Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nicodemus: So Much More Than 3:16

If you've ever watched an American football game, college or pro, you might have seen that guy in the stands (it's always a guy) holding up a hand-written cardboard placard that simply says: "John 3:16".
Unless you're a Bible nerd you probably don't know exactly what that verse says. So, if you're the curious type, you might grab a Bible (or simply Google it), and-boom--there it is:

‘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.'

For the guy holding the sign, I imagine this is his chance to evangelize to the thousands of people who have their eyes focused on an oblong pigskin sailing through the uprights for an extra point or field goal. He's hoping that those who do not believe in Jesus might come to their senses, wipe their chins of the chicken wing sauce, and present themselves to God.

I have never understood this evangelistic approach myself. The whole taking of a single verses from Scripture and waving them at a sports event... or in protest of LGBT rights... has always set my teeth on edge. And in these last few years of deepening my own faith, I have found that I hate the pulling of the lone verse here and there even more. Because so often, the part doesn't even come close to capturing the essence of the whole.

Such is the case with John 3:16. Jesus makes the statement as part of a much meatier, and interesting, dialogue with a man of intellect and knowledge of Torah named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is coming to meet Jesus in the darkness and is seeming to presume that he is going to have an "academic-to-academic" or "rabbi-to-rabbi" conversation:

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. --John 3: 2-6

I'm imagining that the intellectually-curious Pharisee is staring at Jesus with intensity and his head cocked. His brow is furrowed and he's trying to put these words together into something that fits with rational thought. And just as he's moving some of the puzzle pieces into place, Jesus, who knows this concept is a challenging one to this man and his mind, introduces another puzzle piece:

Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’ --John 3: 7-8

Now, Nicodemus is really scratching his head.

Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 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. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.--John 3: 9-15

These are the verses that precede the most famous one of football stadium fame. And what I see in them is what I see in myself sometimes. A person, who is not stupid, is attempting to grasp what sounds like a religious riddle, and make it understandable. Nicodemus felt that he was entering into a dialogue with a peer. How quickly he finds that Jesus is much more than most of the rabbis he's run across. In this last bit, Jesus is pushing Nicodemus to move from being wedded to the way things have always been and realize that he's talking of a new way of being.

‘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. Those 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. --John 3: 17-18

One of my struggles with John's gospel, or any of the New Testament, is this idea that we fix ourselves onto Jesus in a way that nearly smothers him. I believe in a Christ who entered the world so that we may see God... literally and figuratively. I also think that his goal was not to direct attention to himself, in his corporeal sense, but to always try to shed light, as it were, on God and bringing people's attention back to God, a spirit which he embodied. And so here they are, Jesus and Nicodemus, sitting with each other in the dark. Nicodemus with the questions, and Jesus with the mission to open this man's mind a little further and push him to a new level of understanding about the Law that is at the center of his life.

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.’--John 3:19-21

This is where this encounter comes to an end, but Nicodemus will appear again, especially at the time of Jesus' death where he assists with giving him a proper burial. I've always seen his recurring presence as a sign that something started clicking in his head after that first conversation in the dark. How close he came to becoming a follower of "the Way" is unclear, but he probably moved at least mile in that direction. The fact that we even know the name of the Pharisee who came to talk to Jesus under cloak of darkness I believe is a sign of a person of some stature recognizing that there is a new thing at work with this man Jesus Christ.
"But 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." I believe this is a sign that ought to be held up at a football stadium. I believe this is what is the constant invitation from God to all of us. Step out of the darkness and into the light, and let yourself be truly seen by God.


Phoebe said...


SCG said...

Me, too!! :)

Anonymous said...

Me also!