Interpretation 3

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  Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002

    In John 3, the reader should understand almost immediately that John's comments upon the life and actions of Jesus is theology--Christian theology. Thus, one can understand why the baptism by water (John the Baptist's) must become baptism by Spirit, why physical, first birth must become spiritual, second birth, and why the Son of Man in the world must become the Son of God in heaven in 3.13:

[Even] the Son of man, who is in heaven. Jesus speaks of himself as being present in heaven, because his divine nature was in constant communication with the powers of heaven. If we conceive of heaven as a locality (a proper conception), Jesus was upon the earth; but if we conceive of it as a present communion with the presence of God (also a proper conception), then Christ was in heaven as he talked with Nicodemus (John 8:29).

http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/TheFourfoldGospel/

Or consider further:

Jesus distinguishes teaching about earthly things from teaching about heavenly things (3:12). It seems strange to call the topics of divine begetting and entrance into the kingdom of God earthly! But they are earthly in the sense that they refer to the effects of divine activity here on earth. He immediately goes on to speak of the heavenly things, that is, the heavenly source behind this divine activity on earth. These heavenly things have to do with Jesus himself as the Son of Man who came from heaven (3:13). In the Synoptics Son of Man is used of Jesus as a human being on earth, as the future judge and as the one coming in glory. In John, Jesus is indeed on earth and is certainly human (1:14); but the future has entered the present, and already on earth judgment takes place through the presence and revelation of the Son of Man. Already he is glorified, though it is on the cross. Therefore the Son of Man sayings in John refer to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. Schnackenburg 1980a:529-42; Moloney 1978; Lindars 1983:145-57). The term itself obviously speaks of a human, perhaps even of a representative human (cf. Pamment 1985), yet because the Son of Man comes from heaven and exercises divine prerogatives (cf. comment on 5:27) he also shares in divinity. Thus the term is a complex one, speaking to Jesus' deity and his humanity (cf. Marshall 1992:780-81). 

IVP http://bible.gospelcom.net/

Finally, too, the earthly kingdom must become the kingdom of God. The cumulative, total effect of the several parallels in John identifies  Jesus as Christ.

    That Jesus is Christ reveals itself through John's structure and through John's commentary. Nicodemus' first words are "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God" (2). Jesus' reply points immediately away from the physical to spiritual reality: " unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3). The reply has also used a simile making physical birth parallel to spiritual birth, the only way one can explain what is not seen in terms of what is seen. Water and spirit must also be understood as parallel structure: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God."

Jesus explains being born from above in terms of being born of water and the Spirit (3:5). The water of baptism and the coming of the Spirit have already been associated in this Gospel (1:31-33), and cleansing by water and new life from the Spirit were already associated with one another in the Old Testament, especially in Ezekiel 36:25-28:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

What follows in Ezekiel is the vision of the valley of dry bones in which the Spirit's restoration of the people is described as bringing the dead to life (chap. 37). What is needed is a new heart and a new life; that is, the Spirit must give birth to spirit (Jn 3:7). Only those alive in the realm of the spirit by the Spirit will be able to recognize and enter that realm.

Net Bible http://bible.gospelcom.net/

What follows in verse 5 illustrates clearly that what is parallel must be understood on two levels: That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Interestingly, to explain the invisibility of Spirit, a physical element invisible to the naked eye is used: The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit" (8). Nicodemus, who represents the religious establishment, himself a Pharisee, evidences a complete inability to understand the spiritual:  "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" (12), an inability Christianity interprets as the plight of human beings unaided by grace. The means by which the heavenly and earthly are to be connected, the Jacob's ladder, is the descending and ascending Christ:

13 No one has ascended into heaven but 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.

Yet another parallelism exists: physical life, spiritual life. The very purpose of Jesus' being in the world is the Christ mission: 17 "For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." Two worlds, the old and new, are contrasted in the "Moses lifted up the serpent," and the "Son of man...lifted up." Furthermore, the old world is a world of judgment; the new world is a world of grace: 17" For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."

    One can rightly ask what it is that prevents receptivity to grace, and John provides the answer:

18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.

21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.

Here, the parallelism of light and darkness breaks down, because the Son of God as light has entered into the world; the judgment is one of human choice: not believing, loving darkness rather than light, the light exposing evil deeds. Nonetheless, God has provided grace:  "John answered, 'No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven'" (27). Clearly, the descending of Christ as light is God's grace extended to humans, and without this initiating move on God's part, all would be left in a state of unbelief and darkness.

    When controversy breaks out about who Jesus is in relation to John, John points to his role of witness-bearer and to the revelation of Light from God within the world:

28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.

29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full.

30 He must increase, but I must decrease."

31 He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth belongs to the earth, and of the earth he speaks; he who comes from heaven is above all.

32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony;

33 he who receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.

34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit;

35 the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand.

36 He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.

John speaks definitively,  "He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth belongs to the earth, and of the earth he speaks; he who comes from heaven is above all" (31). Earth and heaven are parallel, so to speak, and eternally separate without the intervention of God. Such has always been the description of grace: that is, of ourselves we can do nothing to overcome the gulf, not purifying rituals and not deeds. The responsive heart opens to admit "he who comes from above" and "is above all." This clearly is Christianity's exalted Christ.

    Earlier (11), as Jesus reminds Nicodemus that he is a religious leader yet does not understand spiritual matters, John's theology reveals itself in the monologue attributed to Jesus:

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?

The IVP Commentary picks up on the use of "I' and "we," explaining it as the voice of Jesus and that of the early Christian church:

As Nicodemus fades from view we have Jesus' first monologue. He begins by referring to his testimony: 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 (3:11). These words echo what the Johannine Christians say to their Jewish opponents in John's own day. The striking use of I and we seems to be an example of the voice of the risen Christ speaking as the head of the community of those who have received the Spirit and bear witness (cf. 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11). The we know of a ruler of the Jews (3:2) is countered by the we know of the Lord of the Christians.

Christianity, of course, must wrestle with the theological complexity of Jesus as human and Jesus as God:

Jesus distinguishes teaching about earthly things from teaching about heavenly things (3:12). It seems strange to call the topics of divine begetting and entrance into the kingdom of God earthly! But they are earthly in the sense that they refer to the effects of divine activity here on earth. He immediately goes on to speak of the heavenly things, that is, the heavenly source behind this divine activity on earth. These heavenly things have to do with Jesus himself as the Son of Man who came from heaven (3:13). In the Synoptics Son of Man is used of Jesus as a human being on earth, as the future judge and as the one coming in glory. In John, Jesus is indeed on earth and is certainly human (1:14); but the future has entered the present, and already on earth judgment takes place through the presence and revelation of the Son of Man. Already he is glorified, though it is on the cross. Therefore the Son of Man sayings in John refer to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. Schnackenburg 1980a:529-42; Moloney 1978; Lindars 1983:145-57). The term itself obviously speaks of a human, perhaps even of a representative human (cf. Pamment 1985), yet because the Son of Man comes from heaven and exercises divine prerogatives (cf. comment on 5:27) he also shares in divinity. Thus the term is a complex one, speaking to Jesus' deity and his humanity (cf. Marshall 1992:780-81).

What needs to be grasped is the kingdom of God in divine activity on earth!

 

Nicodemus Visits Jesus

 

3 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 judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  20 For 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.” †

 

 

Jesus and John the Baptist

 

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized.  23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized  24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. †  26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven.  28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, † but I have been sent ahead of him.’  29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled.  30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” †

The One Who Comes from Heaven

31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony.  33 Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified † this, that God is true.  34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.  35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands.  36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

      Put yourself in the place of perplexed Sanhedrist Nicodemus.  He has all of his life studied and practiced his faith; he now takes a compromising step to come to Jesus, the Galilean, to ask him what it is he is teaching about the kingdom of God.  And Jesus answers him directly: the kingdom of God is not that which can be seen or experienced physically, but rather, he who is to see the kingdom of God must be born from above, born not of flesh or blood, but spirit. In Jewish thought, to be newly born carries with it the sense of new departures: the bridegroom on his marriage, the Chief of the Academy on his promotion, the Gentile on becoming a proselyte. As Edersheim carefully points out, for the pious Jew, one takes up the kingdom and becomes, as it were in simile, newly born; Jesus teaches, however, that the second birth is not a consequence but the very condition of taking up the kingdom. Both Nicodemus and Jesus are concerned with the kingdom, but their expectations of it are different. For Jesus, before one can take up the cause of the kingdom, spiritual birth is critical; for Nicodemus, taking up the kingdom results in the simile of a new perspective. For Nicodemus, thought is of one world only, the natural and physical; for Jesus, the material world is the possibility of manifest spirit. Even Jewish thinkers thought Moses to have ascended to heaven in order to bring the mystery of commandment to humankind; for Jesus, God incarnate, the mystery has come down to the human being. To know before believing?  To believe in order to know? To be a new being, one must be restored from death even as the brazen serpent is not death but dead death! Through that which brings death (serpent, cross), the living shall be restored. 

     As I've already argued, John, more completely than the Synoptics parallels the material/physical and ideal/spiritual worlds mediated only by rebirth. Jesus says to Nicodemus, 3, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus translates this to the physical world: 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?" Jesus immediately cuts to the point: 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.” He effectively says to Nicodemus, this is not about flesh; this is about spirit. Is it really so hard, Jesus asks of Nicodemus, to believe in what you cannot see? 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, `You must be born anew.'8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." But Nicodemus persists; 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can this be?" Jesus chides Nicodemus: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” The effect of the question is Nicodemus, how can you be so wise and yet not understand this most simple of truths?  12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? Of the earthly,  recall that Jesus illustrated with a common metaphor: the wind which blows and is not seen. Next, though, Jesus responds compassionately:

13 No one has ascended into heaven but 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."

No one can possibly understand this mystery unless it be revealed from heaven. And this is exactly the mission and purpose of embodied God-ship: 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. The condition of the human heart, though, is, as Jesus has already observed, a willed lack of understanding: 9 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.

21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. The kingdom of God translates to light, a light rejected for the human domain of darkness and prolonged ignorance.

John, once again, is the theologian, understanding the implication and meaning of the acts of Jesus, not simply recording them. It is hardly an accident that John 3.16 is commonly referred to as the kernel of Christianity:

The heart of John's message is summed up in the justly famous sixteenth verse, which declares that the Son of Man's coming down from heaven and being lifted on the cross is the activity of God himself, of his gracious love, the love that gives. As Jesus will declare clearly at the end of his teaching, summing up his revelation, "the Father himself loves you" (16:27).

Intervarsity Press Commentary http://bible.gospelcom.net/

   In John, Jesus now enacts the baptism of John as symbolizing new life. 22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized. Did Jesus need to baptize? Reading John and Luke together helps readers to understand the point being debated is what baptism signifies:

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.

23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized.

24 For John had not yet been put in prison.

25 Now a discussion arose between John's disciples and a Jew over purifying.

26 And they came to John, and said to him, "Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him."

In Luke, it becomes clear that for followers of John and Jesus, the issue has become critical choice:

 8 Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him; and he asked them, "Who do the people say that I am?"

19 And they answered, "John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others, that one of the old prophets has risen."

20 And he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, "The Christ of God."

John has paved the way, but he is not himself the Christ. As remarked on in the Net Bible Notes, scholars dispute chronology and theology in this baptizing and “ceremonial washing”:

sn (3:25) What was the controversy concerning ceremonial washing? It is not clear. Some have suggested that it was over the relative merits of the baptism of Jesus and John. But what about the ceremonial nature of the washing? There are so many unanswered questions here that even R. E. Brown (who does not usually resort to dislocations in the text as a solution to difficulties) proposes that this dialogue originally took place immediately after 1:19-34 and before the wedding at Cana. (Why else the puzzled hostility of the disciples over the crowds coming to Jesus?) Also, the synoptics imply John was imprisoned before Jesus began his Galilean ministry. At any rate, there is no reason to rearrange the material here--it occurs in this place for a very good reason.

Theologically, John makes good sense to see Jesus as superior to John, to see Jesus’ baptism superior to ceremonial washing, to see being born from above (of God) as superior to repenting:

As far as the author is concerned, it serves as a further continuation of the point made to Nicodemus, that is, the necessity of being born "from above" (3:3). Note that John the Baptist describes Jesus as "the one who comes from heaven" in 3:31 (a[nwqen [anwqen], same word as in 3:3). There is another lexical tie to preceding material: ceremonial washing (3:25), the subject of the dispute, calls to mind the six stone jars of water changed to wine at the wedding feast in 2:6, put there for "Jewish ceremonial washing."  (Net Bible)

Structurally, once again, John controls his writing:

This section ultimately culminates and concludes ideas begun in chap. 2 and continued in chap. 3. Although the author does not supply details, one scenario would be this: The disciples of John, perplexed after this disagreement with an individual Jew (or with the Jewish authorities), came to John and asked about the fact that Jesus was baptizing and more and more were coming to him. John had been preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin (see Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). Possibly what the Jew(s) reported to John's disciples was that Jesus was not setting aside the Jewish purification rituals as unnecessary. To John's disciples this might also be interpreted as: (a) a falling away from Judaism, and (b) a break with John's own teaching. That Jesus could have said this is very evident from many incidents in his ministry in all the Gospels. The thrust would be that outward cleansing (that is, observance of purification rituals) was not what made a person clean. A new heart within (that is, being born from above) is what makes a person clean. (Net Bible)

This interpretation supports my argument that the ministry of Jesus is about effecting the Kingdom of God: the truth that spiritually one begins to participate in God’s kingdom at the moment one receives what is divinely offered, and not offered sparingly.” 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit.” If for John the Baptist, repentance required an active turning away from a former way, then the baptism by Jesus empowers a new life, the new Way.

So John's disciples came to him troubled about an apparent contradiction in doctrine though the explicit problem they mentioned is that Jesus was baptizing and multitudes were coming to him. (Whether Jesus was or was not baptizing really wasn't the issue though, and John the Baptist knew that because he didn't mention it in his reply. In 4:2 the author says that Jesus was not baptizing, but his disciples. That reference would seem to cover this incident as well, and so the disciples of John are just reporting what they have heard, or thought they heard.) The real point at issue is the authority of Jesus to "overturn" the system of ritual purification within Judaism. John replied to this question of the authority of Jesus in 3:27-36. In 3:27-30 he reassured his disciples, reminding them that if more people were coming to Jesus, it did not threaten him at all, because "heaven" had ordained it to be so (v. 27). (After all, some of these very disciples of John had presumably heard him tell the Jewish delegation that he was not the Messiah but was sent before him, mentioned in John 1.) Net Bible