15. Encounter With Nicodemus I (3:1-3)

But there was a man from the Pharisees, Nicodemus his name, a ruler of the Jews. This one came to Jesus by night and said to Him, Rabbi, we know that You have come as a teacher from God. For no one is able to do these miraculous signs which You do, except God be with Him. Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, If one is not generated from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said to Him, How is a man able to be generated, being old? He is not able to enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born? Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, If one is not generated out of water and Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. The thing having been generated out of the flesh is flesh, and that having been generated out of the Spirit is spirit. Do not wonder because I said to you, You must be generated from above. (John 3: 1-7)

The human being is born into sin which has increased as it has come down in a long line of descent from ancestors, grandparents, and parents; it has become hereditary and so has been handed down to offspring. At birth a person is born into so many inherited evils which have gradually increased, as described, that he is nothing but sin; therefore unless he undergoes regeneration he remains wholly immersed in sin. But to be regenerated, he must first undergo reformation, which is effected by means of the truths of faith; for he must learn from the Word, and from teaching drawn from it, what good is. Items of knowledge regarding what is good that have been acquired from the Word – that is, from teaching drawn from there – are called the truths of faith; for all truths of faith well up out of good and flow in the direction of good, good being the end they have in view. (Arcana Coelestia 5280)

…the Lord is continually in the process of regenerating a person, because He is continually in the process of saving him, and no one can be saved unless he is regenerated, exactly as the Lord said in John: he who is not born again cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5, 6). Regeneration is therefore the means to salvation, and charity and faith are the means to regeneration. (True Christian Religion 577)

The story of Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus contains a wealth of teaching regarding spiritual realities. For here we are introduced to every foundational truth from which a truly spiritual life can be built. Nicodemus of course is us all, he represents the mind in a state of ignorance concerning spiritual life but driven by a need to know more. He is that mind in us that struggles to move beyond the literal elements of the Word into its spiritual meanings and applications. We can see this in his struggle to understand and respond to Jesus’s statement that if a man is to even see the kingdom of God he needs to be generated from above or as other translations state it, he needs to be born again.  And that if he is to enter this kingdom that he can only do so if he is born of water and of the Spirit. Surely then, knowing what it means to be born again from a spiritual perspective, or more accurately, to be generated from above and what it means to be born of water and of the Spirit, is the most important knowledge a person can have. Over the next few articles, we will consider these very questions and we shall see that while we were somewhat passive players in our natural birth, that as far as our spiritual birth is concerned, we have a responsibility and very active role to play. And that this birth can’t happen without our effort to respond to live from the truths that we have in our possession.

Names are wonderfully revealing in the Word as we shall see from the meaning of the name Nicodemus. Names in the Word reveal the essence of the thing. And as the Word concerns itself with spiritual and celestial realities in its internal meaning, the names there have the power to provide us with insights into those things within our minds that have to do with our affectional and intellectual life. The name Nicodemus is formed from two Greek words. The first part of the name is from the word, nikos which is from the root word nike and means victor or conquest. The second part of the name is from the word demos which means the public in the sense of those who are bound together socially. In the case of the second word, demos, its root is deo which gives us more ideas as it means to bind, to be in bonds, knit, tie or wind. We get the word democracy from this word which literally means the rule of the public. The leading idea in this name is conqueror of the public. Now internally, that is spiritually, this has to do with a state within the natural mind that can muster all the various factions of complimentary, contradictory, and opposing thoughts and affections and bind them into a loosely held whole to give us a sense of a unified self. But prior to being regenerated this sense of ourselves is fragmented, being driven by every little desire or lust that can get our attention. And for those who reflect on the states of their mind, it is clear that this unified sense they have of themselves is merely an appearance.

All this is useful for it begins to form a picture of what Nicodemus might be within us. He represents a state of life that has learnt to discipline its outer behaviour from religious principles and so on an external level has applied its understanding of the Word. We see that he is described as, a ruler of the Jews and we know from our previous look at the term Jew that it spiritually means what is of a celestial quality or it’s opposite.

But there was a man from the Pharisees, Nicodemus his name, a ruler of the Jews. This one came to Jesus by night and said to Him, Rabbi, we know that You have come as a teacher from God.

And here, because Nicodemus is one who approaches Jesus and views Him in a positive light, by ‘celestial quality’ is meant a level of obedience that flows from a positive regard for spiritual things. But it is of a low order for it is in the dark, it is night time, and so is motivated by natural concerns and aspirations.

Nicodemus is not totally opposed to spiritual things, but he is certainly ignorant of them and so this offers an illustration of how the Lord draws us to Himself despite the our sense of self being still bound up in the natural man or mind. As a ruler of the Jews then we have described a ruling principle of the natural mind and it’s a principle that sits within natural religious thinking for he is also described as a man from the Pharisees.

There is a state of being ‘religious’ prior to being regenerated, and it is a state in which we think we are spiritual but are actually still naturally minded. In this state there is often a sense of pride or superiority in religious and spiritual matters and this manifests in our tendency to see the truths of the Word as something that applies to others and not to ourselves. The term Pharisee means separate and is a term that reflects how a natural understanding of spiritual things, used to support our proprium’s sense of superiority and intellectual pride, leads to various forms of inner and outer disconnection and separation in our lives. The Pharisees represent the tendencies found in our natural man or proprium that tend toward religious arrogance and intellectual pride – ‘that we know best’. This is where where we all begin when we seriously consider taking up the spiritual life and in Nicodemus we have an illustration how we can be led by the Lord into contact with something deeper in the Word, despite our self interest in spiritual matters.

There are powerful forces at work in our natural mind that seek to conceal our desperate need for the Word. These are the concepts and ideas that blind us to the fact that our proprium is absolutely opposed to spiritual life – they convince us that we aren’t so bad. This is why we need the Word and doctrine drawn from it. Because despite how we think we might see things, the light of truth from the Word is able to open us up to the internal state of our life and of how things really are. The lower part of us exists in all kinds of uncleanness, things like: pride, arrogance, envy, jealousy, and is constantly justifying the rightness of its position in relation to others. The problem with these rationalisations is that when we are in these states, we can’t see them because they are states in which we are convinced that ‘we are right, that we are ok’.

Anyone who thinks that their proprium isn’t a problem is not in touch with what the Word and what the doctrines for Spiritual Christianity teach concerning the state of the human mind. For Divine revelation is given in order that we can form a true perspective of the state of our ‘self’ when it is separated from the Lord and its function is to show us the illusionary worlds of the proprium’s own creation and hence of our need for the Lord as our Saviour. So spiritual life is a constant working on our inner life.

The way to discovering what that work might be on a personal level is to take hold of the rational faculty that the Lord has given us and begin to use it for the purpose for which it was designed. It is given to us so that we can understand truths and learn what good is. No one can make us do this, but we have been given all that we need to explore the Word with an explicit aim of seeking to have revealed by the Lord what it is that He requires of us. The Lord gives every person the ability to learn of Him and to act in freedom so that our understanding of the Word might become expressed in a life according to its truths. Rationality and freedom are the two Divine endowments in every person who is of a sound mind; they are the two pillars of our humanity. How we use these gifts is over to us, we are responsible in our use of them, and we can use them to pursue the spiritual life, or we can use them to pursue the natural life.

Nicodemus represents our first awareness that mere intellectual knowledge of Word and external compliance to religious traditions is not enough. That there is more to the Word and that this goes beyond it merely serving as something for the outskirts of our life. We can see this in the literal elements of the story. Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, one versed in knowledge about God but not in the practice of that knowledge as a matter of life. And this is the difference between a natural approach to spiritual life and a genuinely spiritual approach. This lack of practice is seen in the statement that he came to Jesus by night. This coming in the night speaks of the state of mind that is bound up in a purely natural, historical understanding of the Word which obscures the spiritual quality of truth that lies within the letter. Our salvation from the dominance of the external natural man lies within the Word, in its spiritual meaning, for it is this alone that can address our false beliefs and misguided affections. But it is only revealed to those who are willing to acknowledge that the Word is Divine, that it is in fact the Lord.

No one can live from the Word as a matter of spiritual life until they acknowledge it is Divine, for it is only then that a person is in the kind of humility that sees them submit their own natural ideas and perspectives to the authority of what the Text teaches. This kind of acknowledgement is not of the lips, it’s of the life. In other words, saying that one believes that the Word is Divine and has authority in our life – doesn’t make it so for it is only so when we respond to this truth by actually living it. And we live from it when we engage with the Word with a view to applying its truths – when we seek to have it show us about the nature of the quality of the thoughts and affections that we entertain, so that we might then look to the Lord to have our evils or selfish tendencies removed.

The beginning state of this shift in how we regard the Word is described by Nicodemus and we can see that it involves a struggle to get anything from it. We are still in need of the keys to open it up for us – so the beginning of this state is described by this approach of Nicodemus to Jesus as something corresponding to our approach to the Word. The inner things are not clear at first and we, like Nicodemus, seem to be approaching the Word in the dark. But we must begin somewhere and of course as with any move into new areas of knowledge and practise, we begin in ignorance. This is a given, and so we initially struggle. We can, on the one hand, see intellectually, that ‘yes, the Word points to things deeper’. We see flashes of its power as we gain our first insights. In those moments we can see things clearly when the deeper things of the Word are explained to us and we see that there is certainly more to it than meets the eye from a surface reading of it. All these moments are like the signs that Nicodemus talks about and attributes to the Lord.

For no one is able to do these miraculous signs which You do, except God be with Him.

These signs draw us to the living Word. Yet when we come back to it on our own, often the darkness returns. We find that without the help of others we struggle to see beyond its surface. We are in the darkness once again, of reading its words and taking their meanings literally.

But perhaps we can say of the Word what Nicodemus says of Jesus,

…we know that You have come as a teacher from God…For no one is able to do these signs which you do, except God be with Him.

Such an admission, while a long way from seeing that the Word is the Lord, is the first state of awareness that there is more to the Word than what we meet on its surface. We may not know what the true nature of the Word is but our limited understanding of it and our experience of it being able to meet our needs is enough to know that it has the power to transform our life. In these things we see signs that indicate that it must be from God. So, while the intellect is in darkness due to its inability to extract itself from a natural, historical understanding of the Word, there is certainly something deeper – a deep set yearning that draws us on to explore the it. This drawing can only be from the Lord Himself, for any genuine search that inspires a person to consult the Word for light and understanding is from the Lord, and we have the promise that if we persevere, we will be rewarded. The Word will speak to us, and we will hear teaching that will point us in the way of eternal life…

Jesus answered and said to him, truly, truly, I say to you, If one is not generated from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.

Here is a foundational truth for the spiritual life. In other translations it reads that a man must be born again, but the idea is the same – we must undergo a birth of a different quality and order to that of a natural birth if we are even to see the kingdom of God. This kingdom is within us when the Word is in us. The kingdom of God is the internal sense of the Word, it is within its letter but without this higher birth we cannot see its inner spiritual laws and principles for our life. This is not something that the natural man can grasp, as seen in Nicodemus’s confusion, for he takes the words too literally which we are all prone to do. We must be generated out of water and Spirit if we are to enter into the wonders of this kingdom and this, as we shall see next time, is not something mysterious or vague but has very real practical applications for us.

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