Commentary on John 3:1-21
While the preacher is inevitably tempted to focus in this sermon on John 3:16, rightly called the world’s most famous Bible verse, it would be good to remember that the single verse of John 3:16 — or any other verse, for that matter — is not canonical in and of itself.
Rather, it is part of the story of Nicodemus, which itself is part of the Gospel of John, which itself is part of the New Testament, which is itself part of the Christian Bible. All of which is to say, the best place to start with not just this verse but also this passage is to put it into its narrative context.
Because we are relatively early into John’s story, it’s not hard for us to recount — for ourselves and our hearers — the plot thus far. After being heralded by John the Baptist, Jesus has essentially done two things. The first is to turn water into wine in what appears to be an impromptu miracle — or rather, in John’s gospel, a sign of God’s activity in the world and disclosure of the identity and purpose of Jesus.
In this case, Jesus enacts the superabundance of God’s grace — providing a vast quantity of the exceptional wine when the banquet has run dry — that John had foreshadowed in the prelude by telling us that through Jesus “we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16).
The second thing that Jesus does seems at first blush utterly different. Rather than continue his ministry with another sign of abundance, he instead enters into the Temple just before Passover and drives out the moneychangers and all those selling sacrifices. But while it may contrast in tenor and character with changing water into wine, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple flows from the same reality.
For precisely because God has bestowed the fullness of God’s grace onto the world through the Son — the one John heralded as “the lamb of God to take away the sin of the world” — there is simply no need for any other sacrifice. Indeed, the selling and buying of sacrificial animals fails to understand what God is up to and risks missing the unique and decisive activity of God in Jesus.
Actually, these aren’t the only two things Jesus does, just the only two John describes in any detail, as the Fourth Evangelist tells us that Jesus stayed in Jerusalem during the Passover and did many other signs and that these signs caused many to believe in him.
It’s in this context, then, that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus. Nicodemus, John tells us, is a Pharisee and leader of the Jews. And he is curious about Jesus. Little wonder. Jesus has caused quite a stir. His actions in the Temple would have been unheard of, yet his signs and wonders, as Nicodemus confesses, testify that he has come from God. And so Nicodemus comes to question Jesus, to learn more of him, and to make some decision, we gather, about him.
And this, as we’ll see, is no small matter in the Fourth Gospel. Indeed, John’s story plays out in many ways as a series of encounters between Jesus and various characters in the story, each of whom is called to make a decision about Jesus. And decide they do, though in vastly different ways, almost as if John offers us a variety of options for response to Jesus until leading us to the faithful one that comes as the close and climax of the story in Jesus’ encounter with Thomas — belief in Jesus.
For now, though, let’s examine Nicodemus’ questions and decision. As is typical in John, whoever may come to him — whether male or female; peasant, beggar, or Pharisee — Jesus soon takes over the conversation. In this case, after Nicodemus’ acclamation that he must be from God, Jesus declares that no one born from above (or anew) can see God. And again as is characteristic of John, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, giving him an opportunity to teach the heavenly word and wisdom he bears.
And what a word it is! The Son of Man has come from heaven to be lifted up as a sign that God loves all the world. Even though the world in its very nature opposes him, yet the Son has come to reveal and demonstrate God’s love and to lead those who believe to new life.
Grace upon grace, indeed! Yet his very appearance will cause a crisis (krisis, in the Greek, translated here as judgment) for all who encounter him. Those who do evil will flee the light to hide their deeds, yet others who believe and confess their need will come into the light to live a life of grace and good deeds.
At this, the close of the story of Nicodemus, we notice something odd: Nicodemus has disappeared. It’s similar to the close of a movie scene where the screen fades to black as we listen to the narrator continue to speak. So also here, as Nicodemus the Pharisee and leader fades away, presumably back to where he came from, decided or undecided about Jesus we do not yet know, and all we are left with is Jesus’ words, words that echo the two previous scenes: Jesus comes bearing the super-abundance of grace upon grace and his very presence demands our attention and allegiance.
Given this retelling and interpretation of the story, the preacher may consider inviting hearers to contemplate the possibility that this scene and pattern is replayed countless times in our lives and never more explicitly than on Sunday morning. For we, too, are offered the super abundance of the Word-made-flesh as we see and hear and taste the grace upon grace that is lavished upon us in Word and Sacrament.
And then comes the moment of decision: how will we respond? For make no mistake, Jesus’ claim on us is all encompassing. We either seek our source of goodness, grace, and security from him or elsewhere. And as we leave the sanctuary we will be offered countless other options — status, power, possessions, and more — that similarly promise us life and require our allegiance in return.
Of course, in John it’s not quite a decision as much as it is a reaction. Jesus’ presence seems to reveal the character of those he encounters more so than it does simply pose a question. Moreover, as Jesus’ says, God’s judgment has already been rendered: For God so loved the world …
This is the first and last word of this Gospel, indeed of the whole Christian story. So perhaps the task isn’t so much to offer us an option — would you like to receive God’s love and grace? — as it is to declare to us God’s judgment and decision — God loves you and all the world! — and step back to see what happens.
If so, we may sometimes need to have patience. For while Nicodemus fades from this scene without disclosing to us the intentions or decisions of his heart, he does return, much later in the story, to make a public affirmation of his faith in Jesus through his actions. For he and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross and bury it in a tomb owned by Joseph.
Jesus’ message and call is urgent and clear. Sometimes we respond in earnest, and at other times it may take us much longer to respond. But respond we will, guided by the Holy Spirit that brings us new birth and life. Why? Because God so loves the world … including us.
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.
Borning cry ELW 732
The church of Christ, in every age ELW 729, UMH 589, NCH 306
God loved the world ELW 323
God so loved the world, John Stainer