Sunday, May 19, 2024


John 3:1-17
Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding John 3:1-17. This text is so well known that I am really looking for ways to re-visit "anew," so to speak. Your partnership on this journey is welcomed! 
In the second Sunday of Lent, Year A, this text is one option, along with Matthew 17:1-19, about which I posted two weeks ago. You can find my post here

At the bottom of the translation is a totally unrequested moment of commentary, which you are free to ignore. Sometimes I say things simply because I need to say them. 

I am also going to add something in red. I am trying to imagine this text with Nicodemus - not as a "bad person" because he's a Pharisee (we make that assumption way too often), but as someone who is privileged and approaches Jesus as a privileged person would. You are entirely free to roll your eyes as this experiment and ignore it, because I have tons of privilege and I'd be a fool to pretend otherwise. However, my privilege is a disease that I need to look at, fully and painfully, if I have any hope of being healed of it. So, the red stuff is me, horrifyingly imagining myself as Nicodemus and starkly in need of redemption to fully embrace Jesus. 

1ηνδὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων: 
Yet there was a man out of the Pharisees, Nicodemus his name, leaders of the Judeans; 
ην: IAI 3s, εἰμί,1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. “leaders of the Judeans” seems to modify “Pharisees” rather than Nicodemus, since it is plural.
As I said above, I am going to imagine Nicodemus as someone who is fully credentialed, "bona fide" so to speak, with all of the decorous titles that come from sincerity and hard work, as well as a thousand little privileges that go unnoticed in our lives. 

2  οὗτος ἦλθενπρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεναὐτῷ, Ῥαββί, οἴδαμενὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναταιταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖνἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ὁ θεὸς μετ' αὐτοῦ. 
The same came to him at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we have known that you have come from God a teacher; for nobody is able to do these signs which you are doing unless the God would be with him. 
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
οἴδαμεν: PerfAI 1p, εἴδω,to perceive to see,i. e. to turn the eyes, the mind, the attention to anything
ἐλήλυθας: PerfAI 2s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι,1) to be able, have power whether by one's own ability, a state of mind, favorable circumstances, permission or custom 
ποιεῖν: PAInf, ποιέω,1) to make  …  2) to do
ποιεῖς: PAI 2s, ποιέω,1) to make  …  2) to do
: PASubj 3s, εἰμί,1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. To this point, the “signs” that Jesus is doing would include the wedding in Cana, where the water was turned into wine, which the narrator declares the first sign that revealed his glory, resulting in his disciples believing in him (2:11). The next reference to a “sign” is part of the argument between Jesus and “the Judeans” when Jesus overturns the money-changers’ tables and drives them out with a whip of chords (2:13-22). In v.18 the Judeans say, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” – an indication that a “sign” is some sort of authentication or validation from God, not just John’s way of referring to miracles. Jesus’ answer is, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” a reference to his body, which the Judeans misunderstand by taking him literally and that the disciples only understand after his resurrection. Then, 2:23 says that many “believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing.”
2. There is always some question whether Nicodemus is expressing wonder, some kind of nascent belief in Jesus, or is simply being diplomatic. The note that he has come to Jesus ‘by night’ simply adds to the wonder about his motives. 
The question that always arises with this text is why Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus by night. If he chose to come at night because he is timid, it would fit into the kind of self-consciousness that often accompanies privilege, where one cannot risk questionable associations. 
Is Jesus supposed to be flattered by this seal of approval from Nicodemus and his cohorts (it is plural, "we know")? Those of us with privilege often presume that people are "blessed" or flattered or better off knowing that we approve. 

ἀπεκρίθηἸησοῦς καὶ εἶπεναὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγωσοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναταιἰδεῖντὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 
Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen amen I say to you, unless someone is born anew, he is not able to see the reign of the God.” 
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι,1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
γεννηθῇ: APSubj 3s, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children  1a) to be born
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι,1) to be able, have power whether by one's own ability, a state of mind, favorable circumstances, permission or custom 
ἰδεῖν: AAInf, ὁράω,1) to see with the eyes
1. This verse is often treated as if Jesus has essentially ignored Nicodemus’ comment and is launching into a discourse about being born anew. In fact, this verse is typically cited in itself, completely apart from Nicodemus’ initial comment as a declaration about what everyone must do. (“You have to be born again to go to heaven.”) The effect is that Jesus is declaring a dogma, but if we include Nicodemus’ comment, the entire focus of this verse changes. For example, would it follow that the phrase “see the reign of God” is not some general expression about ‘going to heaven’ but is a response to what Nicodemus has declared in v.2? 
2. Nicodemus has just made a claim about Jesus, declaring that he is clearly a teacher that has come from God because nobody could do the signs that Jesus is doing apart from God. It would stand to reason, then, that instead of Jesus simply launching into a sermon on the need to be born anew in general – a sermon that might be preached on any occasion with or without Nicodemus in the picture – Jesus is responding to one of three things: 
 A. Maybe Jesus is describing himself, in response to Nicodemus’ comment about Jesus. He himself has been born anew, hence he is able to “see the reign of God,” i.e. “do these signs.” The question of v.4 might indicate that Nicodemus is interpreting this to be about Jesus.  
B. Maybe Jesus is describing anyone who might “do these signs.” One who is born anew can “see the reign of God” i.e. “do these signs” that Jesus is doing. (This option comes closest to the common reading of v.3 as a stand-alone comment, but is still somewhat different.) 
C. Maybe Jesus is describing Nicodemus. Nicodemus claims, “we know” because of the signs Jesus is doing. Maybe it’s not just a matter of reading signs but a renewed way of being that enables someone to “see the reign of God.” 
This response from Jesus always feels like an abrupt change of direction, almost a non sequitur. IF Jesus is addressing Nicodemus, he has just deflected the flattery of v.3 with the observation that Nicodemus and his cohorts may not even be able to judge who is sent from God and who isn't. If they can judge, it would only be if they've been born anew, not because they have credentials. If I'm reading as a text addressing privilege, I'm going with option C above. 

λέγειπρὸς αὐτὸν [ὁ] Νικόδημος, Πῶς δύναταιἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναιγέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναταιεἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖνκαὶ γεννηθῆναι
[The] Nicodemus says to him, “How is a grown man able to be born? Is he able to go into the womb of his mother a second and be born? 
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
δύναται (2x): PMI 3s, δύναμαι,1) to be able, have power whether by one's own ability, a state of mind, favorable circumstances, permission or custom
γεννηθῆναι: APInf, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children  1a) to be born
εἰσελθεῖν: AAInf, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
γεννηθῆναι: APInf, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children  1a) to be born
1. The μὴ of the second question is often translated ‘not’, but in a question its purpose is often to show the expectation of a negative answer. That might be clearer with, “He is not able to go into the womb of his mother a second time and be born, is he?”
2. If Jesus’ comment in v.3 is about himself (v.3, note 2.A.), then Nicodemus’ words might signify: “How are you, a grown man, able to be born anew? …” 
This question is usually treated as a misunderstanding on Nicodemus' part - he is taking Jesus literally instead of metaphorically (or "spiritually," but please do not use that term for this story). What if Nicodemus knows exactly what Jesus meant. Is it possible for someone who is privileged to unlearn privilege? Can someone who has studies the fine points of the law, forget it? Could I (Mark Davis) - who holds a Ph.D. in theology from an academic system that is systemically fraught with Eurocentrism and has been coopted by privilege - unlearn the content and critical ways of thinking that I worked so hard to attain? IS THAT WHAT IT WOULD TAKE FOR ME TO SEE THE REIGN OF GOD? That's the kind of umbrage or shock that I hear from Nicodemus. It means he has to start all over again. Is that even possible? 

ἀπεκρίθηἸησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγωσοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναταιεἰσελθεῖνεἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 
Jesus answered, “Amen amen I say to you, unless someone would be born out of water and spirit, he is not able to enter into the reign of God. 
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι,1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
γεννηθῇ: APSubj 3s, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children  1a) to be born
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι,1) to be able, have power whether by one's own ability, a state of mind, favorable circumstances, permission or custom 
εἰσελθεῖν: AAInf, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
1. We now have a third expression, which is related if not identical to the preceding two expressions: “enter the reign of God.” What this means vis-à-vis “do these signs” and “see the reign of God” seems to be key in this conversation.
2. We also have the expression “born out of water and spirit” which seems to parallel “born anew” in v.3, and which Nicodemus is questioning in v.4. 
3. There is healthy debate over what the phrase “born of water and spirit” means. I see three options, each of which has some merit. 
A. It is not a reference to two different experiences, but a parallel to “born anew.” I am simply appealing to parallel constructions as a warrant for this option – the obvious parallels between vv. 3 and 5, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless …” 
B. Water and Spirit may be references to baptism of water and baptism of Spirit. I am not assuming a fully-fledged Trinitarian doctrine here, but John the Baptizer’s reference to “I came baptizing with water” in 1:31 and “the one who baptizes with the holy spirit” in 1:33. If we look backward, the phrase “water and spirit” seem to echo these two references from c.1. (NOTE: Jesus is never actually baptized in John’s gospel, as he is in the synoptic gospels. John the Baptizer makes reference to having seen the spirit descend from heaven like a dove, which sounds like the synoptic gospels’ description of Jesus’ baptism, but John does not, in fact, baptize Jesus in this gospel.) 
C. Water and Spirit – more specifically “being born of water and spirit” could refer to the birth of “flesh” (with a mother’s water breaking and everything) and the birth of “spirit.” If we look forward, this is where the conversation seems to be going. 
It is a rebirth of water and of the spirit. We do not have John the Baptizer speaking of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel of John as we do in the Synoptics. Instead, John proclaims his role as announcing Jesus and his baptism as subordinate to Jesus' baptism with the Spirit. As JtB says, in Jn.1:31-34, I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’
4. I want to keep doggedly exploring whether Jesus is, in fact, speaking of himself and is continuing to respond to Nicodemus’ initial comment about the signs that Jesus is doing. If Jesus’ comment in v.3 is about himself, this would be a way of clarifying, about himself, that his being “born anew” is not climbing back into his mother’s womb but a second, spiritual re-birth. 
Again, unless we're assuming that Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus, the point here may be that there is a kind of rebirth that is different from starting all over again. It is just as radical, just as incredible, and comes from getting in the same waters of baptism as all of the rabble that Nicodemus has tried so hard to separate himself from through his privileging credentials. 

τὸ γεγεννημένονἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένονἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν
The one who has been born out of flesh is flesh, and the one who has been born out of spirit is spirit. 
γεγεννημένον (2x): PerfPPart nsn, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children 1a) to be born
ἐστιν (2x): PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. This is a curious statement in itself, apart from the conversation. Within the conversation it seems to be a refutation of Nicodemus’ question and comment in v.4. 
2. One thing that I want to keep in mind here is the possibility that πνεῦμά can be translated as “breath” (or “wind”) and not just “spirit.” And as long as we’re looking at the metaphor of birth, I am reminded of how many cultures have tried to comprehend the miracle of life itself, particularly when someone is truly “alive” and “dead.” Before electronic measures of “vital signs,” breathing was typically the last sign of life and the baby’s first crying breath continues to be greeted as something like a successful birth. In an age where birthing was dangerous, miscarriage and stillbirth common, the distinction between being born of flesh and born of breath may have some very significant meaning. 

μὴ θαυμάσῃςὅτι εἶπόνσοι, Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν. 
You should not marvel that I said to you, ‘It is necessary for you to be born anew.’
θαυμάσῃς: AASubj 2s, θαυμάζω,1) to wonder, wonder at, marvel 
εἶπόν: AAI 1s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
Δεῖ: PAI 3s, δέω,1) to bind tie, fasten
γεννηθῆναι: APInf, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children  1a) to be born
1. I have some small quarrels with how this verse is translated in the ESV and NRSV. This verse begins in the ESV as “Do not marvel” and the NRSV as “Do not be astonished.” But, to “marvel” (θαυμάζω) is not in the imperative; it is an aorist active subjunctive. It may take on the force of an imperative, but I think a translation ought to save the imperative voice for imperatives. 
2. Second, the ESV has Jesus characterizing his comment from v.3 as, “You must be born again” and the NRSV has “You must be born from above.” In each case, the verb δέωis translated as “must,” which appears to be a simple imperative. However, the indicative verb δέω, (“it is necessary for”) is a very important term in the NT, which I feel loses its power when translated simply as “must.” I feel that there is a difference between “You must be born anew” and “It is necessary to you to be born anew.” δέωindicates – from its origin in “binding” or “fastening” – that there is a kind of necessity by an unnamed power at work. That unnamed power at work is actually the subject, not ‘you.’ Unlike the spirit – which is described in v.8 as “blowing where it will,” the persons to whom Jesus are speaking are not free to blow around at will, but are fastened to this destiny of being born anew. And, in v.14, Jesus is described as being tied to the destiny of being ‘lifted up.’ δέω is used 9x in John. 
3. The first “you,” implied in the verb as “You should not marvel” is singular, directed to Nicodemus as per the conversation. The second “you” a pronoun in “It is necessary for you to be born anew” is plural. That comment is directed at more than Nicodemus. 
4. I would say that the plural pronoun “you” here means that the conversation is no longer about Jesus, in response to Nicodemus’ originating comment about Jesus, but is clearly moved to a larger conversation. 
In this verse, Jesus makes it explicit that Nicodemus, and the ones whom Nicodemus invokes with his use of "we know" in v. 2, need to be born anew. In many ways, one would think they are the last ones in all of Israel who need renewed birth. Nicodemus is a leader, presumably one who has gone through all of the rigors of discipleship, leadership training, and accountability. And he needs renewal. 
I feel like this is the pressure point in my own journey regarding the privileges that I've assumed, taken for granted, and which have benefitted me regardless of how hard I've worked and how much I've struggled in my own right. It may be more than just 'the difference between head and heart,' that an occasional mentor might warn me about. It may be more than my need to be renewed alongside of what I have learned, or in addition to what I have learned, or in spite of what I have learned. It may be that I need renewal because of what I have learned. When my hard work and accomplishments have been within a system that is blind to its own complicity in oppression, that hard work and those accomplishments themselves need a kind of rebirth. 
The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee and well-accomplished, but also knew that the cross - the power of overcoming evil with good - transformed everything. It's not so much that he ever bemoans or regrets his training. It is that Paul's confidence is not in his training but in the power of the cross. 

τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλειπνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ' οὐκ οἶδαςπόθεν ἔρχεταικαὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει: οὕτως ἐστὶνπᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένοςἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 
The spirit/wind/breath inspires/winds/blows where it wills, and you hear its voice, but you have not known whence it comes and whither it goes; likewise is every one who is born out of the spirit/wind/breath.”
θέλει: PAI 3s, θέλω,1) to will, have in mind, intend
πνεῖ: PAI 3s, πνέω,1) to breathe, to blow  1a) of the wind 
ἀκούεις: PAI 2s, ἀκούω,1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear 
οἶδας: PerfAI 2s, εἴδω,to perceive to seei. e. to turn the eyes, the mind, the attention to anything
ἔρχεται: PMI 3s, ἔρχομαι,1) to come  
ὑπάγει: PAI 3s, ὑπάγω,1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
γεγεννημένος: PerfPPart nsm, γεννάω,1) of men who fathered children  1a) to be born
1. Some interpretive/translation choices in this verse come out of the word πνεῦμα and the related verb πνέω. πνεῦμα can signify spirit, wind, or breath. Hence, this sentence could read “the breath breathes where it will” or “the wind blows where it will” or “the spirit inspires where it will” or any mixture of the above. On the one hand, “wind/blows” works because the point is that we hear it, but cannot see/perceive its origin or destination. On the other hand, the last phrase “born out of the spirit” has gained resonance in the Christian tradition – due to the way this verse has typically been translated.
2. The word οἶδας is in the perfect tense, a past completed tense. Here, it almost assumes that human ‘knowing’ is dependent primarily on ‘seeing’ as opposed to ‘hearing.’ We hear the wind/spirit/breath, but have not perceived its origins or destiny. We remember that Nicodemus’ original comment said, “We have known” (οἴδαμεν, v.2). Maybe they saw the signs (like one hears the wind) but that does not mean they know where it comes from or where it is going. 

ἀπεκρίθηΝικόδημος καὶ εἶπεναὐτῷ, Πῶς δύναταιταῦτα γενέσθαι
Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How is it able these things to happen?”
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι,1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
δύναται: PMI 3s, δύναμαι,1) to be able, have power whether by one's own ability, a state of mind, favorable circumstances, permission or custom 
γενέσθαιAMInf, γίνομαι,1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. Since this is a ‘rough translation’ I will let the awkwardness stand for now. The verb “able” is singular, but the noun “these things” is plural. Hence, I am making the implied “it” the subject of “able.” In the end, I would smooth it out.

10 ἀπεκρίθηἸησοῦς καὶ εἶπεναὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;
Jesus answered and said to him, “You are a teacher of the Israel and do not know these things? (or“Are you a teacher …?or “… do you not know?) 
ἀπεκρίθη: API 3s, ἀποκρίνομαι,1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
γινώσκεις: PAI 2s, γινώσκω,1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
1. When Jesus calls Nicodemus a ‘teacher,’ he is circling back to the language that Nicodemus bestowed on him when he began the conversation (v.2). But, the word for “know” (γινώσκω) is different from the term Nicodemus and Jesus have previously used (οἴδαμεν, v.2 and οἶδας, v.8).  
Ouch. Trained in knowing everything except that which matters.  

11 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγωσοι ὅτι ὃ οἴδαμενλαλοῦμενκαὶ ὃ ἑωράκαμενμαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἡμῶν οὐ λαμβάνετε.
Amen amen I say to you, ‘That which we have known we are speaking and that which we have seen we are witnessing, and our witness you are not receiving.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
οἴδαμεν: PerfAI 1p, εἴδω,to perceive to see,i. e. to turn the eyes, the mind, the attention to anything
λαλοῦμεν: PAI 1p, λαλέω,1) to utter a voice or emit a sound  2) to speak 
ἑωράκαμεν: PerfAI 1p, ὁράω,1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know 
μαρτυροῦμεν: PAI 1p, μαρτυρέω,1) to be a witness, to bear witness
λαμβάνετε: PAI 2p, λαμβάνω,1) to take … 1d1) to admit, receive  1d2) to receive what is offered
1. Again, my phrasing may be a bit awkward, but I am trying to keep clear the differences between the perfect and present tenses at work in this verse. 
2. Now, Jesus is “we” as Nicodemus is “you (plural).” This verse, it seems to me, adds a new layer of interpretation onto this story. It’s not about Jesus per se and Nicodemus per se. It’s about “You (plural)” and “Us.” My guess is that it is about John’s community and the leadership of the Judeans. 

12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπονὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπωὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε
Since I said earthly things to you and you are not believing, how if I were to say to you the heavenly things would you believe? 
εἶπόν: AAI 1s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
πιστεύετε: PAI 2p (2x), πιστεύω,1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place  confidence in  1a) of the thing believed 
εἴπω: AASubj 1s, λέγω,1) to say, to speak
1. εἰ could be translated “if”, but when it is followed by an indicative verb, it is more like ‘since.’ 
2. One question is whether the binary ‘earthly and heavenly’ here is the same as the binary ‘flesh and spirit’ of v.6, or ‘water and spirit’ of v.5, or ‘going up into heaven and coming down from heaven’ of v.13, or ‘perish and have life of the ages’ in v.16 or ‘condemn and save’ of v.17. And maybe more. There seem to be many binary categories at work (‘believe and not believe’ in this verse), but it is not clear whether they are different ways of expressing the same essential idea or if they are different topics. 

13 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκενεἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 
And nobody has gone up into the heaven except the one having come down out of the heaven, the son of man. 
ἀναβέβηκεν: PerfAI 3s, ἀναβαίνω,1) ascend  1a) to go up  1b) to rise, mount, be borne up, spring up
καταβάς: AAPart nsm, καταβαίνω,1) to go down, come down, descend  
1. The term “son of man” is often associated with the synoptics, but it appears 12 times in John as well.  It is often associated with Jesus at his death and that’s where this text is going now. 

14καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεντὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναιδεῖτὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 
And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the son of man to be lifted up. 
ὕψωσεν: AAI 3s, ὑψόω, 1) to lift up on high, to exalt  2) metaph.  2a) to raise to the very summit of opulence and prosperity  2b) to exalt, to raise to dignity, honor and happiness 
δεῖ: PAI 3s, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten  1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains
ὑψωθῆναι: APInf, ὑψόω, 1) to lift up on high, to exalt  …
1. V.13 just made reference to the son of man having ‘gone up’ into the heavens. Now we have a reference to things that are ‘lifted up.’ John changes the verb fromἀναβαίνω in v.13 to ψόω here. ψόω could be a simple physical elevation or a metaphorical exaltation. The comparative “just as” is an indicator that the meaning here is determined by one’s reading of the story from Numbers 21:4-9. In the NRSV translation below, it simply says that Moses put the bronze serpent on a pole, indicating a physical elevation. 
2.Again the word δεῖ, meaning “it is necessary.”It is worth asking whether this necessity is written into the ages from the beginning to more of a necessity that arises because of something else that has happened. (That oughtta get the old-time Presbyterians going! It’s the infralapsarians v. supralapsarians all over again!)  
Per my "totally unrequested moment of commentary" below, I think the bronze serpent reference is incredibly important and particularly when "facing up" to privilege. It does no one good for me to stew in my white guilt, because that would turn the conversation about privilege from those who are oppressed by it to me and my fragile feelings. It is, however, necessary for me to "face up" to my privilege. It is there. I didn't create it, I didn't necessarily ask for it, I have simply benefitted from it and have taken all kinds of advantage of it. If I "face up" to it, I can begin to hear a new kind of insight, wisdom, and reality. Until I "face up" to it, I will never be able to do more than to frame "stories from the underside" within my privileged framework. 
It's not that I have to foreswear every book I've ever read, every lecture I've attended, or every mentor that has spoken to me deeply in my process of education and spiritual formation. It is, rather, that I have to "face up" to the privilege embedded in that process, in order to be born anew. 

15ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύωνἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃζωὴν αἰώνιον. 
In order that anyone who believes in him will have life age-during. 
πιστεύων: PAPart nsm, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in  1a) of the thing believed  1a1) to credit, have confidence  1b) in a moral or religious reference  
ἔχῃ: PASubj 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold  1a) to have (hold) in the hand, in the sense of wearing, to have  (hold) possession of the mind (refers to alarm, agitating  emotions, etc.)
1. I am following Young’s Literal Translation by translating ζωὴναἰώνιον as “life age-during”. It’s awkward, to be sure, but it also avoids all of the conjecturing about the best way to translate “αἰώνιον.” One lexicon, for example, says it means “without beginning or end,” which makes it curious that the same lexicon speaks of the phase “πρὸχρόνων αἰωνίων,” which it interprets as “before the beginning of time.” In that case, αἰωνίων cannot mean “without beginning” if there is a “before” connected to it. I suspect that the popularization of the Greek notion of the immortality of the soul has influenced how this word has been translated into “eternal,” instead of keeping some reference to “the ages” (αἰών), which is not quite the same thing (to me, anyway). Frankly, I agree with Paul Tillich that the Christian theological concept of “eternal” is a spatial/temporal symbol, meaning “the depth of time itself” instead of “linear time on and on.” 

16Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησενὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύωνεἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληταιἀλλ' ἔχῃζωὴν αἰώνιον. 
For in this way God loved the world, that [God] gave the only-born son, in order that anyone who believes in him would not be destroyed but have life age-during. 
ἠγάπησεν: AAI 3s, ἀγαπάω, 1) of persons  1a) to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly  2) of things  2a) to be well pleased, to be contented at or with a thing
ἔδωκεν: AAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone  2a) of one's own accord to give one something, to his advantage
πιστεύων: PAPart nsm, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in  1a) of the thing believed  1a1) to credit, have confidence  1b) in a moral or religious reference  
ἀπόληται: AMSubj 3s, ἀπόλλυμι, 1) to destroy 1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin 1b) render useless 1c) to kill 1d) to declare that one must be put to death 1e) metaph. to devote or give over to eternal misery in hell  1f) to perish, to be lost, ruined, destroyed 2) to destroy 2a) to lose
ἔχῃ: PASubj 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold  1a) to have (hold) in the hand, in the sense of wearing, to have  (hold) possession of the mind (refers to alarm, agitating  emotions, etc.)
1. Some modern translations begin this verse, “God loved the world so much…” , but I think that is a mistaken way of translating of oὕτως. It can mean ‘so,’ as the KJV and NRSV translate it, but ‘so’ not in the sense of “so much” as in the sense of “in this way.” 
2. The word μονογενῆ would be transliterated mono-genes. The phrase “only begotten son” in the KJV is more accurate than the “only son” in the NRSV, because it is rooted in the same word as γεννάω, which is used in vv.3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. The topic throughout this pericope is ‘born’ which in this verse it now qualified as ‘only-born.’ 
3. There are two types of historical contexts at play in the phrase “only begotten son.” One is the Roman context of John’s day, when various Caesars – dead or alive – would be declared a “son of God.” (See John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed’s In Search of Paul for a very good discussion of this issue.) The second historical context is the Christian theological tradition over this phrase. The exegete needs to be aware of this ongoing conversation when consulting lexicons and other tools. The “lexicon” in, for example, has an extended definition of this term which goes far beyond word study and argues for and against certain post-biblical interpretations. I have no problem with people commenting on the meaning of words (I’m doing it!), I just want to be clear that lexicons are not exempt from theologizing and opinionizing. They may be very well-informed opinions, but there are times when they seem to be grinding an axe that is not necessarily in the text itself. 
4. Likewise, why does the NRSV set this sentence apart as a separate paragraph? As endeared at this verse has become since the late 20thcentury, there is nothing in the text that suggests a change of topic. 
5. The verb πόλλυμι (destroyed) is in the middle voice. It is contrasted with having life eternal. If we think about it, ‘having’ is something of a middle voice also (although technically it is active). The customary use of a middle voice might suggest, “destroys himself”, but some lexicons insist Paul and John use this to mean the passive, “be destroyed.” 
6. Unlike the verb δέωin v.14 above, the verbs γαπάω and δίδωμι have a subject – God. God loves, God gave, but does God require that Jesus be lifted up on the cross? 
I have heard - third hand, so take it as you will - of someone who said, "When Jesus was on the cross he was thinking about me." I assume that this comment was intended to be a pious statement about Jesus' love, not about the speaker specialness. Nonetheless, I want to hold it for a moment. 
- Unless one says this about everyone,, as much as about oneself, it seems like a pious expression of narcissism. 
- If the point here is to honor the depth and breadth of God's love, wouldn't it be more powerful to name someone whom we customarily imagine Jesus would not be thinking of? Hitler? A child trafficker? If we cannot make this same claim about someone notoriously vile, then doesn't it really become a statement about our own worthiness? 
My point here is that if we want to embrace 3:16 as the heart of the gospel, there are ways to express it that point to God's grace and mercy; and there are ways to express it that simply reinforce our pre-conceived estimations of who is good and who is not. 

17οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλενὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃτὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ. 
For God did not send the son into the world in order that [God] might judge the world, but in order that the world might be made whole through him.” 
ἀπέστειλεν: AAI 3s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  2) to send away, dismiss  2a) to allow one to depart, that he may be in a state of  liberty  2b) to order one to depart, send off  2c) to drive away
κρίνῃ: AASubj 3s, κρίνω, 1) to separate, put asunder, to pick out, select, choose  2) to approve, esteem, to prefer  3) to be of opinion, deem, think, to be of opinion 4) to determine, resolve, decree 5) to judge  
σωθῇ: APSubj 3s, σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction 1a) one (from injury or peril) 1a1) to save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one  suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health  1b1) to preserve one who is in danger of destruction,  to save or rescue
1. My phraseology is a bit wooden here, but it is an attempt to pick up on the subjunctive verbs, which often follows “in order that” (ἵνα). The subjunctive mood speaks of possibilities, rather than declarations of fact. The first verb, ἀποστέλλω (sent) is indicative, the last two are subjunctive.   
2. Personally, I find this verse to be as important as the previous one. 

Here is the story from of the Bronze Serpent, from Numbers 21:4-9.
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonousserpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

And here is a related story about King Hezekiah and the Bronze Serpent, from II Kings 18:1-8
In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned for twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the Lord the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. The Lord was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. He attacked the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watch-tower to fortified city.

I worry that we’ve elevated John 3:16 in a way that has lost its moorings from this larger text. As mentioned above, there seems to be no reason why it is a stand alone paragraph as it appears in the NRSV. I’ve often called this the “Billy Grahamification” of the New Testament. I believe John 3:16 sounds different when we treat it like we treat most verses in the NT, in context and with respect to the echoes that are found there. To wit:  

In John 3:14, Jesus begins the thought that is continued in John 3:16 by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” The story, which Jesus is referencing, is from the Old Testament book of Numbers (c.21), one of the stories of the people of Israel on their 40-year wilderness journey. On this occasion, the people of Israel were complaining bitterly against God’s provision for them. When they had thirsted, and complained, God gave them water from a rock – the most unlikely source of water, to demonstrate that they could trust God to provide. When they complained because their enemies gathered armies to chase them off the land, God gave them astounding victories. And when they complained about a lack of food, God gave them manna– a strange food with a strange name that simply appeared in sufficient abundance each day. And when te people had complained that they at least had occasional meat back when they were enslaved in Egypt, God sent them quail to eat. On this occasion, the people came to Moses complaining again and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Of course, the “miserable food” that the people were “detesting,” was the manna that appeared with the dew each morning, which elsewhere is called the “Bread of heaven.” In John 3:14, Jesus makes reference to a story about those who did not welcome God’s gracious provisions. And, as the story goes, God punished the people by sending serpents among them, whose bite was venomous. And they cry out to Moses, confessing their sin, and begging Moses to implore God to take the serpents away. 

Now, to this point, it sounds like John 3:16 is exactly what we’ve often heard it to be. Jesus must be hung on the cross, so that people will confess their sins and gain eternal life. But, that sequence does not fit the sequence of the story of the poisonous snakes. In that story, it is after the people confess their sin that God instructs Moses to construct a serpent out of bronze, elevate it, and demand that the people look at it, in order not to suffer the consequences of their dissatisfaction with what God had provided. They had to “face up,” literally turn their faces upward and look at the effects of their sinfulness, to look at the consequence of being dissatisfied with what God provides. 

That is what is happening in Numbers 21. The people are not looking at the brazen serpent to be convicted of their sins. They are not looking at the brazen serpent to see how God has killed his beloved serpent in order to satisfy God’s own anger. They are looking at the serpent and seeing themselves, their dissatisfaction with God’s provision, the consequences of their own actions. To this repentant people, God tells Moses to set up a bronze serpent and the only way they can avoid the consequences of their actions is to face up to their actions. 

When Jesus says, in John 3:14, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,” we are invited to see Jesus on the cross this way. We do not look to Jesus on the cross to see how Jesus appeases God’s anger on our behalf. We do not look to Jesus on the cross to see that somebody had to pay, so God sent Jesus to do it in our place. The cross-hung Jesus shows us who we are. We are those who detest God’s gracious provision. We are those who will not abide the one who comes, not to be served, but to serve. We are those who live as if violence is capable of bringing solutions to our brokenness. We are those who would rather that one should suffer than for all to live with the consequences of our actions. We are those who continue to act as if the death of an innocent one is not a tragedy, if we can benefit from it. Looking at the brazen serpent was hard – it was how the people of Israel had to face up to their ungratefulness. Looking at Christ on the cross is equally hard – it is how we face up to our culture of violence and our willingness to let others suffer so we don’t have to. 

When we hear John 3:14 before we hear John 3:16, we hear this: God loved the world this way – that God sent God’s only son whose suffering death shows us who we are, so that by facing up to who we are we might be transformed to a different way of being. We “face up” to turn around. Therein lies the gift of eternal life. 


  1. It strikes me that being "born of water and the spirit" harkens back to the Baptism of Jesus, in which he gives the example of going under the water and coming back above it into new life, followed by the dove representing the spirit coming to rest on his head.

  2. It strikes me that being "born of water and the spirit" harkens back to the Baptism of Jesus, in which he gives the example of going under the water and coming back above it into new life, followed by the dove representing the spirit coming to rest on his head.

  3. I appreciate your translation of verse 17 - especially "that the world might be made whole through him." Eugene Peterson translated this as "He came to help, to put the world right again." Sin has flipped this world and its people wrong way up. Jesus comes to restore, heal, help us begin again, and especially to be born anew.

  4. Hi, I'm Hazel. I am the Unknown respondent above. I reset my blogger profile.
    In reference to Eugene Peterson's The Message, I notice he translate the 'so' of verse 16 in sense of how much not as in this way. I also agree that verse 15 leads directly into verse 16 keeping it in the same paragraph.

  5. Thanks, Sharon and Hazel, for the comments. Hazel, I'm glad you recovered your identity.
    I'm loathe to disagree with Peterson, since I appreciate his writings and his translation of The Message very much, but I do think "in this way" is a better rendering of Οὕτως than "how much."

    Thanks for your note regarding v.17. Nicely put.

    Sharon: One unresolved question in my mind is whether John is deliberately inscribing sacramental theology into his text or not. So many references to water, wine, bread, etc. are scattered throughout without explicitly connecting them to the practices of the early church. But, at times, they seem to be so obviously sacramental references. At other times, I wonder if we are reading sacramental references into them. In this case, I wonder if 'born of water' is more of a reference to the water that breaks at childbirth. I have no idea if the 1st century communities made reference to water breaking commonly or not. Or, it could be a baptismal reference. Or, it could be deliberately ambiguous. I just can't speak with conviction about it very often. In this case, it seems to me that the water reference is about birth itself. I could be wrong.

  6. We are rereading Genesis in my weekday Bible study, and one thing I have become conscious of is the connection between God and humanity through breath (in fact, the whole creation, see the Flood). I don't have this all worked out in relationship to this passage, but it's obvious from the early verses of John that he is connecting to the creation story, so I'm thinking there might be a connection.

    1. That's a marvelous observation, Emily. Thanks.

  7. I am so grateful for your honest vulnerability here, Mark. My sermon writing for this week has been pushed back to really think out the points you have made. What you have said helps me, too, to be more authentic in my reading of the text and the message to me. Thank you

  8. The comment above was me - Elaine.

  9. Thanks again for thought provoking, powerful commentary that leads me to the cross and the Gospel

  10. Thanks, y'all. This is hard and necessary work.

  11. It is indeed necessary - you've smoothed out a lot of stumbling blocks I've had over how I was taught to interpret Scripture. Thanks, always, so much.

  12. I received the following from a friend via another social medium. I wanted to bring it here to treat it openly.
    Friend says:
    I'm thinking about John 3:16 and I keep getting stuck on the work kosmos. That passage doesn't say, God so loved humanity. It says, God loved the World. For several years this has been on my mind. Jesus is sent not because God's love for humanity, but because of God's love for the kosmos. We are a part of creation but we are not through be all and end all of creation. I've wondered for several years if this is just a rabbit hole of my Greek geeking out or if it's significant. John Leith [a theology professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary] always said God's love for creation should be shown in the way we treat creation well. But does this reading of that God loves the kosmos which leads to Jesus being sent more than an excursus? I'd love to hear what you think...

    Hi Ed, always great to hear from you. I think it's great to lean into the word κόσμον so deliberately and to let the enormity and inclusivity of that term challenge us. John 3:16 has been so domesticated as a text about personal salvation that I'm not sure that we even her the κόσμον in it any more, except to the extent that I, and people like me, get to be included in it.
    I would think that interpreting κόσμον beyond humans is a way of honoring the text, rather than a tangential point. Initially we might have a broader view of humanity than us and people who believe like us, but it could open up a lot of possibilities to push beyond humanity itself into a larger view of κόσμον.
    So, let's say God loves hippopotami so much ... daffodils so much ... oceans so much ... that God sent Jesus. That would make the salvific event a much broader event than just the 'salvation of soul.'
    But, it is not without problems, because we'd want to lean into the rest of the verse (and, as always, v.17 along with it). As far as we know, hippos, flowers, and water are not the kind of rational, responsive, or volitional kinds of creatures that the latter half of v.16 is talking about. It would seem that all of the process behind "believing in him" is an anthropocentric construct (Perhaps St. Francis would disagree). So, in that sense, pushing the κόσμον too much might not sync with the remainder of the verse.
    Unless we hear it as something other than an either/or. Could the salvation of the world (in the largest possible sense of κόσμον) be intricately tied up with the salvation of humanity? (I'm feeling some parallels between this question and the question of God's covenant with Abraham and the connection with 'all peoples' in that covenant.)
    This is my first-thing-in-the-morning incoherent response for now.
    Again, great to hear from you.

    1. I'd always seen kosmos as 'the order of things' as in 'this world...'

  13. I am beginning to wonder if my empty cross is also privilege

  14. Thank you so much. I read you every week and your scholarship constantly informs my preaching. I have been thinking about this passage for a while- background is that I am no longer the evangelical thinker I began as. The thing that I am thinking about all the time is what it actually means to 'believe'. We think we know, but do we? Marcus Borg says it is more akin to 'belove' and it is certainly more than intellectual assent, one would think- (haha!). I would be interested in your comments

  15. I am also very interested in your comments about white privilege, as a white person who has displaced indigenous people in my country, as an educated woman speaking to those without the same advantage etc.

  16. Bill Loader points out that if we ignore chapter and verse, this follows directly on Jesus not trusting the trust of those who trust (honest!) because of the 'signs,' and here Nick is linking the signs to acknowledging Jesus' teacher status. The 'you can't get there from here' response is that of challenging Nick's approach of honoring the biggest baddest sign maker in town.


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