Text Study for John 3:1-17 (Pt. 1); Holy Trinity B, 2021

“Seeing is believing,” goes the old chestnut. Few of us know, however, the original and fuller context of the saying. “Seeing is believing,” wrote 17th century English clergyman, Thomas Fuller, “but feeling is the truth.” Fuller was skeptical that English philosophical empiricism and its emphasis on the value of sense data alone could fulfill its promise to deliver The Truth. Instead, Fuller wanted to leave room for intuition, insight, and emotion in the “knowing” business.

The Gospel of John goes further and is more astute even than the Reverend Fuller. Seeing is not believing in the gospel. It may even be an impediment to believing in some cases. Instead, John tells us over and over that believing is what produces seeing. In an age when we are more and more familiar with ideas such as confirmation bias, anchoring, the halo effect, and the availability heuristic (to name just a few of our cognitive blind spots), we know that believing has a profound impact on what we are willing and able to see.

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Jesus declares to the befuddled Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, one is not able to see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, my translation). It is one’s worldview – what the Gospel of John would call one’s “faith” – that determines what one sees rather than the other way around. Nicodemus and his colleagues are focused on what they can see – the “signs” that Jesus is doing – in order to determine what they believe. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has things backwards.

As I have meditated on the mystery of the Trinity, I have usually begun with God the Father, moved to God the Son, and then proceeded to God the Holy Spirit. Lately, however, I have realized that in terms of faith experience, that order is precisely backwards. Faith in Jesus – God with us – begins as the creation of and gift from God the Holy Spirit.

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him,” Martin Luther writes in the Small Catechism. “But instead,” Luther continues, “the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel…” (page 31). Tim Wengert describes the Holy Spirit as “the beginning of God’s work with us” (page 59). The Holy Spirit makes dead flesh into living and breathing humans, enlivened by faith. Wengert writes, “Nothing can stand in the Holy Spirit’s way in making the dead alive: here, daily, by faith and forgiveness, and, one day, eternally, in the resurrection of the dead” (page 67).

I’ve never preached or heard a sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity that I remember. As most commentators note, sermons on doctrines do not make for compelling preaching. But engaging with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John is quite another story. As we listen in on this odd and confusing dialogue and the discourse that follows, we can witness and participate in the drama of faith and the mystery of Spirit.

Jaime Clark-Soles examines Nicodemus through the lens of literary analysis applied to classical works. Read her book chapter noted in the “References and Resources” for the details of the methodology. Suffice it to say that Clark-Soles’ analysis leads us to see Nicodemus as an important, complex, and unresolved character in the drama of the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is named, unlike most of the other characters who have faith-related interactions with Jesus. He appears four times in the gospel and at some critical junctures. Here in John 3 Jesus names him “The Teacher of Israel” (the NRSV translation notwithstanding). Something important is going on with this bashful Pharisee and “ruler of the Jews.”

Clark-Soles suggests that all the elements of the plot of the Fourth Gospel are present in the nighttime interview in chapter 3. “To believe in God’s only-begotten son is of utmost value and is rewarded with eternal life, exemption from judgement, and salvation. Unbelievers are judged and perish. One is judged,” she concludes, “based on one’s stance towards believing or not believing in Jesus” (page 136). At the end of the interview, Nicodemus has not fared very well and simply disappears from sight – for now.

There is often debate about where the direct quotation ends in John 3 and where the discourse directed to the audience begins. I think that’s a false distinction, and Clark-Soles appears to agree. Instead, the whole discourse is directed both at Nicodemus and at us as the more informed audience. Why all the attention to Nicodemus here and in other places in the gospel, she wonders, unless he matters a great deal to the process of the gospel account?

“I suggest this is best explained,” she writes, “if we consider that Nicodemus remains in Jesus’ hearing at least until 3:21; he is drawn to a relationship with Jesus that he will struggle with throughout the narrative, causing him to see himself as an individual able to differentiate himself from his ‘natural’ group. Given his status, this process must be a frightening, potentially cataclysmic proposition. Nicodemus ponders all these things in his heart,” she proposes, “until we meet him again in chapter 7” (page 137).

The fact that we will meet Nicodemus again sets him apart from most of the other characters in John’s gospel. Will he come to believe at some point in such a way that he can see Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God? Things don’t look good in chapter 7. Even though he steps forward to raise a procedural issue in Jesus’ defense (7:50-52), he is immediately shouted down and retreats back into silence. He is unwilling to be cast out in the way that the blind man will be expelled in chapter 9.

But rather than portray Nicodemus as a failed disciple, the gospel writer suspends judgment and waits for things to unfold. Clark-Soles observes that “the narrator again carefully shows that Nicodemus belongs to a particular social group, and his encounter with Jesus places him in a precarious position vis-à-vis his own group” (page 139). I have to wonder if such situations were common among the first audience of the Fourth Gospel. The drama in chapter seven keeps us wondering if Nicodemus will see the light before the end.

Nicodemus also appears with Joseph of Arimathea at the deposition and burial of Jesus in chapter 19. Joseph appears at this point in all four canonical gospels. Nicodemus appears only in the account in the Fourth Gospel. Why does he show up in this way? What if Nicodemus functions, Clark-Soles wonders, like the women at the end of Mark’s gospel? “That is,” she writes, “what if the open-endedness or lack of closure is a rhetorical technique that invites the reader to imagine the narrative time extending beyond the Gospel and directly into the reader’s own life?” (page 140).

Nicodemus is, in Clark-Soles’ terms, “an open-ended character” (page 142). He struggles to believe in ways that other characters in the gospel account do not. There is plenty in the gospel for those on the margins of their communities – Samaritans, women, disabled, foreigners, Gentiles, and even the dead! “But the educated, high-status reader with much to lose in terms of social standing by following Jesus,” Clark-Soles notes, “might find the character of Nicodemus true to their own situation” (page 142). Again, this seems to suggest that such people – those in danger of losing power, position, privilege, and property – were a major audience focus for the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

In fact, Clark-Soles argues, perhaps the character of Nicodemus should be the one in the Fourth Gospel with whom readers would most identify – the one with the most to lose by believing in (professing allegiance to) Jesus and the one who has not made a choice either for or against by the end of the gospel account. “The reader turns him round and round like a prism,” she concludes, “seeing the different angles and, in doing so, catches perhaps a glimpse of the complexity of their own motives and the potential cost of following Jesus” (page 142).

Perhaps the call in the Gospel of John is for Nicodemus and those like him to come to some resolution of the question of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. The Fourth Gospel, with the story of Nicodemus, “may finally move from having their mind on earthly things (power, status, fear, shame),” Clark-Soles proposes, “to heavenly things (Christ, the Father, birth from above)” (page 143). Whether this line of investigation fits with the gospel writer’s intention or not, I don’t know. But it certainly livens up the story for me.

And it gets the Trinity focus right. The Holy Spirit stirs up the gift of faith in Jesus in the waters of our baptism. That faith is the way that Jesus abides in us and we in him. Jesus makes God known to us because Jesus is the Father’s heart present in the cosmos. That’s a description of the Trinity I can appreciate. That description requires a response that will cost me. And the more I have in terms of power, position, privilege, and property, the more it will cost me. Will Nicodemus receive Jesus in the end? Will I?

References and Resources

Clark-Soles, Jaime. “Characters who count: the case of Nicodemus,” Chapter 7 in Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation. Edited by Tom Thatcher and Catrin Williams. Cambridge University Press, 2013. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bridwell/detail.action?docID=1303715.

Wengert, Timothy J. (translator). Luther’s Small Catechism with Evangelical Lutheran Worship Texts. Minneapolis, MN.: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008.

Wengert, Timothy J. Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2009.

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