SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT- 2017 – John 3:1-17
“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel. Today, he will be a teacher of the Church. He arrives to reveal to us what only he can reveal. He knows! That’s what he said to Jesus. He knows who Jesus is. He knows that Jesus has come from God. He knows that Jesus has done signs (miracles). He knows that Jesus is empowered by the presence of God. Nicodemus is a keen observer. From his observation, he draws conclusions. With his conclusions, he develops an idea. With this idea in mind he approaches Jesus. This is good scientific reasoning. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with a body of knowledge that allows him to enter into a conversation with Jesus. This is not simply a conversation. It is in effect a profound spiritual journey into which Nicodemus is initiated by Jesus. We who witness by sight and hearing become participants, students of a divine teacher gently leading a human teacher into a revelation from heaven. On this spiritual journey, Nicodemus will grow from a man who knows Jesus based on his miracles, to a man who finds faith, based on God’s grace.
The event I am exploring describes a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. I personally believe that the story of Nicodemus ends at verse 10, which is the real end of the dialogue. The rest of the verses through 17 go on to speak about the Son of Man, who is a person quite different from Jesus himself, as the conversation at this point is in the third person. The writer has created this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus to make a particular point about the nature of the kingdom of God and redemption. As the dialogue progresses, we get a good picture of who Nicodemus is and who Jesus is.
Nicodemus – his name means “the people’s victor.” (Is not Jesus also 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 Pharisee, a member of a religious group that regularly challenged Jesus on points of law and practice. He is also a leader of the Jews, an “archon” which means that he is a member of the Sanhedrin, the institution of justice for the people of Israel. He is called a “teacher of Israel,” which means that he is a scribe. After the crucifixion, he provides one hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. It is clear that Nicodemus is a man of great authority, learning, position and wealth. From this I conclude that it was not only the common people who listened to, and followed Jesus. People in authority like Nicodemus certainly showed an interest in him, and were probably filled with questions that troubled their souls. It is from this sector of the religious community that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. I am convinced that he does not come for his own sake only, but he appears before Jesus as a representative of the group to which he belonged, and which was certainly troubled by the activity of Jesus.
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. As a representative of his faith community he did not need the cover of darkness to speak with Jesus. The Pharisees challenged Jesus openly regularly, without fear of consequences. However, by the end of the gospel, we get an insight into the history of Nicodemus which reveals the kind of a man he was. Later in the gospel, in 7: 50-51, Nicodemus will defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin, of which he was a member, and such an action may have incurred the wrath of other members. It is clear that the Sanhedrin wanted to know who Jesus was, and what his mission was, but also that they could not reach a decision. 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, which indicates that he is also a person of means. This is the extent of what is known about Nicodemus. The fact that he comes to Jesus with questions means that he knows something about what Jesus had been doing. It is clear from the way he began the conversation that he is aware of the activity of Jesus, and that these activities, especially the miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the temple. Through his understanding of these activities, Nicodemus formed an idea of who Jesus is. What Nicodemus knows of Jesus is that he is a worker of miracles. His entire knowledge of Jesus was based on the fact that Jesus performed miracles.
Nicodemus addresses Jesus as Rabbi. He is aware (“we know”) that Jesus has performed signs and that these prove 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, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.” The kingdom of God is used only here in this passage in the gospel. 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). The writer, 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. This translation is the most appropriate and most accurate translation of the Greek word “anothen.” In others parts of the gospel the word certainly can be translated “from above” as in 3:31; 19:11, and 19:23. There are other such occurrences in the synoptic gospels also. 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 in a way different from this creation. 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. This gospel 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. No wonder that Nicodemus is astonished. His mind could not comprehend the dimension of Spirit to which Jesus points. He is not only astonished; he is completely confused. 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 transcendent. 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.
In 3:5 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” 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 an interest in sacraments, 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 the power of the divine can bring about the new birth and that the real content of power is Spirit. Verse 6 presents contrasting worlds. “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.”
Nicodemus stands in the world of flesh. 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 God, and that is being born anew, an act whose origin lies beyond his present sphere of existence.
Jesus tells Nicodemus “Do not be astonished that I said to you ‘you must be born anew.’” I stand with Nicodemus in that I am astonished 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. Such an idea leads to the anxiety of despair. It confronts Nicodemus with the existential certainty of death. From this certainty, begin the stirrings within his soul to seek life. Jesus consoles an anxious Nicodemus by using what is known to explain the unknown. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound if it, but you do not know where it comes from or where 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. The Spirit must move in order to survive. Spirit exists in movement. When it comes to rest, it dies. The spirit goes where it wills. That is its nature. It seeks out what is new, different, excitingly dangerous, taking risks to be true to itself, always challenging whatever affects us to grow us to maturity. The spirit is the playful play of futurity, daring to release from lingering the things that surreptitiously bondage us to what is merely time. The spirit is the adversary of time, of the reasonableness of quotidian accidents whose aspirations to divine will or named tragedy inevitably fail. Spirit remains spirit only as the untamed, the radical uprooting of all anchorage, the absolute freedom to will itself multitudes of divergences from the normal. Spirit has no norm, resists norming, as norming breeds permanence and conditioned definitions that seek to set the frame for freedom as community. Spirit grants a reckless, restlessness to community without which there is neither liberty nor redemption. Spirit is fulness, here, there, everywhere pervading where the human stands and takes a stand. Spirit is the transcending futurity that invites what is next and proximate to become, linger, pass. Spirit brings about what comes to pass, so that in its passing it creates a clearing for the new to dawn. Spirit is the dawning of what is new and needs to be told for the first time. Spirit is the human story, still unfolding, spreading across the expanse of soul into tomorrow. This is what is troubling to Nicodemus. He is not easily consoled. For the second time he asks, “How can these things 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, under the real threat of existential annihilation, 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. On this spiritual journey, Nicodemus is faced with a choice: flesh or Spirit, death or life.
I believe that verse 11 onwards is no longer part of the dialogue. Now, Jesus instructs Nicodemus about something different. In verse 11 Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify 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 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 except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” It is by descent, by the downward movement of the soul, by its seeking out anchorage and grounding, that it can cast its vision upwards. That the soul is grounded, cleaving itself in its primal substance, is its hope of arising. The writer 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 own 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, the writer 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 that the writer uses this analogy awkwardly to introduce a new concept. Now, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The writer 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. The writer 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. The writer of the gospel presents the story of Nicodemus to unravel for the young church the meaning of eternal life. Like many new members, Nicodemus has come to Jesus seeking answers. From his later actions in the gospel, defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin and providing for his burial, I conclude that he became a follower of Jesus. Through his conversation with Jesus, we get an insight into who he is and who Jesus is. He is therefore not only a teacher of Israel, but also a teacher of the Church.
He came to Jesus on the basis of knowledge based on miracles. He discovers that even miracles cannot be the foundation of faith, for faith itself in order to be authentic can never have a foundation. Faith is the way in which the soul understands itself, as that which is always self-surrender, in order to uncover a more original ground that turns out to be self-reflective. Faith must surrender itself repeatedly to sustain the original ground. Faith is not cumulative, nor does it accumulate. It constantly sheds whatever adheres in order to be true to itself as “pistis,” that which alone can know itself, its true nature, faith. This faith understands that it can never have a foundation and still remain faith. Faith nurtures itself through its self-surrender. On his spiritual journey, Nicodemus discovers that true life is life in the Spirit and of the Spirit. He discovers that this life is offered to his him as the free gift of God and is appropriated by faith alone. This is what it means to be born anew. The Church today continues to be the place where people are born anew through water and the Spirit. The Church, whose essential nature is the transcendental presence of the Holy Spirit, is the voice of the redeemer calling out to the world, come, be born anew, receive eternal life. Live!