Click here for the reading: John 3:1-17.
In a manner that becomes very familiar throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus and his interlocutor seem to be talking past each other. Nicodemus comes in secrecy with burning questions about earthly things, and Jesus answers him with talk about heavenly things. Nicodemus is fixated on God being above humanity and, at best, alongside a teacher like Jesus. He is blind to the startling closeness of God in the flesh of Jesus. He cannot see the kingdom of God because he is unable to look where he would least expect to find it.
Unless he is born again, Nicodemus can never believe the heavenly things, but how can he be born again if he cannot elevate his own mind beyond the thought of re-entering his mother’s womb? It is here in this paradox that Nicodemus hears but does not understand the mystery of God’s election: the wind blows where it wishes. Unless the Spirit calls him by the Gospel, Nicodemus will never understand these things. His predicament is highlighted as Jesus marvels that a teacher of Israel would not know better. Even more, the graciousness of God is highlighted when the Son of Man is lifted up before Nicodemus’ very eyes so that he might see and perceive.
The serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness promised rescue from the bite of a venomous snake. The lifting up of Jesus on the tree of the cross promises rescue from the curse wrought by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is the same triune God acting from beginning to end, disciplining and saving his people. Now, however, in the person of Jesus, the fulfillment of everything that came before has arrived. A prophet better than Moses has arrived. A presence better than a glory cloud in the tabernacle is here. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6), Jesus will say. And he will ask the Father, who will send the Helper, the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14:16-17).
The mystery of the Trinity is wrapped up for us in the incarnation. Nicodemus cannot understand, in part, because before him stands flesh and blood. Why would anyone expect a man bearing the humble form of a servant to be the Son of Man? Why would anyone expect to hear spiritual things from one who by all accounts has been born of flesh? Yet, this is precisely how God reveals himself to sinners. This is what Nicodemus must perceive to be born again: the love of the Father for the world, the obedience of the Son to the Father, and the Spirit-filled preaching of eternal life through the cross. It is a ministry of salvation that surpasses in glory the ministry of condemnation. It is a revelation so unfamiliar and unexpected that believing it cannot be described in any less dramatic terms than being born again.