At our last Bible study a few weeks ago, we spent some time reflecting on a compelling scene from the early chapters of John’s Gospel: Jesus’ late night clandestine meeting with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21). This might seem like a strange passage to study ten days before Christmas – after all, there’s no manger, no shepherds, and no wise men – but this passage offers many answers as to what Child this actually is.
Right off the bat (John 3:1-2), we hear that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the religious teachers whose beliefs were actually most closely aligned to Jesus. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead. Pharisees would be credited Judaism following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD – reorganizing their religion into synagogue worship, much of which remains in place to this day. We see elsewhere in the Gospel that Jesus is hard on the Pharisees (Matthew 23) – this might be explained by both their common ideas and the future that lay in store for them. This may also help us to understand why Nicodemus would come to Jesus in the first place. His presence there at night is both a sign of his sincerity (Joshua 1:8 directs us to meditate on God’s word/the law day and night), but also of his fear; Nicodemus was not yet a wholehearted disciple. Beyond this conversation, we encounter Nicodemus on two further occasions in this Gospel: further questions (John 7:50-51) and assisting with his burial (John 19:39).
However, this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus represents his most memorable moment in the Gospel – and for good reason.
In John 3:3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “…unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus questions this statement, which gives Jesus the opportunity to clarify further what he means by a spiritual birth. Many evangelical Christians use the language of this verse – to be born again – to describe their experience of conversion. In Catholic understanding, we see in Jesus’ explanation, to be “born of water and the spirit” (John 3:5-6) as a reference to the Sacrament of Baptism. Nicodemus’ second question, “how can this be?” (John 3:9) prompts a rather strong rebuke from Jesus: how is it that a religious leader, a teacher of the law doesn’t understand something as basic as this? This is a reminder and a challenge to all of us: our understanding of God needs to go along with a growing faith in Him. In other words, we can’t come to understand all the things of God without knowing Him and growing closer to Him as well.
Then, using two Old Testament images which Nicodemus would have been quite familiar with Jesus explained his mission. The first of these is a title we often hear used to describe Jesus: the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14). He then talks about serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness to help cure the Israelites from snake poison. Daniel’s vision make up an important part of the Messianic hope which we believe is fulfilled in Jesus, and the cure provided by the serpent – raised up on a pole – prefigures the cure for sin which Jesus brings to us on the cross.
This sets the stage for the most famous verse found anywhere in scripture. People have written the reference for this verse on billboards at sporting events, and for some it’s the first (or only) Bible verse learned from memory. I’m speaking of course of John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In other words, sending Jesus to die for us is the single greatest act of God’s love offered to humanity. You might recall one of the most confusing stories from the Old Testament, told in Genesis 22, where God asks Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering to God. I often read this story and put myself into Isaac and Abraham’s shoes. How terrifying would it have been to see your father ready to end your life? How hard would it be to understand why God is asking something to unfathomable of you – to be the means of your own child’s demise? Thankfully, God never wanted Isaac to be harmed, but did want Abraham to uphold his side of the covenant (to learn to trust God even when things don’t make sense), but all of it leaves us a story that helps us understand what it means for God to give his son for us. John 3:17-21 explains to us the invitation and the promise that God gives to us through this tremendous act of His love. And like most acts of love, there is an invitation for us to respond. To make a choice between the light and the darkness (John 3:19-20), and ultimately, hopefully, to make a choice to do what is true and to come to the light (John 3:21).
May we come to know and to understand this incredible, selfless, love of God which invites you and I to be born anew through Baptism and to find a deeper faith and understanding.
(This is the fourth part of a Bible study I’m hosting with students at St. Peter the Apostle CHS in Spruce Grove during the 2017-18 school year.)