The first twenty one verses of Chapter 3 contain the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus and a discourse of Jesus. The text of today contains the dialogue.
The first verse introduces Nicodemus as a Pharisee and leader of the Jews. While on the one hand, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and indicates a desire to seek and find, on the other hand, he comes at night. Night, in the Gospel of John, is used in opposition to light and represents separation from the presence of God.
Nicodemus begins the dialogue by making a statement about Jesus’ identity. In addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” (Teacher) he acknowledges Jesus right to teach. He goes even further in acknowledging that Jesus is God’s emissary. However, this affirmation is based on the signs that he has witnessed and Jesus does not entrust himself to those whose faith is based on signs. Nicodemus does not realize that what he has says about the origins of Jesus has a much deeper meaning than the one he means. Jesus is not merely an emissary of God, but has his origin in God. The “we’ of Nicodemus is to indicate that he does not speak for himself alone, but for the community that he represents.
Jesus does not respond directly to Nicodemus’s acknowledgement of him, but challenges him with a teaching of depth. Jesus’ used of the Greek word “anothen” is a classic case of double meaning with which the Gospel of John abounds. In this technique, Jesus uses a word which can have two meanings. The listener always picks the base or literal meaning while Jesus means the deeper meaning. “Anothen” can mean “from above” or “again”. By use of this word, Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move from the base or surface meaning to the deeper meaning and understanding. Nicodemus does not make this move and interprets the word at its surface level. Thus, he sets limits on what is and is not possible. He questions the possibility of a person entering his/her mother’s womb since he interprets “to be born anothen” to mean “to be born again”. Jesus, however, speaks of a radical new birth from above.
To explain further what he means, Jesus uses another set of images; “water and the spirit”. This is an indication that, while on the one hand, entry into the kingdom will require physical birth, through water, it will also require more. It will require a spiritual birth, by the spirit. Entry into the kingdom will require being born from above or by water and the spirit. Like the wind/spirit which blows where it wills and can be felt and heard but not seen, so is birth by the spirit a mystery that cannot be comprehended fully by finite minds.
There are two related points that this text invites us to reflect on. The first of these is the attitude of Nicodemus when he comes to Jesus. His opening “We know” is already an indication that he has come with preconceived notions and not with openness. It also indicates that he is of the opinion that he does not need to learn anything. This is a dangerous attitude for one to have. Learning never ends. While books, experiences, and the like teach us a number of things, there are many things that we still do not know. We need to realize this and, with this realization, must come an openness and desire to learn.
The second and related point is the questions that Nicodemus asks. His closed attitude prompts him to set limits on what God can and cannot do and his “we know’ soon takes the form of “How can”. He is unwillingly to let God be God. His categories are all well defined and no amount of explanation will break through them. Sadly, he starts with “How can’ and ends with the same words.