 8:14-15, even more, His heirsRom 8:17.
To us, being an heir means many things, and for the most part it’s money. For the two Jews in this private conversation, however, a different picture emerges. In their world, only a son can inherit from his father, none else may be regarded. Well fine, we are children of God through adoption, that’s how Paul explains it laterEph 1:5, and that’s how we inherit like a real child. But while Paul too struggles with the impossibility of this issue and alludes to Roman law for the sake of his audience, the rules of Jews are a little different: Adoption does not exist, only the correct family is of interest. And family, as we all know, you cannot choose.
To Jesus and Nicodemus, it must be abundantly clear, that an heir of God has the born of God, a part of His family. Now, the questions of all questions is, how one born into the sinful family of this world may ever be counted among the family of God’s kingdom. The divide between the families is infinite – heaven and earth. Official documents will not suffice, the paternity test strictly checks for matching DNA. Born Again – that would be necessary and is yet utterly ridiculous, with the even more preposterous result heaven on earth.
Later, things certainly cleared up for Nicodemus. It is the Holy Spirit who brings forth this new creation2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:20; Rom 8:2: 8:16; Joh 20:22, creation that will come and yet is currently happening. In His kingdom, only the royal family may take up residence – and if he calls us His children1 Joh 4:1, then His kingdom is here. In the midst of the impossibility of changing families, the answer himself simply says: nothing is impossible with GodMt 19:25–26.
All questions answered? Certainly not. Perhaps it is precisely in this tension of the impossible paradox, that the love of Jesus comes over us. Perhaps Nicodemus’ question was not given from a lack of understanding, but just the humble admission of the guilt of his heart. Perhaps you too look at the work of Jesus in your life, simply left to ask how can this be?