JOHN 2, 7, AND 19. THE CONTEXT
Chapter 2 tells of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine (2:1-11) and the cleansing of the temple (2:13-22). Following the turning of water into wine, the narrator says, “This beginning of his signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11).
In the New Testament, Jesus’ signs are miracles that bear witness to him as the Son of God—the one sent by God so that the world might be saved. Some people see Jesus’ signs and believe (2:23), but others ignore the signs he has worked and ask him to work more signs (2:18). Jesus, however, maintains a distance from those who believe because of his signs (2:24) and those who ask for additional signs (2:18; 4:48). He knows that sign-induced belief tends to be shallow, and pronounces blessings on “those who have not seen and have believed” (20:29).
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him” (3:2). However, his belief is sufficiently tentative that he comes by night. Jesus doesn’t even respond to Nicodemus’ reference to signs, but instead begins to teach Nicodemus about the entrance requirements to the kingdom of God.
But while Nicodemus seems totally befuddled by Jesus’ comments in chapter 3, he will later try to defend Jesus before the council, saying, “Does our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?” (7:50; see also 11:47). After Jesus’ crucifixion, he will bring a large quantity of expensive ointments to anoint Jesus’ body (19:39). While Nicodemus didn’t “get it” immediately, Jesus’ words and ministry seem to have had a profound effect on him over time. His actions in chapters 7 and 19 bear witness to his belief and courage.
JOHN 3:1-21. A RICH TEXT
This is text rich in imagery, irony, theology, and sophisticated wordplay. Because verse 16 is so well-known and popular, we are tempted to focus on it and to ignore the rest. However, O’Day warns that to reduce this text to a one-verse slogan robs it of its richness. We must preserve the linkage between the story of Nicodemus and the discourse that follows it. We need also to read the text with the Gospel’s prologue (1:1-18) in mind (O’Day, 553-554).
O’Day’s admonition reminds me of the summaries of great novels that we see in college bookstores. While the original work has power to stir emotions, the summaries offer only a lifeless overview. We do something analogous if we make a slogan of John 3:16, divorcing it from its context.
The first part of this text is dialogue. Nicodemus has his last speaking part in verse 9. Jesus continues in verses 10-12. At some point, the narrator takes over, whether at verse 13 or verse 16 is uncertain. The exact point of the transition is of little consequence, because the thought-pattern flows unbroken.
This story follows a pattern common to this Gospel (Barclay, 113):
• A person asks a question
• Jesus gives a hard-to-understand answer
• The person misunderstands
• Jesus answers even more cryptically
• A discourse follows
JOHN 3:1-2. NOW THERE WAS A PHARISEE NAMED NICODEMUS
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2The same came to him by night, and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.”
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (v. 1). It seems significant that we learn Nicodemus’ name. In this Gospel, significant people often go unnamed (such as the woman at the well in chapter 4—the crippled man at the pool of Bethzatha in chapter 5, and the man born blind in chapter 9). Perhaps Nicodemus is named because he is a prominent man—or, perhaps, because he reappears in this Gospel later (7:50-51; 19:39).
“a ruler of the Jews” (v. 1b). Nicodemus comes with impressive credentials. He is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews—almost certainly a member of the Sanhedrin (7:45-52; see also 11:47). The Sanhedrin (also known as the council), will be instrumental in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (Matthew 26:47; John 11:47-53), but Nicodemus will try to obtain a fair hearing for Jesus (7:50-51), and will bring a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial (19:39).
“The same came to him by night” (v. 2a). The fact that Nicodemus comes by night is troublesome. It could be that he does so only to have a quiet, uninterrupted conversation with Jesus, who tends to attract crowds.
But this Gospel associates night and darkness with evil and separation from God (1:5; 3:19-21; 9:4; 11:10; 13:30). Nicodemus probably comes at night so that he will not be seen. After all, he is a man of significant reputation, and Jesus is a newcomer—an unknown quantity. Furthermore, Jesus has just created a ruckus in the temple (2:13-22). It remains to be seen whether he is a prophet or a troublemaker.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God” (v. 2b). Nicodemus approaches Jesus respectfully, calling him “a teacher come from God” and affirming Jesus’ works as evidence that Jesus is working by God’s power (2:23). The sign to which he refers includes the turning of water into wine at Cana (2:1-11). Jesus, however, has refused to trust people who believed because of his signs (2:24-25).
Nicodemus, a rabbi himself (v. 10), begins his conversation with Jesus by saying “we know.” However, as we will see shortly, he doesn’t know—doesn’t have a clue. He does not understand the metaphors that Jesus uses for the work of the Spirit that enables a person to enter the kingdom of God.
JOHN 3:3. BORN AGAIN—BORN FROM ABOVE
3Jesus answered him, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born (Greek: gennethe—from gennao) anew, (Greek: anothen) he can’t see the Kingdom of God.”
“Jesus answered him, ‘Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God.'” Jesus’ answer is abrupt, particularly in view of Nicodemus’ respectful introduction. “Most certainly” signals the significance of what Jesus has to say here. His answer reflects the fact that he and Nicodemus are talking at two different levels. Nicodemus is thinking literally, but Jesus is talking metaphorically.
“unless one is born (gennethe—from gennao) anew.” The Greek has one word for fathering a child and another word for giving birth. The word gennao is the word for fathering a child, so Jesus is saying that we need to be sired a second time, this time by the Heavenly Father.
But we need to note that when Nicodemus asks for clarification, he doesn’t ask about being sired again by his father but rather about entering “a second time into the mother’s womb” (v. 4).
The idea of rebirth is not new with Jesus. The Jewish people consider proselytes to be reborn upon their conversion to Judaism. The idea of rebirth occurs frequently in the New Testament (Romans 6:1-11; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 4:22-24; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 Peter 1:3, 22-23).
The Greek word, anothen, carries a double meaning—”anew” and “from above”—an ambiguity that enriches this verse. Must we be born anew or born from above? Both!
• Christians often flatten the meaning of “born anothen” by emphasizing a decision for Christ that results in a new birth—the action is ours.
• “Born anothen” moves in a very different direction. “Babies do not decide to be born…. God is the primary player in this passage” (Johnston, 497)—the action is God’s.
The word “kingdom” appears frequently in the Synoptics, but only here and in 18:36 in the Gospel of John. In this Gospel the phrase “eternal life” takes precedence. Nicodemus would think of the kingdom of God as a heavenly reward for a life well lived, but the Synoptics make it clear that the kingdom “is at hand” (Mark 1:15). In John’s Gospel, eternal life has that same kind of immediacy. The person who believes in Jesus “has eternal life” (5:24; 6:47).
JOHN 3:4. CAN A MAN ENTER A SECOND TIME INTO HIS MOTHER’S WOMB?
4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus interprets Jesus’ words as having to do with physical rather than spiritual rebirth. It could be that, sensing the radical nature of Jesus’ demand, he chooses to misunderstand. He would find it natural to think of a proselyte being born again upon converting to the Jewish faith but unnatural to think of Jews—the Chosen People—God’s people—as needing rebirth. He would find it especially difficult to imagine that a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, would need to be born anothen—again—from above. From his perspective, God’s plan of salvation revolves around adherence to Torah law, and Pharisees excel at that. He would consider Jews and proselytes as the only people faithful to Torah law, and would consider himself among the best of Jews in this respect. Surely his entry into the kingdom of God is assured.
But Jesus said that no one can see the kingdom unless he or she is born anothen— again—from above. This robs Nicodemus of the initiative and places it in God’s hands. No matter how carefully Nicodemus obeys Torah law, something more is required—his rebirth. This is something over which he has no control—nobody controls his or her own birth. Everyone finds it difficult to deal with losing control—to do his or her best and to learn that it is not enough. For someone like Nicodemus, who has done so well in his adherence to the law—who has achieved such religious stature in the community—it would be especially difficult. No wonder he chooses to hear Jesus’ words as having to do with physical rather than spiritual rebirth.
JOHN 3:5-7. UNLESS HE IS BORN OF WATER AND SPIRIT
5Jesus answered, “Most certainly (Greek: Amen, amen) I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he can’t enter into the Kingdom of God! 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Don’t marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born (Greek: gennethenai) anew'” (Greek: anothen).
“Most certainly (Greek: Amen, amen) I tell you” (v. 5a). The word amen is Hebrew. In the New Testament, it is transliterated into Greek. In other words, Greek letters are used to make the sound of the Hebrew word. Amen means “steady” or “trustworthy” or “so be it,” and was used in the Old Testament to confirm what had been said. In worship, congregations used amen as a response to choral music.
Jesus uses amen frequently (sometimes singular and sometimes plural) in the Gospels of John to emphasize the truth of something that he is about to say (1:51; 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24-25; 6:32, 47, 53, etc.)
“unless one is born of water and spirit” (v. 5b). There are three possible understandings of water here: purification—procreation (birth/rebirth)—or Christian baptism. Morris says that procreation (birth/rebirth) is the most likely meaning (Morris, 190-193).
However, it is not necessary to choose one of the three meanings to the exclusion of the other two. Jesus’ reference to water and Spirit has its roots in Ezekiel 36:25-27, where God promised to sprinkle the people with water to make them clean and to put a new spirit—God’s spirit—within them. Water and spirit also have strong baptismal overtones. In baptism we die and are resurrected—born again—born from above. At baptism we also receive the Spirit (Romans 6:1-11; Acts 2:38).
“That which is born of the flesh (Greek: sarx) is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). Sarx is an ugly-sounding word that depicts an often ugly reality––a focus on bodily indulgence rather than on Godly service. In the New Testament, sarx is most frequently used as a contrast with that which is spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” (adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, etc.) with “the works of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, etc.) (Galatians 5:16-23).
“You must be born (Greek: gennethenai—from gennao—begotten) anew” (Greek: anothen) (v. 7b). As noted above, the word gennao involves the father’s role of siring a child. We have an earthly father, but we need a new father—a Heavenly Father. We need to be born once again, this time by God.
Then there is the word “again.” In the Greek it is the word anothen, a word with two distinct meanings. It can mean “again” or it can mean “from above.” So Jesus’ words can be translated “born again”—or “begotten again”—or “born from above”—or “begotten from above.”
Which of those four possibilities did Jesus intend us to understand? We can’t tell for sure. Quite likely, he chose words with a range of meaning purposely. It seems likely that he would tell us that we need to be born a second time (again)—but this time the birth needs to come “from above”—from our Heavenly Father.
JOHN 3:8. SO IS EVERYONE WHO IS BORN OF THE SPIRIT
8“The wind (Greek: pneuma) blows where it wants to, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from and where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Greek: pneumatos).
“The wind (pneuma) …the Spirit” (pneumatos). Pneuma, has a double meaning—”wind” and “spirit”—again a rich ambiguity. “The pneuma blows where it wants to…. So it is with everyone who is born of the pneumatos.” The context suggests that “wind” is the proper translation for the first occurrence of the word and “spirit” for the second. Jesus uses the wind as an analogy for the spirit of God. We cannot see, control, or fully understand wind, but we can see how it bends the branches of a tree. So it is with God’s spirit—invisible, mysterious, and beyond our control, but discernable by its effects.
JOHN 3:9-10. HOW CAN THESE THINGS BE?
9 Nicodemus answered him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher (Greek: ho didaskalos—The Teacher) of Israel, and don’t understand these things?'”
“How can these things be?” (v. 9). These are Nicodemus’ final words in this passage. He does not understand Jesus—or chooses not to understand. Later, however, Nicodemus will defend Jesus (7:50) and will assist in his burial (19:39). At some point, the light will dawn for him.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he acknowledged Jesus as teacher (didaskalos—no definite article)—giving the sense that Jesus is a teacher among teachers. It was a generous form of address from a senior rabbi to an uncredentialed young man. Now Jesus addresses Nicodemus as The Teacher (ho didaskalos)—using the definite article—with the sense that Nicodemus is the great teacher. Jesus asks how it is that the great teacher of Israel—Dr. Nicodemus—cannot understand.
If we are honest, we understand Nicodemus’ befuddlement perfectly well. If we study this passage carefully enough, we stand a chance of understanding it, but only because our understanding is enriched by centuries of Christian experience.
Both Nicodemus and Jesus are teachers, but they do not share common ground. Jesus has descended from above, but Nicodemus has not yet been born from above. This is the reason that Nicodemus cannot understand Jesus.
JOHN 3:11-12. HOW WILL YOU BELIEVE HEAVENLY THINGS?
11“Most certainly I tell you, we speak that which we know, and testify of that which we have seen, and you don’t receive our witness. 12If I told you earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
“we speak of that which we know” (v. 11a). When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he said, “We know….” (oidamen) (v. 2). Now Jesus says, “that which we know” (ho oidamen). Nicodemus thought that he knew Jesus because of the signs that Jesus had worked, but his understanding was incomplete. Jesus really does know heavenly things because, having descended from heaven, he has seen them (v. 13).
“and testify to that which we have seen” (v. 11b). The testimony of an eyewitness has authority far beyond that of a person who has not actually seen the event to which he/she testifies.
“how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (v. 12). Nicodemus does not understand even earthly things (the human realm that he experiences every day). How can he understand heavenly things (God’s realm)?
JOHN 3:13. HE WHO DESCENDED OUT OF HEAVEN
13“No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended out of heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.”
Jesus makes it clear that he speaks with authority about heavenly things. He was with God in the beginning (1:1). He was present at the creation, and participated in the creation (1:3). He came into the world (1:9-10), and became flesh (1:14). No one has seen God, but Jesus has made him known (1:18).
In Paul’s words, Jesus, who “existing in the form of God, …emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men” and dying on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
Having descended from heaven, Jesus will ascend again into heaven (20:17). By the time that John writes this Gospel, Jesus has long since done so.
JOHN 3:14-15. SO MUST THE SON OF MAN BE LIFTED UP
14As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever (Greek: pas) believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Greek: zoen aionion).
These verses answer Nicodemus’ question, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (v. 4). Both the “lifted up” serpent and the “lifted up” Jesus confer new life on those who look upon or believe in them.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v. 14). The story is from Numbers 21:4-9, and every Jewish child knows it. The Israelites sinned by grumbling against God for bringing them out of Egypt into the wilderness. God punished them with a plague of fiery serpents, killing many Israelites. The Israelites confessed their sin and begged for mercy, so God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it aloft on a pole. Whoever looked up at the bronze serpent was saved from the fiery serpents—given new life—born anew (keep in mind the question that Nicodemus asked in verse 4—he might be expected to link this story to Jesus’ words about being born anothen—again—from above).
“even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (zoen aionion) (v. 14). The parallels between the Moses story and the Jesus story are several. In both stories:
• The people were in danger of death because of their sin.
• God provides the agent of salvation—the bronze serpent in the first story and the Son of Man in the second.
• The agent of salvation is lifted up—”the deepest point of connection between the bronze snake and Jesus was in the act of being ‘lifted up’ ” (Carson, 201).
• The people are saved by looking at—or believing in—God’s agent of salvation.
However, there are two significant differences:
• The bronze snake was only a piece of bronze, having no saving power in itself. When Israelites began to make offerings to the bronze serpent, treating it as an idol, Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4). Jesus, however, is invested with saving power and is worthy of our worship.
• Looking at the “lifted up” bronze snake gave the Israelites extended physical life. Looking upon the “lifted up” Jesus gives us eternal life.
The term, “lifted up,” has multiple meanings in this Gospel. It refers to Jesus’ cross, but it also refers to his resurrection/ascension/glorification. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, the great Paschal sacrifice; he will be raised up on the third day, conquering death. His cross and his resurrection/ascension are simply different facets of his glorification. This Gospel does not include an account of the ascension itself, but does include several allusions to it by Jesus (6:62; 7:33; 13:3; 14:28; 16:10, 16, 28; 17:11, 13; 20:17).
“that whoever (pas—everyone, all) believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (v. 15). The fact that Jesus uses pas (everyone, all) here serves as a hint that the Gospel will not be limited to Israel, but will extend to all the world—a fact that Jesus makes more explicit in verse 16.
This is the first mention of eternal life in this Gospel, where it is mentioned seventeen times, fifteen from the lips of Jesus. The word, life, which has the same sense, also appears frequently. We tend to think of eternal life as life without end, and it does have that sense (6:58). However, it also refers to a quality of life lived in the presence of God. Later, in his prayer, Jesus will define eternal life thusly: “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3). According to that definition, eternal life begins now for those who know the Father and the Son.
JOHN 3:16. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD
16“For God so loved the world (Greek: kosmos) that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
This is an amazing statement for this Gospel, because the kosmos world is the world that is opposed to God. How could God love such a world?
Luther said, “If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they now be, I would knock the world to pieces.” The miracle is that God does not!
God sends the Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Luther calls this verse “the gospel in miniature.” God’s motive is love and God’s objective is salvation. However, God provides not salvation but opportunity to the world. Those who actually receive eternal life are those who believe in the Son.
This is also amazing to Nicodemus. He understands that God loves Israel, God’s chosen people, but would find it difficult to believe that God loves the world.
The wording of this verse is very much like that in the story of Abraham, who was commanded by God, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of” (Genesis 22:2). Abraham prepared to obey this command, but was prevented by an angel of God from sacrificing his son. God, however, does not spare himself. God’s giving of his Son begins with the Incarnation, but requires the cross.
God’s response is not “weak indulgence (but) divine self-sacrifice” (Gossip, 510). It would have been far less costly for God to ignore the world’s sins and to allow people to live in darkness, but that would reflect, not love, but apathy. Earthly parents provide an analogy. It is far more costly in time and energy for a parent to supervise a child rather than letting the child run wild. Some parents prefer not to constrain their child, but what appears to be a gift of freedom instead jeopardizes the child’s welfare. It is not a “hands-off” policy that demonstrates love, but a willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to keep the child safe. God made just such a sacrifice in sending the Son to save the world.
“may have eternal life.” The word “have” is present tense, suggesting that believers possess it in the here and now rather than having to wait for some future inheritance. This is Johannine “realized eschatology”—the already-received gift—eternal life as relationship with God beginning now.
John 3:16 is probably the most loved verse in the Bible, and we hear it frequently. It suffers from being so often repeated apart from its context.
JOHN 3:17. THAT THE WORLD SHOULD BE SAVED THROUGH HIM
17“For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge (Greek: krine) the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”
Verse 17 states God’s purpose in sending the Son. It is not to condemn (krine) the world, but to save it. Krine can mean either judged or condemned, but in this context—set over against saved—it means condemned. God sends the Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it.
We dare not take the gift of God’s Son lightly. It cost the Father the life of his Son. How can the Father offer mercy to those who spurn such a precious gift. We should also note that Christian discipleship imposes a cost on us. Many Christians are living their faith today at great risk. More Christians have been martyred in the last century than in the first century.
Jesus’ statement in verse 17 appears to be in conflict with 9:39, where Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment.” However, it is the person who determines his/her own fate by accepting or rejecting Jesus.
If it was necessary for God to send the Son to save the world, it must be that the world needs saving—is lost. The Son’s work is efficacious only if the world accepts salvation. John puts it this way: “He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (v.18).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan