Living By The Truth
Trinity Year A
John 3: 13 — 21
Introduction: Jesus Converses With Nicodemus.
After the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus carried out many miraculous deeds. He would not "trust himself" to the many people who marvelled. But there was one man Jesus did commit himself to. His name was Nicodemus. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and although Pharisee and scribe, he was very much in the minority among the powerful Sadducees. Nicodemus is often described as not having great strength of character. Such judgement shows little sympathy for his extremely precarious position. He was an honest, candid, inquiring person who wanted to deal openly with the facts about Jesus. He did not share the prejudices of his own class. He was in fact the very quintessence of Judaism. Eventually, despite all dangers, he became a disciple of the Lord. It is worth reading the opening section of Chapter 3 to learn from Jesus as he answers the real questions in the heart of Nicodemus.
In their discussion Jesus quickly takes the initiative and directs attention to some key understandings: what really is the kingdom of God and who are the true subjects who have a right to enter? He points to the need of second birth so that a person might partake of the very life of God.
He points to a spiritual kingdom of love where members share by faith in God's own life. Of course, Nicodemus asks how this can occur.
He is told that entrance into the Kingdom of God is conditional to their being born of water and spirit. For now all Nicodemus can do is ask Jesus, "How can these things be?".
This is the moment Jesus has been drawing his visitor towards, and all that follows up to verse 21 is in fact an answer.
Jesus implies that even a highly (and rightly) esteemed rabbi and teacher of Israel (as well as any other category of scholar) will not find the answers anywhere except in him. Jesus has given a new disclosure of the Kingdom of Heaven. No one can acquire this by their own right or strength.
The revelation of God in the Gospel is not the result of human thought or effort. Jesus claims, therefore, to be alone the revealer of God. In doing so he claims the office of prophet, for he opens heaven.
Our reading begins as Jesus shifts the emphasis and focus from the Kingdom to the King.
Some Notes On Our Text
In Verse 11, the plural pronouns used indicate a change from one-to-one discussion to general teaching addressed to readers. Nicodemus, who alone, of all the Jewish leaders showed the right dispositions to accept the Messiah, now fades from the discourse. The teaching of Jesus is thus presented as it applies to all people.
Jesus claims in the prophetic tradition to be alone, the Revealer of God; and the revelation is available for us since he is Son of Man.
Verse 14 and 15
Jesus claims to be Redeemer as well as Revealer. The choice of words in the original text to convey being "lifted up" has the double meaning of being raised up on the cross, and of being glorified in his resurrection and ascension to the Father. Jesus explains how his followers will be saved from spiritual death. In Numbers 21: 8 (etc) the Israelites will look upon the brass serpent "lifted up" for them to see and will be saved. In the same way, the Son of Man will be lifted up and be the cause for salvation of those who truly look to him. Jesus will be raised on the cross in the ultimate suffering but then raised to heaven to sit at the right hand of God: still as our representative. Thus he is not only prophet, but priest as well.
Faith in Jesus Christ is looking to him as the one given by God for our saving from the powerful grip of sin. Faith in him therefore brings life. Eternal life is simply the life in communion with the Eternal one. "Eternal" does just not mean "endless", but "belonging to the world to come". This is the basis on which Jesus allows himself to be seen as a King. He is a king who gives life to his subjects by giving his life for theirs. Risen and reigning at God's right hand, he dispenses the gifts of his ministry to all that believe in him.
This verse is a great revelation of the nature with of God and a tiny glimpse of the vastness of his love.
The word used for love was taken from the Greek translation of Deuteronomy 7: 8 and many similar passages. In John 3: 16, God's love extends beyond his Chosen People to all humanity.
Verse 17 and 18
These teach that Jesus has been sent into the world to bring eternal life. Wilful unbelief brings its own condemnation upon those who have no reason not to believe him. This is NOT a condemnation of non-Christians.
Verses 19 and 20
The UBS Translator's Handbook on John tells us: Verse 19 continues the theme of judgement introduced in the two preseding verses. If God sent his Son into the world to save the world, why then are some men still under God's judgement? Verses 19 and 20 answer this question.
First, in connection with the unbelieving authorities in our Lord's day: it was not that they lacked evidence of his Messiahship, but rather that they simply chose to hold onto their sins, and not some to him to be delivered from them.
Secondly, there will be those who are given the opportunity to hear and embrace his teaching, but who will remain unconverted. They do not really want to be changed, and do not really seek salvation. On the contrary, they wish, by whatever means, to bring pressures on others to conform to their dubious schemes.
There is a strong belief that those who choose the Lord will enjoy eternal life in this world. This understanding gathers momentum as the lesson progresses.
But to enjoy this eternal life, we are bound to "live by the truth", or literally to "do the truth". Truth does not belong to understanding only, but concerns the will. It requires action, deeds which can be examined under any spotlight without fear. That is the kind of relationship Jesus calls us into: one in which we look to him with total trust, and gain the ever-increasing ability to love as he loves.
There is a lot of tough talking here. In your reflections (lectio divina) you might focus a little while on what motives Our Lord may have for being so up front and to the point. Most of us learnt John 3: 16 by heart at a very young age. In your meditation group you may not wish to go any further than this great truth.
I can well understand the venerable Nicodemus discreetly visiting our Lord "at night". As one of the senior teachers of Israel he simply had to avoid the vitriolic and harmful comments of gossipers. But I suspect he also wanted Jesus to be alone. He wanted to talk heart to heart and truly confront important issues. He did not wish to be an anonymous member of a crowd, but to front up personally to the Lord.
Nicodemus is granted his wish. "I tell you the truth", says Jesus, "no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again". Our Lord can see that this elder-statesman is ready for teaching he has not previously revealed to anyone. What follows seems to be a typical rabbi-to-rabbi encounter in which each demonstrates a high level of respect for the other. When Nicodemus asks, "How can this be?" (a perfectly reasonable question after all !) Jesus seems to tease him just a little, saying in effect: "Well now, elder teacher of Israel, are you telling me you don't understand these very basic things". This is certainly not a put-down. On the contrary, Our Lord is actually affirming Nicodemus' humility and hunger for a vision of the truth. What follows from the Lord is beyond any human mind to fully comprehend. Many scholars tell us that the rest of the text (to verse 21)is from another occasion, and in fact addressed to a group. I'm inclined towards the view that this was originally addressed to Nicodemus and repeated several times later to others.
It is fascinating to behold the highly esteemed Nicodemus arriving in the dark "at night", being drawn into a most engaging time of literal enlightenment, and then departing back into the night at the high point of Jesus' teaching about truth and light. Without realising that he has been changed, he goes forth to spread this new light. The Lord closes with a statement in verse 21 which obviously sums up Nicodemus' own situation. He has, in his search for truth, come to the Light who has shared his light as a pure gift of God. It is hardly surprising this man became a committed follower of Jesus, and his family, prominent members of the infant Church after our Lord's death and resurrection.
Blessed be God's Most Holy Name.
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