General Comments: John 3:1-17
1. As mentioned in the first pass, this is the first of four consecutive weeks when we'll have Gospel lessons from John.
The word gospel means good news. The Old English word was godspell. It translated the Greek New Testament word, euangelion, which literally means good news. The good news is that sin and its rightful consequence, death, needn't have the final say on our lives. All who turn from sin and trust in Jesus as their God and Savior have life forever.
Martin Luther described John 3:16, composed of words spoken by Jesus in this Gospel lesson, as "the gospel in a nutshell."
2. Of the four Gospels in our New Testament, John is the most unique. The other three--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--are called the synoptic gospels by scholars, synoptic meaning roughly seeing things the same.
John speaks often of incidents not mentioned by the other gospel writers. He doesn't see things in quite the same way the other three do.
John is the most extraordinary writer of the four, drawing on Hebrew Scriptures, Greek philosophy, and his own poetic sensibilities to present Jesus as "the Word made flesh."
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.’
(1) The Pharisees often took the heat from Jesus, and rightly so. They wanted to hold God and the people hostage to religious law, even adding reams of their own humanly-instituted regulations to the laws given by God in the Old Testament.
The law exists, first of all, to establish community order among the ungodly.
It exists, secondly, as we said in the previous pass, to be a mirror, showing us our distance from God and our need of His forgiveness.
A third use of the law is a means by which Christians may engage in the healthy sort of self-examination assumed in Psalm 139 and to guide us as we seek to express our gratitude to the Lord for the free gifts of salvation and everlasting life, given through Christ.
The Pharisees thought that by obeying the law, which they thought that they could do perfectly, they could earn salvation.
They also used the law as a battering ram against those they deemed their spiritual inferiors.
But, in many of their beliefs, the Pharisees were closer to Jesus than many other Jews. They, for example, believed in an afterlife. The Sadducees didn't.
(2) A common motif of John's Gospel is the opposition of light and dark. In the prologue to the gospel, he describes Jesus as the light of the world and says that the world rejected Him because it loved darkness.
This same motif plays out in the verses immediately following those in our lesson, more of Jesus' words spoken to Nicodemus:
And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:19-21)In consideration of this motif, commentators (and I) have usually seen Nicodemus' appearance at night to indicate not only that, almost against his will, he found himself attracted to Jesus and Jesus' message, but he was still in darkness.
Traditionally, his arrival at night has also been seen as indicating that he feared his fellow Jews, especially his fellow religious leaders. He didn't want others to see him spending time with Jesus.
More recently, other commentators point out that historically, rabbis worked day jobs and therefore could only discuss spiritual issues at night. This began a tradition which held for years. Rabbis would hold their discussions with one another in the evening hours. (The term rabbi means teacher and one so designated was a teacher of Old Testament faith.)
If this is what's at play in this text, it would indicate that Nicodemus was paying Jesus a compliment. A great teacher of Israel had come to discuss theological issues at the time of night reserved for rabbis who regarded one another as equals.
My own feeling is that all three explanations are at play. Nicodemus, as his words to Jesus indicate, is in darkness as to how one can have a relationship with God and live with God for eternity. He is undoubtedly afraid of what others will say about him associating with Jesus. And, it seems apparent, he does think highly of Jesus. Nicodemus, like most human beings, acted out of a complex of many motivations.
(3) Nicodemus refers to Jesus' signs as authenticating that Jesus has come from God. Sign is the typical way referred to His miracles in John's Gospel in fact. A sign never points to itself. The purpose of an exit sign, for example, isn't for us to stand in awe of it. It points the way out.
In modern times, advertising that appears on TV are signs. But the most effective TV ads aren't necessarily the ones we remember for their elaborate special effects or humor. They're the ones that point people to the product being advertised. (That's why those annoying commercials that annoyingly told us, "Head On. Apply directly to the forehead," were better than some of the sophisticated ads you see on the Super Bowl.)
In just the same way, Jesus' miracles--His signs--were meant to point people to Who He was. Jesus was not just a miracle worker. Not just a dazzling entertainment. The miracles weren't ends in themselves.
When, for example, in John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the sign itself shouldn't have been a big deal. Lazarus, after all, was brought to live a life that would, eventually, end in earthly death again. Instead, people should have seen in this miracle a sign that Jesus had dominion over life and death.
When, in John 6, Jesus fed more than 5000 people, many of them followed Him, as He says to them not because they saw in this miracle a sign of Jesus dominion over our greatest enemies--things like starvation and death, but simply as someone who could wrestle up another quick meal for them. (Check out Jesus' upbraiding words to them in John 6:26-27.)
Nicodemus appreciates Jesus signs. He even appreciates that the sign indicate that Jesus is from God. But, as his subsequent dialog with Jesus indicates, he still has no idea of what the signs point to, that Jesus is God in human flesh.
3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
(1) This passage has been, if not mistranslated, at least misinterpreted. It's often rendered as "born again." But, in fact, "from above" is a far more literal and faithful interpretation.
The word in the original Greek is anothen. The prefix, ano--the adverbial form of the Greek prefix, ana, means up. The suffix -then means motion from a place. (See Brian Stoffregen's notes on this.)
The idea is that new birth, new life, comes from above. Jesus is upbraiding Nicodemus for not seeing that His signs point to the new life that comes through Jesus, Who is from above. Nicodemus only sees a wonder worker he doesn't yet understand.
4Nicodemus 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?’
(1) Like many religionists, Nicodemus is thinking so literally that he can't see what Jesus is trying to show him.
5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
(1) This clearly references Baptism, which is not an act of religious dedication enacted by human beings, but an act of salvation graciously enacted on human beings by God.
You might want to read what Martin Luther says about Baptism in The Small Catechism.
6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The 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.’
(1) Once more, we see underscored the reality that the new birth comes from God, from above.
9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
(1) These are realities that can only be apprehended by faith. This new birth cannot be earned. We cannot decide to follow Jesus. We can only decide to walk away when He reaches out, as He does in Jesus, to save us.
[More tomorrow, I hope.]