In this week’s readings, we return to the scene between Jesus and Nicodemus. This man was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin and, in the very least, sympathetic to Jesus’ cause if not an outright member of the movement (John 7:50-51; 19:39-42). Initially, he simply paid Jesus a compliment: “You are a teacher who has come from God!” Jesus wasn’t content to say “thank you” and move on. He wanted to use the opportunity to teach about both where he was coming from and where he was going.
Jesus pointed out, in effect, that Nicodemus already knew quite a bit about him. After arguing that humans only heard the wind/Spirit but didn’t know where it came from and where it went (John 3:8), Jesus pronounced the maxim that “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen” (11). Remember, Nicodemus began the conversation by announcing that Jesus had come from God because of the clear signs that God was with him. Nicodemus testified based on what he had seen, which led him to claim that Jesus had been sent from God.
Jesus wanted to use the opportunity to teach about both where he was coming from and where he was going.
I believe Nicodemus is unfairly judged based on this conversation. Obviously, he was held in high regard by the Gospel writer. Being born again is a difficult concept to understand, even thousands of years later after its entry into popular thought and language. Christians say “born again,” but it means different things according to which tradition or denomination is speaking. I don’t think that Jesus or Nicodemus were offended by the conversation they had. Their words don’t seem to have ruptured the relationship. After all, Nicodemus stood by Jesus even when his disciples fled (John 19:39).
In this passage, I think Jesus is challenging Nicodemus to feel the weight of his own words. Nicodemus probably didn’t realize how correct he was when he said that Jesus came from God and God was with him. Jesus raised the stakes by saying that he had come to do a greater salvific work than Moses (John 3:14), and that he, himself, would be lifted up in order to save the world.
That was where Jesus was heading, but what can we say about where he was coming from?
Jesus said that no one has gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven (13). That said, God had granted visions of the heavenly throne room from which Jesus came. This week’s passage from Isaiah contains a description of the place where Jesus had been hanging out since before the creation of the world. God is on the royal throne amid the heavenly temple. God’s garments fill the building. Multi-winged flying, flaming serpents hover over God and continually sing praises (Isaiah 6:2-3). Their voices cause the heavenly temple, as robust a building as it must be, to shake (4). This is a terrifying, deeply holy scene. And this was Jesus’ experience for millennia before his advent on earth.
Psalm 29 provides further details. God’s glorious voice thunders over the waters (3) and the throne of the Lord is over the flood (10). Remember that, in many ancient near eastern cosmologies, creation was at least partially a war for control over the waters. That’s why so much of Genesis 1 is about separating waters and establishing boundaries that they cannot transgress. When God wished to unmake the world in the Noah story, it was surrendered back to unordered and undifferentiated water. The fountains of the deep mingled water with rain from the sky (Genesis 7:11). God’s throne is established over the managed forces of watery chaos. But God’s voice also shakes the forests, mountains, sky and desert (Psalm 29:5-9).
In short, God’s overwhelming power is palpable throughout creation at all times! The experience of being in God’s presence is to be surrounded and confronted with overwhelming power. Continually. For thousands of years. This is where Jesus came from.
So, yes, Nicodemus had a lot to learn about what being born again meant. But he also testified to the truth, probably even more so than he realized, when he said that Jesus was sent from God and that God was with him. It remains for us all to meditate on the love and power of God that would send Jesus from a loud, shaking throne room in the heavenly temple, which is barely held together against the manifestation of God’s powerful presence, to be lifted up on a Roman cross to save the world.