John 3.1-17 (NRSV)
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
3Now 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.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 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?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 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.’ 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?
11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
I am indebted to William Barclay's Daily Study Bible commentary for this reflection.
Nicodemus came to Jesus because he was impressed by the signs and wonders. Jesus needs to make it clear to him that this is not what was most important; what really matters is a change in a person’s inner life that follows from a new birth. Nicodemus had difficulty with this – because he took what Jesus was saying literally. Barclay explains that the Greek word ‘anothen’ has three possible meanings:
(i) ‘From the beginning, completely and radically’;
(ii) ‘Again’ – i.e. for a second time;
(iii) ‘From above’ implying ‘from God’
Once again, we find the richness of the Greek difficult to translate into English, but what it is saying is that one needs to ‘… undergo such a radical change that it is like a new birth; it is to have something happen to the soul which can only be described as being born all over again; and the whole process is not a human achievement, because it comes from the grace and power of God.’
Nicodemus seems to have only thought of what Jesus was saying in the second sense – ‘again’ and so with a crude literalism. But Barclay also sees in his reply a ‘… great unsatisfied longing …’ because, deep down, he knew that there was more to life, but the ‘more’ seemed impossible to achieve.
By today’s standards, Nicodemus had it all – but he realized that, in fact, he had nothing. He was a wealthy man, a great intellect, one of the rulers of the day and probably from one of the distinguished Jewish families of the day, but he had come to realize this was not what life was all about. This is of course echoed in those words that echo so true from St Augustine which speaks about the origin and the goal of human nature.
‘… You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you …’
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you …’
Our current world is restless – and needs to be born again, radically, of God. People think they have it all and have found their ‘all’ to be lacking and severely wanting. I believe that the message of Christ is on the cusp of a great revival as restless souls seek peace.
Barclay reminds us that the image of being born again, born anew or rebirth is integral to the whole of the New Testament, and cites examples:
- Peter speaks of being born anew by God’s great mercy (1 Peter 1:3);
- Peter speaks of being born anew not of perishable seed, but of imperishable (1 Peter 1:22-23);
- James speaks of God bringing us forth by the word of truth (James 1:18);
- The letter to Titus speaks of the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5)
- There are times when the image of death and resurrection is used – or a re-creation, e.g. Paul speaks of the Christian as dying with Christ and then rising to new life (Romans 6:1-11);
- Paul speaks of new Christians as ‘babes in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 3:1-2);
- Those who are in Christ being a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15);
- The author of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of the new Christians as being like a child (Hebrews 5:12-14).
This was nothing new for Jews who used the same imagery in speaking of the proselyte who converted to the Jewish faith, and who, after sacrifice and baptism were considered to have been born again. So radical was the change, that it was believed that sins had been forgiven and that they were different people with a fresh start.
The Greek community also held similar beliefs as part of their mystery religions, including dying and rising, including sacrifices for sins, washing in blood and a God who suffered in our place. Barclay therefore concludes that:
“When Christianity came to the world with a message of rebirth, it came with precisely that for which all the world was seeking.”
This is one of the most precious gifts of the Christian message, the fact that people can be forgiven and given a second (and third, and fourth etc.) chance in life.
To begin with Nicodemus does not understand. Why? Barclay contends that there are two kinds of misunderstanding: (i) those who have not yet reached the stage of knowledge and experience where they – as it were – they do not have the equipment to help them to understand. This is what we have committed out lives to doing – educating young people so that they ‘do’ have the skills needed; and (ii) those who are ‘unwilling’ to understand because they ‘refuse’ to see. Nicodemus was in the second category. He was a Pharisee, steeped in the Scriptures and so would have known the prophetic utterances of Ezekiel who spoke of the need for a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 18:31, 36:26) Barclay continues:
“If a man does not wish to be reborn, he will deliberately misunderstand what rebirth means. If a man does not wish to be changed, he will shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to the power which can change him.”
Still today, there are many who refuse the offer of our Lord to change us and to re-create us. It is as if people today are saying: “No thanks: I am quite satisfied with who I am, and I do not want to be changed!”
Jesus then uses the image of the wind blowing to explain the work of the Spirit. Barclay points out that the word for spirit used here is ‘pneuma’ which is used for both wind and spirit. The same is true of the Hebrew word ‘ruach’. This means that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus: ‘Just as you do not understand how the wind works, you can see what it does – its effect is plain for all to see … It is the same with the Spirit – you might not understand how it works, but you will be able to see its impact in changed humans lives.’
Barclay gives a lovely illustration of a workman who had been a drunken reprobate and was converted. His workmates did their best to make him feel a fool, saying: “Surely you cannot believe in miracles and things like that? Surely you cannot believe that Jesus turned water into wine?” The workman replied: “I don’t know, but I do know that in my own house and home Jesus has turned beer into furniture.”
“The unanswerable argument for Christianity is the Christian life. No man can disregard a faith which is able to make bad men good.”
Has the mainstream church today not lost some of this? Have we not over-intellectualised things, or focused too much on ceremony and beautiful music – all wonderful and good – at the expense of offering changed lives? Christianity is not just something to be discussed, but something to be experienced.
Just as we do not need to be able to understand the workings of electricity to enjoy it, or how medicine works to take it and be healed. Barclay states:
“At its heart there is a mystery, but it is not the mystery of intellectual appreciation; it is the mystery of redemption.”
The reference to Moses and the brazen serpent recalling the incident in the desert during the Exodus is of interest and significance. (When I taught Reformation Theology, I referred, on one occasion, to Luther’s reference to this in the formation of his understanding of Justification by Faith. One of my students had never heard of Moses! I was – and remain amazed).
Jesus’ referral to this incident is most important, because it revolutionised the people’s understanding of the nature of God. The Jews had been complaining in the desert and were regretting leaving Egypt, so God sent a plague of serpents to punish the people. When they repented and cried for mercy, Moses was instructed to make a brazen serpent, and when he lifted it up, and the people looked on it, they were saved. Eventually, in the history of the people of Israel, this had become an idol and so during the reforms of Hezekiah, it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18.4) because the point needed to be made that the healing power lay in God and not in the image.
John uses this as a parable for Jesus, so when Jesus is lifted up, and people turn their thoughts to him, and believe in him, they too will find eternal life. Barclay is brilliant in his use of Greek. He explains that the word used here for lifted up is ‘hupsoun’ and that it is applied to Jesus in two ways: (i) when he was lifted up on the Cross and (ii) when he was lifted up to glory in the Ascension and that the two are connected because the Cross was the way to glory. This can be applied to our own lives. Barclay writes:
“We can, if we like, choose the easy way; we can, if we like, refuse the Cross that every Christian is called to bear; but if we do, we lose the glory … There is an unalterable law of life that if there is no Cross, there is no crown …”
God is not a God that demands who just imposes laws on us and who punishes those who break them. God is not just a judge and people criminals. For us to enter God’s presence no price needs to be paid by us. Jesus revealed a God as is a Father who longs for nothing so much as to have his people return home to; a God who loves us, who cares for us and who wants to forgive us. It cost the life and death of Jesus to tell us this.
But the reality of life is this: There will be crosses to bear – not given to us by God – but because we live in a world where the ways of God have become distorted by the free choices of people. But we are given the Spirit of Jesus – which is the Spirit of God – to fill us with the strength we need to face and overcome – even more – to know God’s glory.
For God so loved the world …
The incident that John refers to here is the time in the desert when there was a plague of snakes and people were dying and Moses was instructed to make a brazen image of a snake and when he lifted it up and the people gazed upon it, they were saved. This is recorded in Numbers 21:4-9 and is a remote story only really known in Christian circles because John makes the link with Jesus.
The people began worshipping the image as an idol and, finally, in the days of Hezekiah, it had to be destroyed because of this (2 Kings18.4). The healing power lay not in the brazen serpent; it was only a symbol to turn their thoughts to God. When they did this, they were healed.
Jesus was lifted up on the Cross and when we look on the cross, sign ourselves with the sign of the cross or offer the Blessing – Jesus is lifted up - our thoughts are turned to God and we are touched by God’s peace.
We are reminded that Jesus did not take the easy way and so must we avoid taking the easy way. Jesus did not refuse the Cross, neither must we; because the Cross was the way to glory for Jesus and it will be for us too (as has been part of our earlier reflections).
This passage ends with the words: “…whoever believes in him …” These are important because it includes “…may have eternal life …”
What does it mean to “… believe …?”
Barclay points out that it means believing that God loves us, cares for us and wants nothing more than to forgive us. This would not have been easy for a Jew of those days to accept, because they looked on God as law-giver, a judge and one who demands sacrifices and offerings. To get into God’s presence one had to pay a price. Now Jesus reveals that God is a Father, “… who longed for nothing so much as to have his erring children come back home.”
God had tried to make this clear through His intervention into the life of the people of Israel and Judah and through the prophets, but they could not see it, so it cost the life and death of Jesus to make this clear.
How can we be sure of this? Because John begins his Gospel by explaining that Jesus is the Word of God – the same as God – one of the great mysteries of faith and so whatever Jesus says about God is true. It also means accepting Jesus’ message and obeying his commands.
In Sum: Belief that God is a loving Father, that Jesus is the Word of God and following him in obedience are all vital ingredients in what it means to “believe in him”!
What does it mean to have “eternal life”?
Barclay suggests that this life is the “very life of God Himself”. If we possess eternal life, what do we have?
Peace with God – having God as a loving and forgiving Father; peace with others whom we are ready to forgive because we are so freely forgiven; peace with life – even though we do not understand it any better and are perplexed by it - but we will not resent it anymore and peace with ourselves. Barclay comments on what this means for us as individuals:
“He knows his own weakness; he knows the force of his own temptations; he knows his own tasks and the demands of his own life. But now he knows that he is facing it all with God. It is not he who lives, but Christ who lives in him. There is a peace founded on strength in his life.”
And this peace is only a shadow of the peace which is to come. It is good to be reminded that we have the peace of God which passes all understanding – the words I often use when introducing the Blessing after having begun an act of worship with the words: “The peace of the Lord be with you …”
Linked with your thoughts here again we see that it is God who takes the initiative and is motivated by His love for all that he was willing to make it possible for people to have eternal life which is to share life with God.
God does not need to be pacified; He is not a wrathful God, and Jesus is not the lightning conductor that deflects God’s wrath and satisfies it at the moment when he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” Yes, in my heady days as an undergraduate, I preferred the AV translation of ‘hilasterion’ in Romans 3:24 as ‘propitiation’ because all this is encapsulated in this word. But over the years, as I have walked with our Lord, I have come to the understanding that ‘expiation’ is far more appropriate (and equally valid translation of this word) – and refers rather to “atonement for sin” and ‘atonement’ is the word most translators prefer. God is not angry and Jesus not the gentle one ready to forgive; it is the mystery of both incarnation and atonement that I do not need to understand; it is something I know because it is part of my being, or as Paul puts it in Romans 5 because “I have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is something more profound than just cognitive, mental understanding, it is part of one’s very existence – God’s Spirit testifying with my Spirit that I am one of his children – unearned and undeserved – a gift!
It all started with God, who sent his Son, because he loved the people of the world.
Indeed, this is central to John’s understanding of God and this is beautifully represented in his Epistle where he simply states: “God is love!” Barclay puts it this way:
“God acting not for his own sake, but for ours, not to satisfy his desire for power, not to bring a universe to heel, but to satisfy his love … God is the Father who cannot be happy until his wondering children have come home. God does not smash people into submission; he yearns over them and woos them into love …”
Augustine puts it even better:
“God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.”
I will never even get close to the example of people like Mother Teresa – but God will still love me as much as he loves Mother Teresa – all because of Jesus and his grace.
I do not need to write anything more, do I?
Here we encounter the paradox of love and judgment. Barclay explains how the experience of love can turn out to be an experience of judgment. He tells of a music lover, who finds that he is closest to God when listening to a great piece of music. He wants to share this with a friend. He has no aim other than to share both the majesty of the music and his experience of God’s presence – but the other person just does not get it – because he has a “blind spot on his soul”. I did not find this illustration convincing until I read further where he goes on to illustrate his point from an example from an art gallery where there are some of the world’s great masterpieces and one of the visitors comes to the end of the tour as states:
“Well, I don’t think much of your old pictures.” The attendant answers quietly: “Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those that look on them are.” All that the man’s reaction has done was reveal his own blindness.
This now makes more sense to me. When people are confronted with Jesus, their souls ought to be attracted to him – “But if, when he is confronted with Jesus, he sees nothing lovely, he stands condemned.”
God sent Jesus in love, so that man might be saved, but it can become a condemnation when man condemns himself. This is because, in our natural state, we love darkness rather than light.
I believe this is why our churches are emptying. People in the west are increasingly attracted to the darkness. When they come into the light they become acutely embarrassed because, deep down, they know of their guilt. The experience of Christians ought to be different; when we compare ourselves with our Lord we see ourselves as we really are, but the difference is that we want to be like Jesus and so we invite him into our lives, we repent and seek God’s grace and His Spirit so that we can become more like our Lord. Barclay puts it brilliantly:
“The man who is engaged on an evil task does not want a flood of light shed on him; but the man engaged on an honourable task does not fear the light.”
When preaching is faithful, it will show people what they really are. For those who place themselves under judgment and condemnation, this is the last thing they will want to see. They prefer being able to hide in the darkness. If a person loves Jesus, they will want the light to reveal where they fall short so that they might be transformed by the love of their Lord.
To put it starkly: If anyone was to have challenged Mother Teresa and pointed out her weaknesses and shortcomings – she would have wholeheartedly have agreed with them and prayed for forgiveness. Suggest to anyone who is not a Christian that they are not a good person and they will be outraged and will defend themselves most vehemently. And in so doing they reveal that Jesus, who was sent in love, becomes to them, judgment. This is beautifully illustrated in Zechariah’s prophecy:
“Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan* standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2And the Lord said to Satan,* ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan!* The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this man a brand plucked from the fire?’ 3Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ And to him he said, ‘See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.’ 5And I said, ‘Let them put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him in the apparel; and the angel of the Lord was standing by. 6 Then the angel of the Lord assured Joshua, saying 7‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here.” (Zechariah 3:1-7, NRSV)
Coming into God’s presence is like coming into a great light – and reveals that our garments of righteousness are like filthy rags. But he clothes us “… in righteousness divine …” and gives us the command to “… walk in his ways and keep his requirements …”
We are justified by grace through faith and this is not our own doing – it is a gift of God – so that no one can boast. And so we love coming into the light, because we know we are not condemned. We also want to become what we have been declared to be and so we want to light to reveal our shortcomings.