May 30, 2021
First Sunday following Pentecost
Lent 2, Alternate Reading A
March 5, 2023
Read the passage at the bottom of this post: John 3:1-17, The Message or John 3:1-17, The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
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Verses 3:1-17 contain 3 questions / statements by Nicodemus, and 3 responses by Jesus - each beginning with Jesus giving his word of honour to his response, "Very truly, I tell you:"
- 3:3, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above;
- 3:5, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit; and,
- 3:11, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
This passage is thick with words that have double - or triple - meanings, and images that are presented as sharp contrasts:
- born "from above" can equally be translated as born "anew."
- Spirit, wind, breath are all translations of the same word.
- Earth is contrasted with heaven; flesh with spirit; darkness with light; evil with truth; hate with love; condemnation with salvation; death with eternal life - and by implication, heaven, Spirit, light, truth, love, salvation and eternal life belong together.
Whereas in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Spirit descends from heaven onto Jesus; in John, it is Jesus himself, the Son of Man, who has descended from and ascends into heaven. (Verse 3:13) Thus, the testimony of Jesus here is meant to be understood as his first-hand, eye-witness, family-insider testimony.
Verses 1-2. Nicodemus is a leader of the Judeans. (Not "Jews" as per the NRSV. Using the translation, "Jews," misses John's biting contrast between Jesus, the country bumpkin Galilean, and the elite Jerusalem-based Judeans.) Travel by night indicates stealth and deviant behaviour - in contrast with Jesus who teaches openly, by day, in the light, and in truth. That Nicodemus addresses Jesus, the Galilean, by the honorific title, "Rabbi," is surprising, coming from one of the Judean elite, and could be sarcastic. Note how Jesus is going to rephrase Nicodemus' phrase "(you have) come from God" to "born from above / anew."
Verses 3-10. Being born anew / from above is a huge transformation, since it means quite literally starting over with a new "family of origin." In Jesus' day, one's birth - one's family and the place one was born - determined for life one's status and honour. And even in our day, one's family - one's childhood - has a huge influence on our character and life choices / opportunities. Being born anew / from above relocates our identity and resets possibilities for our character and life choices / opportunities.
We literally become children of God, of the Spirit. To be "a child of," means to bear the seed of, to be begotten of, to bear the likeness of. It also means to have the same social status as one's siblings (except for the first born). And so, being born anew / from above creates a new family of sisters and brothers regardless of previous birth.
In Verse 5, the reference to being born of water and Spirit could be a reference to later baptismal practices. It almost certainly is a reference to Jesus lifted up (on the cross) from whom flowed water (from his wound, John 19:34) and Spirit ("he...gave up his spirit," John 19:30.)
Verses 6-12 are common sayings, which Jesus uses to confuse, discredit - and insult - Nicodemus.
Verse 13. Note that descending from heaven is a precondition for ascending. The action all begins in heaven. It is all initiated by God. It is all motivated by God's love for the world.
In John, the Son of Man is "lifted up" (on a cross), whereas in Matthew, Mark and Luke the Son of Man is killed. Indeed, in John, Jesus is not said to die, but rather he gives up his Spirit. (Verse 19:30) Instead of this being a shameful, brutal death, "being lifted up" reveals God's glory, for it is from on high - where God resides - that God sees the world, and so loves the world as to send his Son.
In John, the action of saving the world is not to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand. In John, the Kingdom of God is seen and entered by those born anew / from above / of water and Spirit. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John is not proposing the coming of a new political structure on earth. Rather he is proposing the formation of an alternative society "from above" that has access to the Kingdom of God by action of the Son.
And so, salvation lies in being born anew; in being born from above - in re-defining one's "family of origin." John really means that we become God's off-spring, children of God, and in that way we receive from God the same honour and character that God has; and owe God the same loyalty that blood relations show one another (or ought to).
In Verses 16 to17, "belief" needs to be read as "trust and bond with:"
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts and bonds with him may not perish but have eternal life.
17 Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
That is, no one is saved by intellectual agreement with a "belief." Salvation is all about the restoration of broken relationships. Being "saved" simply means being restored to the proper bond and trust of true kinship. Salvation is a relationship not an event.
It is important to note, the organic "logical consequences," of these words. That is,
- The action starts with God so loving the world - the whole world - without any qualifications, hesitations, exceptions or prior demands.
- Then the Son is sent.
- Those who trust and bond with the son, become part of the Son's family (being born anew from above), and as equal status siblings,
- They then become heirs to the family estate: heaven, Spirit, light, truth, love, salvation and eternal life.
- Those who don't trust and bond with the Son, don't become part of the family, and don't becomes heirs.
To be more clear. The logic of John is NOT: If you believe, then God will love you and save you. God's salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God's love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe.
On the other hand, since love is not coercive, we do have to accept the invitation.
Note: Historical background information in this post is drawn primarily from Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, pages 80-89; and the writings of Amy-Jill Levine, et. al. See below.
John 3:1-17 (NRSV)
1 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.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
John 3:1-17 (The Message)
1 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. 2 Late one night he visited Jesus and said, "Rabbi, we all know you're a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren't in on it."
3 Jesus said, "You're absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom."
4 "How can anyone," said Nicodemus, "be born who has already been born and grown up? You can't re-enter your mother's womb and be born again. What are you saying with this 'born-from-above' talk?"
5 Jesus said, "You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the 'wind hovering over the water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. 6 When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7 "So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be 'born from above'—out of this world, so to speak. 8 You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. That's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."
9 Nicodemus asked, "What do you mean by this? How does this happen?"
10 Jesus said, "You're a respected teacher of Israel and you don't know these basics? 11 Listen carefully. I'm speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. 12 If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don't believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can't see, the things of God?
13 "No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. 14 In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up — 15 and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
16 "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. 17 God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.
Scripture quotations from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.