John 3: 1-21 – Jesus and Nicodemus
God so loved the world
This passage is both inspiring and perplexing. It has been used as a wonderful promise and reminder of God’s love. It has also often been misinterpreted and used in a way that I think cheapens the gospel.
The promise: ‘God so loved the world’ (v16); ‘God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.’ (v17) This, surely, means all people, everywhere.
The misinterpretation: ‘If you profess to believe a particular set of beliefs and pray a particular form of words, then you are a “born-again” Christian and you will go to heaven when you die, where you will live forever in eternal bliss. If you are not a born-again Christian, then you will be condemned to everlasting torment.’
It is perhaps easy to see how this arises: ‘everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (v18); ‘Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already’. (v18)
I want to turn that round, reclaim the wonder of this passage, what it meant for Nicodemus in his encounter with Jesus, and what it can mean for us today; to focus on the heart of that encounter, and Nicodemus’ unspoken question: ‘can a person change?’
Jesus and Nicodemus
John places this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus near the beginning of his gospel and just after Jesus had cleared the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish religious leaders will have heard about Jesus’ teaching and the miracles he had performed. They would have recognised that many people were starting to follow him. They recognised that Jesus’ action in clearing the temple was potentially threatening, and they wanted to know on what authority he was acting.
Nicodemus was a leading figure among the Pharisees, the religious leaders. He may have been sent by them to question Jesus further, or he may have gone on his own accord, wanting to know more. His greeting may have been as much a challenge as a statement of respect: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God’ (v2) – ‘Are you really?’ ‘Can you prove it?’
I can imagine Nicodemus as someone who was genuinely seeking to follow God, and to lead his people in following God. Perhaps he was longing for his people to turn back to God, follow God’s ways, and so be set free from their oppression by the Romans. The Pharisees believed that such liberation would come by the nation of Israel turning back to God:
‘If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands… the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth… The Lord will establish you as his holy people as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity… in the land he swore to your forefathers to give you.’ (Deut 28: 1-11)
Nicodemus may have been frustrated by the lack of piety in the people of Israel. Maybe he wanted people to change, to be holy, but just didn’t see that. Maybe he was even frustrated with some of his fellow religious leaders, compromising their purity. He may have been seeking something more from Jesus – ‘can people change?’ ‘Are you the messiah, the one who will bring about this change?’ ‘Are you going to bring God’s kingdom?’
Can other people change?
We can all probably identify people we want to see changed. Maybe our partner, our children, our mother in law; our boss or a difficult colleague at work; or maybe those who are different from us – immigrants, young people, those with mental health problems or addictions; maybe even the person sitting in the pew in front of you.
A friend of mine, Dave Andrews, has amended the familiar serenity prayer, recognizing that this isn’t about changing other people…
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
the courage to change the one I can,
and the wisdom to know that it is me.
Can I change?
In his response to Nicodemus, Jesus seems to cut through Nicodemus’ polite greeting with a profound challenge: ‘You want to see the kingdom of God? You want to be part of that kingdom? Well unless you undergo a change as radical as being born afresh, you can’t.’
This brings us to the heart of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, and the heart of the good news that Jesus was proclaiming.
Nicodemus was an intelligent man, a leader, and someone who knew the scriptures. So, his question wasn’t a silly question. He knew that Jesus wasn’t talking about a person going back into their mother’s womb. I think he was pressing Jesus on a much deeper question: ‘Can a person really change? Can someone be given a second chance? How can someone start again and get it right this time?’ Perhaps even, ‘How can I change?’
And that, perhaps, is a question all of us ask at some point.
Isn’t this desire to be born again in many of us?
Don’t we often want to start anew,
to leave behind past hurts, habits and old ways
that imprison us in the values of our society
and prevent us from growing towards greater freedom?
Jean Vanier, Entering into the mystery of Jesus through the gospel of John
Spend a minute in silence, reflecting on that. Are there things in my life that I would like to change? Do I want a second chance? It may be that I have made mistakes, messed things up and want to start again. It may be that my own life experiences have left me hurt and bruised, or shaped me in a way that leaves me feeling frustrated or imprisoned. It may be that I have tried hard, lived a good life, tried to do the right thing, all the while feeling a sense of condemnation that I am never quite good enough. It may be that I feel trapped by my own anxieties or responsibilities.
A resounding YES
Jesus’ answer to the question, ‘can a person change?’ is a resounding YES.
Jesus’ response to each one of us, if we are asking, ‘Can I change?’ ‘Can I have a fresh start?’ is a very clear, yes. ‘Yes, you can have a fresh start; you can be born from above; you can be healed, forgiven, made clean, set free. You can be part of my kingdom.’
If we can accept that, then we will be set free from the condemnation that comes, not from God, but from ourselves and other people; from being trapped in a life dominated by greed and violence, that ultimately stifles the freedom, joy and peace that would otherwise be ours. As one of my friends has expressed it:
‘For God loved this world so much he gave humanity one of their own so that whoever could see His kingdom through the eyes of faith and hear with the ears of faith would not waste life on what leads to death but have unimaginable life that defies human ability to understand.’ – Emma Griffiths
Later in John’s gospel, when the Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman who had been caught in adultery, condemning her for her lifestyle, for cheating on her husband, Jesus turned their condemnation back on them, and said to the woman, ‘I don’t condemn you. You are forgiven. Now you are free to start afresh. Go, and live a new life.’
How can I change?
Which brings us, finally, to Nicodemus’ question of ‘how?’
And the answer Jesus gives seems to be, ‘believe in me’.
I want to briefly explore that a bit further.
It seems to me that the crucial thing here is that Jesus is inviting us to trust him as a person. He isn’t asking us to blindly believe some abstract theological proposition, or to follow a particular formula for being ‘born again’. Rather he is inviting us to recognise that he came to this earth as the embodiment of God’s love, and through his life, his teaching and ultimately his death, to provide a way for people to come into God’s kingdom and live the way God intended us to live.
This gospel is about growing in trust,
growing in a relationship of love with Jesus.
Belief is not trusting and adhering to an abstract doctrine,
it is believing and trusting in the person of Jesus and in his words.
Jesus offers two illustrations of how this might happen:
‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age.’ (v14-15) This refers to an episode from the early history of the Jews, after they had come out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert, when they were afflicted by poisonous snakes. God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake which he put up on a pole, and anyone who was bitten by a snake, if they looked at the bronze snake, would not die. I’m not too worried about the how, why, or even whether this miracle happened. What is important, I think, is to see the implications of the story: that the Israelites were suffering and dying; that there was nothing they could do to save themselves; but that when they looked towards God’s solution, they were saved. Each one of us needs to accept that we cannot change ourselves – it isn’t a matter of just trying to be a better person; we need to look beyond ourselves to God’s solution:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the people I can’t change;
The courage to change the one I can;
And the humility to admit that I cannot do this in my own strength
2. The wind
‘No-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit [Greek, pneuma]… The wind [pneuma] 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.’
There is a vulnerability in trusting/following Jesus:
To open ourselves up to this new life
is like making a journey or going on a pilgrimage.
There may be times when we do not understand Jesus,
perhaps times of doubt, anger and rebellion.
Little by little, however, trust grows
until it becomes an unconditional trust in Jesus,
Son of Man and Son of God.
We become more open to him and to his love and friendship,
whatever happens, whatever the cost or pain.
Whatever the apparent silence or absence of Jesus,
we give him our trust and believe in him.
This is the gift of God, the gift of new life,
given to us as a tiny seed when we are baptized,
cleansed by water and the Spirit.
This seed needs to be nourished in order to grow gradually,
often through pain,
into an unconditional surrender to God.
It can take time for our protective walls to weaken
and for the journey to openness to begin.
Born from above by water and the Spirit
we are called to gradually grow in love.
The seed of the Spirit has been planted in us.
We must learn how to nourish this seed
so that it can grow and bear much fruit.
This journey, our pilgrimage of love, begins and deepens
as we hear God murmur within our hearts:
“I love you just as you are.
I so love you that I come to heal you and to give you life.
Do not be afraid. Open your hearts.
It is all right to be yourself.
You do not have to be perfect or clever.
You are loved just as you are.
As you become more conscious that you are loved,
you will want to respond to that love with love, and grow in love.
 Perhaps ‘so that the world could be saved by him’ can be interpreted on an even wider level, and could apply to our world in terms of environment, society, culture.
 I might go as far as to say that this is actually a heresy or blasphemy. Since the very next verse states categorically that ‘God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world’ to use the previous verse in a condemnatory way to judge and exclude others is perhaps a heresy.
 John’s gospel suggests that Nicodemus was, indeed, changed, and became a follower of Jesus: John 7: 47-52; John 19: 38-42
 John 2:18: ‘what sign are you going to show us to explain why you’re doing this?’
 This was also emphasised in much of the teaching of the prophets, such as Ezekiel 36: 24-28 which Jesus alludes to in his emphasis on being born from above, of water and the spirit: ‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.’
 v3 ‘Unless someone has been born from above…’ Greek anōthen has a double meaning, ‘anew’ and ‘from above’.
 This ties in with Jesus’ equally profound challenges in Matthew 18:3 and Mark 10:15: ‘unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. I explore both of these in depth in my book, Growing up to be a child
 John 8: 3-11
 However, we need to recognise that Jesus’ invitation is an invitation. He does not compel us to accept it. And that may help to explain verses 18-21. To accept Jesus’ invitation is to make ourselves vulnerable, to come into the light and be seen for who we are. Many people will not accept that, and will remain, in a state of darkness. That, perhaps is what is meant by ‘those who do not believe are condemned already’: we are all in darkness, it is only by accepting the light that we can make a fresh start, born from above.
 ‘eternal life’ in verses 16 and 18: the Greek aiōnios signifies the age to come (aiōnes = ages). So Tom Wright translates as ‘This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.’
 Numbers 21: 1-9
 This is reflected in the first 2 steps of the AA 12-step programme:
We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable;
We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.