A reflection on John 3:1-21 for Sunday, October 9 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 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?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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.
‘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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
John 3:1-21 (NRSVA)
Light and darkness play an important part in our reading.
Nicodemus, introduced to us here as a leading Pharisee, comes to Jesus ‘by night’. He clearly sees need to ask his ’born from above’ question under the protection of the earth’s shadow. He approaches Jesus under the cover of darkness. A first-move toward the light.
And move there he must. After all, Nicodemus emerges from the shadows as one who has recognised in Jesus’ ’signs’ the ’presence of God’. He has already recognised that Jesus is a ’teacher who has come from God’. A dangerous conclusion requiring both further investigation and – at least initially – secrecy.
Jesus’ response is an affirmation of the insight Nicodemus has already gained into the ‘signs’: the spark ignited in him by Jesus’ miracles is sourced ’from above’. It is born in heaven.
This is a stunning metaphor. The light of the world has made earth home. Each miracle done by this one is a sign. Nicodemus – somehow and somewhere – saw the sign, and recognised Jesus as one ’come from God’. Heaven and earth have come together in this Pharisee’s observation and Jesus sums up the whole dynamic in the phrase: ’born from above’.
Miracle. Newness. Growth.
Yes, growth. Inherent in Jesus’ description of what has taken place in Nicodemus is the hope that more is to come. Birth is anything but the end. It is always a beginning. That which is born begins to grow.
Nicodemus is clearly baffled and starts to explore Jesus’ claim through the literal understanding of Jesus’ phrase: ’born again’. His questions imagine the laughable impossibility of a second birth from a mother who is – at best is elderly – and more likely already dead.
Wonderfully, Jesus does not, in his response to this, deny the place of the physical. Entering the Realm of God is an invitation to live fully into both our bodily nature and our spiritual nature. Jesus’ language: ’water’ and ’flesh’ alongside ‘Spirit’ and ’spirit’.
In Jesus heaven and earth come together. A dynamic that happens all around us – and within us.
Jesus’ ‘Do not be astonished…’ offers anything but a philosophical – or even a theological – explanation to Nicodemus’ absurd question. What Jesus does encourage, however, is that this religious leader whose eyes are beginning to see would remain open to what the coming together of flesh and spirit has sparked in him. Jesus message: remain open.
If there is merit to this reading, it is terribly sad to ponder the ways we have used the phrase ’born again’ as arrival language rather than the spark that ignites a lifetime of growth in both flesh and spirit. Here is a starting point not a finish line.
Although Nicodemus remains far from understanding, Jesus goes on to entrust him with more insight from heaven: the one who ’descended from heaven’ will be ’lifted up’ – with the purpose being ’eternal life’.
Once more we have heaven and earth merging in this cryptic pointer to the cross. John’s commentary, (which likely begins at verse 16 rather than the continuation of Jesus’ words as in the above translation), reiterates this expectation only with the word ’gave’. To the astute reader it at best points back to John the Baptist’s use of ’Lamb of God’ and invites a curiosity not satisfied before John’s account of Jesus’ death.
Here, however, clarity is gained only around the motive of this coming together of heaven and earth. The repeated reason given here for God’s action is that people would ‘believe in him’, with the product of such trust being ’eternal life’.
Here is heaven’s motive: to save from condemnation.
Once again, we find ourselves encountering the language of ’light’. Sadly, the light has come – but in all too many it is darkness that is loved.
In the wider context of Nicodemus’ night conversation with Jesus these last lines in our reading are a return to the born-from-above miracle that has taken place in this religious leader’s recognition of the significance of Jesus’ signs.
In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is an initial and ongoing example of one who has ‘come to the light’.
How do you respond to the idea that this story is about the coming together of ’flesh’ and ’S/spirit’? Are you prone to see these as opposed to each other?
What is your experience of the church and ’condemnation’? What might it look like to adopt the ’motive’ of God in this passage as our own?