In the previous post, we met a new character in the Gospel of John. The powerful and respected Nicodemus, who is both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Ruling Council. As we continue studying John 3:1-21, we read in verse 2 that Nicodemus visits Jesus at night. We are giving no context to explain what leads to this visit. Nicodemus, however, in his greeting to Jesus, seems to reveal why he met with Jesus. Before we get to the greeting, it is interesting to speculate why John includes the detail about the meeting taking place at night. Presumably someone of Nicodemus’ stature does not want to do any damage to his reputation by interacting with a lowly upstart teacher. Maybe Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen having a serious talk with Jesus. Or maybe it just worked out that they met at night. Either way, the timing gives them the opportunity to have a good talk.
Nicodemus begins by showing Jesus respect, calling him a Rabbi, saying, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is Nicodemus just following societal conventions of being polite? Does he really believe Jesus is a Rabbi, a teacher, and most of all, that Jesus has come from God? Or does Nicodemus doubt? We don’t know yet. We’re aren’t given any details about his motivation. He could be buttering Jesus up, almost like a spy would if they were trying to get information from whomever they are spying on.
Nicodemus then mentions the miracles. But he doesn’t call them “miracles”. He calls them miraculous signs, which is the way John has described them every time he has talked about Jesus doing miracles. They are signs, which means they point to something. They are not just miracles for the sake of doing miracles. These miracles have a purpose beyond the miracle itself. Yes, Jesus’ miracle of turning the water into wine helped the wedding go smoothly. It had that immediate purpose.
But John shows us in chapter 2, verse 11, that it was a miraculous sign through which Jesus showed his glory, and his disciples placed their faith in him. The same is true for the miracles he was doing in Jerusalem, as John tells us in chapter 2, verse 23. He did miracles there also, though we don’t know what they were. Most of his miracles were physical healings, and my guess is that these miracles were in that category. The category doesn’t matter, though, as John calls them miraculous signs, leading people to put their faith in him.
Nicodemus, when greeting Jesus, also calls the miracles “signs”. It seems that Nicodemus is making a connection, following the signpost directions, that only someone who is from God could do the miracles. So maybe there is more to Nicodemus than most other Pharisees who seemed only to undermine Jesus. Maybe God is at work in Nicodemus’ life. It does seem that his sentence, “No one could do the miracles if God were not with him” reveals in Nicodemus a genuine search for God at work.
Nicodemus is not equating Jesus and God. In Nicodemus’ view, Jesus is from God. God is somehow with Jesus. That alone is remarkable for a Pharisee and member of the Ruling Council to admit. As we will see, and as all four Gospel writers frequently describe, the vast majority of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees is adversarial. They do not believe he is from God. They think he is a fraud. But Nicodemus seems to be different. He seems to be teachable, humble, with an open mind for how God might be at work in the world in a new way.
Notice that Nicodemus does not lead with a question. His greeting in verse 2 is a statement. But I wonder if buried in the statement is a question. We’ll learn in the next post that it seems Jesus heard Nicodemus’ greeting that way, as a question. Perhaps the question goes like this: “Who are you, Jesus? We’ve heard about the miracles. Are you really from God?” Does Nicodemus have his doubts? I bet he does. It would be, in my view, 100% normal for him to be uncertain that a no-name, unschooled handyman from tiny town Nazareth would be from God, and especially that this Jesus would be a miracle worker.
When I hear about miracles in our day and age, I immediately doubt. Probably too quick, to a fault. We live in a scientific age, an age where there are plenty of people telling us that there is no such thing as miracles, no such thing as God, no such thing as anything supernatural. The only thing we should have faith in, they say, is the belief that science is the only real explanation for all things.
But we Christians hold to the supernatural as bedrock to our faith. Just think of Jesus and his resurrection. We believe Jesus is God, and that he died a physical death and was raised three days later to physical new life. That’s the most important miracle of all. Our faith is soaking in the supernatural. Even still, many of us, perhaps most of us, have a very hard time believing in miracles. So it makes complete sense if Nicodemus doubted what he has heard about Jesus being a miracle worker.
How will Jesus respond to this greeting from this powerful man?