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From Doubt to Devotion: Nicodemus' Journey of Faith

Fred Thompson


John 3: 1-17

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

There is a trend among preachers,

particularly lectionary preachers,

to try and find that elusive “fresh perspective” or

“new insight” into the Biblical text.

The more familiar the text,

the more fever-pitched the effort to

say something “new” about it.

Enter John chapter three, verse sixteen:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him

may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther called John 3:16

“the Gospel in a nutshell.”

Good luck trying to add fresh perspective or new insight to that!

But maybe that’s not the point.

For as pervasive as John 3:16 is in our culture—

emblazoned on billboards, bumper stickers,

hats, pillows, professional sport team schedules,

to name a few—

perhaps the preacher’s task in proclaiming this text

is not to find a fresh new metaphor or illustrative story;

…no, maybe the task is simply to

return the focus of the faithful

to the text itself.

Yes, John 3:16 is well-known and oft-quoted,

but how many of us could go on to quote “John 3:17”?

Who among us knows Nicodemus’ backstory by heart?

And if we’re being honest,

how many of us could have identified Nicodemus

as the one to whom Jesus is speaking

in John chapter 3?

While John 3:16 has rightly earned its place

among the most memorable and

hopeful verses in the New Testament,

its larger context here is a powerful witness

to the love of the God we meet in Jesus.

Nicodemus, says John’s Gospel,

was a leader among the Jewish people.

In public, Nicodemus’s loyalties were

clearly devoted to the Jewish establishment.

But in private, Nicodemus had his doubts.

And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of nightfall.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says,

“we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;

for no one can do these signs that you do

apart from the presence of God.”

To put it another way,

Nicodemus saw that Jesus was a good teacher

and a knowledgeable interpreter of Torah,

…but Jesus was also filled with God’s life-giving Spirit,

and Nicodemus wanted that kind of relationship with God, too.

Then, as Jesus so often does,

he says something that utterly astounds everyone:

“Very truly, I tell you,

no one can see the kingdom of God

without being born from above.”

In other words,

glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn’t

a matter of praying a certain way or

believing a certain way or

following a certain set of liturgical customs;

it’s about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!

On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest question

that seems almost laughably quaint and

naïve to our 21st-century ears:

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”

“Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

But, as far off-the-mark as Nicodemus’ question might seem to us,

might it not also demonstrate something important

about the way God tends to work?

Consider, for example, Abraham and Sarah.

God promises them a son.

The ancient scribe matter-of-factly cues us

into the dramatic irony surrounding this promise,

writing flatly,

“It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”.

Upon hearing the absurd promise of a child, Sarah laughs!

Even the name of the promised child—Isaac—means “he laughs.”

And what of Moses?

God speaks to him through a burning bush,

proclaiming that he would be

God’s agent in delivering the Hebrew people.

Moses’ response: “Who, me?

You must have the wrong guy!

I don’t even know your name!”

Perhaps most astonishing of all

is the moment God decided to convert the Apostle Paul.

The Book of Acts recalls

that Paul was “still breathing threats and murder

against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1a)

…when God sent a dazzling bolt of light and

called him to become an apostle.

The same dynamic is at play here with Jesus and Nicodemus.

God is once again working around the edges,

making possible what was long thought impossible.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of nightfall—

John’s code for uncertainty and apprehension.

He’s well aware that Jesus is a capable, insightful teacher,

and he’s demonstrated his knowledge of Torah.

But there’s something else about him,

something Nicodemus can’t quite put his finger on,

so he takes a chance and

asks Jesus about it face-to-face:

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;

for no one can do these signs that you do

apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God,

we have to give our whole selves over to

an entirely different way of being.

We have to be “born from above.”

Jesus is inviting Nicodemus

into a deeper relationship with the Living God,

and what’s Nicodemus’ response?

Is it “Yes! Sign me up! What do I do first?”


He says, “So let me get the mechanics of this straight.

I’m born from my mother, and you’re saying

I have to be born again. That’s impossible!”

We can almost hear Sarah’s laughter

and Moses’ hesitation and

Paul’s seething rippling through the background.

But the truth is,

this happens all the time among people of faith,

doesn’t it?

Jesus says, “Do unto others,”

and we say, “Okay, so long as I know who they are

and get along okay with them.”

Jesus says, “Give your life to the work of the Kingdom,”

and we say,

“How about an annual pledge?”

Jesus says,

“Love one another and forgive one another

as you are loved and forgiven,”

…and we say, “Define love.

Set some ground rules for us around

this whole forgiveness thing.”

And yet, Sarah gave birth to her son anyway,

Moses found the grace to accept God’s call,

Paul put away his old life and

devoted himself to the Risen Christ.

The same is true for Nicodemus.

After he leaves Jesus,

he returns to his position among the Jewish establishment.

His conversion doesn’t happen with a bolt or a flash;

there’s no really memorable story that

gets passed down through the ages.

But deep down, and ever so slightly, something begins to turn.

Nicodemus’ rebirth happens over the course of a long journey,

which began under the cover of darkness

when he took a chance on Jesus.

He was an uncertain, fly-by-night skeptic.

And the truth is,

with the exception of one brief mention in John chapter 7,

we never hear from Nicodemus again—

that is, until the end of John’s Gospel.

And it is here that Nicodemus’ birth from above is laid bare.

As Jesus hangs crucified,

after all of the other disciples had fled for fear of persecution,

there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross,

armed with myrrh and aloes and

the other provisions for Jewish burial,

…ready to bear the broken and lifeless body of

the crucified Lord to its grave.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

but may have eternal life.”

We can never fully know

what Nicodemus was thinking as he

departed Jesus’ company after hearing these words.

But we can be sure that something within him was changed.

And little by little,

his heart was broken open and

he was born anew,

finding his way through darkness and doubt,

to the cross.

During this Lenten season,

we would hope that we meet him and our Lord there.


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