Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Born Again

Our next misunderstood passage is John 3.

The first misunderstanding is the overall perception of what is happening in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is commonly believed that
Nicodemus was obtuse and unable to understand what Jesus was getting at.

Here’s how the conventional interpretation goes.

  • Nicodemus visits Jesus at night.
  • He says that Jesus must be a teacher from God because of the miracles that he does.
  • Jesus answers that one must be “born again” to see the kingdom of God.
  • Nicodemus, thinking that Jesus is speaking literally, asks how that is possible.
  • Jesus repeats his statement in more detail saying that one must be born of the Spirit.
  • Nicodemus asks how that can be.
  • Jesus chides Nicodemus for his lack of understanding.
I want to suggest to you that this view misses what is really happening between Jesus and Nicodemus. To understand this encounter, we must remember that Jesus is an eastern teacher and that he uses methods different from those we are used to.

  • Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a conciliatory statement that he must be from God. There is a debate about this among the Jewish leaders. Any other teacher would have seen this statement as generous. But in saying this, Nicodemus has put himself and his colleagues in a position to judge Jesus.

  • Rather than respond in gratitude, Jesus makes an outrageous statement. “You haven’t the first clue about the kingdom of God. You can’t even see the kingdom of God unless you are ‘born again.’ You must start over from the beginning.”

  • Nicodemus is taken aback. He came here to investigate Jesus, albeit with a friendly disposition. Instead, he is being put on the defensive. He understands perfectly well what Jesus is saying. He is somewhat insulted that this itinerate teacher without any credentials is instructing him about the kingdom of God. So he replies in kind. “Surely you don’t expect a man of my age to start all over from the beginning as if he were a Gentile convert?”

  • Jesus explains that the kingdom of God is spiritual and that only those who have been “born of the Spirit” can perceive it.

  • Nicodemus expresses his confusion.

  • Jesus then chides him for his lack of understanding. The one who can to investigate Jesus is now being grilled without mercy. If he doesn’t understand the simple things how is he ever going to progress to the advanced material? And he calls himself a teacher?
So what do you think? Once you see this encounter from this perspective it is hard to ever interpret it the old way. (Try reading Matthew 15:21-28 using this same approach. See if it doesn’t make more sense.)

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


Anonymous said...

Don Johnson says

I think you are right and never saw it that way before. Did you discover this on your own or from whom?

Thanks in any case,

Pastor Rod said...


I read this in a commentary somewhere a while back. It made so much sense that I said, "Why haven't I see that before?" I think this perspective is a key to understanding Jesus' teaching.


Anonymous said...

Don J. says:

Given that Jesus was a Jew talking mostly to Jews, one should read the Gospels in a 1st century Jewish context with a Hebrew mindset. However, being gentile, I usually think like a Greek. So it takes some work for me to understand.