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John 3:1-15

Jesus Teaches Nicodemus

     Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

     3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

     4 “How can a person be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

     5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

     9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

     10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

The Gospel of John is different from the other three gospels in a number of ways. Matthew and Luke are understood to have been based on Mark, so they all share a common structure. And John doesn’t have any of the parables or the Beatitudes or other short lessons you find in the other three.

Instead, the Gospel of John includes accounts of long conversations Jesus had with people – conversations that aren’t in the other gospels. And one of the things that makes those conversations so interesting, it seems to me, is that a lot of the time people don’t immediately understand what Jesus is talking about. So Jesus has to explain further to help his listeners wrap their heads around what he’s saying.

To me, that makes these conversations more real. Those of us who were raised as Christians tend to think that everything Jesus said would have been crystal clear, but when you really think about it, his teachings were so different from what people expected that they probably did confuse lots of his listeners.

Today’s reading is the beginning of a famous conversation, one that includes some of the most important ideas Jesus ever spoke. The conversation is between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is identified as a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. So Nicodemus had committed himself to strict obedience of the law of God in the Torah, and he was obviously well-respected by his fellow Jews.

In the story, Nicodemus approaches Jesus very respectfully, acknowledging him as sent by God. But notice that the reason he acknowledges Jesus as sent from God is that he can do miracles. And Jesus seems to reject out of hand the idea that you could really understand the point of his ministry by his miracles. Instead, Jesus takes the conversation in a completely different direction. Our NIV Bible quotes Jesus as saying those famous words, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Now, these are such well-known and widely quoted words that it’s a little uncomfortable to think that they might not accurately express what Jesus meant to say – it certainly demands a careful look.

First of all, the Greek word that’s translated “again” here – as in “born again” – is the Greek word anothen. That Greek word also means “from above.” So which of these two meanings was Jesus trying to express? It’s not uncommon to hear Christians say, ‘Well, Jesus probably meant to say both. He probably meant to say that we should be born again, and born from above.’

That sound good, but there’s a problem. Anothen is a Greek word, and the sayings of Jesus were translated into Greek from the language he spoke, which was Aramaic. And there’s no Aramaic word that means both ‘again’ and ‘from above.’ So almost certainly, Jesus meant one or the other.

And from Nicodemus’ reaction, it seems pretty clear that he understood Jesus to have meant being born again. Nicodemus doesn’t look at the sky and express any puzzlement about coming “from above.” Instead, he thinks back to the circumstances of his first birth – of coming out of his mother’s womb.

But then Jesus goes on to say that everyone experiences physical birth, but only some are awakened to a new life by the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit operates by its own rules, as unpredictably as the wind.

For those who have really immersed themselves in the teachings of the New Testament, this wouldn’t seem as surprising as it seemed to Nicodemus. We understand that the Holy Spirit operates by its own rules, and its actions may seem more-or-less random to our human intellects. We understand our new life in Jesus to be a gift from God’s grace, and that gift is given at different times and under different circumstances to those who find themselves drawn into relationship with God in Jesus.

But of course, Nicodemus was coming out of a religious tradition that had a very different understanding of our relationship with God. The Hebrews understood that you had to be righteous to earn God’s love, and that God was very orderly and predictable. Act righteously, God rewards you with blessing. But the problem is that this mindset winds up regarding God as sort of controllable. Do what the Torah says, and God will give you the blessing you want. In fact – and here’s the real problem with that traditional Hebrew attitude – God will actually owe you blessing.

So, obviously, Jesus would reject that mindset. He tells Nicodemus that as a religious leader of the covenant people, he should recognize that the God of Israel was and is a God who sometimes acts in surprising and unpredictable ways. In Jesus, God has come into the world in human form (certainly a surprising act) and is now is teaching humankind new and unexpected ways to relate to him.

Of course, the most surprising and unexpected part of the story of Jesus would not unfold for some time to come. That would happen later, when the real glory of God would be revealed, not through heavenly armies or the re-establishment of a powerful Israel or even through everyone obeying the Torah – but rather through an act of divine self-sacrifice. Jesus would allow himself to be lifted up on the cross, as Moses had lifted up a bronze snake in the wilderness to save the people from punishment for their sins. The death of Jesus on the cross would rescue everyone who is “born again” to a new life in him.

Let’s pray. Lord, we ask that you would constantly renew our lives by the power of your Spirit. Help us to open our hearts and our minds to that renewing Spirit, and help us to wait with eager expectation for the new and unexpected things you do in us. Amen.

Grace and Peace,

Henry

(The other readings for today are Psalms 27 and 147:1-11; Deuteronomy 9:13-21; and

Hebrews 3:12-19.)