There are pieces of the Nicodemus story that usually get a lot of press. If you’re from my tradition, what’s he saying about baptism? If you’re a “born again” Christian, the passage has some critical language for you. And the place of 3:16 goes without saying—after all, it outsells even “Footprints” in the realm of wall art.
Yet, if we step back and look at the story in relation to the whole narrative, there is more to discern. Jesus has just had his first clash with “the Jews” in ch. 2. But we don’t know where this is going, and on other fronts, the signs are serving their purpose (2:23). Enter Nicodemus: Pharisee and known leader. Iconic, to say the least. He comes by night, so he not a political moron. Now, Jesus faces a real and powerful temptation, and the way he handles it is fascinating. Nicodemus comes with a conciliatory, if presumptuous, opener. “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” (3:2). On one level, Nicodemus gets what John’s narrative has claimed up to this point: the signs are indicative of the presence of God. On another level, he whiffs badly. “Jesus, we get it [wink, wink]. You’re a teacher who has come from God.” Temptation: just leave it at that, Nazarene. Or more subtly, how about an olive branch; a “good progress, Pharisees”; a good-willed, “let’s journey together on this road of discovery.” Or how about a “you’re very near the kingdom”? Or at least a “you’re getting warmer”? Wouldn’t that be politically and pastorally savvy?
No, instead of bringing Nicodemus gently along, Jesus implicitly asserts that he doesn’t understand a thing. After the well-known exchange, the Pharisee has moved from “We know” to “How can these things be?” (3:9). Then Jesus discloses the issue that causes him to draw the line in the sand: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” If revelation is critical for John, recognition and reception is the other side of the coin. The Pharisees, above all, should fully recognize who Jesus is—much the way the Baptizer did. Not merely a teacher come from God but the key to Israel’s redemption.
Note the contrast between Jesus’s claim and Nicodemus’s. Whereas Nicodemus claims “we know” (3:2), Jesus says, on the contrary, what matters is what he knows and consequently makes known (reveals): “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.” This is the transition to the usually excised 3:16 material. But that claim about belief in Jesus should not be separated from the Nicodemus story, because the critical question is what it means to believe in Jesus. Here it has everything to do with what Nicodemus does not yet believe, what the prologue and the Temple logion have claimed, what the Baptizer has testified, what the signs point to. Jesus is not interested in a limping half-confession. That is not the faith that is bound up with birth from above.
The Nicodemus story appears to be the continuation of an idea mentioned briefly in the prologue: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (1.12-13). With Nicodemus, saving faith has taken center stage.
So, Christians, what does it mean to believe in his name? Are we ready for Jesus to suggest that we don’t quite get it?