Born of the Spirit—Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2A (John 3)

 John 3:1-17 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.


                Back in the day, one might witness a man with rainbow hair in the end zones of NFL games waving a sign that had the enigmatic statement John 3:16 written on it. Those of us in the know recognize that this is a scripture reference that declares God’s love for the world, a love revealed through God’s only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. That declaration comes as part of a larger conversation about what it means to be “born again” or “born from above.” Ultimately, the conversation that takes place in the third chapter of John has to do with spiritual birth or regeneration.

                On this Second Sunday of Lent (Year A) the preacher has two options when it comes to the Gospel reading. If you’ve not already addressed the Transfiguration, you could turn to Matthew 17:1-9. For the more intrepid, they can take up this rather well-trodden passage from the Gospel of John. At first glance, one might wonder if there is anything new that could be said about this reading from John 3, and yet as many of us know from experience, new insights tend to emerge even from passages such as this one. For folks in my religious tribe, which tends to steer clear of the “born again” conversation, something new and enlightening likely would be welcomed.

                As the lectionary creators often do, John’s scene is cut short by a few verses. The actual pericope (section) ends in verse 21, but the lectionary reading ends in verse 17, which offers a promise of salvation for those who believe, since God didn’t send the son to condemn the world. While that would seem to be a good place to end, and preachers are probably glad the reading ends there, the remaining verses address matters of judgment. Jesus doesn’t condemn anyone because those who don’t believe have condemned themselves—so don’t blame Jesus if you fail to get into heaven. People who love darkness end up in darkness. When the light (Jesus) arrives, their deeds of darkness are revealed. The passage ends on a high note because John records that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (Jn. 3:21). I wanted to make note of these verses. After all, it will be important to be aware of them even if they’re not addressed directly in a sermon or Bible study.

                Chapter 3 of John begins one evening when a Pharisee named Nicodemus came under the cover of night (time of darkness) to chat with Jesus. Now, being a Pharisee, Nicodemus is a religious leader. He’s a person who seeks to be faithful to the ways of God, yet, according to John, he lacks understanding. That is, he’s in the dark about God’s ultimate purposes.  The question of the moment is whether he is ready to leave the darkness (lack of understanding) and embrace the light (experience some form of enlightenment) by embracing Jesus. According to John’s Jesus, we will be judged on whether we embrace the one who is the light. The alternative is to live in darkness. To live in darkness leads to doing what is evil. On the other hand, those who embrace the light of God will do what is good (vs. 18-21). As you can see there is a dualism involved in John’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus. So, which is it going to be? Light or darkness? The choice is yours.

                As is often the case when we read the Gospels, when Jesus encounters the Pharisees or other Jewish leaders, we must reject anti-Jewish readings. Those readings have often led to evil acts.

                With regard to Nicodemus’s visit, he seems intrigued by Jesus’ teachings as well as his miracles. Nevertheless, he’s afraid of what his colleagues might think of him if he embraces Jesus’ message. So, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he compliments Jesus on his works. As he sees it, no one could do what Jesus had done unless Jesus was acting on behalf of God. Nonetheless, he still has questions.  

                Things get interesting when Jesus tells Nicodemus that if he’s going to see the kingdom of God he will have to be “born from above” (NRSVUE). The New International Version offers the more common “born again.” Whether it is being born from above or born again, Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying to him. It’s clear that he’s stuck in the literal. That’s why he asks Jesus how he could return to his mother’s womb so he could start over in life. Now, Jesus is speaking in terms of spiritual not physical things here. Having been born of the water (physical birth), now he must be born of the Spirit. To enter the realm of God one must experience both physical/natural birth and spiritual birth. Perhaps, this dual birth is represented in the course of being baptized in water and the Spirit.  It’s worth noting here that earlier in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, declaring that while John baptized with water, Jesus would baptize with the Spirit (Jn. 1:29-34).

                There is a tendency to read this discussion in terms of punching one’s ticket to heaven. If you want to go to heaven (get saved) you have to be “born again.” To be “born again” one must experience conversion involving confessing faith in Jesus. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying the sinner’s prayer after reading the “Four Spiritual Laws.” For others, being “born again” involves the additional step of being baptized in water. Still others will add a “baptism in the Spirit.” Even here the process is rather minimalist. It doesn’t require much of us beyond confessing faith and perhaps getting a bit wet. That may be why surveys often suggest that self-proclaimed “born againers” don’t behave any differently from the general population. Perhaps you’ll remember seeing Christian flags being carried by some of the January 6th rioters as if Jesus somehow authorized this violent act.

                So, what does Jesus have in mind when he speaks of being born from above or born again? What does Nicodemus the Pharisee need that he doesn’t already have as a child of Abraham who, as a Pharisee, is committed to living a righteous life? In fact, I would venture to guess that he lived much more righteously than many Christians, even those who claim to be “born again.” That he does not yet understand, suggests more is needed, and that more involves embracing Jesus so that he might experience the fullness of God’s Spirit. 

                The key seems to be Jesus’ word concerning being born of the Spirit. For John, the Christian life leads beyond the physical/material/mundane to the spiritual. It involves embracing the light that comes from God. You might say that John’s Jesus is spiritual but not religious. John’s Jesus loves the world (Jn 3:16) but seeks to overturn the dominant power structures, which are spiritual. There is darkness and there is light. To be born of the Spirit is to enter the light so that the elements of darkness in our lives can be exposed and dealt with. This process is linked to belief/trust in Jesus. To do this involves allowing the Spirit to blow through our lives. According to Jesus, the Spirit blows where the Spirit wishes (Jn. 3:8). To be born in the Spirit means putting our sails and letting the wind of the Spirit  take us into new realms. In other words, Jesus wants to know if Nicodemus is ready to go where the Spirit leads/blows. What might that involve? Could it be greater spiritual maturity?

                Consider this word from Deborah Kapp’s pastoral reflections on this passage. She reminded us that we live in an age that prizes privacy of faith. We are encouraged by our culture to keep our faith compartmentalized. It can be public on Sunday mornings, for an hour, but after that, we put it away until we need it again. Nicodemus comes under the cover of the dark, seeking to keep his interest in Jesus private. So, Jesus asks him and us if we’re ready to move out of the private realm and enter the public realm as a person of faith. In asking this question, Kapp reminds us that new birth is a process—like gestation. 

God conceives us as Christians and nurtures us in the wombs of our faith, safe and warm and secret.  At some point, like any pregnant woman who is close to full term, God gets impatient with gestation and wants to get on with it; God wants to push that baby through the birth canal into greater maturity, into fullness of life, into a faith lived wholly in the world.  That is what Jesus talks about in this text.  Jesus thinks it is time Nicodemus came through that spiritual birth canal.  Perhaps he thinks it is time for many others to be reborn too.  God is ready to give us birth by water and Spirit. [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2: Lent Through Eastertide(WJK Press), p. 72].

            God loves the world and sends God’s own son into the world so that those who put their trust in him, much like the Hebrews put their trust in Moses’ icon of a serpent lifted up so that by embracing Jesus we will experience eternal life.  

                It’s worth noting that John has a realized eschatology. That is, when he speaks of God’s realm he doesn’t have in mind something that will come to pass in the future. Instead of envisioning a break between the old and new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5), the realm is already established in the coming of Jesus. With him comes eternal life that again begins in the present. What is necessary is for the Spirit to begin blowing into our lives so that we might be born anew (born of the Spirit). Therefore, as we embrace Jesus’ message and allow the Spirit to transform us, the world that is caught in the clutches of darkness is transformed. This happens as the light of God exposes the things of darkness so that they can be healed as we embrace the one who is lifted up (Jesus), even as Moses lifted up the serpent to heal the people after the plague of serpents attacked the community (Numbers 21:4-9). The reference to Moses is a bit odd, though the serpent on a cross is a symbol of the medical profession to this day.

                The message here is that God loves the world so the only begotten son is sent into the world to share that love with the world so that it might experience healing. Remember that Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn it, but to save it. That is, he came to heal it, even as the serpent on a pole healed the Israelites who were bitten by the serpent. Yes, this is the message of Tikkun Olam! 

Image attribution: Tissot, James, 1836-1902. Christ and Nicodemus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved February 25, 2023]. Original source:


Popular Posts