Nicodemus, the New Birth, and this week’s truncated pericope

“Truncated pericope” is a term I use whenever I come upon an assigned lesson from the lectionary that does not convey the full meaning of the text because important elements of its context are missing. The most notorious truncated pericope comes during the First Sunday of Advent. Whether it’s Year A, B, or C, the Gospel lesson for that Sunday picks up in the middle of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), specifically the portion in which Jesus speaks of apocalyptic “signs” such as the sun being darkened and the moon not giving light, stars falling from heaven, the powers of the heavens being shaken heralding, one would assume, the return of Christ, “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Such a reading certainly fits the theme of the First Sunday of Advent, and the overarching theme of the season, namely, preparation for Christ’s Second Coming.

The problem that becomes clear, when reading not only the entirety of the Olivet Discourse but also the wider context of the whole biblical narrative, is that the image of “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is not one of Christ descending from heaven to earth to establish his kingdom, but ascending from earth to heaven to receive his kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:13-14).

This is not to say that the three versions of the Olivet Discourse do not contain plenty of Second Coming material. It is only to say that the pericope in truncated form forces an incorrect interpretation of a major biblical image in order to fit it into the theme of the day.

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, is also a truncated pericope, although it may not appear to be at first glance. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading is John 3:1-17. The new ACNA lectionary cuts it off at verse 16 and the bulletin inserts from the provincial office, interestingly, end it at verse 15.

Those minor tweaks are not the problem, however. Obviously, the editors of whatever lectionary you are using want to focus this Sunday on the very familiar theme of the New Birth. That is well and good, but John 3 is not merely a discourse on how to be “born again.” It is an account of a conversation between Jesus and “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).

Understanding the wider context surrounding that conversation is important in developing a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the New Birth.

Nicodemus is often viewed sympathetically. Out of all the Pharisees, he is the one who bravely breaks ranks and seeks an audience with Jesus to learn more about him and his teachings. As John’s story unfolds, Nicodemus does, indeed, show signs of a growing awareness of who Jesus is but, as he is introduced in chapter 3, he is the very embodiment of all that is wrong among the Jewish religious elites.

To begin with, the opening of chapter 3 cannot be understood without first reading the last three verses of chapter 2.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

John has not constructed a favorable context for the introduction of Nicodemus.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2)

The context is even less favorable when Nicodemus is contrasted with John the Baptist, introduced in chapter 1.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

The contrast here is stark. John the Baptist was “a man sent from God,” a divinely inspired prophet with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees,” a member of the old guard who held his position merely by virtue of his birth according to the flesh. John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” His work was done out in the open, for all to see. Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” He snook away from his colleagues and met with Jesus under cloak of darkness.

John is intentionally playing one “man” off of the other. John the Baptist was the herald of the new order, a “man” anointed with the Spirit of God, bearing witness in broad daylight. Nicodemus was the embodiment of the old order, a mere “man” about whom Jesus needed no one to bear witness, seeing the “signs” but failing to comprehend their meaning (cf. John 1:5).

Nicodemus was bound up in generations of human tradition which made it impossible for him to grasp the truth embodied in the man with whom he was conversing under cloak of darkness. As a Pharisee, he understood the essence of Judaism was being a child of Abraham, a descendant of Israel’s great ancestor according to the flesh. But it was precisely this cherished tradition that put Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” outside of the kingdom of God. It was not enough to be born of Abraham. You had to be “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), that is, you had to be “born again” or, literally, “born from above.” Citizenship in the kingdom of God was not someone’s right according to one’s heritage. Jesus gave “the right to become children of God” only “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name” (John 1:12).

Nicodemus could not comprehend the things of the Spirit because his mind was dulled by the things of the flesh. He knew of no other birth than that which involved entering his mother’s womb, a feat which he could not imagine accomplishing “a second time.” The birth about which Jesus speaks is a birth “from above,” entering into the realm of God and being transformed by the power of his Spirit to be a part of a glorious new creation. Perhaps Nicodemus failed to understand precisely because he was so in love with the old creation. After all, he had done pretty well for himself under the present regime. He was wealthy, respected, and influential. Why should he have the faintest desire to be “born again?”

Yet, Jesus’ words, “You must be born again,” were spoken directly to Nicodemus. This well-to-do “man of the Pharisees” and “teacher of Israel,” this elite “ruler of the Jews” was staring God’s long-awaited Messiah in the face. But he was unable to see because the darkness of cherished tradition blinded him to the truth.

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