Lent 2: 16 March John 3:1-17
This is one of the favourite passages of the Bible, but also one regularly misunderstood. It is best to begin with 2:23-25. There we hear that many people ‘believed in his name’, a term for becoming a believer, as 1:12 shows. Using the same word for belief, the author then tells us that Jesus did not reciprocate: he did not ‘believe in’ (in the sense of ‘trust in’) them. This is shocking. Why did he reject such ‘believers’? 2:25 tells us that he didn’t need to be told what was going on in people; he knew. But already 2:23 had intimated the reason: they believed in Jesus because they saw the miracles which he was doing.
What was the matter with that? The answer comes in what follows in chapter 3. The end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 are closely connected. 2:25 uses the Greek word for a human being, anthropos, twice. Jesus didn’t need help to know what was going on in a human being (anthropos), because he knew what was in a human being (anthropos). 3:1 then begins: Now there a human being (anthropos) called Nicodemus. Nicodemus is an example of this kind of faith. His is not a bad confession of faith: ‘We know that you are a teacher come from God, because no one can do these miracles which you do, unless God is with him’ (3:2). Jesus does not reciprocate Nicodemus’ faith, he does not ‘trust in’ him (like in 2:24). On the contrary he confronts Nicodemus with the need for a totally new beginning, radically portrayed as starting life all over again: ‘Unless you are born from above you cannot see the kingdom of God’ (3:3).
Nicodemus has often been portrayed simplistically as the unbeliever who need to be converted. At one level this is true, but it somewhat misses the point, that really Nicodemus is a believer in Jesus who believes the wrong way and so does not see what Jesus is on about. This is a theme elsewhere in John. John 6:2 tells about people who followed Jesus because of his miracles. In 6:14-15 they want to crown him king. Jesus will have none of it. In 4:48, in an aside, Jesus complains about people who want to see miracles before they believe.
The kind of faith (in Jesus) which is ‘wowed’ by the miracles is inadequate. Such ‘believers’ (including those who take the same stance today) need to be born again (including those who try to make ‘born again’ Christians by such appeals!). John’s gospel is not anti-miracle. Its point is that you have to go beyond that level of faith to something deeper; the value of miracles is that they can evoke such deeper reality. Matthew’s gospel makes a similar point when it tells us in 7:21-23 that as doorkeeper of the kingdom Jesus will not welcome people with that kind of Christianity and those who have even performed such miracles themselves in his name. Paul makes the same point in his famous love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13.
In our passage, written originally in Greek, there is a nice play on double meaning, typical of the author’s method. The word which follows ‘born’ in 3:3, anothen, can mean either ‘again’ or ‘from above’. Both meanings are swinging into the statement of Jesus. Poor Nicodemus is pictured as hearing only the meaning, ‘again’ (3:4). The sense, ‘from above’, misses him completely - and that is the problem. Nicodemus serves as a stereotype of people who remain stuck with one level of thinking and can’t see beyond it. He needs to become a different kind of person to be able to see.
What should Nicodemus (and other such believers) be seeing? Funnily enough the answer comes from Nicodemus’ own words: that Jesus is ‘a teacher come from God’ (3:2). If Nicodemus had meant that in the way that 1:18 means it when it tells us that Jesus is the Son who makes the Father known, then he would have it all. For that is the main message throughout John’s gospel. We are to find in Jesus the one who makes God known. John regularly describes Jesus as the Son sent by the Father or who has come from the Father. The miracles are OK, but unless you get beyond them, then Jesus remains just an interesting teacher who performs impressive stunts and deserves a following, a magic son of God.
For John’s gospel the focus is on God and our relationship with God. That ongoing relationship is what matters most. That relationship is modelled, embodied in Jesus through his relationship with God. That is a relationship of love flowing in all directions - including out into the world to all people as the famous 3:16 reminds us. To be born ‘again’, ‘from above’, means to have grasped the gift of this knowledge and the gift of this relationship. It is John’s gospel’s way of reinterpreting the historical Jesus’ characteristic term, ‘the kingdom of God’, which becomes something like the love nexus which brings life.
By bringing in the traditional language of water and rebirth in 3:5 John’s gospel shows it is talking about what true conversion entails which baptism celebrates. To see and enter the love nexus which brings life is to start something radically new. In another of his word plays, in 3:8 John uses the word pneuma, which means both wind and Spirit, to say that to live in this love nexus is to live by the Spirit. Like the wind you will see the impact of such life, but unless you’re in touch with it, you will not see it. You won’t understand at all. Your religion will remain at a naive level of somewhat superficial wonderment and market propaganda. Paul also had to emphasise that the fruit of the Spirit was love (Gal 5:22-23; 1 Cor 13), not sensation.
The passage is not meant to be historical reporting. It is rather one of those typical scenes in John which draw on the tradition and make from it a drama which both has enduring value and addresses what must have been issues of his time. These obviously included challenging inadequate responses to Jesus which resulted not only in failing to understand what his coming mean, but also (as 3:12 suggests) the meaning of his death and return to the Father’s glory as the exalted ‘Son of Man’. The eyes of inadequate faith see the death as a disaster when Jesus was lifted onto a cross of shame, only to be compensated for by another miracle, the resurrection, so the show could go on. John’s faith sees through these appearances to the fact that really Jesus was being lifted to God and that as a result of his return the life he brought would abound in all the world through the Spirit and the Spirit-bearing disciples who would succeed and serve him.
The famous John 3:16, like 3:17, is about the life which his coming brought as it opened our eyes to a new way of seeing and engaging with God. When the love nexus which brings life becomes the central theme (such that 1 John 4:8 can simply say, ‘God is love’!), then the story of Jesus becomes a well of meaning. He feeds 5000, but this is a pointer to that deeper reality: he is the bread of life. He heals a blind person; but the truth that matters is that he is the light. So he is also the life, the truth and the way. These must not be reduced to a set of slogans for a Jesus fan club. For all direct us to God as the ultimate and only source of such life.
Epistle: Lent 2: 16 March Romans 4:1-5, 13-17