‘IT IS DUSK, AND bats are flitting to and fro in the twilight. After the little group had accompanied the Apostle back through the olive grove to his house earlier in the day, he had been too exhausted to continue dictating his Gospel and had taken to his bed. But now he is feeling refreshed and is about to join his friends in the courtyard where the brazier has been lit and supper has been made ready. There is a light breeze and the leaves of the olive trees can be heard rustling in the silence as John takes his place at the table
‘It was on such a night as this that the “significant encounter” I promised to tell you about happened in Jerusalem,’ says John. ‘Well, not actually in Jerusalem. Once the sun began to set, we usually left the city and went to a quiet place we’d found beyond the eastern walls, across the Kidron brook. It was called the Gethsemane – the Oil Press – and the olive grove there was a good place to sit around a camp fire, have a bite to eat, listen to Jesus, then wrap our robes around us and fall asleep on the ground just where we were.
‘On the night in question, we must all have been asleep for some time, but something woke me – a twig cracking underfoot, I think – and I opened my eyes. A brisk breeze had got up and the fire, not quite out, was glowing as the wind fanned the embers. And I could see Jesus still sitting there, quietly … well, waiting, or so it seemed to me. But before I could sit up and ask him what was happening, there was the sound of someone blundering towards us through the darkness – someone I later found out to be a very important person indeed.’
‘Who was it?’ asks Leandros.
‘It was an elderly man called Nicodemus,’ replies John. ‘Not only a famous teacher but also a wealthy and powerful member of the Sanhedrin and, unusually for a member of the Jewish ruling council, a Pharisee – a meticulous observer of the law and of the countless rules and regulations with which the lawyers had hedged it around. Most of the council’s 71 members were Sadducees.’
‘How did Nicodemus know where to find Jesus?’ asks Barnabas, tearing himself a piece of bread from the loaf on the table.
‘No doubt the Sanhedrin employed spies to keep themselves informed of any trouble-makers in the city,’ says John, ‘and presumably one of them had reported back that he’d seen us leave the city each night and head for the Gethsemane.’
Barnabas dips his bread in the saucer of olive oil. ‘And what did Nicodemus want?’
‘That wasn’t at all clear,’ says John. ‘Jesus looked up at him, gave him a friendly nod, and patted the ground; so Nicodemus sat down, cautiously, right next to him. Then he quietly cleared his throat and said softly – so as not to wake the rest of us, I suppose – “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.”’
‘That was diplomatic,’ comments Ezra.
‘Yes – it was a kind-of, “You and I are on the same side,”’ says Barnabas.
‘Indeed,’ says John, ‘though I got the impression Nicodemus really did mean what he said. However, Jesus’ reply was quite uncompromising; it was a kind-of, “No, actually we’re not on the same side – or not yet, anyway.” What he said was, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”’
‘That’s the amen, amen – the “truly, truly” introduction we talked about yesterday morning,’ notes Barnabas. ‘It shows that Jesus wanted to stress the absolute certainty and truth and vital importance of what he was saying.’
‘But what was he saying,’ asks Leandros. ‘What does it mean to be “born again?” I mean, no one can literally be born again.’
‘That was Nicodemus’s response,’ says John. He said, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Archippus picks up a jug of wine from the table and tops up his own cup and the cups of those around him. ‘That word anothen can, of course, carry two meanings,’ he says. ‘It can mean “again – from the beginning” or it can mean “from above,” that is to say, “from God.” Clearly Nicodemus with his “entering a second time into his mother’s womb” assumed Jesus was using it in the first of those two senses. But was he?’
John picks up his cup, takes a sip from it, then puts it down again. ‘It soon became clear,’ he says, ‘that he was using it in both senses.’
‘How so?’ asks Ezra.
‘Well –’ John turns to the Elder who is writing rapidly on his parchment. ‘And I’d like you to write this bit down exactly as I say it, please – Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”’
‘There’s that amen, amen again,’ says Barnabas, ‘so this is really important stuff. But what does it all mean?’
‘Can we start with “the kingdom of God,” please?’ says Leandros. ‘First, Jesus said you can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again or born from above or both, then he says you can’t enter it without being born of water and the Spirit. What is the kingdom of God?’
‘It is the new order of things, the new creation, a way of life where God is truly king,’ says John. ‘In the old order of things, the self is at the centre; in the new order, God is at the centre. I remember the prayer Jesus once taught us: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven …” Do you see? The kingdom of God comes wherever God’s will – not mine – is done, but for me to truly do God’s will requires that I have a radical new mind-set, a new way of seeing and understanding everything. From the moment I was born, I developed a mind-set that was fundamentally centred on me – my needs, my desires, my hopes, my ambitions. Everything in the world acquired its size and importance and significance relative to me; and in consequence my world view was always unreal, distorted … and very destructive. It’s the same for everyone. It was the same for Nicodemus, and that’s why Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be “born again” and not just born again but “born from above, from God.” Only a rebirth brought about by the Holy Spirit would be radical enough to change the way he saw everything and reacted to everything.’
‘So that’s being “born of the Spirit,”’ says Leandros, ‘but what about the “born of water” bit?’
Ezra clears his throat. ‘It’s a Jewish euphemism for semen,’ he says. ‘Being “born of water” just means “being born by natural means.” That’s right isn’t it, John?’
‘Yes, but there was more to it than that, I believe,’ says the Apostle. ‘You have to bear in mind you see, that John the Baptiser was still, at that time, the talk of Jerusalem. So much so that, as I said earlier, the Jewish council of which Nicodemus was a member had sent a delegation to John to ask him what he thought he was doing – baptising people in the waters of the Jordan. The Baptiser’s answer had been that his water baptism was a baptism of repentance signifying a change of heart and a resolve to lead a new life, but that someone was coming who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and not with water. So what Nicodemus would hear when Jesus told him entry into God’s kingdom was dependent on being born of water and being born of the Spirit was that repentance on its own, as symbolised by water baptism, could never be enough. He would hear Jesus telling him that what was needed to move a person from the old creation into the new was both repentance and the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in that person’s life.’
It is completely dark now and the breeze is getting stronger, fanning the charcoal fire in the brazier and causing it to blaze more fiercely. Barnabas, his face illuminated by the glow, asks, ‘How did Nicodemus respond to that?’
‘He said nothing,’ John replies. ‘He just stared at the ground and shook his head. And when Jesus saw his bewilderment, he tried to make things clearer: “Flesh gives birth to flesh,” he said, “but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” In other words, flawed, alienated, self-centred, blinkered human beings are capable of producing nothing other than more flawed, alienated, self-centred, blinkered human beings. Whereas you, Nicodemus – a Pharisee – are trying to turn yourself into something quite different – a holy, perfect, spiritual being at one with God; and that is quite simply unattainable by human means. Only the Spirit can create a spiritual being who is one with God, seeing everything through God’s eyes, rooted and grounded in God’s love.’
Leandros pushes some crumbs around on the table. ‘I know I’m supposed to be a Christian, John,’ he says, ‘and that should mean I’m a spiritual being. But, if I’m honest, I don’t think the description you’ve just given fits me.’
John reaches across the table and takes Leandros’s hand into his. ‘Being born again is exactly what it says,’ he explains. ‘It is a beginning, my young friend. No one is born being able to walk and talk and think and act and make decisions like the adult he or she will one day become. You have been born of water and the Spirit, Leandros – I know it! – and by the Spirit you are growing day by day into a person who will indeed, one day, by God’s grace, fit my description of a spiritual being.’
John releases Leandros’s hand and looks across to the rustling branches of the olive tree at the edge of his courtyard. ‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘Jesus then touched Nicodemus’s arm to get his attention and gestured to the trees around them – buffeted by the wind, just as that one is – and he said this: “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.”’
Archippus smiles. ‘That’s clever,’ he says. ‘pneuma – “wind” – also means “spirit,” and phone – “sound” – also means “voice;” so, while pointing to the wind in the olive trees, Jesus was also saying, “The Spirit blows wherever he pleases. You hear his voice, but you cannot tell where he comes from or where he is going.”’
‘But what does that mean?’ asks Leandros.
‘It means,’ says John, ‘that you, dear Leandros, had little to do with the fact that one day you were in the market place and heard Barnabas preaching about Jesus and knew the truth of what you were hearing and opened your heart to our Lord and Saviour. And it means that you have no idea where that same Spirit who brought you to Jesus will take you as you follow him through life. A leaf in the courtyard, picked up by the wind, may be carried anywhere; and only the wind knows where. That is what is so exciting. But the very idea of it terrified Nicodemus. He stood at the heart of institutional religion. God gave the law, the lawyers had figured out precisely what it meant, and it was the duty of God’s people to obey that law and observe the rituals that the priests had prescribed to enshrine it and remedy its breaches. That was it; that was all there was to it. But the wind of the Spirit, should it be allowed to blow through such a set-up, would surely bring it down. I imagine that, as Nicodemus wrestled with the truth that Jesus was spelling out to him, he was having flash-backs of sacrificial lambs running bleating from the temple, and sacrificial doves soaring to freedom, high in the sky. At any rate, he put his head in his hands and groaned, “How can this be?” And there was real despair in his voice.’
‘I suppose,’ says Archippus, ‘we can see Nicodemus as representing all organised religion and begin to see the size of the threat that the Holy Spirit poses to it. How do you maintain control when the Holy Spirit comes onto the scene?’
‘Indeed,’ says the Apostle. ‘All organised religions seek to cage God and to tame him, but the Spirit will not be caged or tamed.’
‘What puzzles me,’ says Ezra, ‘is why Nicodemus was so bewildered by what Jesus was telling him. The idea of being born again was nothing new in Judaism – even if those particular words were never used. The prophets spoke of it often. Ezekiel, for example [Ezekiel 36:25-26]: “I will sprinkle clean water on you … I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.” Water and the Spirit! If Nicodemus was the famous teacher of the Scriptures you say he was, how could he not have picked up on that and all the other hints and images he must have come across in his studies, that entry into the kingdom of God demanded a radical change of heart and mind that only God himself could bring about?’
‘Perhaps that wasn’t what bewildered him,’ says Barnabas. ‘Maybe he understood the concept of new birth but thought it was just a poetic way of talking about conversion – as when a Gentile chose to become a Jew. It was just about changing your religion. What came as a shock to him was that Jesus was insisting it was a spiritual reality and that it needed to happen to him, Nicodemus, as well as anyone else who wanted to enter God’s kingdom. Nicodemus had always thought that, simply by being a Jew, his entry to God’s kingdom at the end of the age was guaranteed anyway.’
‘I think you’re right,’ replies John. ‘And that amazed Jesus. “You are Israel’s teacher,” he said to Nicodemus, “and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?’
‘Why the “we?”’ asks Ezra. ‘Was he referring to you and the other disciples?’
‘No,’ says John. ‘I think he was referring to himself and all the prophets of the past, and he was pointing out to Nicodemus that he and others like him had simply chosen to shut their ears to what he and the prophets were bearing witness. Nicodemus had come to Jesus “by night” – in the dark – and his whole controlling and protective approach to religion was ensuring that that’s where he would remain – in the dark. So Jesus more or less brought the conversation to an end. “I’ve shown you the way into kingdom life in the simplest possible terms,” he told him, “but you are still closing your mind to the truth of it. If you refuse to grasp the basics, what is the point of trying to take things any further?”’
‘What happened then?’ asks Leandros. ‘Did Nicodemus get up and leave?’
‘I’m sorry to say, he did,’ says John. ‘Not angrily but dejectedly. Though, of course, he left with much food for thought, so don’t be too sad about him; the Nicodemus story does have a happy ending – of sorts – though it may be some time before I get to it. I’m not done with Nicodemus yet; he’ll briefly come back into my narrative again, but mainly only near the end.’
John turns to the Elder who has been writing the story of Nicodemus down. ‘Meanwhile, before my next story, I think I must say something more about salvation, the new birth and the kingdom – things I would like you to include in my Gospel, my dear friend – but it’s getting late, so we’ll leave that until tomorrow morning, shall we?’
5. The Cleansing of the Temple | 7. The Snake in the Wilderness