by Dr. William R. Long
"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." - John 3:1-17
Lent is a time when we examine ourselves, reconsider the Gospel message, lament our shortcomings, embrace the grace of God and rededicate ourselves to following Jesus. One of the assumptions behind the Lenten season is that we need to explore discipleship in a deeper dimension, and that new and more profound levels of meaning are available to us if we only slow down, hear the words of Jesus afresh and apply them to our lives. The passage for the morning reinforces this point because it is the story of an encounter with Jesus and a teacher of Israel, an encounter in which Jesus encourages the teacher to explore faith in a new way, to dig deeper into the heart of God. While the ultimate message of the passage may appear very simple (indeed the culminatory verse, John 3:16, was often displayed in the 1980s and 1990s between goalposts and hanging from balconies at various athletic venues), the important point of the passage is to encourage us to look at life and faith in ways we previously hadn't imagined. Nicodemus' studied political reaction to Jesus bewrayed his inability to do this. The implicit question behind the text for the morning, then, is whether we have the wherewithal to hear Jesus' reconceptualization of faith for us. Can we hear the wind of the Spirit blowing our way in 2008?
In order to explore this question, I will briefly exposit this passage under three heads: (1) Nicodemus' coming to Jesus in v. 1; (2) The "Give and Take" between Jesus and Nicodemus in vv. 2-13; and (3) Jesus Statement of the Faith Principle in vv. 16-17.
II. Nicodemus' Coming to Jesus
The Gospel stories are full of visits of figures angelic and human to each other. But often the unanswered question is, 'What kind of visit is this?' Mary was troubled in heart and wondered what kind of visit Gabriel made to her when he announced the coming birth of Christ (Lk. 1:29). Jesus' parents no doubt wondered what kind of visit the wise men's presence portended (Matt. 2). So, Jesus had every reason to wonder what kind of visit Nicodemus was seeking.
As Dr. Michaels points out in his commentary (p. 38), Nicodemus was a particular example of the "believers" mentioned in 2:23-25. In ch. 2 Jesus had turned water into wine at Cana and then cleared out the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem. These dual actions resulted in many believing in his name (2:23). Now John will give us an example of one person who believed in his name though, as we will soon discover, this belief showed an inadequate faith.
John has a habit of fleshing out general statements by giving us a particular instance of the story. He delights to tell long narratives about desperate or vulnerable people who come to Jesus with their questions or needs. Two other such unique stories in the Gospel of John ar the story of the woman at the well (Jn. 4) and the man born blind (Jn. 9). Each of these stories results in Jesus either showing forth his glory or confessing his messiahship. Thus, for those who know the structure and method of John's Gospel, we see the Nicodemus story as another example of John's personalizing of general principles.
We really don't know Nicodemus' motivation for coming to Jesus, either at the beginning or, really, at the end of the passage. Could there have been a genuine spiritual quest? Or was he trying to "co-opt" Jesus for his movement? Was he trying to "build bridges" between the Pharisees and Jesus? Was he trying to "gather evidence" that could be used against Jesus at a later time? Sometimes we don't even recognize our own purposes in searching out Christ--if indeed we are diligent in that search today. Christ, it seems to me, is so packaged in our culture that the living Jesus is completely hidden--under the political analysts' statements about "voting power of Evangelicals," under the legal scholar's arguments about whether certain actions violate the Establishment or Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. Very few people want to take the time calmly to open the text, read it, listen to it, think about it, and respond to it. So Nicodemus, as we, come to Jesus with unspoken motivations.
III. The Tete-a-tete between Jesus and Nicodemus
The text says that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Then, his opening sentence also reveals something about him. What does it reveal? I think he is trying to be politic in his approach to Jesus. The coming by night is so that people won't see him and won't begin the endless rounds of speculation about what this meeting might "mean." But Nicodemus' opening statement is interesting to me. He says, literally, "Rabbi, we know (is this the "royal we" or is he speaking for a bunch of other people?) that you have come as a teacher from God; no one could do these signs that you do unless God was with him" (3:2). What is going on in this question? I think that Nicodemus is trying to cover all his bases, so to speak. He praises Jesus as a teacher from God; he calls him an honored name; he gives reasons for why he holds Jesus in esteem. His statement is a "bridge-building" statement, a kind of olive branch thrown to Jesus, a sort of softball throw to the plate that Jesus could then easily hit out of the park. Nicodemus is a clever man, because so far he hasn't had to abandon or even identify where he stands on almost anything; he is simply buttering up Jesus as a prelude, perhaps, to bring Jesus under his influence.
Jesus, in response, will have none of this type of conversation. Perhaps this is the way that talks go in the political world of mutual influence-peddling and maneuvering, but it won't be Jesus' modus operandi. Jesus responds to him in a direct and unequivocal manner, "Unless you are born again (or from above), you cannot see the Kingdom of God." He isn't interested in joining forces with the Pharisees or in forging some kind of political or religious alliance. In John's portrait of him, Jesus is interested solely in the Kingdom of God. But his phrase is enigmatic. What does it mean to be born from above/again? The one way to stop an influence pusher is to speak language that confuses him. No doubt this language confuses Nicodemus and, in terms of power relations, he now has to come into Jesus' verbal playground in order to continue in the conversation. Praise won't do the trick; he has to engage Jesus in the realm of ideas.
So, Niocodemus employs the classic method of trying to "handle" someone who has tried to change the focus of the conversation--he tries to point out the ridiculous implications of what the person is saying. In particular he decides to "take Jesus literally." He doesn't do this, in my judgment, because what Jesus says is opaque; he does this because he still wants to gain the upper hand in dialogue and he can do this by exposing Jesus' words as rhetorically over-the-top or easily misconstrued. Thus, his response in v. 4 is a sort of gently-chiding response, a sort of avuncular, 'Now Jesus, let's be reasonable. Carrying your words to the logical conclusion leads to complete confusion.' He is showing himself as the "grand" person in the conversation, since he willingly tries to come on to Jesus' "turf" and join in the conversation. But he does so for a reason--to expose the loose way in which Jesus is speaking.
Jesus then "clarifies" his response in v. 5 in words that Dr. Michaels in his commentary points our are anything but clear. What began as a statement about being born anew/from above now is made more complex by reference to water and spirit, by mention of the wind and spirit, by reference to being born of the spirit (vv. 5-8). Indeed, if I were in Nicodemus' place at this point I would be thoroughly nonplussed. Jesus has been pretty resistent to the bait of Nicodemus. Any leader of the Pharisees had to pride himself on considerable political charm but, in this instance, it appeared that this ability was getting Nicodemus nowhere. But why would Jesus be playing so 'hard to get', so to speak? Why isn't he coming clean and being clear to Nicodemus? One answer, and a good one (as Dr. Michaels suggests) is that John is mixing words and arguments from Jesus' lips and from the proclamation of the earliest Johannine community--perhaps to show that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Jewish and early Christian communities. Another might be derived from human psychology--that there really was no way to be straightforward to Nicodemus about what he stood for without Nicodemus' twisting it for his own advantage. Jesus maintained his distance for a simple reason that John had just explained:
"But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone," 2:24-25.
Jesus kept his own counsel because he knew the mixed, multifarious and less than munificent inclinations of the human heart. Thus, when Nicodemus simply said, "How can this be?" (v. 9), Jesus mocked him gently (v. 10) before retreating into language that is both revelatory and hidden (we need an English word such as "concealatory" at this point--there is none that I can divine. So, let's just invent the word concealatory for those of you that have ears to hear). John 3:11-15 are only clear to us because we have heard them repeated to us for decades. If these indeed were words originally heard by Nicodemus, as the passage tries to present, there is no way that he could understand. Jesus is taking him on a verbal ride to his special language of secrecy and witness. But then, the sun breaks through the clouds.
IV. The Basic Principle of Faith
Just when Jesus has retreated to obscure OT typologies (about Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness as a type or "grotesque imitation"--Michaels, p. 41--of Jesus' crucifixion), he pulls back and states the basic principle of faith in v. 16. The "giving" is more specific than the "sending" of v. 17, but it is qualified by the phrase "everyone who believes." Thus, the issue of the text is not if Jesus is a teacher sent by God; the issue is a decision of faith in him who was given by God for the sake of the world.
We have no information on how Nicodemus reacted to this conversation. Perhaps he went away as confused as he seems to be throughout the encounter. Perhaps, however, something "stuck." But Jesus stood his ground, refusing to be pulled into the vortex of a political/religious leader and his movement. Instead of standing for the political or religious life of the people of Israel, Jesus would bring "a new kind of life, a new order of existence that characterizes even now the person who believes in Jesus and is born again," Michaels, p. 41.
That, friends, is the life that is available to us at Lent this year. Will you embrace it?
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long
by H.G.Yuhanon Mor Meletius
by Edward F. Markquart
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 3rd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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