Thanks for joining me for another installment of “Walking with Jesus through Lent.” During this season of the church year, comprised of the roughly forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, Christians focus on the themes of repentance, mortality, and the need for salvation. Many Christians fast from certain pleasures during this time in order to demonstrate repentance or grow in faith. For Lutherans, this practice is not mandated but may be a helpful one for certain believers. To help us focus on the themes of Lent, this year I’ve chosen to meditate on the Gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. Whether you are a longtime believer or a skeptic, I’m happy to have you along for the journey and for the opportunity to share with you these powerful passages from the life of Christ.
Quick! Name for me the Bible verse you are most likely to see held up on placards in sports stadiums or in the hands of a roving street preacher.
Got it? Yep, John 3:16. I bet you can quote it from memory, even if you don’t personally believe in God. This verse is right at the heart of this week’s Gospel reading, John 3:14-21.
In this passage, Jesus is in the midst of a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1 NIV). As such, he probably participated in the discussions surrounding Jesus’s ultimate conviction and execution by Rome (Luke 23:13). We know that he was a secret follower of Jesus–at least initially. John 3:2 says that he came to Jesus at night. He gives a faltering defense on Jesus to his fellow religious leaders in John 7:50-51. Later, after Jesus’s crucifixion, Nicodemus joins another secret follower of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, in retrieving Jesus’s body from the cross after His death, beginning the preparations of the body for burial, and placing it in Joseph’s tomb. The two intended to go back after the Sabbath and finish the burial (John 19:38-42).
Nicodemus appears to be afraid to tell his fellow religious leaders that he wants to follow Jesus, and therefore this is probably why he goes to see Jesus at night. We don’t know for sure if Nicodemus ever publicly declared faith in Jesus, but I think it is compelling to consider that John has this story in the first place because Nicodemus told it to him. And if Nicodemus told it to him, then Nicodemus did go public with his faith. I think it’s pretty reasonable to operate on that assumption. What we don’t know is when this going public first occurred. When Nicodemus defends Jesus in John 7, it seems as if his fellow religious leaders at least have a hint that he is Jesus’s follower, but Nicodemus does seem to stop short of outright profession of faith.
But in our passage in John 3, Nicodemus is clearly intrigued by Jesus and believes he is a teacher sent from God. He believes this based on the miraculous signs that Jesus is performing (vs.2). We don’t know for sure which signs Nicodemus is referring to. The only individual miracle mentioned up to this point in John is when Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana (John 2). But John also tells us that Jesus is concurrently performing other miraculous signs at this time (2:11, 23). Whatever these signs are, Nicodemus is impressed and wants to learn more.
But Jesus seems to be talking in riddles. He tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again” (or as other translators translate the original Greek: “born from above”) in order to enter Jesus’s kingdom (vs.3). What could this mean? Full-grown men do not hop back into their mother’s wombs.
But Jesus pushes forward further. By presenting a surprising idea, He gains Nicodemus’s full attention. He does this so that Nicodemus will lean in and want to understand even more. He tells Nicodemus that He is not speaking of physical birth, but of spiritual birth (vv.5-8). He is speaking of the need for new life within the human heart.