I wrote on this passage two years ago, when it came up as the Gospel for Trinity Sunday in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m writing today without reference to that post — but you might want to check it out.
The text, John 3:1-17, is the bulk of the story of Jesus’ late-night conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come by night, though this text doesn’t tell us why. Other passages hint that he was afraid of what others would think. He was a leader, but he knew that Jesus was not respected by many or most of the other leaders.
In the Reformation, John Calvin and others used Nicodemus’ name as an accusing title for those who wanted to be part of the Protestant movement, but were afraid of repercussions in their Roman Catholic surrounding culture.
Calvin, I’m sorry to say, had no patience with “Nicodemites.”
Jesus, on the other hand, seems quite happy to talk with him. Nicodemus becomes a follower of Christ in secret, and it’s a good thing he does. In John 7:50-51 Nicodemus comes to Jesus’ defense when others would arrest him. And in John 19:39-40 it is because of Nicodemus that Jesus’ body received proper burial rites.
In this text, where the motive of secrecy isn’t plain, I like to imagine he comes by night because certain questions kept him awake.
Two evocative things happen in their conversation — two things that have become paradigmatic in American Protestantism.
It is in answer to Nicodemus that Jesus says one must be “born again” (or “born from above” depending on your translation; see John 3:3 & 3:7).
And it is in answer to Nicodemus that Jesus says the famous words that, at least among recent generations of Protestants, have been assumed to be definitive of the Christian faith as a whole:
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.” (John 3:16 NRSV)
Today I am more interested in two other evocative details — at least one of which provides a bit of context for these more famous lines.
Jesus tells Nicodemus,
And just as
Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15 NRSV)
This is a clear reference to Numbers 21:4-9. It’s a weird story. In short, the Israelites had been grumbling obnoxiously about the food God provided them in the wilderness. So God sent poisonous (or “fiery”) serpents to kill a bunch of them. Moses prayed for God to stop it, so God had him make a bronze “poisonous/fiery” serpent and lift it on a pole. Everyone who looked at the thing on the pole was cured.
Here Jesus said he would be lifted up like that, and as people were cured by looking at the serpent, they would find eternal life by believing in him.
I think we tend to read this passage through excessively Protestant eyes:
We hear “lifted up” and we finish the phrase “on the cross.” We assume into this story of Nicodemus a whole truckload of ideas related to substitutionary atonement.
- Jesus, we think, is talking about being lifted up on the cross,
- bearing the punishment that we so richly deserve,
- and thereby taking it away from us
- so that God can find us innocent in the day of judgment.
Read John 3:1-17 again and ask yourself “How many of those ideas are actually in this text?”
There is no mention of punishment, atonement, substitution, divine justice. Those ideas are in our heads when we open up this passage, and so we read the text in a way that fits our Protestant concepts.
Then, as a grand conclusion, we reach John 3:16, and take it as the paradigmatic statement on salvation, an implicit affirmation of substitutionary atonement.
But there is no mention of the cross here, no mention of suffering, or passion. Those predictions are much later in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus life.
Later in John, in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus is quite plain about his coming passion and death.
Earlier, though, there are only allusions — clear perhaps to us, in hindsight but absolutely not clear in context.
- In chapter 2 he refers to the temple being thrown down and raised up in three days.
- In 3, 8, and 12 he refers to being “lifted up.”
We, the later Christian reader, can say “Aha! He was talking about Good Friday! The tomb! The Resurrection!”
But could the people he spoke to have had the slightest hint of this? The people within the story? No.
There was no way Nicodemus could make the connection from Jesus’ reference to Numbers 21 to Jesus’ future passion.
A Thought Experiment
At least as a thought experiment, try reading the story within its narrative context, instead of in theological hindsight. It seems prudent to at least consider a different meaning for Jesus being “lifted up.”
We “lift up” something by giving it prominence. When something is “lifted up” it gathers our attention — which is what happened with Moses and the bronze serpent.
- What if, all in advance of the Cross, the whole of the Gospel narrative, the whole work of the incarnate Christ is about “lifting up” the Son of Man? He is the focal point. We turn, and look, and believe.
- What if, long after the Cross, the whole work of Christians bearing witness to Jesus is about “lifting up” the Son of Man. He is the focal point. We turn, and look, and believe.
It’s rather like in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says
…let your light shine before others,
they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15 NRSV)
We are to do good works, his will in the world, his mission — but we aren’t to do it so that we get noticed.
- In Matthew, it is all to bring attention and glory to the Father.
- In John 3 it is about putting our attention on Jesus — lifting him up, so people turn, and look, and believe.
To my mind this reshapes the meaning of John 3:16. Without any grim emphasis on judgment and hell, without any somber reflection on the Cross and his passion, Jesus tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his Son to be lifted up, seen, trusted, followed — and that those who see him, trust, and follow find true life, eternal life because of him.
The Mystery of Spiritual Growth
I’ll be brief on the last evocative bit today. Nicodemus is mystified by Jesus’ call to be “born again” or “born from above.” Jesus explains that it is all about the Spirit’s work.
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.” (John 3:8 NRSV)
Don’t think being born again is defined by some little action you take — raising your hand, coming forward, saying the sinner’s prayer. It isn’t even to be quite equated with baptism, though the waters of baptism are rightly thought of as the waters of rebirth.
We repent, we pray, we receive baptism as our part of the conversation of faith, and especially in baptism we hear plainly God’s promise of rebirth and new life.
But don’t you wonder why it sometimes doesn’t seem to take? Why is it that my own life doesn’t fully reflect the new life we’re promised in Christ? Why is it that some who are baptized go so very far astray?
It’s like the wind, baby. It blows where and when it wants to blow.
Spiritual growth is like that. You and I can’t make it happen. All we can do is put up our sails, set the tiller, maybe pull out the oars if we have to. But it is the wind of God who powers the process, not us.
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