Commentary on John 3:1-17
The Second Sunday in Lent begins a four week digression from the Gospel for Year A, Matthew, with sequential readings from the Gospel of John.
As the Fourth Gospel does not have its own lectionary year, these Sundays provide an opportunity for the preacher to draw out the distinctive theological claims of the Fourth Evangelist. All four of these extended narratives, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the healing of the man blind from birth, and the raising of Lazarus, are unique to the Gospel of John and epitomize key themes for this Gospel.
John 3:1-17 narrates the encounter between Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, and Jesus. The first issue that the preacher must address is whether or not to extend the lectionary text through 3:21. There are several reasons to reconsider the parameters of the text set out by the lectionary. First, 3:22 marks a distinctive shift in the narrative action, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside.” Second, Jesus does not stop talking after verse 17, so we need to ask whether or not we should be shutting Jesus up before his intended conclusion. A third reason to include 3:18-21 in the Sunday lectionary reading is theological. In verses 19-21 Jesus discloses a major theme for the Gospel of John, light and darkness. For this Gospel, light represents the realm of belief and darkness the realm of unbelief. Either one is able to recognize that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the begotten God, or not–there is no gray area. When Jesus says to Nicodemus, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into world and people loved darkness more than the light” (3:19), these words send the reader back to the beginning of chapter 3–that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Jesus’ words are aimed directly at Nicodemus, “will you continue in darkness or will you come to the light?” The moment of judgment, the moment of crisis, and in fact, the moment of decision for Nicodemus, and for the reader, is in this encounter with Jesus.
We are left to wonder what happens to Nicodemus. His last words to Jesus are “How can these things be?” (3:9) and in his conversation with Jesus he does not make much progress. He interprets Jesus’ words on a literal level, although Jesus does appear to be deliberately ambiguous. Anothen (3:3) can be translated three different ways–again, anew, or from above. Nicodemus hears only the first option. He is not able to recognize what Jesus offers, and more importantly, who Jesus is. How can this be, indeed? After Nicodemus’s incredulous question, he seems simply to disappear from the scene, and we are left with Jesus. All of a sudden, Jesus’ words are directed to us. In 3:11, the “you” in “yet you do not receive our testimony” switches to second person plural from the second person singular that began the verse, “Truly, truly, I say to you.” How will we fair? Do we really think that we could have understood Jesus any better than this well-versed, well-educated Pharisee? And if we do, what makes us think so? What makes us so sure? Because we have two thousand years of Christianity under our belts? Because we have more theological insight? Because we have more faith?
And what about Nicodemus? He does show up two other times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7 (7:50-52) he appears to come to Jesus’ defense in the midst of the intense conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities that sets off chapters 7 and 8, but his question to the Pharisees gives the impression of lukewarm advocacy for Jesus. Nicodemus’s last appearance in the Gospel is to help Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, with the burial of Jesus’ body (19:38-42). But we are reminded that Nicodemus first came to Jesus by night (19:39). Moreover, he brings an extraordinary amount of burial spices for the preparation of the body. Again, we are left to wonder, does this last appearance of Nicodemus finally represent his coming to the light? Or, is he still in the dark, weighing down Jesus’ body with so many spices that consequently there will be no doubt that Jesus will remain in the tomb?
Given this complicated character and his ambiguous status in the Gospel of John, preaching Nicodemus should go about highlighting these complications and not smoothing them out. Nicodemus does not ask from or require of us his rescue. His encounter with Jesus and his recurring role in the narrative suggest that believing in Jesus is indeed an ambiguous effort. What does it mean that faith is ambiguous? Perhaps it has to do with how belief is played out in the Fourth Gospel. We tend to talk about “our faith” or “having faith,” assuming that it is a done deal, that believing is as simple as acquiring faith. But the Gospel of John never refers to faith as a noun. Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something that one has–it is something that one does. Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human. We need to ask more often than we are willing to admit, “how can these things be?” We need to take seriously what faith looks like when it is active, living, permeable, and dynamic. We need to consider earnestly that having an incarnated God may require an incarnational faith — that believing is just as complicated as it is to be human.