An Enigmatic Mirror
Jesus and Nicodemus: John 3:1-21
John 3 is divided into two main sections. First is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus (3:1-21). Second is another witness by John the Baptist (3:22-36). There are no parallels to these stories in the synoptic gospels. The two stories are connected by the interrelated themes of Spirit and Light.
This chapter also introduces an interesting issue in the study of John. Although Jesus does on occasion give lengthy discourses in the synoptic gospels (e.g. Mt. 5-7; 24), more frequently he speaks in short sayings and parables. The mode of Jesus' discourse is quite distinct in John. For example, Jesus rarely tells parables in John. The general pattern in John is that a question or issue arises, there is a discussion, generally a sign, a lengthy and often rather esoteric discourse by Jesus, and finally some editorial comments by John. In a sense, in the synoptic gospels Jesus teaches ethics while in John he teaches theology.
The story begins with Nicodemus approaching Jesus in private at night, presumably so that he will not be publicly seen with Jesus. He is described as a Pharisee and a "ruler of the Jews," meaning a member of the governing Sanhedrin (Jn. 11:47), the Jewish senate or national council. Nicodemus later appears defending Jesus against accusations (Jn. 7:50-52) and providing spices to anoint Jesus' body (Jn. 19:40). He is never mentioned in the synoptic Gospels. Nicodemus respectfully addresses Jesus as "Rabbi" and accepts Jesus as "a teacher from God" (3:2), but evidently not (yet?) as a prophet or as the Messiah.
Born Again? (3:3-8)
It is not clear why Nicodemus has come to see Jesus. He doesn't ask a question, but—as often happens in John—Jesus simply makes an enigmatic statement: "unless one is born from above/again he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3:3). Presumably this is in response to Nicodemus hailing him as a great teacher, but not accepting him as the Messiah or Son of God. That is to say, because he has not been born from above, Nicodemus—unlike Nathanael (1:49)—sees Jesus as a rabbi but nothing more, and thus cannot see that the kingdom of God is here and that Jesus is its King-Messiah (12:13-15, 19:12-15). To overcome this misperception one must be "born from above/again." It is important to note that there is an ambiguity in the Greek text, which says you must be "born anōthen." The core meaning of anōthen is "from above, from on high" as can be seen in its use in the Septuagint, where it nearly always describes a spacial relationship. In the New Testament its fundamental meaning likewise designates a spacial relationship of "above," but can also indicate a temporal relationship of repetition, hence "anew or again." In light of the later allusions to "heavenly things" (3:12) and "ascending to heaven" (3:13), it is likely that the original intent here was being "born from above." We can also see this when we compare the three different ways Jesus describes this idea.
- "Unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God" (3:3).
- "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (3:5).
- "That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (3:6).
William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.