John 2:23-3:8 – Nicodemus:
Adult Bible Class, Home Moravian Church. Originally aired Nov. 26, 2006
Transition: Last week we discussed the cleansing of the Temple in the second chapter of John. Someone in class pointed out that Jesus’ apparent opposition to the Temple was consistent with the perspective of some of the OT prophets, such as Micah and Amos, who taught that God requires justice and mercy more than animal sacrifices. This is an important observation that reminds us of the ironic fact that the opposition to Judaism evident throughout John’s Gospel is closely connected to the Jewishness of the Gospel. The cleansing of the Temple was part of a long debate within Judaism over the nature of worship, the observance of the Torah, and the role of prophets. John’s Gospel draws extensively on the Old Testament and other Jewish sources in proclaiming the message of Jesus. We should also note that in each of the other three gospels, Jesus directly quotes from the OT prophets who rejected animal sacrifice and called righteousness. In short, the cleansing of the Temple was an expression of the Jewishness of Jesus even as it because a rejection of Judaism.
Belief because of Signs: The verses at the end of chapter 2 serve as a transition from that story to the story that is our lesson for today. John reports that many people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus because of the signs he was doing, but he says that “Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all about people.” Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is a somewhat mysterious figure, separate from the crowds that gather around him. He is like an eastern sage who possesses knowledge but is wise enough to be cautious in speaking what he knows to the crowds. The references to signs here is one of the many indications in John that Jesus did much more than is narrated in the gospels since the only sign John has told us about so far was done in Cana, not Jerusalem. It is possible that the cleansing of the Temple was itself a sign, but the implication is that Jesus performed miracles in Jerusalem and some people believed because of the signs. One of those people was Nicodemus, who visits Jesus at night to investigate his activities. Unlike the other three gospels, day and night are used for symbolic purpose in John’s Gospel. Jesus The story of Nicodemus takes place at night, but it ends with Jesus’ saying that those who do evil choose the night because they are afraid of their deeds being made known.
Nicodemus Since Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John, some scholars have speculated that he is a literary invention of the evangelist. It may surprise you to learn that preachers have been known to make up stories that illustrate the point of the sermon. It is possible that John created this conversation with Nicodemus in order to teach new Christians the doctrine of his church. The dialog is even structured like a catechism with questions and answers. But we should not dismiss Nicodemus too soon. There is a parallel story in the other gospels about a wealthy aristocrat who came to Jesus asking how to enter the kingdom of God. Though that encounter is narrated differently than the conversation with Nicodemus in John, it is quite likely that these are two different versions of the same event. John often records authentic historical details not included in the other Gospels, such as the name of the aristocrat, even though he uses the oral tradition more creatively than the other evangelists.
I think we can assume Nicodemus was a real person, and what we learn about him is interesting. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of Judea under Roman occupation. There were 70 members of this council, including representatives of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and wealthy land-owners. It was similar to our Congress which is composed primarily of wealthy individuals representing the legal profession, merchants, and a few prominent families, like the Kennedys and Rockefellers. It was the Sanhedrin that had Jesus arrested and handed him over to the Roman governor. By showing that a member of the Sanhedrin believed in Jesus, John shows us that at least one Jew defended Jesus before the council and provided for Jesus’ burial. This mitigates some of the anti-semitism in the gospel.
Even though Nicodemus was probably a real purpose, the conversation presented in chapter 3 is not a verbatim recording of what was said between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is doubtful they had a secretary keeping minutes of the proceedings. As early as the 2nd century, Christian scholars have recognized that this discourse seems to fit the last week of Jesus’ life better than the first week of his public ministry (Brown, Gospel of John, 1:135), but John is not at all interested in establishing an accurate chronology of Jesus’ life.
Even within this conversation with Nicodemus, the time-frame shifts and it sounds as if Jesus has already been raised from the dead. As Raymond Brown points out, “In the Johanine references to Jesus there is a strange timelessness or indifference to normal time sequences that must be reckoned with” (Brown, 132). John uses the questions of Nicodemus to provide a summary of the Beloved Disciple’s teaching about faith in Jesus. It is placed after the cleansing of the Temple and before a discussion of baptism to emphasize that this is about the radical change in the covenant that Jesus brought about it. It is a sermon about a change of life, a rebirth symbolized by the waters of baptism. It is not a story about the distant past but an invitation to us to share in the new life offered by the resurrected Jesus.
A Teacher from God: Nicodemus begins by telling Jesus “we know you are a teacher sent by God.” It is not clear who the “we” refers to. Many commentators assume that Nicodemus is speaking on behalf of members of the Sanhedrin. If that is the case, then this may be a parallel to the instances in the other gospels when the authorities sent people to trap Jesus into saying something that could get him arrested. Such spies always used flattery such as Nicodemus uses. So, we cannot dismiss the possibility that Nicodemus came to Jesus with bad intentions, and that Jesus uses cryptic answers to avoid being arrested, but that does not fit the mood of the story. It is equally possible that Nicodemus was speaking the truth, and that the Sanhedrin did recognize that Jesus was a teacher sent by God. In that case, John would be using this statement to indict the council for knowingly condemning a righteous man.
A third possibility is that Nicodemus was speaking for those mentioned in the preceding verses who believed in Jesus because of his signs. Taken at face value, Nicodemus was saying that he believed that Jesus was like Moses or Elijah. To be sent by God, for him, did not mean that Jesus had come from heaven. It meant that God had chosen him to give a prophetic word. Jesus does not reject what Nicodemus says, but he does challenge Nicodemus with a new perspective that will force Nicodemus to make a decision.
One of the intriguing features of John’s Gospel is that almost every sermon Jesus gives is precipitated by a question that he doesn’t really answer. They taught us in preaching class that sermons should be relevant and answer the real questions that people in the pews are asking, but John did not go to the Moravian Seminary. He answered questions that people did not know that they should have been asking. Here in chapter 3, Jesus gives an answer even when there was no question. This has led some scholars to speculate that the evangelist or a later editor altered the original story in which a rich young ruler asks Jesus about entering the kingdom of God or receiving eternal life (Luke 18:8). That question is certainly implied in Jesus’ response since he talks about seeing the kingdom of God. By omitting the original question, John may have been trying to emphasize that Nicodemus, like others, had seen the signs without coming to a true understanding of their significance. Nicodemus did not recognize that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the person of Jesus. He believed partially, but could not believe fully.
Born Again/ Born from Above: The focus of Jesus’ discourse is the statement that no one can see the kingdom without being born from above. This saying is introduced in a very solemn manner. In Greek, Jesus says Amen, amen lego, which modern translators render in different ways in English. The NIV says, “I tell you the truth.” The NRSV says, “Very truly, I tell you.” The KJV said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” which is the most literal rendering. What gets lost in translation is the connection of this phrase and the church’s liturgy. Amen, amen, I say to you is very formal worship language. Three times in this conversation, Jesus uses this very stylized formula to introduce his pronouncements. It is reasonable to assume that these were statements that had become part of the formal liturgy of the church founded by the Beloved Disciple and were remembered much like epic poetry.
According to these sayings, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. If you grew up in the South, as I did, you have probably had someone ask you if you have been “born again.” This idea is closely connected to the theology and practice of evangelicalism, which teaches that each individual must have a conversion experience that is such a radical change of life that you can call it a second birth. People often have this conversion as part of a revival service. We can’t go into detail on the importance of this idea of being born again in American religion, but I don’t think that we should make this concept of being “born again” a dividing point among Christians. The only reason I am bringing up the idea of being born again is that it is based primarily on Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus, which is curiously in the plural. “Y’all must be born again,” it says in our vernacular.
Or does he? The curious thing is that the Greek word John uses here (anothen) has a double meaning. Translators have to decide whether to render this phrase as “born again” or “born from above.” This double meaning does not occur in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, or English, so we do not know for sure what Jesus might have said originally. Most scholars believe that John the evangelist intentionally used a Greek word with a double meaning because he meant both things: born from above and born anew. Nicodemus thought Jesus said “born again,” which appears to be a misunderstanding. He must have been a literalist since he thought Jesus was saying that a grown man should enter into his mother’s womb again. Jesus has to straighten Nicodemus out by pointing out that he was speaking spiritually not physically. He was saying that humans must be born from above, which refers to a radical change of life that includes seeing the world from God’s perspective.
Born of Water and Spirit: Jesus says that the kingdom of God is for those who have been born of water and the Spirit. Just as physical birth involves flesh producing flesh in a woman’s body; spiritual birth involves the Spirit giving birth to a new spirit. Scholars debate whether John is using a maternal or paternal image for God’s spirit here. In the first letter of John it refers to Christians being begotten by the seed of God. Some early Christians believed that there was a spark of God or a seed of God in all persons who were truly spiritual beings.
The simplest reading of this statement in chapter 3 leads us to a maternal image of God as the one who gives birth to sons and daughters. John’s Gospel speaks of God the Father quite a bit, but this image of being born again presents a maternal God. I am surprised that so many evangelicals preach about being born again without contemplating the significance of that spiritual experience for our understanding of God.
Born of Spirit: Jesus seems to think that Nicodemus should have understood this idea of being born of God through his study of the Scriptures. Though this is not a major theme of the OT, there are passages that speak of individuals being born of God. The nation itself was called the son of God by prophets like Hosea. When Nicodemus expresses his skepticism over this spiritual rebirth, Jesus presses the point by relating new birth with the work of the Spirit of God.
We have separate words for “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit,” but that was not the case in Greek or Hebrew. In the ancient world, life was defined in terms of breath. The physical breath was equated with the inner spirit that animated a human being. In Greek the word for breath or spirit is Pneuma, which is the root of the words pneumatic and pneumonia. In Hebrew, the word is Ruach. You may remember that God breathed his Ruach into Adam to make him alive. There are many verses in the Wisdom literature that equate God’s spirit with the breath of life in humans. This same wind or Spirit brought the word of God to the prophets and gave them their power. There are many passages in the later prophets and in Jewish apocalyptic literature that indicated that in the last days, God’s spirit (breath or wind) would blow on the people of God (Brown, 140), giving them new vitality and power. The coming of the Messiah would include this outpouring of the Spirit of God, which would include signs and wonders. John’s Gospel connects the outpouring of the Spirit directly to Jesus. Those who enter the kingdom of God are born again as the children of the heavenly Father.
Mystery of Faith: But, like the physical wind, this rebirth is a mysterious process. One of the nice things about John’s Gospel is that it respects the mystery of God. It does not attempt to explain the unexplainable. The spirit of God is like the wind that cannot be seen with mortal eyes and cannot be controlled by the human will. You know it only by its effects, by the dead leaves being blow away. You cannot see the spirit of God, but you can see the effects. You can see the change in people’s lives when they are reborn. You can see what happens when they turn away from the pleasures of the night and live according to the light.
You don’t need to hear someone’s testimony or their conversation story to know that they have been born from above. It will shine from their eyes and be evident in their actions. In the other three Gospels, Jesus tells many parables about the Kingdom of God. Here, the Gospel of John acknowledges the mysterious nature of that kingdom. Only those who are willing to be born from above and become like children can enter it. Not everyone can even see the kingdom, but those who have been born from above can see it and live it. John does not tell us if Nicodemus believed in Jesus and was born from above, but we do know that he bought the spices to bury the body of the man he visited one night. The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it.