“And peace to you, my brother.”
Nicodemus stepped hurriedly through the doorway, glad to be off the street at this time of night in the lower city. “Is he here?”
“Yes.” His friend glanced toward the ceiling, re-opened the door and stepped back. “Go up and see him. I think he expects you.”
Nicodemus’s eyes widened, but he retained his dignified demeanor. “Thank you, my friend.” His hand clasped the other man’s arm and secretly he wished his friend lived in a safer part of the city. Nodding, he stepped back into the evening.
At his left, a rough, narrow staircase led to the roof, and he lifted his robe to spare it from dragging against the plastered steps. He had heard much of the man he was about to question—too much, really. From a distance he had listened to the words of this Galilean carpenter’s son, and had planned to wait him out as he had all the others, watch for his demise, observe from afar as one more zealot fell either to the destruction of self-importance or a Roman sword.
Yet the incident at the temple during Pesach could not be ignored. This one had braided hemp cords together and whipped about the moneychangers and dove keepers until they fled from the outer courts. The man’s wrath was fearful. His voice had roared above the cackle of bartering merchants and lowing animals as he shouted that the temple was meant for prayer, not for profit.
Nicodemus shook his head again at the memory. How obvious the remark, yet how few had uttered it.
He slowed as he neared the top, and over the low wall bordering the roof saw the man standing near the northern edge, looking out over Jerusalem. His expression was indiscernible in profile, but Nicodemus suspected that his thoughts were not filled with joy.
His sandaled foot scraped against the last step and the object of his visit turned in his direction. For a moment he met those dark eyes, deep beyond the man’s thirty or so years, full of much more than one that young should have opportunity to learn.
Nicodemus dropped his gaze, though he was the elder to whom respect was due. But no disrespect was given. It was something else: a knowing. A shiver rushed over his body, though the night was not yet cold but only cooler by degree than the day had been.
“Rabbi,” he said. As a Pharisee, he himself was a teacher. He had studied most of his life and enjoyed at last a place on the Sanhedrin, his nation’s ruling council. His fellow Pharisees envied this young, uneducated Galilean. No, they feared him, for they could not successfully argue with his wisdom. Nicodemus swallowed his pride, knowing that he stood before one who could teach even him.
“Rabbi,” he repeated.
The Galilean nodded in reply, and gestured toward a low wooden bench where Nicodemus seated himself. The man joined him on a similar bench set at a right angle, and a slight smile teased the corners of his mouth.
It was indeed as Nicodemus’s friend had said: the man expected this visit.
“We know you are a teacher who has come from God,” Nicodemus began. “For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
The younger man returned his gaze to the sleeping city. He rested both hands on his knees and breathed deeply as though considering his first words to his visitor.
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
A slight gasp escaped Nicodemus’s mouth, but he quickly gathered himself. How could the man have known the hidden question of his heart? Nicodemus had carefully rehearsed his first words to the popular teacher, yet it was as if they had not been spoken, as if the man saw through to his very thoughts. Did he read minds? Was this how he gained such a following?
Indeed, the teacher spoke in riddles, for man does not shrink to the form of a child, an infant, and retrace his entry to this world.
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus said, struggling to disguise his frustration. He did not want to appear rude, but this was unthinkable. He shifted on the bench and decided upon a more tactical approach. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
The dark eyes met his, so full of light though the night closed its hand upon them and only a small lamp flickered nearby. “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”
Ah, yes, the kingdom of God. Well, if the carpenter hadn’t noticed, the city struggled to stay alive in the kingdom of Rome! Nicodemus composed himself once more and studied the Galilean’s face, sensing he had more to say.
“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”
Nicodemus moved uneasily on the hard wooden seat, scrutinized, as it were, by one who could detect his masked astonishment. Oh, for a cushion upon which to rest his aging bones! How could this man speak of two things at once—the flesh and the spirit? Surely, a Sadducee would laugh him to scorn.
A sudden gust swept across the rooftop and the lamp’s flame danced and winked out, only to reappear, standing steady at the lip of the clay bowl.
“The wind blows wherever it pleases,” the carpenter said, his eyes on the lamp.
Of course, Nicodemus mused. The freedom for which Israel yearns,
“You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” The preacher paused and looked at his visitor. “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus brooded over the remark. How quickly this man grasped that which lay nearby to teach his lesson. Yes, the people were right. His words carried an unspoken authority.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus finally whispered, as if too loud a word would whip across the lamp and extinguish the flame.
At this the carpenter stood and walked again to the low northern wall of the rooftop. From the back he looked as any other poor Galilean in homespun garments and colorless leather sandals. No gray yet tinged his light hair, and Nicodemus wondered if, with his rash sayings, he would live long enough for his beard to whiten.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” the man said to the rooftops of the neighboring homes, “and you do not understand these things?” He turned then and sat on the wall, pressing his hands on its plastered surface as he leaned forward, emphasizing his words. “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.”
Nicodemus shifted his robed weight to his right hip, wondering what the Galilean meant by we.
The younger man’s demeanor softened and he regarded Nicodemus as a parent would a child who is slow to understand. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
Yes, heavenly things. That is what I came to discuss, Nicodemus thought, yet he does not answer me plainly.
At that moment the deep eyes flashed as if in response to the unspoken complaint. “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”
Nicodemus knew the reference, but why the lowly epithet?
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
The carpenter returned to the bench, leaned his forearms on his legs and studied his calloused hands. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” He paused, settling his gaze on Nicodemus. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
It was in that moment, when Nicodemus searched the carpenter’s face for the truth of his words, that a movement in the far corner of the rooftop distracted him. There, hunched against the wall with his legs pulled up to his chest, sat one of the man’s followers. From appearances, he was a fisherman, though not as poor as the carpenter. He must have stolen up the stairs as his teacher spoke; he had not been there earlier.
A strong hand touched Nicodemus’s arm, startling him, and he returned his attention to the Galilean.
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” He bent down and picked up the oil lamp, and its tiny flame cast a warm glow across his face. “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
The man’s expression, seemingly intent upon Nicodemus understanding, appeared to hold within it the very light of which he spoke. Nicodemus laid his hand over the place where the teacher had touched him, and warmth pulsed from beneath the sleeve of his rich garment. Could this man be the one, the Mashiach, he of whom the prophets spoke?
I must search the scriptures, Nicodemus decided as he stood to leave. The carpenter also stood, regarding him still, and he smiled and nodded as Nicodemus bid him good night.
At the stairway, Nicodemus looked back. The man stood again at the low wall, gazing over the city, the follower at his side. Fewer lights now flickered from neighboring housetops.
The night had finally cooled, and Nicodemus pulled his cloak over his head as he descended to the street. It would not do for a man of his stature to be seen in this part of the city, visiting a transient preacher. A faint light glowed through the high, narrow window of the living quarters, and he envied the conversations his friend would no doubt have with his guest. Stepping into the street, he headed for the upper city, the broader streets, the safer quarter.
And though he looked the same as when he had arrived, in his heart Nicodemus knew he would never be the same again.
Based on the scriptural account found in John 3:1-21 NIV.