Commentary on John 3:1-21
If we think of John’s story as a play, by the time we get to John 3 we’ve witnessed a poetic opening monologue from our narrator, a mini-series of scenes depicting Jesus’ first interactions with John the Baptist and the disciples, and two heavy-hitting scenes that establish Jesus’ identity as the Messianic initiator of a new era of God’s work in the world and an authoritative challenger to the status quo.1
The narrator tells us that many saw his signs and trusted in Jesus. Before the lights go down, a final line is delivered (John 2:24-25):
Jesus would not entrust himself to them … because he knew what was in everyone. (Blackout.)
As the lights come up on the scene in John 3, we are invited to eavesdrop on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a “man of the Pharisees” who has made his way to Jesus through the Jerusalem streets under the cover of night. The imagery of darkness and the transitional element from the previous scene makes us wonder about Nicodemus’ intentions as he approaches Jesus.2
Many scholars have noted the theme of misunderstanding throughout John and especially in this exchange.3 However, others have suggested that Nicodemus’ apparent misunderstanding is a rhetorical ploy meant to challenge and confound Jesus. As Jo-Ann Brant explains, Nicodemus resembles the “dissembling” character in ancient drama. This type of character actively engages their enemy in conversation, and their speech is marked by professions of disbelief and shock. Similarly, Nicodemus responds to Jesus with, “How?!” (John 1:4) and “How can this be!?” (1:9) — not necessarily out of genuine curiosity, but because he is not convinced that Jesus has the authority to make the claims he is making. 4
But before we write off Nicodemus entirely, we should pay attention to what we can learn from his story:
An invitation to think differently
Jesus responds to Nicodemus, a most incredulous opponent, with an invitation to think differently. John is famous for using wordplay, ambiguous language, and irony to emphasize multiple levels of meaning.5 It often seems like Jesus is besting his opponents at their own games and trapping them in confusing language and imagery. While there is certainly some rhetorical flare to the conversation here, within the story, Jesus’ more flexible use of language becomes an invitation for a new way of thinking. Jesus explains: One must be born anothen (from above, again) and from pneuma (wind, spirit) to see and enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5).
Jesus uses anothen as a bridge between his own identity and the invitation to Nicodemus: Since the beginning of the Gospel, we have seen that Jesus comes anothen — from above, but he was also born again in the incarnation. Jesus, originally from above, underwent a second birth — a physical/fleshly one. The invitation to Nicodemus flips the script: to be born from above, Nicodemus must be born again. This second birth is a spiritual birth, in contrast to the physical birth Nicodemus has already experienced upon his entrance to the world as a baby.6
Nicodemus misses the invitation at first, because he takes Jesus’ words literally rather than figuratively, theologically, or — in Johannine terms — spiritually.7 Jesus tries to clear things up with a word picture that powerfully utilizes the double-meaning of pneuma — sprit, wind. By connecting spirit to wind, it’s as if Jesus says, “You don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but you experience the wind. Even if you can’t comprehend re-birth of the spirit, from above — come experience it, come and see!”8 In challenging Nicodemus (“Don’t be astonished!” John 3:7), Jesus dissembles his claim to cognitive certainty while offering him a different knowledge through experience.
Jesus invites him to let go of his cognitive certainty and to lean in to inexplicable experience.9
Embracing this new way of seeing the world would be challenging for Nicodemus who would be stepping outside of an identity as “a man of the Pharisees” and a “ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), a position which suggests credentials, power, and a comfortable social position.10 However, Jesus’ invitation would not leave Nicodemus without a community. Rather, like all believers Nicodemus is invited to be born into a new community, a new family — not from blood, nor from the desire of flesh, nor from the will of a man, but from God (John 1:13).
Nicodemus’ journey through the Gospel
As the conversation comes to an end, the main lights dim, and the spotlight comes to rest on the character of Jesus.11 John leaves the story open ended and we are left wondering — did Nicodemus take the invitation?
Nicodemus reappears a few chapters later, advocating among his peers (who have tried to arrest Jesus) to give Jesus a fair trial (John 7:49-50). Rather than “dissembling” Jesus’ message, Nicodemus appears to be stepping outside of his own community to defend Jesus.12 Might he be beginning to see things differently? John suggests this trajectory when Nicodemus reappears to join Joseph of Arimathea in giving the crucified Jesus an honorable burial. We are left to fill in the blanks, but I see Nicodemus walking toward the Light. 13
As we inhabit our communities this week, joining conversations and journeying along with all sorts of characters, may we remember Nicodemus’ shining example. Though at first resistant, he pushes against daunting social and ideological boundaries, through the darkness that clouded his first visit, moving toward a new way of thinking, illuminated by the Light of the World.14
As Jaime Clark-Soles describes in her Reading John for Dear Life:
Many of us are less aware than Nicodemus of our desire for connection with the light, because we are comfortable, secure in our status in the community, our reputations … Will you turn your bulb toward or away from deeper connection with the Source of Power and Light?15
The invitation to think differently and move from darkness to light is open to even the most stubborn and pugnacious among us.
- These episodes include the changing of water to wine and the temple controversy.
- The Greek word at the end of 2:25 is a form of anthropos, meaning “man” or “human.” The NRSV (rightly) translates this as “everyone,” since the masculine pronoun is used inclusively here. This is likely why Nicodemus is described in 3:1 as “a man anthropos of the Pharisees” — to draw our attention back to the end of Chapter 2 and suggest that Jesus might not trust Nicodemus. Chirs Skinner, Reading John (Eugene: OR, 2015), 126.
- Skinner, Reading John, 79-80, 105, 128-138.
- Jo-Ann Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 74-75. The dissembling character is discussed in writings from the ancient philosopher Theophrastus who was a student of Aristotle. For more see Brant and Michael R. Whitenton, “The Dissembler of John 3: A Cognitive and Rhetorical Approach to the Characterization of Nicodemus” Journal of Bibilical Literature 135 (2016): 141-158.
- Skinner, Reading John, 81-82
- This is perhaps the symbolic meaning of birth from water in 3:5, as supported by the flesh/spirit contrast in 3:6. However, some scholars disagree and see water as a reference to baptism or cleansing. Skinner, Reading John, 133-135.
- Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life (Louisville: WJK, 2016), 23
- This invitation actually comes many times in the Gospel, but not in this exchange: 1:29, 46; 4:29; 11:34.
- Clake-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life, 21-25
- In the ancient world, identity was found in group affiliation. Brant, John, 95.
- Where exactly the narrator takes over Jesus’ voice is unclear. Some translations (NRSV, NIV, etc.) present the entirety of the section as Jesus’ words. Others (NAB, NET) close the quotation after verse 15. Skinner, Reading John, 124.
- Whitenton, “The Dissembler of John 3,” 141-158.
- Clake-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life, 25-28
- Winsome Munro, “The Pharisee and the Samaritan in John: Polar or Parallel?,” Catholic Bible Quarterly 57 (1995):10-38; Brant, John, 96
PRAYER OF THE DAY
You gave us new life when we were born of water and Spirit. Help us live into that new life, refreshed and renewed for your work. Amen.
God so loved the world, John Stainer