Editor's Choice

Jesus and Nicodemus


John, O'Day, Gail R. and Hylen, Susan E.
"To be 'born again' is a catchword in much of Protestant Christianity, yet many Christians' use of this word does not capture the richness of what Jesus is saying in John 3. 'Born again' tends to be used as a label—for one's own Christian journey or that of someone else—but Jesus does not intend it as a label. Rather, it is a metaphor, a rich, multilayered expression that puts into words what is really beyond words. Nicodemus not only misunderstands the double meaning of anothen, but also misunderstands that Jesus is speaking metaphorically at all. Nicodemus tries to understand Jesus' words through the literal categories of his everyday experience, yet Jesus is inviting him (and the reader) to see life with God in categories that reshape the everyday."

"Jesus and Nicodemus John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him," Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."3 Jesus answered him," Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."4 Nicodemus said to him," How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into The Mother's womb and be born?"5 Jesus answered," Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."9 Nicodemus said to him," How can these things be?"10 Jesus answered him," Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 'Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.'

Chapter and verse divisions were not included in the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. They were added much later, and the beginning and ending of stories or units of thought do not always correspond neatly with the beginning and ending of what we now think of as chapters. The Nicodemus story is a case in point, because everything about the story—except the chapter division!—suggests that it continues Jesus' Jerusalem visit of chapter 2. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a teacher of the law and a member of the Jewish religious leadership that was questioning Jesus at the Jerusalem temple. Nicodemus's visit is motivated by what he has seen of Jesus' ministry (v.2). The richness of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (and the later appearance of Nicodemus in John 7:45-52 and 19:38-42) shows that Jesus' works (his 'signs') and his words required all who met him to reevaluate where they looked for God's presence in the world. This story shows that Jesus' relationship with the religious leadership cannot be described by simple categories like 'for' or 'against.'

This story also continues many of the themes that were introduced in John 1:1-18. Nicodemus comes to Jesus 'by night,' but his visit nonetheless indicates an openness to the light of the world (1:4-5). Light symbolizes the presence of God; darkness and night, God's absence (see also 3:19-21; 8:12; 13:30). The theme of 'children of God' (1:12-13) surfaces again here, as the main theme in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is new birth and new life (3:3-8, 11-15).

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus warrants careful reading because of its important themes, but also because of the way it presents these themes. This conversation if full of wordplay on Jesus' part. This is an intentional strategy by the evangelist that will be repeated throughout the Gospel (see especially 4:4-42; 11:11-16, 23-27). Any reader of John must recognize the centrality of such wordplay, as well as other uses of symbolic and figurative language, to the way the Gospel tells its story of Jesus. This Gospel is not designed for the reader to rush through. Instead it is designed so that readers will linger over the words of Jesus and will have to work to understand what Jesus is teaching. This is not a Gospel full of quick and easy answers, even though sayings from John are often used that way in many contemporary Christian settings. By lingering and puzzling over the words of Jesus, the Gospel reader is able to have a sense of hearing Jesus for himself or herself, just as characters in the Gospel stories do.

Nicodemus initiates the conversation by coming to Jesus, just as the disciples of John the Baptist did in chapter 1. And just like those disciples, Nicodemus is looking for something: he is trying to test how his previous understanding of God fits into what Jesus now does. Nicodemus begins by stating that he knows about God, but Jesus immediately turns that statement on its head. 'Very truly, I tell you' commonly introduces Jesus' teaching in John (see also 1:51; 3:5). The subject of Jesus' teaching, the 'kingdom of God, is a regular topic of Jesus' teaching in the Synoptics, but Jesus uses the phrase only here and in verse 5 in John. 'Kingdom of God,'' like 'hour,' is an eschatological category that points to a time when the world will be shaped by the will and hopes of God instead of human-defined categories. Jesus' teaching about how to enter the kingdom is difficult for Nicodemus to understand, because Nicodemus operates with his long-held categories of how God relates to the world and Jesus offers something new.

BORN FROM ABOVE OR BORN AGAIN

The heart of Jesus' teaching is in his announcement that in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be 'born from above.' Verses 3-8 all center on the meaning of this announcement, and the key to understanding these verses is the word that the NRSV translates 'from above.' 'From above' translates the Greek word anothen. This Greek word can equally be translated in one of two ways. In addition to meaning 'from above,' it can also mean 'anew' or 'again.' ... The double meaning of anew/from above is the source of John's wordplay. Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is talking about physical rebirth ('born anew') and so protests the impossibility of what Jesus is saying (v. 4). Jesus is not speaking about a second birth in the way that Nicodemus understands it, however. He is talking metaphorically about a second birth that is also a rebirth 'from above,' from God who is the source of all life (1:12-13). As their conversation continues, Jesus tries to move Nicodemus out of his misunderstanding by redescribing the kind of birth he envisions with the phrase 'born of water and Spirit' (v. 5). This phrase, too, has double dimensions, because 'water' can evoke the waters of baptism. New birth in baptism is a birth in the 'spirit,' a new birth from God. Images of physical birth and the spiritual rebirth go hand in hand, because flesh and spirit belong together in the new birth Jesus envisions. One is not reborn to a new life apart from the physical body; one is reborn to a new life within the physical body. Jesus' offer of new life is not for an afterlife, but for this life. In an important way, what Jesus offers Nicodemus is what Jesus himself models in the incarnation: God-made-present in flesh.

To be 'born again' is a catchword in much of Protestant Christianity, yet many Christians' use of this word does not capture the richness of what Jesus is saying in John 3. 'Born again' tends to be used as a label—for one's own Christian journey or that of someone else—but Jesus does not intend it as a label. Rather, it is a metaphor, a rich, multilayered expression that puts into words what is really beyond words. Nicodemus not only misunderstands the double meaning of anothen, but also misunderstands that Jesus is speaking metaphorically at all. Nicodemus tries to understand Jesus' words through the literal categories of his everyday experience, yet Jesus is inviting him (and the reader) to see life with God in categories that reshape the everyday. To be born again is what makes it possible to see the kingdom of God and to begin to reframe our understandings of God. It is the beginning point, not the endpoint, of growth with God."

John, O'Day, Gail R. and Hylen, Susan E.
Westminister John Knox Press (Apr 15 2006) pp. 40-3




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