Text: John 3:1-17 Revised Standard Version (RSV)
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicode′mus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew,[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’[d] 8 The wind[e] blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicode′mus said to him, “How can this be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.[f] 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”[g]
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson almost starts out like an old 1940s film noir – you see some shadowy figure skulking through the dark night, furtively going from one dark doorway to another, making its way to … where?
That shadowy figure turns out to be a person who under normal circumstances would never do such a thing. His name is Nicodemus, and is one of the leading citizens of Jerusalem. He may have been a member of the Sanhedrin, which was a sort of combination city council, municipal court, and religious council.
So, Nicodemus was a man of great authority and stature. But, more importantly, just who was Nicodemus, the man? Why did he feel it necessary in the first place to slink through dark, unlit streets to pay his visit to Jesus? We are told in this passage that he was, first, a Pharisee, and second, that he was “a ruler of the Jews.” According to Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, of the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “While we cannot know this for sure, it is probable that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council whose limited authority was sanctioned by Roman government. It is obvious that Nicodemus had an uneasy connection with the [Jews]. On the one hand, he was an intricate part of it; on the other he was afraid [of] and hassled by it. As such, he often felt that he did not belong.
“For example, we see that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, and in John 7.50-52 we read that when he questioned his own fellow Hoi Iudaioi [‘the Jews’] about Jesus’ arrest, he was questioned for loyalty: ‘Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our Torah judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee too?’”
Nicodemus quotes the law to his colleagues, the law that they themselves created and claim to honor; and he is vilified and insulted for doing so, because the reminder is not only inconvenient, but it shines a bright, glaring light on their hypocrisy. Throughout history, we see examples of the fate of people and nations being changed by people like Nicodemus – by people, that is, who are not content to simply follow the status quo, who insist on asking their own questions and finding out for themselves what the truth might be in a given situation; people who are bold enough to go toe to toe with those in authority and to speak the truth to them. In more recent centuries, we have the example of Galileo, Martin Luther, Gandhi – so many others who have spoken out on behalf of the good and the right, and whose actions have given us the world we live in today, a world which, though still quite imperfect, nonetheless bears the positive marks of what these people have done.
Even so, it may be that it wasn’t just curiosity that compelled Nicodemus to take his night-time walk. Given that he was so often “on the outs” with his fellow Sanhedrin members, maybe he was feeling a bit isolated. Maybe he was feeling a bit desperate. It could be that he was even feeling a sense of hope. The words of that young rabbi from Nazareth perhaps struck a chord within him and he wants to find out for himself whether what he’s heard is actually what Jesus has been saying; his first words to Jesus tells us that he has been closely following Jesus’ career. Owing to his position, he could not be seen fraternizing with Jesus, but he had to see him, which left a night visit as his only option. Whatever the reasons were that drove him to it – desperation, hope, rank curiosity – he was willing to take that risk. William Barclay tells us: “Nicodemus was a puzzled man, a man with many honours and yet with something lacking in his life. He came to Jesus for a talk so that somehow in the darkness of the night he might find light.”
And so, Nicodemus takes that dangerous nocturnal walk – dangerous for the simple reason that, if the authorities caught anyone skulking around after dark, they assumed the worst, and hauled that person off to prison – he finally gets to Jesus’ house, and knocks on the door. Now, a knock on the door in the middle of the night is almost never a good thing, even today. It was especially scary in 1st-Century Palestine – Roman soldiers, and their counterparts, Herod’s thugs, were efficient and ruthless. Night time raids were common – doors were kicked open, unsuspecting people were rousted from their beds, and hauled off to prison. Many were never seen again.
But Nicodemus makes it. He gets to the house where Jesus is staying, and knocks on the door. He then greets Jesus with great excitement, saying “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Nicodemus was no doubt sincere, and he probably thought that they’re off to a good start so far.
But no. Jesus’ next words stop him in his tracks. As curious, as hopeful, even as desperate for some answers as Nicodemus is, he still assumes some things about Jesus that he really shouldn’t assume – “Rabbi, we know…” We know who you are. We know what you’re about from the signs you do.
Jesus responds in a way that totally confounds Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew,[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
In other words, the “signs” are not even the half of it. What’s important is what those signs point to.
Nicodemus quite possibly stammered out the question: “But…but…whatever do you mean?”
“Born anew” – that’s the translation from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which we just read. The New Revised Standard Version translates the phrase as “born from above.” But I think the translation that we’re all most familiar with is the one from the King James Version of the Bible: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” No matter how it’s translated – as either “born anew,” “born from above,” or “born again,” that statement is as confusing for us as it was for Nicodemus.
Nicodemus recognizes that being “born again” is a physical impossibility, and he says so. Maybe at this point he even begins to wonder whether his dangerous night walk had even been worth the effort.
And we ask that same question. What does it mean, exactly, to be “born again”?
The American religious scholar J. Gordon Melton, writes: “Born again is a phrase used by many Protestants to describe the phenomenon of gaining faith in Jesus Christ. It is an experience when everything they have been taught as Christians becomes real, and they develop a direct and personal relationship with God.”
When you read that description, who wouldn’t want that kind of relationship? But, unfortunately, this whole concept has some issues.
First, there are those who read this passage and consider being “born again” as they understand it, the one and only true way to be a Christian. The debate that has raged, particularly in Evangelical circles, for a long time is between those who profess to be in one of two camps of heaven-bound persons: Those who believe in Jesus as Savior and those who profess Jesus as Lord.
As it turns out, those in the “Jesus as Savior” group are apparently the ones who’ve got it wrong. David Servant, in an article on his website with the title “Is It Biblical to ‘Accept Jesus As Your Savior’?”, quotes a writer named Bernie Koerselman, who tells us that, in the entire New Testament, Jesus as mentioned as “Savior” exactly 15 times, whereas he is mentioned as “Lord” over 600 times. Eighteen – two-thirds – of the books in the New Testament do not refer to Jesus as “Savior” even once. Moreover, “[t]wo of the four Gospels don’t; neither does Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude or Revelation.” Koerselman’s point is not whether or not Jesus is our Savior (he is), but rather that, as he writes, “Is it conceivable that if salvation could be found by accepting (or believing or receiving or having faith in) Jesus as Savior only, would God have omitted that particular title of Jesus from most of the New Testament?” and his conclusion is no. He states that “Scripture requires those who would be saved to receive Jesus as their Lord.” Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it so well: “Therefore…no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (from I Corinthians 12:3). A personal relationship follows from this affirmation; it does not precede it, and it is by no means superior to it.
Now, the United Church of Christ is not, by and large, an Evangelical denomination (although, of course, the minute you make any kind of blanket statement about the UCC, you find out that you’re wrong); nonetheless, the two terms “born again” and accepting Jesus as your “personal Lord and Savior” nowadays seem to go hand in hand. The second term regarding Jesus as our Lord and Savior, in particular, is a sort of “formula of faith” that every one of us has heard before, and we will hear it again – sort of – in a few weeks when Mary and Logan are confirmed. They will answer the following question found on page 149 of our Book of Worship: “Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?”
Note, however, that the word “personal” is not part of that question. That is significant; the notion of accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior is not found in the New Testament itself, and would have been, in fact, an utterly foreign concept to 1st-Century people in the Mediterranean world. Our self-understanding as autonomous individuals is one that is really only a few centuries old and is a particularly Western concept. One writer on the Patheos Christian Portal website says: “Bible readers today should recognize that ancient Mediterranean believers had zero comprehension of individualism. Therefore, neither Jesus nor any character or author of Scripture should ever be imagined as individualistic or personal the ways we are.
“No ancient disciple or Christian would understand Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Neither first century nor fourth century Mediterraneans would see that because they simply could not do so. While typically Americans do experience a personal, individualistic, self-concerned focus in human life, first century Mediterraneans were unaware of anything like that…Even today, throughout the 21st century Mediterranean region, U.S. individualism is foreign, completely alien as a way of being human. Scholar Bruce Malina concludes, ‘If this is true today, it certainly was true of the past.’”
This “personal Savior” point of view would also have been foreign to Reformers, like Martin Luther, who made the phrase “the priesthood of all believers” a central foundational concept of Protestantism.
So where does that leave us? Clearly, we can’t go back to the 1st Century, and I, for one, really like our modern individualistic and autonomous world view.
What we can do is, first of all, do our best to respect the texts we read by not placing our own preconceptions on them. That by itself is a massive effort. Another thing we might do is attempt to change our understanding and realize that the important thing is not that we accept Jesus as our Savior but that he accepts us.
The key – really – for this morning is that majestic affirmation at the end of this morning’s passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
In this time of Lent, it is important for us to remember just who and whose we are and just who is in the driver’s seat of our lives!
In the Name of God, the
Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.
 Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Dr. Eli, “Who was Nicodemus? (John 3:1-8),” http://jewishstudies.eteacherbiblical.com/john-3-1-8-who-was-nicodemus-2/
 Barclay, William, The Gospel of John, Vol. One, The New Daily Study Bible, Lexington, Kentucky, Westminster John Know Press, 2001, p. 145
 Melton, J. Gordon, quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_again
 Koerselman, Bernie, quoted in “Is It Biblical to ‘Accept Jesus As Your Savior?’”, https://www.davidservant.com/2005_05/
 “Fellow Dying Inmate,” “Messy Inspirations,” Patheos Christian Portal, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/messyinspirations/2020/03/personal-savior-lord-jesus-unbiblical/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm_content=57