Text Study for John 3:14-21 (pt. 2); 4 Lent B 2021

The cross shows up in John’s gospel early and often. In chapter two, Jesus replaces the Temple with his crucified and risen body. Here in chapter three, he describes being raised up on a pole like the bronze snake in the wilderness. That is, of course, a clear reference to the incident in our first reading from Numbers 21.

We get the power of irony in John in its fullness here. Jesus is raised up on the cross in order to be raised to eternal life. Just as the means of death in the wilderness becomes the source of life and healing in Numbers 21, so the means of death becomes the source of life and healing on Golgotha. Jesus descends into shame to be raised into glory. Jesus tramples down death by death, as the Eastern Church says in its liturgy.

Seeing God’s glory shining through the cross is what it means to see and understand the “heavenly” realities. John is not talking here about being able to see into God’s “throne room.” John is talking about understanding how God really works in the world. Luther would describe this as the theology of the Cross. The source of life is hidden under the form of its opposite, only to be seen with the insight given by the Holy Spirit. What appears to the world as defeat, death, and despair appears to the believer as victory, life, and hope. Here at the midpoint of Lent, we get a glimpse of the Easter glory to come from John’s perspective.

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We continue the instruction we received with Peter at Caesarea Philippi – to set our minds on divine things rather than on human things. Repentance – metanoia – means understanding heavenly things and thus seeing the cross for what it is. Repentance means seeing the cross as God’s chosen instrument of self-giving love for the life of the world. Only repentance can open us to the vision of Reality hidden under the form of its opposite. A theology of glory demands that we see the glory on the surface and is willing to use violence to make it so. It is the theology of glory that kills Jesus.

We can’t think or study or debate our way into that new understanding. That’s the way of the theology of glory and can only lead to darkness. That’s the weight of the conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:1-10. I don’t think one should preach on this Sunday’s gospel text without reading or at least referencing that conversation. The new understanding does not come through discursive logic. Rather, it comes through a new birth, a starting over, beginning from a new place.

This is being born “from above,” where the heavenly things are located. The heavenly things are in the light. Nicodemus is in the dark. He comes at night with his understanding in the shadows as well as his body. Perhaps it is the darkness of the tomb, or perhaps it is the darkness of the womb. Who knows? Will Nicodemus love the darkness more than the light? Or will the light shine in his darkness and not be overwhelmed by the shadows?

We get hints later in John’s gospel that Nicodemus “gets it.” He speaks on behalf of Jesus in the Sanhedrin. He assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. But his fate is left in doubt for us as the readers. We don’t know for sure.

The allusion to Numbers 21 in our reading is pretty transparent on its face. John 3:14 explains the connection. “And just as Moses elevated the serpent in the wilderness, so also it is necessary for the Son of Man to be elevated…” (my translation). John doesn’t use the Greek word for “raised” here. The vocabulary has more to do with “exaltation” than with resurrection. For John, the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension are all part of the same process of exaltation and glorification.

We also can catch a glimpse of a connection to Jesus’ “passion predictions” in the Synoptic gospels. The connection can be lost in English translations, but it is obvious in the Greek. We have that little word, dei, (“it is necessary”), that we encountered in Mark 8 a few weeks ago. While we do not need to regard suffering as a “payment” in some transactional sense, John also understands that Jesus’ confrontation with sin, death, and the devil, is going to produce the cross and resurrection. That’s what happens when Life takes on Death.

The result of witnessing the exaltation is that “each and everyone who puts their trust in him may have life for all the ages” (my translation). We will take some time on this idea of “eternal life” in John’s gospel in the next post.

There may be a bit more going on here in verses 14 and 15 as well. Is this another example of “little text, big context”? Perhaps it is. The larger context of Numbers 21 is that the first generation of wilderness leaders is dying. The first to go is Miriam, Moses’ sister. Soon after, Aaron is “gathered to his fathers.” Moses will not be far behind his siblings.

Who will lead us out of this wilderness now, the people wonder? The anxiety of this wondering provokes murmuring. The murmuring leads to complaining. But this time the complaining is different. It is directed not merely at Moses, but rather at God. It is perhaps no accident that the new leader to come is Joshua – also known as “Yeshua” or “Jesus.” John’s gospel may have this larger context in mind when referring to the Numbers 21 text.

The old teachers and leaders of Israel, represented by Nicodemus, don’t get it. They can’t take Israel where God is leading. What is required is a new birth, a birth from above, a birth do-over. The new age requires a new teaching and a new Teacher – a Teacher and Leader who comes “from above.” The same old thinking cannot take us to a new place or reveal to us a new reality. Einstein’s definition of insanity shimmers in the background here.

As we prepare to come of out of Covid-tide, there is perhaps a word for us as well. Can we embrace this new future and keep our old ways of thinking? Or must we be born from above in some way to transcend the loss and grief, the chaos and challenges of the last year?

The word for “above” (Greek, anothen) has much more to do with authority than it does with location. The boss at work, for example, may office on an upper floor or right next door. Regardless of the actual geography, it still makes sense to say that orders came “from upstairs.” Authority increases as we go “up” an organizational ladder or “up” the chain of command. We ascend to an office or position. “Above” is about authority rather than geography.

The writer of Ephesians works on this idea in the first two chapters of the letter. For example, we have this language. “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21, NRSV). The emphasis is on the authority rather than the geography. As Martin Luther liked to say, the right hand of God is wherever God’s power is at work.

That heavenly authority is effective in the “earthly” realm as well. “And [God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23, NRSV). That rule is now embodied, therefore in the Church, as the writer describes in chapter two. “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…’ (Ephesians 2:4-6, NRSV).

Clearly, we are not physically seated in the heavenly places at this moment, although Ephesians reminds us that there is more to come (see 2:7). But our seat next to Jesus is about the life we have been given and the stewardship commended to us by the authority of Jesus to extend that gift of life to a world beholden to death.

We accept and access this gift of life “by believing,” as John says. In the previous post we discussed that this is not merely intellectual assent but is rather putting all our trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah. That trust comes to us first as a gift from the Holy Spirit and not as an accomplishment of apologetics, discursive logic, or study of theology.

John 3:5 makes a clear connection to the gift of spiritual insight that comes through the new birth of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection. The Spirit blows where it chooses, not where we demand. So, we are chosen, not the choosers. The blowing of the Wind reminds us that this gift of believing is an act of Creation. Just as the Spirit blew over the waters of Creation at the beginning, so that Spirit blows over the chaotic waters of our lives and brings light and peace.

It’s not clear who is speaking from verse 11 on. Scholars debate where to put the quotation marks. That ambiguity is, I think, intentional on the part of the writer. The voice of Jesus speaks in and through the Church by the Spirit’s choice and initiative. The testimony is that the Son of Man is the real location of God in the world. In chapter three we have several references to Jacob’s vision at Bethel. This is really the master story underlying the narrative in John 2 and 3. Jacob has his vision of the ladder to heaven. When he awakes, he exclaims, “This is the house of God…God was in this place, and I didn’t even know it!”

That’s the sort of epiphany that Nicodemus needs in order to be born from above. So it is for us. In the next post, we will explore that further.

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