Second Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2011
Commentary on the Texts
This reading is also used for the
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost:
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The story of Nicodemus in John 3:1-17 is a take-off from the last three verses of chapter 2. In 2:23-25 John says that many in Jerusalem believed in Jesus because they saw the signs that he was doing. For John, this type of faith falls short of what genuine faith ought to be. John goes on to say that Jesus did not entrust himself to such believers "because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone" (2:24-25). We need to keep this summary statement in mind as we look at the story in chapter 3.
The first statement of Nicodemus is a confession that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God because "no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God" (3:2). On the surface this may sound like authentic faith. But if the previous statement in chapter 2 is kept in mind, what Nicodemus says falls short of genuine faith, as John sees it. The reader is alerted at the end of chapter two as to how to interpret the following story and the opening words of Nicodemus.
The significance of miracles for faith is raised over and over throughout the Gospel of John (see 4:48; 6:2, 14, 26, 30; 7:31; 9:16; 12:37; 20:29). New Testament scholars by and large agree that the Gospel writer used a collection of the miracles of Jesus as a source. The Gospel takes the miracles of Jesus seriously and recognizes their function in pointing people to Jesus. That is why John consistently uses the word "signs." Their value lies not in themselves but in what they do with regard to one's relationship to Jesus. However, mature faith is much more than this rudimentary level of believing in Jesus because of the evidence of miracles. The story of Nicodemus invites the reader to grapple with the issue of genuine faith that goes beyond mere belief on the basis of miraculous signs.
Nicodemus is mentioned only in John and is a fairly significant character in the Gospel. He may in fact stand for a group of people with inadequate faith based on signs. He is mentioned again in 7:45-52 where as a member of the Sanhedrin he urges his colleagues to hear Jesus first before passing judgment on him. In this regard he is like Gamaliel, who is also a Pharisee like Nicodemus. Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39 cautions the Sanhedrin not to do violence to the apostles. If their movement is of human origin, he says, it will fail. If it is of God, they will not be able to overthrow them. Apparently not all Pharisees were opposed to Jesus or the Christian movement. Nicodemus seems to be one such Pharisee. He appears one last time in John 19:38-42 where he and Joseph of Arimathea give the body of Jesus proper burial.
Here in our passage Nicodemus is said to be a leader of the Jews, a prominent person in Jerusalem (v. 1). Moreover, since Nicodemus uses the plural "we know" (v. 2), he may actually represent a whole group of people who had already confessed faith in Jesus based on his miracles (2:23-25). Yet, according to John, this type of faith is inadequate. The fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night is not because he is afraid of fellow Pharisees. He may have represented a group of Pharisees who had expressed some degree of faith in Jesus (cf. Acts 15:5). However, the initial statement that Nicodemus makes in 3:2 is taken by the Gospel of John as an example of inadequate faith. Even though Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as a teacher who has come from God, that is still not quite what faith in Jesus must be.
First, Jesus is much more than a teacher, according to John. He is the Word who was in the beginning with God and was God and who became flesh and lived among us (1:1, 14). Second, Nicodemus' faith rests on signs and therefore is still inadequate, as mentioned earlier. Third, the statement that Jesus is able to perform signs because God is with him is less than what John understands Jesus to be. God is certainly with Jesus, but much more. After all, Moses, Jeremiah and other prophets were also told that God would be with them. God is not only with Jesus but is revealed in Jesus. "We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son (John 1:14). "The Father and I are one" (10:30). "The Father is in me and I am in the Father" (10:38; cf. 14:10).
Jesus tells Nicodemus that "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above" (v. 3). Only here and in verse 5 is the kingdom of God mentioned in John. The fact that the statement of Jesus begins with the solemn words, "Very truly, I tell you," indicates the seriousness of the statement. The faith that Nicodemus and his group affirmed is not adequate for seeing the kingdom of God. One cannot experience the kingdom of God simply by virtue of the miracles of Jesus. Nicodemus and his group are looking at things only from a human perspective. What is needed is new life, new sight, new light from above. The kingdom of God cannot be seen, observed, or experienced simply as a human phenomenon, legitimated by miraculous signs. It is a gift to be received.
The Greek word anőthen [Greek: άνωθεν]] can mean either "from above" or "again." Nicodemus takes it to mean "again," whereas Jesus has the first meaning in mind as is evident from the ensuing conversation. Nicodemus asks how anyone can be born again after having grown old. "Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" John is fond of having Jesus say something, only to be misunderstood by the hearers, which then provides an opportunity for Jesus (or John) to explain the true meaning of what was said. Nicodemus grossly misunderstands what Jesus has said. Yet what Nicodemus says is utterly true on another level. One cannot start all over again. In a crassly literal sense, it is unthinkable to reenter the mother's womb and be born again. But even when understood metaphorically, a new beginning is not too likely in human terms. Can there be newness of life? Can hereditary characteristics be changed? Can old habits be broken? As long as one thinks in human terms as Nicodemus does, the possibilities are slim. But Jesus offers another possibility: one can be born from above, or as verse 5 states it, one can be born of "water and Spirit."
Nicodemus asks if it is possible to enter a second time into the mother's womb. The reply of Jesus contains the same word "enter" that Nicodemus used, except that Jesus talks about entering the kingdom of God. It is not a matter of entering the mother's womb but a matter of entering the kingdom of God, which is even less possible apart from the activity of the Spirit.
The popular interpretation of water as a reference to natural conception and birth, whether the male semen or the watery environment of the mother's womb, is surely not what Jesus or John has in mind. It would make no sense for Jesus to say that natural birth from a human father and mother is one of the conditions of entering the kingdom of God. Water in this context most likely means baptism, the sacrament of initiation into the realm of God's reign.
There has been a lot of scholarly discussion on the place of the sacraments in John. Some have argued that the Gospel of John downplays the sacraments. For example, even though the ministry of John the Baptist is told in chapter 1, the baptism of Jesus by John is never mentioned. Furthermore, in 4:2 the writer expressly says that Jesus did not baptize people, but his disciples did. Likewise the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is omitted in John, even though the setting is given in chapter 13. Instead, John tells the story of the foot washing.
However, in chapter 6, after the feeding of the five thousand, there is a lengthy discussion of the meaning of eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood, an obvious commentary on the spiritual significance of the sacrament of communion. Perhaps what we could conclude about the place of the sacraments in John is not that John is anti-sacramentarian but that the sacraments must be properly understood as symbols of a deeper spiritual reality and not merely as external rites. Thus in our passage the conjunction of "water and Spirit" is absolutely essential, with the emphasis placed on the second of the two. Water baptism alone, particularly if this is a reference to John's baptism, is insufficient as a means of entering the kingdom of God. However, even Christian baptism is inadequate if one is not born of the Spirit. In chapter 1, John the Baptist says that whereas he himself baptizes with water, the one on whom the Spirit descends and remains is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
The contrast between flesh and Spirit is not to be understood in dualistic terms. That is, Jesus is not saying that a human being is essentially made up of flesh and spirit and that the human person is the arena where the battle between the two goes on as long as a person is alive. What Jesus is saying is that being born of the Spirit of God is qualitatively different from the natural state. One who enters the kingdom of God by being born of the Spirit has experienced the reign of God, which cannot be experienced by someone who is simply born of the flesh. This is in keeping with John 1:12, which states that those who have received the power to become children of God were born "not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God." This involves a complete reorientation of one's goals, desires, affections, values, and the direction of life. Everything is oriented toward the kingdom of God as the center from which life is lived out.
In verse 8 the Greek word pneuma can mean both wind and spirit, much like its Hebrew equivalent ruach. Both meanings are in fact present here. John has cleverly and intentionally used this double meaning to make a point, which cannot be rendered effectively in English because two different English words have to be used to render the two meanings. The reader of the Greek text is faced with the hermeneutical question as to whether it is the wind or the Spirit that "blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes." And that is just the point: the activity of the Spirit, much like the wind, cannot be precisely described, defined or contained, but its impact and results can certainly be experienced.
Nicodemus is puzzled by all this talk. "How can these things be?" he asks. Jesus says, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" (v. 11, NRSV). The Greek reads, "Are you the teacher of Israel . . ." Nicodemus is not simply a teacher of the Jews but the teacher of Israel, a lofty role indeed. Yet, he is not grasping some of the faith affirmations that the Gospel of John deems essential.
In v. 11 there is a significant shift to plural pronouns, "we" and "you." "Very truly, I tell you [singular], we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you [plural] do not receive our testimony." It is no longer Jesus and Nicodemus that are in conversation, but two groups of people. In fact, the plural "you" had already been used in v. 7: "You must be born from above." This clearly implies that Nicodemus stands for a whole group of people, as pointed out earlier. We may not know exactly what group he represents, but it is obvious from the conversation with Jesus that this group was seriously considering, and was even on the threshold of becoming, part of the Christian movement where the Gospel of John was written. But from John's perspective their faith in Christ is still not quite adequate. The fact that later on Nicodemus comes to Jesus' defense in 7:51-52 and finally takes part in giving Jesus a decent burial in 19:39 may indicate that he and the group he represents may have eventually come to full faith in Christ, to the point of taking a public stand. But we cannot be certain on this point.
Likewise the first person plural "we know . . . we have seen" is an indication that we are hearing not simply the words or voice of the earthly Jesus but the voice and witness of the early church about Christ. The Johannine community is speaking to a group of people represented in the person of Nicodemus.
The next statement of Jesus in v. 12, which also uses the plural "you," may be an indication that at the time of the writing of the Gospel, the Nicodemus group was still not quite completely in tune with what the Gospel writer understood the Christian faith to be. Jesus says, "If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?"
What exactly are earthly things, and what are heavenly things? Is physical birth or the blowing wind the earthly things? These cannot be what Jesus has in mind as earthly things, even though they are indeed earthly. The problem with Nicodemus is not that he does not understand or believe physical birth or the blowing wind. On the other hand, what are heavenly things that Jesus wants to talk about but is unable because Nicodemus cannot even believe earthly things? What Jesus seems to be referring to is the parabolic or metaphorical use of earthly things that have spiritual meaning and application, such as the metaphorical use of natural birth to speak of spiritual birth, or the metaphorical use of the wind to speak of the activity of the Spirit. If Nicodemus is having difficulty with these metaphors, how will he believe spiritual realities that must be communicated directly and without the use of earthly, human metaphors?
What then could these spiritual realities be that cannot be communicated with earthly metaphors? The Gospel writer gives us a clue at the end of chapter 16. We find the so-called farewell discourses of Jesus in John 13-16, with chapter 17 being the high priestly prayer of Jesus. After four chapters of discourse to his disciples and just before the prayer in chapter 17, the following statements in 16:25-33 conclude the discourse material:
"I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father."
His disciples said, "Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God." Jesus answered them, "Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!"
If we regard the farewell discourses as the continuing legacy of Jesus for the disciples after his departure from the world, coupled with the promise that he will send the Spirit of truth who will guide them into all truth (16:13), we may be well on our way to a likely interpretation of John 3:12. The heavenly things of chapter 3 may then be a reference to the teaching of Jesus in the farewell discourses and the continuing teaching of the Spirit in the Johannine community in the post-resurrection period.
These words of Jesus to Nicodemus may be somewhat analogous to Paul's statement to the Corinthians that he fed them with milk, not solid food, because they could not handle solid food (1 Cor 3:2), except that Jesus would be saying, "You can't even handle milk, how can I give you solid food?"
Verse 13 is a continuation of what was said in the previous verse. The Son of Man is the only one qualified to speak of heavenly things because he is the only one that has descended from heaven and has ascended into heaven. The past tense of "ascended" indicates that here we have the voice of the early church's witness concerning Christ rather than the voice of the earthly Jesus.
Now, in verses 14-15 we have a shift of chronological point of reference. The lifting up of the Son of Man is in the future. In fact, the reference is to the lifting up of Jesus on the cross just like the serpent that was lifted up by Moses in the wilderness. How did this shift occur from verse 13 to verse 14? How is it that the ascension into heaven in the previous verse becomes ascension on a cross?
Here we encounter a crucial point in Johannine theology. For John the ascension of Jesus onto the cross is part of the ascension into heaven. The two are really one event. The death of Jesus becomes itself part and parcel of glorification and exaltation. Again, John uses the double meaning of a word to make a profound theological point. To be lifted up means to be exalted on high, but it also means to be lifted up on a cross. The purpose of Christ's being lifted on a cross is for people to have eternal life in him. The prepositional phrase "in him" could conceivably go with "believe" or with "have eternal life." The latter may be the better choice because the preposition here is not the Greek eis (into), which is usually used after "believe." Instead, the preposition is en (in), which John never uses after "believe" other than here.
John 3:16-17 clearly states that the purpose of God's sending his Son was not to condemn the world but to offer it eternal life. Thus the incarnation, life, death and exaltation of Christ are all rooted in the love of God. Some of the more extreme atonement theologies with heavy emphasis on penal substitution would find no support in John. In John the death of Jesus is never viewed as God's outpouring of punishment on Jesus in our behalf, but as a revelation of God's love for the world and the glorification of the Father and the Son (John 17:1).
This may almost come across as universalism, that is, the whole world will be saved, particularly in view of the statement in verse 17 that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." However, the next statement (v. 18) makes it clear that salvation is conditioned upon believing in him.
Verse 17 may be puzzling in light of the later statements of Jesus to the effect that he has come for the purpose of executing judgment (5:27; 9:39), whereas according to 3:17 he has not come to judge but to save. Is there a contradiction here? Perhaps herein lies the genius of John's theology with regard to salvation and damnation. This is most clearly stated in 3:18-21. In effect, it is not God or Jesus as such who judges or condemns, but it is the human response to what God has done in Christ that has within it the makings of human destiny, whether eternal life or eternal judgment (note particularly verse 19).
Finally, it should be noted that the dialogue between two individuals, Nicodemus and Jesus, almost imperceptibly turns into a dialogue between two communities. At least it is clear that the voice of the Christian community that cherished and was nourished by the traditions stemming from Jesus is being heard in the Gospel of John. It is not clear where the words of Jesus to Nicodemus end and where the commentary on those words given by the Gospel writer begins. The Johannine community has been so infused, shaped and formed by the life and words of the incarnate Word that a clear distinction between the words and thoughts of Jesus and the words and thoughts of the Johannine community can no longer be made. This Christian community exists and derives its identity by the power of the incarnate Word whose presence continues through the activity of the Spirit.
Several preaching possibilities can open up from the reflections on the text given above. One issue that the text raises is the basis of faith in Christ. How can one be assured of the truth claims of the gospel of Christ? Will miraculous signs, visible proofs, extraordinary events, supernatural accomplishments, and fantastic phenomena be the basis of our faith in Christ? This would be a Nicodemus type of faith.
We see examples of such faith all around us today. Claims are made that this church, this movement, this preacher, or that evangelist is of God because of the stupendous miracles, unusual healings, and unexplainable visions that have been experienced. Do these things legitimize the Christian faith? Our text clearly points in the opposite direction.
The text also raises the issue of whether new beginnings are possible. Can human beings be transformed? Can an older person like Nicodemus find spiritual renewal? The answer, ironically in this case, is that a miracle from heaven is needed! "You must be born from above." Human self-improvement and determination will not suffice. Scrupulous, Pharisaic adherence to the law will not do it. How can one experience a new beginning after a lifetime of entrenched habits, solidified routines, and hardened character, not to mention hereditary and genetic traits? Can such a person experience the renewing power of the kingdom of God and be transformed by it? Apparently that is how the Johannine community has understood the message of Jesus and is bearing witness to that message.
Nicodemus represents people who carefully and cautiously must examine the new things that God may be doing and subject these to painstaking scrutiny in light of past traditions and experiences before jumping in and embracing them. We must allow people to respond to God in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single mode.
Perhaps another angle from which to approach this text homiletically might be not so much the transformation of individual persons but renewal movements within faith communities. Here the issue is that an older, well-established faith community represented by Nicodemus encounters Jesus. Is there any hope of renewal and transformation for such a community? Or does Nicodemus desire to have the new wine of Jesus (incidentally note the wine miracle in John 2) but wants to hang on to the old structures and old wineskins? Can a church or movement that has come of age face its future with renewed vision and freshness or will it hang on to its tired old routines and shibboleths? Again, the word of Jesus is needed here. Unless there is a new birth from above, the kingdom of God will be only a remote, fuzzy and vacuous phrase with no real power or claim on us.
The good news is that there is hope, both for individuals as well as for faith communities. The hope lies in the good news that God has acted in history in love in the person of his Son. God does not come to judge or condemn. Nicodemus is not being condemned. He is being offered incredible news. He cannot climb up to God nor does he need to, because the Son of Man has descended from heaven to earth. A Pharisee like Nicodemus no longer needs to demonstrate how religious, godly or pious he can be. God loves him not because he has earned the right to be loved but because God is love in his very nature, so much so that he gave his only Son.
The old religious community of Judaism and the new Christian community of John are encountering each other in this text. Can God do anything for Nicodemus type groups who have been around a long time? Can such groups recognize the new thing that God may be doing through newcomers on the scene like the community of Jesus that John represents? This is an age-old question. What will Roman Catholicism do with Martin Luther? What will Lutheranism do with Pietists? What will the Church of England do with the Wesleys? What will Methodism do with the holiness movement? And finally, what will the holiness movement do now after a century and a half of existence? Is there any hope of newness for the likes of Nicodemus?
However, the story in John 3 cuts the other way too. How will the new Johannine community under Jesus respond to old-time stalwarts with long traditions like Pharisaic Judaism represented by Nicodemus? The temptation for newcomers is to become arrogant and look down their nose on folks like Nicodemus. How will the holiness movement view mainline denominations? How will Protestants speak to Roman Catholics?
Unfortunately there came a time when Christianity would no longer converse with Judaism except in angry words. But in John 3 the two communities are still carrying on a conversation. And perhaps that can provide a model for us to follow. The model is none other than the reconciling love of God who gave his Son to the world and has called into existence a faith community whose task it is to engage in the same act of reconciliation and redemption. God did not send the Son to condemn the world but to save it.
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