If there were such a thing as a “believing agnostic,” Nicodemus would be one. On the one hand he provides the reader with a most unusual witness. He is a Pharisee who admits what others refuse to say publicly: “We know you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” The Apostle John could not have wished for a clearer statement about Jesus. Thus, we have a man who believes, perhaps not the saving faith that acts upon belief, but at least someone who believes that God acts in the life of Christ.

Yet Nicodemus has an agnostic side. An agnostic is usually defined as someone who is not sure whether God exists, That is not exactly his thinking. Rather, when Jesus begins to talk about being born again and about the action of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus isn’t too sure of these things. He can’t fathom the meaning of “born again” and can only think of physical birth. A spiritual rebirth transcends what he can understand; he appears doubtful about the action of the Holy Spirit like an agnostic is doubtful about the existence of God. Though he believes in God, he is unsure what a spiritual rebirth is.

The Mystery of Rebirth

The rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit takes center stage in Jesus’ discussion with him. Entering the Kingdom of God demands this first step of being “born again.” To some, the use of water and the Spirit comes as a surprise since much of the discussion throughout John’s gospel points us more to the spiritual side of things. Yet the symbolism of washing includes a physical element that we find essential to the Apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-4, among many other passages). Baptism is a cleansing, a burial and resurrection from the dead, and a renewal by the Holy Spirit.

Nicodemus may reveal a side that many of us possess. We can recognize in Jesus a life that reflects the presence of God but hesitate when confronted with our personal need for rebirth and redemption. Individual reasons for hesitation are too numerous for this post, but John reveals part of our hesitation.


Jesus predicted the cross by the allusion to an Old Testament story about a snake that we lifted up and provided healing from those who had been bitten by poisonous vipers (Numbers 21:4-9). By implication, though we may not see it, we need healing. In this same discussion Jesus paints a picture of the darkness that keeps us from coming into the light (John 3:19-20). People prefer the darkness for fear of being exposed. Might that be a reason for our hesitation to believe?

Perhaps our doubts and hesitations to believe fall somewhere between Nicodemus’ uncertainty and the unwillingness to expose our evil behavior. Perhaps to help us, this Gospel moves abruptly to John the Baptist, and maybe his witness to Jesus’ heavenly origins (3:31-36) will turn us closer to a saving faith and to eternal life that comes with it. The Apostle John wants nothing less.

See Conversation on John 3 here.

© Robert T. Weber, 2022