John 3 – Nicodemus: The Best Dialogue Plato Never Wrote

John 3 Bible with Simple Truth Organic 71 percent Cacao Baobab Dark Chocolate
As you can see, my dad has taken copious margin notes on John 3:16. In today’s post we will be touching on virtually none of them.

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Today’s PassageJohn 3

Ah, the third chapter of John: home to the favorite verse of sports fans everywhere! If you’ve ever gone to a football game or channel-surfed for more than ten seconds (remember television?), you’ve doubtless seen the “John 3:16” signs in the crowds, pointing sports enthusiasts to perhaps the most concise statement of the gospel in all scripture. You’ll find this verse situated in the midst of a covert dialogue between Jesus and a powerful Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus has questions, and Jesus has answers.

And Nicodemus has more questions in response, because dang if Jesus’ answers don’t seem unnecessarily cryptic.

Nicodemus doesn’t lead with a question, though. He simply acknowledges Jesus’ favor with God as a teacher. It’s Jesus who drops the idea of being born again into the conversation, saying, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3). It seems like a non-sequitur at first glance, but I think Jesus is saying, in effect: “You know, no one is in God’s inner circle, as you believe I am, unless he’s undergone this other kind of birth.”

But you can probably already see the problem with my supposition. After all, it entails that Jesus himself had to be “born again” in order to be on the right page with God, and then wouldn’t there be a time where he was on the wrong page with God? It wouldn’t be out of character for Jesus to drop an obtuse remark out of nowhere into the conversation, in order to steer it in the direction he wanted. He frequently leaves his hearers and me alike wondering, “Where did that come from?” But concerning the “again” in the phrase “born again,” the NASB provides an alternate translation: “from above.” Should we understand this other birth not first and foremost as a second birth, but as a heavenly one? I think there may be hope for my hypothesis yet.

So, the Greek word in question is Ἄνωθεν, anóthen, a term replete with meaning. Strong’s Concordance gives three different senses to it: “(a) from above, from heaven, (b) from the beginning, from their origin (source), from of old, (c) again, anew” (Strong’s 509). Taking Jesus to mean the third sense, Nicodemus asks him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” (4). Jesus, though, corrects him, saying, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (5). God only knows how the same word can mean in one context “again” and in another “from heaven,” but Jesus appears to be saying, “I don’t mean a physical, bodily, time-space birth. I mean a birth of water and of the Spirit: a birth of cleansing and new breath.” He’s talking about a non-literal birth, and if there are umbilical cords and placentae involved, they must be similarly non-literal. The birth is a metaphor for being in God’s will and God’s good graces, and Nicodemus is willing to ask a few questions and listen patiently while Jesus explains the metaphor to him.

Some have criticized the gospels for being too critical of the Pharisees. Nicodemus, though, serves as one of the examples that the gospels aren’t painting with too broad a brush. He comes to Jesus acknowledging the divine source of his wisdom and miracles, he readily follows Jesus’ lead in the conversation despite his confusion, and he does nothing but ask questions in order to understand Jesus’ teaching. And Nicodemus isn’t an outlier or a lone exception. Joseph of Arimathea and the scribe from Mark 12 may not have been Pharisees, but like Nicodemus, they hold important positions in the Jewish religious hierarchy, yet show themselves sympathetic to Jesus’ mission and his new way of looking at their faith tradition. And we can confidently count Nicodemus with Gamaliel the Elder and Paul himself as examples of positive pharisaism.

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