We all know John’s third chapter. Most every child raised in a religious context memorizes John 3:16 and we know that this is the chapter in which we are told we need to be born again, and we pretty much all know how that happens as well. We have been enlightened beyond poor Nicodemus, who asked disbelievingly Surely a man cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born! But do we really know what John 3 means to tell us? Do we understand how John 3 fits into the narrative that John is painting for us? In this posting I propose a journey of sorts which aims to arrive at John 3 by way of John 1 and 2. I want to pay attention to the way John develops his story and how he gets to Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus in the third chapter. In doing so I hope we can be reminded of nuances in the born again discourse of John 3 that we could easily miss by reading it as an isolated incident.
John 1:1 In the beginning
echoes Genesis 1:1 and alerts us that John intends to tell a story of (re)creation. There is a story of reality that we have misunderstood and John wishes to shed new light on our current existence with the help of an old story. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... Through Him all things were made In Genesis we find a phrase that is repeated time and again “God said ‘Let there be...’ and there was...” This Word that John is talking about is God’s Word by which all things were created at the origin of all things. It is God’s Word creating all things, and creating life. John goes on to say In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. We had the original light pouring illumination into our lives, but we didn’t get it. We confused all kinds of other things and people (prophets, John the Baptist, religious structures and creeds? etc.,) with the light, but we did not understand the light when it shone on us.
Then The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. God, Yahweh, the one whose name could not be mentioned because the Name was far too holy - this God, this Yahweh, became flesh, became one of us, and lived and walked among us. This is earth-shattering news. The impossible has happened. The Holy, which heretofore had resulted in instantaneous death when not properly respected, has touched the mundane, has lived with us, and walked with us, and shared food and drink with us, and we live to tell the story. What can this mean? This introduction gives us the foundation of John’s gospel.
John’s first stories make it clear that everything has changed. John the Baptist is asked if he is the Christ, and he says no. He is just a nameless voice in the wasteland crying out for the way of the Lord to be prepared. Expectations are not met. The one who looks like he might be the Messiah is not the One. In fact, He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. Things are turned around. The one who comes later is first. The one who we think looks like the Christ is a nameless voice in a wasteland, while the true Christ is ignored, until He can be ignored no longer, then He will be crucified.
Impetuous Simon who bends with every breeze, the one who makes sure that when he gets anything into his head he gets it out into the open quickly, before he has a chance to think better of it, is renamed Peter, which means Rock. What is more dangerous than a Rock careening wildly about, ricocheting back and forth with complete unpredictability? And yet Jesus later says “On this Rock I will build my church”. Nathanael says Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? John intends to show us that the only hope of the entire world comes from Nazareth.
When Jesus is calling his disciples he tells them I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels if God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. This quotation recalls Jacob’s experience when he is running for his life from his brother’s justice. To this point in Jacob’s story we have not seen him do anything but lie and cheat, with the complicity of his mother, and now his brother has vowed to kill him. Now Jacob may be a liar and a cheat, but he is no fool, so he hightails it out of there, finds a place to sleep with only a pillow for a stone. I think I’d have nightmares, too, if I had a stone for a pillow, but Jacob’s dream really puts the fear of God in him. He sees a stairway that rests on earth and reaches into heaven. Yahweh stands above it, and angels are going up and down the ladder. Now remember, Jacob does not know Jesus. For all of the human desires to know God and be like God, the gods are also dangerous, and best kept at a safe distance. It is good to have God on your side, but it is also good to keep a safe distance from God lest God turn and consume you (Dt 4:24 For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God). And Jacob has reason to worry about a holy God since he is, after all, running for his life because of his cheating ways. In his dream God promises to follow him where ever he goes. Is that a promise or a threat? When Jacob wakes up he is thoroughly afraid, saying “God is here and I had no idea! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven!” He makes an altar of his pillow stone, and then he magnanimously promises God that if God does go with him on his journey, and brings him back to his father’s house safely, he will give God 1/10 of all that God gives him. That is a wonderful thing to hear from a cheat. I am sure God was thrilled.
So why does Jesus make reference to this story? What is so significant about Jacob’s ladder? It is about who Yahweh is, and where Yahweh is to be found. For Jacob the ladder represented a place where Earth and Yahweh connected, and it was an awesome place, a frightening place. It was a place one did best to make tracks away from. It might be a good place for making deals with a Deity, but it was not a good place to live.
Jesus, the Word become flesh, tells us that he is the ladder. The Word become flesh and making his dwelling among us means that all of life has become sacred. The Holy touching the mundane does not profane the Holy. It sanctifies the mundane. So now everywhere is God’s place, and since God makes his dwelling among us, there is no special place on earth where we must go to connect with God, and there is no place we can go to get away from God. Does that make a difference in our theology?
Two more stories before we get to John 3. First, Jesus goes to a wedding party and turns water into wine. Fine wine. Not just any wine, Jesus makes the best wine, and then wastes it on those who have already had too much to drink and are unable to appreciate the vintage.
The other story is the only story in which Jesus becomes rambunctiously troublesome. He walks about in the temple, sees merchants taking unfair advantage of his beloved sheep, and (much to my pacifist non-violent consternation) he braids a whip to drive them out of his Father’s house. The bawling and the bleating and the hollering that ensued as animals and vendors were driven out of the temple area must have been a thing to behold. How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! How dare you use my Father’s house as a place where you turn things to your own advantage? It’s a good thing we never do that, right?
Now we come to John 3.
Nicodemus is a man of the Pharisees and he comes to Jesus by night. He enunciates a recognition of Jesus a teacher who comes from God, a recognition that Nicodemus premises on the miracles that Jesus has been doing. Jesus responds I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. Why? What does this response mean? Why does Jesus mention the kingdom of God? Nicodemus question is “What do you mean ‘born again’?”
Jesus responds I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Water and the Spirit may recall John’s baptism of water for repentance, and John’s statement that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit (1:33). Repentance is an important part of a changed life, but repentance alone will not change a life. For a life to be radically changed requires something more. It could be argued that the form of genuine repentance that is part of a radical life change is also possible only on the basis of an act of God such as Jesus indicates by everyone born of the Spirit. Water and Spirit are then not two different events, but a singular event with several integral component aspects. To be born of flesh and Spirit means one has life that is more than just physical life. “Born from above” may be a better translation than is “born again”. This is insinuated by Jesus’ analogy of the wind. We don’t know where the wind comes from, or where it is going, but we know it is. We recognize its effects, and we know how to read the signs, and we know when the wind is blowing, even if we know neither its origin nor its end.
In a similar way, the one who is born again, or born from above, is one who knows how to read the signs of our mundane world with a frame of reference that is rooted in the Holy. Life is not just a body with functional lungs and a beating heart, it is a gift of God. Life is not just an ongoing physical process, it is a miracle that gives evidence that God is here. We neither determine the genesis and the processes of life, nor can we adequately define it. We may not know when life begins, and are not always certain when it ends, but as long as life is, we know God is here. We cannot always be certain what constitutes a reading of mundane life that is rooted in the Holy, but we know there is such a thing, and we yearn to explore it more fully, to experience it more vitally, and we begin to recognize that the experience of the Holy is itself a taste of the eternal life, the gift which is God sending His One and Only Son.
We do not define the new birth, and we do not determine how it functions. The new birth is an act of God, and it passes understanding. We see its effects, and we should learn to recognize its signs, but we should not become unduly distracted by how well it accommodates itself to our accustomed definitions. We should celebrate the new life where ever we see it, and when we do so we will begin to appreciate it enough to look for it in unexpected places. Who knows, if we really get carried away with this we might even find ourselves hob-nobbing with prostitutes and tax collectors. It’s happened before.