Into the light
A reflection on the gospel for the 4th Sunday of Lent Year B by Dries van den Akker SJ
This text is a fragment of the story of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus. This story begins in John 2:23 and ends at 3:21. The visit of Nicodemus takes place against the background of the Jewish feast of Passover ( John 2:13,23). In the preparation days of that feast, Jesus had cleansed the temple building [by casting out the money-lenders]. The meaning of that gesture is that Jesus changes the religion of sacrifice into a religion of prayer. He changes the Jewish temple building into his body (‘sanctuary’), that is: the community of his disciples. Immediately after that we hear the story of Nicodemus. Again, a story where the traditional Jewish religion is completed by the mystery of Jesus’s person.
ca 1880, woodcut moved from former Jesuit House Iñigo, Brugge, Belgium to...?
Both stories are linked to each other by the word ‘signs’. In 2:23 John writes: ‘Many believed in his name when they saw the signs he did...’ A surprising remark. For until now we have only heard about one sign, the sign of the wine miracle in Cana. This is called ‘the first sign’ (2:11). The second sign will take place in 4:54, in Cana as well: when Jesus heals the royal official’s son. But in the meantime John is speaking about Jesus’ signs, plural: ‘many believed in his name when they saw the signs (plural) that he did’ (2:23). And just before today’s text Nicodemus says to Jesus: ‘No one could perform the signs (plural) that you do...’ (3:2).
Of course, it could be carelessness of the evangelist John. It is also possible that John has the whole gospel in his mind when he starts to write it, and that he points forward to what will be told. In the coming texts Jesus will perform signs in: 6:14 and 12:18. In the meantime people regularly speak about the signs he performs: 7,31; 9,16; 10:47.
A third possibility is that all that Jesus does must be understood as a ‘sign’, even when it is not said expressively. That is the case with the sign of his passion, death and resurrection. When the story is told in the eighteenth to the twentieth chapter of the gospel, John does not use the word sign. But it was made clear by Jesus himself that we have to consider it as sign. When, after the cleansing of the temple building, Jews ask him what sign he could show that he should act like that, he answered: ‘Destroy this ‘sanctuary’ and in three days I will raise it up’ (2:19). There he spoke of his death and resurrection when answering the question about a sign.
All these signs point to the same mystery: that Jesus comes from beyond the human frontiers; what he teaches, does, demonstrates, yes indeed he himself comes from God.
That is clear even to traditional Jews. For Nicodemus starts his conversation with Jesus saying: ‘We know that you have come from God, for no one could perform the signs that you do unless God were with him’ (3:2). That is a hopeful beginning..., if John hadn’t written the introduction to this story just before this hopeful beginning.
For John links this story to the preceding one in a second way. He ends the story of the cleansing of the temple building as follows: ‘During his stay in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he did, but Jesus knew all the people and did not trust himself to them...’ [from here we translate the Greek text as literally as possible, and we pay attention to the word ‘man’] ’... he never needed anyone to witness of the man, for he himself knew what was inside the man’ (2:23-25).
Immediately after this conclusion John takes up the word ‘man’: ‘So, there was a man among the Pharisees...’ (3:01). Could the conclusion ever be anything else than that Nicodemus was such a man of whom Jesus knew what was inside?
What was/is ‘inside’ such a man had to be changed, for with Jesus a totally new beginning has taken place. And that is what the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is about.
2. Setting of the Conversation
The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus takes place during the night. Some scholars suppose that Nicodemus choose the night because he wouldn’t like to be seen with Jesus by his companions in the Jewish religion. That is quite possible. But John loves to use words in a double sense. Perhaps we must understand ‘night’ as a metaphor as well. I have the impression that John tells a story here that points back to his opening poem. There he writes (1:05), ‘And light shines in the darkness...’ Isn’t that exactly what happens during Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus? In John’s conception, Nicodemus came out of the darkness of the Jewish religion into the light of Jesus.
This interpretation becomes more meaningful when we remind ourselves that the talk between Jesus and Nicodemus took place in the night of Passover! Such a special setting for this conversation!
‘It was night’.1698, engraving Netherlands, Amsterdam, Printbybel
When we keep this in mind, Jesus’s words are more than meaningful (3:3), ‘No man can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.’ That is the issue: to be born from above. It is repeated in verse 7. In the meantime Jesus explains that we have to be born through water and the spirit (3:5). All these words: don’t we celebrate them – or indeed don’t we practise them when there somebody is to be baptized – during the night of Easter? In short, the Jewish believer needs to be baptized with the spirit which was/is in Jesus. He is speaking of the things which he saw when he was in heaven (3:12). He descended from heaven to make all the people ascend to heaven, and that can only happen to them if they are born from above...., if they believe..., if they have trust in Jesus’ signs and words.
Everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. This line is said two times (3:15 and 16). ‘To believe’ is one of John’s favourite words. It appears in this story seven times (3:12 [2x].15:16, 18 [3x]. In the whole gospel of John we hear it almost a hundred times (if I counted well: 97 times!).
‘To believe in Jesus’ is the key of John’s Gospel. To commit myself to him, to his words and to his way of life. Remember: he was ‘grace after grace’ (1:16). In the context of the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus doesn’t speak of ‘grace’, but he speaks about what will happen to him, and what the meaning is of that occurrence. He will be ‘lifted up’. That is an ambiguous word. It points forward to his ascension into heaven (3:13) and it points forward to the moment that he will be lifted up on the cross. He will be ‘lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert’ (3:14). A strange, perplexing image.
Snake in the desert
The image of the snake, which Moses lifted up in the desert, points back to Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites became impatient and they were punished. YHWH sent fiery serpents among the people. They bit the Israelites. To be saved from this plague, Moses made a fiery snake and raised it as a standard. Anyone who was bitten and looked up to it would be saved.
Does Jesus compare himself with that snake? I presume that the point of comparison is not that Jesus is like the snake. For then Jesus would have bitten his people? No, the point of comparison seems to be the fact that people who will look up to him on the cross will find salvation. Every human being is – so to speak – bitten by sin. But looking up to Jesus on the cross we will find forgiveness. He didn’t and doesn’t condemn sinners, but he forgives them.
He died because his people didn’t want his message of forgiveness. And even in that situation he forgave (Luke 23:34). That was what he had to do: to show that nothing, no evil power at all can overcome God’s love.
Moses’ snake and Christ’s Cross.19th century, stained glass. England, Canterbury, St Paul’s.
There can be no two ways about that. The cross is the banner of victory over evil. Everybody – though they may be the most serious sinners – who will look up to him and can believe that it is the ultimate sign of God’s love will be saved.
4. The Jesus of John
How did John come to this way of thinking? What happened, that he can even say that Jesus descended from heaven? That was certainly not the way of thinking of his Jewish contemporaries. For them, in the beginning God had created heaven as a residence for himself and he had created the world as a residence for the people. In the Holy Scriptures there is no mention at all of someone in heaven besides God. In the eyes and the ears of the Jews a blasphemous conception. How did John reach his conclusion in spite of his Jewish religious formation?
Let us take a step backwards and overlook what John tells in his gospel. According to the tradition he was a very old man when he wrote his gospel. After seventy years he looks backwards: what an impact Jesus has on his life and the life of his companions. He was a young man when Jesus stepped into his life. Perhaps the youngest of the disciples. And Jesus was so different. What he did and what he taught were so different. And doing good.
The Jewish way of thinking (and doing) [at this time] was certainly based on their love of God. But it resulted in loveless behaviour towards anybody who did not act according to their conceptions. Sick and unhappy people were declared unclean. Their unhappy fate – so they reasoned – was the result of a sin they committed earlier. What these people had done wrong was mostly unknown. But that they had done something wrong, that was clear. If not, they wouldn’t have been sick or in unhappy circumstances. These people were called ‘unclean’, they were excluded from society.
We find an example of this way of thinking in the story of the blind born man (9: 2). There the disciples ask: ‘Who sinned?’ He is born blind. Result of a sin committed earlier. So, who sinned? Does he have to suffer the penalty for the sins of his parents? Or is it even possible to sin in the womb of your mother?
Jesus’s way of thinking and behaving
Jesus strongly rejected this way of thinking. He was very different. He didn’t judge or exclude. He was touched by the doubly unhappy fate of these people. They had to bear a terrible fate and on top of that they were isolated and treated without love.
He consistently showed mercy and forgiveness; gave these people a second chance, made them new as they were meant by God when he created them. And he explained that he did all these ‘signs’ as a reference to God, whom he consistently called his Father.
It was so beneficial. So different. What Jesus had inside, we would say, that came from a different planet. John says: that came from heaven, from God himself.
And he developed the conception that Jesus came from God indeed. That the things Jesus did and the words Jesus spoke could only be possible and thinkable if you supposed that, before his human life, Jesus had seen and heard this in heaven, where God lives. That he had – so to speak – the same DNA as God has. John doesn’t speak of DNA but of ‘spirit’.
The words ‘from where is he?’ form a refrain in John’s gospel. For example in the conversation with Nicodemus: You have to be reborn ‘from above’.
To believe in Jesus is to receive his love and forgiveness. To presume that his way of life is the life-making way of life. John calls that ‘eternal life’ (3:16). In 17,03 it is Jesus himself who formulates what eternal life is: ‘To know You, the only true God and to know Jesus Christ who was sent by Him.’ To know that God is love. That is eternal life. To know and to believe that each of us is a beloved person!
Thus John can say that Jesus came from God. That God sent him to show the way of love. The consistent way of love. And even when people reject this, his love will go on. To receive and believe this is to be saved. Jesus didn’t come to judge. That is what the Jewish religion did till that moment. No, he came to save us from that judgement. If I don’t believe that, I condemn myself to another way of thinking than love.
God the Father (left) and God the Son (right) in heaven. They have decided that the Son will become man. From both descends a beam - ending in the dove of the Spirit - to the head of the Holy Virgin. 1910, J.W. Wainwright, stained glass. England, Birmingham, St-Francis.