Our world is so aware of status, titles and ranks. We have our rules and regulations how to deal with royalty, celebrities and fame. Mostly we feel we should be well prepared, on our best behavior and in our carefully considered outfit in the presence of celebrated members of society. In many countries where royals still matter, people are honored to meet the revered inhabitants of the palaces, often just once in a lifetime. The ordinary citizens might camp out on the street amongst thousands of others, just for a glimpse of the familiar faces paraded on the litter of modern media.
How then, did one honorary leader of Jewish Jerusalem, meet the Prince of Heaven? It was a royal encounter, no doubt, like so many others in the dust and heat of old Judea. This one was different though. It took place under cover of darkness and in secret, most probably informal around a few eats on the floor of a room somewhere in old Jerusalem.
The retelling of the nightly visit we find in John 3.
Nicodemus must have been a wealthy man. When Jesus died, Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes – a hundred pounds of it. It must have been very expensive (John 19:39). He was a Pharisee. There were never more than 6000, known as the brotherhood. They took a pledge in front of witnesses to spend their life in studying every detail of the Law.
The Law was the most sacred thing in all the world. It was to be found in the first five books of the Old Testament. The Law of God contained everything for good living, and it had to be studied and explained continuously. The Law ruled every possible moment of life. It was developed into many by-laws and regulations for every conceivable situation.
An example of this, was the rules on the Sabbath, when no work was to be done by man or servants or animals. The definition of work was developed over generations. The Mishnah is the codified scribal law and it contained 24 chapters on the Sabbath alone. The Talmud is the explanation (commentary) of the Mishnah. On the subject of the Sabbath the Talmud runs 64 columns of fine print. In the Babylonian Talmud it runs 156 double pages. One rabbi spent more than two years to study one chapter of the 24 of the Mishnah on the Sabbath.
Just a quick example: To tie a rope knot was sin, to tie a woman’s petticoat was legal. If you needed to let the bucket down in the well for water on the Sabbath, you couldn’t tie a rope, but you could tie it to a woman’s underwear – fully legal and pleasing to God in their opinion!!
The Scribes worked out the details; the Pharisees dedicated their lives to live by it. Even in the deception of following the law so strictly, it must have been a special kind of man to dedicate his life to pleasing God. The word Pharisee meant: the separated one and so they lived: separated and away from ordinary life to keep every detail of the Law.
They were usually very certain and very convinced of their chosen life and still Nicodemus wanted to talk to Jesus.
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews and a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a council of seventy leaders (Moses appointed 70 judges to help him rule on the advice of his father in law – Exodus 18) that formed the supreme court of the Jews.
Nicodemus was from a distinguished family; probably part of the family who represented the Jews diplomatically in Rome and from whom came the ambassador to Pompeii.
It is amazing that he would want to talk to Jesus.
He came by night, which could mean that he was cautious to see for himself who Jesus is by talking face to face. It was also customary for the Rabbi’s to study in the night, not to be disturbed. Jesus was surrounded by people during the day. Nicodemus wanted quiet time with him, in private.
He overcame his whole way of living, his prejudices, his upbringing to talk with a man that his circle would see as un upstart trouble-maker. His encounter with Jesus is a miracle of grace.
He was obviously puzzled by Jesus and the hearsay of His preaching. Investigation is good. Do not believe the lies about Jesus and the church without investigating and finding the truth. Jesus will never condemn good research and a questioning mind. Ask the questions in the night and the Holy Spirit will teach you and remind you of Jesus’ words. (John 14:26) His own answer, an encounter in the night, is the one we are still looking for today.
Jesus follows a structure of conversation. He says something to be misunderstood. By this He evokes puzzling questions. Anyone could turn away and say it is nonsense. It is when you stay for the deeper meaning, the explanation, when the light breaks through.
Nicodemus is very impressed by the signs and wonders.
Jesus states that it is not signs and wonders that are important but the changing of a man’s life: rebirth.
Nicodemus cannot imagine a spiritual birth and says it is not possible to be born again physically.
Jesus uses the word:
– anothen, which means from the beginning, totally, radically,
again, the second time,
It is difficult to explain all three these meanings in one English word except born anew. It is such a radical change – a whole new start. It is not a human achievement; it is possible only through the grace and power of God.
Nicodemus understood it literally. He decides this is impossible. Will I ever get an answer to my longing?
Does the word that comes to you in discussion with Jesus make sense? If it doesn’t, there is hindrance. We have need of sitting down and continuing the discussion. Nicodemus wanted change and he knew it is impossible all by himself.
The concept of new birth was embraced by the writers of the New Testament: 1 Peter 1:3,22-23. James 1:18, Titus 3:5, Romans 6:1-11,1 Corinthians 3:1-2, 5:17, Galatians 6:15, Ephesians 4:22-24, Hebrews 5:12-14.
The idea of rebirth was not foreign to the Jews. Becoming a proselyte (a non-Jew converting to the Jewish faith) was something like a new birth. All connections with the past were destroyed.
The mystery religion of the Greeks was based on the suffering, dying and rising of a god. This was played out in a passion play with music and drama in an emotional ritual with incense. It was meant that the worshipper in the drama would become one with his god and suffer with him to be rising with him. To be truly united was to be twice-born, implying complete regeneration. This came through voluntary death, which took place at midnight, when the day dies and is reborn. The first food after the ritual was milk to symbolize a new-born.
The ancient world longed for rebirth and searched for it. Some bathed in ox-blood (taurobolium), to come out of it as reborn. The message of rebirth was exactly what the world was looking for.
Rebirth involves four things: being made new, the kingdom of heaven, to become a child of God and eternal life.
The Kingdom of heaven is the invisible kingdom of God on earth. It is a decision that brings the process about. (Matthew 3:2; 4:17;18:3)
Become like children. Become a citizen.
And the conversation continues…