NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 5: John 3-4

Today I focus on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, in John 3.

Nicodemus was a “leader of the Jews” which strongly suggests he was a member of “the” Sanhedrin (Gr. synhedrion or “council”).

The sanhedrin in Jerusalem, as it appears in the gospels, Josephus, and rabbinic literature, has been understood alternately as the high priests’ political council, the highest legislative body in Jewish Palestine, the supreme judicial court, the grand jury for important cases, the council of the Pharisaic school, and the final court of appeals in deciding halakic questions. Even the number of assemblies properly called “the sanhedrin” has been debated….The confusion concerning the number and character of the sanhedrin(s) is related to uncertainty about the structure and leadership of 1st century Jewish society in Palestine.- ABD, “Sanhedrin”

What do we know about Nicodemus?

Nicodemus is portrayed as a Pharisee who was also part of the ruling class in Judea (3:1), presumably a member of the Sanhedrin. John 19:39 implies that he was quite wealthy, and in 3:10 Jesus addresses him as the preeminent teacher of Israel. The above, combined with the fact that “rulers” and “Pharisees” are distinguished elsewhere in the gospel (cf. 7:48; 12:42), suggests that Nicodemus was a prominent figure within the governing group.- ABD, “Nicodemus”

John tends to like binaries, like good and evil, light and dark, day and night. Notably, when Nicodemus comes to speak with Jesus, it’s specifically said to be night. Some have read this negatively, to indicate that Nicodemus was evil or a coward.

Though Nicodemus is often portrayed as timid, Robinson (1985: 284) is probably correct in seeing him as quite courageous. Most likely, Nicodemus came by night, not out of fear, but to avoid the crowds that would have interrupted his interview with Jesus. His reaction to the council’s desire to arrest Jesus was boldly calculated to bring out the irony of their lawless act at the very moment in which they were ridiculing the lawless behavior of the “crowd” (7:49–51). And he certainly showed more courage at the Cross than did the absent Disciples of Jesus.- Ibid.

Nicodemus, apparently sincere, addresses Jesus respectfully. And then comes a conversation that is confusing to him, as well as us. Jesus says he must be born “again” or more literally “from above,” and Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Jesus expands on the idea… and we don’t know how the conversation ends. The scene fades out as Jesus talks. Does Nicodemus become a follower or disciple? Scholars differ.

Two points on being born again.
First, in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, there’s a bit of wordplay here, because the common word for “wind” is the same as “spirit,” Gr. pneuma (like pneumatic) and Hebrew ru’ach (that final -ch is guttural like loch). The text here says “the pneuma pneumas where it wants to, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the pneuma.”

Second, N.T Wright expounds on the rebirth.-

I have lost my birth certificate….
But, of course, the one thing that a birth certificate isn’t needed for is to prove that a birth took place. Here I am, a human being; obviously I must have been born. The fact that at the moment I can’t officially prove when and where is a minor detail.
When Christians discuss the ‘new birth’, the ‘second birth’ or the ‘birth from above’, they often forget this. Some people experience their entry into Christian faith as a huge, tumultuous event, with a dramatic build-up, a painful moment of decision and then tidal waves of relief, joy, exhilaration, forgiveness and love. They are then easily tempted—and there are movements of thought within Western culture which make this temptation all the more powerful—to think that this moment itself is the centre of what it means to be a Christian, as though what God wanted was simply to give people a single wonderful spiritual experience, to be remembered ever afterwards with a warm glow.
But that’s a bit like someone framing their birth certificate, hanging it on the wall, and insisting on showing it to everyone who comes into the house. What matters for most purposes is not that once upon a time you were born— though of course sometimes it matters that you can prove when and where you were born. What matters is that you are alive now, and that your present life, day by day and moment by moment, is showing evidence of health and strength and purpose. Physical birth is often painful and difficult, for the baby as well as for the mother. But you don’t spend your life talking about what a difficult birth you had, unless for some tragic reason it has left you with medical problems. You get on with being the person you now are.
So when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the new birth, and when John highlights this conversation by making it the first of several in-depth discussions Jesus has in this gospel, we shouldn’t suppose that this means that we should spend all our time thinking about the moment of our own spiritual birth. It matters that it happened, of course. Sadly, there are many, inside the church as well as outside, whose present state suggests that one ought to go back to examine whether in fact a real spiritual birth took place at all. But where there are signs of life it’s more important to feed and nurture it than to spend much time going over and over what happened at the moment of birth.- Tom Wright, John For Everyone

(This is a great “popular” 18-volume NT commentary by Wright, which I picked up on Logos when it first came out.)

In other words, Wright says, while your spiritual rebirth is important, it’s the new and changed life you live after that rebirth that really matters.

Jesus continues into 3:16, perhaps the most frequently memorized and quoted verse of the New Testament- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” We should not understand this “so” as “so much” but as “in this way” e.g. “Here’s how God loved the world; he gave his only begotten son…”


John 4:24 has sometimes been a point of contention, as the KJV says that “God is a spirit” and other translations read “God is spirit…” This is contrasted with the LDS doctrine in D&C 130:22 (1843) which says that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.” We can approach this two ways. We can opt for “line upon line”, that the NT reflects a belief in a disembodied god, because it hadn’t been revealed or made clear yet. After all, line-upon-line is probably what accounts for the potentially problematic statement in the Lectures on Faith c. 1835 (not written by Joseph Smith, btw), which contrasted the Father as a “personage of spirit” with the Son as a “a personage of tabernacle, made or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man.”

On the other hand, Israelites, early Christianity, and Judaism did not make a binary distinction or contrast between “spiritual vs physical”, and certainly thought God was embodied. Describing God as “spirit” does not, then, render him non-physical except through imposing a modern and popular distinction that doesn’t apply.  (I can dig up some references and reading if you’d like, otherwise see this further LDS discussion from FAIR here, here, and here. Cf. somewhere in How Wide the Divide.)

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One thought on “NT Gospel Doctrine Lesson 5: John 3-4

  1. Hi Ben,

    Are you saying that Joseph Smith was not the scribe that wrote the Lectures on Faith, or that Joseph Smith was not the author of the Lectures on Faith? What distinction are you making with your parenthetical?

    As always, love your insights.


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