Exegesis John 3:1-17


Step I. Acquaintance

A. Comparison of Translations

Verse 2 RSV: No one can do these signs unless God is with him

Message: …all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren't in on it.

Verse 3 RSV: born anew; Message; born from above; NEB: born over again.

Verse 4 RSV: …when he is old; Message: has already been born and grown up. NEB: How is it possible?

4b RSV: enter a second time into his mother's womb; Message; What are you saying with this "born-from above" talk?

Verse 5 Message: unless a person submits to this original creation--the wind hovering over the water creation--the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into new life…

Verse 6 RSV: …of the flesh is flesh, of the Spirit is spirit; Message: when you look at a baby it's just that--a body you can touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch--the Spirit.

Verse 7 RSV: do not marvel; Message; don't be surprised…"born from above--out of this world, so to speak.

Verse 10 RSV: you do not understand this? Message: you don't know these basics? NEB: What! …is this famous teacher of Israel ignorant of such things?

Verse 11 RSV: we bear witness to what we have seen. But you do not receive our testimony. Message: …there is nothing second-hand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions; NEB: you all reject our testimony.

Verse 12 RSV: earthly things… heavenly things; Message: things that are plain as the hand before your face…things you can't see…of God?

Verse 13 RSV: ascended to heaven…descended…; Message: up in the presence of God…down from that Presence; NEB: …Son of man, whose home is in heaven.

Verse 15: RSV: whoever believes in him may have eternal life; Message: everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life; NEB: everyone who has faith in him.

Verse 16 Message: …so that no one need be destroyed. By believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. NEB: everyone who has faith in him may not die….

Verse 17 Message: merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again; NEB: not to judge the world.

Step I B. Textual Criticism

Verse 5, tou theou: Sinaiticus, A, B; ton ouranon, *Sinaiticus, Doctetist, Irenaeus, Tertullian

Verse 13anthropou: Sinaiticus, B; anthropou o wn en to ouranou: A, K

Verse 15 en auto, B; ep auto, L; eis auto, Sinaiticus

Step I c. Rough translation

Now a man there from the Pharisees, Nicodemus name his, archon of the Judeans. He came toward him night and said to him, Rabbi, know that from God you come teacher, for dunatei the signs you do if not God withhim. Answered jesus and said to him, Amen, Amen, say I to you--not born again not possible to see the kingdom of God. Said to him Nicodemus, How possible man to be born aged when . Not possible into the womb of mother a second enter and be born. Answered Jesus amen amen I say to you, unless born from water and spirit not possible to enter into the kingdom of God. The born from sarkos, sarkos is, and the born from spirit, spirit is. Not thaumases that I say to you, you must be born from above/again/anew. The wind blows where -----and the sound you hear, but not---. -is the one born from the wind/spirit. Answered Nicodemus and said to him, How possible things to be? And Jesus answered and said to him, you the teacher of Israel and things not know. Amen amen I say to you we speak---and we witness to… seen, and the witness you not lambenete. If the ….and you not faith, the…things of heaven…heaven. For …into the heavens not but from the heavens descended, the son of man. And as Moses lifted up the osin in the desert, so lifted up the son of man, that---the faith in him have life aeonion.

So for loved the God the cosmos the son the only he gave so that the faith in him not apoletai but have life aeonion. Nt for he sent the son into the cosmos that judge the cosmos, but that soothe the cosmos through him.

Step II. Disposition

A. Genre

This text uses elements of dialogue typical of John: metaphor, misunderstanding, and levels of possible meaning. Nicodemus is like other Johannine stories of people whose thinking is too worldly: they want a steady supply of bread, water, miracles, etc, missing the deeper spiritual truth. As elsewhere, Jesus exhibits a startling insight into someone else's thought patterns and motives. Nicodemus serves as the foil with his blockheaded literalness, representing all who just don't get it.

B. Personal interaction--questions and observations

1. Why does N. approach Jesus at night?

2. What significance lies in N.'s being a Pharisee?

3. Why would he go to Jesus?

4. N. doesn't have a chance to ask his original question, only talks about the "signs" as credentialing Jesus.

5. Why the confusion about translation of born from above/born again/born anew?

6. Why J.'s curt reply to N?

7. Is N avoiding the issue by playing dumb and taking Jesus too literally/

8. Is "born of water and the spirit" a baptismal reference/

9. The head-scratching provoked by Jesus' odd sayings is meant to move us beyond rational categories to new insight, like a zen koan.

10. Wind is a metaphor for the uncontrollable, unpredictable, mysterious sovereign spirit--very exasperating for control freaks.

11. Are you a teacher of Israel---the guardians of established religion don't have a clue in truly spiritual matters.

12. A prochronism; "No one has ascended except…"(hasn't happened yet)

13. The crucified Jesus likened to Moses' healing staff--double meaning in his being lifted up--he's "exalted" not only in heaven but also by being elevated on the cross.

14. What is meant by perish and eternal life?

15. God so loved the cosmos--meanings?

16. How will hearers respond to "not to condemn the world"?

17. How does the preacher deal with reactions positive and negative to"born again" talk? Reframe creatively to break out of stale categories.

18. Author's voice seems at times to be conflated with that of Jesus.

Step II C. Organization

Historical question:2; Author's intent: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,11,12,13,14; homiletical: 9,10,15,16,17

Step III Composition

A. Immediate Context

This text is preceded by 2 major "signs": the Cana wedding and Temple cleansing. As a segue, 2:23-25 tells of misguided "believers" who were impressed by the signs "but Jesus would not trust himself to them…he knew what was in everyone". Te pericope seems to go through 3:21 which extends the topic of condemnation and elaborates the symbolism of darkness and light. Following this is a discussion of John and his baptism where John disclaims any messiahship and points to Jesus again.

B. Within the compositional whole are themes found in this text: conflict with "Jewish" authorities, light v. dark; the revelation of heavenly glory through the cross; the sharp contrast of good and evil; the lack of spiritual insight on the part of those who should know; the pneumatological emphasis; the wrongheaded demand for signs. Nicodemus in this gospel seems to make some "progress" and is found at the cross.

C. Issue of authorship

Step IV. Context

A. Primitive Christianity

A distinctive Johannine Christianity seems to have produced the fourth gospel with its unique emphasis. The present text would seem in some way to address the hurt experienced by "those who understood themselves to be a persecuted religious minority, expelled from the synagogue, their religious home, because of their faith in Jesus"(NIB, 503)

B. OT and Judaism

John was written in the post-Temple context of great intra-religious strife within Judaism. The "believers" were caught up in this struggle. Nevertheless, John makes a consistently positive use of the OT, especially the wisdom tradition.

C. Hellenistic world

Elements of Gnostic dualism may be present, and a "Hellenistic" concern with the logos.

Step V. Distillation

A. Summary of Salient features

This text contrasts the not-knowing of outsiders or even opponents with the insight of those who are in the know. In Nicodemus's night visit, the text holds open the possibility of change. This change is a work of the Spirit and requires that cherished positions be abandoned. It urges focus on a deeper truth that the "signs" are meant to point to. God's love is available to all through the Son, but opposition, resistance, and wrong understandings remain. They are explained in terms of spiritual darkness.

B. Smooth translation

A prominent religious leader named Nicodemus approached Jesus under cover of darkness. "Rabbi," he said. "We know that none other than God himself has sent you to teach us. How else could you do such great miracles?" Jesus replied, "Hear me well. If you want to see God ruling, you have to go to the delivery room and come out as an infant." Nicodemus responded, "How can I start fresh at my age? I can't crawl back up my mother's birth canal and pop out again. I'm too big!" Jesus answered, "Figure it out. Unless you have a spiritual birthing--unless the water breaks and baby breathes, you can't claim citizenship in God's country. One kind of birth is biological; the kind I'm talking about is spiritual. So don't get all slack-jawed because I said, 'You have to become an infant'. You can tell when the wind is blowing, but you can't explain why. Same thing with the Spirit". Nicodemus said, "I still don't get it". Jesus replied, "I can see that. You're a religious professional but you don't have a clue, do you? We're trying to tell you about things we've experienced directly, but you won't listen. How would you handle it if I told you the secret mysteries of the heavenly Father? There's only one who's been there and lived to tell about it: me. Remember how Moses cured people of snakebite by hoisting his bronze staff? Well. I'm going to be 'hoisted' too, and everyone who turns his eyes on me will be healed forever."

You see, God adored people so much that he sent his own dear Son to come to their rescue. Trust in him and the poison of death will go away. You'll have life, forever. God didn't send the Son to sentence people to death--of course he didn't. He sent him to pluck the whole cosmos out of the vice-grip of death and bestow life rich and full.

C. Hermeneutical Bridge

This rich text holds many possibilities. Nicodemus is the inquirer coming out of the shadows, seeking he knows not what, but something better. The whole matter of rebirth brings to mind the conversion stories of Augustine, Francis, Luther, C.S. Lewis, etc. Spirituality in the "aged"--is change possible? W.B. Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" reflects, "An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing…and therefore I have sailed the sea and come To the holy city of Byzantium". "When Not to Take Jesus Literally" is a possible topic, the theme of interpreting scripture. "Does God Still Love the World?" is another. The sovereign Spirit is not at our beck and call. Gerard Hopkins' poem, The Windhover, expresses the unfettered power of this one who rides the wind: The Gospel for Control Freaks.

Step VI Contemporary Address

A. Description of Audience

B. Intended goals for the address

I hope to recast the too familiar born-again language so the congregation can get beyond stereotypes and formulaic understandings to the real juice of this exchange.