June 3rd: “Born Anew”

Nicodemus went to Jesus to seek help, but ended up with more questions than answers. How can I be born over? If I cannot tell from whence the wind/Spirit comes, how am I to be born of it? Who is the Son of Man?
Question for discussion: How has the cross, and not the reader’s decision, been the source of transformation?

This Week’s Passage: John 3:1-17

I. Establish the text

C. Other texts for Year B, Trinity Sunday

D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?

1 Frequently Jesus’ ministers to those who are weak, but here Jesus ministers to the mighty.

2a Why does Nicodemus come at night? To hide from others? Because of darkness in his own soul? How do we come to Jesus?

2b Nicodemus tells Jesus that he has come to learn from a recognized authority. Although Nicodemus does not tell what it is he has come to learn, and perhaps he does not concisely know. Do we truly know what it is that God must teach us?

3 To what implied question does Jesus respond? Is it: “Are these miracles of the Kingdom of God”?

4 Can an old dog be taught new tricks? Can life-long sinners be saved and taught to live within the law?

5 Does Jesus refer to the waters of baptism or to amniotic fluid? Is it the Spirit or the breath of life?

8 You can’t tell where a person born of the Spirit comes from or where s/he is going, nor control how they will be transformed, only that the Spirit is present in them.

9-10 Jesus has explained this as clear as mud.

11 Note shift from 1st person singular to 1st plural, and to 2nd plural “you people do not receive”.

12-17 Jesus implies Nicodemus and his colleagues won’t believe heavenly things, then proceeds to tell him heavenly things.

12 But Nicodemus has believed earthly things. He has recognized the miracles as divine signs.

14 See Numbers 21:4-9. The seraphim snake that Moses raised in the desert saved the people from its venomous bite, which was sent among them as punishment for their rebuke of God for the lack of food and water in the desert.

17 This is an important corrective to those who might read 3:16 exclusively.

E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?

  • Some interpreters deem Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus ends at verse 15. If so 16 through 21 are didactic material. If part of the conversation, verses 16-18 function as a transition to illustrating the acceptance of salvation as being and acting in the light.

F. Are there any significant variants in the manuscripts? Why?

  • Some variants expand verse 13 to read, “No one who has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, [who is in heaven].”
  • John used several words with multiple meanings that smooth English translations cannot accommodate.

II. Literary Study.

C. Review syntax/meanings of critical words, phrases, idioms

3 & 7: /anothen/ again, anew, from above, over. If Jesus spoke in Hebrew or Aramaic, he would not have a word with this double meaning. But John, writing in Greek, does. I believe that John was more concerned with capturing the ambiguity of meaning that Jesus would have used to make his hearers really think about the impossibility of being “born again.” We must not allow a simple spiritual reading, as if one may be “born from above” without having to crawl back into one’s mother’s womb and do over that which we would like to correct the second time around. Nor must we allow a reading that one need only be born twice: once physically and once in Christ, but we must recognize turning to God as a life long process, needing to be born again and again and again. Repenting not only our additional sins that require us to turn once again to Christ, but also of inflicting once again our sins against Christ. Being “born again” is both continually available and calling for great personal sacrifice and trial.

7: Jesus uses 2nd person singular when addressing Nicodemus (I say to ye) but the 2nd person plural when describing rebirth (you all must be born from above).

16: /kosmos/ earth, cosmos, universe. God loves not only this planet but the whole of creation. O’Day notes that comsos frequently refers to those people at odds with Jesus and God.

D. What is the literary style of the text? And how does it affect the reading? What does a poetic form do to the meaning? Lament/Praise/Petition? Any subtle variations in the repetitions? What is emphasized/minimized by the repetition?


Theological discussion that flows into a a theological discourse.

III. Question the text.

A. Observe the passage from the perspective of its characters.

Nicodemus went to Jesus to seek help, but ended up with more questions than answers. How can I be born over? If I cannot tell from whence the wind/Spirit comes, how am I to be born of it? Who is the Son of Man?

B. Are there any unusual details? Un-named characters? ‘Pointless’ description? Meanings of names of characters? What does a literal meaning of natural metaphors imply?

“Born again,” as Nicodemus complained, complicated, rather than illustrated, being able to see the Kingdom of God.

C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?

  • Center of Gravity: What must I do to see the Kingdom of God?
  • Emotional Center: This is unexplainable Spirit work.
  • Music: “Lift High the Cross”

D. Look for conflict: stated or implied.

  • Nicodemus, the leader of the religious establishment, gets a lesson on God’s establishment.

F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?

  • John 3:16 has become so familiar the illogical, unearned, and uncontrolled process it requires can get ignored.

IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?

Gerard Sloyan (Interpretation: John. John Knox Press, 1988.) interprets Nicodemus’ dialog with Jesus as exemplifying a religious debate that continued to separate the new Christian sect from the traditional Jewish order. “One party rejects the other’s speech as literalist; the other responds by complaining of an unwarranted use of figure.” Two thousand years later, Water and Spirit language seems obvious to us, but would have been nonsensical to 1st century Jews. Thus Nicodemus opts for the literal interpretation of “born /anothen/”.

Gail R. O’Day (The New Interpreter’s Bible, “The Gospel of John.” Abingdon, 1995.) notes that the Greek word order of verse 11 echoes Nicodemus’ opening words in verse 2 (we know). Verse 3:15 “makes explicit the salvific dimension of the crucifixion. … The cross thus makes sense of the double meaning of anothen: To be born from above is to be born again through the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.” She warns preachers of the temptation to pare this rich text into either a story about a religious leader questioning Jesus or as a lesson on faith and judgment. She warns that “contemporary usage of ‘born again’ privileges anthropology over christology,” emphasizing personal change over the external source of that change: the cross.

Fred B. Craddock (Knox Preaching Guides: John. John Knox Press, 1982.) recommends preachers approach this text as a dialog between two perspectives. The first is earthly. It lines up historical and logical evidence arriving at a clear conclusion without risk or decision. The second insists life is God given from above: unearned, unacheived, uncontrolled, uncharted, and uncalculated; as mysterious as the wind. He recommends preachers consider verses 16-21 separately as they form a theological reflection.

Kenneth E. Bailey (The Presbyterian Outlook, “John 3:1-15: Jesus and Nicodemus”. Feb. 11, 2008.) summarizes that the Trinity is the topic of discussion by Nicodemus and Jesus. Three times Jesus used the phrase “Truly, truly, I say to you …” each pointing to a different person of the Trinity: in verse 3: the Father; in verses 5-8: the Spirit; and in verses 11-15: the Son.

V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?

Those times when my sermons were best received,
when parishioners came up and said: “I felt you were preaching directly to me,”
were those times when I was preaching to myself. — Rabbi Chet Diamond

A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?

— Seeing the kingdom of God requires an illogical rebirth by God.

C. Function Statement: What change in the hearer?

— Acceptance that the cross and not the believer is the source of personal transformation.

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