Crossing the Mystical Divide: Nicodemus

File:William Brassey Hole Nicodemus.jpg

Nicodemus, whose story is found in  John’s Gospel (3:3-21), is described by John as a “ruler of the Jews” and a “man of the Pharisees,” one who has seen Jesus’ miracles and appears to believes that Jesus has come from God, “For no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (vs. 2).   

Unlike in the passage from Mark’s Gospel, Chapter 1, where Christ taught the multitudes publicly from the ship set near the seashore, John’s Gospel notes that Nicodemus came at night, seeking an audience in private.  Other Pharisees or Sadducees confronted Jesus publicly, but only to attempt to prove Him to be a false teacher or a blasphemer. 

Much has been made of Nicodemus’ nighttime visit:   Was he afraid?  Wanting to avoid the crowds?  Seeking anonymity? Intimidated by the other Pharisees? 

We can only speculate, but my sense is that he wanted to avoid peer pressure or persecution from his fellow Pharisees, so he sought out Jesus privately. 

Since Jesus does not need to speak obscurely with Nicodemus as He did to veil divine truth from the “unseeing” multitudes (Mark 4:11-12), He does not speak to Nicodemus in parables.  Still, Christ speaks in figurative language, using a metaphorical “analogy” which attempts to approximate the revelation of God’s ineffable (inexplicable) truths through natural examples or parallels in meaning.

Jesus’ words are filled with layered (multi-dimensional) meanings which are ridiculous if taken literally, yet Nicodemus continually fails to understand Christ’s meanings.  He cannot cross the chasm  between Christ’s mystical words and the transcendent truths which lay underneath the surface.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by noting the signs Jesus has performed, signs which Nicodemus took to be evidence of Christ’s divine calling.  Jesus, however, ignores the compliment to speak directly to his visitor’s personal needs: 

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?  (John 3:5-10)

 This passage is significant, for it relates such spiritual insights as being “born again” of the Spirit, yet ties this  mystery of spiritual rebirth to natural, physical events:  childbirth and the blowing of the wind.

Presumably, Nicodemus, as a spiritual guide himself, should have been able to make the revelatory leap from physical birth to spiritual birth, from the wind to the moving of the Spirit, yet he cannot resolve the paradox of Christ’s mystical discourse.

Nicodemus’ intellect prevents him from entering the mystical realm.  Even a direct confrontation with the tangible Word of God, Jesus the Logos, is not sufficient to open his eyes to see spiritual truth.  Nicodemus’s demands for interpretation ends the mystical discourse, for Jesus concludes the following:  “12 If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12).

Even at the end of the conversation, Nicodemus continues to ask how spiritual rebirth may be possible.  As a teacher and master in Israel, his intellect interferes with his spiritual sight, which like the Holy Spirit is not tied to human language or logic, for the Spirit blows where He wishes. 

Ultimately, however, Nicodemus defends Jesus before his fellow Pharisees and the Chief Priest (John 7).  Before condemning Him, they should investigate who Jesus is.  And later, we find that Nicodemus risks even more persecution by partnering with Joseph of Arimathea to embalm Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.



In order to cross the gap between the natural realm (what may be perceived with the five physical senses) and the divine realm of the Spirit (what may only be perceived by the born-again spirit), the seeker after God must be completely transformed into a new creature—like Christ himself, one born of the Holy Spirit  Thus, spiritual rebirth, as seen in John’s Gospel, is brought about through faith—believing on Jesus as the Christ.

Elsewhere, this initial mystical experience is compared not to rebirth but to the eating of Christ’s body and drinking of His blood, leading to the resulting “oneness” with Him: “I am the bread of life . . . If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever” (John 6:48, 52). This faith is essentially a resolution to believe not in a creed or ethical system but in the person of Christ Himself.  It is a total dedication to follow Christ even to the death if necessary—hence His command to take up the cross and follow Him.

This faith precedes mystical insight, yet throughout his writings the apostle John insists that faith is aligned with experience and tangible, historical events. Still, John’s use of the tangible amounts to a symbolic approximation of the mystical, for Christ’s miracles represent the signs of Christ’s divinity, evidences that Christ has bridged the  chasm between the world we see and hear with the heavenly realm of God.

Suspended between Heaven and Earth, Christ’s cross bridges the gap. Thus, the believer’s willingness to follow Christ wherever He may lead, in spite of the seeming foolishness of the path, is the first step in the believer’s initiation into “the Body of Christ,”  the “Church,” or the “fellowship of the saints.” It is also the necessary precursor to receiving mystical insights and divine illumination.

The believer is seen as passing over from death to life, from darkness to light, not as a future hope but as a present reality, thus revealing the essence of the believer’s paradoxical position in both the present physical world and the transcendent Kingdom of Heaven.  We are in the world, but not of the world. 

As the Apostle Paul writes in his  letter to the Ephesians, 

“In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will [emphasis mine], according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. …15 For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, 16 do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.”  (Ephesians 1:8-17)



  • By Timothy Dobos, June 6, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

    What does Jesus mean by “born of water”?
    Our body composition is mostly water. Maybe Jesus simply meant a literal birth? No. I don’t think so.
    So I did some searching. I’ll share what I found privately. For others, I let the meaning remain a mystery.

  • By Patrick Kennedy, July 8, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    I’ve always taken ‘born of water’ to be a material, physical birth. The second birth is born of the spirit which is self-explanatory. I’d like to know if you think there’s something i’m missing.

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