“How Do You Know?”
by Ben D.
March 16, 2014
Nicodemus often gets a bad rap. Take for example a group that bore his name. In the sixteenth century, during the bloodiest period of the Protestant Reformation, a group of French Huguenots decided that the best way to avoid persecution for their illegal worship was to continue publicly belonging to the King’s church—a church they thought the Holy Spirit had called them to leave. They would continue attending the Latin Mass—which they resented, because it wasn’t in a language they could understand. Despite their convictions, they would keep up appearances, and not challenge the status quo.
But—here’s the interesting thing—though participating in worship, they would not consent to it in their hearts. They said something like this: “We may look like we’re worshipping idols, and tolerating a false church, but in our hearts we’re actually rejecting these things. God knows what’s in our hearts. So if what our bodies do is different, that doesn’t really matter, because God judges the heart.”
These Christians became known pejoratively as the Nicodemites, because what they did seemed a rather Nicodemus-like thing to do. For their critics felt that, like their namesake, they were afraid to confess Jesus publicly. Just as Nicodemus came to see Jesus only at night, so did the Nicodemites toe the line in public, then gather secretly to worship God. The other Protestants were disgusted. Here they were, risking their own lives for the freedom of the gospel, and these Nicodemites—while paying lip-service to the truth—refused to live it out, preferring instead to be comfortable and safe. What the Nicodemites needed was a dose of courage.
The implication for poor Nicodemus of all this, of course, is that he was a coward.
This is not far from the view I picked up in the Sunday Schools of my youth. One teacher, Miss Mamie, had a box full of pictures she’d put on the board to illustrate whatever story we were reading. I’ll never forget the picture of Nicodemus and Jesus. There they stand on a street corner, on a balmy Jerusalem summer night, with a big moon shining through what must have been Zaccheus’ sycamore tree. Jesus looks patient and kind, if stern, as he faces his stealthy, would-be disciple. And Nicodemus…he looked downright shifty. A little frightened, to be sure, but there was something about him that you just couldn’t trust.
But I don’t think this picture of Nicodemus is quite the right one.
The choice may not be intentional, but it seems fitting that today, on the second Sunday of Lent, the lectionary turns to the tale of Nicodemus. After all, we began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday with these words from Jesus:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of other people so that they will notice you.”
And “when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.”
And “when you pray, go into your most private room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
And when you fast, don’t let others know about it, “but only your Father, who is in secret.”
In tonight’s story, Nicodemus does just this—he comes to speak with the Messiah, not in the marketplace, or the city gates, or the temple courtyard, where others might see him. But in the dark of night, he seeks Jesus out in secret.
No—I don’t think the problem with Nicodemus’ approach is his secrecy. Rather, if there’s a problem, it’s in how Nicodemus tries to know about Jesus. To see why this matters, let’s take a slight step back from this scene, and look at what’s happened up to this point.
John’s story of Jesus begins with a flurry of activity. When he enters the scene, everyone is anxious to figure out who is he, and how they should respond to him.
First, we see John the Baptist in the wilderness, who says he’s preparing the way for the Messiah. But the strange thing is, he doesn’t know who to look for, or what to expect. He says twice that he didn’t know what the Messiah would like. But when he does see Jesus enter the wilderness, the Holy Spirit tells John: This is the one. Inspired, John announces to the crowds that this is the Messiah, the Son of God, one who baptizes by the Spirit.
Word spreads quickly. Two days later, Nathaneal hears about Jesus, but scoffs: The Messiah can’t come from Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But Jesus calls him to follow anyway, and Nathaneal does.
Jesus quickly raises the stakes in chapter 2, when he heads to Jerusalem for Passover. There he makes a whip, and heads to the temple courtyard where he chases out the merchants and tears down their tables. The temple leaders are understandably upset. They demand to know why and by what authority he does this. “What sign can you show us,” they ask.
We don’t know what signs he performed that week, but we do know that he avoided arrest. Many people, we’re told, believed in him because of these signs.
These early encounters fit with what happens again and again in John’s gospel. Those who oppose Jesus do so because of what they know about him: he’s from Nazareth, a backwater town where no respectable teacher has come from before; and besides, the Messiah’s not even supposed to be from Galilee, but from the more sophisticated region of Judea; he’s the son of a carpenter; he’s not been formally educated; he has no connections to the Jerusalem elite. How could someone like this know the things of God? Thus, because he lacks the proper pedigree to teach, they dismiss him.
But Nicodemus has seen the signs. He comes from the same crowd of temple leaders who’d confronted Jesus earlier that week. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of 70 leaders made up of priests, scribes, lay elders, led by the high priest. But we don’t know whether he’s an official delegate from the Sanhedrin, like the one sent earlier to investigate John the Baptist, whether he represents a smaller circle more sympathetic to Jesus, or whether he comes simply on his own initiative.
What we do know is that he speaks for a “we,” a group that has gathered some facts that it takes to be important, and now wants to act on this knowledge.
In fact, “We know” is the first thing Nicodemus tells Jesus: “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do the signs that you do apart from God’s presence.”
Jesus’ response is interesting, to say the least. He neither confirms nor denies what Nicodemus reports. Instead, he tells a riddle: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This is puzzling for a least two reasons. First, it doesn’t seem to follow. Nicodemus was talking about knowledge—what he knows, on what grounds he knows it, and what that knowledge entails—he wants his knowledge confirmed and approved by one who comes from God. But Jesus changes the subject, from what Nicodemus knows, or thinks he knows, to what it takes to see the kingdom of God. This is not what Nicodemus thought the conversation was about.
And this response is puzzling for a second reason, which doesn’t always come through in English. When he says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he uses a Greek word anôthen, which can mean either “from above,” or else “again,” depending on the context. Nicodemus, of course, misunderstands. But his ignorance turns out to be a step in the right direction. The second time he addresses Jesus, he doesn’t announce what he knows, but asks a question, if a bad one: “How can anyone re-enter his mother’s womb?”
But this is just the direction Jesus wants to lead the conversation. He begins to tell Nicodemus what it takes to see the Kingdom. And what he says now is just as cryptic as his line about “being born from above.” He speaks now of being born of the spirit: “What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit.”
After this talk of spirit and flesh, Nicodemus ventures to speak a third time. But instead of declaring what he knows, like the first time, or asking a sarcastic question, like the second, now he simply asks: “How can these things be?” And yet, in a gesture that seems a little too harsh, even unfair, Jesus rebukes him again.
But the rebuke, I suspect, is not simply for what he said—it’s rather for his approach. For Nicodemus calls himself a teacher. He approaches Jesus as an expert in the things of God.
In the first place, then, Nicodemus’ knowledge fails because it depends on pre-formed categories: Jesus does signs, therefore he is a prophet approved by God. But there is no space within these categories for grappling with who Jesus claims himself to be. In the second place, his knowledge fails because it proves unable to deal with the reality of the situation when counts the most. “You are a teacher of Israel?” And yet you can’t account for, nor even respond to God’s saving presence when you’re confronted by it face to face? His knowledge has become utterly useless here, when it should matter most.
If those who dismiss Jesus do so because of what they know about him—his origin, his background, and his pedigree—those who follow Jesus do so because they recognize another set of facts. This second set doesn’t negate the first, but shows how relatively unimportant the first set is. Yes, he is from Galilee, but more important, he has come from heaven; he was raised by a carpenter, but his true father is God; he may not have studied in Jerusalem, but he is the very Word of God; he may be young, but in the beginning was the Word. The problem, then, isn’t so much with what Nicodemus knows; it’s how he tries to know.
In the long theological tradition, especially in the ancient church, Christians distinguished between two kinds of desire for knowledge. One desire, which they often called “studiousness,” seeks to receive knowledge as a gift. A studious knower responds to an object with wonder, delight, and love. She places herself under the claims of the object she seeks to know, rather than treating it as a potential possession. For the studious, objects of knowledge can be loved and contemplated, but they can’t be dominated or restricted by claims of ownership.
But the theologians spoke of another desire, one that may be more familiar to us today. This mode of knowledge aims to control what it knows, to dominate, to sequester objects for the knower’s own use, her own projects, her own concerns. They called this desire “curiosity.” Unlike the studious, the curious don’t seek to be transformed by what they know. Rather, they want to add one more thing to their inventory; an exhaustive taxonomy of what there is in the world, a catalog so comprehensive that nothing remains unaccounted for. Learning to approach the world this way, the way of the curious, means the world is filled with discrete, transparent, and passive objects, endlessly manipulable by their knowers; objects that can be “gazed upon and addressed” without ever “returning or exceeding” the knower’s gaze. Such knowers assume that the world will in fact yield itself to their gaze if only approached with the right method, a method that can be perfected and taught. When properly trained, this gaze knows already what it will find before it even looks.
This distinction might help to make sense of why Jesus disapproves of Nicodemus’ questions. When he comes to Jesus, he aims not to place himself under Jesus’ claim, to be transformed by the encounter. Rather, Nicodemus tries to impose his own project on Jesus. This mode of inquiry is always a mistake. But especially so when the one you want to know is Jesus. By contrast, Jesus’ disciples submit themselves to his authority in order to know what they need to know, and to become what they need to become. For Jesus hasn’t come from God in the way Nicodemus thinks, as a mere prophet approved by God. Rather Jesus has come down from God to raise humans up to God. Likewise, Jesus’ answers takes Nicodemus’ questions and transpose them to a different level. Nicodemus speaks in the flesh, but he must be raised to the spirit.
I think this distinction between two ways of knowing relates to the three sets of contrasting pairs Jesus uses here: (a) flesh & spirit; (b) below & above; (c) this life & eternal life.
Though some read this Gospel as filled with unhelpful categories of Greek philosophy, even Gnosticism, this is a mistake. What Jesus describes here is not a gnostic dualism of spirit and matter. Rather, the material life God has created consists of both categories—flesh and spirit. The division Jesus marks here is rather between two ways of living a material life, between being a mere “son of man,” and being a “son of God,” between ordinary human life, and the life that only Jesus can offer, through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The image Jesus uses is simple, almost crude: a human being takes on flesh and enters the kingdom of the world by being born in the economy of the fleshy; she has life only because her parents beget her through that fleshly economy. Likewise, Jesus says, a human can enter the kingdom of heaven only if she is born in the economy of the spirit. Spiritual life, likewise, comes only because the heavenly father has begotten her by the spirit. Jesus uses the language of breath to explain this. In Hebrew, these words—breath and spirit—are easily interchangeable. In the Hebrew scriptures, God first gives life to humanity by breathing into Adam. And death is likewise described as God taking back that breath.
The point is this: If fleshly life comes when God donates breath, then spiritual life comes when God donates God’s own spirit, the Holy Spirit. It is this spirit which Jesus calls the spirit of truth, and which enables fleshly humans to know and to believe in Jesus’ message.
The key difference between a spiritual and a fleshly way of knowing, then, is that the fleshly economy can be captured by given categories, routines, and habits. It is predictable and controllable. Or, more accurately, those who inhabit it claim to be able to predict and to control it. But the second way—that of the spirit—exceeds what is expected and what can be controlled. It breaks those old habits and transforms them into something wholly new.
Jesus’ message is that if Nicodemus wants to know, he first must learn how to see. But learning to see this way will challenge his assumptions about everything he knows. “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound, but you don’t know where it’s coming from, or where it’s going. So it is with those born of the Spirit.” Like the wind, the Spirit can be neither predicted nor controlled. It can only be trusted. Or, to use Jesus’ words here, “believed on.”
Such a relationship entails relinquishing control, allowing the object of knowledge to determine not just the direction of inquiry, but the direction of your life itself. To be taken up into this life requires that Nicodemus give himself over to the one he would know. To risk self-dispossession. To risk utterly losing himself.
This process is neither easy nor comfortable. The Spirit’s movement is often unexpected and disturbing. It tends to overturn our prior expectations. It tends to move in a direction quite different from what we’d anticipated. It frustrates our attempts to predict it ahead of time, to bring it under our own control. And the Spirit’s way of doing things is rarely what we would have done if we were in charge. This makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t usually like it.
But there is good news here. Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to bring new life. And he promises to send us his spirit, the author of new life. Those who are born from above, those who, at every moment of their lives, in every new encounter with Jesus, are born again, and again, and again—they will find that they have eternal life.
What they see then will be the kingdom of God.
 On the Nicodemites and the reaction against them, see Carlos Eire, War Against the Idols (1989), esp. chapter 7, “Calvin against the Nicodemites.”
 Matthew 6:1-16. The translations are from R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (2007).
 John 1:31, 33.
 John 1:33.
 John 1:43-51. Note that Nathaneal follows Jesus precisely because of a sign.
 John 2:13-22.
 John 2:23.
 John 1:1.
 A locus classicus for this distinction is Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 166-167. The best contemporary theological account of curiosity and studiousness is found in Paul J. Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (2009), esp. chapters 2, “Curiosity,” and 9, “Owning.”
 Griffiths, 145-46.
 See Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (1966), p. 138.
 The word is ruaḥ.
 See Genesis 2:7, Job 27:3, Genesis 6:3, and Job 34:14.
 John 14:17, 16:13.