Jesus and Nicodemus—Spiritual Direction or Verbal Sparring? John 3:1-21

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 7

by Reta Halteman Finger

"Jesus and Nicodemus" by William Brassey Hole
“Jesus and Nicodemus” by artist William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

At first I like Nicodemus. He seems like an introvert who wants to talk about important subjects with just one person at a time, not a crowd. And he knows enough about Israel’s ancient prophets to imagine that, like Jesus, Jeremiah or Amos might just as easily have blown up at the corrupting commerce on the Temple Mount (2:13-16—see Lesson 5).

It’s an almost-romantic picture—two earnest young men sitting under a dome of blazing stars and speaking of the deep things of God. Nicodemus’s first line even echoes the prologue of this Gospel—Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God” (3:2). Is he buttering up Jesus for his own purposes? Or is he a genuine seeker?

Men play with feminine images of birth

We soon find out, as Jesus cuts to the quick. “No one can see the spiritual realm where God lives without being born anothen” (3:3). The Greek word is deliberately ambiguous, meaning either “from above” or “again.” Nicodemus prefers the second and earthy interpretation. “How can one be born after having grown up? Can one enter a second time into one’s mother’s womb and be born again?” (3:4).

At this point, we suspect that this conversation is not between kindred spirits on the same mystic search for God. Rather, it is the classic power play between two males who each want to win the verbal match. Anthropologists call it “challenge and riposte.” Nicodemus has first thrown down the gauntlet in verse 2: “We know you come from God—now prove it!” Jesus teasingly responds with the above double entendre. Nicodemus may not be as dumb as he sounds. He may be egging Jesus on to say something even more bizarre than a grown man emerging from a woman’s womb. Then he can go back to his Pharisee cohort and tell them that this fellow’s “signs” (2:11, 18, 23; 3:2) are all pointing in the wrong direction, and he should be put out of business.

But Jesus rises to the challenge by seriously pursuing the image of birth. “One must be born of water and spirit” (verse 5), he says. Does he mean the water of baptism? Perhaps baptism symbolizes the amniotic fluid that breaks out from the womb of our Mother Spirit, as the believer is born “from above.”

What is born of the flesh is flesh

This reminds me of the Franciscan mystic, Richard Rohr, who writes about “the second half of life.” As all normal human beings, we must meet the hurdles and challenges of the first half: education, adolescence, making a living, marriage and children for most, and so on. But many never go beyond this stage—what Jesus calls “being born of the flesh”—to the deeper search and the surrender to birth by Spirit.

Nicodemus appears to be born only of the flesh. “How can these things be?” he finally asks in what sounds like puzzled amazement (3:9). And Jesus wins the challenge-and-riposte game with a final mocking jab: “Are you a teacher in Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10).

That’s the end of the dialogue. Verses 11-21 shift to a soliloquy where Jesus tells the reader what he’d like to say to Nicodemus if he could only understand it. But at some point Nick slinks off into the night, another would-be male disciple (among many in all four Gospels) who “just doesn’t get it.” Is he one of those who “love darkness rather than light” in verse 19? We don’t know.

The Above and the Below

This entire passage is a good example of why the Fourth Gospel was the last Gospel to be accepted for reading in church in the 2nd century. To some orthodox leaders, its dualism seemed a shade too Gnostic. By then, Gnostic Christians believed that all physical matter and life was evil, and the god of the Old Testament who created it was not the god of Jesus Christ. Rather, Christians should transcend the flesh by means of mystical experience. This worldview is radically dualistic regarding matter and spirit.

John’s Gospel is also dualistic in terms of belief or unbelief in Jesus as Word-become-flesh (3:17-18). But the physical, created world is never seen as evil. Rather, many aspects of our earthly life point the seeker to spiritual reality. A mother’s experience of the miracle of her child’s birth illustrates the action of Mother Sophia-Spirit giving us birth anothen—from above. We cannot control the wind; likewise we cannot control the Spirit moving among us.

Verse 13 reiterates a theme that pervades this Gospel—the Descent and Ascent of the Word (see Lesson 1 in this series). Here Jesus calls himself (literally, in Greek) “son of anthrōpou—humanity.” We would better translate it “the Human One,” since “son of man” is a Hebraic phrase identifying a human being (see Ezekiel 2:1, 3:1, etc.).  To see Jesus as the Human One who comes from heaven and will return there is to wed forever the physical world and our humanity with the spiritual realm where the unseen God dwells.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

1. Considering Jesus as a spiritual director (from the previous lesson), how would you evaluate his session with Nicodemus?

2. Nicodemus cannot comprehend, but can you? If so, how would you characterize your experience of being “born from above”?

3. Why and how do you think this private conversation was included in this narrative?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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