SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
February 17, 2008
Psalm 121 (1,2)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
1. CONTEXT: John 3:1-17 - Dialogue with Nicodemus
Whether one preaches on John 3:1-17 or the alternate (LBW) text on
the Samaritan woman, these passages have several things in common.
Both involve a dialogue in which a stranger's incipient faith gradually is
ignited. Both involve an encounter between Jesus and an unlikely
acquaintance (a rabbi, Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin; a woman, a
Samaritan, possibly an adulterer). Both dialogues involve some degree of
misunderstanding or confusion which is typically Johannine (compare
11:20-27) and which leads to a "teachable moment" in which Jesus
discloses himself more fully as Savior.
Since there is a discussion of the Samaritan Woman in the LEXEGETE
Gospel for next Sunday, LBW users are encouraged to consult it for a fuller
discussion of John 4:5-26. The present passage will concentrate on John
3:1-17, one of the greatest passages in all of scripture, containing the
verse, 3:16, that Martin Luther called "the Bible in a nutshell."
It would be a mistake, however, to presume that John's Gospel is a
carefully-crafted literary composition in which dialogue is merely planted
in the mouths of Pharisaic rabbis and Samaritan Women in cartoon fashion.
However well-designed or developed, the story has a ring of authenticity
and it seems ill-advised to boldly de-mythologize it. After all, the
character of Nicodemus is followed beyond this one encounter (compare
7:50 and 19:39) and was surely one of those who eventually became a
follower of Jesus, despite the prospect of losing a position of prominence
in the Sanhedrin (cf. 12:42-3).
Nicodemus represents a kind of paradigm of Pharisaic Judaism. Small
wonder that he feels constrained to approach Jesus under cover of night.
Seeing Jesus at first as a wise teacher, Nicodemus is drawn to him largely
due to the signs and wonders which he has witnessed or heard about.
In the course of this dialogue, the wise teacher alludes to Mosaic tradition
to show that signs and wonders, while important, are inadequate for
salvation. What is needed is faith, evident in one's rebirth in Christ.
1b. TEXT: John 3:1-17 (ESV)
3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus  by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again  he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You  must be born again.’ 8 The wind  blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, 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 the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you  do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
 3:2 Greek him  3:3 Or from above; the Greek is purposely ambiguous and can mean both again and from above; also verse 7  3:6 The same Greek word means both wind and spirit  3:7 The Greek for you is plural here  3:8 The same Greek word means both wind and spirit  3:11 The Greek for you is plural here; also four times in verse 12  3:13 Some manuscripts add who is in heaven  3:15 Some interpreters hold that the quotation ends at verse 15  3:16 Or For this is how God loved the world  3:30 Some interpreters hold that the quotation continues through verse 36
1ην δε ανθρωπος εκ των φαρισαιων, νικοδημος ονομα αυτω, αρχων των ιουδαιων: 2ουτος ηλθεν προς αυτον νυκτος και ειπεν αυτω, ραββι, οιδαμεν οτι απο θεου εληλυθας διδασκαλος: ουδεις γαρ δυναται ταυτα τα σημεια ποιειν α συ ποιεις, εαν μη η ο θεος μετ αυτου. 3απεκριθη ιησους και ειπεν αυτω, αμην αμην λεγω σοι, εαν μη τις γεννηθη ανωθεν, ου δυναται ιδειν την βασιλειαν του θεου. 4λεγει προς αυτον [ο] νικοδημος, πως δυναται ανθρωπος γεννηθηναι γερων ων; μη δυναται εις την κοιλιαν της μητρος αυτου δευτερον εισελθειν και γεννηθηναι; 5απεκριθη ιησους, αμην αμην λεγω σοι, εαν μη τις γεννηθη εξ υδατος και πνευματος, ου δυναται εισελθειν εις την βασιλειαν του θεου. 6το γεγεννημενον εκ της σαρκος σαρξ εστιν, και το γεγεννημενον εκ του πνευματος πνευμα εστιν. 7μη θαυμασης οτι ειπον σοι, δει υμας γεννηθηναι ανωθεν. 8το πνευμα οπου θελει πνει, και την φωνην αυτου ακουεις, αλλ ουκ οιδας ποθεν ερχεται και που υπαγει: ουτως εστιν πας ο γεγεννημενος εκ του πνευματος. 9απεκριθη νικοδημος και ειπεν αυτω, πως δυναται ταυτα γενεσθαι; 10απεκριθη ιησους και ειπεν αυτω, συ ει ο διδασκαλος του ισραηλ και ταυτα ου γινωσκεις; 11αμην αμην λεγω σοι οτι ο οιδαμεν λαλουμεν και ο εωρακαμεν μαρτυρουμεν, και την μαρτυριαν ημων ου λαμβανετε. 12ει τα επιγεια ειπον υμιν και ου πιστευετε, πως εαν ειπω υμιν τα επουρανια πιστευσετε; 13και ουδεις αναβεβηκεν εις τον ουρανον ει μη ο εκ του ουρανου καταβας, ο υιος του ανθρωπου. 14και καθως μωυσης υψωσεν τον οφιν εν τη ερημω, ουτως υψωθηναι δει τον υιον του ανθρωπου, 15ινα πας ο πιστευων εν αυτω εχη ζωην αιωνιον. 16ουτως γαρ ηγαπησεν ο θεος τον κοσμον, ωστε τον υιον τον μονογενη εδωκεν, ινα πας ο πιστευων εις αυτον μη αποληται αλλ εχη ζωην αιωνιον. 17ου γαρ απεστειλεν ο θεος τον υιον εις τον κοσμον ινα κρινη τον κοσμον, αλλ ινα σωθη ο κοσμος δι αυτου.
Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition
© 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition
© 1975, United Bible Societies, London
2. ANALYSIS: John 3:1-17
John 3:1-Nikodemos - more than anything else, he is the personification
of those members of Judaism who were attracted to Jesus enough to
inquire further, but were unable to confess him as Messiah - such persons
evidently were concerned about censure by their peers (cf. 19:38)
---archon - in addition to being a rabbi and teacher (both of which tend to
help him identify with Jesus), Nicodemus is apparently a leader and
undoubtedly a member of the ruling Sanhedrin, explaining best why he
chooses to maintain a veil of secrecy over his beliefs until after Jesus
has died (cf. 12:42, compare 12:32).
3:2 - "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can
do these signs that you do, except by the power of God" (AILL) -- In a
sense, the Johannine signs (semeia) have here become an audio-visual
device by which a teacher of Judaism is drawn to another Jewish teacher
and the phrase is familiar...it is the remark commonly heard even today
when a minister/healer/teacher performs "mighty works" (TEV) in the
name of Christ. Yet the Fourth Gospel, which places so much emphasis
throughout on the importance of "seeing" the light of God in Christ does not
really argue that this is the most final or conclusive evidence of the
messiahship of Jesus. In 2:23-25, it is clear that Jesus is skeptical of the
faith of those who believe in him (only) when they see signs. If anything,
it could be argued that the miraculous dimension of Christ's power is
--numerically, at least-- played down in the Gospel of John. What is at
stake here is nothing less than the meaning of faith: is it educed from a
display of divine power, or is it nurtured more from within the individual's
relationship with the life-giving love of God?
3:3 - Amen,Amen--note that Jesus is presented speaking much like the
Rabbi and didaskalos that he is in Nicodemus' eyes...the introductory
"Truly,truly" connotes moral and ethical teaching (cf. Matthew 5-7) and
is used here, but not in the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the
well, probably because of the context.---ou dunatai idein tein basileian
---"one cannot see the realm of God" (AILL)-Here again the primary
metaphor is visual in nature; spiritual rebirth brings faith and in-sight.
--- gennethe anothen -- "born anew" (AILL) - Though the phrase "born
again" has in recent times has become a bumper-sticker item, it really is
worthy of careful reconsideration. Whatever the excesses of
"born-againism" (and they are often alarming), the fact is that in this
passage Nicodemus is the one responsible for the "again" interpretation,
thinking that somehow he must re-live his own physical birth. But the
term anothen really means "from above" (spatial metaphor) as much as it
means "again" (temporal metaphor).
3:4 - It is characteristic of the Gospel of John that an ambiguity in Jesus'
teaching (i.e., the double meaning of anothen) leads to further
misunderstanding on the part of the hearer, followed by a more dramatic
statement of the teaching (often an ego eimi or "I AM" saying, echoing the
LXX translation of 2nd Isaiah). Bruce Vawter,C.M. (Jerome Biblical
Commentary, ch. 63,s. 68) notes an irony in the misunderstanding of
Nicodemus, for the image of "rebirth" was used in rabbinical tradition to
apply to proselytes. It appears that the element of "misunderstanding"
takes priority in this passage, just as the theme of the "messianic secret"
often takes hold in the Synoptic Gospels. (See also H. Leroy's article, "Das
johanneische Missverstaendnis als literarische Form" in BIBEL UND LEBEN,
IX , 1968, pp. 196-207). If there is a danger in this, it is that it can and
often does lead to the modern "mis- understanding" that faith is primarily
a matter of cognition. If one can just get the right "answers" down on
paper or "in my heart or head or gut-feelings," then I am OK. Such
gnosticism was pervasive at the time in which this Gospel was written,
and may be even more endemic in the postmodern world.
3:5 - ex hudatos kai pneumatos - Here is a phrase which marks a transition
in the passage toward a post-Easter message, even to the point of seeming
contradiction. In 20:22, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon his disciples
in a way that seems to undercut the baptism that gives re-birth of water
and the Spirit (so E. Haenchen, JOHN,v. 1, pp. 200-1). ex hudatos obviously
refers to baptism, and undoubtedly Christian baptism. Whether the mention
of water is a churchly interpolation strikes me as something of a moot
3:6 - sarx...pneuma - The dualism of flesh and spirit is very characteristic
of the Fourth Gospel and seems to hinge on a particular theology of the
Incarnation, the Word become flesh. The point is not that flesh is evil, but
that it is representative of decay and death, whereas the spirit is the
giver of life.
3:7 - " Do not marvel that I said to you,' You must be born anew." (AILL) --
Although the "born anew" is a refreshing translation, the translators of AN
INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE LECTIONARY overlooked the shift to plural (humas) in
this passage, a fact noted by the TEV's somewhat homey translation, "you
all." This may seem minor, but I am in agreement with Haenchen (ibid.)
that this suggests that Nicodemus is important here primarily because he
stands for a larger Jewish group who are on the periphery of believing in
Jesus, but simply cannot.
3:8 - Here is one of those wonderful passages unique to John. The closest
parallel cited in the NEW GOSPEL PARALLELS (1985,V. 2) is one from
DIALOGUE OF THE SAVIOR, a fragmentary document found at Nag Hammadi
in Egypt in 1945 and dating from the 1st or 2nd cent. a.d. But even that
parallel does not include the striking play on words with pneumatos
which can mean at once breath, wind and Spirit. If the human breath or
the earthly wind be mysterious, how much more mysterious are the breath
and wind and Spirit of God?
3:10 - didaskalos tou Israel -- The wrath of Jesus is dimly apparent in
this hyperbolic retort. After all, how can Nicodemus be expected to have
knowledge of these mysteries? What happens here is that Jesus literally
ACTS OUT the meaning of what he has been saying above, that those born of
the flesh and those born of the spirit are almost incomprehensible to one
other. This may make us uncomfortable, especially today when
spiritualizing the flesh seems to have become "Job 1" in our society, but it
is nevertheless often the case. The gnostic danger of entirely isolating
spirit and flesh should be obvious from both ends of the spectrum.
3:12 - compare Wisdom 9:16 and Sanhedrin 39a, cited in Haenchen (ibid.).
3:13 -huios tou anthropou - The "Son of Man" (RSV) or "Human One" (AILL)
or "Man of Heaven" (LECTIONARY FOR THE CHRISTIAN PEOPLE, NY: Pueblo,
1986) has already been mentioned previously in 1:51 - "Truly, truly, I say
to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and
descending upon the Son of man." --This is an enigmatic passage because it
is not only post-Easter but even post-Ascension in its tone. But the
central idea is clear, that only the huios tou anthropou is able to speak
with authority concerning the "heavenly things." Thus the inclusive
translations "Human One" and "Man of Heaven" both speak to the humanity
of Jesus, while maintaining divinity. While neither of these two
alternatives strikes me as the ideal way to speak of the huios tou
anthropou, perhaps this is mainly because they are so new and unfamiliar!
3:14 - hupsothenai - "lifted up" - The Human One is to be on the cross
even as the bronze snake was on the pole. The parallelism is clear if
3:16 - This passage seems to have been "layered" just a little deeper than
the verse just preceding. In 3:15, belief in the "Human One" gives eternal
life; here it is revealed to mean belief in the "only Child" (AILL) of God. The
solution of using "child" for son and him, while entirely valid in
theological terms, seems jarring to the ears. After all, the term "only
child" has a very distinct connotation in English, meaning "as opposed to
having several children."
3:17 - Jesus Christ is not an "only child" in the plain sense, any more than
he is the "only son" (with the sense of "having sisters" or as opposed to
"only daughter"). Perhaps the best solution to this reading lies in some
sort of compromise between "child" and another term such as "one." At
present, inclusive language points in the direction of a stronger, clearer
reading of this most famous of all verses in the New Testament. We
cannot simply discard the term "Son" out of hand without a much more
serious, sober re-examination of our Trinitarian theology.
3. STRATEGY: John 3:1-17
It's tempting to preach on any of the following: spirit/flesh,
light/darkness, pharisees vs. a good old boy (Jesus), Moses and the serpent,
earth/heaven,etc. But the real question is: where is Nicodemus hanging
out today? Just as the Fourth Gospel uses Nicodemus to represent a
particular theological stance, the preacher needs to find who stands for
what today, to engage in dialogue. We live in a time when common sense
has been supplanted by the gnosticism of the computer, a fact little
changed by our using computers to write sermons! In THE SECOND SELF
subtitled "Computers and the Human Spirit," Sherry Turkle of M.I.T. has
given a vivid analysis of how our PCs are subtly but inexorably changing
the way we think and feel, perhaps even how we believe. One place to run
into Nicodemus today might be at a computer user's group meeting or
maybe down at the software connection. Our most cherished beliefs are
not just up for grabs today...they are being ignored and debased.
Consider the following TV ad: the scene opens on a gorgeous high mountain skyline
with amber waves of grain, upon which is super- imposed the word
"spirit." A political promotion? Another public service message from the
presidential candidates? No way. The message is that if you want "spirit," well then you
better get a six-pack of a famous Colorado beer. Spirits,maybe..... but SPIRIT?
Indeed, the spiritual realm has been carved up like so much real estate by
everyone from Shirley Maclaine to garden variety gurus. Respectable
denominations debate reincarnation. Spirit "channelers" hawk their wares
along the neo-sawdust trail from (you guessed it) California to Florida,
covering much the same ground as holistic health gurus of a few years ago
and "human potential movement" sages a few years earlier. One such
medium claims her (copyrighted and trademarked) "supernatural being"
hails from a bogus planet where he (it?) has been roaming around for
several aeons, more or less. Even the "ouija board" is back in style!
If Nicodemus were to reappear (without benefit of a channeler) today,
what would he have to say? Perhaps he'd be a sadder-but-wiser Pharisee
now, having seen firsthand the cost of discipleship from womb to empty
tomb. Perhaps he would wonder whether we are born of the spirit or the
flesh or what? Perhaps he would be as mixed up as ever, but then no more
confused than the educated (gnostic?) young, upwardly mobile
professionals who come by light of day to find the peace that passeth
misunderstanding. Could it be he would ask us which way the wind is
It is, in the end, unbelievable what some people will believe! This
selfsame issue was brilliantly analyzed years ago by Robert Bellah, et
alia, in HABITS OF THE HEART. In that fascinating survey of American
individualism, he encountered "Sheila," a young woman whose chosen faith
was described as "Sheila-ism," the belief that comes down to looking out
for number 1 (i.e., self). Garrison Keillor, who until this coming June will
host Minnesota Public Radio's PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION before moving to
Denmark, has gotten into the act. On a recent program he introduced "Bob,"
the founder of his very own religion, "Bob-ism." And so it goes: channeling
retreats, quack spirituality, videos, books, magazines, and of course
Bobism. Actually, it calls to mind the days of H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis
and the "Booboisie." Are we due for a new Reform Era?
There is no "strategy" that can effectively counter the "watering down of
the spirit," to mix metaphors. What seems to have happened is that the
"spirit" Jesus told Nicodemus about means little or nothing to those who
use the word the most..everyone from biermeisters to cult shysters. Could
it be because the Public Church, as is often charged, has abandoned the
spiritual in pursuit of other priorities? Stay tuned.
Sermon Themes/Titles: Which Way is the Wind Blowing?...
The Unholy Spirit...
Nicodemus in Reeboks.
Bellah, R. et alia. HABITS OF THE HEART. Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1985.
Funk, R., ed. NEW GOSPEL PARALLELS,Vol. 2. Philadelphia : Fortress, 1985.
Haenchen, Ernst. JOHN (2 vols.)/HERMENEIA, transl. R.W. Funk,ed. R. W. Funk
and U. Busse. Phila. : Fortress, 1984.
Turkle, S. THE SECOND SELF: COMPUTERS & THE HUMAN SPIRIT. NY: Simon
and Schuster, 1984.
USA TODAY: "Channels, the latest in psychic chic--Spirits are big
business," January 22, 1987, 2D.
Vawter,Bruce, C..M. "Gospel According to St. John," ch. 63 of JEROME BIBLICAL
COMMENTARY, ed. R.E.Brown, J.A. Fitzmyer and R.E. Murphy. Englewood
Cliffs,NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
5. Music Suggestions
If the preacher is pursuing the theme of spiritual renewal and rebirth,
some of the following hymns might be considered:
SPIRIT OF GOD, DESCEND UPON MY HEART (LBW 486) ;
SPIRIT OF GOD, SENT FROM HEAVEN ABROAD (LBW 285);
SPIRIT OF GOD, UNLEASHED ON EARTH (LBW 387,HB 299);
O SPIRIT OF THE LIVING GOD (LBW 388, HB 53l);
SPIRIT DIVINE, ATTEND OUR PRAYERS (HB 509);
SPIRIT OF MERCY, TRUTH AND LOVE (229 HB).
Other suggested hymns:
GOD, WHOSE ALMIGHTY WORD (LBW 400);
JESUS, REFUGE OF THE WEARY (LBW 93);
JESUS, THOU JOY OF LOVING HEARTS (LBW 356, HB 649/50 alt.);
IN THE CROSS OF CHRIST I GLORY (LBW 104, HB 441/2) .
6. FURTHER READING
When I began theological study almost two decades ago, the only
commentaries on John in wide use were those of Bultmann, still in
German, and Brown (vol. 29 of the Anchor Bible, with 29A anxiously
awaited until 1970)..But that was before HERMENEIA and especially the
magisterial commentary by E. Haenchen cited above. It is extremely
comprehensive with a bibliography of more than 3,000 reference works
and even more notes, valuable overviews at the end of each section and
helpful introductions that include a superb 19-page survey of modern
criticism of the Gospel of John. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS COMMENTARY to
users of LEXEGETE!
Exegete - David Buehler
LEXEGETE © 2008