Scripture can be found here…
True confession time: Of every jot and tittle to be found in the Fourth Gospel, this is the passage that causes this pastor the greatest anxiety. John 3:16 exists, at this moment in Christian cultural history, as a kind of behemoth. It’s not a line from a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus; it’s a call to arms. It does not describe a grace-filled invitation; it is a dare. It does not reveal the beloved community; it erects a Great Wall, on one side of which can be found those who are “saved” and on the other side of which there is weeping and gnashing of teeth in the darkness.
And so I invite us to take a deep breath, and to try to enter into this story with (relatively) open hearts and minds, as well as eyes prepared to see something new.
We are still early in the Fourth Gospel, and thus far, Jesus has:
- Been seen and introduced by John the Baptizer, who has eschewed all purpose except pointing the way to Jesus.
- Gathered a few disciples–just five, four of whom have been named: Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, and Nathanael.
- Performed his first sign, one that Narrative Lectioneer Kathryn Schifferdecker calls an act of “gratuitous generosity,” in changing water to wine at a wedding feast in Cana [“I Love to Tell the Story: Narrative Lectionary Podcast 111: Wedding at Cana.]
- Engaged in the prophetic action of cleansing the Temple, revealing himself as God’s dwelling place.
The gospel-writer has also dropped into the narrative a number of words that are veritable slices of baklava, they are so layered: Word, Light, Messiah, Lamb, Water, See, and Hour, to name a few.
Here’s the next one: Night. Nicodemus comes to see Jesus by night. Just a few of the layers of this word: On the heels of the temple incident, it makes sense that a Jewish leader might have some hesitation about openly visiting a man who has engaged in such scandalous behavior. But “night” is never merely a time of day for the author of the Fourth Gospel. Night is the time when Seeing is more difficult; those who go by night do not “see” properly, theologically speaking. Gail O’Day is blunt: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God” [“The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 548.].
Nicodemus is also a Pharisee. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were one of a number of Jewish renewal groups who were concerned chiefly with matters of table fellowship. For the purposes of the Fourth Gospel, however, “Pharisee” identifies Nicodemus as coming from a group identified as Jesus’ opponents.
Still, the words of Nicodemus are the words of a sincere seeker. He calls Jesus Rabbi. He acknowledges that Jesus comes from God (though whether he affirms this with the same understanding as the Fourth Gospel is unclear), and he acknowledges that the signs Jesus performs point to God as their source.
Jesus does not engage with these words of affirmation. He begins teaching this maybe-disciple straightaway, and he addresses the issues of night/ day, blindness/ seeing head-on: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” [John 3:3].
The phrase “from above” translates the Greek word “anothen.” It is also possible to translate it “again,” or “anew,” but Jesus seems to treat those as misunderstanding. He clarifies: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” [John 3:5-6]. To be born “anothen” is to be born of the Spirit. To be born of the Spirit involves water, most likely baptism, a sign of repentance and renewal.
Though Jesus seems to be issuing an invitation to Nicodemus, he also insists on the Spirit’s prerogative to go where she chooses [John 3:8]. When Nicodemus wonders aloud how such things can be, there follow some words of chastisement from Jesus along the lines of “And you call yourself a religious professional!”
For the second time in the Fourth Gospel Jesus makes reference to the crucifixion: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” [John 3:14-15].
John 3:16 is most helpfully paired with John 3:17:
“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. 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.”
While verse 16 speaks of a requirement of belief (or faith or trust) in Jesus in order to gain eternal life (seeming to imply a closed community of saved believers), verse 17 declares God’s intention for universal salvation. Jesus’ purpose is to save the whole world. The word translated “world” is kosmos, and is normally used in the Fourth Gospel to describe those who are opposed to Jesus [O’Day, 552]. These are the ones whom God wills to be saved. The passage concludes with language that refers back to John’s prologue: One can either be a person of the day, who believes and trusts in Jesus, or one can be a person of the night, who rejects Jesus.
Oddly, Nicodemus never says another word in the passage. We are not told that he embraces Jesus as a disciple, but neither are we told that he goes away sad (as the rich young ruler, Luke 18). Nicodemus returns twice in the Fourth Gospel. In chapter 7 he steps in to defend Jesus (who is once again causing controversy in the temple) by making an appeal to due process [John 7:37-53]. And in chapter 19, he appears alongside Joseph of Arimathea, bringing with him a hundred pounds of burial ointments and spices to prepare Jesus’ body for the tomb [John 19:38-42].
Some possible preaching paths:
- Go ahead and tackle the behemoth straight on: John 3:16. But consider pairing it with John 3:17, will you?
- This passage contains the gospel’s second allusion to Jacob’s ladder (1:51, 3:13), another rich image of heaven and earth bending towards one another as they do in Jesus. What does Jacob’s ladder say to you about the Jesus of John’s gospel?
- Choose one of the Big Fat Hairy Symbols and let it marinate in you this week. This passage offers: Night/ Day and Dark/ Light, Water and Spirit, and, of course, anothen.
- Trace Nicodemus’ movements throughout the gospel. He is a kind of everyman, in that he enters the story genuinely interested, though not necessarily ready to commit. Then he returns, as outlined above. A seeker still? A disciple at last? Let the preacher decide.
What say you? How will you deal with the most famous verse in the New Testament this week? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments!