John 3: Nicodemus must be born again

This week we focused on Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus, a really rich passage with lots to dig into. We started by looking at the gospel’s use of the phrase “the Jews” - you may have spotted it in last week’s reading, and you will see that it comes up again in later chapters. On one level it can be read as fairly neutral and factual descriptor - there are no negative adjectives attached, and the people concerned probably were Jewish. There is however an othering and stereotyping that happens in these two words. “The Jews” suggests a distinct group separate from the other figures in story and from the reader, and implies that everyone in that group can be lumped together as one. If that is not problematic enough, the phrase is almost always used to denote those opposed to Jesus, appearing where other gospels speak more specifically of “the teachers of the law”. In short, in the fourth gospel, “the Jews” are presented as a faceless mass that is the primary enemy.


There are contextual reasons why that may be the case. There is a reference later in the gospel to those who believed in Jesus being thrown out of the synagogue, and while many scholars believe that is unlikely to have happened in Jesus’ lifetime, it is thought that it may represent the more recent experience of the writer or community responsible for producing the gospel. If that is the case then there had been a kind of separation and there was surely a degree of animosity. It must have been a difficult experience for those who had been expelled, and it is perhaps not surprising that some of the emotion attached to it comes out in the text. It is however important that we read with this experience in mind and look beyond it. The truth is that Jesus and the first believers were also among “the Jews”, and even among those who did not follow Jesus, not all of “the Jews” were hostile.


This negative presentation of “the Jews” is heavily biased, but sadly it is part of what lay the foundation for a specifically Christian anti-Semitism, which a recent report by the Church of England argued ultimately led to the Holocaust. Jewish-Christian relations have arguably improved a great deal since then, but anti-Semitism remains an issue, and centuries of suspicion embedded in our theology perhaps make us less aware of it or less equipped to stand against it. It is of course clear that there are some pretty fundamental points of disagreement between Christianity and Judaism - we each think the other has got it wrong on the question of Jesus being Messiah - and so it is difficult to get away from the fact that each theology has an inbuilt criticism of other. However disagreement is not the same as disapproval or dislike, and does not need to lead to distrust or discrimination. That doesn’t just apply to Judaism, and we must take care in the way we speak of followers of all faiths. We can debate theology, but we must reject language which others or stereotypes people, both by not using it ourselves and by challenging it when we hear it from others. I think we need to have that in the back of our minds every time we read or hear “the Jews” as we continue through gospel, lest the bias of the author become our own bias.


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We can start getting into this specific narrative now, which begins as Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night”. We are not told why, but perhaps he sought secrecy out of a fear of reprisal from other members of council, or perhaps he wanted privacy out of a desire for a depth of conversation not possible in the midst of a crowd. Either way, the important thing is that Jesus meets with him. The end of chapter two left Jesus in Jerusalem during the Passover, performing signs to many, and there is nothing to indicate a jump in time or place at the beginning of chapter three, so presumably this conversation happens during what sounds like a pretty busy period of Jesus’ ministry. He must have been tired, and he must have sometimes wanted to be off-duty - we see him escape crowds at other points in the gospels - but he did not turn Nicodemus away. Perhaps he knew this conversation needed to happen and could only happen there and then. If Jesus with human limitations on time and energy didn’t keep office hours, then we can be assured that God with all divine extravagance doesn’t. God can be approached anywhere and anyhow and anywhen, as a youth group I previously worked with put it. There is no bad time to worship or to pray. It may sound a simple and obvious thing to say, but it is easy to put false limits on ourselves or get stuck in habits which become ruts. Don’t be afraid to seek Jesus “by night” - go to him when you need him, ask the secret questions, seek the deep conversations.


Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by declaring “we know who you are”. He approaches Jesus with absolute confidence that he already understands him. He doesn’t do too badly, to be honest - he recognises him as a teacher and a miracle worker and he says that he is from God - but his assessment still falls short of the mark. I suspect our understanding of Jesus similarly falls short and that at times we likewise approach him with a kind of misplaced confidence that does him scant justice. Falling short is inevitable as the incarnate God is a mystery we will never truly wrap our heads around, but misplaced confidence can perhaps become problematic. We had a few services looking at theology and popular culture last year, so it may not seem too off-brand if I tell you that the best mark of my academic career was for an essay on christological themes in Superman. I came to suspect that instead of viewing Superman as a Christ figure, we have begun to see Christ as a Superman figure, and that has all sorts of troubling implications. There is a danger that we recast Jesus in terms that we understand - for us that may be superhero, for Nicodemus that was a kind of prophet - but Jesus doesn’t fit our terms and so we need to be aware of their limitations. Perhaps we need to approach Jesus not with uncertainty - we can be certain of many things, not least that he is good and that we are loved by him - but with a greater openness and willingness to be amazed and even confused by him.


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For all of his initial certainty, Nicodemus certainly finds himself confused, as Jesus declares “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (another possible translation is “born from above”). “Born again” has become classic piece of Christian speak, so it is worth exploring here. It comes as a bit of a non sequitur, as NIcodemus hasn’t asked how he can see the kingdom of God - he’s not said anything about kingdom of God at all - so clearly this is something that is on Jesus’ mind, that is important to him and he believes should be important to Nicodems. I’m fairly certain that Nicodemus didn’t seek Jesus out “by night” without a question or questions he wanted to ask, but he doesn’t get chance to ask them, as Jesus sets the agenda for the conversation. I wonder how often we let Jesus set the agenda, compared with how often we go into prayer with questions and requests of our own. We are told to pray in all things with all sorts of petitions, so it is not that there is anything wrong with approaching God with purpose, but we do need to let him take the lead sometimes.


Nicodemus is completely nonplussed by Jesus’ declaration that he must be born again, but instead of rejecting it completely or just ignoring it, he questions it - “how can this be” I think this is really important. Faith makes lots of crazy claims - if we’re not bewildered we’re probably not paying enough attention - but like Nicodemus we need to be willing to ask the next question and stick around for the answer. In this case, the answer is only marginally less cryptic as Jesus says that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and Spirit”. The parallelling of language between this and his first statement suggests that being born again or from above is synonymous with being born of water and Spirit. Some believe birth by water and by spirit are separate and that the water in question is the water of the womb, which would mean Jesus is saying we need both natural birth and spiritual birth. Others see the two births in this second statement as more closely connected and take the water to be water of baptism, which would suggest that Jesus is taking natural birth for granted and saying that we need a second birth which is both spiritual and symbolic. Either way, Jesus seems to place the weight of emphasis on spiritual birth, as it is this that he elaborates on further, saying that “spirit gives birth to spirit” and comparing those born of the spirit to the wind.


That gives us some more to work with, so let’s keep pushing. The designation “born again Christian” seems to be most used by those who for whom following Jesus marked a significant change in their life - perhaps they grew up not believing or lived in ways that their faith later led them to reject. I can imagine that for people in those circumstances there was a very definite sense of rebirth - of starting over and of something new coming to be - and I can understand why the language resonates. It never felt quite so meaningful for me because while there have been powerful moments of transformation in my life, I have always known God, and so I never felt like I was beginning anew and I cannot point to a moment when I was “born again”. I think this is where it may help to play with the language a little. To be born is to become alive, so perhaps we might say that to be born again is to be made alive with the spirit. That is certainly language I feel I can use more easily to speak of my own experience, because I know that I have been made alive by the spirit - that there are things that live within me because of the spirit, that I have been enlivened by peace and hope and joy because of the spirit, and that I have glimpsed the kingdom of God because of those things. Perhaps “born again” has always been a good fit for you, but if not, you might like to try “made alive in the spirit” on for size.


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Nicodemus is still clueless, and you start to sense a little bit of frustration on Jesus’ part, as he says “you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand”. Jesus seems to think he should have been able to figure this out, perhaps because he feels he is only giving new expression to an old idea. Ezekiel 36:26 says “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”, Joel 2:28 says “I will pour out my Spirit on all people; your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions”, so God had already promised renewal through the spirit, new life symbolised by a new heart and by new imagination, and we could find other metaphors elsewhere. It would be easy to criticise Nicodemus for not getting it, but can we be sure we are any better? There will be things we should have figured out by now too, but fortunately Jesus is as persistent and patient with us as with Nicodemus. Because for all that he can’t quite hide his exasperation, he doesn’t give up on Nicodemus but keeps teaching him. And Nicodemus clearly keeps learning because we see him again later in the gospel, defending Jesus before the council and then assisting at his burial.


We’re jumping ahead though. As Jesus keeps teaching, he utters what are surely among the best known words in the whole Bible - “for God so loved the world he gave his only son that the one who believes in him shall not die but have eternal life”. Where do we start unpacking such familiar words? I have studied most of this gospel in Greek, so I’m going to use that as my way in and offer a few notes on the language. “So” has the sense of “thus” or “in this way” rather than “this much” - there is not a huge difference in the meaning in this context, but “God loved the world in this way” seems to me to more clearly emphasise the coming of Christ as a demonstration of God’s love. Elsewhere in the gospel, “world” is used to designate opposition to God in its broadest sense, so the declaration that God loved the world is a powerful statement that God loves even that which does not love him. “Only” should rightly read “only begotten”, which ought to remind us that Jesus is not the only son because we are all children of God, but he is the son in a unique sense. “The one who believes” is a key phrase in gospel, where belief is always active and also carries a sense of trust - that it follows on from the coming of the son suggests that it stems from the revelation he brings and the relationship he offers. “Eternal life” is more literally rendered “life of the age” and conveys not just duration but also quality of life - this is not just everlasting life but life that has the character of the everlasting age, which seems to be synonymous with the “kingdom of God”, with a similar sense of existing both now and not yet.


Perhaps then we might rephrase the verse like this - “God loved even those that rejected him, and showed this love by sending the unique son to them, so that by knowing him they might put their trust in him, and by trusting might begin to live the life God promises for eternity.” I think this way of phrasing it emphasises our role in response to God’s action - God loves and sends, we trust and live. But what does it mean to put our trust in Jesus? And how do we live the life God promises? The two are clearly connected, and not (I think) because eternal life is given as a reward for faith, but because trusting in Jesus means following his word and example, and that is how we discover the life God promises. It seems to me to be crucial that we recognise what is required of us by this verse, but at the same time we mustn’t emphasise our role at the expense of God’s action. We should be constantly overwhelmed by the love that risked incarnation for our sake.


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Jesus goes on to say that he came not to condemn the world but to save it, and we return to the imagery around light and darkness that the gospel began with, but I want to leave us there for now because we've already covered quite a lot of ground, and those are themes we can return to later. For now I encourage you to read Jesus' words again - slowly and deliberately and perhaps several times over - and listen for a word or phrase that particularly speaks to you today, then meditate on that phrase throughout the week and let it keep speaking to you.

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