John 3:16 in Context: Nicodemus at Night

Yup, Tim Tebow

Yup, Tim Tebow

If you were going to come up with texts that are among the Bible’s greatest hits, you would certainly include:

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.

It is a beautiful sentence that speaks of God’s nurture for creation, God’s self-giving, and the promise of life after life.  But there is no single sentence that is wide and deep enough to hold the Christian story.  So this sentence does not exist alone, it is part of a story that begins in the dark.  The Gospel begins: Jesus said to Nicodemus…  Who? Let’s go back a bit, to the beginning of the chapter. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of a reforming group of Jewish leaders who often sparred with Jesus but who shared many of the same goals–to bring people to holy living, to further the cause of justice.  Pharisees sound like the villains in the story because the worst fights are between brothers.  The text says:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.

Nicodemus came by night, when the crowds of people had gone and it was possible to talk.  And they had a wonderful conversation about life and salvation, rich in metaphor.  Jesus told Nicodemus that life is constantly renewed by the Holy Spirit, and that there was always hope, and vitality for those in God’s kingdom.  Jesus told Nicodemus that:

No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

which has led to the use of the phrase “born again” to describe some forms of Christianity.  The whole conversation, including Nicodemus’ question:

“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

is wonderful dialogue, completely consistent with Rabbinical debate.  Here are two Rabbis testing each other, matching wits, and coming to mutual understanding.

And what was it that Nicodemus wanted to know?  In his learned, probing way Nicodemus was asking Jesus who he was. And maybe because it was late, and they were alone, and Jesus thought that here was someone who might really understand, he told him.

Jesus described himself using the title Son of Man, which sounds like a way to say human being.  But that term connects with imagery in the book of Daniel that describes a vision of God (the Ancient of Days) and his anointing and commissioning of a younger divine being…”one like the Son of Man.”  So Jesus was pointing to the scriptures and opening them up to a seeker who was skilled in interpreting them.

We don’t know if they met again in daylight. Nicodemus is quoted in a debate with the Pharisees who wanted to arrest Jesus:

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

All we know is that after Jesus was lifted up on the cross and died, Nicodemus was there again on that day darker than any night, to lift him down from the cross, and prepare his body to be laid in the tomb.  Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, to be a companion, friend, and savior.  And we hear this story, and all of the others, and know we are beloved, and that though we go through darkness and death, life leads to life.

Children’s activity: The wind blows where it chooses…is one way Jesus described the actions of the Spirit.  Make wind socks.  Provide students with construction paper, instructing them to print this Bible verse on it:

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.

Roll the construction paper into a cylinder, securing it with staples, tape or glue.  Decorate the bottom of the wind sock with strips of tissue paper.  Attach string to the top for hanging.  Talk about how the Spirit is like the wind.


Mother Anne+

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