Commentary on John 3:1-17
If Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness, it is darkness disturbed by peculiar light.
According to Gail R. O’Day, Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a set of convictions about what is real, what is possible: “We know that you are a teacher come from God…”
Of course, initially, this strikes us as promising. However, it is precisely what Nicodemus knows that becomes a stumbling block — or a darkness to which he clings — and that knowledge obscures his ability to hear and receive the testimony of the one speaking to him.1
Indeed, Nicodemus is reduced to incredulous outbursts of disbelief and astonishment:
- “How can anyone be born after having grown old? (4a)
- “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (4b)
- “How can these things be?” (9)
Though he comes under cover of night, the deeper darkness of unbelief obscures the vision of Nicodemus.
My first impression of this text was that, somehow, Jesus seemed at once present to Nicodemus and yet oddly removed. While the dialogue starts intimately enough, Jesus’ answers almost detach from the back-and-forth in verses 9-10. Indeed, some scholars speculate that the writer of John intends the material beginning with verse 16 and continuing to verse 21 as commentary on Christ rather than Christ’s response to Nicodemus.
Maybe but probably not, says O’Day: John’s unwavering focus on Jesus the Word made flesh, the one who speaks with you now (4:26), suggests that John intends for readers to hear this as Jesus’ word about himself.2
Leaving that to one side, what are we to make of Nicodemus’ reactions? On the one hand, as many interpreters will suggest, Nicodemus suffers from assigning a too literal significance to Jesus’ words, specifically anothen, which, as O’Day reminds us, can mean both “from above” and “again,” or “anew.”
In a sense, the dialogue around anothen reflects a dispute about whether two meanings or only one can inhere in a single word. The NRSV implies two meanings but prefers one over the other, pushing the “alternative” meaning (physical rebirth) into the footnote. The NRSV accents the symbolic or spiritual aspect of the metaphor of new birth, and thus renders the Greek as “born from above. . . ” (3b). NRSV repeats its preference for “born from above” in verse 7, again offering the alternative translation, “born anew” in the tiny font of a footnote. By contrast, the NIV reverses the preferences, exiling “born from above” to the footnote and awarding primacy to “born again.”
O’Day believes that to understand this text rightly, we will need to hear both meanings rather than either one or the other: “‘To be born anothen’ speaks both of a time of birth (‘again’) and the place from which this new birth is generated (‘from above’).”3
When I shared this text with my daughter, nine years old, the idea of being born from above seemed too abstract. But when I asked her if it was possible for her younger brother, three years old, to return to his mother’s belly in order to be born all over again, she laughed: “Nooooo … he wouldn’t fit and plus he couldn’t see anything!”
We all laughed. And I think that small experiment in reader response criticism might lead me to prefer the more literal translation: it seems to make Nicodemus’ objections recognizable, at least to our nine-year-old.
But I’m not quite prepared to surrender “born from above” to the footnotes. Why? For one, Nicodemus wasn’t amused. He was “astonished” and incredulous, as if taking offense at a solemn promise to be enacted by God: “Impossible!” snaps Nicodemus.
We might remember other instances of laughter in the Old Testament, where God’s promises seemed laughable, if not worthy of cutting derision. Think of Sarah, her body beyond the age of childbirth. When visited the by the three strangers, she overhears the promise, “You will have a son in your old age.” She laughs, guffaws in disbelief.
Or think of another woman too deeply acquainted with the way the world to entertain the improbable way of God’s future through Ruth, a Moabite and historic enemy of Israel. Naomi, her name changed to Bitter. On the way back from Moab. Ruined. An old woman now. No sons. No husband. Two daughters. Moabites.
She says to her daughters-in-law, “Our roads part ways here. You know how it is as well as I do. You’re still young. Find security in your own country, among your own kind, with your own gods.”When her widowed daughters-in-law plead with her, she answers them, “Are there sons in my womb that you may marry them?” Impossible, she sighs. Impossible and even nonsensical.
John Calvin declares that the mind of Nicodemus was “filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs…”4 Thorns of bitter truth which, perhaps, have become so completely normative that any alternative seems bitterly nonsensical.
Many sermons will move too quickly to the final assurance of this text: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (verse 16). Moving too quickly to this verse, while rightly beloved by the faithful, gives the illusion that our struggle with knowing and believing can be easily reconciled.
What if before going there, we lingered more intentionally and empathetically with Nicodemus, with Naomi, or Sarah? Specifically, with their knowledge of the world and its ways?
Perhaps if we did we would begin to appreciate the real resistance we experience when we hear God’s promises.
What if those promises seem as nonsensical to us as they did to Nicodemus, Naomi, or Sarah? How can we possibly receive those promises if we do not, finally, understand them, not at least in the way the world is accustomed to understanding?
One clue to our question appears in the work of London-based writer, Susanna Howard. She works with dementia patients, people who, in the language of science, are largely defined by irretrievable losses of neurological function: loss of speech, loss of language, loss of identity, loss of mind.
For the past six years, she has been engaged in the art of listening to the words of people who suffer with dementia. She calls the project, Living Words:
It can be extremely hard for words to come and we validate all words and sounds that are uttered [by dementia patients] — words and expressions that seem nonsense can in fact be directly metaphoric, or just need to be said. For example, a person will use words that wouldn’t be used in ordinary conversation: “Everything was all packed up and plopped over with”; “These people, in to the third act”; “Some round here are all embers”; “They don’t say much this tribe.” In not finding the “right” word people might use replacement words without realising.
While others often see only loss, she sees a life to be honored: “I very much believe that this is life and to be embraced — only through engaging in the darkness do we see who we really are and glimpse what this life is.”When she finished her first collection of poems by a woman with advanced dementia, the woman took her hand and said, “Now you know two worlds, the one outside and the one inside in me and you must go and tell all the people.”5
It was a gift, a mission handed to her under cover of that darkness, a darkness disturbed by improbable illumination.
1 Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9: Luke John, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 549-50.
2 Ibid., 548.
3 Ibid., 549.
4 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. 1, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843), 107.
5 Stephen Dowling, “Poems Offer Glimpse into Dementia Patients’ Inner Lives” in BBC News, 6 September 2013, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130906-poems-offer-glimpse-into-dementia, accessed on 16 November 2013.