By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
“It’ll be dark soon,” Arthur says in the 1968 western “Firecreek,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. “Things happen at night.”
Indeed, strange things can happen at night that don’t occur during the day. Hospital personnel will tell you about something called “sundowners.” Patients, fully in control of their mental faculties during daylight hours, will begin to hallucinate at night once the sun has gone down. I’ve seen it myself a couple of times.
I’m hardly a fan of scary movies, but let me ask you… have you ever seen one that portrayed its frightening scenes during the day? If strange and terrible things are going to happen, they are going to happen at night.
The story of the Pharisee named Nicodemus is told only in the Gospel of John. That means, simply, that we do not have any other accounts in the New Testament from which we can draw a comparison. John seems to go to great pains to let us know the influential Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night.
What do you think we ought to do with this? Do you think we make too much of it? Maybe Nicodemus had a busy schedule and that’s the only time he could get away from the office. Or, how about this…
It is known that many of the theological discussions and debates among the Pharisees and other religious leaders often took place at night. We can just see the Pharisees, after dinner, as they make their way into the library with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigar in the other. There they debate the great theological issues of their day. Or at least what they think are the great theological issues of their day.
It could be that this is simply the way Nicodemus operates. He is used to wrestling with the important issues of life at night, and he decides to do the same with Jesus. It might have been a sign of respect, even, that Nicodemus is treating Jesus like one of the guys, one of the rabbis, a colleague. He’s acknowledging Jesus as a member of the fraternity by coming to him at night.
Or perhaps Jesus is sensitive to Nicodemus’ position as a Jewish leader and doesn’t want him to be made guilty by his association with the upstart carpenter/preacher. So Jesus suggests they get together when no one else would know. Maybe that’s just the way it happens. No big deal.
Except… John is big on small details. He has a way of interjecting little items or hints that provide important elements to the way he tells his story. The chances are pretty good that he wouldn’t have mentioned that Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night unless it has a deeper meaning.
They do it on television and in the movies. Something is mentioned in a conversation, or a small element is brought into the story. It may just be a camera shot. At the time, there doesn’t appear to be anything to it, but you know it’s going to come into play later in the story. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have bothered to include it as a part of the drama. The same is true with John. He’s telling us something here by informing us that Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night.
John also mentions that this occurred during the Jewish celebration of Passover. In the other gospels, Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem until late in his ministry. Here, John has him going near the very beginning, and it is while he is there that he cleanses the temple of the money changers and animal sellers. Talk about getting everybody’s attention! It happened in the full light of day, and it occurred early in Jesus’ public ministry, not during the last week of his life as the other gospels tell it.
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There has to be a reason for this. John has changed the itinerary all around, and he has done it for a purpose. What gives?
Well, at this point in his public ministry, the jury is still out in regard to Jesus’ credentials, not to mention his agenda. But Nicodemus is intrigued enough to search him out, even if he chooses to do so at night. Is Jesus a true prophet or just a troublemaker? If he is a prophet, Nicodemus wants to know him better. If he is a rabble-rouser, Nicodemus needs to know that too, for he is a leader of the Jews and an important part of such leadership is determining what is true and what isn’t.
Jesus presents yet another, new challenge for Nicodemus and his colleagues, so Nicodemus has decided to check Jesus out. He shows an inquisitive but reserved respect for Jesus. There’s something in him that says Jesus doesn’t fit into the Jewish religious system, yet he has something about him that none of the other rabbis have.
He’s been around the block a few times, Nicodemus has, and he knows how the system works. He is aware of how it can eat up a man who dares color outside the lines, who shows some original thought, who takes matters into his own hands. Nicodemus sees such promise in this young Nazarene, yet he sees trouble brewing as well. So he does what a good leader should do. He goes directly to the source… and he does it at night.
“Rabbi (he uses a title of respect, doesn’t he?), we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” We… who’s we? Does he mean “you and I”? “You are I know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he speaking for the rest of his leadership group? “All of us Pharisees, we know that you are a leader who has come from God.”
Do you know what the word disingenuous means? It means “sly,” and implies that Nicodemus is being coy with Jesus, not wanting to speak directly. Is that what he is doing when he uses the word “we”? Could it be that he is protecting himself by using the plural “we” as opposed to “I”? After all, there’s safety in numbers. Or is he truly representing the group and not just himself? There’s a lot of conjecture in that little word “we,” isn’t there?
“No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus has seen something in Jesus that has intrigued him, but from the conversation that follows, we will see that Nicodemus has witnessed just enough to make him curious, perhaps, but not enough for him to understand… at least not fully.
That happens sometimes. I am reminded of a story John Claypool told a number of years ago. A family had been living in Richmond, Virginia while the father had been assigned to do work there. Their home was near Monument Avenue, one of the major thoroughfares in Richmond. It is where statues have been erected in honor of the Confederate generals of the Civil War, the most notable, of course, being the one of Robert E. Lee. Lee is shown sitting on his horse, holding the reins of his bowing steed. The only caption of the monument is found on the base, and it simply reads “Lee.”
This family had a young son who enjoyed playing at Lee’s statue. Word comes that the father is being transferred to another city. On the day they are moving, the little boy asks his father if he can play one more time at Lee. “Sure,” his dad says, “in fact I’ll go with you.” After awhile, the boy is told they need to leave. “Dad, I do have one question before we go.” “Yes, son, what is it?” “Who is that man sitting on Lee?”
The boy had noticed what he wanted to notice, and knew just enough about the statue to see it but not to know the significance of it. Is that Nicodemus? “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Ah, signs. The Pharisees show up in other places in the gospels as well, demanding that Jesus show them a sign of his authority. The Pharisees are big on signs and they are big on authority. Jesus has come into their living room, so to speak, stealing their thunder. They’re not very happy about it because they’ve got a good thing going in the religious system of Israel. And make no mistake about it… it has become a system.
Over the years the Pharisees have developed a litmus test for all would-be messiahs, and it’s based on signs. Do the right signs and do them for the right reasons – and of course the Pharisees determine what are the right reasons – and if you pass the test you might – you might – gain their endorsement. Of course, it hasn’t happened yet, but you never know…given the right circumstances, given the right Person, it could happen. It could happen.
Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to see if he, the young Nazarene, might just be that right Person. He does do signs, that’s true. In fact, he’s really good at it. Nicodemus is intrigued with Jesus. He has obviously come from God, but does that make him Messiah material?
When Jesus says that the only way for a person to come to the kingdom of God is by being born from above, Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Like the little boy who can’t see Lee for his horse, he doesn’t get the meaning of what Jesus says, who Jesus is, or what all these signs really mean.
And Jesus, who appears to be a bit disingenuous himself, does not answer Nicodemus directly. “Amen, amen, I tell you,” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Actually, the word has a double meaning. When Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” it could also mean born again. It’s like this… suppose someone has something in his hand and he holds out both hands telling you that before you can have it you must choose which hand it is in.
That’s what Jesus is doing with Nicodemus. He offers him a word that can mean at least one of two things. Anothen could mean either “from above” or “again.” Nicodemus chooses the latter meaning. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” “Daddy, who is that man sitting on Lee?” And when Jesus opens up his hand it is empty. Nicodemus has made the wrong choice. He can’t see the forest for the trees.
Fred Craddock tells about a young man who had been one of his students. But before he went to seminary, the man was a special education teacher. He left teaching because he found it, he said, to be too hard. It culminated one November when school resumed after Thanksgiving break. As he tells the story, he went up to a beautiful little girl on the playground, called her by name, and asked her, “How was your Thanksgiving?” The little girl stared blankly and said, “My shoes are red.” There was something in her brain, the young man explained, that wouldn’t let her connect with the world around her. The only thing she could say was, “My shoes are red.” Her response, he told Craddock, just broke his heart. And so, he chose to take his life in another direction, one he thought that might not be so hard emotionally for him to do.
Craddock says that not long after he was in Dallas visiting some friends. They went to church together on Sunday morning. The music was most inspirational, Craddock explains. The prayers were well thought-out, the sermon was strong, a good and challenging interpretation of the scripture. The congregation sang the hymns with meaning, and when the benediction was spoken, Craddock says, he didn’t want to move. He was truly inspired by the experience. He just wanted to sit there for awhile and let it soak in slowly.
Just at that moment, a man who had been sitting in front of him, turned and extended his hand. “So,” he said rather loudly, “you think Tom Landry’s going to coach the Cowboys this year?” “You know what he was really saying?” Craddock asks. “He was saying, ‘My shoes are red.'” He just didn’t get it.
If one’s faith is based solely on what one can see, John is telling us, that faith is insufficient for the kingdom. It will not hold up when life treats us in such a way that a deeper spiritual force is required within us.
We have a tendency to rush through this story to get to verse 16. We all know verse 16, don’t we? And verse 16 is indeed most important. But this interesting conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, that took place at night, is really set up by something that is said earlier in chapter two. Speaking of Jesus, John says, “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” That included Nicodemus, you see. “But Jesus on his part,” John explains, “would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.”
I would remind you that in the original story written by John, there are no such artificial dividers as chapter and verse. It is immediately after John writes this – “for he (Jesus) himself knew what was in everyone” – that he says, “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.” Nicodemus, the way John tells the story, is a living, breathing illustration of the kind of person Jesus did not trust. Nicodemus could see with his eye, and what his eye is looking for is a sign. Jesus says the kingdom is made up of much more than signs. It is made up of those who are born from above, who see spiritual/heavenly things that are not necessarily noticed here on earth.
We do have some sympathy for Nicodemus. He treated Jesus with respect, which seems to be more than was true of a number of his colleagues. But, that doesn’t mean we should necessarily want to be like Nicodemus.
You want to know why I think Nicodemus came to Jesus at night? No big surprise or new revelation. Nicodemus is cautious… he is careful and calculating. He has a lot to lose in revealing his sympathy for the young rabbi from Nazareth. But sometimes caution can prevent us from reaching out to what cannot be seen with the naked eye. It can keep us from seeing the presence of the kingdom. And when we stand in the presence of the kingdom, we do not want to be found saying, “My shoes are red.” Even if we have come to the kingdom at night.
Father, help us to see the kingdom even as we live in this world. To do it, we must be born from above. It is our prayer that you would give us such a birth, as we seek to be your children. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.