Monthly Archives: October 2013

Nicodemus and Jesus

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 as night to investigate his activities.

This little statement about Jesus not having faith in the people offers an introduction to the story of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night. Unlike the other three gospels, day and night are used for symbolic purpose in John’s Gospel. Jesus performs his signs and makes his public announcements during the day because he has nothing to hide, but his enemies work at night to plot against him and arrest him. 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. Preachers have been known to tell stories that illustrate the point of the sermon. Some of these stories and the people in them are simply made up. 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.

            Before dismissing Nicodemus as an historical figure, though, we should note that 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 the conversation between the unnamed aristocrat in the synoptics is different from the conversation with Nicodemus in John, it is quite likely that these are two different versions of the same event. Frequently John records authentic historical details not included in the other Gospels even though he uses the tradition more creatively than the other writers.

            What we learn about Nicodemus is interesting. He was a member of the Jewish council or the Sanhedrin. This was the governing body of Judea under Roman occupation. There were 70 members of the council, including representatives of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and wealthy land-owners, much as our Congress includes lawyers, business leaders, and members of prominent families. It was the Sanhedrin that had Jesus arrested and that handed him over to the Roman governor. We will see that Nicodemus defended Jesus on the council and that he helped provide for Jesus’ burial. These details do not seem like the kind of thing that John would have invented for literary purpose. I think it is safe to say that Nicodemus was a real person whose story was remembered by the Beloved Disciple. This does not mean that the conversation we have in chapter 3 is a verbatim recording of the conversation Jesus and Nicodemus had one night. It is a summary of the teaching of the Beloved Disciple about faith in Jesus.

We can safely say that there is a reason this story appears where it does in John’s gospel, right between the cleansing of the Temple and a story about baptism. This discourse with Nicodemus is a sermon 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. As early as the 2nd century, Christian scholars have recognized that this discourse seems to fit Holy Week better than the first week of Jesus’ public ministry (Brown, 135), but John is not at all interested in establishing an accurate chronology of Jesus’ life. Even in 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, “To seek perfect chronological sequence in John is a vain endeavor, for the evangelist himself has warned us that such was not his interest (xx 30)” (Brown, 135). “In the Johanine references to Jesus there is a strange timelessness or indifference to normal time sequences that must be reckoned with” (Brown, 132).

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. Most 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 council sent people to trap Jesus into saying something that could get him arrested. In every case, the spies began with flattery, such as Nicodemus uses. It is possible that Nicodemus came to Jesus with bad intentions, which would explain the curious statement about Jesus not trusting the people in Jerusalem. It is equally possible that Nicodemus was speaking the truth, and that the Sanhedrin did know that Jesus was a teacher sent by God. In that case, John would be using this statement to indict the council for having knowingly condemned a righteous man.

A third possibility is that Nicodemus is speaking for himself and others who were mentioned in the preceding verses. They believed that Jesus was a teacher who was empowered by God with the ability to do miracles. Taken at face value, Nicodemus is 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 will challenge Nicodemus with a new perspective.

Born From Above:    One of the intriguing features of John’s Gospel is that Jesus rarely answers the question that is asked of him. Almost every sermon Jesus gives in John’s Gospel is precipitated by a question that Jesus doesn’t answer. They taught us in preaching class that sermons should be relevant and answer the real questions that people in the pews are asking. John did not go to the Moravian Seminary. He answers questions that people did not know that they should have been asking. In fact, 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 an original story in which a rich young ruler asks Jesus about entering the kingdom of God or receiving eternal life. That question is certainly implied in Jesus’ response to Nicodemus in which he talks about seeing the kingdom of God. It may be that John inadvertently omitted the original question or it could be that he wanted to emphasize that Nicodemus, like others in Jerusalem, had seen the signs that Jesus had performed without coming to a true understanding of their significance. Even though he had seen what Jesus did, Nicodemus did not understand that the Kingdom of God had arrived. He believed partially, but could not believe fully.

Born Again/ Born from Above:       The focus of the discourse is on Jesus’ statement that no one can see the kingdom without being born from above. We know this is a key statement since it is introduced in a very solemn manner. In Greek, Jesus says Amen, amen lego, which is almost a liturgical statement. Modern translators disagree over how to render this formal language into 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. 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. John then combined them into this engaging discourse over the nature of salvation.

Jesus said that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. This is a verse that interpreted have spilled a lot of ink and a little blood over. If you grew up in the South, as I did, you have probably had someone ask you if you have been born again. The rest of the country became aware of this idea of being a “born again Christian” when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. Ever since then, “born again Christian” has become a demographic category for political pollsters. The idea of being a “born again Christian” is closely connected to the theology and practice of evangelicalism, which claims that each individual must have a conversion experience. This experience 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 this idea of being born again in the short time we have this morning. I will point out that William James identified this as one of many types of religious experience. He identified it as the experience of the “sin sick soul.” The only reason I am bringing up the idea of being born again is that it is based, in part, on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. He tells Nicodemus that only those who have been born again will see the Kingdom of God. 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 or precisely how to translate this idea into our language. Most scholars believe that John intentionally used a word with a double meaning because he meant both things: born from above and born anew.

Nicodemus, like the evangelicals I mentioned earlier, thought Jesus said “born again.” Nicodemus must have been a literalist since he misunderstands Jesus as claiming that a grown man could enter into his mother’s womb again. Jesus has to straighten Nicodemus out by pointing him toward a spiritual meaning to his words. I think he also clarifies that he meant that humans must be born from above, which is a radical change of life. I don’t think that we should make this concept of being “born again” a dividing point among Christians when this passage is about so much more than an altar call.

Born of Water and Spirit:   Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ misunderstanding by going deeper into the idea of spiritual birth. He 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. The word John uses for birth can be translated as begotten, by the way. 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, which is a fairly graphic metaphor that was popular among the Gnostics, whom the church declared heretical. They believed that there was a spark of God or a seed of God in all persons who were truly spiritual beings rather than just physical beings. This may be what John is referring to here; that Christians are the children of God because God’s spirit has begotten them. The simplest reading, though, is that this is maternal image of God who gives birth to sons and daughters of God who are born from above. John’s Gospel speaks of God the Father quite a bit, but this image of being born again depends on a maternal aspect of God.

Although there is no mention of a virginal conception of Jesus or a virgin birth in John’s Gospel, this conversation with Nicodemus contributed to the Catholic Church’s teaching about the Virgin Mary. The virginity of Mary was seen as way to keep Jesus free from the corruption of the flesh and lust. That is probably reading too much into this text since Jesus is clearly offering the possibility of spiritual birth to Nicodemus and those who follow.

This idea of being born of God was not new to the Gospel of John, and Jesus seems to think that Nicodemus should have understood this based on his study of the Scriptures. It is not a major theme of the OT, but there are passages that speak of the king being born of God and that call Israel the son of God. When Nicodemus expresses his skepticism over this spiritual rebirth, Jesus presses the point further by comparing the Spirit of God with the wind. The comparison was easy to make in Greek and Hebrew since in both languages wind and spirit are the same word. In Greek the word is Pneuma, which is the root of the words pneumatic and pneumonia. You may remember this from last year when we talked about the creation of Adam. God breathed his spirit or his breath or his wind into Adam to make him alive. 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. There are many verses in the Wisdom literature that equate God’s spirit with the breath of life in humans.

This pneuma (ruah in Hebrew) 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). This would give them new vitality as individuals and as a nation. The coming of the Messiah would include this outpouring of the Spirit of God, which would include signs and wonders. The apostle Peter makes this claim in the Book of Acts, but John’s Gospel connects it directly to the preaching of Jesus. The eschatological pouring out of God’s spirit means that those who enter the kingdom of God are born again as the children of the heavenly Father.

But, this rebirth is a mysterious process. One of the nice things about John’s Gospel is that it repeatedly points to the mystery of God. Though it is the most theologically advanced gospel; it does not attempt to explain the unexplainable. The spirit of God is like the wind. It cannot be seen with mortal eyes and it 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.

Jesus in the other three Gospels tells many parables about the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of John acknowledges the mysterious nature of that kingdom. Not everyone can see it. Not everyone can enter it, but those who have been born from above will. We should not leave this idea before recognizing that those who have recently been born of the Spirit will be infants in the faith. They will be like the child that Jesus placed in the midst of the disciples. There is much we can learn from and rejoice over with those who have experienced a spiritual rebirth, but I think churches would be wise to recognize that the recently twice-born are still immature in their faith.


Wine for the Wedding at Cana

Book of Signs:

This week our lesson is from the second chapter of the Gospel of John. Our lesson for today begins the section of John’s Gospel that scholars often call The Book of Signs because it recounts seven significant miracles of Jesus. The second half of the Gospel of John gives the passion narrative, and there are no miracles in that section until the resurrection. Because there are so many stylistic differences between the two parts of the Gospel some scholars believe that the Book of Signs was originally a separate document that was edited several times over the years. The original version of the Book of Signs may be as old or older than the Gospel of Mark, but there is no scholarly consensus on this. It is final form, the Book of Signs is preparation for the Book of Glory, and it foreshadows the events later in the Gospel.

            There are seven wonderful deeds of Jesus in the Book of Signs, far fewer than in Mark’s gospel where Jesus does numerous healings, exorcisms, and similar miracles. In John, Jesus turns water into wine, heals the son of an official, heals a lame man, feeds the 5000, walks on water, heals a blind man, and raises Lazarus from the dead. Most of these miracles have parallels in the other gospels but they are told in much more detail in John. The only miracle that is basically the same in all four gospels is the feeding of the 5000. The one miracle that appears only in John is the one we will discuss this morning, turning water into wine, both of which recall Holy Communion.


I keep calling these wonderful deeds “miracles” but John always calls them “signs,” and that gives us a clue to interpreting these stories. John’s Gospel itself claims that Jesus did many wonderful things, but these stories have been told been told so that the reader will believe in him as the Son of God. In other words, the author of the Gospel informs us that these were symbolic actions that point beyond the physical details of the event to deeper insights into the nature of God and Christ. In a sense, these signs function like the sacraments. They were physical manifestations of the grace of God. The narrative invites us to become part of the story and experience the nature of Christ. Each sign is intended to lead us into deeper contemplation of the Word of God made flesh. It is probably not an accident that there are seven signs in the Book of Signs. Seven is the number of perfection and creation. The Gospel begins with references to the Book of Genesis and here there are seven signs to remind us that Jesus is the New Creation.

Historical Details:

After calling his first disciples and teaching them, Jesus travels to his home in Galilee and attends a wedding. This is one of those details in John’s gospel that I really like, and it reminds us that Jesus participated in the normal aspects of his society. In the 15th century, the Moravian Church’s rules were rather Puritanical. Members were forbidden to have big celebrations, including weddings. The elders of the church moderated these rules a little when the younger generation opened the Gospel of John and pointed out that Jesus himself went to the wedding at Cana. Not only did he not condemn the proceedings, he provided the wine.

            This story has always bothered those who want to turn Christianity into a dour and ascetical religion of constant self-denial. One of the first things Jesus does with the former disciples of John is to take them to a banquet. This puts into narrative Jesus’ statement in the synoptics that the disciples of John fasted but the disciples of Jesus did not. Why should the guests fast when the Bridegroom is with them? Though this story does not gives us license for drunkenness and wanton extravagance, we do need to recognize that the first public act of Jesus, according to John, was to go to a wedding! John tells us that Jesus’ ministry is in the world – at wells and in the market place. That is where the Christian message is needed and where Christians should be.

Good Wine Last:

John includes another little detail that rings true to our experience. The master of the feast says that people always serve the good wine first and then you serve the bad wine. The early guests were the most honored and wealthiest, so they got the good wine. Those who arrived late were those who could not afford time off from their labors or who were less honored by the family. Today, we still want to start with a good impression so that people will not notice when you start serving them vinegar instead of wine. You always put the bruised apples in the bottom of the bushel, don’t you? This is one of those realistic touches in John’s Gospel that is delightful, but we should not use this verse in the Bible to justify our actions. This little conversation with Jesus communicates an important lesson. Jesus gives the best wine last when all the guests have arrived. Jesus overturns the normal order of things by showering all of the people with good things. Again, we have some of the most profound teachings of Jesus given in a narrative form in John. The last shall be first.

Whose Wedding is this?

Scholars have long wondered whose wedding this was and why Jesus’ mother was there. Some have speculated that it was one of the close relatives of Mary. Others think it was probably a relative of one of the new disciples, perhaps Nathanael or Philip. That would explain why Jesus left immediately for Galilee after hooking up with these guys. Dan Brown, like some of the old Cathars, argues that this was Jesus’ wedding to Mary Magdalene. Frankly, I think that is rather silly since even the Jewish opponents of the Christians never challenged the tradition that Jesus was single. The Catholic Church had enough trouble trying to repress the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters; it is unlikely they could have hidden a wife. The fact of the matter is that we do not who was getting married at Cana. All we know is that Jesus was an invited guest, not the groom at Cana.

 Out of Wine:

I go to a lot of weddings, and weddings are a big deal these days. I’m sure you know that weddings are social events as well as family events. This was even more true in Jesus’ day when ordinary people had few occasions for feasts. Based on Jewish sources, we think that weddings typically lasted seven days, beginning on a Wednesday. Preparations took months, and a family’s social status was determined in part by how well they handled the wedding. Running out of food or wine was a very bad thing because it indicated a lack of generosity, poor planning, or simply lack of money. It could also indicate that your guests were not very generous, since wine was one of the expected wedding gifts. At least one scholar has suggested that the reason Mary tells Jesus that they’ve run out of wine was to rebuke him and his friends for coming to a wedding without bringing a gift! I doubt that was intended in the story, but it does make an interesting picture. Having been in charge of pot-luck dinners in seminary, I have noticed that single men tend to bring far less food to a dinner than they consume there.

      The main point, of course, is that the wine had run out, which meant that the wedding feast would not last the full seven days. Mary’s terse statement that they had run out of wine would have sent chills down the spines of the original readers of this Gospel.  The joyous occasion could have turned to embarrassment and recriminations, the way weddings sometimes do. Symbolically, the New Creation represented by a wedding would fall short of perfection. Notice that Mary does not appear to be asking Jesus for anything. It is a simple statement of fact that was laden with meaning.


Much to the chagrin of many conservative Protestants, wine in the OT is a symbol of divine abundance and blessing. I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a biblical literalist and a prohibitionist at the same time, but people do. Unfortunately, in dogmatically opposing the idea of wine, they miss the symbolism of the Kingdom of God being a realm of abundance and joy. The promised land was to be covered with vineyards, and clusters of grapes would yield much juice. One of the dominant images in Jewish apocalyptic literature at the time of Jesus was that of the wedding banquet for God’s people when once the Messiah rules. In Jewish thought, Israel was the bride and God was the groom, and the messianic age was the celebration of the wedding, and wine was the symbol of spiritual abundance.


This miracle, then, is more than transforming water into wine; it is a revelation of Jesus as the true Messiah, the one who brings in the joyous kingdom of God. This helps explain Jesus’ curious response to his mother. “Woman, what is this to you or me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus was not being rude to his mother, by the way, even though this was not a typical way for a son to address his mother. The NIV tries to soften this by saying “dear woman,” even though that is not what the text says. 


Raymond Brown proposes that the use of word woman without any kind of article was intentional. It connects Mary to two key figures in Jewish literature. The first is the woman in Genesis 3 who was tempted by the serpent. The second is the woman clothed in the Sun in apocalyptic literature. We see here how early in the history of Christianity that Mary becomes a symbolic figure who connects the story of the fall with the story of redemption and the consummation of the work of Christ. Catholic scholars tend to elevate the role of Mary in this story, but her role is similar to that of John the Baptist in John’s Gospel. She connects the old covenant and the new one. She points to Jesus and tells others to do as Jesus commands. Oddly enough, she is never called by name in this Gospel. We’ll return to that fact in a latter lesson.    

Hour has Not Yet Come:

Why, then, would John show Jesus trying to put his mother off by saying that this was none of their concern? Part of the answer may be simply that this is historically accurate. Someone remembered that Jesus was reluctant to do anything at a wedding that would draw attention to himself. It is not surprising that the Synoptics ignored this miracle story since it is different from the all the others. Jesus is not healing anyone or feeding the hungry here. He is not battling unclean spirits or making the seas obey him. He is simply providing wine for a wedding feast. So perhaps, he was reluctant to use his powers this way.

There is another possibility, though. He says that his hour has not yet come. In John’s Gospel, this phrase refers to the hour of his crucifixion. For John, the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion was the hour of his glory, as we shall see. That was the moment when the Messiah was lifted up and the New Creation began. This reference to the Hour at the beginning of the Gospel is a foreshadowing of the events to come, and it connects this wedding feast with the crucifixion. The reason Jesus was reluctant to produce wine was because the work of redemption was just beginning. The true wine of the marriage supper of the Lamb would come after the crucifixion and resurrection.

We will see that throughout John’s gospel he uses the language and imagery of Holy Communion in unexpected places. There is no account of Jesus sharing bread and wine with the disciples at the Last Supper in John. Instead, we have allusions to communion through the book, and I suspect that is the case with chapter 2. The miracle at Cana parallels the more famous miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Here wine, there bread. In both cases, there is an amazing abundance for all. Those with Jesus receive “grace upon grace.” In John’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus begins with wine and feasting, and communion is connected with the joy of a wedding. Communion is the celebration of the nuptials of the church and her Bridegroom, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet and a sharing in the extravagant love of God.

Jars of Water:

This theme that Jesus is establishing a new messianic age is also seen in detail about the six stone water jars, which were used for ceremonial washings. These were large stone cisterns that held 20 or 30 gallons of water. That’s a lot of water for washing. Some have referred to the wine Jesus made as bathtub wine as if it were bathtub gin from the 1920s, but the context of this miracle was different from the 1920s. It is an important detail, though, that this water was intended for purification rituals. These jars were reserved for religious purposes connected to Judaism. The transformation of the water into wine was symbolic of the transformation of the old covenant or purity and law into the new covenant of grace and abundance. The contrast between the old ways and the New Creation is evident in John’s Gospel. They have no more wine. The old law; the old priesthood; the old temple; the old covenant has run dry according to John, but Jesus transforms the situation. The old covenant was not rejected by Jesus; it was transformed into something more.


It is also possible that John wanted the reader to make a connection between Jesus’ action and the miracle that Moses performed before Pharaoh when he turned water into blood in the stone jars that sat in Pharaoh’s court. That was a miracle foretelling of death and judgment, but Jesus’ miracle was at a wedding, a symbol of life and new creation. The connection between the blood in Egypt and the wine at Cana was probably intentional as well since it is consistent with John’s use of Passover imagery to discuss the Eucharist.