February 25, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He teaches Nicodemus

See John 3: 1-21  

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. While Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover, Nicodemus came to see him at night, perhaps to avoid observation. Later, he was to speak up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin and, after the Cruci­fixion, he would bring about 100 pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial, but for now he was being cautious.

The two men probably had a long conversation, but John reports only part of it, touching on four points:

First, Jesus says that we must be “born from above” before we can see the kingdom of God. The Greek adverb anothen can mean both “from above” and “again,” and Nicodemus believes that Jesus meant “again,” so he asks how anyone can be born again. Jesus replies that we must be born of water and the Spirit. Thus, we believe that we enter into a new and higher life when we are baptized.

Second, Jesus compares the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul to wind. We don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, Jesus says, and that’s the way it is with the Spirit. Again, there’s a play on words since the Greek word pneuma and the Hebrew word ruah mean both “wind” and “spirit.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus that renewal in the soul is more important than the externals of religion, but Nicodemus doesn’t understand.

Third, Jesus tells Nicodemus (and us) that the Son of Man (Jesus himself) came down from heaven. That must have really confused Nicodemus. Did he realize that Jesus was saying that he existed in heaven as God before coming down to earth?

Fourth, Jesus says that the Son of Man had to be “lifted up,” just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. Actually, the Book of Numbers (Nm 21:9) says that Moses “mounted” a bronze serpent, but Jesus substitutes a verb to imply glorification. He says that he will be glorified by his crucifixion “so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” It’s a reminder that Jesus was well aware of what kind of death he would suffer in order to bring us eternal life.

Now the evangelist takes over. No longer quoting Jesus, he tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Further, he gives us these powerful words: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

He goes on to tell us that whoever believes in Jesus will not be condemned, but that those who do not believe have already been condemned. Therefore, although Jesus’ purpose in coming into the world was to save it, nevertheless his coming also provoked judgment upon those who turn away from him.

Poor Nicodemus. How could he have understood all this? †  

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