Nicodemus was not a bumbling fool. Neither was he a coward because he came at night, nor was he an ignorant person who came to ask a question whose answer he did not understand. Although he is often portrayed as these by what passes in some venues as Biblical scholarship, Nicodemus was a complex person.
As a complex person, Nicodemus deserves a much kinder treatment than he frequently receives at the hand of those who preach and teach the Christian faith. For starters, he comes across as an independent thinker. Rather than falling into line with whatever everyone else was saying about Jesus, Nicodemus demonstrated the courage to think and to act beyond the herd mentality. Rather than to listen to prevalent opinion, he chose to go to what is called the primary source. That’s to say he went to Jesus himself that he might make up his own mind, through his own encounter with Jesus. He was that sort of person who was not impetuous, but he was inquisitive, probing, and non-reactive. He was one who wanted to gather the facts from all facets. And since we have been exploring the topics of morality, ethics and the role of conscience these last several weeks, might I point out that in Nicodemus we have an example of the positive use of conscience. So often these days, it is presumed that conscience serves only an accusatory function; in this instance, conscience serves to compel Nicodemus not so much as to avoid the negative but to pro-actively seek the Good.
I would surmise that Nicodemus also was wrestling with a spiritual problem. How can we conclude that? Well, it is the track record of scripture that when people came to Jesus, he always addressed the spiritual condition of the person. When people came with a physical ailment, our Lord Jesus always addressed the spiritual component before he addressed the physical condition. That is consistently the case in the New Testament. The paralytic is told that his sins are forgiven. The leper is told that not only is he healed, he is made clean. And so on. So we can infer that Nicodemus has arrived at a moment in his spiritual life, in which those things that had been life giving were no longer life-giving. Perhaps it was, no, I would say it was probably that he had reached that moment of what the French call ennui, what the spiritual masters call spiritual boredom, or accidie, ( pronounced a see’dya) what the psalmist calls the “sickness that lays waste at mid-day. He’d lived a life steeped in the scriptures, been to the temple, done the requirements of the law, fulfilled all the obligations thereof, and what once had given him life and been compelling was not longer life-giving, no longer was compelling. But now there was an element of enthusiasm missing from those things. Like so many of us, Nicodemus had been there, seen it, done it and was bored with it. Seen in that fashion, not only is Nicodemus a fairly complex person, but he becomes a fairly contemporary personality, a symbol for our times.
And so, when Nicodemus comes before the Lord, Jesus tells him bluntly and plainly, “you have to be born again, you have to be renewed, you have to be born from above.”
And when Nicodemus ask how can that be, although it is masked, there is a quiet desperation in his question, a quiet desperation which eventually confronts all of us in the spiritual life because accidie is a thing that must be worked through, not a thing to which we ought to self-indulgently cater.