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Exegesis for the Christian Year by Henry Gustafson


Henry A. Gustafson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Theology, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minn. He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M. This article appeared in No Other Foundation , Summer, l998, pp. 5-10. Copyright by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ and used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Gospel for Trinity Sunday: John 3:1-17


This text may be divided into two sections. The first, verses 1-10, is the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The second, verses 11-17, begins as if it were a continuation of that conversation, but then almost immediately proceeds as a monologue through which the Christian community proclaims its gospel to its hearers.

The immediate literary context, including two narratives and two discourses, is dominated by the theme of new life. In the first narrative Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding celebration in Galilee. The sign symbolized the replacement of the old rites of purification by a new messianic salvation (2: 1ff.). His next significant act was his cleansing of the temple. The act was accompanied by his promise to raise up a new temple when the old one was destroyed. This promise was understood in the light of the resurrection (2:22) -- for then it was that the Church of Christ came alive to this new life and by the power of his Spirit was made the temple of God and the house of prayer for all nations (John 20).

These two narratives are followed by two discourses. In the first Jesus tells Nicodemus, a good, pious, wealthy man, a representative of the religious establishment, that he needs to be born from above (3:lff.). In the second, Jesus addresses a woman, a Samaritan, on the periphery of respectability, who represents the wider Gentile world (4: 1ff.). Her need is not simply for water from Jacob’s well, but for the living water which Jesus gives (cf. 7:37-39).

Clear from this literary context is our text’s dominant concern. The old order is yielding place to the new. And the way in which our text contributes to this motif can be gotten at by asking two questions: one, about the appropriate need, or goal of life; and two, about the means to meeting that need, or achieving that goal.

I

With three distinct terms and in five different verses our text speaks. of this need or goal. The terms are "kingdom of God", "eternal life", and "salvation". The first of these terms occurs in vv. 2 and 5, where Nicodemus is told that unless one is born from above one cannot enter the "kingdom of God." The meaning of that term is not defined in this conversation, but its importance is clear both from the way it is introduced and its setting. It comes as an abrupt response to the polite observation of Nicodemus: "You are a teacher come from God..." The gospel writer omits all the social amenities of an oriental visit and zeroes in on the need of Nicodemus.

He came "by night." The possible reasons for his coming at night include: the merit attributed to studying the law at night; the symbolic significance of darkness in this gospel, and the fear of the hostility of some religious leaders toward those who confess faith in Jesus (cf. 12:41; 9:22). Each of these accents the importance of the visit.

He came with a question. It may be presumed that like the "rich, young, ruler" of the Synoptists, he was asking: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responded in effect: "If you want to enter the kingdom of God, you must be born from above." But in the Synoptic gospels we learn that when the rich, young, man rejected Jesus’ advice, Jesus observed: "How difficult it is for those having wealth to enter the kingdom of God: (cf. Mark 10:17-23). Significant for us is the observation that to the Jesus of the Synoptic story, entering the kingdom of God was tantamount to receiving eternal live.

The same can be said regarding the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel. Here the term "kingdom of God," which is dominant in the teaching of Jesus in the Synoptics, is rare, appearing only twice (3:3,5). Instead of "kingdom of God," John’s Jesus usually uses the term "eternal life." It is his equivalent for "kingdom of God." And though eternal life is not explicit in the conversation with Nicodemus, it is found twice in the monologue which extends that conversation into its post-Easter setting. In v. 15 he writes that the Son of Man must be lifted up so "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." In v. 16 he says that God loved "so that everyone who believes...may have eternal life." Clearly, this eternal life is a term by which our text speaks of a goal appropriate not only to Nicodemus, by to all the readers of this gospel.

The third term which this text uses to speak of the goal of life is found in v. 17. "God did...send the Son...in order that the world might be saved through him." Here the metaphor of "salvation" describes that end for which "eternal life" was used in the previous verse. Thus for the Fourth Gospel, being saved, entering the kingdom of God, and having eternal life are all terms identifying the need and goal both of Nicodemus and of the rest of humankind.

Of these three terms, "eternal life" is by far the most common and useful to the evangelist. He declares that his reason for writing this gospel is that his readers may have eternal life (20:31). And in 17:3 he tells them what it means. "This," he writes, "is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." To have eternal life is to know God.

In both Hebrew and Greek the verb "to know" is used not merely for a cerebral knowledge; knowing about something, but for a coming to an immediate sense of that something as affecting oneself. Thus one could "know" illness, childlessness, punishment, peace, a woman, a man. The objects are known not in themselves, but in their actions or effects.

To "know God" in this way means for us as for them to experience God’s presence in our everyday relationships. It means discovering God doing the kind of work disclosed by God’s Word, God’s Son (5:19) -- creating (1:3), life-giving (3:16), judging (3:19). It means finding God in all the experiences and relationships of our lives; in our "world making"; in creative occasions of giving birth to a child, to a painting, to a poem, to a sermon, in sustaining events of eating a meal, cleaning a house, recycling our refuse, providing jobs, maintaining friendships; in experiences of judgment because of our reliance upon destructive weapons, because of our loss of integrity; and in redemptive relationships wherein we experience forgiveness, renewal, and peace. In all such events, whether pleasant or painful, one may relate to God at work, and if one does, one can be said to "know God" -- who to know is eternal life.

II

What our text offers in answer to the probable question of Nicodemus (i.e., "What must I do to inherit eternal life?") are materials which spell out both divine action and human response.

The divine action is apparent from the beginning. Nicodemus is told that if he wanted to reach the goal of life he had to "be born from above." The verb, "be born" is in the passive voice. It is to be the object of another’s action. It was not something that Nicodemus could do, but something that must be done to him.

Moreover, as the adverb indicates he must be born "from above." The adverb is ambiguous. It could be translated "again." And clearly that is the way Nicodemus first understood it, as a "second time" (v. 4). As if the only way to find the true goal of life was to start all over again, but in this text it is not being "born again," but being born "from above," i.e. being "born of God," that really matters (cf. 1:12).

In verse five this is made more clear. To be born from above "is to born of ‘water and Spirit."’ The meaning of water is debated. But to the readers of John’s Gospel its reference to Christian baptism would have been strong. Baptism included a group of experiences which were associated with an entrance into the Christian life. These included repentance, faith, forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit, and acceptance into the body of Christ. The reference to Spirit in v. 5 singles out a particularly important aspect of Christian baptism. Nicodemus was being told that what he needed was not simply to be born again or a second time, but to be made alive by the life-giving Spirit.

If one asks how this divine birthing works (female image), the Gospel writer says it is a mystery. The work of the Spirit is like the movement of the wind. The words "wind," "blows," and "sound," respectively, in v. 8, may be translated "Spirit," "breathes," and "voice." Using these alternatives the text reads: "The Spirit breathes where it wills, and you hear its voice, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes." In this translation the mystery of this birth experience is joined with the affirmation that it is a divine work. When in openness to the work of God’s Spirit one allows God’s love for the world to reshape attitudes and actions, then one is born, not simply again, but "from

above," and to eternal life.

Accordingly, to be born from above does not indicate some metaphysical change, not some idea of divine generation, characteristic of Hellenistic circles of thought. Rather, it is a relational change in which the Spirit of God is at work.

This present activity of God’s Spirit is related to that which had been revealed in Jesus Christ. In the monologue we hear of the Christians’ witness to that which they had seen (vv. 11ff.). They had seen the Son of Man "lifted up" (v. 15). This one who had descended (v. 13), who had humbled himself, was "lifted up," first, upon a cross (12:33), being obedient to the point of death, and then into glory (cf. Phil. 2:5ff.). His being "lifted up" (hypsothenai) was used both for his crucifixion and his exaltation. His passion was his glory. His cross was seen as God’s act of love for the world (v. 16). In it Christians saw both his descension and ascension, his coming from and his going to the Father (13:1).

The significance of this as an act of love is declared but not developed in v. 16. A later text, which holds parallel references to Christ’s descension and ascension, draws the picture more fully. In 13:3-35 the author writes that "Jesus, knowing . . . that he had come from God and was going to God. . . girded himself with a towel . . . and began to wash the disciples' feet." There, and in the interpretations which follow, it is made clear that, motivated by love, he had come to serve, to give himself for others, and to enable others, who have received his gift, to follow his example. By their love everyone would know that they were his disciples.

These divine gifts of Son and Spirit call for a human response. That response is faith. This is implicit in the dialogue with Nicodemus when the birth from above is linked to Christian baptism (v. 5). That birth was not something which Nicodemus by himself could bring about: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." But in submitting to baptism one in repentance and faith opened up to the work of God’s Spirit.

This necessary response of faith becomes explicit in the monologue. There, though the noun, "faith," is never used, the readers are invited to believe in the Son or in his name (vv: 15, 16, 18). That believing meant not only acknowledging the Son as the revealer of God and the divine will (1:18), but also accepting him as the Lord of one’s life.

It soon becomes apparent that this response to God’s saving activity is, in part, not only the means of achieving the goal of Nicodemus and other humans. It is itself the realization of that goal. For this believing is a way of knowing. To believe in Jesus Christ and in the God whom he discloses is "to know God and his Son Jesus Christ," and this is eternal life. This imaginative faith helps to effect the transition into a new perspective on life, into a new way of relating, and of thinking, and of knowing, and of living. Thus "believing" becomes both the means to life and the life itself, and is in part an answer to the question of every Nicodemus.

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