John 3:1-17 - Nicodemus Visits Jesus
1) Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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) Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” 5) Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6) What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7) Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” 9) Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10) Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 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. 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? 13) No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14) And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15) that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 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. 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.” (NRSV)
Background to John’s Gospel: John’s gospel is significantly different from the other three. John is less concerned with chronological biography and more concerned with theology. His work is mystical, mysterious, and full of signs and symbols. Everything in John means more than would appear on the surface. Scholars joke that John is more concerned with truth than facts. Simply put, the Gospel of John is written to nurture faith in Jesus so that the individual might gain “life”. It is somewhat evangelistic in tone, but more concerned with addressing a community of believers to help them strengthen their faith in the midst of critical crises. The issues they faced were conflicts over authority, the crisis of martyrdom, the threat of heresy, the mission to the Samaritans and how to form a community identity apart from the synagogue. Much recent debate has suggested that the community to which the Gospel was addressed had only recently been expelled from the synagogue thus accounting for its remarkable Jewish character and its extreme exclusivity. Others maintain that the work is addressed to an almost exclusively Gentile community. What is clear is that the issue for John is RELATIONSHIP with Jesus Christ and what that means for religious and personal life NOW. John uses many symbols and contrasts in his gospel; light and darkness, miracles and doubting, love and betrayal. John’s use of symbols and contrasts allows the gospel to carry all of the layers of meaning of poetry. John wants the story to unfold IN us, to bloom in us, little by little, layer by layer, deeper and deeper.
Words with double meanings: In this passage John uses two very important words that carry double meanings. They are very difficult to translate. In English we have to choose one meaning and relegate the other to a footnote. That gives the impression that one meaning is primary and the other secondary. That is very damaging to the text. In Greek both meanings are held together in the words and are always brought to mind when the words are used. One is not subordinate to the other. They play off of each other. John loves those kinds of words. In our passage the words are anothen (meaning “from above” and “again” or “anew”) and pneuma (meaning “spirit” and “wind”). To choose one meaning over the other is to miss the complexity of what Jesus is says.
Vs. 1 – Now – this word links the story to what has just gone before. Jesus is in Jerusalem and we are beginning to see the public’s response to him. He moves in this passage from the public teaching arena to an encounter with an individual. Even so Nicodemus represents others as well.
Pharisee – one of the religious parties of the Jewish faith. Pharisees believed in strict observance of the Law. They LOVED the Law and saw it as the avenue to a holy life and right standing with God. They found God revealed in the Law and wanted it preserved. They were enormously influential and fairly progressive for their day.
Leader of the Jews – this phrase probably indicates that Nicodemus was a member of the highest Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He is mentioned only in John and later comes to represent those high placed Jewish leaders who hesitantly became believers in Jesus.
Vs. 2 – came – It is significant that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. That was considered the first step of discipleship.
night – this word has rich symbolic meaning. It was used to refer to the realm of evil, to untruth, to ignorance or separation from the presence of God. John uses many dualities in his gospel to help readers see the stark contrasts between the life of faith and the life of unbelief. This is one he uses repeatedly. Here, too, he intends us to see in Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus at night, a stealth and fear of the reaction of the Jews.
Rabbi…teacher…from God – Nicodemus begins his questions by stating three things that he knows about Jesus’ identity. “From God” was a common phrase used of prominent religious figures who acted as emissaries from God.
Vs. 3 – see – this word means “to experience, to encounter, to participate in”.
Kingdom of God – common in the other Gospels, this passage is the only place the phrase it used in John. Remember that for John the kingdom is not a place. It is a relationship that spans time and place.
Born from above/born again – This phrase refers to something that happens (new life and new access to God), and the source of what happens (God’s Spirit).
Vs. 6 – flesh – a symbolic word that implies weakness and mortality.
Spirit/wind – refers to the life force of God as well as to divine power at work in the human sphere. The key word to remember in conjunction with the Spirit is POWER, especially the power to accomplish God’s purposes.
Vs. 7 – you – this word is plural. Jesus is not just telling Nicodemus what he needs. He is telling all of us what we all need.
Vs. 8 – sound – lit. voice. This is a play on the beautiful double meaning of pneuma: The sound of the wind, the voice of the Spirit.
Vs. 10 – understand – ginosko – knowledge from experience
Vs. 11 – speak – this is a special word in the type of Greek in which the scriptures were written (Koine Greek). In classical Greek the word is uncommon and means “chatter”. In Koine it becomes specialized and refers to the revealed word or sacred speech. It is often used in Acts to refer to the spread of the gospel.
Vs. 12 – earthly things – kosmos – collective mindset – sometimes benign some times malignant – a compendium of group think, unreflective, unconscious, in contrast to world, mindset, group think that God brings into being.
Vs. 13 – Son of Man – complex concept used differently by different Gospel writers
1. OT – bar nasha – poetic human being or chosen inspired prophet
2. NT – 69 times, 12 in John – usually how Jesus refers to himself
a. His earthly work – Mt. 9:6-7
b. His lowly state – Mt. 8:20
c. mortality and impending death
d. John – Ho anthropos – THE Man – the cosmic human, the complete Vs. 14 – lifted up – double meaning – refers to both Cross and glory. Either is meaningless without the other.
Vs. 15 – believes – three distinct meanings in John and for his community.
1. to accept that the nature and essence of God is as Jesus described: i.e. love. This was hard for people who had been trained to believe that God was a judge who would exact harsh penalties for sin.
2. to accept that Jesus was God. John and his community were not concerned with physiology but rather with the fact that Jesus’ interpretation of the nature of God was reliable because the very essence of God resided in him.
3. To stake everything, to rely upon at all cost
Eternal Life – the life, energy, power of God available to human beings now and forever. Eternal life is a gift from God in Christ and has several results in this life
1. peace with God – move out of a cringing frightened position with God
2. peace with others – that led to forgiving others out of gratitude for the forgiveness of God
3. peace with the life we live now – did not always produce insight or understanding about why things are the way they are but rather allowed people to live without resentment
4. Peace with self – because we are loved by and at peace with God we can give up internal guilt and condemnation. This is the result of recognizing as Augustine put it, that we are each loved as if we were the only one to love.
5. Growing hope for this kind of peace to be made perfect in eternity
Vs. 16 – loved – agape – choose to act for the ultimate benefit of, be firmly attached to, hesed.
Gave – to bestow, describes the source
Only son – literally the Unique Son
Perish – be destroyed utterly, obliterated
Vs. 17 – saved – made whole, complete, finished, repaired, deliver from danger
Condemnation/judgment – in John there is no incompatibility between God’s love and God’s judgment. To the contrary judgment is a result of love. Where it is painful, the pain comes through the faulty choices of human beings. Judgment in John is essentially light shedding. It is always for the purpose of deepening or restoring relationship. John rarely uses judgment in the way that Matthew does, that is, as a day in the future when good will be separated from bad. In John, judgment happens all the time and is simply the living out of the consequences of choosing something other than God as primary in life and running from truth into pretense.
Questions for Reflection
1. In what ways do you think that Christ can enter into a person’s life?
2. How have you experienced the kind of starting over Jesus offers?
3. What do you think it means to live as a ‘child of light’ in your family? In our church? In our community?
4. In what ways do you need to start over from scratch today?