Commentary on John 3:1-8
Today we go back to the early part of John’s gospel and begin reading chapter 3. In the coming Easter weeks we will be going through John’s gospel more or less in order.
Today we see the encounter between Jesus and a Pharisee who was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing council of the Jews. He was, then, a very highly placed official.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This, on the one hand, indicates his fear of being seen by others but, on the other, probably also has a symbolic meaning. Religious man though he was, when he came to Jesus he was in a kind of spiritual darkness. His virtue is that he comes to seek light. Jesus, of course, is the Light of the World. (On the other hand, in the following chapter, the Samaritan woman will meet Jesus in the full blaze of the midday sun.)
Nicodemus begins by praising Jesus. No man, he says, could do the things that Jesus did if he did not come from God. (Given the fact that at this stage of John’s gospel Jesus has hardly begun his public life, it is odd that Nicodemus can make this statement. But it shows that the events described in this gospel are not to be taken with a strict chronology. This gospel is rather a set of themes about the role of Jesus for us and the world.)
Nicodemus sees in Jesus a prophet, a man of God but has yet to recognise the full identity of Jesus. Jesus counters by saying that no one can see the rule, the kingdom, of God unless “he is born from above” (or “born again” – both readings are possible and the meaning is basically the same). Though very common in the other gospels, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ is only used here in John (vv. 3 and 5). Its equivalent in the rest of John’s gospel is ‘life’. To be truly in the Kingdom of God, to be fully integrated in the Reign or Rule of God is to be fully alive.
Nicodemus hears Jesus literally. “How can a man be born again when he is old? Is he to return to his mother’s womb and start life all over again?” His misunderstanding gives Jesus the opportunity to lead Nicodemus to a deeper understanding. To be born again is to be born of “water and the Spirit”, a clear reference to Christian baptism. Flesh only produces flesh (as in natural birth) but the Spirit gives birth to spirit and that is the second birth we all need to undergo.
“You must all be begotten from above.” A statement directed to all and not just to Nicodemus.
And, once we are reborn in the Spirit, we let ourselves be led to where God wishes. “The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes but you do not know where it comes from, or where it goes.” The ‘wind’, ‘breath’ of the Holy Spirit is the sole Guide for our lives. He brings about our renewal in his own way. The word for “wind” here is a word which also means “breath” and “spirit” [Greek, pneuma, pneuma].
Once we are guided by the Spirit we have put ourselves totally in God’s hands ready to be led wherever God wants us to go. This is the message which is being given to Nicodemus. He must be ready to move in a different direction from that which has guided his life up to this. This readiness will lead him to see in Jesus the Word of God.
We, too, wherever we happen to be right now must ever be ready for God, through his Spirit, to call us in a new direction and to follow his lead.