Tuesday, July 08, 2014


Sermon - John 3:1-15

An audio podcast of this sermon is available here.

Today’s gospel reading is John 3:1-15, but I think the best way to unpack this passage is to incorporate it into my comments:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him [Jesus] at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Extra-biblical literature tells us of two first century Jewish Nicodemus’s, both belonging to the Gurion family. The portrait of Nicodemus in John corresponds well with what is know of this family. John’s Nicodeumus might well have been uncle to one Naqdimon ben Gurion mentioned in the Talmud.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. This has often been interpreted as a secret assignation, but may simply refer to the natural time for Torah study. Either way, Nicodemus had seen the miraculous signs and he wants a better understanding of the message to which those signs point.

Many find themselves in Nicodemus’s sandals; intrigued but baffled by Jesus, needing time to get to grips with his message, but willing to spend that time because they see enough about Jesus to think that time spent trying to understand him will be time well spent.

What follows won’t make much sense unless you know that in Greek the words for ‘again’, ‘anew’ and ‘from above’ are the same word: ‘anothen’. With that crucial bit of information in mind, here’s the rest of the passage:

Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born anothen, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.
“Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “I assure you: We speak what We know and We testify to what We have seen, but you do not accept Our testimony. If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about things of heaven? No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven - the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

So you see what happened: Jesus was saying that in order to see ‘the kingdom of God’ Nicodemus had to be ‘born anew’ or ‘from above’ by allowing God’s grace to forgive him and raise his human nature (his ‘flesh’) up into the spiritual life of God in a transformative relationship.

Jesus’ reference to water doesn’t refer to the first birth, or to baptism, but recalls the imagery of spiritual cleansing and re-birth in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

‘I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.’

So, according to Jesus, salvation isn’t a matter of being born into the right tribe or ethnic group, nor of slavishly practicing a set of predictable legal rules in order to pass a heavenly graduation test. Rather, salvation is a matter of allowing oneself to being caught up into the wind-like spiritual freedom of God’s spirit. Here it helps to know that the Greek word for ‘wind’ and for ‘spirit’ is one and the same word (pneuma).

Nicodemus objects that he can’t be literally ‘born again’. Some readers suppose Nicodemus is simply being rather thick and cloth-eared at this point; but I wonder if he isn’t being deliberately evasive. As John 1:11 says: ‘his own did not receive him.’ In either case, Nicodemus’ misunderstanding ironically led to the modern phrase about being ‘a born again Christian’, a phrase that metaphorically means just what Jesus meant by being ‘born anew’. Jesus uses a different metaphor in John 15:4-5:

Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.’

Likewise, seeing ‘the kingdom of God’ is yet another way of talking about relationship with God in and through Jesus. The ‘kingdom of God’ is where-ever God’s perfect will is being followed, and ‘seeing the kingdom’ is equivalent to the more familiar expression in John of having ‘eternal life’. Jesus defines what he means by ‘eternal life’ in John 17:3: ‘This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent—Jesus Christ.’ Note that this isn’t a matter of merely knowing about God and Jesus as His Christ, but of actually knowing God and knowing Jesus as His Christ or Messiah.

With the phrase ‘eternal life’, the concept of unending duration is present, but it isn’t the main idea. The main idea is a certain quality of life seen in Jesus: ‘Christ is Himself both the personification and guarantee of this life.’ (Zondervan Bible Commentary). Theologian Alister McGrath comments that:

‘The “eternal life” in question must not be thought of as if it were some kind of infinite extension of everyday existence. Rather, it refers to a new quality of life, begun here and now through faith, which is consummated and fulfilled through resurrection. This eternal life is only made possible through the love of God, which is shown in the astonishing fact that he loves his world so much that his only Son should die for it.’ (NIV Bible Handbook, p. 369.)

It’s interesting to observe that Rabbinic tradition speaks of one of Jesus’ disciples being called ‘Nakkai’ or ‘Buni’, which is a Hebrew equivalent to the Greek name ‘Nicodemus’.  Moreover, Christian tradition says that Nicodemus was martyred sometime in the 1st century. This certainly chimes with the fact that, although Nicodemus didn’t receive the message of Jesus in John 3, John later tells us how Nicodemus stood up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52) and how he helped Joseph of Arimathea entomb Jesus, buying the myrrh and aloes for the burial. As John 1:12-13 says:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’


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