I just realized in my 41st year of life, in my 21st year of intentionally following Jesus, and in my 11th year as a lead pastor of a church that…I am Nicodemus. And I’m not alone. Here’s the familiar story:
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.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again … 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? (John 3:1-10)
To “see” and “enter” the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of John is not about getting correct doctrine, moving from the “out” group into the “saved” group, and going to Heaven when I die. Entering, beholding, and living in the Kingdom is Jesus’ shorthand for awakening to a new spiritual awareness of God’s abiding presence in and around me here and now made available by Jesus, and living my life within the domain of God’s effective will (D. Willard). This much I have grasped for many years, so this is not why I am Nicodemus.
I am Nicodemus because I know the Scriptures well, and like the Pharisees I “search the Scriptures because [I] think they give [me] eternal life. But the Scriptures point to [Jesus]” (John 5:39)! I have always read this as if Jesus was saying that the OT Scriptures point to the truthfulness of the NT Scriptural accounts of Jesus. If this were what Jesus meant, I would now be diligently searching the New Testament scriptures in hopes of finding eternal life. The focus is still on the word, and not the Word-become-flesh. I’m still pursuing knowledge, and not a mystical union with the Truth-in-Person.
I believe Nicodemus was being invited into a new kind of dynamic relationship and intimate communion with Jesus himself (cf. “abiding” in John 14-16). Nicodemus prefers a kind of religious devotion that pursues apprehending certain truths about God and the Scriptures and keeping certain religious traditions and spiritual practices. This is a kind of religious enterprise he can control and manage. It’s a check-the-box kind of faith and it can easily remain focused on the externals such as going to church, reading my Bible and journaling—while never leading one into the deeper recesses of the soul longing for a deeper kind of divine connection.
Jesus tells Nicodemus not that he needs to “grow up,” but rather start over as a spiritual infant through New Birth from above. He’s spent enough time memorizing scripture, training as a rabbi, seeking the right answers, keeping the sacred traditions, and establishing himself as a reputable expert in his field.
These are all first-half of life preoccupations of the ego, and now its time to “let go” and be swept up into a new kind of spiritual existence where Nicodemus isn’t the knowledgeable teacher, but merely the beloved of God. Nicodemus has been in the driver seat, pushing and pulling, working and studying, leading and teaching for so long that his “flesh” has become proficient at giving birth to all kinds of fleshly projects and accomplishments that capture others’ attention and pat his ego on the back.
Let us ponder Jesus’ enigmatic words, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (3:6).
Flesh speaks to our fallen and limited human capacities operating apart from God. We can accomplish a lot with sheer willpower and human striving—especially those endowed with extra levels of brilliance, creativity, intellect and endurance. Fr. Richard Rohr suggests that “ego” would be a relatively accurate substitute for the New Testament concept of “flesh.” An ambitious ego can give birth to a lot of good things: businesses, political campaigns, hospitals, counseling centers, new churches and ministries. It can be good and even godly, but still borne of the flesh—and therefore self-limiting.
It’s hard to know whether one is operating “in the flesh” or “in the Spirit.” It’s not about motivation or intention or the nature of the activity at hand. I can lead a Bible Study in the flesh, preach a sermon in the flesh, serve the poor in the flesh, and even write about the difference between flesh and spirit in the flesh. And I can do all those same activities in the Spirit as well.
You can’t tell by the results either—at least initially. You have heard it said, “Unless the LORD builds it, the builders labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). Yet, I tell you that many a church or ministry has been successfully built by well-organized committees and capital campaigns while the LORD has been relegated to the sidelines. But usually such an undertaking eventually reaches a breaking point if the Spirit is continually ignored as the flesh always has a limit and is inherently fallen and prone to self-destruction.
One thing the flesh is really good at giving birth to — especially in spiritual leadership — is exhaustion and burnout. Doing God’s work without God’s power is a terrible folly yet all-to-common. Trust me, I know from experience.
So, back to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (and me): “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.” We find that the kind of Kingdom existence he invites Nicodemus to behold and enter into is described in all passive language. It is a life of letting go of control, crucifying the ego daily (cf. Gal 2:20; 1 Cor. 15:31) in order to “be born again (from above)” and to “be born of the Spirit” and to be led by the Spirit as a toddler is led by the hand, and be blown here and there by God’s breath as the trees and leaves are blown about by the impossible to predict or control summer breeze. Notice all the passive language. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I know, Nicodemus, I feel your pain. I am slow to learn as well.
We struggle to accept the Gospel Logic that we gain by losing, get by letting go, move ahead by sitting down to rest, and overcome by surrendering. We have been taught and conditioned more by the spirit of American entrepreneurialism than the Spirit who blows in a myriad quiet and unassuming ways. We think the kingdom comes in the world and in our hearts by taking responsibility, putting in the blood, sweat and tears, grabbing life (and faith) by the horns. This is life, faith, and ministry under the heavy yoke. This is the pathway to burnout, bitterness, and disillusionment with God and religion. This is enslavement to the preoccupations of the ego. This is doing God’s work without God’s presence and power. This is Nicodemus, and many of us.
Meanwhile, Jesus stands patiently by ready to exchange a heavy-laden life for a new lightness and joy under his Easy Yoke, a life swept up in the “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matt 11 MSG).
Above I mentioned that Jesus wants the Scriptures to point us to an experience and relationship with Christ himself, not merely to know about Christ through the New Testament Scriptures. The Evangelical tradition has often led people into a personal relationship with the Bible more than God (sometimes called “bibliolatry”) and taught us to build our lives on certain doctrines and truths aboutChrist.
This is to fall short of the kind of spiritual communion Jesus invites Nicodemus and all the rest of us to pursue with him, in him and him in us: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you…Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:20, 23). But in the words of N. T. Wright:
The word became flesh, said St. John, and the Church has turned the flesh back into words: words of good advice, words of comfort, words of wisdom and encouragement, yes, but what changes the world is flesh, words with skin on them, words that hug you and cry with you and play with you and love you and rebuke you and build houses with you and teach your children in school (The Crown and the Fire).
Let all the Nicodemuses among us pray for our eyes to be opened to see and experience the Kingdom Among Us, and be swept up into the childlike laughter and intimate dance that is life in the Trinity—and find ourselves embraced by God through the Spirit as God makes his home in us.