The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 is rich, deep, and full of linguistic surprises for English-readers. The first surprise is that the highly educated member of the Jewish leadership council (the Sanhedrin), came to Jesus in the dark. More than an indication of the time of day, this was telling us about his level of awareness and consciousness. He knew a lot, and yet was not yet awake to what Jesus was seeing. The ensuing conversation was going to serve as a wake-up call. Nicodemus likely hit the snooze button many times en route to his awakening – as we all do. This presents an opportunity for all readers to ask themselves, how awake are we? In my experience, honestly asking the question is the first and greatest step toward becoming more awake and staying awake. When we don’t ask the question, we are very likely to settle into the cozy comforter of where we currently are. We may never even hit the snooze button, because we won’t even hear the alarm. I used to have trouble waking up – particularly in high school. I set up a mechanical timer to turn on my stereo at my wake-up time, which would force me to get out of bed to turn it off. If I had to physically get out of bed, I would stay up. Hitting the snooze button was too easy – I needed help waking up. How awake are you? Or are you setting yourself up by your lifestyle to remain asleep in the dark?
Nicodemus heard the alarm with Jesus’ words: “Unless a person is born [again, from above], it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom.” The Greek word, anōthen, is where we get the English word for “again”. But Greek doesn’t always translate easily into English, and things are missed. In this case, anōthen could be translated as either “again” or “from above” – two very different renderings. In his darkened state of mind, Nicodemus was stuck on the former understanding, while the enlightened Jesus was referring to the latter. Nicodemus was going to be stuck from the get-go because nobody can literally re-enter the womb, as he notes. Jesus was talking about a new perspective that hails from something more than what meets the eye. God is Spirit. To see God requires a new kind of eyes. This gives all readers pause to ask, which eyes are we using in our faith? Are we focused on flesh-and-blood when we really need to develop more spiritual vision?
After reminding Nicodemus of what he surely knew but hadn’t recently accessed, Jesus gave the most succinct statement about what faith is all about than anywhere else in scripture: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again” (John 3:16-17, The Message). To put it in a very short statement, Jesus is telling us to believe in love if we want to really, truly live. This may sound more like a Coke commercial, but it is actually deeply theological and infinitely practical. Once again, our English language does not serve us well in translating the Greek. The central subject is love – God’s love (agapaō in Greek), which is the highest source of all love. The goal is a quality of life (aiōnios in Greek) that is heavenly – the best we can hope for. The means by which we experience that life is in believing.
The Greek word, “pisteuō”, is what gives us “believe”. In our modern understanding, we generally equate believing with intellectual agreement. For many Christians, believing means agreement about orthodox positions about Jesus. The Greek word, however, actually has three facets of meaning. Like a three-legged stool, in order for the word to stand, all three legs have to be in place. Intellectual agreement is the first of those legs. A second is emotional assent, and the third is vocational. The emotional leg has to do with a gut-level conviction, a passion about the subject of belief. Think of being in love with a person. On paper, the object of your love may not be any different than 6M other people, yet there is something about that one that stirs your heart. That’s what we’re talking about. The vocational challenges our tendency to settle for lip service. Back to being in love with someone… When we are in love with someone, or someone is in love with us, we know it not because of a rational argument or strong feelings of passion. We know it because of action. The love notes, the hand-holding, the new priority of our time and energy – all are expressions of our intellectually founded and emotionally impassioned love. None of my college friends had to wonder if I was in love when I met Lynne. They knew it because they rarely saw me anymore. Why? I was in love. This is how we need to think about believing in God.
How do we fall in love with God? How can we fall in love with someone/thing so abstract? The love referred to is the Greek agapaō from which we get agape love. Agape is the highest form of love – it simply exists. It is the foundation of all other loves, in a sense. In a later letter to the churches, John says that God is love – that God’s character and nature are that love. So many times in the Old Testament, when a person would experience God they would give God a new name that described their experience. Many of those experiences and subsequent names reflect that love, and it was nearly always a surprise. Isn’t that really how falling in love works? It’s more than sex appeal. At some point, we begin to see someone in new ways, with new eyes, with new appreciation. When we’re open to it, we see beauty all over the place in this person, which takes us deeper into love. I would submit to you that creation itself – and all people in it – reflect the creative force we call God. Incredible beauty. When we sow into what we know is love, we see lovely things come from it, which only motivates more love. This God-as-Love is bigger than the universe, yet more intimately infused in us than we can ever really appreciate. God is both far away and as near as can be.
What happens when the three-legged-stool of believing is focused on the source of life itself? A life that is more and more infused with the same life-giving nature of love that is the generating force of creation itself. Why is it a whole and lasting life, as Eugene Peterson’s translation suggests? Because the life is rooted in that which lasts forever, and love, by its very nature, is interested in being whole, not fragmented. If you want a life that is rich, deep, whole, and ties into the very fabric of the universe (which means it makes a positive difference for all of creation), Jesus is telling us to follow in his footsteps that bring all three legs of belief into motion. It is not always aligned with the surrounding culture, but it is good and works for everyone.
If you read the full text of John 3, you will come across some very negative language, and the use of words like condemnation, judgment, and wrath. It’s not as ugly as it sounds. First, realize that the eternal life promised in John 3:16 has nothing to do with afterlife – it’s all referring to life lived on planet earth. Same with the negative stuff. If we’re not sowing into life and love, then we’re not going to reap the fruit of life and love. Instead of harmony and wholeness, we’re stuck with discord and fragmentation. No need for God to meddle – this is just common sense.
A final note about light and darkness. As noted, Jesus’ most succinct statement of what faith is supposed to be about is wrapped up in John 3:16-17. It’s predicated on understanding God as agape writ as large as the cosmos itself. But we are lizard brained creatures, and we easily resort to more fear-based faith where God is a judge waiting to bring down the hammer on all the evildoers. Both messages exist in the entire Bible because the authors of all the books of the Bible are human beings who struggle with the tension. Nicodemus was in the dark in part because he was rooted in that fear-based faith. Are we? Is our motivation to be faithful based on the fear of God’s retribution if we fail? Or is our motivation for faith based on our increasing love and appreciation for the countless expressions of God and love and life that call us to engage it all in loving, life-giving ways? The former cowers in shadow. The latter dances in the light. Which one are you choosing? Which one is stretching you?