John 3 – God saves mankind

Erkki Koskenniemi
Olli Huhtinen

Introductory remark: John’s Gospel and the sacraments

The third chapter of the Gospel of John prompts a difficult question. In comparison to the others, this Gospel does not speak directly about the sacraments. John does not repeat the words of institution for baptism and – surprisingly – does not describe the institution of the Holy Communion. Nevertheless, in the third chapter Jesus speaks about baptism and the sixth chapter of the Gospel is impossible to understand without relating it to the Holy Communion. Why does the fourth evangelist speak about the matter so implicitly?

We arrive to the same explanation as before: the Gospel of John is characterized by its own literary style, almost an artistic take on the source material. The author expects his audience to already know the sacraments and builds on all the work done by either his predecessors or by other teachers of the early church.

Nicodemus visits Jesus 3:1-21

By purifying the temple Jesus had decisively come to the public. Now John tells of the encounter between him and – humanly speaking – a genuinely influential figure. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and part of the Jewish ruling council. This council was the highest decision-making body of the Jews during the rule of the Romans. It is interesting to note that the Jewish sources mention a man called Nakedeimon. He was the richest man in Jerusalem at the time when the city was destroyed in the year 70. We do not have the sources to resolve whether we have come across the same Nicodemus which was mentioned by John.

The course of the nightly discussion is typical of the Gospel of John. No real conversation is achieved because Nicodemus does not comprehend matters related to the kingdom of God. He talks about different issues than Jesus. Soon after the conversation starts, Nicodemus gets silent and just listens to Jesus. We remember the words from the prologue describing how the Word came to his own world, but his own did not receive him, and did not understand him.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he was afraid of the Jews. Surely, other reasons for the strange timing remain. The Jews enjoyed conversing at night. The nighttime gives here a certain atmosphere to the discussion.

Jesus breaks Nicodemus’ words of praise and raises the central question of the whole conversation: Man must be born again – the Greek word also means from “above”. The choice of words is surely not a coincidence. Nicodemus does not understand this and therefore Jesus is trying to clarify the subject to him.

A human being on his own is completely unsuited for the kingdom of God and facing His glory. Man must receive a completely new life as a gift. This life is given to people in baptism, which is not the baptism of John, but the baptism in which the Holy Spirit is received.

The Holy Spirit can not be commanded or comprehended by anyone. As difficult as comprehending and commanding the wind, is to command the Spirit of God. Here Jesus talks about Christian baptism, but covertly in his own style. We understand that God gives to a man a completely new life in baptism. The Bible describes this miracle as a "second birth" - we born again.

While Nicodemus is still puzzled, Jesus links baptism and new life close to his own persona. Back in history, in the wilderness the people of Israel began to rebel against God and were punished by poisonous serpents. Those bitten by a snake suffered a painful death. God had mercy on his people and told Moses to raise a bronze snake to the head of a pole. Anyone who looked at it, was healed and did not die from the snake’s venom (Num. 21:9). Now Jesus is like this bronze snake. The Son of God, the Word that became man, is crucified and is mocked by all. In this way, he becomes the new bronze snake: those who look upon him, receive a new life, which Jesus described to Nicodemus. They will never see death. In this way, faith in Jesus and baptism belong together. Both are about God giving life into the middle of death. This is what means to be born again.

The last part of Jesus’ speech makes it clear that there are only two possibilities. There is darkness and light, faith and unbelief, truth and lie. God’s great love for the sinful world is revealed in Him sending his only son amidst darkness to save the whole of humankind. Now we all face the question of life and death: it is our relationship with Jesus. Wrath of God remains on those that reject God's only Son. Those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, are brought from darkness to light.

Injected remark: John and the theology of the cross

Typical to Mark and Paul is the so-called "theology of the cross". According to this theology, God conceals His glory, and hides His strength in weakness. Most clearly this is evident in the fact that Jesus himself dies on the cross, instead of living a life of majesty and glory.

Astonishingly John links the theology of the cross with the wonderful theology of honour. Jesus, “risen from the ground”, draws everyone to him. This happens in two ways. Firstly, Jesus is “raised” from the ground to be crucified, and to be mocked and ridiculed by all. Secondly, he is raised to the glory of God, from where he originally came, and into where he draws everyone believing him. In this manner, the dark night leads to glory, and humiliation leads to honour and glory. All this happens in order for the sinful world to be saved.

Two movements side by side 3:22-24

Historically interesting is the fact, that for a while, both the movement started by John the Baptist, and the disciples of Jesus, worked side by side. Jesus baptized people too, or more accurately: his disciples did (4:1). We cannot say anything about the details of this baptism. Seemingly, it was similar to John’s baptism which prepared for the coming of the kingdom. The coexistence of the two movements ceased when Herod imprisoned John.

And the two received one another… 3:25-36

The coexistence of two movements side by side of course raised the question of which movement had priority. Thus, John the Baptist has to answer to his disciples when they are looking at the people rushing to Jesus. John responds with a parable closely linked with rich imagery of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament often compares the relationship between God and Israel with marriage (Jer. 3; Eze. 16 and 23; Song of songs). These texts are probably on the background when John, without jealousy and conversely with joy, takes the supporting part. He is a friend of the groom, a spokesman who had helped to bring the groom in good relations with his love. Now Christ and his Church were already being acquainted. This fills John with great joy and rejoicing. The same image often appears in the New Testament, especially in the final chapters of the Revelations.

The differences between the two witnesses are staggering. John was a human and taken from earth; therefore his teaching is also earthly. Jesus was from heaven and his testimony is heavenly. It is true and right, although hardly anyone accepts it. He who receives Jesus’ words sees that the Father has given to His Son the power over everything, without any limits. In this way Jesus gifts an eternal life to all. He who rejects it is under the wrath of God. The testimony of John returns to the themes typical of the fourth Gospel: life and death (or this time God’s wrath), heavenly truth and wrong paths of the world. At the center of all is Jesus, the Son of God. Our whole life is decided in relation to him.