3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God."
In John 3 Jesus speaks with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Ruling Council. No doubt a very smart leader, one who garnered respect. The Jewish Ruling Council was both a ruling council and a court. It contained Pharisees and Sadducees, experts in the Law. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, probably to avoid being seen with the controversial, Jesus.
Interestingly, Nicodemus calls Jesus, Rabbi. And, he says we know you are a teacher sent from God. Apparently, there were other leaders who recognized the authority of Jesus as well. Nicodemus seems to understand that Jesus has an authority that differs from his own authority as a teacher. Nicodemus has authority that comes from years and years of training and learning. Most of us are familiar with the credentials that men such as Nicodemus carried, but, the miracles that Jesus had already performed, demonstrated that His authority was different – it came from God.
Jesus’ reply is baffling at first. He says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
I have heard this passage wrestled with over and over again over the years. What does this mean? I have felt the same sense of bewilderment as Nicodemus. But, I then thought back to three significant days in my life.
July 31, 2000
July 4, 2002
December 19, 2004
The days that each of our three children were born.
I love the analogy that Jesus uses here – pregnancy and birth. I don’t want to lose the adoptive parents here or the non-parents here, in fact it’s even more significant to me that Jesus uses this analogy as a non-parent and a male. I just think we have to dive into pregnancy and birth to get the message that Jesus is sharing about the Kingdom.
When I was pregnant, I spent a lot of time thinking about the babies that were growing inside of me. I wondered what they would look like. I wondered if they were healthy. I wondered what gender they would be. I read books, lots of them. I had several different memberships to sites that would tell me what was happening with each one at that point in the pregnancy. When the book said at this point your baby can hear, we started playing music and talking to the baby bump. It was all part of that, mostly joyous, expectation that comes from waiting for a new life.
The ultrasounds were big events, exciting, they gave us a glimpse of what life was like for that little one developing inside of me. We got to see images of the baby…..and the womb. BUT, it wasn’t till this last week that I really thought about how, well, limited the womb is. Now, don’t get me wrong, the womb is a miraculous thing, but it also has its limitations. 40 weeks, sometimes fewer, sometimes more, but 40ish weeks of being in the womb, a small, cramped, but efficient space. There are exceptions, but I think this narrative asks us to reflect on the relative safety, warmth, protection, and limitations, of the womb. It brings us into the world of the developing baby, into the womb. It’s an interesting thing to consider.
Then, birth, and a whole new world full of light, sound, images. Kind of overwhelming. I think this is the picture that Jesus is painting, we cannot see the Kingdom of God, unless we leave the limited space of the womb and experience birth. We have to leave the small and limited life of the womb. This is not easy, the womb as I believe Jesus is characterizing it, is safe and simple. Birth and the world that follow are not. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the life he has been living is a womb life, his faith, the one he has committed his life to and studied so intently, is a womb faith. It is limited. His understanding of the Kingdom of God is limited. Tough words for Jesus to share and I bet even tougher for a Teacher of the Law to hear.
Following Jesus requires that we hear messages such as this. It also requires that we leave one world, for another. Jesus spoke of seeing the Kingdom of God and entering the Kingdom of God - just as a child at birth sees and enters the world outside the womb. Jesus is not talking about re-entering the womb, but about entering the Kingdom and eternal life.
In verses 10-15, Jesus mentions the snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness and likens it to the Son of Man also being lifted up. This is a story that Nicodemus would have known well as a Teacher of the Law, it is found in Numbers 21. As the Israelites were headed out of Egypt they got impatient and started to complain against God and Moses, so God sent snakes among them, many people were bitten, and died. They realized their sin and asked Moses to pray for God to take them away. So Moses prayed for the people. And, God said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
Interesting reference. Another crazy snake story. The bitten Israelites were saved when they looked up to the bronze snake and Jesus compares this to the time when He will also be lifted up. He says that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. Jesus is not like the poisonous snakes sent to punish, but the bronze snake, given to save. Leaving the womb life and womb faith and its limitations, seeing and entering the Kingdom, means being born of the Spirit and believing in Him who is lifted up.
In verse 19 Jesus wraps it up, He says, “19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
It seems significant that Jesus issues a verdict; that he uses law terminology with a Teacher of the Law, a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, someone very familiar with the law and the court system. Almost as if to say, you don’t understand this birth analogy, perhaps not even the snake story, try this on for size, this is the verdict.....you love the womb. You love darkness instead of light. You are afraid of the light because of your evil deeds. This is just a guess on my part, but I think that you didn’t reach Nicodemus’ status without succumbing to evil of some kind. Climbing the religous and political ladder probably meant that he left some dark rungs along the way. The message, if you want to see the Kingdom, if you want to enter the Kingdom, you must leave that darkness, live by the truth, and come into the light. Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that He knows what is keeping him in the womb. Nicodemus was good at the life he was living, but he seems to be searching for something more. Jesus shares the Good News, that there is more, there is new life in the Kingdom. But first, he must leave the womb, enter the light, be exposed.
As I reflect on Nicodemus and my own attachment to the womb, I am left to wonder what bright and brilliant Kingdom truths and experiences I am missing. Jesus spent the next three years giving the world glimpses of the Kingdom. God’s kingdom is rooted in radical hospitality, I prefer the safety and comfort of the womb. God’s kingdom is rooted in sacrifice, I prefer the ease and self-sufficiency of the womb. God's Kingdom requires transparency and exposure, I prefer the anonymity of the womb. In John, Jesus shows us the harsh and glorious beauty of the Kingdom of God as He walks in the Spirit, with the people that God loves. Jesus tells Nicodemus, Jesus tell us, that He wants us to experience it, to participate in it, but we must leave the womb and be born of the Spirit to do so.
Jesus asks us to consider what things are keeping us in the womb? To consider what things we are afraid of having exposed to the light? Jesus asks us to consider whether or not we have a womb faith? The question is clear - are we living a womb life?
The womb is good. The Kingdom is better. Which will we choose?
*Please note that I realize that not all pregnancy and birth stories have good and happy endings. I know these issues are difficult and mean no disrespect or harm to those who have experienced pain in this realm.