Living by the Truth

Lent 4B

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 only marvelled. But there was one man Jesus did commit himself to. His name was Nicodemus. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and as a Pharisee he was very much in the minority, being outnumbered by the powerful Sadducees. Nicodemus is often described as not having great strength of character. Such judgment shows little sympathy for his extremely precarious position. He was an honest, candid, inquiring person who wanted to deal openly with the facts. 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 in God's own life. Of course, Nicodemus is somewhat baffled and discovers he has a lot to learn. To his credit he does not hesitate to ask questions. It is a common feature of people who do not understand something, to form a bias which gets in the way of any future spiritual growth. Nicodemus is recognised by Jesus as ready for the most sublime teaching. He is told that entrance into the Kingdom of God is limited to those who "are born of the Spirit"; who share the life of the Holy 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 (such as Nicodemus) 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 the Text

Introductory Comment

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.

Verse 13

No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaventhe Son of Man.

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

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,

Jesus claims to be Redeemer as well as Revealer. The choice of words in the original text to convey being "lifted up" conveys 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 of salvation for 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.

Verse 15

that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

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 who believe in him.

Verse 16

"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.

This verse is a great revelation of the nature of our life with God and a tiny glimpse of the vastness of his love.

The word used for love by the writer, St. Mark, 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.

Verses 17 and 18

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

Verses 17 and 18 teach that Jesus has been sent into the world to bring eternal life. Willful unbelief brings its own condemnation upon those who have no reason not to believe him. This is not a condemnation of non-Christians.

Verses 18 21

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."

Those who are looking for the Light of the World will find him, but those who prefer the cover of spiritual darkness will never find him.

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 which we look to him with total trust, and gain the ever-increasing ability to love as he loves.


There is a lot of straight talking here, but it is done to help us "make straight the way of the Lord". In your reflections (Lectio Divina) you might focus a little while on what motives Our Lord may have for being so up front and specific. 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 is this great truth.

A Personal Afterthought

I can well understand the venerable Nicodemus discreetly visiting our Lord "at night". As one of the most distinguished 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 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, esteemed 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 respected Nicodemus arriving in the dark "at night", being drawn into a most engaging time of literal enlightenment, and then leaving at the high point of Jesus' teaching about truth and 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 that 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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