his article is part of the series, The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If this wasn’t the most well-known passage of scripture, it surely is now, now that Tim Tebow has penned it onto his eye-black! Despite its status with the general public, there are at least three important layers of politics in this text which are not widely known, which the preacher will want to consider in this Sunday’s, sermon on the gospel lection for Lent 4B.
The first is at the level of the narrative itself. The lectionary picks up the tale at v 14, but the setting, beginning with the first verse of chapter three, has one Nicodemus coming after dark to talk privately with Jesus. The text says that he is both a Pharisee and a “leader of the Jews.” These are two politically significant identifiers which cast the distinction between Jesus and his questioner in sharp relief. The Pharisees were a party devoted to strict observance of Torah, asserting that its observance, including activities usually reserved for priests, should not be limited to the priestly class in and around the Temple but observed by all Jews in all circumstances. Judea at the time of the story was a Roman province and thus under foreign occupation. The Pharisaic call for increased Torah piety was not simply a call to deeper religious observance but also a call to nationalistic resistance to the outsiders who had increasingly become more intrusive in Jewish life. Modern Christians often fail to recall the status of the Jews under Rome and thus, failing to see the patriotism in the Pharisaic position, mistakenly chalk up their concern for Torah to a simple-minded legalism and a slavish adherence to law for the purpose of salvation, being all the while ignorant of grace, which the Jews would later learn about from Christians. This is a caricature of the Pharisees, whose thinking was anything but simplistic, as one can tell by reading the Apostle Paul, who was trained as a Pharisee and who became earliest Christianity’s leading thinker.
As I mentioned, in addition to being a Pharisee, the text also describes Nicodemus as being “a leader of the Jews.” Presumably this means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, although the narrator does not say this for reasons I will discuss below. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish ruling council to which the Romans had given responsibility for much of the minutia of governance in matters pertaining to the Jewish faith. Judaism had been granted, as an ancient religion which predated Rome itself, an exemption (religio licita) from being compelled to participate in the state religious cults. One of the primary responsibilities of the Sanhedrin was the administration of the Temple and all of its ancillary activities. The Pharisees were a minority party in the Sanhedrin; its majority was made up of Sadducees, religious conservatives who rejected everything but the books of Moses as canon thus rejecting out of hand any talk of Messiah, who were widely held to be collaborators with Rome, at least later on in the century, as we learn from Josephus. Nicodemus is part of the minority, but he is in government nonetheless. So his coming to Jesus at night suggests an awareness on his part that coming during the day would likely have consequences for his reputation. But that he would still come and seek out Jesus like this further suggests that whatever power and prestige Nicodemus possesses is inadequate, at least on some level; otherwise, he would not be there.
But there is another level of politics involved in this passage. For the Gospel of John has long been known for its late date of composition in the first century. By the time of its composition, the Sadducees had been swept from power and the Romans had destroyed both the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, the cash cow of Sadducean prosperity. The Sanhedrin was thus no more, which may be why the narrator calls Nicodemus “a leader of the Jews” rather than making him a Sanhedrin member. The narrative thus comes in on two “channels”–the level of the story set around 30 CE and the level of the original reader, who would have lived around 90 CE, with the second level cutting even more sharply than the first. for in the reader’s time, it is the Pharisees who in ascendance, and the early Jesus movement that is being harried by them. The repeated references in John to being “thrown out of the synagogue” (e.g. 9:22, 12:42, 16:2), which may reflect the promulgation within Pharasaic Judaism of the Birkhat Ha-Minim, (lit., A Prayer for the Heretics) a statement barring the Christians from the synagogues, which many scholars date to this time In any case, what we have here for the original audience of this text is somebody from the party that has just kicked the Jesus movement to the curb coming to Jesus himself trying to grasp what is going on in Jesus’ teaching, addressing him with the honorific “Rabbi,” admitting that Jesus has been “sent from God,” and furthermore, that “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (v. 2). That the Pharisaic leader doesn’t “get it” is part of the politics of the story on both levels, in the manner of traditional folk tales in which the powerful are shown to be incompetent. But the Johannine story’s extraction of these three affirmations from Nicodemus is a very big deal, akin to Rush Limbaugh admitting the veracity of human-made climate change.
But he does not “get it” and we can forgive him if he doesn’t because Jesus here is talking about a whole other frame of reference than Nicodemus imagines. Jesus starts the pivot to that different frame in his enigmatic statement that the kingdom of God will only be seen by those “Born again” or “born from above” (v.3), and in this move he completely loses Nicodemus, who then all but disappears from the scene, except for the bewildered statement “How can these things be?” in v. 9. From there on out Jesus seems to be as much talking to the readers off the page as he is to any character within it. And his new frame of reference becomes clearer the more he speaks. The church has always known, from the Council of Nicaea to Rudolf Bultmann, that John’s Christ is a Cosmic Christ, and it is such a Christ that is presented to Nicodemus (and the reader)not simply a Jewish Messiah. Nicodemus comes looking for some clarification of traditional Jewish teaching; but he has no idea that he is speaking to the Preexistent Logos (John 1). He’s a Pharisee, and thus accepts the prophets as canon, and so is looking for the Messiah. But what is revealed to him is not what anyone had had in mind heretofore about what Messiah was all about. Jesus invokes the famous episode of the Serpent on the Rod from Numbers (this week’s OT lection), which being lifted up amid the people, removes their sickness. But in the shift in the simile, the Son of Man, Jesus, becomes that which must be lifted up, and the life that is offered is now eternal (v.14). Nicodemus, if he is hearing any of this, would doubtless not have known how to respond because the offer of eternal life was something new.
It is here that the third layer of politics emerges in John 3, namely the application which the text makes for salvation, ostensibly of the entire cosmos. God’s plan for the “only begotten Son” is universal salvation. It is a beautiful notion, and doubtless is the root of John 3:16’s widespread popularity. God’s “plan” may have started with the Jews, but it now includes everyone, a welcome development if you’re not Jewish, which by the time John was written applied to more and more adherents with each passing decade. Yet tucked in with the sweetness of salvation is proffered the bitter pill of possible judgment. Jesus goes to great lengths to disavow the idea, stating in v. 16 and then restating in v. 17 the assertions that God does not want anyone to “perish” or “to condemn” any one. God, rather, is all about saving the world. Yet what Jesus offers with one hand he takes away with another. We aren’t told what it means to “perish” here, only that God isn’t for it;. As it turns out, the promised salvation, in reality, will only be for those “who believe in him. . . in the name of the only Son of God” (v.18) As the passage winds down, it is quite clear that while universal salvation may well be on offer here, there are unmistakably people who are outsiders, there being a binary world of those who “believe” and who are thus in the “light” and those who don’t and aren’t. Moreover,the failure to be in the light is neither benign happenstance or ignorance, but is rather because these outsiders “hate the light” and “love the darkness,” as malign an ascription of intentionality as ever there was one.
In the end, John 3 presents a very troubling political-theological landscape: there is us and there is them, and “them” are where they are because they hate what we stand for. The warm and fuzzy feeling that is generally associated with John 3:16 can only be maintained if one stops reading right there. It gets divisive and not very loving thereafter.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is Minister for Worship at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.