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.