Louis Tiffany, ‘Nicodemus Came to Him by Night’ … a window in First Presbyterian Church, Lockport, New York
The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) provides two options for the Gospel reading on Sunday week [20 March 2011], the Second Sunday in Lent: the first option, John 3: 1-17, is to be used only when Option A (Matthew 17: 1-19), the Transfiguration, is not taken on the Sunday before Lent; the second option is Matthew 17: 1-19, which is the Transfiguration.
This just goes to show how difficult a minefield the lectionary can be, and how important it is to prepare, plan and select readings, hymns and sermon topics weeks in advance when you are in parish ministry.
John 3: 1-17:
1 ην δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων: 2 οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ' αὐτοῦ. 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 4 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν [ὁ] Νικόδημος, Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι; 5 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 6 τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν. 7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι, Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν. 8 τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ' οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει: οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 9 ἀπεκρίθη Νικόδημος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι; 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;
11 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι ὃ οἴδαμεν λαλοῦμεν καὶ ὃ ἑωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἡμῶν οὐ λαμβάνετε. 12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπον ὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε; 13 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that 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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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.’
This story contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or born again)’ (verse 5); and ‘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’ (verse 16).
Where this story is placed in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.
We have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather his disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; and the cleansing of the Temple shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concerns are with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.
This is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus, although some commentators have sought to identify him also with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.
Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews (ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων), in other words a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders and presided over by the High Priest.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he did not want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But remember the poetic and dramatic way in which John draws on contrasting images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.
Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Jesus as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but he does not believe; he has insight, but he does not have faith.
The reply from Jesus puts the emphasis back on faith rather than on understanding, on believing more than seeing. The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.
This shift in emphasis on believing rather that seeing is repeated throughout this Gospel, and reaches its climax when Thomas refuses to believe without seeing, but then confesses his faith in Christ as “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 28).
There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To “see” the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.
The key word here is ἄνωθεν which has the double meaning of “from above” and “again.” The words translated as “being born from above” in NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as “born anew” (RSV). Or it may mean “from the upper country” (physically or geographically), or “from above,” “from heaven.”
A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?
As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Jesus was saying.
Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26) and through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27; Titus 3: 6-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).
Like begets like.
You: the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, “yous.”
The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word “sound” can also be translated as “voice.”
See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
Nicodemus has floundered around; he really fails to grasp what Jesus is saying and its implications. His question is phrased: “How can this be?” (RSV), or: “How can these things be?” (NRSV). Others suggest that his question should be translated as: “How can these things happen?” or even more literally: “How is it possible for these things to happen?”
A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.
In this verse, the first use of the word “you” is singular … “you yourself” as opposed to “yous,” but the second use is plural. Notice how Jesus moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from “you” to we, then “you” (plural) and “our”.
Who is the “we” here, who owns what is ‘our’?
We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered a choice. Which choice does he make?
Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life.
This is the first of John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, and is comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).
The word “lift up” refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see also Numbers 21: 4-9. The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).
‘God so loved man (humanity)’ ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
For many, this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse “the Gospel in miniature.”
This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as “God so loved man (humanity) …” It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.
The statue of Pythagoras by Nikolaos Ikaris (1989) on the harbour front in Pythagóreio on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3). It is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order. It is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.
And this love is the beginning of missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.
To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.
By now the dialogue has become a monologue.
The same Greek word means both condemnation and judgment. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.
Nicodemus carrying myrrh and aloes to prepare Christ’s body for burial … the lower right section of the ninth window in Saint John’s College Chapel, Cambridge (Photograph: the Revd Stephen Day )
So what happened to Nicodemus?
And what makes this an appropriate Gospel reading at an early stage in Lent?
This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea claim the Body of Christ before dark falls
The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).
Compare the unfolding faith of Nicodemus in these three encounters with the way Peter is going to deny Christ three times.
So, in this Gospel reading, in the story of Nicodemus, birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, and before darkness falls he really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.
It is an appropriate Gospel reading for an early stage of Lent, as we prepare to recall the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study with B.Th. and M.Th. students on Saturday 12 March 2011.