The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Lent 2 in Year A is Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus in John 3.1–17. Although we are supposed to be reading from Matthew’s gospel, and the RCL used ecumenically has continued to do so, the lectionary in Common Worship offers us a sequence of four encounters between Jesus and individuals from the Fourth Gospel:
- Lent 2: Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3.1–17)
- Lent 3: The woman of Samaria (John 4.5–42)
- Lent 4: The man born blind (John 9.1-41)
- Lent 5: The raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-45)
I understand that this sequence of passages offered the pattern of study in the early catechumenate, providing a framework for discipleship for those preparing to be baptised at Easter. Those composing the CW lectionary decided that we should follow this pattern and depart from the ecumenical lectionary—though I think without any explanation.
These four encounters do not particularly stand out as a sequence in the Fourth Gospel (for instance, in connection with the seven signs or the ‘I am’ sayings) but they are highly characteristic of the gospel’s narrative style. Whilst the gospel contains more detail of the names of both places and people than the Synoptics, it also features these close-up one-on-one encounters between Jesus and individuals, in which all the details of place and other people fade into the background, as if we are in a cinematic close-up. Some of these one-on-one encounters are also connected with each other; thus Mark Stibbe (in his 1993 Sheffield ‘Readings’ commentary, p 62) notes the prominent contrast between Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and the woman, in chapters 3 and 4:
|John 3||John 4|
|Takes place in Jerusalem||Takes place in Samaria|
|Location is the city||Location is the countryside|
|Happens at night||Happens at noon|
|Focuses on a man||Focuses on a woman|
|The man is a Jew||The woman is a Samaritan|
|He is socially respectable||She is a social outcast|
|Nicodemus initiates the dialogue||Jesus initiates the dialogue|
|Nicodemus descends into misunderstanding||The woman comes to faith|
|Nicodemus fails to see Jesus as the world’s saviour||The woman and her village see Jesus as the saviour of the world|
Both these dialogues also hinge on the use of double entendre, with a specific example (being born again, having water to drink) as well as the shared theme of light signifying understanding.
The setting of our passage continues in Jerusalem, in continuity with the previous episode, but is introduced in quite general terms ‘Now, there was a man…’ The gospel continues with both making assumptions about the Jewishness of its context, since Nicodemus addresses Jesus as ‘Rabbi’ (literally ‘my great one’, a term use for respected teachers) which was introduced in John 1.38, but also about the need to explain. Nicodemus is a ‘ruler of the Iudaioi‘, which could mean ‘the Jews’, though sometimes clearly refers to ‘Jews who were opposed to Jesus’, sometimes ‘the Jewish leaders’, or even ‘the Judeans’, those in the south as opposed to those living in Galilee.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus ‘by night’; there is no reason to doubt this as the time, since the cool of the evening would be a good time for conversation—but there are also hints that Nicodemus might be a secret enquirer or believer, and there are no street lights by which he can be seen. But here we have a striking example of John’s double meaning; he comes and sits before the one who is the light of the world, who has come to shine in the darkness, but he himself cannot see it, and continues to dwell (spiritually speaking) in the darkness. By contrast, the woman in chapter 4 sees Jesus in the light of day, and sees who he is.
There is no particular sense that Nicodemus is being insincere in his enquiry; it is clear that Jesus had followers at all levels of Jewish society, including those who were respectable leaders. And it is striking that he picks up the language of ‘signs’ that the gospel writer himself has introduced us to in John 2.11. But Jesus cuts across his comment, with the first of three ‘Amen, amen’ sayings—translated, wrongly in my view, as ‘Truly, truly’ in most ETs, which really ought to preserve the transliteration of the term ‘amen’. Although Nicodemus has initiated this conversation, it is Jesus who directs it.
The phrase ‘to be born anothen‘ is again ambiguous, and continues with the double meanings throughout this narrative. The term can mean ‘from a higher place’ but can also mean ‘from the beginning’, or again. (Note that this reflects the sense in the ancient world that what is higher functions as the origin or source, hence the main meanings of the term ‘head’ in a metaphorical sense.) We don’t need to eliminate this ambiguity (Nicodemus’ response notwithstanding), since the gospel is here combining the spatial with the temporal in the same way that the rest of the New Testament does in relation to the kingdom of God, which is mentioned here for the first time, and without any explanation, assuming that we already know about this from the teaching of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. The coming of the kingdom from God signals the beginning of the end of this old age, and offers a new beginning, enacted in baptism (Romans 6) where our old life dies and we begin to live the new resurrection life as we emerge from the water.
This new birth comes about by ‘water and the Spirit’. The Spirit and water are closely associated in this gospel, particularly at John 7.38–39, though some think that ‘water’ refers to physical birth. Against this, though the Fourth Gospel is not particularly ‘sacramental’, we find baptism being mentioned in the very next chapter, so I think this is more likely to be a reference to the water of baptism and the parallel baptism of the Spirit. Jesus goes on to say, in effect, that the merely human can only give life to the merely human; to receive spiritual life, in the kingdom of God, requires a work of the Spirit. Here the gospel is being analeptic, that is, referring backwards to what has already been said: ‘to those who believed in him, he gave the right…to be born…of God’ (John 1.12–13). Note that ‘flesh’ here doesn’t have the negative sense that it has in Paul, of ‘sinful human nature’, almost a force oppose to God and the Spirit, but the merely human, so that in the incarnation, the ‘Word became flesh’.
The puzzle that Nicodemus finds in this is not really explained by Jesus, but is emphasised by yet another double meaning. The word pneuma means both ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit’ as well as ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’; English translations attempt to separate the terms, but we perhaps need to hold them together. The wind makes a ‘sound’, phone, but the shepherd’s voice, phone, is recognised by the sheep (John 10.27), and the words of Jesus comprise ‘what the Spirit is saying to the ekklesiae‘ (Rev 2.7 and passim).
The exchange that follows offers us another puzzle, particularly when we reach verse 11. On the one hand, we have a characteristic saying of Jesus: ‘Amen, amen I say to you…’ but it is followed by a statement on behalf of a group: ‘we speak of what we know and we testify but you (plural) do not receive our testimony’. Testimony is primarily that which is borne by Jesus’ followers about the life and teaching of Jesus (though Jesus does talk about himself as a witness in John 5.31), and the language here sounds very much like those Jews who follow Jesus talking to the Jews who rejected him. So it appears as though the gospel author is integrating his own reflection with the words of Jesus, and as the passage goes on, commentary seems to take over. In the remainder of the text, Jesus is referred to in the third person as the Son of Man, and the language has parallels with the prologue in chapter 1.
In John Goldingay’s second volume on reading and interpreting the Bible, Models for the Interpretation of Scripture, he explores the four different ways in which the four gospels do their theological work: Mark by his driving narrative; Matthew by his organisation and application of the teaching of Jesus; John by his addition of authorial comment; and Luke by his adding to his gospel the account of the continued ministry of Jesus in the early church (pp 73–76).
[In the Fourth Gospel] the point of the story is driven home by direct teaching material attached to the story to bring out its theological and ethical implications (p 75).
Critical scholarship has, in the past, assumed that the early Christian communities were projecting their concerns back into the gospel narratives—but if so, they did not do a very good job, since key concerns (such as the challenges of the Gentile mission) were left only obliquely addressed, and key features of the narrative (such as Jesus’ use of ‘Son of Man’) were not obviously taken up. The gospel author isn’t here making up Jesus’ teaching, but retelling it in a way that brings out its significance—just as any good preacher or teacher will do.
A second feature complements this insight. In the episode at Cana, there is explicit reference to the disciples ‘re-membering’, putting together the story of Jesus with the benefit of hindsight. We can see the same happening implicitly with the references to the Son of Man ‘ascending’ in John 3.13. The language here is similar to that of Paul in Eph 4.7 in his use of Ps 68: Jesus has ascended and so can send spiritual gifts. Looking through the Fourth Gospel, there are several times when the Son of Man language is associated with ‘ascending’—in the encounter with Nathanael in John 1.51, and in John 6.62 ‘if you see the Son of Man ascended to the place he was before’. This all points to the meaning of ‘lifted up’ in John 3.14: it is not just his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross, but also includes his resurrection and ascension—even though the ascension is not included in the events narrated, it is referred to as a theological theme. As we have seen before, in Mark (along with the other Synoptics) Jesus talks of himself as Son of Man to point to his humanity, his humiliation in death, and his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, using the language of ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ from Dan 7.13, where the ‘coming’ is from the earth to the throne of God, not the other way around. The Fourth Gospel does not use this language explicitly, but appears to understand the term in the same way.
The next part of the discourse, John 3.14, draws on a very brief and otherwise insignificant event in the desert wanderings—and by now Nicodemus himself has faded from view. Num 21.4–9 offers a concise account: the people are impatient at a detour in the journey; they complain against God and Moses; God sends ‘fiery’ (venomous) serpents amongst the people, who die when bitten; the people repent and ask Moses to intercede; God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole; and all who look on it are forgiven and healed.
Some commentators suggest that there might be a further allusion to the figure of the serpent in the garden of Eden, but if that is the case, the allusion is both odd and obscure, since the ‘lifting up’ of Jesus is offered as a parallel to the mounting of the serpent on the pole, so Jesus is here taking the place of the serpent.
The pole offers an obvious parallel to Jesus’ being nailed to the cross, with its crossbeam fixed to an upright pole. The gospel here uses ‘lifted up’, a term which occurs nowhere in Numbers 21, and most usually means ‘to exalt’ (as in the song ‘Lord, I lift your name up high…’). Here we have the start of a long Johannine double meaning and paradox: though being hoisted on a cross is the most shameful thing possible in the first century world, because it expresses God’s love and provides the means of salvation, this giving of himself becomes the glory of Jesus and the revelation of the glory of God.
In the wilderness, the lifted serpent becomes the means of salvation from God’s judgement, the forgiveness of sins, and healing from deathly poison. The gospel is surely pointing to all these in the cross of Jesus. Those who ‘look to’ the bronze serpent will live; those who ‘look to’ Jesus in trust and faith will receive eternal life. The normal sense of ‘eternal’ (aionios) in other literature is ‘unending’, but here is must include the sense of ‘life of the age [to come]’. In contrast to the other gospels, the Fourth Gospel has a very ‘realised’ sense of eschatology, in which the certain events of the future (both life and judgement) project forward into the present and make sense of world as it is.
There is one curious feature of the Numbers 21 story: though the Hebrew talks of the serpent being fixed to a pole, the Greek version of the OT (Septuagint, LXX) uses the language of being fixed to ‘a sign’ (semeion Num 21.9). This is what might have suggested the parallel, and again points to Jesus’ death and resurrection as the eighth ‘sign’ in the gospel to which the other seven point.
And so we come to the pivotal verse in this passage—and the one that is widely misread. ‘God so loved the world’ in contemporary English naturally has the sense ‘God loved the world so much…’ that he sent Jesus. But we are locked into a tradition from 1611 and the Authorized Version, when this phrase meant something different: in this way God loved the world. The change in word order in the ‘Comfortable words’ of the Book of Common Prayer make this clear:
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John 3.16
And this is what the text says. The adjective houtos means ‘this’, and the related adverb, found here, means ‘thusly’ or ‘in this way’, something a number of modern translations now correctly point to. But it is a risky thing to challenge a tradition! This is the way that God loves the world—not merely by speaking, no longer merely by offering the ‘sign’ of the serpent, but by bringing his tabernacle presence amongst us in the person of Jesus, who not only is the temple presence of the holy God, but remarkably offers himself up for us as a costly sacrifice.
The ‘world’ that God loves is the world that was made through him (John 1.10) but it has not recognised or received him, and so it is also (as the gospel narrative unfolds) the world that ‘hates’ Jesus and will also therefore ‘hate’ those who bear testimony to Jesus (John 15.18). Here is the paradox of God’s generous love: it comes as a gift, but a gift must be received. If I see someone drowning in a river, and I reach out my hand, then that hand must be grasped if the salvation I offer is to be received.
There is a temptation to make something of the vocabulary of ‘love’, here the verb agapao related to the noun agape. But this gospel actually uses the term interchangeably with another ‘love’ word phileo. In fact, the exposition of that love—a costly gift of Jesus—is sufficient for our understanding. Older versions describe Jesus as ‘the only begotten son’, a term which has found its way into the creeds. But the emphasis here is not on the metaphysical relationship between the Son and the Father, but the uniqueness of the Son. Although (John 1.12) can become children of God, Jesus remains unique—a one-of-a-kind Son, offered for us.
The continuing narrative does not proceed in a linear, logical, way, but circles around, repeating and rehearsing what has been said before, but unfolding the consequences as it does so. Thus the ‘For God’ in John 3.16 is parallel with ‘For God’ in John 3.17. The purpose and intention behind God’s sending of Jesus was not condemnation but salvation—a reiteration in parallel terms of the stark contrast between ‘perishing’ and ‘having eternal life’. The language of ‘condemnation’ is similar to that used by Paul in Romans 8.1: ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.
Join Ian and James as they discuss all these issues and reflect on the challenge of preaching on them.
29 thoughts on “Nicodemus encounters Jesus in John 3”
Thank you for these posts – really helpful. Will study in more detail later!
Interesting on the catechumenate. But I’m not sure it’s a Common Worship innovation: the readings from John seem to be set for RCL Year A, unless I’m missing something? (Note for readers: see the website for “The Consultation on Common Texts”.)
You might be right. I made this comment originally three years ago, so I cannot now recall on what basis. It certainly seems odd to have so much from John in Year A rather than Matthew, doesn’t it?
Possibly, but I suppose if you’re going to fit large portions of John into Years A, B and C, and mostly outside of Ordinary Time, then they need to go somewhere.
In any case, I’m growing to like the baptismal overtones of this catechumenate mini-series: born of water and the Spirit (John 3), living water (John 4), washing in water and gaining sight (John 9), and dying and rising again (John 11).
(I wish the lectionary was published with a rationale!)
Splendid. Thank you.
In a world where podcasts seem to be predominantly preferred and You Tube eulogised my preference remains text.
It can be skimmed, studied, chewed over and returned to.
If I could press the the serpent lifted on a pole, is it not redolent of a victory over a dead serpent, rendered harmless. Contrasted with dead Son raised on a pole, in victory over Satan, sin and death.
Look to him, there.
As for “so loved”, Colin Kruse’s commentary points to this pointing forward, as the way or manner, in which God loved the world through Christ’s sacrificial death.
( But this also reveals the depth and of God’s love. It is supremely, exquisitely, demonstrated and revealed there. It is why Jesus voluntarily, vicariously died – for the *joy set before him* he endured the curse of death on the cross.
In him we have died, in him we have been raised, to new eternal life.
Look to Jesus at Golgotha, his glory revealed – bringing many sons ( inheritors, sharers in his Kingdom) to glory.
He won’t be found in the tomb. Died in glory. Raised in glory. Gloriously glorified: Father, Son and Spirit.
And will return to Reign.
I dont think there’s really much difference in the ‘God so loved the world…’. God loved the world so he sent his Son. Or God so loved the world that he sent his Son. Surely his coming and dying does show how much He loved the world.
‘If I see someone drowning in a river, and I reach out my hand, then that hand must be grasped if the salvation I offer is to be received.’
A significant number of Christians would have a problem with that analogy. Apart from the alternative of not just reaching out your hand but actually grasping the drowning person’s hand or arm, which is more likely if they are struggling, it also ignores other Scripture verses which certainly seem to indicate that although God loves everyone, He doesnt offer salvation (that saving hand) to all, and that the atonement is limited to those God has chosen to save. Even John’s ‘whosoever believes in Him…’ can be understood to mean those who have been chosen will believe in Him, given Jesus’ other words.
I still struggle to reconcile these seemingly contradictory understandings.
Someone, dead in their trespasses and sin, can’t reach out. Can’t grasp, as unrelenting, undesirous, indifferent rebels.
But this is a topic that Ian steers around, though his destination theology is clearly in the Pelagian/Arminian sectors of the City.
While many project election and predestination into the future, I see it, as an adult convert, as something recognised in hindsight, after conversion. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Here is Charles Spurgeon, from this link,
“Charles Spurgeon was an overweight Baptist preacher in London 100 years ago. The more I read about him, the more I read of his sermons, the more I stand in awe of his gifts. He preached to 4,000 at each service on Sunday for 38 years at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. He is known today as the greatest soul-winner of the last century. What is not so well known is the theology behind his power. It was the theology of sovereign grace in Romans 8:28-30. He recounts the decisive day when he was sixteen:
I can recall the very day and hour when I first received those truths (of election and effectual calling) in my own soul—when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man—that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God.
One week-night when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, “How did you come to be a Christian?” I sought the Lord. “But how did you come to seek the Lord?” The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that he was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, “I ascribe my change wholly to God.”
Do we, as Christians, provoke jealousy?: “I wish I had your faith.”
But it is even more, we have not only the faith, but the Person of our faith, dwelling in Him and He in us, in union with Him and our Father in the Spirit. John 15. John 16. John 17.
Broken down into a number of topics and headings, here is a series of articles, which really need to be read in totality, that may help you in that struggle.
They are wide-ranging, considering both Arminian and Calvin (as developed and applied) stances.
One of them, “How can God be Loving” looks at a drowning illustration. But again it needs to be set in the context of the totality of Sam Storms articles, as it comes near the end of them.
And here is consideration of a “Parable of the Drowning Man”.
It opens, equating a *drowning man* with those referred to in the judgement of God in John 3:19-20 (just beyond the lectionary reading). Not ignoring, nor forgetting John 3:18
“To draw this comparison (with a drowning man) is to radically redefine our condition before God and change the nature of our problem. While our problem is indeed life-threatening, but this is where the analogy completely ends. Those who are “drowning” are there because they love it and will for nothing else (John 3:19, 20).”
There are 3 more developed arguments.
And it ends:
“Lastly, I wish to point out that we have two radically differing views of what the Bible teaches about the nature of grace:
1) to you, perhaps the greatest blessing of God is his gift of a free will.
2) In the Bible the greatest judgement of God is to leave people to their own boasted free will – for unless God delivers man from himself, his willful blindness and love of darkness, none would ever benefit themselves by following Christ into the light. Or to use the analogy, none would ever reach out their hand to God for they are dead to Spiritual things (Eph 2:1; 1 Cor 2:14; John 6:65)”.
But, it is suggested, Sam Storms does all the heavy lifting, foundational work, on which those last two points (especially the last sentence) are based and built.
I’m well aware that I may be unwelcomed for bringing all this to notice, (not that I think (m)any will follow through with the links even if they read my comments) as there has been vigorous push-back in the past against such positions, most noticeably put forward by a now absent, and missed by me, commentator, John Thomson.
For one reason or another: perhaps too many of my comments -they put others off from making comments; perhaps made in theological contrast; perhaps the links, and quotes, to articles which seek to help with your admitted struggle and in contrast to with the drowning illustration, but a comment is being moderated.
Maybe it’s now down and out the Nevil – S/Chute that is.
Maybe it is just the editorial exercise of grace. Oh, well.
Sometimes Geoff I find your comments very long, and I just give up reading! But your insights are always welcome. Thank you for the quote from Spurgeon. I suspect many feel following conversion there was a sense in which they found it near impossible to say no. I found that. Using the drowning man analogy, it felt more being grabbed. Though I didnt feel a particular need to be saved, unlike the drowning man. It was more a realisation of the truth. That is why such analogies dont work.
I guess people can ‘drown’ in different ways, and people can come to faith in different ways. At my own conversion, and God’s intervention, it arose in the context of actually drowning, as the car I was in rolled over and over and ended up in a river upside down. As the car rolled, all I remember was the chaotic flashing headlights of the car, and then utter darkness. I was literally confronted with death, before an experience of some angelic protector guiding me in the darkness to escape through a hole where my feet had been. But my life had been drowning before that. A bit in the way – I suspect for many people – that the poet Stevie Smith describes a person who for long in his life was ‘not waving but drowning’.
Then I felt overwhelming shame, which led to tears of repentance the next day for many things in my life, followed by a sleep, from which I awoke to find my dark room bathed in a light (of course I am not meaning a literal light – I can’t explain it) and a person present in the room, who (for the first time in my life) I recognised as Jesus.
And yet I have a good Christian friend who never had experience like that. He explained his own awakening of faith as like walking across the moorland between England and Scotland. And at some point he must have crossed the border, but he couldn’t pinpoint exactly when. All he knew was that in due course he knew with confidence that he was obviously in Scotland. In short, Jesus had become familiar to him, in faith, in a gentler and less traumatic way than me. And this Christian has since lived a devoted life of Christian service and faith for almost 50 years.
Yet in both cases, and in so many and diverse ways, God may lead us into faith and trust. I see ‘new birth’ – being born again – as being a kind of baptismal experience. A coming out of darkness into light. A death to one’s own control and an opening to trust. A bit like natural childbirth (which Nicodemus mentions) and coming out of darkness and waters into life. Only it is God who saves us and delivers us.
Furthermore, this spiritual birth is not only one-off, in the baptismal way in which the Spirit works. Day after day, the Holy Spirit wants to draw us through waters and into new life, as we open to the Spirit and the Love of God, and die to self, and give ourselves up to the flow of God’s Love. “I have a baptism to undergo.” Jesus said (by which he meant his death – and resurrection)… and to his disciples: “You must be baptised in the baptism I am baptised with” pointing to the death we too are called to undergo, in death to self, in being ‘crucified in Christ’, and being drawn by the Spirit into the power and the love of (OT-style) devotion to God, and givenness to the great flow of Love.
“How can a person be born again?”
It is the Spirit who gives birth to our spirits day by day, and it’s grace, and power, and the opening up to love. So elsewhere we are told to “keep being filled with the Spirit” – whose streams of living water… the great flow of love and the very presence of God… will well up within us.
Spirit gives birth to spirit. As the Psalmist elsewhere declared: “You take way our breath, we die and return to dust. You send your Spirit, and renew the face of the Earth.”
Like the sign of Jonah, Jesus leads the way for us to follow, going down into death, like the prophet lost in the watery darkness, and then rising to new life, drawn out of the water (like Moses was drawn out of water, and through water). Jesus walked the way to resurrection. And says each day, “Come, follow me.”
Thank you, Susannah, for your comment.
What I find desperately poignant and revealing is that those who fill the ssm columns of comments offer no significant comments when it comes to Ian’s main blog purpose, biblical scholarship, and his articles on scripture, even those following the CoE lectionary.
Even Jesus command you “must” be born from above, is steadfastly ignored, avoided, mocked, derided.
It is not merely an enhancement of our old life.
An aspect that PC1, Peter, mentions is truth – realisation of truth, living in truth. Living in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, who raised the Jesus from the dead – Jesus who is the Truth.
Here there is a Oneness yet difference, with Jesus and Holy Spirit, just as there is a Onesss, yet difference, with Jesus and the Father. (John 17).
Another aspect is developed by Colin Mc: below. Christians are a new creation-God breathed, Spirit breathed, breath of life, just as with the first Adam, in whom there was no life, until given God’s Spirit breath of life.
It is the same Spirit-who breathed, living and active scripture. (Otherwise we would not even be entering into any of these articles, comments and testimonies.)
And it is all brought together in the intra-Trinitarian love of God, that breathes out in scripture, “God is Love”. It is nowhere else to be found. Do we love the Father as the Son loves the Father? Do we love Jesus the Son, as the Father loves the Son, preincarnate in eternity. Oneness.? And how do we know that?
Of course, as I’ve expanded, this is a glance back to Ian’s previous article, How to create your own personal Jesus. Is it Jesus we encounter throughout the canon of scripture?
Yours in Christ,
Ian has graciously put up my comment, above.
What frequently happens here is that what perhaps is a minor or subsidiary point, perhaps even a bit of a throwaway line, is seized on like a dog finding a bone, gnawing, growling over, and running off with.
The scope of Ian’s article has been restrained by the lectionary reading and Nicodemus encounter with Jesus, which in application, raises questions about our own personal encounter with him, or what used to be known as testimony.
In that process, biblical scholarship and objective truth/ reality meet personal, subjective, lived reality, rather than remaining mere untethered principles.
Geoff – If I have time I’ll contribute to this discussion (but sadly I probably don’t). About the ‘moderation’ – there is probably a script (which is standard for forums such as this) that one url link is OK, but if you put in two or more url links then it goes into the moderation filter.
You linked to two articles – that is probably wot dunnit.
I think it was Dick Lucas on Hebrews (about 30 years ago I heard him) who commented;
“Who are the saints? Those who persevere”
“Who will persevere? The saints”
Which *might* express a similar tension.
You’ll be aware that many of Dick Lucas’s sermons are still available. Sounds like Hebrews 4. I have some of his sermons on this my phone. They continue, intermittently, to refresh.
I recall hearing him say something to the effect that he didn’t always readily understand some of scripture until he focused in study in, in preparation to preach on it.
I have read that they are speaking in a simple language code used by Pharisees. Any thoughts on this?
Not quite sure what you mean by this?
To this day there is still a temptation in certain evangelical circles to follow the KJV version of John 3:7 -“Ye must be born again”and to such an extent that the focus , based as it is upon *again * , concentrates primarily on the *response* rather than the *source*. We have already been reminded that ‘ anothen’ which can be translated as *again* can also be translated as *from above*. This indicates that new birth is fundamentally God given! Did not Jesus say: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide —-“[John15: 16] .And are not He and the Father one?
This understanding of ‘anothen’ dovetails more readily into the term that precedes it *gennethe* (born) which is first recorded in 1:12 &13 ” —‘children of God, who were ‘born’ ( egennethesan) not of blood nor of the will of the *flesh*, nor of the will of man, *but of God*’. The word flesh here denotes , not our fallenness, but our humanity (cf 1:14) and it is at this point that Nicodemus fails to grasp the picture : this birth (generation) emanates from God and is mediated through the *Spirit*!
Furthermore, I would suggest, there is a strong parallel not only between Spirit and Wind (pneuma), but a definite correlation between John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word –) and Genesis 1:1f ( “In the beginning God created —) – not simply because the latter makes reference to “the Spirit of God hovering —” (in OT, *ruach* enbraces ‘wind, breath and Spirit).
Genesis 1 speaks of creation. John 1 speaks of (even though the terminology is not employed) re-creation. Moreover it and other parts of the Gospel profoundly echo aspects of Ezekiel’s prophecies (see for example chs. 36 and 37).
Thanks Colin. My first comment was trying to bring out the creation narrative in Jesus’ comments —- badly. I.m not very good at commenting. But I’m still reading them.
You’re welcome Steve!
I tend to agree. Though I wonder if those verses in John 15 more specifically refer to Jesus’ apostles to whom He was speaking? Perhaps Jesus’ ‘choice’ was for them to follow him and take on that particular role, he does after all say ‘appoint’ . Im not saying it cant be extrapolated to apply to all believers and their salvation, but Im not sure that is what Jesus was referring to at the time. It seems more personal to them?
To PCI John 15 applies to Jesus as the true vine. The metaphor of the vine in this instance was originally applied to Israel (see Ps 80 and Isaiah 5:1 – 5 for example). Israel was the “vine taken out of Egypt” [Ps 80: 8]. This, of course is the language of redemption and even though Israel “yielded only bad fruit”
[Isa 5: 2] , it was called into a covenant relationship by the Lord [see Isa 5: 7].
The language therefore is the language of choice not (primarily) appointment(see Deut. 7:6 – 9). But now, supremely, Jesus Christ is the chosen one [Luke 23:35].
Colin – briefly – I tend to agree with your conclusions, but I should say that I haven’t been exposed to the hypothetical `evangelicals’ that you are talking about. I do tend to use the KJV – and I haven’t seen it taken in the way that you suggest. The `evangelicals’ whom I have met do seem to understand that `born again’ means a transformation of the heart and mind that only God can do – and hence goes right back to source.
I haven’t heard the appeal ‘get yourself born again.’ (The closest would be the rugby fans shouting `get yersel injured’ to Peter Dods when he was missing more spot kicks than they would have liked – back then getting injured was the only way to get replaced by a substitute. Peter Dods went on to score some great goals and Scotland eventually won the match).
Too my mind the fulcrum of the exchange was v10
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
As today, especially in my experience, particularly, amongst Anglicans who analyze the Jesus of history to the exclusion of the Jesus of “the scriptures” i.e. the Old Testament and the Jesus of Glory. In part also, I think, to the restrictions of the Lexicon Readings.
John 3:9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him,” How can these things be?”
3:10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
3:11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
3:12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
What says the Scriptures [ OT]?
The holy scriptures are able to make you wise unto Salvation
Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh:
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.
And I will give them an heart to know me, that I am the LORD: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: for they shall return unto me with their whole heart.
2 Kings 22:19
Because thine heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the LORD, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard thee, saith the LORD.
Yea, they made their hearts as an adamant stone, lest they should hear the law, and the words which the LORD of hosts hath sent in his spirit by the former prophets: therefore, came a great wrath from the LORD of hosts.
One of the things I really like about The Chosen is their centring of Nicodemus as a character. I think he’s a fascinating and quite unexplored character in biblically-inspired fiction. I wasn’t particularly enamoured with their take on John 3 though, which had the same kind of semi-gnostic issues which affect the show as a whole. It’s the whole notion of rubbishing ‘external’ things like the temple, the law etc in favour of a ‘pure’ Kantian ‘internal religion of the heart’. Though this criticism could just as equally be applied to evangelicalism more broadly.
One of the things I think we miss so often about the new birth is that we apply exactly this kind of internal vs external framing to it. We see ‘the old birth’ as external and corrupted in some way and ‘the new birth’ as a pure internal heart transformation along the same Kantian lines that I sketched above. But that’s not what the new birth means in John’s gospel. Rather his comparison is (as you have noted) between the relative weakness of humanity versus the power which comes from God. I think you are right too to see Jesus’s own baptism and anointing with the Spirit in the background to his remarks.
In my view, the key to understanding the conversation with Nicodemus is to view Jesus’s words as a response to Nicodemus’s questioning, and not as a complete change of topic (as many evangelicals seem to understand it). Too often the narrative is read as “Nicodemus makes a statement about Jesus’s teaching authority and Jesus decides instead to talk about matters of the heart”. On the contrary, we ought to read Jesus’s initial response (which Nicodemus misunderstands somewhat) as a statement about how he received divine authority to teach ie. by being born again/from above, which happened at his baptism by John when he was declared to be God’s Son and anointed with the Spirit (which also explains the reference to “water and the Spirit”). In other words, Jesus himself is the prototypical one “born of God” – and our new birth follows a similar pattern, adopted as sons through the Son.
I wrote a piece on the theme of the new birth in John’s Gospel a few years back, reflecting on much of this: https://heavenlygathering.wordpress.com/2019/01/20/new-birth-in-the-gospel-of-john/
Sorry, I feel I should clarify that I do still like and appreciate the Chosen. Most of the criticisms of it seem to me unfounded and the one area where I feel it does fall short (too preoccupied with internal vs external religion) is an issue which seems to affect evangelicalism more broadly – including many of those critiquing it!
Good to hear from you again Chris . Have read your musings with interest!
Thanks Colin, much appreciated 🙂