The Bema Podcast has been working its way recently through the Gospel according to John, and this particular episode really stopped me in my tracks. For a couple of reasons. First, I recently was asked to preach at my Church where we also are working our way through the Gospel of John. While the passage has since changed, inititally my thoughts had been focused on John chapter 3 and so this particular episode was one I found intriguing. Second, it completely reformulated two key parts of this passage that I have long misunderstood and misapplied, awakening me to a whole new way of seeing, in particular, John 3:16.
The podcast’s essential thrust hinges on the question, how would the original audience and writer have understood this passage? Leading up to Chapter 3 the podcasters have been building a case for the backdrop of the Genesis story as a necessary lens, which is generally understood by most scholars from the opening chapter, although perhaps not every reader goes so far as to recognize John setting out to write a new Genesis, which I think is the most accurate view. What might be less understood is the backdrop of the Exodus story, built as it is into the 2nd and 3rd chapters. Understanding how this imagery informs one of if not the most well known verses in the Bible (John 3:16) is crucial to hearing what it has to say in terms of Jesus’ own ministry.
Not to get bogged down in t0o much of the background details- this podcast episode and the previous ones leading up to it can do that necessary work and fill in the gaps; but simpy to narrow in on this passage where we can see already in verses 1 and 2 the establising of Passover as the context for the conversation with Nicodemus with the indication of “night time” pairing with verses 20 and 21 of chapter 2. Here we get a genuine question from Nicodemus, who as a Pharisee would have been genuinely concerned for the truth as it applies to his good Jewish faith. He asks a question, or makes more of a statement about Jesus’ identity using observations from the Torah and based on what he “sees” or observes from Jesus’ ministry, signs being a key motif of both the Exodus and the Gospel of John. “Rabbi” he says, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God”, to which Jesus replies “I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (vs 3) Again, the Bema podcsat help to flesh out the nuances behnd this conversation which otherwise sounds snarky and almost dismissive, as in “I know”, “no you don’t know anything.”
Now, I have always read this response and Nicodemus’ subsequent reaction (How can a man be born when he is old!?) as a simple matter of Nicodemus taking Jesus’ literally when Jesus is speaking of spiritual rebirth. Such a reading is largely dismissive of Nicodemus’ status as a Pharisee and, as Jesus puts it in verse 10, being “Israel’s teacher.” The Bema Podcast does an amazing job at deconstructing that reading and showing the deliberateness of the discourse as something that demonstrates real knowledge of the Law (the Law in this case being the Torah, and more importantly the Genesis-Exodus story). This is where it really transformed my own understanding. Things really get broken wide open with Jesus’ next response.
Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.John 3:11-13
The imporant part of this response is the phrase “we testify to what we have seen”, a phrase which echos the sending of the spies in Joshua (of which there were two, paralleling with John the Bapist and Jesus, the baptizer emerging immediately in Chapter 4 following this discourse). Here we turn our gaze from the wildernness, with the Exodus lingering behind us, to the image of the promised land. Jesus is in effect saying I have been to this promised new reality and I testify to what I have seen. And just as they did with Joshua they fail to “see” and “believe” what is really going on with their present situation. And here is what is equally important about this context. From Nicodemus’ perspective, seeing Rome on one side and his Jewish faith on the other, their reality was relatively stable given their past turmoil. Exodus and Exile are realities they would gladly leave behind and do not desire to return to. For those who have returned at this moment in time they are experiencing enough peace and enought stability to not want to disrupt the status quo. They can co-exist with Rome and, generally speaking, keep the fabric of their faith intact. This person named Jesus threatens to disrupt the status quo, which certainly would have been a real concern of Nicodemus.
Thus when Jesus speaks of being born again Nicodemus would have heard the call to, quite literally, return to Egypt, to go back to where their long journey started. This would have left him dumbfounded. So the question is why does Jesus suggest this? This is where Jesus says,
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”John 3:14
So here is where things get really interesting and what some might find especially challenging. I encourage you to listen to the podcast and give their full analysis a fair shake because given the context this makes so much sense. I have often understood this passage to be directed at Nicodemus, and it kind of is, just not in the way I often understood. The passage, with its intentional discourse, is not about Nicodemus’ salvation, it is about what that salvation was intended for. To borrow from the Exodus imagery, its about what the people were liberated for. Nicodemus would have understood the phrase “my only son” to be a reference to the Exodus story where it is applied to Israel as a “mixed multitude” and reapplied here to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story. In this sense the rest of this passage holds a double meaning in terms of Jesus’ story and the story of Israel. The point of the snake in the wilderness being lifted up is connected to that which we have seen and experienced and thus testify to as a message of hope. Just as Moses did so do they lift up this message of hope for the world. But how does this happen? They must be first born again, meaning that they must return to the beginning of their story (the Exodus) in order to know what the Exodus was for. They were not liberated so that they can simply get to the promised land, they were ilberated in order to be brought to Sinai. It is at Sinai that we find the covenant being established, where the point of being an established people testifying to God’s liberating work is fleshed out as a community “for the world”. This is where the shaping and transformative work can occur so that the “land” we are establised in can operate not in the language of Empire but in the new creation language of the Kingdom of God, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17). This is what the story of Jesus, formed as it is in Genesis-Exodus language, is ultimately about, and it is what Israel’s story and our story is also all about.
Now, here’s the challenge, and it requires modern readers conditioned to reading this one way to be willing to read it as a Pharisee like Nicodemus would have in his time and context. What if we were to take this reading of the text and apply it to the following verses as both speaking of Jesus and israel tangentally? How does this help accentuate the double meaning inherent in the discourse? More importantly, how does it challenge us as Christians towards a life that bears witness to being “born again” for the sake of the world? How might revisiting our own “exodus” story, be it collectively or personally, empower our Christian witness as one which can say “we have seen” the new creation reality and bring good news of hope and renewal in the here and now? How might it inspire greater awareness and participation as being the hands and feet of jesus, the ones tasked with taking the good news that saves into a hurting and oppressed world in practical and tangible ways? Perhaps this might unsettle the status quo, push back on that narrative that says Jesus saved me, I’m going to heaven, case closed, a mindset that makes it easy to then set ourselves apart as good while labeling the rest as evil. What if the verdict that follows here is directed towards us not “for” our salvation but to say something about our salvation, describing what Sinai desires to do in our own lives as it call us to live as a transformed people. We read it as the work of Jesus, God’s only son, and then we read it as the work of Israel also stated to be God’s only son, and then we apply it to our own witness.
This might be a challenge to read these following words in that way, placing ourselves in the category of God’s child in the context of these verses, but try it and see what comes from it. It just might be the words we need to hear in this present moment. The liberating words of being called Gods collective children who have been liberated as God’s image bearers and through whom the witness of the new creation can be made known to a hurting world: