A bookshelf made in the shape of a tree.

Introduction

David Dark, the author of Life’s too Short to Pretend You Aren’t Religious has a phrase I have come to love: “There are many ways to love God.” Amen. Let’s find ways to creatively see faith alive.

You may read the text of John 3 here. Click here to see how Abraham and Sara loved God.

If there are many ways to love God then that means there are also many ways to be a Christian. No two people and no two faiths are the same, even when they believe the same God, pray to the same Lord, go to the same church, sing the same songs, and hear the same sermons. The Lord is one, but the Lord’s people are diverse and so are their stories.

I used to think Nicodemus missed the boat entirely but now I see that Nicodemus’ love for God sometimes takes the form of questions and a willingness to be confused. His love for God takes on the form of defending fairness, giving help, and showing respect. He can teach us more ways we can love God!

Misunderstanding Nicodemus’ Faith

After reading this passage in the past, I drew the conclusion that Nicodemus is a scaredey cat and non-committal. He comes to Jesus at night so no one can see him. He doesn’t really want to be associated with Jesus and what else does it mean to be a Christian than to be willing to be associated with Jesus?

Further, I reckoned that Nicodemus asks questions and Jesus’ response tells us that Nicodemus is off base entirely. He hasn’t connected the dots correctly and he has some work to do before he is a believer.

Finally, since he is unaware of the Spirit’s role in salvation, I thought he must have zero experience with the grace-giving Spirit of God. Therefore, I wrongly concluded, he is left in darkness: the darkness of his ignorance, his sin, and the darkness of night.

Turns out it was me and not Nicodemus who misunderstood.

A woman with her back turned toward us as she faces a crowded forest with no path.

A Budding Believer

The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches consider Nicodemus a saint, so how did we move from questions at night to sainthood?

Well, it appears that before this conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus likely had some kind of encounter with Jesus and is a budding believer. There are two things that lead me to that conclusion.

Reason 1: Passover Signs lead to faith

In the text before this one, we read:

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

The Gospel of John, chapter 2, verses 23-25

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and was also a member of an important religious council. He would have been in Jerusalem paying attention to someone like Jesus. While Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover, he works “signs,” which in John’s gospel are miraculous acts that shows Jesus’ Messiahship. Therefore, it makes sense that his opening line to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these things apart from the presence of God.” This is a major endorsement!

Reason 2: “Rabbi” is used by followers

The second reason I believe Nicodemus is a budding believer is this: in the gospel of John, the only people who call Jesus “Rabbi,” are those who follow him: Nathanael in 1:49; Nicodemus in 3:2; disciples as a group in 1:38; 3:26; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8; the recently fed crowd in 6:25.

Yes, Nicodemus is a Pharisee but that does not mean he is not a Christian. Actually, the name “Christian” would not exist for years later. He is a follower, someone willing to be influenced by Jesus’ teachings.

Nicodemus’ Active Faith in Defending Jesus

It’s one thing to love Jesus privately or to ask Jesus questions at night. It’s another to take one’s faith into the streets in the middle of the daylight. Let’s look at how Nicodemus loves God next.

In John 7, Jesus is once again in Jerusalem celebrating a festival. This time it is the Feast of the Tabernacles, whose celebrations spanned 7 days. On each day of the festival, the priest would fill large bowls with water and then pour the water on the Temple altar.

The water symbolized both the grace of God that washing us clean but it also was symbolic of how God will “pour out the Spirit” on God’s people. No wonder the people celebrated!

The Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinical teaching asks the question, Why is the name of the festival called the Drawing Out of Water? Because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, according to the words of the prophet, Isaiah (12:3), who says, “With joy shall ye draw out of the wells of salvation.”

Scales of justice being held

Here’s the tight connection and then we will see Nicodemus. “Wells of salvation” is key, for the Hebrew word for salvation is “Yeshua,” which is the pronunciation of Jesus’ name in Hebrew. After the water is poured on the altar, Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the Scriptures have said, ‘out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”

This teaching infuriates some who want to arrest Jesus for blasphemy and for causing such a disturbance. This matter reaches the council, which Nicodemus is part of and the vehement people say, “Why didn’t you arrest him when you had the chance?!”

Nicodemus speaks up and says, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

Nicodemus advocates for fairness and not rushing to judgment. This is a great way to love God. (A whole sermon can be spent dealing with the fundamental importance God places on fairness!)

The response from some of the hearers was, “Surely you are not someone who supports him!”

Nicodemus on the Darkest Day

Beyond the council meeting in John 7, Nicodemus stays engaged in the life and teaching of Jesus.

The next time we see Nicodemus, the unthinkable has happened: Jesus has not only been arrested but he was killed by the State after an unfair trial. We now turn to John, chapter 19.

In chapter 19, we are introduced to a new person named Joseph of Arimathea, who is described by John as “a secret believer.” Joseph persuaded Pilate to let him take the brutalized body of Jesus off the cross and to give him a proper burial.

Who joins Joseph? Nicodemus. We read:

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden, there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. JOHN 19:39-42

Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes weighing 100 pounds. It is worth noting that the cost of myrrh in the first century was $4,000 a pound.

Here is a man, who on the saddest day in history and at one of the most horrific sites of State murder, is helping unfasten and clean the body of the man who changed his life. What a way to love God!

Rethinking Nicodemus and John 3

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because nighttime was a time set aside to study the Torah. He is looking for answers, so he goes to his Rabbi, the one he follows.

We do not have to have all the answers to love God well. Nicodemus is willing to live with unanswered questions and he is willing to live in the tension.

Some people judge their faith too harshly, wrongly thinking that confusion or a lack of knowledge or complete understanding is a disqualifier. We know for a fact that to live on earth means that we live “by faith and not by sight.” We live in a trust-oriented relationship with God.

It is indeed inspiring to be with someone who has a well-thought-out faith and can verbalize the nuances of theology so well. It is no less inspiring to see someone who is uncertain link arms with others and be dedicated to one another as the church. That is one way to love God.

People who are open in their faith help me. People who are committed to friendship and to being part of a congregation AS they figure out what it is they believe and don’t believe help me too. We need each other because we all need to see all the ways there is to love God.

We can love God in our answers and we can love God with our questions. Most of all, we can love God by being charitable with how we judge the journey and trajectory of someone’s life and faith.

God’s Beautiful Idea

How can we be confident that we are not disqualified for missing the point?

Our John 3 text says it all, it is God who loves you and it is God who loves this world. As a matter of fact, God loves you so much that God gave Jesus to you. With Jesus, no question is off-limits, however, we do need to be willing to hear his answer and rebuttal. With our Rabbi, there is the joy of salvation.

This is God’s beautiful idea working in us and among us and between us. We can live with these questions because when our days are done we will enjoy the answers forever—together.

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