Commentary on John 3:1-17
Today’s Gospel lection is a theological key that can unlock several aspects of this often puzzling Gospel of John.
We will begin by examining the details, then step back to look at the overall thrust of the story.
To begin with, as re-readers who already are familiar with this Gospel, we are struck by several details of the setting of the story. We have already learned that in the lexicon of this Gospel writer, hoi Ioudaioi (usually translated as “the Jews,” though the term clearly does not refer to the entire ethnic and religious community that we would mean by it) are often portrayed as hostile to Jesus and his message. We even suspect ulterior motives when Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “leader of the Jews,” pays a night time visit to Jesus. Throughout the first eleven chapters of this Gospel, Jesus encounters people in public spaces or gatherings during the day. What could Nicodemus want from Jesus at night?
Nicodemus respectfully greets Jesus as “Rabbi” and marvels at the sēmeia (“signs”) that Jesus does. However, Jesus seems to change the subject by delivering an apparent warning of a prerequisite for seeing the “reign of God.” That term does not surprise us if we are used to the language of the first three (“synoptic”) Gospels, where Jesus’ message and ministry are summarized as proclaiming the reign of God. In the Fourth Gospel, the term is rare, in addition to not being what Nicodemus’s polite comment was about. Our puzzlement grows when the prerequisite is identified as that one must be born anōthen (3:3).
This Greek adverb can mean either “again” or “from above,” with nothing in the way the word is written to indicate which way the meaning is to go. Nicodemus clearly hears it as “again” , as his questions indicate, while Jesus’ continuing commentary shows he meant it to be heard as “from above.” In the theology of this Gospel, one’s identity depends on the place from which one comes and the place to which one goes. Thus, one’s participation in the new reality Jesus brings and represents depends on being born “from above.”
That particular play on words works only in Greek, not in the Hebrew or Aramaic of Jesus’ daily life in Palestine. In contrast, the analogous wordplay on “wind” and “spirit” (3:8), which both translate the Greek word pneuma and the Hebrew word ruāh, would be effective in either setting. The key word anōthen, however, makes it clear that whatever the historical core of the story may be, it received its theological polish in one of the Greek-speaking communities of the early church. That point is driven home even more dramatically when Jesus goes on the offensive with his question in 3:10, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” What exactly should Nicodemus have understood, and why?
Using a classic rabbinical argument from the lesser (“earthly things”) to the greater (“heavenly things”), Jesus sends Nicodemus back to Torah, which as a teacher of Israel he ought to understand. Specifically, he recalls the story of the plague of venomous serpents that were threatening the Israelites (Numbers 21:6-9). The anti venom to the bites of the “fiery” poisonous serpents was to look at the “fiery” bronze serpent that Moses lifted up on a “pole” (Numbers 21:9). We should imagine a vertical pole with a cross-bar at or near the top and a bronze serpent entwined around it, like a caduceus. In Greek, the word for the “pole” is sēmeion, which can also mean “sign.” With that final riddle, the theological importance of this passage becomes clear.
According to the book of Ezekiel, the prophet is addressed by God as “Son of Man” (NRSV, “mortal”) whenever God is about to send him to proclaim God’s judgment against the people. In Daniel, the same term refers to the one who will sit in judgment of the people on the last day. In other words, like the poisonous serpents, the Son of Man decrees and even executes God’s judgment against the people. In this Gospel the identity of Jesus as the Son of Man is determined by his heavenly origin and destination (John 3:13). But just as the bronze serpent lifted up on the sēmeion/pole brought life in place of death in the story in Numbers, so also when the Son of Man (Jesus) has been “lifted up” on another kind of pole–the cross–he will bring, not judgment, but eternal life to all who believe or trust in him (John 3:14-15).
The word s̄meion is thus the ultimate play on words in this passage. Nicodemus opened the conversation by praising the “signs” Jesus had been doing. This Gospel identifies many of Jesus’ deeds that demonstrated his power as “signs” (see for example, 2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:14; 12:18). They are “signs,” though, as they led the story forward to its inevitable conclusion on the cross.
In this Gospel, it is Jesus’ being “lifted up” on the cross that is the moment of triumph for the one who is God’s own presence among us. The word translated lifted up, hypsoō, can also mean “exalt” or “glorify.” In the paradoxical logic–the mystery–of God, it is the moment of a cruel and shameful death that is the triumph of eternal life (3:16). The “one sent from God” (as Jesus is known in this Gospel) and God the Sender first set the pattern of divine self-commitment. The community of believers then is called to carry that same pattern into the difficult years following the crucial and cruciform moment, where God’s love was poured out for the world.