Its funny. At the beginning of these commitments to journal through Scripture, I have these grand ideas that I’ll be able to sit down and fire things off in no time. Then, once I get a few steps in, I realize I am in way over my head and that the commitment I made, while being completed, is going to be done very slowly. Like today, for example. I need to blog on Chapter 3. I read and study a bit on chapter 3 and realize, there is no way this is all going in one blog post. So, our pace slows even more. I don’t think you mind. I haven’t gotten any hate mail because I’m not writing fast enough.
Up to this point in our journey through John we’ve seen our writer proclaim Jesus as part of creation, paralleling Genesis. He’s stated that Jesus is the Messiah–the one coming to restore Israel to God’s intentions AND called him Lamb. We’ve read the story about Jesus turning the water into wine and seen him cleanse the temple, both of which to me seem to show Jesus establishing this new Light, the Light that will overcome the darkness.
It is interesting to me that following all of this, the writer has a leader of the Jews come to Jesus at night to ask questions. Why a leader of the Jews? Certainly they would have been upset and chastised by the cleansing of the temple. They were partly in control of that system. Has Nicodemus come to set Jesus straight? As we read we see that he has come because Jesus has intrigued him with what he has said and the miracles he has done. He needs to know more.
The exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus tells us a bunch. Nicodemus calls Jesus, “Rabbi.” That was a title of honor. Nicodemus is acknowledging that Jesus knows the Torah. He must have heard him teaching or something before this. He wouldn’t have called him that unless there was merit to do so. He says to him, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
We? Is Nicodemus coming with others behind him that John is not telling us about? Or is he coming as a spokesperson for the Jews, inquiring more about this Jesus? Or, did Nicodemus say “we” to hide or soften his own intrigue? “It’s not just me who wants to know more of who you are, Jesus.” I think it is a combo of the latter two. Nicodemus acknowledges more good in Jesus because of the “signs” he has done. This would mean miracles. What Jesus is doing is well beyond what anyone else could do without the power of God. That being said, there seems to be some skepticism here in Nicodemus. Scholars say that if there was more belief and trust, he would have called Jesus a prophet.
Jesus’ response to this subversive, inquiring greeting is that no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again or born from above. Obviously, by Nicodemus’ response, this confused him again. He makes a pretty funny statement in my opinion about the impossibility of being born again. Jesus clarifies, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
We need to stop a minute and unpack some things. Kingdom of God refers to the Jewish perception that when the Messiah comes, he will restore the earth and the Jewish people by bringing the Kingdom of God where the son of David, the Messiah, would reign. Jesus in his statement to Nicodemus is saying one can’t get to there without new birth. If we think about who he is talking to, a Jewish Leader, there is some weight to this little sentence. Its not by simply knowing Torah and living the Law that gets you to be present in the Kingdom of God. There is a born again that needs to happen. One that involves water and spirit–divine remaking, a rebirth from God.
Jesus continues on to say, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Time to pause again. Lets think for a moment in terms of light and dark. The world before Jesus comes was in darkness, so to speak. He is the light coming into the darkness. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Maybe our writer is signifying something more than just the time of day here. This light called Jesus has intrigued him and he wants more. Even more, from what I see Jesus saying, the only way to fully know the light is through water and the spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh–darkness gives birth do darkness. Yet, Spirit gives birth to spirit–light brings about light. There is transformation that needs to happen in man as he comes to know the Light–a spiritual rebirth.
Then Jesus say, “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The wind means Spirit. In the Old Testament, the word for wind/spirit/breath is ruach. Its pretty much interchangeable, depending on the context it is used. Its interesting to me that Jesus says, the wind blows where it wants and you hear it. To me, Jesus is acknowledging to Nicodemus that he has seen the light. He’s heard the wind–the coming of this light into the neighborhood. But, he does’ know where it comes from or where it is going. Jesus jabs at him pretty good following this by saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” You are one of the teachers, one of the smart people who should understand what the Old Testament is saying and how it is pointing to the Messiah, yet you do not.
Jesus continues on pushing at the unbelief of Nicodemus. “We speak,” probably referring to his disciples who are possibly at this meeting, “of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet y’all do not receive our testimony.” We–Jesus and his followers/entourage– see and testify, yet, y’all–the Jewish leaders/teachers of the Law–while seeing it and hearing it, don’t accept it. Pretty tough words. Jesus even goes as far to say if I showed you earthly stuff or heavenly stuff, you wouldn’t get it either way. “Even more, you haven’t ascended into heaven an been born of heaven, like me.”
I can’t help to think about what is going through Nicodemus’ mind at this point. “I shouldn’t have come here. He’s putting me in my place! I’m drawn in even more by what he is saying–I want to know more!” So many possibilities.
The conversation builds to Jesus proclaiming his need to be lifted up for all to see as in the crucifixion, paralleling that with an OT story from Numbers 21 where a bronze serpent was used to rescue the Israelites. In that story, the people of Israel were bad mouthing Moses and God again, asking why he had brought them into the wilderness to die. God sent poisonous snakes upon the people. They cried out to Moses for help. A bronze serpent was made and put on a pole. Israel could look to it and be saved from the dying from the snake bites. Jesus is going to be a new antidote, so to speak. He is the light that is coming to cleanse the world of darkness.
I find it very intriguing that this story about Numbers 21 comes right before one of the most famous of all scriptures, John 3:16. God’s righteousness calls for holiness, which man cannot do on his own, so God sends his son so that all who believe–who look on him, see what he is doing and accepts it, which is what Nicodemus just got called out for not doing–will be saved and have eternal life–life in the kingdom of God where God will reign. Jesus doesn’t come to condemn and break down. He comes to save.