John 3:1-15

New Birth

Nicodemus – Drawn to the Light

John 3:1-15     Dialogue with Nicodemus

1 There was a man, named Nicodemus,
a Pharisee and an important Jewish official.  
2 He came to Jesus by night, ...

Pharisees had appeared in the Gospel already. They constituted one of the delegations that had questioned the legitimacy of John’s activities down by the Jordan [1:24]. They would appear again, disputing with Jesus. 

Nicodemus was not just a Pharisee, he was an important official. Unlike most of his colleagues, he would gradually grow towards full faith in Jesus [7:50; 19:39] – but not yet. At this first encounter, he came out of the night and would return into the night again. The darkness of the night reflected the darkness of his mind.

The veiled reference to darkness would provide the context for Jesus to reflect, a little later in the dialogue, in an equally indirect way, on his role as the light that has come into the world [verse 19].

… and said to him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.  
No one could do all the signs you do
unless God were with him.”

Nicodemus’s opening comments were courteous, but his insight was inadequate. Ironically, Jesus had, indeed, come from God, but Nicodemus saw him as no more than a traditional holy man, a teacher like himself. (The title, Rabbi, means teacher.) His reference to signs as the source of his interest in Jesus marked him as one of the many (who) trusted in what he said in light of the signs that he gave.  But Jesus did not entrust himself to them [2:13-14].

Nicodemus addressed Jesus in the plural: we know. He would seem to be the mouthpiece of a Jewish community or group. For the purpose of the narrative, he may also have represented those Jews who, at the time of the Beloved Disciple, were open to the uniqueness of Jesus but, locked in to their familiar and comfortable traditional mindset and cultural supports, were unable or unwilling to move to whole-hearted faith in him.

He would represent, as well, the general human experience of all who feel safe and supported by unquestioned community values, and find themselves unable or unwilling to critique them against the uncompromising light of Jesus' call to consistent and non-violent love and respect for all. Nicodemus and his unnamed allies had stepped in from the night: they had begun to step out from the collective mindset but still feared to open their minds and hearts to the light.

Signs and Wonders

The Gospel would refer frequently to many of Jesus’ actions as signs, and use the word in a positive sense. In the mind of the Beloved Disciple, many of the deeds of Jesus were intended to point beyond themselves to deeper meanings, discoverable only through faith. It was their deeper meaning that mattered.

Nicodemus personified the human tendency to be fascinated by wonders in themselves – to marvel at the signpost rather than to where it was pointing. To be drawn simply by wonders runs the danger of approaching them as “magical”. Magic has no relationship to faith.

Born from Above

The following literary form of dialogue was not intended to replicate an actual conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. This should have been, after all, a private conversation between the two of them. The dialogue format was a literary convention adopted by the author to introduce and develop a theological issue. The words were the author’s, though some of the more memorable phrases may have been used at different times by the historical Jesus.

3 In reply Jesus said to him, “I tell you truly,
unless people are born from above,
they cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Though common in the other Gospels, the term kingdom of God would occur nowhere else in this Gospel other than in this dialogue. (Jesus would refer to his own kingdom during his trial before Pilate [18:36].)

In the original Greek language, the phrase, from above, can equally mean, again. The author probably intended to convey both meanings, though this cannot be done in most languages with only one word.

4 Nicodemus said to him,
“How can human beings be born,
when they are already adults?  
Surely they cannot enter their mother’s womb a second time
and be born?” 

Not yet open to mystery and deeper possibilities, Nicodemus's imagination remained constricted: he focussed on the meaning again. Was his question a rejection of Jesus’ claim or a request for further enlightenment? He thought only of a literal second birth similar to the first birth, rather than of receiving life of another order, from above. Entry into the kingdom of God demands more than a re-focussing or intensification of present assumptions, behaviours or insights. It requires a whole new mindset, a response beyond unaided human capacities – a lifestyle empowered by the love [the Spirit] of God.

5 Jesus answered, “I tell you in all truth,
unless people are born of water and the Spirit,
they cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Scholars wonder whether the word water was added in a later edition of the text to make an explicit connection to Christian baptism.  Certainly, water would drop out of the discussion immediately without further reference. 

Water and Spirit

Natural gestation takes place in the waters of the mother’s womb, from which the new-born child emerges at birth. The inheritors of the kingdom will, indeed, be human persons, but, in addition to their natural birthing from their mothers' waters, they will need also to draw life from the Spirit.

Life from “water” and “Spirit” also carried Scriptural echoes 
  • of creation in Genesis, 
  • of new creation in Ezekiel,
  • and of renewal and abundant life in Isaiah, 
themes already gently hinted at in the incident at Cana [2:12]. The references were significant to Christian life in general, even independently of their relationship to baptism. The baptism connection may have been an afterthought – but appropriate, nevertheless.

Creation. Before God’s first creative act, Genesis had stated:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 
2 the earth was a formless void
and darkness covered the face of the deep, 
while a wind from God
swept over the face of the waters [Genesis 1:1-2].

(The “deep” referred to the “waters”; and the word “wind” equally means “spirit”.)  From the “waters” and the chaos (the formless void) of the earth, created matter and life would emerge through the action of the “wind from God".

New Creation. Ezekiel had envisaged God’s renewing activity on behalf of the deported Israelite refugees in Babylon in these terms:

I will take you from the nations,
and gather you from all the countries, 
and bring you into your own land. 
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, 
and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses… 
A new heart I will give you, 
and a new spirit I will put within you; 
and I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh. 
I will put my spirit within you … [Ezekiel 36:24-27].

Renewal and abundant life. Addressing the dispirited Jewish exiles in Babylon, Isaiah looked to a future when:

{God} will pour water on the thirsty land
and streams on the dry ground:
I will pour my spirit upon your children [Isaiah 44:3].

The transformation of human hearts would result from the combination of “water” and the work of God’s “Spirit”.

6 What is born from the flesh is flesh,
and what is born from the spirit is spirit.

The author liked to use contrasts to make his argument clear. The flesh/spirit contrast had already been foreshadowed in the Prologue, distinguishing those born … not of the will of the flesh ... but of God [1:13]. The contrast would be raised again in the narrative [6:63]. Essentially, the terms symbolise different ways of thinking. Flesh speaks of humanity in its vulnerability, created and loved by God, but constricted by weakness and ignorance, hemmed in by needs and demands arising from its belonging to humanly created cultural patterns and systems. Spirit refers to the same humanity, but considered from the point of view of its orientation towards God, its openness to truth and mystery, its transcendence of self-interest and group-interests and its capacity to love.

7 Do not marvel that I told you, ‘You must be born from above’.
8 Wind blows where it will.  
You hear the sound of it,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  
It is like that with everyone born of the spirit.”

Jesus’ argument hinged on the two meanings of the one word, translated, equally accurately, as spirit and as wind. [The word carries a third meaning, “breath” – though that meaning is not relevant in this context.] People recognised the power of wind, even though they could not see it or understand how or why it blows as it does. Nicodemus was invited to have the same attitude to God’s Spirit – whose operation was undeniably real, though beyond the capacity of human minds to understand or predict.

Born from Above – Baptism

God's work, begun with creation, has not yet finished. Creation has yet to be fulfilled.

Being born from above speaks of a wholly new life made possible by the creative act of God. Life can be understood as contrasted to death. It can also be viewed qualitatively. New life would allow a whole other possibility of experience.

Persons born from above would know their origin: they have been created by the God who loves them. From that knowledge of being loved by God, they would appreciate their own innate dignity and worth as human persons and children of God [1:12]. They would see their identity arising, not from their being at home in the cultural and religious systems of their world, but from being firmly grounded in God’s unique and unconditional love for them.

Through their faith in Jesus, they would know mutual love to be the overriding orientation of all human relationships. They would know where they were heading. They would know themselves called to share eternal life with God. Life in the present would gain significance and relevance because it would echo into eternity. Life would be shot through with hope.

Drawing their new life from the Spirit of God, disciples would experience themselves empowered to love consistently and dangerously. They would be able to grow across life into the likeness of the merciful, faithful God in whose image they were originally formed.

Baptism. Within a baptismal context, they would know their baptism to be a celebration of new life through initiation into the counter-cultural community of fellow-believers. Within that community, they would come to know the truth about their origin, their worth, their destiny and the way to that destiny. Within the community, they would find the human support they would need to mature into people of faith, of hope and of love. Through their belonging to the Christian community, and empowered from above, they would open to a whole other way of experiencing life. They would break free from the death-dominated mindset of those who do not know their true origin, their worth or their destiny; they would be set free from life without purpose, value or direction.

Life. The possibilities celebrated in baptism need to be appropriated across life. Being born again is not so much something that Jesus does for people as an experience which he invites them to share with him. Their task is to give up trying to construct themselves, and to discover and to become who they truly are. The only way to do that is to accept life, with its pain, its inevitable diminishment, and the myriad “little deaths” that lead up to the adventure of final death, to face it trustingly, even to embrace it, to learn from it, and to allow it to mature them.

The Struggle of Faith

9 Nicodemus replied, “How can such things be?”
10 In answer, Jesus said to him,
“You are the teacher in Israel,
and you do not know such things? 

Nicodemus was the symbol of all those who cannot think beyond the comforting limits of the familiar. The exuberant newness being offered by Jesus was, at this stage, beyond him, though the prophets of Israel had consistently called into question the cultural and religious certainties of their day; and had looked forward to an unimaginable future. The teacher in Israel, who had recognised Jesus as a teacher who has come from God, could not see beyond the signs to the mystery they signified. His mind was darkened by his own qualifications, which he was unwilling to recognise as no longer adequate to cope with the light brought by Jesus.

11In all truth I tell you, we speak about what we know,
and we testify to what we have seen.  
You people do not accept our witness.

Nicodemus would fade from the story (temporarily); and dialogue would become monologue. Indeed, the historical Jesus would become the risen Jesus, and, at the same time, the mouthpiece of the Christian community of disciples. Jesus would speak in the plural, as Nicodemus had spoken in the plural. The subjects of the verbs speak, know, testify and see, would be both Jesus and the Christian disciples.

Though placed on the lips of Jesus, the actual discourse was the composition of the Beloved Disciple. Speaking as companion of Jesus and as member of the Spirit-filled community, he had experienced the new birth promised by Jesus; he had experienced exclusion from the dominant religious system of Israel; and he had lived with fellow members of the discipleship community whose lives had radically changed since they had been born from above.

12 If I have spoken to you all about earthly things
and you do not believe,
how will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

The Beloved Disciple loved to use contrasts, earthly/heavenly, (as he had previously used flesh/spirit), to make clear the point he wished to emphasise. Yet, in a sense, everything has its origin through the Word and is both earthly and heavenly. However, mere origin from the creating God, through the agency of the Word, paled in comparison with what the Disciple had experienced, and which the Prologue had called birth from abovenot from mother and father, nor from human desire, nor from male desire, but from God [1:13]. In the light of their own wonderful experience, early Christian disciples were consistently puzzled by the general lack of interest in the new life made possible by Jesus. They were amazed at the power of religious systems to keep their adherents in the dark [verse 2].

13 No one has ascended into heaven
except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.

In the Gospel narrative, heaven is not to be understood so much as the place of reward for faithful believers. It refers immediately to where God is, and where God is encountered [by the Word]. Heavenly, essentially, means “of God”. 

Jesus could speak authoritatively about heavenly things, since, as Word, he had moved from being with God to becoming flesh: in line with the cosmology of the time, he had come down from heaven

The earlier use of the title, Son of Man, had similarly been connected with the imagery of ascending and descending [1:51]. That title was associated, also, with judgment (which would soon be mentioned in the ensuing dialogue [verse 17]). Since the Word had become flesh (descended) in Jesus, Jesus’ integrity, expressed in his life and his death, would become the criterion according to which the world would be judged. (Judgment was a function of the rejected, but risen [ascended] Son of Man.) Contrary to the expectations of many, the judgment of the crucified and risen Jesus, pronounced on a guilty world, would simply be: Peace be with you [20:19, 21, 26].)

Eternal Life through Crucifixion and Resurrection

14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert,
in a similar way the Son of Man must be lifted up,
15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

New birth in the Spirit would be birth to eternal life, a way of living within the temporal, but transcending it, and enduring beyond death. Eternal life would take practical shape in the transcendent values of truth, love and beauty, which, through people's sharing in the resurrection of Jesus, would be transformed even further and experienced in ways beyond imagination.

The incident about the snake in the desert had been recorded in the Book of Numbers and had occurred while the Israelites were wandering through the desert of Sinai, before their occupation of the Promised Land. The image would recur again on two further occasions in the narrative [8.28 and 12:32-34]. It had evidently become a cherished symbol within the community of believers, helping them to make sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“Lifting Up” the Snake

According to the Book of Numbers [21:4-9], the wandering Israelites in the Desert of Sinai encamped at an oasis, where there was a proliferation of poisonous snakes. Many of the people were bitten and either died or became seriously ill. Their experience led them to complain bitterly and to moan about their monotonous food and their constant problems finding water.

According to the story, God told Moses to construct a bronze replica of a poisonous snake, and to mount it on a pole. Whoever looked at the bronze snake was healed. 

Whatever the circumstances of the originating event, the story had become moralised over time. It reflected a still unsophisticated sense of God – vacillating between punishing and showing mercy; and revealed a propensity to magic solutions:

By their looking at the bronze serpent, “lifted up” on a pole, the people found life.

The Son of Man’s being lifted up referred, firstly, to his crucifixion, though it also referred to his resurrection and return [his ascending] to the Father.  The word itself has two distinct meanings, both of them intended by the author. Lifted up refers to the physical action of the soldiers who lifted up Jesus on the beam of the cross. It also carries the meaning of exalting Jesus – which was essentially the work of the Father.  When the Disciple would later recount the passion of Jesus, he would make clear that Jesus’ death was also his exaltation.

The wording, lifted up, echoed the fate of Isaiah's Suffering Servant, exalted after being humiliated:

Behold, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be exalted and lifted up, 
and shall be very high [Isaiah 52:13]

Disciples' new birth to eternal life would be accomplished by the power released through the death of Jesus on the cross, his resurrection and his ascension. The one who was firstly with the Father, and then descended to take flesh and live among us, is the one who would soon ascend once more to the Father. He knows, and can tell, the heavenly things.

Among those heavenly things that he can tell is the possibility of people’s being born again from above to a whole new way of being alive. Jesus would become the source of eternal life, which people can access by entrusting themselves to him, that is, by believing in him.

Interpreting the Snake

The image of the bronze snake is, at first sight, awkward and unlikely. How might the original event illustrate the manner by which Jesus’ death becomes the source of eternal life?

The response of the Israelites in the desert was to see the snakes as the source of their pain. They looked outwards for causes. But there was another source to their pain: it was their dissatisfaction, which led to loss of faith and trust. They needed to look inwards, not outwards. If they continued to look inwards and to recognise and to own their dissatisfaction, they might have also discovered the source of their dissatisfaction: their loss of the familiar, and their feeling of being out of control and insecure.

Within the culture, the snake had become the symbol of evil. By looking at the snake, the Hebrews were invited to look at their sin and to recognise it for the evil it was.

Those prepared to look at the bronze snake recognised their complaining, and stopped. Their repentance led to a behavioural response. But the deeper need remained unaddressed. They had further to go on their journey towards learning to trust in God’s love.

The Jesus Event. The Jewish leadership saw Jesus as a source of religious, social and political destabilisation. The people, generally, were unprepared to move from the familiar and to trust Jesus as the revelation of the loving heart of God. They “lifted him up” on the cross and crucified him. They looked outside themselves for the source of their malaise and hoped to remove him. They projected their sin onto the scapegoat.

Once “lifted up”, some were able to see the innocent and willing Jesus, tortured and murdered by themselves. Like their ancestors, they were able to recognise their action for what it was. Those who kept looking could come to see that the real source of social destabilisation lay within their own hearts, in their own rivalries, divisions and violence. They could learn to see their problems arising, ultimately, from their lack of personal identity and security. Those who continued the journey would learn to source their security and identity from God’s love. By believing Jesus, they would become truly alive, with a life that would carry on into eternity.

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