Holy Trinity · John 3:1-17 · June 7, 2009
By Jeffrey Kloha
This text is perhaps too familiar to the typical hearer. Phrases like “born again,” “the Son of Man will be lifted up,” “God so loved the world . . .” may well wash right over the congregation and not sink in to challenge them in the way that Jesus challenges Nicodemus. A few comments on key phrases may help refocus hearers on the text itself.
“Born again/from above” (3:3, 7)
The Greek anothen can have either meaning (hence the Concordia Seminary motto: phos anothen = “Light from Above”). By his response, Nicodemus misunderstands this to mean “again.” But Jesus points him to a different meaning: birth “by water and the Spirit.” Already at 1:12-13, the Evangelist describes those who “received” Jesus as not having been “born of the flesh” but “born from God.” The point is not that there is a “second” birth, but that there is a difference between a birth brought about by humans and a birth brought about by God through his Spirit. The former accomplishes nothing, but the latter brings one into the Kingdom of God. “Born again” in American Christianity typically means “really Christian” as opposed to a more Johannine sense of “Christian.” For the sake of clarity it may be necessary to point this out.
“Water and the Spirit” (3:4)
Here is a classic Johannine conundrum: Jesus says something that likely has no meaning to his listeners, but tremendous significance for those who are reading the Evangelist’s text. In chapter 6, when Jesus says: “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood,” the audience in the gospel can hardly make sense of it. The lack of a Lord’s Supper narrative and the fact that this occurs in a context far removed from Jesus’ passion would not give any of the characters in the story any clue as to Jesus’ meaning. Nevertheless, for the recipients of John’s gospel, the passage cannot fail to evoke the Lord’s Supper. So also here in chapter 3. Various explanations have been given in order to avoid a sacramental understanding of “water and the spirit,” but here is one case, in spite of its frequent abuse by modern Lutheran preachers, where “water” actually does reference Baptism. The point of “by water and the spirit,” of course, is not to make baptism the exclusive means by which the Spirit creates “children of God,” but that for the readers/hearers of John’s gospel, it served as a reminder to them that they themselves had already been born from above through the waters of baptism. The preacher should allow it to function in the same way for his hearers.
Structure of the Pericope
What does Jesus’ answer have to do with Nicodemus’ statement (3:2)? Nothing, and everything. Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as “from God” because of the signs, but Jesus shifts the focus from what he has been doing in the signs to what the Spirit does (3:3-8) and then to what Jesus speaks (3:11) and came to accomplish (3:14, 16). The invoking of the Bronze Serpent account in Numbers 21 shows that only through God’s chosen means are his people saved. Only by Jesus does birth “from above” happen, for he alone came “from above.” Furthermore, the flow of the discourse moves from the work of God in the individual (“unless one” . . . “the one who believes” 3:1-15) to his work for all of creation (“loved the world” 3:16—17). Unfortunately, the lection ends at 3:17; the pericope should have been allowed to continue to 3:21, where the consequences of both belief and unbelief are made clear. Indeed, reading 3:16-17 without 18-20 may leave the impression that Jesus is a universalist; God loves the world, but it is not clear without w. 18—20 that those in the world are condemned apart from faith in Christ. Furthermore, without v. 21 the hearers may also get the false impression that faith does not result in new life, as if, for example, Jesus commanded his church only to “baptize” but not also to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20). The preacher is encouraged to incorporate 3:18-21 into the Gospel reading and the sermon. Such will be assumed in the notes below.
Suggested sermon focus
Is that all? Most all of us have had an experience where we have seen or met in person a sports hero, Hollywood star, or political figure, but have been left unimpressed. The person was not as large, beautiful, or friendly as we had thought he or she would be. With Jesus it seems to be the opposite. Our culture has taken him down a few notches: His miracles are explained away, some claim that his teachings are not really that unique or profound, there are many other religious teachers in the world who might be followed to reach “heaven.” Nicodemus approaches Jesus assuming the latter. He gives what he apparently thinks is a generous and profound interpretation of Jesus’ work. But it was not enough. Jesus did not merely have God with him – he was the Son of God come to down earth. And he would be lifted up, so that anyone who would look to him – and only to him — would be saved.
But this saving act of God—lifting up the Son of Man on the cross and giving new life from above by water and the Spirit so that we may have “eternal life” does not mean that all we do is wait around to be “taken into heaven,” not caring what we do or do not do. We have been born from above to “do the truth.” Our deeds (ta erga) show that we are in the light, indeed, they have been done in the light because they are done through the one who is above – they are literally “done in God” (3:21). Life in Christ is not some kind of Gnostic existence where we merely attain some kind of knowledge, but a life lived “from above” is often fundamentally different from the lives of those who have not been born from above— they do “wicked things.” Preachers may be tempted to use this as an opportunity to blast away at whatever current societal problem is in the news, but the goal of Jesus in this text is to move his born-from-above people to confident living in him, by his power, focusing on him as the one lifted up, in whom we “do the truth.”