EXPLORING THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]
St. Peter’s Anglican Church
A Conversation at Night
1. Initially, two things about this episode are worth noting: The first is that Nicodemus’ question provokes an extended discourse from Jesus, one during which Nicodemus seems to drop out of sight (around verse 13). This odd feature may be due to the way in which Jesus is consistently portrayed in John: On one hand, Jesus enters into a conversation with Nicodemus and yet, on the other hand, Jesus does not simply answer questions addressed to him; he exercises a kind of sovereignty, possessing the freedom to say what he thinks needs to be said. Second, we do not know how this encounter turned out – things are left unresolved. Nicodemus is mentioned again in 7:50, where he counsels leniency toward Jesus on the part of the Sanhedrin. Later, in 19:38-42 Nicodemus reappears to assist in the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. These actions indicate the he remained sympathetic to Jesus but we do not know much beyond this. This episode conveys an important truth: There were influential Jews who were in sympathy with Jesus and his ministry, even if they found parts of his message baffling.
2. The fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night indicates awareness that open association with him by a man of Nicodemus’ standing could have negative consequences. It is sometimes suggested that the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cover of darkness is symbolic of his own spiritual darkness. This, while possible, seems a bit extreme. Nicodemus is being discrete.
3. In 3:2, Nicodemus makes a confession about Jesus’ identity: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” For Nicodemus, this is a tremendous admission, one made on the basis on 2:1-12 and 2:13-22. And yet, readers of this gospel know that it is not enough. Nicodemus is “on his way to Jesus” but has clearly not arrived yet. For him, Jesus is a rabbi “come from God,” that is, sent and inspired by God. Nicodemus clearly does not mean, “come from God,” in the sense of 1:14 or 3:17. Important as this confession is, it only approaches the truth. Even if Nicodemus is placing Jesus in the same category as Moses (which, in light of Exodus 3:12, he seems to be) he is far from the mark.
4. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is similar to his response to Mary in 2:4. It is, perhaps, even more icy. Jesus seems to take no pleasure in this highly complimentary statement from an important and informed person (a Pharisee). But Jesus is not being aloof or cold; he knows who he is and he wishes to bring Nicodemus to the truth. In John, Jesus seems to be impervious to both flattery and contempt (note Jesus’ response to Pilate in 19:11).
5. Jesus speak precisely the truth which he believes Nicodemus needs to hear, jarring as it is: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God “ (3:3). This saying is quite close to Luke 18:17: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The two sayings would have struck a first-century audience as equally odd, given the low status of children. The saying seems to be deliberately ambiguous, in that Jesus wants to draw on the dual meaning of the Greek word anothen, which can mean either “from above” or “again.” Of course, this is a direct reference to 1:12-13, where the Word grants birth from God, which is a birth “from above” (because from God). Nicodemus clearly interprets Jesus to be saying, “born again,” which he understands literally. In John, people who understand Jesus literally only reveal their lack of comprehension. This is particularly significant here because we are dealing with a learned person. This has nothing to do (it should be noted) with the literal interpretation of Scripture. Those who understand Jesus literally reveal that they are still on an earthly plane.
6. In 3:5-6 Jesus changes his terminology and we move from being born from above/again in order to “see the kingdom of God,” to being born of water and the Spirit, so as to “enter the kingdom of God.” This provides some clarification: It certainly corrects Nicodemus’ mistaken impression that Jesus wants him to go back into the womb and re-emerge. It is now clear that Jesus is talking about a rebirth effected by the Spirit and that rebirth is from above because the power, which effects it, is from God. In line with the Old Testament, “water and the Spirit” should not be seen as two separable things but as functional equivalents. This is certainly the case in Ezekiel 36: 25-27: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you…And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes . . . ” Here, the cleansing by water and the giving of God’s Spirit refer to the one purifying action of God. While there are nuances which can be traced, the point is quite clear: One can only enter the kingdom of God by being purified by God.
7. The distinction drawn by v.6 between that which is born of flesh and that which is born of Spirit is not a distinction between the “material” and the “spiritual,” as if these were opposites. The contrast, rather, is between that which is simply human (that which is flesh and no more) and that which has been effected by God (through his Spirit). Entrance into the kingdom of God is not something and cannot be something that is effected by human efforts and agency.
8. This birth has a mysterious quality about it – it is real but that does not make it fully comprehensible. Drawing upon the fact that the Greek word pneuma can mean both wind and spirit, Jesus makes it clear that there is an analogous relationship between wind and Spirit. The wind’s origin and destiny are both mysterious but this does not mean that the wind is unreal. The same is true of the Spirit, whose origin in God and whose work in human beings is not open to full analysis but who is not any less real for this fact.
9. Nicodemus’ second response to Jesus represents no real advance over his first one. First he wondered how one could return to the womb and now, after Jesus has clarified what “birth” means, he can only ask “How can these things be?” (3:9). His progress is all the less impressive because Jesus has already answered the question: These things can be because they are brought about by God. Jesus returns to Nicodemus’ original compliment in 3:2 and uses it to underline the depth of Nicodemus’ lack of comprehension: “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not understand these things?” (3:10).
10. The purpose of this question is to point to an irony. Nicodemus is a “teacher of Israel” and yet he seems to be unaware of this central aspect of the doctrine of God – the work of the Spirit and the Spirit’s relation to the kingdom of God. This is all the more strange, in light of the reference to Ezekiel 36. This gets at a key theological issue in John. Nicodemus the Pharisee is criticized here, not for being Jewish, but for being unaware of something presented in Israel’s scriptures and for being unaware of a central fact about Israel’s God. If Nicodemus has fumbled the analogies of birth and wind (“earthly things”) how can Jesus possibly take him to the knowledge of God (“heavenly things”)?
11. 3:13 is key to the theology of John. The faith of John’s community is based on the most reliable witness of all: God himself. The claim of this gospel is that Jesus is uniquely qualified to be God’s witness and this is because he is from God: “No one has ever seen God: the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (1:18). The only one who can truly make God known is the one who knows God face to face and this one is the Son. Nicodemus has acknowledged that Jesus is a “teacher come from God” (3:2) and now Jesus clarifies and corrects this inadequate confession. He has “descended” from heaven (the very presence of God) to enter the world. Jesus’ ascent to heaven is not the elevation of a very righteous person to be with God but is his return to his origin. This only emphasizes how far a sympathetic and learned man like Nicodemus has yet to go before he arrives at the truth know by John’s community. Though the distance is great, there is hope because the Holy Spirit bridges the distance between the ascended Son and the world.
12. To explain the saving role played by the Son, there is a reference to in 3:14 to Numbers 21:9. As the people of Israel travel through the wilderness they complain of the lack of food and water. As punishment, God sends serpents to afflict them. After intercession by Moses, God tells him to make a bronze serpent and to attach it to a pole. When the bronze serpent is “lifted up” and gazed upon, those who see it are healed. The Son’s being “lifted up” on the cross has an analogous function. For John, Jesus’ being “lifted up” is a moment of glory — not of shame or defeat.
13. 3:16-21 is a theological reflection on the mission of the Son, which further develops the theme of what it means that Jesus the Son is “sent” from God. The principle that Jesus reveals God has already been introduced (3:13). Now it is deepened in 3:16. The Son reveals the Father’s love for his alienated creation and, in fact, is the Father’s love. This is an exact parallel to Romans 5:6-11. The Son is the Father’s authorized agent of judgment, where “judgment” is understood in its Old Testament sense, of both the establishment of the conditions of salvation and the removal of the resistance against God. The Son’s primary mission is to establish the conditions of salvation and this is what the discussion of being born anothen (3:3) and the lifting up of the bronze serpent (3:14) is driving at. But the rejection of the Son has consequences — in that those who believe in the Son (and thus accept the conditions of salvation which he brings) are “not condemned” (3:18) but those who reject the Son are “condemned already” (3:18). To not accept the first part of the Son’s mission is to place oneself in resistance against God and thus to face the second part of the Son’s mission. God’s judgment is not based on arbitrary criteria but on whether a person has welcomed his own saving work in the Son and the Spirit. To reject this is, by definition, to reject God’s salvation and to come under judgment. As 3:19-21 makes clear, with respect to God’s own work in the Son and the Spirit, there is no room for neutrality; one either enters the light or draws back from it into darkness.