Lent II – John 3:1-17
“A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude.” Walt Whitman
Nicodemus – his name means “the people’s victor.” It is a common name, but not much is known of this particular individual. However, what is known about him reveals him as a man of singular courage. He is a ruler of the Jews. He is called a “teacher of Israel,” which implies that he is a scribe. It is unimportant that he comes to Jesus “by night,” as if to say he does not want to be seen in the presence of Jesus. Later, in 7: 50-51, Nicodemus will defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin that is having trouble deciding who Jesus is and what to do about him. Nicodemus insists that matters about Jesus be decided on points of law. Nicodemus will appear again after the death of Jesus in 19:39f. where he will join Joseph of Arimathea in removing the body of Jesus from the cross and preparing it for burial. Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to do this. This is the extent of what is known about Nicodemus.
Nicodemus addresses Jesus as Rabbi. He is aware (“we know”) that Jesus has performed signs and that these indicate that “God is with him.” This is reminiscent of the Prologue where “the Word was with God,” and the Word became flesh. The story of Nicodemus takes us back to the beginning, and this is one of the most important features of this story. One may say that the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus was itself the prologue to the rest of his life. He approaches with a question, but before Nicodemus can ask his question Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is used only in this passage in John. It is a common idea in the synoptic gospels. Jesus says unless one is born anew he cannot see (verse 3) or enter (verse 5) the kingdom of God. The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Synoptics begins with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” However, “repent” and “born anew” do not share the same content. Nowhere in John do we find the term “repent.” (metanoia). John, however, is not alone in his use of “born anew.” The term occurs in I Peter 1: 3, 23; and Titus 3:5. It appears, then, that the idea of being born anew was already a part of the vocabulary of the young church.
Does Jesus read the mind of Nicodemus? I don’t believe so. Jesus is called Rabbi, and Nicodemus is called a teacher of Israel. They are both aware of words and meanings in the faith that is common to them. When Nicodemus says no one can do these things unless “God was with him,” that statement is identical to “no one can do these things unless he is already living in the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knows that Jesus already participates in the kingdom of God on the basis of the signs that Jesus has done.
Jesus perceives that Nicodemus’ unspoken question is “how does one come to belong to the kingdom of God?” Jesus replies, you must be born anew. The word “anew” is the most appropriate and most accurate translation of the Greek word. Jesus is saying that this present creation that gave birth to Nicodemus holds no possibility of allowing him entrance into the kingdom of God. Hence, Nicodemus must be born anew. The meaning of “anew” is that Nicodemus must have a completely new origin, a completely new beginning, because that is the only way into the kingdom of God. Just as Jesus is from the beginning so also must be Nicodemus.
The gospel of John is quite different from the Synoptic gospels on this point. John does not know of the tradition of the virgin birth. Jesus has always existed from the beginning and it is as “the beginning” that he enters into human history. In other words, Jesus enters the sphere of the human as the Alpha, and it is as the Alpha he discloses the nature and presence of the kingdom of God. Chapter 3 must be read in light of the Prologue of the gospel. “In the beginning was the Word,” and the beginning in this context is not a point of time. The beginning is the incipient source of all that has come to be. The beginning, where the “new” emerges and comes to stand, is presented to Nicodemus as being born “anew.” It is to this source that Jesus points Nicodemus. You must be born from that which is new and which always remains new because it is from that source that the kingdom of God emerges and manifests itself among humans.
Nicodemus’ question in verse 4 indicates that he does not understand what Jesus has just said. At the same time the impossibility of the idea of natural rebirth shows clearly that what is at issue is not a physical matter but something that transcends the physical. Nicodemus is still very much a part of this present creation, the natural world from which it is impossible to be born anew. He cannot understand rebirth in any way other than physical. Jesus invites Nicodemus to expand his thinking, to entertain a different point of view, to see his life from a different perspective. It is a fact that I did not bring about my own birth. I came into a world that had arrived ahead of me and was already prepared to offer me a geography, history and culture that would shape me to their configurations. By myself I cannot change the given. Yet, neither I nor Nicodemus remain hopeless.
In 3:5 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” This is the word of hope that Nicodemus hears for the first time. The testimony of John the Baptist in 1:32-34 about Jesus, brings together baptism and Spirit. Jesus clarifies for Nicodemus what he means by being “born anew.” Jesus does not refer to baptism in this passage. It is very likely that the phrase “born of water” was not an original part of the story but was inserted much later in the developmental stages of the gospel. The gospel of John does not have a sacramentalist point of view, so it is unlikely that what is implied here is some idea of baptism. It is likely that Jesus tells Nicodemus that entry into the kingdom of God is through the Spirit. Here the Spirit is not some kind of disembodied entity that is at work in the world. It is the power present in Jesus, 1:12, that Nicodemus has seen in the signs that Jesus performed. Spirit proper is none other than God acting to renew and transform the life of Nicodemus, and therefore also of the church. Spirit is creative activity and transformative power, and both point to Christian life determined by a power that is other than itself. Jesus is saying that to be born anew is to be born of the Spirit. The Spirit is the origin and primal source of all that is and if Nicodemus is to participate in the kingdom of God he must come to understand that born anew and born of the Spirit and the kingdom of God are all one and the same thing: to be thrown forward by the beginning which is present in every “now” making new all creation that will finally be revealed as “Spirit.” The answer that Jesus gives is that only a miracle can bring about the new birth and that the real content of miracle or sign is Spirit. Verse 6 is the definition of the miracle. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.” Nicodemus stands between flesh and Spirit. As long as his life is determined by flesh he will dwell within chaos, the inevitable disorder of his world and his existence, and ultimately everlasting death. At the same time, Nicodemus by his own self or will cannot choose the life of the Spirit. Life in the flesh cannot break out of itself; it can be only what it already always is: the inevitable march towards death. Life in the Spirit is given to him only as a free gift of the God, and that is being born anew by a miracle, an act whose origin lies beyond his present sphere of existence.
Jesus tells Nicodemus “Do not marvel that I said to you ‘you must be born anew.’” I stand with Nicodemus in that I do marvel at what I am hearing. This makes no sense to one who lives according to the flesh. Like Nicodemus, I marvel that what I have heard so far convinces me that this new birth, which is another name for salvation, is beyond my reach. Jesus consoles a somewhat anxious Nicodemus by using what is known to explain the unknown. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound if it, but you do not know whence it came and whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The example is one of origin and destiny. Whoever is born of the Spirit has a past and a future that inhabits the unknown but is nevertheless present because it can be experienced. Nicodemus is not easily consoled. For the second time he asks, “How can this be?” Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel; he carries within himself the content of the definition of Israel. However, that content still belongs to the natural world, the existence in the flesh. There is nothing in life after the flesh that can understand what it is like to live in the Spirit.
Verse 11 is curious. Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive out testimony.” The singular personal pronoun is replaced by the plural. Jesus speaks of “we.” There are serious problems with this verse, and it has been suggested that it does not belong here. I’m not sure that I can make sense of it. In 3:2 Nicodemus came to Jesus saying “we know” even though he seemed to be speaking for himself. Is Jesus using the same linguistic technique? Perhaps the “we” refers to the early church that is bearing witness to the “world,” and the world does not receive this witness. In the Prologue, “he came to his own people and his own received him not.” It seems as if both the testimony and the bearer of the testimony are rejected. In the next verse Jesus returns to the singular pronoun speaking of “earthly things” and “heavenly things.”
What constitutes “earthly things,” and “heavenly things”? This is not made clear since Jesus has been speaking so far only of being born anew. Is being born anew an earthly thing or a heavenly thing? The contrast is again flesh and Spirit, below and above, earth and heaven. This verse stands as a transition to the next thought. “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” John is using Gnostic imagery and ideas to present his message. This makes it likely that his congregation was aware of these ideas and even that Gnostic beliefs were already a part of the practice of the church as Paul discovered in his ministry at Corinth. Jesus speaks of the Son of man in the third person. He seems to create some space between himself and the Son of man, and I believe that this space is meant to be filled by faith. It is faith that allows the believer to see in Jesus the Son of man. In the ascent of the Son of man to heaven, presumably something that will be witnessed, that faith will arise. Perhaps verse 13 is what constitutes heavenly things. However, it is difficult to make sense of an ascent that comes before a descent. It appears in this verse that the ascension, glorification of the Son of man is spoken as prior to the incarnation, the descent into humanity under the conditions of flesh. If the Son of man is to be exalted, is it not because first of all “the word became flesh”? In any case, incarnation and exaltation belong together theologically.
The following verses seem to attempt an explanation. In 3:15 the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is compared to the lifting up of the Son of man. His being lifted up is another way of expressing his ascent or exaltation. Again, John is using something that is known (the story of the bronze serpent) to explain what is unknown (the exaltation of the Son of man). But this at once presents another difficulty, for the serpent and the Son of man have nothing in common. It appears the John uses this analogy awkwardly to introduce a new concept. Now, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” John has transitioned from “born anew,” to the “kingdom of God,” to “eternal life.” Eternal life is a comprehensive concept that integrates within itself all that has been said so far. John has been moving his readers gradually from unbelief to the possibility of belief. He is saying now that the possibility exists for them to believe in heavenly things, which is none other than eternal life.
Life in the Spirit is accomplished in the incarnation and exaltation of the Son of man. Being born of the Spirit is now finally defined as eternal life. This is confirmed in 3:16. It becomes clear now that the Son of man is none other than “his only Son.” The divine motive is also made clear: the work of the Son is the result of the love of the Father. The ascent and descent of the Son, his incarnation and exaltation, constitute the work of salvation. God has sent his Son to save the world not to judge it. Salvation comes about through the love of God.
“A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude.” Walt Whitman’s newer garden is the Prairie States, teeming with life, crowded, loud, boisterous. In his garden there is no room for primal solitude. In the original creation, the Lord says, “It is not good for man to be alone,” Genesis 2:18. Adam, whose life was primal solitude, is split into two creatures. He is no longer alone. One becomes two, and the primal unity that gave rise to primal solitude is ruptured forever. In the Prologue to the gospel, the divine unity is itself ruptured with the incarnation of the Son. The created son (Adam) and the uncreated Son (Jesus) both experience the movement from unity to multiplicity. The one has become many. The incarnation is itself the New Creation, life arising in and flowing from the uncreated Unity of the divine. The incarnation is a dynamic event that moves through history initiating in every “now” the source of what comes next. That source becomes repeatedly the origin of what is new. In the new world which comes about through faith in the exalted One who conceals the incarnate One, there is a community of faith that rejoices in its salvation. In this new creation, the Church, the Communion of Saints, there is no primal solitude. The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice!