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John 3:1-17

Worlds collide in this oft-cited passage from the third chapter of John’s Gospel account. Here John narrates Jesus’s deft handling of the Pharisaic leader Nicodemus – who was mostly likely a member of the Sanhedrin or Jewish ruling council.  Without any clear indication of whether or not Nicodemus’s motives are genuine or deceptive,  John describes Nicodemus as affirming that Jesus clearly is from God (v.2). Jesus responds to this in puzzling fashion, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” (v.3) In most of the rest of the passage, Nicodemus attempts to understand the very bizarre imagery suggested by Jesus. Sight plays a significant role in this passage, as the eyes are the lamp of the body (Matthew 6:22) or the window to the soul as Shakespeare wrote.

 

While the imagery was puzzling for Nicodemus, it was obvious from John’s perspective, writing from long after these events had actually taken place. From the far side of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, John’s narration of Jesus’s strange words make perfect sense. In this encounter, the future/present heavenly realm is crashing into the past/present realm of sin and death. Physical and spiritual are swirling about, with the locus of new creation, Jesus of Nazareth, standing in the midst of this confusing encounter. Here Jesus, fully God/fully human, God enfleshed (Emmanuel) points Nicodemus forward to a new reality where old and new, physical and spiritual, overlap. In the grander scope of things, John is doing the same for us as well. Without rejecting flesh, or the physical world, John, through Jesus, indicates that flesh longs for spiritual fulfillment. A variety of meanings can be derived from this conversation: (1) God’s people are to be physically born and then spiritually born, (2) all are to pursue spiritual rebirth, and (3) this passage might also simply anticipate the sacrament of Christian baptism.[1] Given the multiplicity of audiences that John was assuming – and especially in light of the canonization of the Gospel of John, all three meanings might easily co-exist. (1) Those who have been physically born or cleansed in water, must pursue Spiritual cleansing and rebirth. (2) All are to pursue spiritual re-birth. And (3), we must be baptized, wherein water and spirit, death and life, old and new, are intertwined, in order to faithfully follow Jesus. Clearly, John believed that the presence of the Holy Spirit was understood to be all over this encounter, for all of the language of wind, water, breath, and spirit can be understood as the role of the Holy Spirit.

 

Harkening back to Numbers 21, John then portrays Jesus as claiming to be (as the Son of Man) the only one who has both descended from heaven and ascended back to heaven – again John is writing this long after the events described. As such, he, the Son of Man, is to be lifted up like the snake lifted up by Moses on the staff in Numbers – offering healing/salvation to all who see. Reconsidering v.3, John is here equating seeing the Kingdom of God with seeing Jesus, the Son of God/Son of Man. Moving on to v.15, sight leads to belief. John has now paved the way to succinctly state the core of his understanding of the Gospel:

 

              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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17 NRSV)