Commentary on John 3:1-17
The obvious challenge in preaching this reading may seem to be how to say anything fresh, meaningful, and new about the world’s most famous Bible verse.
The less obvious, but I would argue more important, challenge is not allowing the world’s most famous Bible verse to cloud the significant and even scandalous message of Jesus that a close reading of the larger passage yields.
Setting the Scene
John is a master of dramatic settings, symbolism and imagery and so it is valuable to note that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and Jewish leader, arrives at night, a time of unbelief, ignorance, and temptation in the Fourth Gospel. He comes ostensibly to learn more about this young rabbi, but perhaps does not want his colleagues to know of his interest. He has, if not faith, at least faithful curiosity.
In typical Johannine fashion, Jesus engages Nicodemus in what seems like a non sequitur: Nicodemus praises Jesus as one who comes from God and Jesus, in return, asserts that no one can see the kingdom without being born from anaothen, which can be translated as again, anew, or from above. Nicodemus clearly takes Jesus to mean the first of these three possibilities, and his confusion invites a discourse from Jesus about the difference between Spirit and flesh.
Nicodemus, still confused, asks how this can be, to which Jesus again responds, this time orienting him — and presumably us, as Nicodemus fades from the gaze of the narrator and the language of “you” shifts from the singular to the plural — to his death on the cross. This death does not signify defeat but rather is the moment of God’s glorious triumph and, like the serpent Moses raised on the pole to heal the Israelites (Numbers 21:9), it will save all those who look to Jesus and believe that he is the one sent from God.
While the appointed lectionary ends at verse 17, the dramatic unit continues to verse 21 and it would be well worth extending the pericope. In these last verses, the Evangelist — it is difficult to tell if Jesus is still speaking or John is narrating — introduces a major theme of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus always creates a crisis (literally, krisis in Greek, which we normally translate as “judgment”) for those he encounters by calling forth from them one of two responses: either belief or unbelief.
Believers, represented by light, recognize in Jesus God’s decisive action for the world and move toward him. Unbelievers, symbolized by darkness, flee God’s revelation as they would prefer to remain in darkness. Jesus, then, has no need to condemn, as the involuntary reaction of those encountered by Jesus reveal their disposition to God’s redemption.
Signs and Wonders
There are several fruitful preaching possibilities in this dense passage, though each will require some careful teaching so that the kerygmatic impulse of the sermon can be understood and heard. The first deals with the matter of “signs.” A potent and persistent theme in John, Jesus’ actions are understood not as miracles but as signs, pointers to God’s mysterious and redemptive work. In this passage, Nicodemus comes praising Jesus’ signs (3:2), yet misunderstands them. Jesus isn’t simply a great teacher, but the one who reveals God’s essential character of love for the whole world (3:16).
Similarly, the Evangelist recounts that Moses lifted the serpent on a “sign” (often rendered “pole,” it derives from the same root). Jesus, like the serpent, will similarly be lifted up (gloried), and this sign can also easily be misunderstood as a mark of the defeat of this rabbi rather than perceived as the place where Jesus accomplishes the mission entrusted him by God (19:30). Only those who can look beyond the material referent of the sign (flesh) will perceive and participate in God’s redemptive work (Spirit). At this early juncture in Lent, we might therefore look ahead to the cross and, with John, herald it as the place where we see God’s love and mercy made most manifest.
A second possibility will be to focus on Nicodemus. At this point in the narrative, he is not portrayed with great sympathy. He comes at night, perhaps fearful of the opinions of his peers. He misunderstands Jesus because he takes his words literally and is therefore regularly confused about what Jesus says. And he disappears from sight having shown no signs of greater comprehension or faith. Yet he will reappear at two later points in the narrative. In chapter 7 (45-52), he offers a somewhat hesitant defense of Jesus, and in chapter 19 (38-42) he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, named a secret believer, with an exorbitant amount of spices for Jesus’ burial.
Has Nicodemus come out of the darkness and into the light at this late moment in the gospel? It is not entirely clear, but it may be that John recognizes that while some — the Samaritan woman in the following chapter, for instance — come to faith quickly, others take more time. Perhaps John is inviting some of those — then or now — who have difficulty believing that the cross is the moment of God’s victory to come along for the ride or, in more traditionally Johannine language, to “come and see.” Faith, in John’s gospel, is always a verb, and believing may take some longer than others.
A third possibility is to focus on the matter of being born “from above.” Because of the “born again” movement, this can be somewhat challenging. The preacher’s task is neither to critique Evangelical experience nor endorse a less-than-helpful reading of a conversion episode as necessary to justifying faith. Faith, as we just saw, is not a once-and-done action of the believer but rather is an ongoing work of the Spirit who, as Jesus says, blows where it chooses (3:8). For some the coming of the Spirit and faith will be a dramatic event; for others it will move more slowly. Whichever the case, John would shift attention away from our specific actions – the crisis that Jesus creates makes plain the disposition of the heart more than calls for a particular decision — and instead invites us to witness the powerful and unpredictable activity of the Spirit. Believers therefore should pray and give thanks for God’s Spirit, eager and ready to testify to God’s ongoing activity in their lives.
A fourth possibility involves in a careful unpacking of verse 16. It holds a special place in the hearts of countless Christians for good reason, as it lays bare God’s love for the whole world. Interestingly, because world (kosmos in Greek) normally signifies that entity that is hostile to God’s will (see 16:33, 17:9-19), one might capture the force and scope of God’s unfathomable love by translating the verse, “For God so loved the God-hating world…!” Indeed, God’s love is not only unfathomable but also somewhat offensive.
Notice that God does not ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of God’s love. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves but gives the world God’s only beloved Son over to death. The one who dies for you clearly has a significant claim on you, and John makes that clear. God’s love — surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved — is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not. In the face of that kind of love, we will likely either yield to God’s love or run away screaming, for no one can remain neutral to such extravagance.
Either way, God’s judgment is revealed: God loves this world, even the God-hating world that crucified the Lord of glory. At this place in our Lenten journey, we would do well to pray that by the gift of the untamed Spirit we might perceive in Jesus’ cross God’s redemptive act and in this way be drawn into fellowship with all who dare believe in Jesus and, indeed, the whole world that God loves so much!