Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus 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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.
What I am Learning:
Nicodemus is not a name. It is two words schmushed together: “nike” and “demos.”
Nike was the Roman goddess of victory – usually the victory of the Romans over some colonized people.
Demos is a Greek word for “the people.”
Together it might mean something like Victory of the People. Of course the Romans claimed that their victories were victories not only for them but victories for those they conquered. This is excellent propaganda and of course a total lie!
So why would John make up a name like this for a member of the Sanhedrin, a member of the Judean ruling elite? I think it was a way of saying that the domination culture of the Roman Empire was infecting the Judean leadership. This person had been in this bullying culture for so long that he had forgotten about the Spirit’s capacity to shake things up.
Everyone, even those toward the top of a bullying culture, wish for something different. The Judean ruling elites were in a pretty bad situation: they knew they were collaborating with oppression of their people but if they fought back they could be killed very easily.
Jesus suggests that God’s way of freeing people for a new way to live is to give “birth to them from above.”
Let’s pull this apart for a minute.
First, birth is something that happens to us. We don’t really chose to be born.
Second, to be born from above means that God works in our lives in such a way that we remember we are God’s children. Perhaps it would be better to say that in this re-birth God re-members us. God puts us back together. No other category or status really matters when God reminds us that we are God’s children. A bullying culture tells us that we only have worth to the degree we have status or power. But the Spirit, who blows where it will, has the power to remind us who we are, and who our sisters and brothers are.
Third, ancient Jews believed that the Spirit is present at every birth – giving the breath of life to each person just as it was given to the first man and the first woman. Birth and its accompanying first breath are events of the Spirit.
Fourth, this birth from above means that we are given a whole different view of the world. This is what the whole “flesh” and “Spirit” thing is about in this text.
The word “flesh” (the Greek word sarx) does not refer to our bodies or to the created world. It refers to the worldview of domination that enslaved humans, human bodies, and the earth. The word “spirit” here has to do with God’s power to restore human beings to a worldview of mutuality – what Jesus called the reign of God.
Of course, the reign of God is not something that we can claim to own, understand perfectly or to embody fully.
As Martin Luther said, “We pray that God’s kingdom may come among us.”
The reign of God is something that we, by the gift of God, are becoming oriented to. We may have a long journey to embody it in our lives, but we are moving toward it.
Lastly, this passage again uses the word “world.” Look at the previous week for some conversation about how to interpret this word.
In John we see two uses of the word “world”:
- The creation which includes humans and human cultures
- The domination culture or worldview of Roman society
When Jesus tells disciples that they are “sent in to the world” or “for God so loved the world” and so on, Jesus is using the word in the first way: to refer to all of creation including human cultures.
When Jesus tells disciples that “they do not belong to the world” or tells Pontius Pilate “if my followers were from this world” Jesus is using the word in the second way: to refer to a worldview that is against God’s intention for human beings.
In John Jesus is the “word” through which all things are created. The author is saying that Jesus faithfully expresses or embodies the way God is, God’s character and therefore the humanity that God intended by creating us.
Whole message of John is summed up in these verses from the first chapter.
John 1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
12,13 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Even if we are also held captive by a worldview of domination, of winners and losers, of bullies and the bullied, of dominance and submission, the Spirit blows where it will, re-birthing us back to the fullness of humanity revealed in Jesus.
Re-member us, re-birth us O God!