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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:
Or consider further:
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."
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Christianity, of course, must wrestle with the theological complexity of Jesus as human and Jesus as God:
What needs to be grasped is the kingdom of God in divine activity on earth!
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
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?”
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. †
not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You † must be born from above.’ †
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?
“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.
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. †
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. †
“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.
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.
this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved
darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
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.” †
and John the Baptist
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he
spent some time there with them and baptized.
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.” †
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.
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:
No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."
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.
For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light,
lest his deeds should be exposed.
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.
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
It is hardly an accident that John 3.16 is commonly referred to as the kernel of Christianity:
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:
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he
remained with them and baptized.
John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there;
and people came and were baptized.
For John had not yet been put in prison.
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."
Luke, it becomes clear that for followers of John and Jesus, the issue
has become critical choice:
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?"
And they answered, "John the Baptist; but others say, Elijah; and others,
that one of the old prophets has risen."
And he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter
answered, "The Christ of God."
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
(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.
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:
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)
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