September 21, 2009

Question on John 3

Guestbook message:

I am wondering about the meaning of John 3:1-21 could you please help explain it to me in modern language? thanx!

For this explanation, let’s look at the text first and point out a few things. Then we can look at how this all fits together. Since I don’t know your background, I’ll possibly explain too much.

The following may be an odd way to read Scripture in the view of many. Use it if it helps. Essentially, we try to put ourselves in the story, understand it in view of other Scriptures, and take the evangelist’s style and apparent purpose into account. It is a method as old as the Church.

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
The point is often made that Nicodemus came at night because he didn’t want anyone to know he was talking to Jesus. The Pharisees tended to be prideful and considered themselves the true followers of Moses and Abraham. Most of them did not believe in Jesus.
3In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
Nicodemus makes a statement of faith, and Jesus says something provocative and mysterious. If this doesn’t make sense to you, that’s good. It didn’t make sense to Nicodemus, either. Part of reading Scripture is entering into it, so we feel confused when someone in the story does. Maybe the implication here is that Nicodemus senses something important but doesn’t see it clearly. Jesus may be telling Nicodemus how to see it clearly. Go take a look at Mark 10:51 and answer this question: “What did Bartimeus want to see?”
4“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
This is typical John. Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus. On the other hand, this is understandable because John’s Gospel is full of puns and double meanings. “Born again” can also be translated “born from above.” Here is what is so cool about this story: Jesus draws Nicodemus into a better understanding by speaking in a way that causes him to ask more questions. Jesus could have just given Nicodemus a simple, direct answer, but Nicodemus would not have grasped the deeper lesson.
5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
Now Jesus reveals what is really important, but he is still drawing Nicodemus in. Remember that when a baby is born, water gushes out (the amniotic fluid). Is Jesus saying that there must be a physical birth and a spiritual birth? Or is he saying that an anointing of the Holy Spirit must accompany Baptism?
6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
This is similar to the style in Proverbs, where everything is said twice, with minor differences. It may seem now that Jesus was speaking more of physical and then spiritual birth, but the baptismal allusion is still there. Remember that John should be read like poetry, because of the economy of words and the layers of symbolic language.
7You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.’
Read as “born from above.”
8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Here is another double meaning. The word here in Greek is pneuma, which can mean “wind” or “spirit.” Now take a look at Genesis 2:7. The man is brought to life by the breath of God. Remember that to the ancients, a person was alive if breathing. In other words, if pneuma was in them. Also look at Acts 2:1-4, and notice the reference to the sound. Have you wondered why some people are full of the Holy Spirit (as evidenced by their joy) and others are bitter and depressed? “The Spirit (wind) goes (blows) wherever it pleases.”
9“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
Now is a good time to read John 4:4-26. Do you see the similarity?
10“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
Nicodemus knew the Scriptures of the time, and should have recognized this as foretold by the prophets. Take a look at Joel 3:1 as an example. Remember to think of “wind” when you see “spirit” and “spirit” when you see “wind.” In a sense, Jesus was speaking in a code that Nicodemus should have understood. We don’t know for certain if he finally came to faith, but he did help prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19:39) so it seems likely.
11I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
Jesus could speak of heaven and the Holy Spirit with authority because he knew.
12I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
Jesus has told him about the Kingdom on earth, and Nicodemus has not made a profession of faith. There is so much more (John 16:12) to tell, but Nicodemus will have to have some faith to accept it.
13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.
Jesus alone knows. Remember the gates of Heaven are closed until the Passion, Death and Resurrection.
14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
Read Numbers 21:5-9. Again, this reference would have been very familiar to Nicodemus. It would have been even more meaningful as Nicodemus saw Jesus crucified later.
15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
As in Numbers, looking at the cross brings healing and life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Poetic text. This states the purpose for the Incarnation, and restates the love of God for us in very human terms. There may be a reference to the Jewish understanding of the coming of the messiah: they expected the messiah to destroy the Gentiles and all evildoers. Instead, Jesus came to save them. This was completely unexpected, and part of the reason many people didn’t believe in Jesus. He didn’t live up to their expectations. A good lesson for us. Do we refuse to let go of our ideas about Jesus when they conflict with the Gospel?
19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
This is simply the truth.

In summary, Jesus uses Nicodemus’ misunderstanding to draw him into asking the right questions. It is worth noting that the early Church expected people to receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism, but exceptions did exist, such as in Acts 10:44-48.

I hope this helps. Please write again if you have more questions.

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