Rotation.org Writing Team
Jesus and Nicodemus: How to See the Kingdom
Bible Background and Lesson Objectives
The encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus teaches us many things. Chief among them is that we need to look (be born) from God's point of view (above) in order to see who Jesus is, and "enter" (participate, understand) his Kingdom.
When Nicodemus asks, "how?" Jesus reveals an important truth: you have to be "born from above" (literally in the Greek: "genesis from the top"), ...by water and Spirit. Which is to say, you need spiritual eyesight to see the Kingdom, and that comes from God.
One of the challenges of teaching this story to children is that seemingly simple words like, "born," "above," "enter," and "wind," have deeper spiritual and theological meanings when Jesus says them.
- Born can mean a new beginning, a new point of view.
- Seeing can mean understanding and believing in.
- Entering can mean accepting and participating in.
- Above can mean from God and from God's point of view.
- Water and Spirit mean the action and gifts of God.
- It's a perspective that's not earned, but given. A way of living and seeing the world that's a gift.
Like Nicodemus, we leave the conversation pondering Jesus' challenging words and their meaning to us, and wondering if we have just met the Savior of the world.
Scriptures for the Lesson Set
Focusing on John 3:1-5
There are three distinct parts to John's passage about Nicodemus. Nicodemus Visits Jesus in verses 1-5 are quite enough for children. Verses 6-10 start to get a little deep. And verses 11-21 seem to be from another teaching, according to some scholars.
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
The literal Greek here is most definitely, "born from above." It is Nicodemus who makes the mistake of thinking Jesus said, "born again." More about that below.
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (NRSV)
See below for what the words, "enter," "water," and "spirit" can mean.
After verse 5, the words and concepts in the passage begin to diverge from Nicodemus' original question and Jesus' answer. If you have the time and your children are older, you could add verses 6 through 10.
6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind (spirit) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? (NRSV)
You might find the above verses a little more obvious in The Message. If verses 6-8 confused Nicodemus, there's little hope for 2nd graders. After verse 10, the language and concepts get pretty deep for children. Thus, you may want to stay focused on verses 1-5 for kids.
Save John 3:16 for another time when you can dig into it. For topical and literary reasons, Scholars note that it stands apart, and likely wasn't an original part of the Nicodemus encounter.
Key Verse and Message:
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. John 3:5 (NRSV)
- Students will be able to tell the story of Nicodemus and Jesus.
- Students will be able to say what Jesus meant by "water and spirit."
- Students will be able to define what the "Kingdom" is and how to see it and participate in it.
- Students will take measure of where they stand in their relationship with Jesus.
The story of Nicodemus addresses a central theme in Jesus' teaching:
- How do we "see" (enter, understand) and become part of God's Kingdom?
- How do we know Jesus is the One, the Messiah?
- John's Jesus also introduces us to the idea that it is God's Spirit that moves us to understand and believe.
Jesus' answer is you have to be "born from above," i.e., you can see the Kingdom if you're looking from God's perspective. This "genesis from the top" ("gennatha anothen" in Greek), happens when the Spirit blows through you. It isn't something we can arrive at on our own. You can only prepare yourself for its arrival. (Clear a straight path for him!)
In typical pharisitical fashion, Nicodemus spars over Jesus' words. He rhetorically asks Jesus how a person can enter their mother's womb a second time. And as always, Jesus elaborates. He answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter (see, understand) the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit." (see more about water and spirit below)
Nicodemus is that theme in story form.
In the beginning of Luke, Jesus announces he has come to restore sight to the blind. In the beginning of John, we learn that Jesus is the light shining in the darkness, and soon after in John, Nicodemus appears in that darkness seeking the light.
How do you see from God's point of view? How do you see the Kingdom and King? Jesus says you need God's spirit to wash and blow over you.
Why didn't Nicodemus understand ("see") Jesus? Probably because he had let his devotion to The Law and false messianic expectations keep the Spirit and Water at an arm's length. He wasn't looking for the suffering servant Messiah. He wasn't looking for grace. He thought knowing scripture backward and forwards, going to Temple, and obeying a thousand religious rules was the way to knowing the mind of God. Jesus says that's not enough. He tells Nicodemus that he needs to undergo a spiritual transformation. A change of the heart, a new perspective –one from the top –from God.
Spiritual transformation isn't an easy job for God, and some people make it especially difficult. But Jesus engages Nicodemus, looking for an opening, In effect, Jesus humbles the learned leader, and as we know from elsewhere in the Gospels, humility is often the opening God needs.
What happened to Nicodemus? Like so many who heard Jesus speak, he undoubtedly walked away a bit confused and troubled. Spiritual birth is usually not sudden or easy. Seeing from above often requires a lot of climbing, searching, and questioning. John tells us in his 19th chapter that Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in honoring Jesus with a proper burial. One can only guess where his awakening took him after Jesus' Resurrection.
More About Nicodemus
Nicodemus is both literally and figuratively in the dark. A Pharisee and member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night looking for evidence that Jesus is the Messiah bringing God's Kingdom. He has studied scripture, gone to worship, and been an upstanding member of his community. But something is missing, and he undoubtedly hopes Jesus will reveal himself in a life-altering way. Nicodemus is not the first or last Pharisee to question Jesus and wonder if he is the Messiah. But he is the first in John's Gospel, and Jesus gives him a challenging answer to the question: who are you? It's a question we'll hear many other times. Recall Jesus asking the disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
It's About Us
Nicodemus is us. We are in the dark too. And even when we feel we have been transformed by the Spirit of God and are stepping from the shadows, we have questions:
- Why do some people believe and others don't?
- Why can some "see" the Kingdom, and others think it's a fantasy?
- Why do some look at Jesus and see only a great teacher?
- Why will some Sunday School kids accept Jesus as their savior, and others won't?
- Why do I feel like my faith is still in the dark sometimes?
- Where am I in my own spiritual transformation?
What we seek, only God can provide.
Born Again ? Born Anew ? or Born from Above ?
Depending on the Bible translation you use, it may read, "born again," or "born anew," or "born from above." Most Bibles footnote the phrase to alert you that the literal Greek does indeed say "from above," and that is how most modern English translations now translate it.
Here's why it's important:
The Greek words "born from above" (gennēthē anōthen) literally mean "genesis from the top." "Gennatha Anothen" (literally, "Genesis/Born from the Top/Above") is pronounced with a hard 'g' – "ge-na-tha a-noth-en"].
"Gennetha" (born) literally means "genesis." The word itself is meant to remind us of the Genesis story when the Spirit moved over the waters and created the world. Recall that John's Gospel starts out with this same word and theme: "In the beginning was the Word...."
"Anothen" (above) literally means "from the top." It does not mean "again" (that was the mistake Nicodemus and early translators made). "Anothen" is a location word, and the location being referred to is indisputable. The "top" is where God is. It's a heavenly perspective. It's "from God."
Univ. of N.C. NT Professor Bart Ehrman notes in his book "Jesus Interrupted," that the concepts of "again" and "above" are not synonymous in Jesus and Nicodemus' Aramaic language. Translating "above" as "again" is only a choice in the Greek. So we can forgive the early translators for not knowing their Aramaic, or recognize that Jesus was pointing to the origin of our birth – as coming from God above.
Seeing What? (The Kingdom)
Jesus talked a lot about God's Kingdom. The Kingdom is God's vision for the world, ...what God wants life to look like and his creatures to act like. Especially with kids, the concept of "Kingdom" is easy to describe using opposites:
Bad ⇒ Good
Hate ⇒ Love
Judgement ⇒ Compassion
Selfishness ⇒ Selflessness
Blindness to the Truth ⇒ Spiritually Awake
Darkness (Ignorance, sin) ⇒ Light (knowledge, salvation)
Doubt ⇒ Faith
Exclude ⇒ Include
Hell ⇒ Heaven
What's the "genesis" of this Kingdom point of view?
Nicodemus' "genesis," or "starting point of view," was that of a Pharisee. That's why he couldn't "see" the Kingdom or the King standing right in front of him. The Pharisees looked for the Kingdom in glory, not in meekness. They looked for a conquering king, not the peaceful Lamb of God. They were "born from below." This is why Jesus called the Pharisees "blind guides," and expressed dismay that Nicodemus didn't understand.
"See," "Enter," and "Participate" are all synonyms in scripture. To "see" the Kingdom means you understand it and are part of it. It means you "get" the Beatitudes. You can also say that "born" (genesis) is also a synonym for seeing/participating as well. When you become "born from above," your birthplace, your beginning point is God, not man, Love, not Law.
In the lessons of this set, we're going to use the metaphor of eyeglasses as a handy way for children to understand the spiritual meaning of "seeing."
"Born" (genesis) and Water Baptism
It's no accident that the language of Baptism often talks about "birth" and being reborn into a new life. When Jesus used the term "genesis" (born), he was mining a rich theological metaphor that stretched from the Jordan River, all the way to the waters of Creation. Paul would talk about "new life in Christ" to mine the same vein.
"Seeing" or having your "genesis from the top" is not that easy...
Verse 8 is a note of grace to Nicodemus and to us:
"The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Being "born from above" (or born again) is not as simple as making a pledge, knowing scriptures, and going to worship. Nicodemus did all that. Developing "God sight" requires the action of the Spirit. Having some water poured over you and saying some words isn't enough. And it's both paradoxical and frustrating that good people (like Nicodemus) can spend their whole lives trying and failing to find and know God. And the reality for most Christians is that spiritual sight is a fleeting experience. Perhaps this is why Jesus emphasized the more tangible acts of spirituality: mercy and service, humility and peacemaking (think of the Beatitudes). Spirituality is not special knowledge to be sought after in the night, but acts of kindness and holiness to be practiced during the day.
Jesus teaches that "The wind blows where it will." And yet, it would be so much more convenient if God were predictable and obvious! God's presence is like the wind, and his Kingdom is like a treasure that not everyone sees and many will overlook. It is a great pearl that many will not be prepared to own when they find it. Think of how many different ways Jesus expressed the Kingdom! ...and then he tells us only God can show it to us – "through water and spirit."
Jesus spoke a lot about blindness, including his first sermon in Luke 4 when he preached from Isaiah that he had been sent to restore sight.
What can a person do to prepare themselves to see God and his Kingdom?
Nicodemus was doing it. While others stayed away, he took a risk by coming to talk to Jesus. He put himself in a position to let Jesus confront his pre-conceived notions and beliefs (which he did, and usually does). Sunday School and going to church is a lot like this! It's something we do – not because we already see, but because we know we need help seeing.
Something inside Nicodemus' heart obviously stirred him to begin the journey, and it would eventually lead him to the cross to claim Jesus' body. We know from many other Jesus stories, that "religious" people were often listening in the crowd. (Perhaps this is what Sunday School is, a place in the crowd, an opening for God's Spirit.)
How do you move from night to day in your faith? ...from "same-old" to "new"? Would that it came suddenly like some people claim. But in truth, for the vast majority of believers the "new" is always struggling to be born. Faith is often a series of steps forward and backward, moments of re-birth, re-dedication, and eye-opening experiences – between moments of spiritual dim and darkness. We are always in need of "Gennatha Anothen," and "Maranath!" ("Come Lord Jesus")
What will we see from God's point of view?
Jesus taught a bunch of Kingdom stories and parables.
We will see strangers as friends, and the broken as beloved.
Where others see judgment, those with God sight will see forgiveness and mercy.
When we look from above with God's perspective, we put others first, and lift them up with us,
Questions for those ready to see Jesus and be part of his Kingdom:
- Do you love Jesus, or simply respect him?
- Do you "like" his teachings, or do you follow them?
- Do you live your faith in the shadows, afraid of telling others, or do you let it shine?
- Having been baptized with water, have you sought out God's Spirit in prayer and worship, scripture and acts of compassion?
- When you see others in need, what's your initial response? Walk towards or walk away?
This famous devotional song by Paul Baloche captures what could have been sung by Nicodemus himself. See the Nicodemus Music Video post for others.
"Open the eyes of my heart Lord, i want to see you...."
Written by Neil MacQueen for the Rotation.org Writing Team
with contributions from Carol Hulbert, Cathy Walz, Amy Crane, and Luanne Payne.