Our gospel reading today for many is the most important passage in all of scripture. The scripture shows Jesus in the beginning of his ministry laying out from the get-go the reason he is here. Jesus in this passage gives us the heart of the matter.
Early into my interim ministry here, I preached a sermon on John 3:16 and we discussed how that verse has been called the gospel in a nutshell. Well, the nutshell comes from a tree. John 3:16 comes from a passage of scripture. The whole of such a passage of scripture gives us the tree from which the gospel in a nutshell came. As we will see, the full tree is really a wonderful one.
Maybe you already know this, but you know how in the Bible we have a the book name, the chapter of that book, and the verse or verses? The book of John, chapter 3, verses one through sixteen. Well, this sectioning into chapter and verse makes it easier to reference things in a consistent way. So, I can say go to John chapter 3 verse 16 and you’d know where to go. And I could have said this 200 years ago, and people would do the same thing.
Well, the sectioning for easy reference is not original to the Bible itself. The dividing things into chapters and verses was added hundreds of years after the original writing was complete. Even punctuation and paragraphing was added.
Anyway, when it comes to our passage from John, the full tree really begins at the end of chapter 2. At the end of chapter 2, we read that it is Passover and Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the first Passover of 3 in his 3-year ministry. The third Passover we will remember during Holy Week.
So, the context is Jerusalem at Passover. John 2:23 tells us that Jesus is performing signs and miracles and people are, as the verse says, “believing in his name,” while they see him doing these amazing things. But it is not a deep kind of thing. It is sort of like seeing a magician and saying, wow, he is really good… I am a fan. But Jesus wants more than this kind of fandom. He wants more than citywide fame. He wants more than belief in the popularity of his name. Jesus wants people’s full trust and he wants them to follow him. Jesus wants disciples of God’s love to join him and follow him in realizing God’s kingdom.
We see this call to full trust as Jesus teaches Nicodemus. The point of the passage is full trust.
There is an important subtext. Jesus in his ministry will encounter continual tension and conflict with the religious hierarchy of his day. In our passage, however, we have the rare occasion of Jesus and a member of that religious hierarchy, an important member named Nicodemus, having a private discussion. The private discussion shows Jesus teaching this powerful teacher of religion the way of God.
It’s important to note that Nicodemus doesn’t meet Jesus in public or in the daytime. He comes to Jesus in private and at night. Is he too proud? Is he ashamed of being seen with this country preacher from Nazareth? Is he not humble enough to publicly be seen as learning from someone deemed lower than he?
Jesus knows the answer to these questions. John 2:24-25 talks about Jesus knowing how men think, knowing what makes them tick, knowing their hearts. He knows Nicodemus is battling between pride which comes with his high position and the desire to know God and know more. Jesus knows that the only way to face this internal battle and overcome his pride is to be internally transformed. Nicodemus needs heart-transformation,
And what transforms the heart – being born of the Spirit of God and a trusting of the one born of the Spirit from the very beginning, the Son of God.
In verse 3, Jesus makes the central claim, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” or as some translations put it, born again.
Nicodemus doesn’t get what Jesus is getting at. So he asks well, how can someone born some years ago be born as an adult.
Jesus in effect says, you were born of water when you were born as a baby. But there is a need for another kind of birth, spiritual birth.
Then Jesus uses the metaphor of wind. We know wind is real. We feel it ruffle our clothing and hair, we see it rustle through trees, we hear it whistle through windows. But we can’t really know where it comes from or how it is born. Knowing it all and experiencing God’s reality do not need to go together. If we knew it all, there would be no need for faith or trust, and no need for the vulnerability that comes with taking a leap of faith or with placing our trust in someone. Faith and trust requires a letting go of self and security and a letting God into our hearts to transform us. This letting go and letting God is difficult work, but necessary for the heart to be transformed.
I ought to mention that our passage shows Jesus using really creative, even playful language. Jesus often does this. He used parables for the same effect. To get us out of our head and into our hearts. So, in some translations we read born from above and in others, born again. Well, the word in Greek is ‘anothen.” It can mean either from above or again. Sort of like pretty can have different means as in that is pretty cool as in rather cool or pretty cool as in nice-looking and cool. Jesus is playing with his words in speaking with Nicodemus.
Then there is the word spirit. The Greek word is pneuma. It can mean spirit, or breath, or wind. So if I said my spirit was lifted when he took his first breath in August when the wind was warm in August, I would say my pneuma was lifted when he took his first pneuma in August when the pneuma was warm.
Jesus is saying to be born again and from above means taking into our breath, our life, the Spirit of God. The wind through the trees is a beautiful image for this. We take into our spirit the Spirit of God like the tree takes in the wind. We are touched, we are enlivened, we are moved, we are made to dance. That is what the being born from above means. The wind again and again moves in the trees, enlivening them each time. That is what it means to be born of the Spirit, of the wind, of the breath of God.
Lastly, what about believing in him? A better word for the Greek word pisteuo sometimes translated belief is the word trust or even entrust. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to trust him. More than this, he is asking Nicodemus to entrust himself to Jesus and the new way he is teaching. Jesus wants commitment not just a visit. Jesus wants the same from us. Why? Because the true life is a life connected to goodness, a life connected to God. And whatever life is connected to God, whatever life becomes wrapped up in and embraced by God’s life, becomes eternal with God. An everlasting, true life is life enveloped by God who by nature is truth and everlasting.
We’re not told how the story ends. What did Nicodemus do with this important moment with Jesus? We don’t know. Things are left open-ended.
So I close with a question, an open-ended one. What will you do with your important moment with Jesus?