Nicodemus, the Literalist

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, one of the leaders of the Temple authorities, a member of the ruling group, The Sanhedrin, came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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 answered him, “Verily, verily, I tell you, no one can see the realm of God without being born again.”

Nicodemus was a literalist. “How can I be born again when I’m old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

That’s the problem with so much of our language, secular and religious language. Too many of us have a problem with metaphor. We want everything to be black and white, up or down, cold or hot. No room for gray, no space for in-between, no room for two or more things to be true at the same time. 

A preacher tells about the time he drove through a small town at 2 o’clock in the morning. The sign said “City Limit, 30 Miles an Hour,” so I slowed down to thirty. Since it was 2 in the morning, and I knew about those constables sitting around wanting something to do, I was actually doing under 30. But here he came and pulled me over. I said, “Officer, I wasn’t going even 30 miles an hour.”

   He said, “I know, but do you see that other little sign down there? ‘School Zone, 15 miles an hour.’”

   I said, “Officer, it’s two o’clock in the morning.”

   He said, “Does it say, except for two o’clock in the morning?”

   Well, no.

That same pastor had a debate some years later about a passage of scripture: “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved.” His debate partner was another preacher, redheaded, red beard, and ferocious, said, “Do you believe in the Bible?”


   “What does it say? Read it.” I read it to the people gathered. He said, “Do you believe that?”

   I said, “Well, of course, I believe that. But if you have a case of a child who dies on the seventh day of its life, or the ninth day of its life, it had no chance to believe or be baptized.”

   “Does it say ‘except’?” he asked.

   I said, “But what about people who don’t have all their mental faculties?”

   He said, “Does it say ‘except’?

   And we went at it, back and forth. I wound up as the bleeding heart liberal who didn’t believe the Bible, and he came off looking like the stone cold statue of truth, holding up the word of Christ. 

I’m sure that many of us have had a similar experience. Arguing with a biblical literalist is fraught with difficulty; because every exception or attempt to find variations and interpretations of the stone-cold print in black and white—every effort to see metaphor rather than a purely literal understanding is seen as just more proof—as a friend of mine puts it—”more proof that you are in a serious black-slidden condition.” 

Well, Nicodemus is one of those. It started off well, with Nicodemus attempting to flatter Jesus. He came atnight and said to Jesus, “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.” By calling him “Rabbi”, Nicodemus is granting to Jesus honor and authority as a teacher of the ways of God. But the text suggests right here in the beginning that all isn’t as it might seem. 

The text says that he came at night. Now that’s a dead give-away, because this is John’s Gospel. For John, Jesus is the light, the revelation of God. He begins his Gospel with these words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.   (John 1:1-9) 

For Nicodemus to come to Jesus under the cover of darkness, clearly suggests that he was up to no good. His flattering words about Jesus representing the presence of God are soon contradicted when he takes Jesus’ metaphor about being “born again” in a literal way, and then questions him, “How can these things be?” 

There are many Bible scholars who believe that Nicodemus wasn’t an actual historical person who came to Jesus in the dead of night. Although he makes three brief appearances in the fourth Gospel, there’s no mention of him in the Synoptic Gospels—the first three Gospels—nor does he find mention in any of the Pauline Epistles—all of which were written well before John at the beginning of the Second Century.  He may well be a fictional character, invented by John, to represent all of those who want to reduce the Good News of Jesus into simplistic and literal formulas. Do this, then do that, and you will be saved.

This passage invites us into the mystery of God whose Spirit is like the wind, blowing as it will. We do not control it, we cannot direct it, we merely experience it. 

Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born again or born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

We can try to literalize verses like John 3:16, which is part of this passage. Football players cite it in the anti-glare black that they paint under their eyes. It shows up on bracelets, roadside signs, and placards in the crowds watching March Madness basketball games. It’s may well be the only Biblical text that many Christians can quote from memory. 

“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.”

“Everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life . . . .” “Everyone who believes . . . .” 

  • But what about little children?
  • What about people who don’t have all their mental faculties?
  • What about folk who never heard of Jesus?
  • What about people raised in other religious traditions?
  • What about those to whom Jesus has been presented as a harsh judge and taskmaster?
  • What about . . . ?

There I go again, talking about exceptions. 

But what’s that sound?    

Could it be the wind?

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