Nicodemus is Puzzled by Jesus
The evening had not got at all how Nicodemus had expected or wanted. He had come to Jesus looking for clarity. He wanted to get from the pious Galilean, of whom the ordinary folk seem so enthused and excited, and whose words seemed to impress even a few of the learned, some sort of an explanation. Nicodemus had come across the city, in darkness, to Jesus’ lodgings, hoping to avoid the notice of his friends among the council or his enemies. He told himself it was to allow himself to give Jesus a fair hearing without the prejudices of those other voices. But the truth was he was afraid of the embarrassment or the risk that being seen to associate with so controversial a figure might put him in. Since Jesus had caused that disturbance in the temple, driving away the money changers, interrupting the supply of animals for the sacrifice. For a whole day he had brought to a stop to the connection between the people and God which the temple provided. Since that near riot few of the people that Nicodemus knew were prepared to give Jesus the time of day. How could this man, they asked, how could this man speak for God or even about God when he showed such contempt for the temple and God’s anointed priesthood who run it? Though Nicodemus wasn’t so sure. Many of the priests he knew were contemptible. And the Temple was seldom the place where he felt connected to God. Nicodemus wanted to be able sit on the fence a little longer, at least not be against Jesus just yet. He wanted to listen some more, but not commit himself openly either, if he didn’t have to.
But as the evening wore on and as Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus again and again, who he was, what he was doing, Nicodemus continued to struggle. Each time Jesus’ words and the thoughts behind them were becoming clear Jesus’ words seemed slippery and their meaning escaped him and Nicodemus was plunged into doubt again:
“No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above,”
said Jesus. Or did he mean “again.” How can anyone be born after having grown old? Nicodemus spoke his thought out loud. The words had slipped out before he could hold his tongue. And Jesus had dismissed Nicodemus’ qualification to teach the nation as a consequence. Nicodemus had listened mostly in gloomy silence since then. No, the evening was not going the way Nicodemus had wanted.
Now Jesus seems almost to have lost sight of Nicodemus sitting beside him at table. The empty dishes from their long finished meal are still in front of them. Jesus has warmed to to his theme. His words spin out, as if he were addressing the whole world and not just his dinner companion.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Of course Nicodemus knows the story. A moment in their people’s history. Long ago as they wandered through the desert, and they grumbled. No one could grumble like an Israelite. They had grumbled against Moses and against God. But grumbling never makes anything better only worse. Their exaggeration that they were “literally” dying of hunger and thirst out in this desert suddenly became literally true. As if their words had come back to bite them their camp was filled with poisonous snakes and they really were dying! But God provided an answer, a way for the people to live. Moses erected a cast bronze snake on a pole at the centre of the camp. Whenever anyone was bitten by one of the real poisonous snakes all they had to do was trust in the sign that was given, look toward the bronze snake and they would live. The poison that had entered their lives would be taken from them. It was a story that had always puzzled Nicodemus. One moment God absolutely prohibited the making of images of any of the beasts of the earth. The next minute God was commanding it, as a sign of his power to save!
Nicodemus also knows that this story from their history had also become a metaphor for the real content of their religion. A word picture for the relationship which God intended between himself and his people, a relationship of trust. God’s people are meant to believe and trust in God’s power to save. Their religion is only meant to be a sign of that trust. The commandments, the temple are not ends in themselves. They have no meaning of their own. What could killing animals or never wearing clothes made of linen and wool actually mean? Nicodemus knows this. The point is trusting God and acting on what God has spoken. It is about showing that you trust God by accepting the sign which God provides, no matter how obscure, or how arbitrary, or even how contradictory that sign might appear. You look to that bronze snake because God had told you to, and to show God you trust God. You act on what God told you.
Though of course Nicodemus also knows that the bronze snake had been melted down centuries ago, precisely because it proved almost impossible not to turn that kind of sign into an idol. Nicodemus recognises the underlying problem with all religion. It can and it does become an end in itself.
But Nicodemus is also beginning to grasp that what Jesus was saying now, just as he had been saying when he emptied the temple. Jesus is saying that he is the sign which God now offers to the people. He is claiming that somehow he will be lifted up, just as Moses had lifted up the snake, that his name would be the one announced and proclaimed for all to see and hear and to respond to. The implication of Jesus words, Nicodemus thinks, if he is hearing him right, the implication of his words are that he, Jesus, is the Messiah. Jesus is the one to give flesh to God’s words. Jesus is the one to look to and trust to be connected to God. In Jesus the presence of God is so near and so real that he will be called Son of God. And he will be the one to draw all God’s people to him and the one to condemn the wicked and the foreign.
But at the same time in Nicodemus’ mind there is a nagging doubt. The lifting up of the serpent story, the bronze snake on its pole being lifted up where everyone could see, there is only one thing in Nicodemus’ mind that reminded him of that and it was not a good thing. There is only places where sons of men were lifted up on poles like that were on the roads that approach the city and on the hilltops, everywhere visible. That story only reminds him of crucifixion. When the Israelites turned and saw that, all they saw was the overbearing power of Empire. Which is what that sign was intended to do. The Empire’s enemies are powerless. They stretched out on a cross, nailed, immobile, helpless. This is the visible testimony to the Empire’s power to crush and destroy. It is constant reminder that violence, horror and death rule in this world.
What is Jesus saying? Does he say that as Messiah his only exultation, his enthronement as king over God’s people, his proclamation of victory, would be his lifting up on a cross? And that is the sign contradictory and arbitrary as it is, that is the sign that God’s people are to put their trust in? Is Jesus saying that God’s victory over the power of Empire would be accomplished in this contradictory, paradoxical way?
As Jesus continues to speak his words reminded Nicodemus of another troublesome story, even older than the first, the story of Abraham and Isaac.
“. . .gave his only Son. . .”
The words strike a chord with Nicodemus. They remind him that God had commanded Abraham to give his son, his only son, the one whom he loved, Isaac, to give him as a sacrifice to God. It is a story more puzzling even than the story of bronze snake. It is so because the God of Scripture hates only one thing more than idols, and that is human sacrifice! This story had resonated all the more with Nicodemus since the time he had first become a parent himself, and he had first felt the powerful attachment of love for his children, and the great cost that love might demand of him at any moment, and the hole that could be torn in his soul should he lose what he loved so much. But Jesus seems to turn that story around:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It is God who loves. It is God who suffers that pain of love and loss. God, not Abraham, nor Nicodemus nor anyone else, God is the one to pay the price. That horrifying sign of a crucified and dying Messiah is the sign of God’s love toward the world. It is the sign of just how high a price God is prepared to pay for love of his world. It is the cost to God of providing a sign that all people can look to and have life, that life which Nicodemus longs for himself, the life lived in contact with God, transformed by a relationship with God. The life which stretches out from this present moment and on for ever into the hereafter in the everlasting presence of God. Nicodemus senses Jesus’ call, “Turn and look, just as the Israelites did in the desert, turn and look to the sign God provides and live that life.” This is what Jesus saying he and his death will be! Now Nicodemus sees that is what God does. And as Jesus says it: What God does in him. What God does is love not judgement. God does not condemn the world.
But if all that Jesus says and implies is true then the world condemns itself! When the world’s deeds come to light, the world will stand condemned for them. What greater condemnation could there be than that the world killed God’s messiah? That God came to his own and they did not recognise him? That they refused and rejected and killed him?
“The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
Nicodemus now understands that Jesus presents a crisis of judgement. The choice is before him and before all people. Just as it had always been before God’s people. Trust God and live in relationship with him or perish. Turn to the sign which God provides: be that the Law, or a bronze snake, or the terrifying word in your heart that calls you to sacrifice your children, turn to God trusting that God has the power to save and will provide. Jesus now says: I am the sign. Turn to me and live!
Nicodemus recalls that when he came his was a deed done in darkness. He came under the cover of night. As he steps out of the house after his night in conference with Jesus the dawn is already breaking over the city. His return journey will be in daylight, in plain sight. The certainty is growing in Nicodemus that Jesus is claiming to be the one sent by God to give to any who put their trust in him as God’s sign, that life in all its fullness, life in God’s presence, a quality of living that begins now and goes on into eternity. A choice is being offered, a choice to carry on hiding in the darkness, attempting to remain hidden, fearful of both God and of what other humans can do, or to step out into the light and live in relationship with God through the one God sends, Jesus. A choice which Nicodemus must make and which stands before us all.
Nicodemus Is Puzzled By Jesus by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0