“Now this was an exciting day!” John of Bethsaida said to his brother James and to Andrew and Rock, who stood nearby. The sun had set, and they and the rest of the disciples were watching Jesus as he talked with a mother and her child, whose leg injury Jesus had just healed.
Jesus and his followers had been in the wide courtyard of the temple for almost six hours. The Teacher had taught a large crowd, mesmerizing them with His stories about the kingdom of God. Then to everyone’s surprise, He invited all who wished to be healed to come forward. It was amazing how many aches, pains, and sicknesses there were in the crowd. The most impressive healing was the workman who had lost three of his fingers several years ago. Jesus talked to him for a few minutes, then asked him to stretch out his hand, and when he did, three new fingers just sprouted right out.
It was all very wonderful, but it had been a long day, and the disciples were ready to go back to their camp and get something to eat.
“It’s been exciting all right,” Judas of Kerioth, who was standing beside John and the others, answered, “but I think the Teacher could do all this much more efficiently. Maybe He could do more group healings rather than spend so much time with each individual. You should talk to Him about that, Rock.”
Rock nodded his head in agreement, but just then they saw the mother and child walking away, and Jesus turned to the disciples. As their master led them down the darkening street and out the gate to the Mount of Olives, none of them noticed a small figure, darting from shadow to shadow, following them.
“There’s no doubt, Joseph,” the robed Pharisee said as he paced back and forth in the spacious living room of the large, nicely furnished home, “He’s actually performing miracles! Several of my students watched Him this afternoon.”
“Then the reports we’ve been hearing are true!” Joseph of Arimathea answered. “You know what that means, don’t you, Nicodemus?”
“It means a lot of things,” the first Pharisee returned. “First of all, it means trouble. You heard how angry the chief priests were when they told the Sanhedrin about this Nazarene running all the merchants and money changers out of the temple.”
“I was so excited when I heard that He did that,” Joseph said with a grin, “but I didn’t dare show it.”
“A lot of us knew it had needed to be done,” Nicodemus answered, “but nobody had the courage to face the wrath of Annas or Caiaphas. Justified as it may have been, this Jesus character has made enemies of the priestly party.”
“But, Nicodemus, if He’s actually performing these miracles we’ve been hearing about, that means God is with Him. He’s not a faker like so many of the others.”
“And if God is with Him to do the miracles,” Nicodemus added, “that means His words are coming from God as well!”
“They have to be,” Joseph agreed, “otherwise God wouldn’t give Him the power to work the miracles! We’ve got to talk with Him!”
“I have implemented a plan to do just that,” Nicodemus returned, “but I think I should go alone. If two members of the Sanhedrin show up on His doorstep, He’s liable to be suspicious and guarded. Also, I’m not ready for my students to know I’ve talked with this new teacher yet…not until I’ve found out what He’s actually teaching. The Sanhedrin doesn’t know I’m doing this either. If they did, it might cause trouble for both of us. You stay here, and I’ll give you a full report when I get back.”
“You’re going tonight?”
“That’s my plan.”
“Well, if I can’t go, I want you to ask this teacher from God a question for me,” Joseph said with a gleam in his eye. “I don’t know of anyone who keeps the Law of Moses better than you and me. Our high position in the kingdom of God is assured, but Simeon of Emmaus and Abijah of Lydda are both well known for diligence in keeping the Law as well. I really want a higher place than either of them, so ask Jesus what else you and I can do to move up to the best positions in the kingdom of God.
“By the way, how are you going to find out where Jesus is staying?”
Nicodemus smiled at this question. “I have hired a spy.”
At that moment one of Nicodemus’s servants stepped in. “Excuse me, master, but there is a lad at your door named Benjamin who says he has some information for you.”
The Garden of Gethsemane was illuminated by a three-quarter moon that was only dimmed by occasional wispy clouds. Jesus and his followers had finished their meal, and the Teacher was explaining some of the parables He had told earlier in the day when a robed figure joined them. Rock saw him first and quickly leaped to his feet to confront the stranger.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” The big fisherman tried to sound as intimidating as he could.
“My name is Nicodemus, my good man. I am a teacher, and I have come to ask your master a few questions, if He would grant me the time.”
“Wait!” Judas exclaimed. “Are you the Nicodemus who is a member of the Sanhedrin?”
“I am,” the stranger returned unpretentiously.
Quickly shoving Rock out of the way, Judas bowed before their guest. “A thousand pardons, master!” he fawned. “Please forgive my companion’s ignorance! We didn’t know we had such a notable visitor.”
Turning to the others, Judas introduced the man. “My friends, this is Teacher Nicodemus, the most respected and sought after instructor in all of Israel!
“Teacher Nicodemus, may I introduce you to our master, Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus stood to greet the newcomer. “You are welcome here,” He said. “You have questions?”
“Yes, I do,” the Pharisee answered eagerly. “A friend and I have been very curious about something, but before I ask it, let me just say that we know that you are a teacher who has come from God because no one could do the miracles you do unless God is with him.”
Ignoring the intended compliment, Jesus looked straight into his eyes and answered the question that Nicodemus had not gotten around to asking yet. “I am telling you the truth—the absolute truth. Unless a person is born a second time, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus was stunned! The teacher seemed to already know that he had been going to ask Joseph’s question, but His answer was that they would never even see the kingdom unless…what did He say? Something ridiculous about being born again. Even in the moonlight the confusion and irritation showed on the Pharisee’s face.
“How can a grown man be born over again?” Nicodemus snapped. This was not the answer he expected. “It’s preposterous! He cannot go back into his mother’s womb and be born all over again, can he?”
The Teacher come from God looked confidently into the soul of the teacher come from Jerusalem and answered, “I’m telling you the truth—the absolute truth. You must be born of water, and you must be born of the Spirit, otherwise you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus, famous for his great learning, was thoroughly confused and at a loss for words. He was convinced Jesus was speaking God’s words, but they were words that shook him to the core. Not only were he and Joseph not possessors of great positions in God’s kingdom, but they could never even enter it unless they somehow could be born all over again into new people.
His thoughts were interrupted as Jesus spoke again. “Your parents, who were made of flesh, gave birth to a child, who was made of flesh. Whatever the flesh gives birth to is fleshly.” As Jesus said this, He put His hand on the Pharisee’s arm. “On the other hand, whatever the Spirit gives birth to is spiritual. If a person wants to become a child of God, that is a spiritual thing, and the only way that can happen is if they are born of the Spirit. Don’t be amazed that I said you must be born a second time.”
As Nicodemus struggled with these life changing ideas, a breeze picked up, shaking the limbs of the olive trees in the garden around them. The troubled teacher noticed and felt that his life was being shaken as well.
Jesus understood the Pharisee’s thoughts. “This spiritual birth I’m teaching you about, Nicodemus,” Jesus said again, “is just like the wind blowing through these trees. The wind blows anywhere it wants to. You hear the sound of it, and you see its effects, but there is a lot you can’t know about the wind. You don’t know where it comes from, you don’t know where it’s going, and you can’t control it, but you accept that and are content to let the wind do its work. That’s the way it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Once again Nicodemus was stunned! In the few moments he had been speaking with Jesus, his entire life had been turned upside down. If the Teacher was right, everything that he and Joseph had worked so hard to achieve was for nothing. How was he to explain all this to his friend? He didn’t even understand it himself. “H…how can these things be?” were the only words that would come from his lips.
“Are you THE Teacher of Israel,” Jesus asked, “and yet you can’t understand these things? I’m telling you the truth—the absolute truth. John the Baptizer and I speak about what we know, and we bear witness about what we have seen, but you and your companions do not accept what we say.”
Jesus placed his hand on the confused scholar’s shoulder and said, “If I have told you things about this earthly life and you don’t believe me, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up into heaven to get these truths, but God has sent the Son of Man down from heaven to reveal these things.
“My Father in heaven loves you, Nicodemus, but no more than He loves the whole world. In fact, God loves the world so much that He gave His Son…the only one He has…to come into the world, so that anyone who believes in the Son would not perish but instead would have everlasting life.”
“But…but what about those who have not kept the Law of Moses?” the Pharisee asked almost desperately.
“No one has kept it like My Father wants it kept,” Jesus answered. “The Law was never meant to save man, but rather to reveal to man his sins. If salvation was about keeping the Law, then the Father would have sent His Son to judge the world. But that’s not why He was sent. God sent His son to save the world.
“Here’s some judgment for you, Nicodemus,” Jesus continued. “Light has come into the world, but because the hearts of men are evil, they love the darkness rather than the light. They actually hate God’s light and won’t come to it because they don’t want their evil deeds exposed. But the person who hears the truth—the absolute truth, come to the light. And do you know what the light does for that person, Nicodemus? The light reveals God’s work in the heart of that person.”
“Did He say anything else?” Joseph of Arimathea asked as he and Nicodemus discussed the meeting sometime later.
“Yes, He did,” Nicodemus returned. “It was rather cryptic, and I’m not yet sure what it means, but I think it was important. He said ‘as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes in Him have eternal life.’”
“I recall the story,” Joseph answered. “It’s from the book of Numbers. Our people sinned greatly by once again grumbling and complaining against God. Their punishment was that poisonous snakes came among them, killing many. God answered their cries for relief, not by removing the serpents, but by having Moses make a bronze snake and hanging it on a pole. Everyone who looked on the image of the serpent lived. What do you think Jesus meant by referencing that story?”
“I’m not sure,” Nicodemus answered. “He said that He was going to be lifted up like Moses’s bronze serpent, but looking at Him is not what saves people. Eternal life is going to come by believing in Him.”
“Believing in Him about what?” his friend asked.
“Joseph,” Nicodemus said seriously, “He said He was the Son of God!”
“Isn’t that blasphemy?” Joseph gasped.
“Not if it’s true,” came the answer. “Remember, Joseph, His miracles prove that He speaks the truth.”
Now it was Joseph’s turn to be stunned. Both friends sat in silence as they tried to grasp the implications of what they had learned.
Finally Joseph spoke again. “I don’t know what to do with all this. My whole life has been about practicing our religion, but He says it’s not about being religious, it’s about letting God’s Spirit somehow change you into a whole new person. He says it’s not about keeping the Law, it’s about believing in this man who says He’s the Son of God. And what about this being born of the Spirit? How does that work? How are we supposed to even know when the Spirit of God is speaking to us?”
Nicodemus looked at his friend and answered, “I think He’s speaking now.”
By Alan W. Harris
(Based on John 3:1-21)