Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Mr. Smucker Speaks: Identifying with Nicodemus

I recently read through John 3, the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night.  As I read the conversation, I had a unique experience:  I related to Nicodemus in ways I seldom do with people in Scripture. 

We are told three facts about Nicodemus. From those, we assume other things, and from his conversation with Jesus we can deduce several more things. We know that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, probably a life-long Pharisee which means he was a religious conservative.  We know his name was Nicodemus.  He was a ruler among his people.  He was not a dramatic man like some of the scribes and Pharisees.    I am a life-long Mennonite and a religious conservative.  My name is Paul.  For 25 years I was an undramatic minister among the Mennonite people.

When Nicodemus came to question Jesus, he did not do it like it seemed most of the scribes and Pharisees did.  He was not dramatic.  He did not create a scene.  He seemed to be older, and trying to piece things together.  He seemed to know all about the law of Moses and how things were to be.  He seemed to know about God.  But then Jesus appeared.  John does not tell us if Nicodemus ever saw a miracle or ever heard Jesus preach.  But it is easy to infer that Nicodemus was troubled because he saw that Jesus was definitely from God, but he was so different and he taught things so differently.  So Nicodemus decided to visit Jesus, address him respectfully,  and try to figure things out.  

Toward the beginning of their conversation, Jesus introduced a brand new concept, the new birth, that Nicodemus had never been taught and could hardly wrap his mind around.  Nicodemus responded with questions.  Jesus answered the questions with comparison between physical birth and spiritual birth and statements like being born of water and born of the Spirit which we still don’t know for sure what it means.  Then Jesus states that Nicodemus should just accept what Jesus says and realize that there are some things our human mind has trouble comprehending about God and how he works.  He uses wind for an example.  Jesus reminds Nicodemus that he recognizes wind.  He hears it and feels it, but he cannot control it, nor will he ever understand how it comes and where it goes and why at times there are wind gusts.  Today the wind is still beyond complete human understanding.  Being born again is the same way.  We see the effects and hear the effects and can understand it to a certain degree, but there is a lot about it that Jesus knew Nicodemus would never fully understand or comprehend, even when he explained it.

Nicodemus answers, how can these things be?  There is not enough context to say for sure, but to me Nicodemus seems to be saying, “How can it be that there is a spiritual concept I have not been taught and that you are telling me I cannot understand?  I am Nicodemus.  I am a ruler of the Jews.  God has given us the law.  I have studied it.  Surely somewhere in the law is the answer.   How can it be that being born again is a true concept and God never distinctly mentioned it before?”

Jesus’s response was to state that it was okay for master of Israel who has studied the law and who was a follower of God to not know things.  Jesus implied there were a lot of earthly things and heavenly things God would not tell us because our human brains would have trouble understanding it.  Nicodemus needed to be okay with that, and it appears he was.  Jesus then proceeded to tell Nicodemus about the brass serpent being lifted up and compared that to himself being lifted up and then the wonderful verses 15 and 16 --15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

These wonderful concepts were all brand new things for Nicodemus, things he had never been taught.  Things that were not immediately supported by what he already knew.  It was hard, but Nicodemus made tremendous growth that evening with Jesus.  Even though it was difficult, he seems to have enjoyed what he was learning.  Nicodemus, as far as we know, remained a Pharisee, a ruler in Israel.  He believed in Jesus.  He had eternal life.  We are told in John 7 that Nicodemus defended Jesus in a public way and in John 19 that Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial.  Nicodemus in his older years realized that even though he was a leader, he was a smart man, and he had studied scripture, he needed to be careful how he formed and expressed his opinions. He also needed to be open to learning and growing even though it was hard and made him end up at a new, unforeseen place.

Growing, learning, and changing are hard work. When I was a young child it was a natural process to grow and learn, even though I had to work hard at learning from my parents and teachers. I worked hard in high school and college. Marriage, children, teaching school, doing ministry in the church, and running a business added to the work of growing older. Now that I am mostly retired, at times it is tempting to sit back and stop learning and growing and changing as I get older.  

Recently I have watched older Christian leaders grappling with new ideas which confront things they have been taught from an early age and that they have always believed.  Things that are based on Scripture, and implied by Scripture, but not definitely stated in Scripture.  As I have participated with these leaders, I have been struck with how important it is to recognize my own limitations and to realize that there might be a lot about what I have learned and been taught about eternity, raising children, and controlling people under my authority that God cannot show to me because I have a frail human mind.  I need to work at forming my opinions, but I also need to be able to understand, like Nicodemus, that some things God will not try to explain to me because I might not be able to understand.  That is growth that is very hard for an older person and I struggle at times with being willing to say “This is what I think it means.” If God did not say that specifically in Scripture and I reach my conclusion because of implications and inferences, I need to reach the place where I can say, “This is what I think God is saying” rather than “This is what I know God is saying.”

A week and a half ago I was with my aunt and some cousins and their wives. We began talking about how much water we needed to drink, difficulties with leg cramps, hearing issues, and other older people health issues.  Someone made the comment that growing old is hard and involves hard work, but it still can be fun.  I was reminded of that on Friday when I organized an overnight canoe trip on the Willamette River like I had done numerous times up until maybe 10 years ago.  I had not been in a canoe since I had my fall over 3 years ago.  Planning took a lot of work to find paddles and gather the canoes and fix the trailer.  It was hard, but a lot of fun.  

Once on the river, paddling was much harder.  With one bum arm, I could not handle being in the back of the canoe, but the sense of freedom I felt by paddling a canoe was intensified by the realization that with hard work, much harder work than when I was younger, I could still enjoy paddling a canoe down the river. We observed red-tailed hawks attacking a bald eagle which flipped over at the moment of attack, and we saw a deer swim the river.  Paddling was hard work, but probably more fun as an older person than it was as a younger person. Like Nicodemus, I want to never give up on learning and growing.

The day after the canoe trip, Mr. Smucker hiked up Mary's Peak.

He joined us for a few minutes of the weekly Red Barn Coffee Hour.
He didn't drink coffee, though.


  1. Thank you, Paul

  2. Paul, you are an amazing man! I’ve always had a great respect for you! May God keep you growing and learning!!

  3. How encouraging!! I may just get my kayak out again !! I'm sure I can get in , but, the getting out may pose some hysterical moments , if anyone is watching !! LoL

  4. Thought provoking

  5. Thank you for bringing new light to this familiar passage.

  6. Thank you for sharing, a lesson for me today and days to come.

  7. Thank you Brother Paul. Thank you for encouraging us to never give up learning and growing in the ways of the Lord.

  8. Thank-you for this!
    -from someone at the center of one of these conflicts