This morning I will be doing something different in the sermon. I will retell the gospel story from John 3 through the eyes and voice of Nicodemus. Because I don’t normally preach this way, let me explain a few things before we begin.
First, I will say a few things that are fictional. These elements help create a sense of story and drama. But for the most part I will simply follow and quote from the biblical text as found in your Bibles in John 3.
With that in mind, let me provide some background to the person of Nicodemus. From John 3:1 we learn that he’s a man of power and influence. He has achieved success and respect as a religious leader. But he’s lacking something—a personal faith in Jesus and life in the Spirit that comes “from above.” In contrast, at this point in the Gospel of John Jesus is a somewhat obscure but controversial new rabbi who has burst on the scene. Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born from above.
Nicodemus is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 3 he appears as a halfway seeker, someone who is intrigued but confused by Jesus. In chapter 7, Nicodemus steps forward to defend Jesus among his religious leader peers. Then in chapter 19 he takes a surprising risk: he joins a man named Joseph of Arimethea to give Jesus a decent burial. Each time we read about Nicodemus he’s moving closer to Jesus. Based on his commitment to risk almost everything to care for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, I believe that Nicodemus has become a true believer in Jesus.
Assuming that’s true, I’m imagining Nicodemus reflecting on that initial midnight conversation with Jesus in John 3. How did Nicodemus struggle with Jesus’ message? How did Jesus change Nicodemus? And how does Jesus want to change you and me today?
“Where are you going?” my wife asked.
“Out,” I said. “You know how it is with the Pharisees. So many urgent matters.”
She said, “But Nicodemus it’s midnight. What is it? Is it that young troublemaker again? I say, Nicodemus, ever since you heard about that Jesus you have not been yourself. I thought you said he was dangerous.”
“Yes, he is,” I said. “Or, no, he isn’t. I don’t know. I must talk to him myself. Face-to-face.”
She said, “You know he spends time lepers, criminals, outsiders, prostitutes, sinners. You know, those people. They aren’t our people. Be careful, Nicodemus.”
And with that I quietly slipped into the night. It wasn’t hard to find Jesus. There was always a crowd around him—an unsavory crowd, as my wife noted. Simple people who practically fell down and worshipped him.
What about me? I first saw him when he was in our temple with a self-made whip in his hands, acting deranged, knocking over tables, spilling coins on the temple ground, screaming some nonsense about rebuilding our magnificent temple in three days. We all laughed! There was something dangerous about him—but something fascinating too.
So I came to see him, but at night. A man of my stature must guard his reputation. There he was standing around a charcoal fire with his “disciples”—an unlikely bunch for sure! I went right up to Jesus, introduced myself, and started with a compliment. I said, “We know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do the signs that you do and less God is with him.”
He stared at me, the charcoal fire lighting up our faces. There was something about his eyes. What was it? Urgency? Love? Like he had been waiting my whole life to tell me a secret.
Then he spoke. But he completely ignored my compliment. He just said, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
I wanted to have an honest conversation about religious and philosophical ideas. He made it about me—“I say to you!” He might as well have been pointing his finger right into my chest.
“I say to you unless one is born again from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It was so clear, so emphatic, so authoritative. He was young; I was seasoned. He came from the margins; I came from the center of influence. But suddenly I sensed the power shifting to him—the young, untrained rabbi, the outsider.
I was confused and angry. Despite my respectable standing, my religious commitment, my wealth and success, he was basically saying, Nicodemus, you have a serious problem that needs your urgent and immediate attention: you are spiritually dead. You don’t need a few improvements to your life. You need to come to life spiritually. The living God who has come down to save you, restore you, fill you like an empty vessel.
I swear, in less than a minute in our first encounter he was trying to convert me!
I said, “How can a man be born again when he is old? Can he enter second time in his mother’s womb to be born?” Sure, it was sarcastic and cynical. But part of it was serious. I knew our Bible stories about God intervening, doing miracles, breathing new life into a valley dry bones, giving our people a new heart.
But me, a respectable leader, converted, changed, born again? I do my duty. I am a good person. Sometimes I wondered about the deadness inside me. But then I would think, I’ll do better, achieve more, keep doing my duty. Instead, he seemed to be saying, “You must become a whole new man. But it’s not something you do. It’s something that happens from God, from above, from the Holy Spirit.”
Then he said it again: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit and you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Do not marvel that I said to you, you must be born again.”
Jesus was talking about John the Baptist. For a few years this rebel led some kind of fringe religious movement. People came from all over to get baptized in the Jordan River—a few rich folks, but mostly underclass people. I can still see the long line of people waiting to confess their sins out loud and get baptized—sickly men with bandages around their head, old women with canes, young foreign women with their children. All kinds of hopeless cases.
My friends and I went and watched the spectacle. John saw us and yelled, “You brood of vipers. Who told you to come out here?” So, fine, we said. Baptize those simple, irreligious people, but you won’t find us in that line of ragged, crooked humanity.
Suddenly the wind picked up, making the charcoal fire expand and dance. He stared at me again and said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sounds, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
I knew he was inviting me into something I longed for. Something I could not achieve or control with my own efforts, even my best religious efforts. A life beyond mere rule keeping and law keeping. A life in the Spirit. A life of quiet power. But I held back.
I said, “How can these things be?” I really meant much more by that question: Can lives burdened by sadness find joy? Can captives be set free? Can the guilty ever be forgiven? Can lost sons and daughters find their way back to the father’s house? Can our hard and crooked hearts ever be replaced with new and living hearts? Can a valley of dry bones put on flesh and come to life again? Can God bring resurrection out of death?
He said, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” He was right this time. At one time I knew the answers—at least I thought I did. But then my heart became dead inside and I lost my way. But now in his presence something was stirring again: Is this the promised one? Is this the one our God promised would be the YES to all these haunting midnight questions?
He continued, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the son of man.” I started the conversation by calling him a teacher, Rabbi. He accepted that title, but now he was claiming so much more. He was claiming that he was the only one who has descended from heaven, that he and he alone is the exclusive personal bridge between heaven and earth, between God and human beings.
That was another thing—his claims about himself were so outrageous, arrogant, ludicrous, scandalous, egotistical … unless, of course, they were true.
There was another long pause. But now I knew that there had been a complete reversal. I was no longer the seeker. He was the one seeking me.
Then he said something that made it so utterly clear and simple. I could quote the exact words, but as I think about it now these many years later it went something like this: God is so in love with this crazy world that he had to do something radical. So he sent his only son, ME, the one who came down, the one who will be hoisted on the cross, to heal and forgive and restore and bring this sick world back to himself. And here’s what he’s looking for from you—believe me. Don’t just believe me and then live your life anyway you want. Believe me like it’s the most important thing you’ve ever believed in your whole life. Trust me with your whole heart. Trust me with your whole will.
At the time, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t believe. I couldn’t believe. But I couldn’t just return to my old life either. So I walked back into the dark.
I didn’t see Jesus for three years. Oh, I sure heard about him. Reports kept coming in—people healed, lives restored, broken hearts mended. He kept saying strange things about himself—the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the Resurrection and the Life.
I’m not sure how it happened, but I started to change. Once the Pharisees called an urgent meeting to discuss Jesus. He was out of control. Too many people were falling for him. Everyone agreed—he was dangerous. Everyone but me, that is. I cautioned patience. I said, “Let’s wait and see.” I shocked even myself: I was actually defending Jesus!
Then a few years later, my friend Joseph came to see me. He looked exhausted and heartbroken.
“Jesus is dead.” He said. “The Romans crucified him last night. You may know, Nicodemus, I believed him. I pledged my life to him, but secretly because I’m afraid of people like you. Come with me. Help me bury his body.”
I hesitated, but then I went with Joseph. I was ready to believe, to commit my life, to risk everything now. No more wavering. I was ready to be born again.
I am not a man who weeps, but when I risked my reputation and career to help take Jesus down from the cross, his body wracked with pain and agony, I wept in despair. I remembered his words from three years earlier about being hoisted up on a cross. Now it all made sense. His greatest defeat was his greatest glory. But it was also too late for me. It was too late for me. But then when I met Jesus again after the Resurrection—alive, in glory, fully restored—I wept again—for joy this time. Someday I must tell you about that conversation with Jesus—in broad daylight this time.
But it all started with that midnight meeting. I’ll never forget the intensity, the urgency on his face. What will you do, Nicodemus? Will you go along in your own power? Or will you be born from above? Will you let the living God fill you with his Spirit?
For Jesus, my response was a matter of life or death. He acted like it was every person’s ultimate fork in the road. The fork that really matters ... He acted like every human being will have to face him. “Do not marvel that I said to you, you must be born again.”
I know how I had to respond. It was a slow, painful process, but I was willing to give everything for him. How about you? What will you do with Jesus? What will you decide?
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.