Without a doubt, John 3:16 ranks as one of the most well known verses in the Christian bible. It topped the list of most popular verses in 2016, finds frequent reference at sporting venues, and forms the cornerstone of countless sermons around the globe. Perhaps due to its ubiquitous usage, the verse is frequently applied in perplexing ways.
The recent suicide of Aaron Hernandez illustrates this well. Hernandez rose to notoriety not just for being a football player, but perhaps more so for his murder conviction in April of 2015. After being found dead in his cell, John 3:16 was found at the crime scene, both on the wall, and on Hernandez’s forehead. But what did Hernandez hope to communicate by this?
Perhaps Hernandez was conveying his faith in the cross to absolve him of all guilt for his wrong doing. Or, he may have been referring to his own sacrificial intention to provide financial security to his fiancé, as his cryptic suicide note indicated. Or as one Boston globe report on the story concluded, “it might have been ‘an ultimate protest,’ a final act of defiance to use such an affirming verse at the culmination of such a violent life.”
Born From Above
John 3:16 emerges in the midst of a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus opens the dialogue by paying Jesus a compliment, recognizing the source of his spiritual influence. Instead of thanking Nicodemus, Jesus appears to question his credentials: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
It is as if Jesus says, “Oh you think I’m from God? Well, you’re not even qualified to recognize those kinds of things.” Ouch!
This is where the train of thought seems to fall off the tracks. Nicodemus answers Jesus’ dig with a sarcastic reply about the dimensions of a woman’s uterus. Jesus doubles down on his position and scolds Nicodemus: “Do not marvel that I said you must be born again.”
If you were a 1st century Jew observing this conversation, you’d likely be cheering each scholar on. Many of the Rabbis engaged in these battles of wit like a prize fight. But the attentive listener would also recognize an important nuance of the conversation that Nicodemus initially tried to avoid.
In the phrase “born again,” the word translated as “again” can also mean “from above.” When Nicodemus snidely responds to Jesus about the impossiblity of returning to the womb, he obviously chooses the former meaning. But with his reference to water and Spirit, Jesus likely meant both: “Unless one is born again [through baptism of repentance], from above [by the spirit], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
How Can These Things Be?
This is where things get interesting, especially considering the position of Nicodemus in Jewish society. After assuming a posture of authority through much of the conversation, Nicodemus momentarily lets his guard down. When Jesus emphasizes the spiritual nature of this matter, it stumps Nicodemus: “How can these things be?”
This uncertainty may be a clue to why he came at night to begin with. Nicodemus knew what was in himself, and the questions that seized his soul. He didn’t trust himself enough to have this conversation under the watchful eye of others. He feared he was ready to believe in Jesus, and couldn’t confess this in public.
But this question is not the most surprising part of the conversation. That Nicodemus was in search of wisdom is obvious. The shock in his question is at what Jesus is insinuating.
Jesus connects a couple of very crucial truths in this conversation. First, you can’t be in the Kingdom unless you are born again, from above. This is a direct reference to accepting both the ministry of John the Baptist, and the ministry of Jesus. Second, everyone who is born again moves with the power of the Spirit. Nicodemus and his friends find this power impossible to understand, identify or control.
This alarms Nicodemus because of two possibilities that it presents. One possibility is that very, very few people can make it into the kingdom of Heaven. The Pharisees embraced an elitist view of salvation, but these requirements would exclude them as well. But even more surprising is what this requirement hints at, and Jesus confirms with his follow up statement: the Kingdom is far more accessible than Nicodemus thought. It is available to any who will receive it, and for all who are willing. This life in the Spirit is not unique to Jesus, or some elite religious group; anyone can have access to it.
At this point, the conversation moves to the now famous words of God’s love for the world, and the hope of eternal life in Christ. This promise offered great hope in answering a millennia old question: What happens after you die? To better appreciate how John’s audience grappled with this question, let us set the stage a bit.
As noted in an earlier post, John casts his gospel as a second creation story. With his intro, he draws the reader’s imagination back to creation, Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden. The mention of eternal life reminds the audience of the lost access to the tree of life. This familiar story in Jewish culture served as both affirmation of humanity’s nobility, and a reminder of its mortality.
But this story is often misread out of it’s original context. To help understand that context, consider the more ancient creation myth from Mesopotamia, the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. There too, the heroes squander their chance at eternal life. After seeking to achieve immortality through legendary acts, they are foiled when Enkidu dies. In despair, Gilgamesh seeks out a new solution. He learns of a life-giving plant which he is able to secure after much searching. However, while taking a rest on his journey home, a serpent steals the plant away, never to be found again.
Most of us today read the moral of these stories this way: “If only they hadn’t failed, immortality would be ours.” However, this is not the likely view of the contemporary audience. They were often unclear about the afterlife, as Solomon’s misgivings in Ecclesiastes reveal. John Crossan notes of the similar creation stories above, “Their common narrative of immortality as something humanity once had but quickly lost carries the message that humankind never could have had it all.”1)Crossan, John Dominic. How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian : Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis through Revelation. First ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 53-54.
This viewpoint was likely common among the Jews, at least until the last couple centuries before Jesus. During that time, division arose on the matter of our mortality. One religious group, the Sadduccess, strongly opposed any idea of an afterlife. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection after death, but only for those who earned it through rigorous obedience. Jesus offered something even more radical: the beginning of eternal life right now, given freely to all who believe.
Spirit Without Measure
Of course that broad promise largely contributes to the confusion around John 3:16. It is the context after it which properly frames the promise. In the story that follows, we find John the Baptist in the midst of professional crisis. He is losing all his followers to Jesus. Surprisingly, John accepts and even encourages this departure when he says of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” John then echoes the message of rebirth when he calls Jesus the one who, “gives the Spirit without measure.” Another affirmation that this gift is given freely to all who desire it, to whatever extent they need it.
This is what it is all about for John. He desires that his listeners not only turn from their hell-bent course, but walk in the newness of life. His commitment to this vision is why he is willing to take the path of professional suicide. It is why he willingly gives his life for the cause. John knows complete rebirth in the spirit is the only means to experience the life Jesus offers. He also knows that this rebirth comes only through complete surrender.
As John’s example shows, Jesus’ act on the cross is not simply the one necessary to rescue us to life– it is also the example for us to follow if we would receive this life. Jesus freely offers the hope of immortality, the escape from the threat of death, and the promise of eternal bliss. Not through some plant, or tree. Not as something that we can get tricked out of, but as something we believe in him for.
But mere mental assent is not enough.It comes to those who believe, yes, but this “belief” is a relational act that comes at a high cost. It means trusting him fully, to live as he lived, and even to die as he died. This calls for a life of self-sacrificing, and a perpetual emptying of selfish ambition. It calls for one to be born again, from above. It invites us to be filled, continually, with his spirit, to embrace it without measure. This is the promise of new life in Jesus. Only in accepting the path surrender, can the promise Jesus offers truly be received.
For Prayer & Reflection
Take some time to respond to God about the passage and primer you just read. Read through John 3 again, and let these questions help guide your prayer time.
- What evidence in your life, demonstrates you are living by the Spirit?
- In what ways do your ambitions need to decrease and the desires of God increase?
- Jesus offers you a gift without measure. How can you make space to receive more of the Spirit into your life?
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Crossan, John Dominic. How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian : Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis through Revelation. First ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 53-54.|