Trinity: 31 May John 3:1-17
The pages around this passage are the ones where many Bibles show signs of most usage. 3:16 is a favourite. 3:3 and 3:5 give us the language of being ‘born again’, which over the last century has made its way into generic usage, so that anyone from footballer to politician can be ‘born again’, meaning that they are either very good at it, a ‘natural’, or have returned to a previous role with great gusto. So hearers of today’s lesson have usually ‘heard it before’. The role of the expositor will be to help them hear it in a new way or in a way which connects well to what it intended or what it does.
The first step is to forget the division into chapters, which has severed our passage from 2:23-25. The writer’s intention seems to have been that we see 3:1 as a direct continuation of 2:25. The latter ends with the words: ‘For he knew what was in people’ (anthropo). 3:1 begins ‘Now there was a person (anthropos). The issue with Nicodemus and those people who ‘believed in his name’ in 2:23-25 is similar. ‘Many believed (episteusan) in his name because they saw the signs/miracles which he was doing’ (2:23). ‘But Jesus, himself, did not believe in (episteusen entrust himself to) them, because he knew all people and had no need for anyone to testify to him about a person (anthropou), for he knew what was in people (anthropo). So there are believers (‘believe in his name’ is Christian terminology - see 1:12), whose belief Jesus does not believe (a subtle play by use of the same word). Belief in Jesus because of miracles is not enough to constitute the faith relationship which Jesus seeks. Later the gospel shows that such people inevitably get it wrong about Jesus (see 6:2,14,15; 4:48; also Matt 7:21-23 and 1 Cor 13:1-3).
This sheds important light on the role of Nicodemus. He comes affirming a similar faith: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, because no one can do these miracles which you are doing unless God is with him’ (3:2). Not a bad confession of faith! Certainly not negative. The issue is not Nicodemus, the unbeliever, but Nicodemus, the believer, facing Christ. The issue is not really conversion from unfaith to faith, but conversion from one kind of faith in Jesus to another. It is a matter of getting the christology right, or, in less technical terms, understanding who Jesus really is and that has consequences for one’s spirituality, one’s lifestyle.
If the primary evidence of God in Jesus (or anywhere else, for that matter) is miracles, then miracles will form the focus of faith and religious experience. Sometimes it will lead to a theology which finds God only in the extraordinary and does not find God in the ordinary. Often a sense of ethics and community suffers. Judging by the frequency with which New Testament writers address the issue, it must have been a common aberration (see the sample references above). It is not difficult to find the phenomenon today. If miracles do not keep coming, people make them up or generate them within or look for alternative stimulants or surrender in depression.
Jesus’ abrupt response makes sense in the light of 2:24 - he knew what was going on in Nicodemus! ‘You must be born again’ is addressing Nicodemus’s need to take a completely different approach to faith. He needs to have a new kind of seeing and knowing, if he is to see (3:3) or enter (3:5) ‘the kingdom of God’. Jesus’ favoured term according to the first three gospels appears only here in John, as the writer in 3:5 uses an old saying of Jesus linked with conversion and baptism and reworks it in 3:3 (see Matthew 18:3; Mark 10:15). The meaning is clear: only such a faith constitutes the relationship Jesus seeks to establish.
The passage is full of a serious playfulness as many of its words and statements are capable of meaning different things. ‘Again’ (anothen) also means ‘from above’ (it has this sense in 3:31). When Nicodemus says that Jesus is a teacher come from God, it is inadequate at the level he means it, but at a higher level it is exactly what he needs to believe! For Jesus is the Son whom the Father sent to make him known to the world (3:31-32,34). Note the playfulness of 3:10; Nicodemus is also a teacher, but blind to this higher level of reality. As often in John, there is a slight air of unreality in the conversation as it is played out before us on the stage of Christian reflection, but the point is clear. The miracles, which are never denied, are to be seen as signs and symbols of who Jesus is and his significance. He brings the bread, the water of life, makes the blind to see, the dead to become alive - all in the sense that in opening ourselves to a relation of faith with him we open ourselves to God and in this relationship our deepest needs are met.
This lifestyle is also the product of the Spirit. In 3:8 John plays on the word, pneuma, which means spirit and wind. People like the Nicodemus stereotype remain at the level of miracles and fail to see what is really going on in Jesus and going on in believers who now live at this level of the Spirit. Being born of the Spirit is talking not about a new mystical height of experience but about a way of living out the life of God in the world. When you see like this, you see the connection between Jesus and God and you see God in Jesus not trying to compete for adoration in the market of miracle workers, but seeking to establish a relationship of love and community. The focus is life. The means is relationship. The motive is love. This is the emphasis of 3:16.
3:16, taken in isolation, appears to emphasise Jesus’ death and invites interpretation from within the framework of vicarious atonement, as though God sent the son to sacrifice himself on the cross and by that means was able to give life. It is quite possible, that 3:16, life 3:5, draws on such traditions (see Gal 2:20; 4:4; Rom 8:4,32), but, read in the context of the gospel, including its understanding of Jesus’ death, its focus is not an act of vicarious atonement, but God’s act of giving and sending the Son to make the Father known. That went on throughout his life and came to a climax in the lifting up (for the eyes of faith: exaltation through) on the cross (3:14-15). The salvation and life comes through believing the offer, responding in openness to the person. The person of the Son and especially the relationship which that person brings becomes the focal point for salvation. John, therefore, sets us on the way towards the doctrine of the trinity by insisting on the fact that relating to the person of the Son is relating to the Father, without equating the two, and that living in that relationship is living by the Spirit. By earthing faith and spirituality in a relationship and a person, rather than in momentous events or experiences, in places here or hereafter, John invites us to develop a spirituality which sees God in all of life.
Epistle: Trinity: 31 May Romans 8:12-17
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