Strangers in the Night

What Parents, Pastors and students can learn from the story of Jesus and Nicodemus

The story of Jesus’ nightly meeting with Nicodemus is a paradigm for Christian conversion.  Though different than, say, Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus road, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus brings about the same results: a life transformed by the good news.

Since the duty of all Christian parents and youth workers is to foster relationships and communities in which students are “born from above,” there is much we can learn from Jesus and Nicodemus about effective youth ministry.  Let’s consider these five points.

1. Every student needs to be rescued

The first thing we learn from this story is that being “born again” is not for a particular type of person (e.g., unchurched, uncultured, uneducated, immoral, downtrodden). Nicodemus was a polished, accomplished man: a religious expert, with lots of power and influence. In today’s world he might be an Ivy League Department Chair or the Dean at a prestigious private school.  He is also humble! We know this because he seeks out Jesus and honors him by calling him “Rabbi” (v. 2). 

But even Nicodemus needed to be rescued. The “polished and accomplished” people like Nicodemus must be “born from above.”  No doubt John included this story so that we might all see and experience the stark contrast between religion and the gospel, between being “well-respected” and “re-created.” As a parent my heart’s desire for our son will always be for him to be a “well-rounded” individual, but our primary prayer and pursuit is for his “re-creation.” As a youth pastor, my hope is the same for my students.

2. The new birth is a process

Though God’s act of new creation occurs in an instant, one’s experience of the new birth can be a recognizable process that occurs in stages.  Notice this process in Nicodemus’ life.  First, we see that by exposure to Jesus, Nicodemus’ worldview is challenged, compelling him to learn more (v. 1). Once confronted with God’s truth Nicodemus doesn’t flee; rather, he carefully continues (vv. 3-21). Finally, we find him in Christian community, standing boldly at the grave of Jesus, a life transformed (John 19:39).

Sometimes we don’t see transformation in the lives of our students as quickly as we would like.  Let us be encouraged by Nicodemus, remembering that our task is to point our students to Christ at each of the varying stages of their spiritual journey.

3. Take a risk

Often we are very interested in people we don’t know everything about. Curiosity draws us in, and we want to know more. In his curiosity with Jesus, Nicodemus takes a big risk to find out more about him. Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he recognizes that God is doing something unique in him, even though he is not sure what (v. 2)! The point is: take a risk! Not having all the answers shouldn’t give us pause. Like Nicodemus, our curiosity about Jesus should spurn us on to know him better (and to help our students do the same).

4. Get alone with Jesus

Nicodemus’ first meeting with Jesus was a private one.  Often it is in getting alone with Jesus that the difficult questions can even begin to be answered.  For us, this happens by reflective prayer through God’s Word and being part of a maturing Christian community.  Getting alone with Jesus is never easy and takes discipline and prioritization by the parents and the students.

Spending this kind of quality time with Christ may not always be “convenient.” Getting to Jesus was inconvenient for Nicodemus. Understandably, this touches a nerve inside us because convenience is a core-value of highly scheduled people. Yet, it must not be a determining factor in the spiritual development of our kids.

5. Find ways to provide “cover”

Lastly, Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of darkness because he felt he had to (v.1). Later on, in chapter 19, he stands with Joseph of Arimathea, “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (v. 38). Many are curious about Jesus. Others are “closet Christians” with social barriers making open Christian community seemingly impossible. With this passage we see that a faithful commitment to Christ can begin and grow in secret.

Remembering that the new birth is a process, how might we shepherd all students well and provide the initial “cover” to enable further dialogue and community with Christ?  One practical way might be through making use of text-messages. In our youth ministry we make it a habit to provide a phone number where students are encouraged to text in any questions or prayers they might have. In the hours, days, and weeks following conferences or retreats anonymous students curious about Christ seek him out and text in questions.  I don’t know if they would if there was not some initial “cover” provided.


David Plant serves as Assistant Pastor and Community Group Director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church's downtown New York City campus.  He formerly served as the Director of Youth Ministry for Redeemer.

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