John 3:1–17

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on March 16, 2014.

Have you noticed lately that when you try to use a $20 bill at the store, the cashier swipes it with a marker before accepting it?  What is the purpose of that action?  She or he wants to make sure your bill is legitimate, not counterfeit.  There are many cases in which we are concerned with legitimacy: news stories, internet “facts”, credit card charges.  Some things are too important to risk illegitimacy.

In John 3: 1–17 Nicodemus approaches Jesus in order to figure out if Jesus is truly legitimate.  Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee so we can assume that he is educated and knows what to look for in a Messiah figure.  Surely the Messiah would be known by his signs.  The Jews asked for signs in John 2:18, and Jesus performed signs that prompted many to believe in his name (John 2:23); Nicodemus himself acknowledges to Jesus that the Pharisees (at least some) recognize that Jesus is from God because of the signs Jesus has performed.  But, is Jesus truly legitimate?

The concluding verses of chapter 2 sum up Jesus’ reaction to those who believe in him based solely on his signs—Jesus does not trust them.  Jesus knows that signs might help some to believe, but a faith based on signs is inadequate and lacking in substance.  In Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, Jesus attempts to help Nicodemus move his faith to the next level of understanding.  Nicodemus, however, misunderstands Jesus’ statement, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.”  The Greek word anothen has a double meaning.  It can be translated “from above” or “again.”  Nicodemus is immediately confused because he thinks Jesus is using the temporal option of being born again.  That notion is absurd.  Jesus, on the other hand, means being born from above, an entirely different birth.

As Jesus continues and attempts to clarify, Nicodemus becomes even more confused.  Birth, water, spirit, wind, Nicodemus is familiar with them all, but the way Jesus is incorporating them into the discussion is impossible to understand.  What he is not grasping is that he will not understand until he experiences new birth from above.  In the Greco-Roman world there was a conviction that “like is known by like.”   We only know and recognize what we are like.  Nicodemus does not understand the true legitimation of Jesus because he is not like Jesus.

Jesus is legitimate because Jesus descended from heaven and will ascend into heaven again.  In fact, it is this decent and ascent into heaven that make it possible to be born from above.  Being born from above is not about becoming like a child in faith; it is about becoming a new creation.  The idea of new creation was not new in the Jewish culture.  New creation was a common motif in their eschatological hopes.  What Jesus makes possible is for new creation to begin now not sometime in the future.

Verses 13–17 begin an extensive reflection on the descent and ascent of Jesus and its implications.  Jesus first makes it clear that no one else has ascended into heaven as he has.  Neither Moses nor Elijah, nor any other person has done what Jesus does in the incarnation.  Jesus also points out that his ascension is necessary so that those who believe will have eternal life.  Despite the fact that his descent and ascension occur through great suffering, Jesus willing makes that journey.  God’s intention in sending Jesus to live, die, and rise again is to benefit human beings.  It is because of Jesus’ actions that believers might be born from above and thus experience eternal life.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ death is understood differently.  In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ death is a humiliating experience that is overcome through Jesus’ resurrection.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ death is a critical part of Jesus’ glorification.  Jesus crucifixion is not necessarily a noble act, but rather it is a powerful act.  Crucifixion and resurrection are one event endured in love.  It is because Jesus descended to be with us and ascended again in power and glory that the Kingdom of God is present now and not only at the end of times.

Nicodemus approached Jesus with a desire to learn.  His belief that Jesus was sent by God was based on uncomplicated evidence—he had witnessed Jesus’ signs.  I wonder how he felt after the conversation.  He makes two more appearances in the Gospel of John in 7:45–52 and in 19:39; in both cases he is acting favorably toward Jesus.  We do not know, however, if Nicodemus ever truly understood and accepted Jesus’ offer of new birth.

How do we respond when people come to us with questions about Jesus?  We cannot show them signs like Jesus did, but we can respond patiently and lovingly to their questions.  How can we express to others who do not grasp our Christian lingo or accept our faith as evidence for belief in Jesus?  Jesus’ responses to Nicodemus were not over-simplified, in fact, Jesus pushed Nicodemus to expand his understanding.  Perhaps, we should provide answers that are in-depth rather than simple sound-bites about salvation.  In such situations, are we careful to express God’s love rather than judgment?  Jesus pushes Nicodemus, but Jesus never treats him poorly because of his lack of faith.

The good news of John 3:16 is for all people.  There are people in our neighborhoods, work places, and schools who are like Nicodemus, searching for a legitimate belief in which to place their faith.  Let us be beacons that point them to the birth from above because we, too, have experienced such a new birth and recognize the legitimacy of Jesus and have accepted God’s gift of eternal life.


Christine Jones
Assistant Professor of Religion
Carson-Newman University, Jefferson City, TN


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