John 3:1-17 can be found here...
Let’s talk about this passage from John’s gospel, a section that contains what is easily the most memorized verse in the New Testament, John 3:16.
Let’s talk about this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a conversation that gets very complicated very quickly, and, frankly, some days, leaves my head spinning.
But first, let’s talk about Pharisees. Pharisees were part of a movement in Judaism that originated with scribes and sages around the year 160 BCE. Their name comes from the Hebrew word perushim (פְּרוּשִׁים), which means, to be separate, or set apart. Pharisees believed in one God, and that the scriptures were divinely inspired, and that God took an active interest and role in human affairs. They also believed in free will, and looked forward to a resurrection of the dead at the end of all things, a world to come. Because they believed scripture to be divinely inspired, they took great interest in interpreting and observing the commandments—all of them, 613 in the Hebrew Scriptures, to be precise. Pharisees introduced the practice of calling those who were learned in the law “rabbis.” The Pharisees found themselves in conflict with the Temple priests, because they thought that prayers and blessings were not just the province of the priests, but that they belonged to all the people.
The Pharisees [practiced] a form of Judaism that extended beyond the Temple, applying Jewish law to mundane activities in order to sanctify the every-day world. This was a more participatory (or "democratic") form of Judaism, in which rituals were not monopolized by an inherited priesthood but rather could be performed by all …; [their] leaders were not determined by birth but by scholarly achievement.[i]
So: One God, scriptures divinely inspired, resurrection of the dead, the sacredness of everyday life, the desire that blessings be in the hands of regular people… As one pastor has written, “[To Pharisees] God was a loving father, who loved humanity so much that he gave us the Torah, the Law, so that everyone who followed the law would have eternal life (fellowship with God, now and forever).”[ii] Pharisees actually sound pretty great. So why is it that, out of the eighty-five times Pharisees are mentioned in the gospels, eighty of those mentions show the Pharisees in conflict with Jesus, or the disciples, or John the Baptist?
The traditional answer to this question is: it’s about the laws. The Pharisees tend to ask questions like, “Why are you eating with tax collectors and sinners?” “Why are you plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath?” “Why don’t perform the ritual hand-washing before you eat?” “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?” The Pharisees tend to ask Jesus questions that have to do with the law. Does Jesus teach that the law is important, or not? What does all this mean?
The Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. The gospel of John is pretty clear from the get-go on the symbolism of day versus night, and being in the light versus hiding in the dark. Nicodemus’ visit may be something he wants to hide—at least, for now.
The first thing Nicodemus says to Jesus is: Rabbi. We know that you must be from God. The signs you are performing could only have come from God.
“We know.” Nicodemus is not speaking only for himself. He is speaking for others—presumably, other Pharisees.
Jesus answers, “Amen, amen, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” And, every single bible in the world has a footnote here, one that says, “Or, born anew.” One Greek verb, two distinct meanings.
Jesus is saying: If you can see the kingdom of God in what I’m doing, you have already been transformed by God’s love. You are already resting in God’s grace.
So far, Jesus and Nicodemus aren’t fighting. They agree with one another.
Then, Nicodemus takes that other meaning—born anew, or born again—and says, “I’m not sure I understand. Are we talking about literal re-birth? Surely that’s not possible.”
Jesus takes this opportunity to mention baptism—water and the Spirit. He also takes the opportunity to emphasize the absolute freedom of God to act as God wills, and not according to our expectations.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The words “wind,” and “Spirit” are both the same word in the Greek. The Spirit blows where it will, Jesus says. God will do what God will do. And not even laws that God’s people have written down in God’s name will get in the way of the absolute and sovereign freedom of God to act.
God is free to fully endow both Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee with God’s grace and wisdom. In fact, in recent years, some scripture scholars have made the case that it is in fact possible that Rabbi Jesus was a Pharisee. Rabbi Jesus, who believed in one God, in the divinely inspired scriptures, and the resurrection of the dead, and the sacredness of everyday life, and who desired that blessings be in the hands of regular people… Rabbi Jesus, believed that God so loved humanity that he gave us that which would lead us to eternal life. And all the so-called “fights” we see Jesus having with Pharisees are, in fact, something the Pharisees did all the time: they debated the law freely and fully among themselves. Debate was believed to be the best way to arrive at the truth.
Nicodemus sees that God is with Jesus (and, probably, other Pharisees do too…). Jesus sees that the Spirit has already blown through Nicodemus, and anyone else who sees God’s work unfolding in and through Jesus. Jesus reminds Nicodemus that, despite the laws, which were put in place to help people to love one another as God had loved them, God is still free to unleash that Spirit anywhere, and everywhere.
Then, the passage takes a little turn. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a weird little story from the book of Numbers (chapter 21). I have a strong hunch that this story takes place at about year 38 of the Israelites’ wandering through the wilderness; nerves are fraying, patience is growing gossamer thin. The people are complaining about the lack of food and water and other creature comforts—much as they did early on in their exodus from slavery. But God seems to just snap here, because, instead of providing water or manna, God sends a bunch of poisonous snakes to take care of the problem. The snakes bite the people, and they die. It’s a weird story. Of course, the people tell Moses how sorry they are for pushing the Lord of heaven and earth to the breaking point, so Moses offers his thoughts and prayers, which, in this instance, turn out to be pretty effective. God instructs Moses to make a replica of a snake, and put it on a pole. He does so, and whenever someone is bitten by a snake, they can look at the snake, and live.
Here’s why Jesus brings up this strange story. He knows Nicodemus will understand right away what you and I are scratching our heads over. It’s a story about healing. It’s a story about God providing healing through that which is lifted up. The bronze snake was lifted up to provide healing, and so will the Son of Man be lifted up.
And that is no euphemism for “exalted,” or “revered.” “Lifted up” is literally what will happen to Jesus, after he has been nailed to a cross. Jesus will provide healing when he is lifted up on Golgotha.
Both of these are visions of God’s healing. Both of these are images of grace.
A wonderful definition of grace is, “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it.”[iii]
I saw an image of grace in a movie I watched this week, catching up on films in the aftermath of the Oscars. In this story, a very angry man, Jason, does a lot of terrible things, and hurts a lot of people. And in a strange twist of fate, he ends up, badly hurt himself, in a hospital room, and he happens to be sharing this room with one of the people he’s almost killed—a guy named Red. Jason’s face is very heavily bandaged up, though, so Red doesn’t know who he is. Jason recognizes his victim, though, and he starts to cry. Red—who has been so badly injured, he is still struggling to get around—tries to comfort the man crying behind the bandages. “Do you want some orange juice?” he says, which makes Jason cry even harder. Finally, the angry man confesses. “I’m Jason,” he says. And Red begins to shiver, as if his life were once again in danger. He’s clearly terrified. He returns to his hospital bed, and it seems as if he’s going to get in. But instead, he pours a glass of orange juice, and he opens a straw, and he places the straw in the glass, and he brings it to Jason. He places it on the bedside table, and he turns the bent straw so that the man who almost killed him can reach it more easily.
This is what grace looks like. There is no way Jason has earned that glass of orange juice. In fact, while watching that scene, I had a sickening fear that Red might turn the tables on Jason, as he lay there, helpless in his hospital bed. But that’s not what he did, because that was not who he was. He returned violence with kindness. He returned hatred with love. He gave that angry, hurting man a chance to rest in God’s grace.
The heart of what Rabbi Jesus says to Nicodemus the Pharisee is: God is love, and if you see that, God is already at work in you. God does not want condemnation, because that’s not who God is. God loves whole world, so much, that God has come to bring just what the world needs for salvation. God did not come in Jesus to condemn the world. God came so that we could rest in grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Wikipedia contributors. "Pharisees." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Mar. 2018. Web. 10 Mar. 2018.
[ii] Bill Trench, “Jesus Was a Pharisee (Seriously. He Was),” Thinking Faith, http://thinkfaithfully.blogspot.com/2016/02/jesus-was-pharisee-seriously-he-was.html.
[iii] “Our Wesleyan Heritage.”