Commentary on John 3:1-17
Most people know John 3:16, but a great many may not associate it with Nicodemus.
John in particular among the gospels seems liable to have its verses taken and cherished out of their literary context.
Read against the backdrop of Nicodemus’ nighttime visit, John 3:16 becomes the culmination of the response to him and people like him, and perhaps like us, who believe they know Jesus and who come to him not to be turned upside down by his holy newness but to have their understanding affirmed and settled. Read in its entirety the passage becomes about realizing that rather than our faith resting on our knowledge and love, it is, in the first place, we who are known and loved by God, drawn into a mystery that is beyond our understanding and our wisdom.
The connection between Nicodemus and John 3:16 may not seem immediately evident. That is in part because the conversation is so confusing to Nicodemus that the reader is swept into some of that feeling with him. But it is not so strange that a conversation about birth, to which there are eight references in six verses, should end in a statement about life.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. In John where the life is the light of all people (1:4) and night will fall as the betrayer leaves the table (13:30), the nighttime setting of Nicodemus’ appearance helps to suggest that he is among those to whom Jesus does not entrust himself in the verses immediately preceding these. He comes in darkness and does not ask Jesus who he is, but tells him what “we know” on the basis of Jesus’ signs, which seem not to offer the firmest foundation for belief (2:23-25).
Jesus immediately begins to undo Nicodemus’ certainty. No one can see anything clearly about God and God’s kingdom, Jesus tells him, without being born from above.
Above and below are directional signifiers for alternative worldviews, alternative lives even, in John. Unless a person is born into the worldview of God, that person cannot see the kingdom or, Jesus goes on to say, enter it. There has already been a reference to this birth into God in 1:13. God’s life comes into the world’s dark unknowing in 1:1-14, and the same happens here.
The passage is marked by spiraling repetition and the presence of doubles entendres, both typical of John, where words are picked up and repeated with their meaning developed and deepened in the repetition and where misunderstandings move the dialogue forward.
Jesus picks up on words and concepts introduced by Nicodemus and turns the conversation toward deeper truths again and again (see, for example, the repetition of God, enter, and being born). With each repetition Jesus shifts the conversation from the smallness of Nicodemus’ view to the largeness of life in God, from the signs on which Nicodemus and others base their hope to the invisible mystery of the Spirit/wind (the two words are the same in Greek), which can give him birth into the truth that he is missing.
The phrase from above is a translation of a single word in Greek (a!nwqen). The word also appears in 3:31 (“The one who comes from above is above all.”), in 19:11 (“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”), and in 19:23 (“The tunic was woven in one piece from the top.”). The word can also mean simply again, and Nicodemus hears only this. So Jesus elaborates on this birth from above; it is a birth of water and Spirit.
The association with water in verse 5 will be picked up again in 4:10-14 and in 7:37-39 but might also remind us of the descent of the Spirit in 1:32. Spirit then is placed over against flesh in verse 6. These are not two parts of the human person, not body versus soul, but two perspectives from which the complete person, body and soul, can live. Birth from above into a life in which God’s kingdom is visible and accessible places the whole person in a new light, which Nicodemus, who has not experienced it, cannot see or understand.
It is unclear whether (and, if so, when) there is a shift in the passage from Jesus’ speech to the narrator’s. There is in any case a movement beyond this particular dialogue to a broader discourse, which draws in the whole future “we” of Jesus’ community of followers and their “testimony.” The passage moves from the attempts at earthly analogies, which Nicodemus failed to understand, to the purely heavenly perspective of the one who has descended from there in the incarnation and will ascend there again in his glorification, which brings the passage to the great lifting up of the Son on the cross.
This is the first use of the term lifted up to refer to the crucifixion in John. It occurs again in 8:28 and 12:32-34 (corresponding perhaps to the threefold passion prediction in the Synoptics). The cross in John forms part of Jesus’ glorification and so is both his exaltation and his lifting up to death.
Finally we reach the verse that shines like a beacon over the whole Gospel. John 3:16 brings together the Gospel’s first references to eternal life and to love. Love appears again with reference to the Father’s love for the Son in 3:35; in fact, 3:31-36 reiterates and develops many of the ideas from our passage. This first reference to love in 3:16 is, perhaps surprisingly, not for the Son or for Jesus’ followers, but for the world.
The world has already made an appearance in 1:9-10, and there as here it is cloaked in darkness. But God’s intention for the dark, confused world is not condemnation, even when it lifts up the Son. On the contrary, in that moment especially the Son will be the savior of the very world that does not know him.
When we become too sure of what we know about Jesus (or indeed the Trinity on this particular Sunday), when we believe that we have grasped him at last, that is when we can perhaps expect to be undone like Nicodemus. That undoing — that overturning of our certainty — may be a very good thing if it allows us to experience anew the miracle of our birth from above into eternal life, which has nothing to do with what we know or what we are (any more than our birth from our mother’s womb did). It is a gift of life from the heart of the Father, breathing the Spirit wind over us and through us, and opening our infant eyes to the Son, our Teacher, lifted up to draw all people to himself and his lesson of love.