2.4 John -- Nicodemus
John 3. This chapter contains the most famous evangelistic verse in the New Testament (Jn 3:16), which has appeared on everything from bumperstickers to billboards. But the context of this verse was a private conversation that Jesus had with a prominent Pharisee, who came to talk with Jesus under cover of night. Nicodemus was not a skeptic -- he believed Jesus was a teacher from God because of the signs he had done. Jesus immediately turned the conversation towards the Kingdom of God, telling Nicodemus that no man could see the Kingdom unless he was born again (or born from above). Nicodemus was confused -- his extensive Rabbinical training hadn't prepared him to discuss the Spirit. This tells us that Jesus was going beyond the teaching of John the Baptist, whose message of repentance would have been quite familiar to a Pharisee: just about every Old Testament prophet urged the nation to repent!
Jesus "explained" his analogy by saying that flesh gives birth to flesh and spirit to spirit. You cannot hear the spirit or tell where it comes from, but only one who is born of water and the spirit can enter the Kingdom of God (Jn 3:5-8 paraphrase). Poor Nicodemus was baffled. In this man's mind was stored up much of the Tanakh, as well as the comments of generations of scholars' opinions (which would later be written down as the Talmud). But there was no precedent for Jesus' simple descriptions of the work of the Spirit. Jesus rebuked him:
"You are Israel’s teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things?" (Jn 3:10)
Then he says that "we speak of what we know," which is in contrast to what the intelligentsia "think." And what he knows is God's plan of redemption reaches beyond Israel. Let us consider in detail three key teachings in this chapter:
1. "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" (Jn 3:14).
This is another example of the "Lamb" pattern we looked at above. The Old Testament incident, which had application only to the Jews, is appropriated by Jesus, is applied to himself, and is universalized. In Numbers, during the Exodus, the people complained about poor food and no water, so God sent venomous snakes among the people, and many died. When the Israelites repented, God told Moses to create a bronze snake on a pole, and any person who was bitten by a snake would live if he looked towards the bronze serpent (Num 21:4-9).
Likewise, John says, Jesus was raised up on a cross, and all who look to him in faith will have eternal life. There is no distinction here between Jew or Gentile, man or woman. God's acceptance is conditioned only on believing in the "Son of Man."
2. "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" (Jn 3:16-17).
It is unfortunate that this verse has become a commonplace of modern evangelicalism, treated almost as a cliche. This is ground-breaking teaching --once again, John expresses original concepts. He steps outside the box of Jewish doctrine. The Old Testament affirmed that God loved Israel, despite the people's faithfulness. But "loved the world?" Not hardly. The world was a threat to Israel's survival, therefore it was considered to be hostile to God's purposes. Most of the prophetic sayings concerning foreign nations consisted of judgments against them. The entire Jewish outlook to foreigners was negative and resistant.
In one verse, Jesus upset the whole 1500-year old foundation of hostility. Love is the basis of God's relationship to the world, not anger. But didn't Judaism proclaim that one of God's attributes was His love and faithfulness? Yes, there is abundant celebration of God's love in the Psalms, for example, but most often, this love is understood as restricted to the covenant community, to the righteous, to those who put their trust in Him. This is conditional love, and Jesus rejects it. Instead, he hits the "Reset" button -- to those outside the circle of Judaism, to those who weren't righteous and didn't know Him, God sent His only Son as a proof of His love for them. John does not say "To the Jew first, and also to the Gentile," but "whoever believes." There is one standard of salvation for all people.
The racial implications of this passage are profound. John takes us back before Gen 11, when mankind had already fallen into sin, but before they were scattered over the earth, before God chose one family to begin His redemptive work. While God worked in Abraham and his descendants, the rest of the races of mankind were put "on hold." God was with them in terms of natural revelation: rain, sun, offspring. But God was not "with" them in any revelatory sense, He did not abide amongst them or reveal His Name to them, as He did to Israel.
But in Jn 3:16 and following, these unfavored races are brought back into the mainstream of God's attention and action. No longer does He limit Himself to one ethnic community. Instead, in the midst of the jumble of languages, races, and conflicting religions that was the Roman Empire, He creates a new race of men, the community of those who are gathered around His Son.