Narrative Lectionary Reflection
January 28, 2018
John 3 is perhaps one the most well known passages in the Bible because it contains the verse John 3:16. It is also interesting in how Bible scholars look at the story of Nicodemus in contrast to John 4 where we encounter the Samaritan woman. Nicodemus is more often than not frowned upon because of his position in society and when he comes to see Jesus. Because he is a Pharisee, he is judged by Bible scholars. In contrast, the Samarian woman if portrayed in a more positive light, lifted up because of her status an outcast.
The result is that Nicodemus becomes an example of what we don’t want to be instead of an example of who we are.
But maybe in doing that we don’t see how we don’t always understand Jesus, how sometimes we are in the dark and how encountering Jesus is a journey and not a sprint.
Let’s look at Jesus and Nicodemus.
Engaging the Text
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
In the John chapter 3, we introduced to Nicodemus. We find out that he is a Pharisee and is intriguied by Jesus. He comes to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness to find out more about this man.
Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Many scholars contrast this with the Samaritian woman in John 4 who meets Jesus at midday. There are a few different reasons. It could be out of secrecy, because so many Pharisees are against Jesus. It could be that this was the best time for him to converse with Jesus. It could be in line with the custom to study the law and talk about things of God at night. It could also be that the darkness that Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus. There are a lot of reasons why Nicodemus came at night, but what we can say is that the night does reflect how he understands Jesus. When it comes to this man he meets, he is in the dark about the true nature of Jesus. He and other Pharisees are impressed by the signs and believe that God is within him. But he doesn’t know that Jesus not simply with God, but Jesus is the very presence of God. So, darkness doesn’t mean that Nicodemus was a bad person or spineless, but it can mean that he doesn’t understand all that Jesus is about.
One can imagine Nicodemus walks down the streets at night, trying to make sure no one sees him and then going to a door on a side street and knocking the door. One of the disciples opens the door and leads him to a room where Jesus is sitting with tea or coffee at the waiting. Nicodemus sits and the two converse among many, many cups of tea.
Nicodemus was well versed in the law and believed he had done all the right things. But Jesus starts talking about being “born again” and about how being born of water and Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that it is not about one has done for God, but what God has done for us; how God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus to live among us.
When he hears Jesus talk about being born again, he confuses the Greek word anothen. The word is a synonymn, and it can mean born from above or born again. When our friend, Nick heard it, he started thinking of a grown man trying to get back into his mother’s womb.
I can imagine Jesus smiling and saying to Nicodemus, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” It might be a way of showing Nicodemus that even though he is learned in the law, he is still in the dark. He might have learned a lot, but Jesus is telling him there is more to learn.
Jesus wasn’t talking about being literally born again, nor was it as some would believe about a specific event when we were saved. What Jesus is talking about is to see things with different eyes: to enter into the life of the Spirit.
When Jesus talks about the flesh, he isn’t saying that the flesh is bad, but you can’t understand the things of the Spirit only with the flesh. Let me put this in English: faith can’t be understood with only the mind. It isn’t a rational exercise. It is only when we enter the life of the Spirit that we are able to understand and the Spirit is any but logical. Jesus likens it to the wind, that blows where it blows. The Spirit carries you to places you wouldn’t expect.
The Spirit moves us like the wind, or a strong current. If you want an example of what it means to live in the Spirit, simply look at Jesus’ life. He was led to different places and events not of his choosing.
Nicodemus wanted an answer to his questions. Jesus gave them, but they were answers that had to be lived, not simply heard. Jesus wasn’t giving an answer that would satisfy the mind; he was offering Nicodemus the chance to enter another reality, a new way of thinking and seeing.
We don’t hear from Nicodemus in chapter 3 after verse 10. We don’t really know why that is, I’d like to imagine that Nicodemus just shuts up and listens to Jesus. What we do know that this isn’t the last we see of Nicodemus. We later see the Pharisee stand up for Jesus and after the crucifixion works with others to find proper burial place for Jesus. We don’t know if he becomes a disciple, but the signs are there that he was taken by Jesus. Maybe he was no longer in the dark.
Born again. That word means different things to different Christians. The word in Greek for born again is anothen which can also mean born from above, which tends to be the favorite of more mainline Christians, while born again is more popular to evangelical Christians. Edward Marquardt helps people understand what anothen means:
The phrase, “born again,” occurs three times in the Bible: John 3:3, 7; I Peter 1:23.
John defines what it means to be born again: to be “born again” is to be born of the water and the Spirit.
What does it mean to be born of the water? To have our sins washed away. We never outgrow the need for having our sins and imperfections washed away daily and continuously. The water in baptism reminds us of our need for daily cleansing and washing.
What does it mean to born of the Spirit? To have the Spirit of Christ living inside of us. It mean to have the love of Christ, the joy of Christ, the peace of Christ, the patience of Christ, kindness of Christ, the goodness of Christ, the faithfulness of Christ, the gentleness of Christ, the self control of Christ living inside of us. It is having the Spirit of Christ taking up residence in us and living within us.
There are three references in the Bible to being “born again;” whereas there are 245 references to the word, “faith.”
If a student takes the Logos computer program and inserts the words, “born again,” the computer will turn up three references. If a student takes the Logos computer program and inserts the word, “faith,” in either the New International Version (NIV) or the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), there will be 245 references to “faith” in the Bible.
In other words, the word, “faith” is a much more dominant Biblical word and concept than the phrase, “born again.”
If a student types in words like “faith, believe, believes, believing,” there are then 421 Biblical references to faith/believe/believes and believing.
Some Christians work themselves into a theological lather about the phrase, “born again” whereas the words “faith/believe/believes/believing” are much more dominant in the Bible.
“Born again” simply means to have “faith” or “believe” in Jesus Christ.
To be born again is to have faith in Jesus Christ. Does Nicodemus have faith in Jesus? Maybe not that night, but as John shows, maybe as he stood up for Jesus and later tended to his body he was being born again.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.