By Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
The story of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, Chapter 3 is the key to understanding much of the fourth Gospel. It describes in symbolic form the human condition — the inability to understand spiritual things as well as the inability of many to understand and accept the teachings of Jesus.
The end of the prologue has prepared us for this scene, for 1:18 informs us that no one has ever seen God except the Son, who alone can make him known. All human beings are ignorant of God (according to John), even the best and holiest. There is a “glass ceiling” in our striving for God that renders direct and true knowledge of God impossible without divine help.
Nicodemus symbolizes “everyman” and is the best that human society can create. He is educated, pious, and righteous -– a decent human being. Nicodemus appears on the scene by night -– in John’s Gospel, darkness is the absence of God.
His preliminary flattery is brushed aside by Jesus with an almost brusque insistence that one must be born from above in order to see the Kingdom of God. In a Johannine pun, the Greek word anothēn means both “again” and “above.” Speaking from the limitations of ordinary human consciousness, Nicodemus interprets the word in a literal fashion — “again” — and is therefore flummoxed in his attempt to understand the absurdity and impossibility of a grown man returning to his mother’s womb to be born a second time.
As Jesus continues, he contrasts human nature with what is born from above, the earthly and the heavenly, the above and below. In several places in the Gospel Jesus tells the uncomprehending crowds that they are from below while he is from above. Ordinary human nature is incapable of comprehending the world of the spirit or having true knowledge of God. The doors of perception must be cleansed, and only by being born of water and the spirit — baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit — can one enter the Kingdom of God and experience spiritual illumination. No one has ever ascended to heaven to be with God — only the one who has descended from there (Jesus) is able to speak from experience. The Kingdom of God is understood not as a place but a state of spiritual consciousness or awareness.
In the story Nicodemus symbolizes a whole group of people, namely those who are open or sympathetic to Jesus but do so in secret. He is attracted to the message of Jesus, but wants it both ways — he wants to be part of the system and accepted by his peers and is afraid to make a public commitment and face the cost, just like so many of us! He appears again in 7:50 and 19:39, and appears to be rather timid and weak, refusing to take a positive and unequivocal stand.
So how does one experience this second birth from above if human perception is so limited? First of all, one must recognize the flawed and provisional nature of all human knowledge, especially the conventional or received wisdom. The enigmatic parables and word plays serve to destabilize the reader’s awareness and understanding so he or she can begin to question and search.
Secondly, Jesus gives many signs that disclose his divine and transcendent identity. Those who read the signs and are willing to put their faith in him — and remain in him — are led into an ever-deepening spiritual awareness. But let the reader beware: The Johannine understanding of faith is not belief in specific doctrines or creeds. It is a total surrender of the self and all aspects of one’s life to the one who has descended from above. No shortcuts, no easy out — but a whole new life.