14Jesus said to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
First, a bit of context: Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as identified in verse one of chapter 3 as ”a leader of the Jews.” He has come to Jesus “by night,” possibly in order that the other Pharisees will not see him talking to this arrogant and rebellious self-styled teacher from the hinterland who is causing them so much trouble (remember last week? Yeah, not an act that is likely to win friends from the Pharisaic camp).
As we have discussed previously, light and darkness are important themes in John’s gospel: Nicodemus comes in the night also because he lacks true understanding of who Jesus is, but at least he is straining toward the light. Right now, he sees Jesus as a sort of faith-healer. Nicodemus points to certain signs—and signs are very important in the gospel of John. He is willing to admit that Jesus is a healer, a miracle-worker, and a teacher-- but that is as far on the journey of faith that he is willing to go. Will he eventually commit to Jesus and have true faith? Yet Nicodemus is beginning to be drawn to the light of Christ, for in v. 2 he states: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who is coming from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus is a man torn between two worlds, just as the converts in Ephesus were, and he recognizes the delicate situation he is in. Following Jesus will probably cost him everything that has been important to him thus far in life, including his reputation and position within society. And Jesus doesn’t make it easy for him, speaking and what must’ve seemed like riddles, as Jesus is prone to do throughout much of the Gospel of John, in particular. Jesus talks of the necessity of being born again in vv. 3-8, and Nicodemus takes the metaphor literally, much to his confusion, and Jesus acts as if he is amazed that a teacher of Israle could not understand what he was saying. It must have been a long, humbling night for Nicodemus.
The verses right before our reading is significant: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (vv. 12-13). Jesus then connects himself as the Son of Man to the incident in Numbers 21:6-9, when people bitten by poisonous snakes were able to look at a likeness of a snake on a pole and live. The snakes had been sent by God in return for the people’s disobedience and rebelliousness. Likewise, the Son of Man will be lifted up on a pole—the cross— and that action will also bring salvation (vv. 14-15).
Verse 16 is probably one of the most quoted verses in all of scripture, but it is also the link that holds together all of today’s readings. God’s gift of Jesus to the world, as God’s son, can draw those who truly see this sacrifice to a life with God if they believe in Jesus—only through faith, not by virtue of birth or anything else beyond our control (vv. 16-17).
Let’s return, then, to the figure of Nicodemus. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel, has a lot to lose by allying with Jesus in the light of day. Nicodemus may have been “born of water” as a son of Abraham, but he cannot yet consent at this point to be born of the Spirit—to let go of any concerns about position and logic and to just have faith in Jesus as the Son of Man and the Son of God. To be born of the Spirit is to be not just “born again,” but to be—more importantly—“born from above.” Until we are ready to have that faith, we are like ones still in the womb. But once babies are born, they emerge from the waters of birth into the light of reality. Jesus invites Nicodemus-- and all of us-- to emerge from the darkness into the light of faith.
(4th Sunday in Lent B)