Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God… “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
John 3:1–2, 9
It’s easy for all of us to misunderstand Jesus, perhaps especially those of us who have been Christians for a long time. In such situations, what is sometimes required is a challenge, perhaps even a complete overhaul of what we thought we knew. This is what we can learn from Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus.
Nicodemus was a leading figure in the Jewish community, and his confidence in his religious qualifications might be reflected in his opening words to Jesus: ‘Rabbi, we know…’ Nicodemus approaches Jesus and begins not by asking a question but by making an assertion. He doesn’t give Jesus an opportunity to explain or identify himself. And perhaps therein lies the problem.
No matter how honouring a title ‘rabbi’ might be, Nicodemus’s understanding of Jesus is only partially correct. It’s not enough, and Jesus is more than that. So, in the conversation that follows, Jesus confronts and challenges Nicodemus not to rely on his own intellectual faculties or former experiences for discerning Jesus’ significance. Nicodemus begins confident but leaves confounded. The last we hear of him is his exasperated, ‘How can this be?’
I wonder whether we, too, are prone to limiting our understanding of Jesus to what we already know. Though not wrong to build upon a foundation of prior knowledge and experience, we might also need correction. Sometimes this correction can present itself as a challenge, so that we also cry out, ‘How can this be?’
Yet in our exasperation we are presented with an opportunity: an opportunity for our knowledge of God to deepen and expand. Though initially baffled and perplexed, Nicodemus embraces this opportunity. We can trace his journey as John’s Gospel proceeds: he seems to have learnt his lesson when he defends Jesus in front of his peers (John 7), and later he honours Jesus at lavish expense when assisting in his burial (John 19).
We too can embrace the opportunity. Whoever and wherever we are, however busy or relaxed, comfortable or trying our lives might be, there is always more of God to discover and enjoy as we encounter him each day. If you feel at all like Nicodemus, like your understanding of God has become too constrained and your relationship with him too static, then why not pray that God would send the wind of his Spirit to birth in you something new?
Alex is a student at Durham University, and soon to begin graduate study in New Testament at Oxford. He blogs at The Coffeehouse Cleric.