John’s gospel is one of narrative and theology. We have narrative that is
either interwoven with theology like the woman at the well (chapter 4) or
narrative that is followed by a theological statement. This happens in
today’s gospel. It becomes very important then that we look at a wider
context than just the set passage. This is why we have a longer reading than
that set for the gospel today.
The story is of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who seeks out Jesus at night. We
don’t know what he wants to speak to Jesus about because Jesus very quickly
seems to waylay the discussion and takes Nicodemus along a different path
altogether. We read at the end of chapter two that Jesus “knew what was in a
man”. It was this ability that enabled Jesus to “cut to the chase” and
direct conversations in ways that we might not expect. Jesus speaks of being
born “from above”. Another version is “born again”. Without looking at the
whole incident, we can, like Nicodemus, misunderstand what is being said.
And there is much.
Jesus speaks about baptism and being born from above/again. Nicodemus thinks
of physical birth rather than spiritual. Jesus speaks about the reason he
came (3:16), eternal life and judgement. A rich text from which to draw many
important images about our life and who we are and what we have in Christ.
Ultimately it is the well known verse of 3:16 that illustrates just how
easily we can misunderstand John. It depends on the emphasis. Often the
verse is seen from the perspective that God sent Jesus so we could have
eternal life. It speaks of a dictatorial God directing his son to come to
earth and die for us. If we concentrate on this, then we get one view of
If we place the emphasis that God “loved” the world, we get a completely
different view of God. God now becomes a God of love, generosity and grace.
Baptism and eternal life now become features that I can choose to embrace
rather than have forced upon me. By embracing them I have no fear of
judgement. This has to be a better option. All because God loved, Jesus
obeyed even to death on the cross.