The most famous scripture

This Sunday our lectionary included John 3:16, which is the most holy of scriptures for born again Christians. One of the things that I remember about this passage is that in it, Jesus is critical of the Pharisee to whom the requirement is given for being overly literal. Seems ironic given the way most born again Christians interpret the rest of the Bible.

Rev. Linda Miller, pastor of Chalice Christian Church, provided a wonderful interpretation of this passage from the point of view of Nicodemus, the Pharisee. She performed a first-person narrative as Nicodemus remembering the night. It opened my eyes to the curious story that surrounds the oft repeated John 3:16.

The story begins with an unusually intimate setting. It is night, and there are evidently only two people present. Jesus and a Pharisee.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

So, the mandate to be born again is clearly just that. Failing to be born again means that you cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus first tries to figure out what the “born again” stuff is about.

How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The 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.”

Okay, so you need to be born of water and the Spirit. Baptism I guess. Why the mention of the unknowable nature of the Spirit? Is this a distinction between baptisms performed by John the Baptist and the those performed by the disciples? Nicodemus wants more clarification.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

Am I wrong, or does Jesus sound like he’s getting upset? Does anyone else have sympathy for Nicodemus?

The rest of the story is provided by the author of John. Although, according to Biblegateway there is some controversy over this, it seems to be a summary provided after Jesus words:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

I suppose it really doesn’t matter whether John wrote this as Jesus saying it, or as John saying it because either way it is John’s account of what happened.

What do you think? The language is very mandatory but the ideas seem vague. What is eternal life and the kingdom of God? Why communicate this message from one person to another rather than in a sermon, on a mount somewhere, for instance?

NOTE: Linda is going to continue these first-person narratives through Lent. (Last week, she took on the person of the Tempter from the story of Jesus in the wilderness. My thirteen-year-old said he liked it but it was a little scary.) If any readers have considered visiting Chalice, the next few weeks would be a great opportunity to do so.

One reply on “The most famous scripture”

From Lin

Hmmm — good observation that Nick is required to be literal.

This guy, like so many of us, was just concerned with getting everything right. In fact, that was his job — literally. That was his job in the church — getting everything right….

But then, as you point out, Jesus reminds him that in order to get everything right, he has to be “born again.” (It’s probably important to point out here that these words don’t mean the same thing to me as right wing fundamentalist Christians mean when they say “born again.” I am so very sorry that they co-opted that term & limited its meaning for the rest of us!)

Right after Christmas I spent a couple of weeks with my brand newborn grandson, Aiden, and his parents. Here’s what I know about newborns and their vision: at first they see dark and light, and their preferred range of view is about the distance from their mother’s face to their eyes when they’re cradled in their mother’s arms, nursing.

You referred to the intimate setting in which Nick & Jesus find themselves. They were both teachers, and there’s evidence that they respected each other. You know how that is… there’s a whole lot you don’t have to say. You just start out understanding each other.

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