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Gospel of John--High Christology

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3:1 - 21--Nicodemus and the New Birth


Nicodemus comes to Jesus "at night." Generally it is assumed that "at night" is a literal reference and should be taken to mean that he snuck in to see Jesus; apparently he was a man of some prominence--that he was both a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin), both antagonistic towards Jesus, would have meant great embarrassment had he been caught. That the exchange occurred at nigh, literally, is not in doubt; but there may be an additional symbolic element to the reference. D.A. Carson notes that most of the other times "night" is mentioned in John's Gospel, it refers to a symbolic moral and spiritual darkness (see 9:4, 11:10, and 13:30). Thus Nicodemus comes not only in the shadow of night, but also in the shadow of spiritual uncertainty. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that Nicodemus seems confused and uncertain throughout the conversation.


There is also much discussion over what Jesus means in verse 5 when He notes that one must be "born of water and spirit." The initial assumption is that "water" refers to baptism, but the baptism John's audience would have been familiar with didn't begin until Pentecost--and if this conversation begins near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, that is perhaps three years away. Jesus does supervise baptisms after this passage (see v. 22), but as we shall see, there seems to be more to the comment than just baptism--it probably alludes to it, but there's more as well. Some others wonder if the "water" refers to John the Baptist's baptism, which was symbolic of repentance (turning away from your sins). However, Nicodemus would have known of the Baptist's water baptisms, and his surprise in verse 9 seems out of place (unless it was solely in response to the "spirit" aspect of Jesus' statement); furthermore, the passage immediately following this tells of the Baptist himself testifying, "He [Jesus] must become greater; I must become less." It seems odd that John the Author would advocate the Baptist's baptism, then immediately decrease his authority and role.


Consider, then, this passage from Ezekiel, verses 25 - 26 of chapter 36:


"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 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."


This passage fits not only Jesus' teaching on being born of water and spirit, but also explains why Jesus chides Nicodemus in verse 10, "You are Israel's teacher, and do you not understand these things?" The Ezekiel passage is found in a larger context of God restoring not only His people, but also the Nation. As a Pharisee on the ruling council, living under Roman occupation, issues of spiritual and national restoration would have been foremost on Nicodemus' mind, and Jesus seems to suggest that he should have been familiar with the passage.


Craig Blomberg raises an interesting observation about the conversation as a whole, and how it compares to debate practices of the time. In Jesus' day, the victor in a debate was considered to be the one who both marked the topic of the debate, and spoke the longest. If we are seeing that debate paradigm reflect here, then we see how shrewd an opponent Jesus was. Nicodemus arrives on the scene and introduces himself with a lengthy statement: "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him" (v. 2). Jesus replies by completely changing the subject! "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." Nicodemus accepts the new topic, in large part because of a certain degree of exasperation: he does not understand. Furthermore, his next statement is not as lengthy as his first. In the debate paradigm, Jesus is quickly gaining the upper hand: Nicodemus has lost control of the conversation, he misunderstands what Jesus is saying, and his final comment will be even more brief. Jesus, on the other hand, has taken control of the conversation; He is clearly knowledgeable on the subject of the conversation (and includes a rebuke to Nicodemus), and His statements become increasingly more lengthy.


Granted, we cannot say for certain if this is the tone of the conversation--it is possible to read too much into such things! But if it is so, it gives a delightful insight to the passage. However, we must also note that Nicodemus was not a typical Pharisee of John's Gospel. That he came to Jesus at all must be given to his credit; and it is important to note the role--and the increasingly grave risk--he plays later in the Gospel (see 7:50ff and 19:38ff). He may not have completely understood Jesus' teaching in this particular passage, but he chooses to follow Jesus nonetheless: secretly at first, and then openly and publicly after Jesus' death.


And what is the meaning of this passage? We earlier noted that chapters two through four constitute a section on "New Things": the new Joy of the Kingdom (water into wine), a new Temple, and now a new Birth. Craig Blomberg calls this passage "the Gospel in a nutshell." Here we see the requirements of Salvation: to be born again (or "born from above," as could also be rightly translated), of water and spirit. We see statements of Christology: Christ came from above, and will again be lifted up. We see Salvation and Christology combined in verse 15: "Everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life."


A point of interested following the conversation: there is mild debate on whether verses 16 - 21 continue Jesus' monologue (Nicodemus has completely dropped out of the conversation at this point!), or is actually additional commentary by John the Author. Because the Greek manuscripts do not use quotation marks, we cannot know for sure. The last use of the first person ("I") comes in verse 12, and verse 15 completes the thought. Verses 16 - 21 may be Jesus speaking, but it is not necessarily so. None of this detracts from the truth of the passage, and John 3:16 is, of course, one of the most popular verses in all of Scripture. That verse, courtesy this week the original 1611 King James translation:


"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."


See you next week!


In Christ,


--Pastor Dan


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