by John Petty, Progressive Involvement
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. 6What 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.’8The 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, 15that 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.
But there was a person out of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Judeans. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you have come from God, a teacher, for no one is able to do these signs which you do except God be with him." Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone be born from above, that one is not able to know the kingdom of God."
Nicodemus said to him, "How is a person able to be born, being old? That one is not able to enter into his mother's womb a second time and be born." Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a person be born out of water and Spirit, that one is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. That having been born of flesh is flesh, and that being born of Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'It is necessary for you to be born from above.' The Spirit blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you have not known from where it comes and where it goes. So it is (with) everyone who has been born out of the Spirit."
Nicodemus answered (and )said to him, "How are these things able to be?" Jesus answered (and) said to him, "You are the teacher of Israel and you do not know these things? Truly, truly I say to you, that what we have known we speak, and what we have seen, we witness, and you do not receive our witness. If I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not trust, how will you trust if I speak to you of heavenly things? And no one has gone up into heaven except the one who came down out of heaven, the son of humanity. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the son of humanity to be lifted up so that anyone trusting in him might have life eternal. For God so loved the cosmos that he gave the only-begotten son that anyone trusting into him might not perish but might have life eternal, for God did not send the son into the cosmos so that the cosmos might be judged but so that the cosmos might be saved through him."
Background and situation:
This story, like several others in the fourth gospel, is primarily addressed to persons living c. AD 90 who were flirting with joining the Johannine community, but were reluctant to come forward publicly and do so. The fourth gospel encouraged them to be bold and embrace the new world of God as it was represented in the Community of the Beloved Disciple. The fourth gospel often addresses its contemporaries and tells them, as we used to say on the farm, "It's time to get the dog off the porch."
The passage is preceded by the wedding at Cana, where Jesus did "the first of his signs." Following that, the fourth gospel tells the story of Jesus driving out the moneychangers in the Temple during passover. Then follows the narrator's comment that "many believed" because of "the signs that he was doing." Jesus, however, was unimpressed. He "would not entrust himself to them." (2:24-25)
Nicodemus "by night": Unlike the synoptics, the fourth gospel likes lengthier stories with expanded dialog where the real action is in the metaphorical and symbolic. This encounter is of that same piece. Nicodemus is the name of a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council in Jerusalem, who is at least somewhat sympathetic to Jesus. ("Nicodemus," incidentally, means "peoples' victory.")
Nicodemus is identified also as a "pharisee"--interesting because, in the time of Jesus, about two-thirds of the Sanhedrin was Sadducee, not pharisee. By the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, however, which occurred some 60 years later, the Sadducees no longer existed and the pharisees constituted 100% of the ruling council.
Nicodemus is a "leader of the Judeans," which places him firmly in the camp of those who were opposed to Jesus. In the fourth gospel, a "Judean" frame of mind represents temple corruption and a divide-and-conquer attitude in the hinterlands, i.e. setting Samaritans against Jews, for example. (See the story of the woman at the well that follows in chapter four.)
If there was to be support for Jesus in the Sanhedrin, however, it would not be surprising for that support to come from a pharisee member. Jesus had more in common with pharisees than with the upper-class Sadducees. No doubt some pharisees really were torn between the people-based but risky Jesus movement and the corrupt but safer status quo.
Nicodemus comes "by night," which means that he comes in a state of darkness. In the fourth gospel, trust in Jesus--the light of the world (8:12)--comes through "seeing," through "getting it," you might say. Nicodemus is not yet able to see. He is in the dark. (See, for example, the story of the man born blind in chapter 9.)
"Rabbi, we know," says Nicodemus. The title appears respectful. The first disciples had called Jesus "rabbi" (1:38). So far, so good.
The next two words--"we" and "know"--present some problems. With the use of the first person plural, Nicodemus is speaking on behalf of others, or perhaps even on behalf of the traditional religion itself, the (self-proclaimed) repository of all spiritual knowledge.
The fourth gospel is known for occasionally taking a swipe at the proto-gnostics, a late first century intellectual movement which exalted knowledge--or, in Greek, gnosis. The fourth gospel takes a dim view of anyone or anything that claims to "know" something, particularly top-down institutions--"we"--that claim to set the standard for what constitutes spiritual truth. The fourth gospel is no friend of pretenders to spiritual knowledge and no friend of "organized religion" either.
Nicodemus and his associates know that Jesus "is a teacher sent from God." Later in the dialog, Jesus will describe Nicodemus as a "teacher of Israel," which is a notch or two lower than a "teacher sent from God."
Nicodemus says that the people for whom he speaks consider Jesus a teacher from God because "no one is able to do these signs which you do except God be with him." Jesus is not too impressed with those who are bowled over by the "signs" he does. As we have already seen, Jesus doesn't trust them (2: 23-25). Color Jesus' attitude "skeptical."
Born of "water and Spirit":
No one can "see" the "kingdom of God" unless they have been gennethe anothen--"born from above" or "born again." It is a matter of revelation, not knowledge--a new vision of life, rather than merely understanding the old vision better.
Nicodemus, however, is unable to think beyond established categories. Having already exited the womb, he wonders how it is possible for a person to have another birth. He knows of "old birth" but not "new birth."
Nicodemus appears rather wooden in his thinking, but manages to ask the obvious question, which was: How? Assuming that what you say is desirable and assuming further that it is possible, how do you do it?
One can only enter the kingdom through water and spirit, says Jesus. In Jungian symbology, water is the feminine symbol par excellance. Water is connected with nature and earth. It knows no obstacle. Going around, under, and through, it always attains the lowest level. Water is the great decomposer, ultimately more powerful than any other form of matter.
The wild and free spirit, on the other hand, is airborne, blowing where it wills. It has a trajectory. It's going someplace, though it's not at all clear where. Spirit is both creative and chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous, inspiring and irrational--the masculine.
"Water and Spirit" is about the decomposition of the old and the generation of the new. To be born of "water and Spirit" is to be born out of the union of male and female archetypes. Taken together, they are a symbol of healthy ego development and psychological individuation, what Jung would call the birth of the Self.
In calling forth these archetypal symbols, Jesus affirms the gender equality expressed in Genesis 1--"male and female created (God) them" (Gen 1: 27). The kingdom of God is about the union of all opposites--what Jung called the mysterium coniunctionis--which is what God intended for the world, and which is, according to the fourth gospel, currently being practiced in the Johannine community through gender equality and mutual valuing and integration of the "other."
Moreover, the fourth gospel uses the pronoun ek--literally, out of water and spirit. Nicodemus had referred to a womb in a concrete way, but Jesus proposes a new birth out of, you might say, God's "center," even God's womb, where we are "born from above," out of the union of the two energizing polarities of existence--male and female.
To bolster the point, the fourth gospel seems purposefully to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun in this context. For example, the King James Version has: "...except a man be born of water and of the Spirit." The text itself uses the pronoun tis, which has no gender, and means "a certain one" or "that one" or "someone."
The fourth gospel could have used aner, which means a male person, or anthropos, which doesn't, but is nevertheless often translated as if it did. The author did not use those words, however. The author used tis, itself a sign of gender equality. It assumes the possibility of revelation and transformation for both men and women. (The other error in the KJV translation is that the Greek has no definite article in front of pneuma--not "the Spirit," in other words, but just "Spirit.")
In yet another subtle reference to the book of Genesis, a common occurrence in the fourth gospel, the same spirit/wind/breath of God--ruach/pneuma--that powered the creation of the world is still blowing "where it wishes" and will lead to "all truth" (16:13). This spirit is present in the Johannine community (16:34) and its understanding and practice of the ministry of Jesus, who has the spirit "without limit" (3:34).
The word dynasthai--ability, power--appears six times in verses 2-10, usually in the negative, i.e. "not able" or "no one is able." Under normal power--"that which is born of flesh"--human beings are "not able" to achieve revelation. Revelation comes through gift, not accomplishment.
Nicodemus continues to misunderstand. Jesus appears astonished at Nicodemus' cluelessness. "You are a teacher of Israel and you do not know these things?" The implication seems to be that if Nicodemus really understood the religious tradition he presumes to represent, even to lead, he should already know this.
One of the themes of the prologue--"his own people did not accept him" (1:11)--comes to the fore here when Jesus says to Nicodemus that "you do not receive our witness." To this point, most of the pronouns had been singular. In 3:11, they are plural. Apparently, Jesus is speaking on behalf of the church--or perhaps the Johannine community--to those who are intrigued with the movement, but as yet unwilling to join up. For them, Nicodemus is a representative figure.
Moses and the serpent:
In Numbers 21, snakes afflicted the children of Israel and the Lord God told Moses to put a "fiery serpent"--an ancient symbol of knowledge, incidentally--on a pole so that when the people were bitten they could "look" at the serpent, "behold" it, and live.
The fourth gospel alters this story just a bit. In Numbers, Moses "placed" the serpent on the pole. In the fourth gospel, Moses "lifted up" the serpent, as later, Jesus would be "lifted up" on the cross. What Jesus will do exceeds what Moses has done. Where Moses' snake would bring life, Jesus' cross would bring eternal life.
The phrase "lifted up" occurs three times in the fourth gospel. It appears that the author of the fourth gospel wanted to make a point similar to that which appears in the synoptics. The synoptics have a three-fold suffering and death narrative--that is, on three occasions, Jesus says he will suffer and be killed.
The fourth gospel keeps the three-fold pattern, but instead of a suffering and death theme, prefers the more positive image of Jesus being "lifted up." The purpose of this "lifting up" is to draw all to Jesus--"And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself" (12:32).
The one lifted up is identified as the "Son of Humanity." The phrase has Old Testament roots, such as Ezekiel 2: 1-2 and 3:1. The most important Old Testament citation, the one which is alluded to in all four gospels, is Daniel 7:13: "...I saw one like a human being, coming with the clouds of heaven..." ("Son of Humanity" appears 69 times in the synoptic gospels and 12 times in the fourth gospel.)
The expression "Son of Humanity" is the result of an attempt to translate a Hebrew expression into Greek and then into English. In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the expression would be bar nasha. In Aramaic, the emphasis would be on nasha (Man). In Greek (and English), the emphasis shifts to "son." The difference is subtle. The original meaning appears to emphasize our common humanity. The Greek and English translations appear to emphasize a particular expression of that common humanity.
The reason this Son of Humanity is "lifted up" is because God unconditionally loves the cosmos--cosmou--the entire universe, the whole creation. All are included, even God's enemies. God did not come to condemn, but to save. As Martin Niemoller once put it, "It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn't even hate his enemies."
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