Sharing John's Gospel
by Craig Bogley

Session 4 - Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)

Environment - Equivalent to Session 1

Prayer - "Loosen My Grip" (Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace, 48-49).

Reading - John 3:1-21. Appoint a person to read the passage clearly and slowly. Suggest that each person listen for the overall organization of the passage, the mind set of Nicodemus, and the essence of Christ's message of salvation.

1. What are the two major sections of the narrative?

Facilitator - John 3:1-10 consists of a dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus. John 3:11-12 is a bridge section which brings the dialogue to a close, and then addresses the larger audience opening a discourse consisting of John 3:13-21.

2. What is the first major misunderstanding of Nicodemus?

Facilitator - Nicodemus can only understand being born again in literal terms.

3. What is the essence of Christ' message of salvation?

Facilitator - Salvation flows from the acceptance of the revelation of the heavenly in the Son of Man.

Reading - Chose another person to read John 3:1-21 a second time. Instruct the audience to pretend to be Jesus, Nicodemus, or a nearby observer listening to the dialogue and the discourse.

4. Describe what you experienced during the dialogue.
5. Describe what you experienced during Christ' discourse.
6. What is the setting of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus?

Facilitator - The Jewish setting is guaranteed by the presence of Jesus in Jerusalem. Note that in John 2:13 at the end of the first miracle story, "The Passover of the Jews was at hand, Jesus went up to Jerusalem."

7. From John 3:1-2a, who is Nicodemus and what is the significance of his coming to Jesus at night?

Facilitator - He is a Pharisee and one of the rulers of the Jews. Jesus, the Word, is "life and light" (defined in the Prologue, John 1:4,9), and the light was coming into the world. In John 1:5, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. The movement of Nicodemus from the darkness of night into the light is a significant step toward believing in the one sent by God.

8. What does John 3:2b indicate about the level of Nicodemus' belief in Jesus at this time?

Facilitator - His words to Jesus parallel many in Jerusalem who came to Jesus believing in his name because of the signs which he did. Nicodemus joins many of the first fragile believers who go further in accepting that Jesus is a teacher from God and that the signs he does indicate that God is with him.  This is a dignity usually reserved for the great figures of Israel such as Moses (Exod 3:12) and Jeremiah (Jer 1:8). This is progress from the open hostility toward Jesus shown by "the Jews" who rejected his word in John 2:18-20. The limitation of Nicodemus is that he cannot reach beyond the limits of the definitions which he knows too exactly.

Reread - John 3:3-8

9. What does Jesus attempt to do in the dialogue following Nicodemus' reflection on his understanding of who he is?

Facilitator - Jesus attempts to build on the limited understanding of Nicodemus. Jesus stated that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again/from above.  Jesus plays on the double meaning in the Greek word "anothen" in his imperative of rebirth in order to see God's kingdom.  Nicodemus is familiar with the notion of God as king, but the demand that he be "born again"/"from above" challenges his notion of what that kingdom might be.

10. How does Nicodemus respond to the double meaning of the word "anothen" for rebirth?

Facilitator - The double meaning is beyond his apparent comprehension. He asks a question showing he has neither grasped the full significance of the two meanings nor is he able to move outside the confines of his world: "How can a person be born again after having grown old?" One of the meanings of "anothen" lies on a temporal or horizontal axis (again) and the other on a spatial or vertical axis ("from above"). Nicodemus eliminates the meaning "from above" by using the word ("deuteron") that has only a temporal meaning: "a second time."

11. What does Nicodemus' misunderstanding afford Jesus the opportunity to explain further?

Facilitator - Jesus now explains what is meant by "anew" (of water) and "from above" (and the Spirit). He also provides insight into the meaning of "sight" of the kingdom by equating it to "entering" the kingdom. He says, "no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit."

12. What historical experience in Chapter 1 is there for a rebirth "of water" associated with the gift of the Spirit?

Facilitator - Note that in John 1:29-34 the Baptist explained that his baptism was "with water." He witnessed to one among them, unknown, who would baptize "with the Holy Spirit." Rebirth from above consists of a baptism "of water," perfected with the baptism of the Spirit, the gift of Jesus. Nicodemus in the narrative is not aware of the words of the Prologue and had not heard the Baptist's witness to Jesus, hence he is baffled.

13. What is your understanding of Jesus' comment in John 3:6 regarding Nicodemus' failure to grasp his meaning?

Facilitator - To be born of the flesh means to be content with one's human capabilities. Living in the flesh means functioning with these capabilities. Birth in the Spirit implies a different way of seeing and understanding. This is a rebirth through gift from above.

14. What does Jesus attempt to do for Nicodemus in John 3:8?

Facilitator - Jesus relates a brief parable on "the wind/the Spirit." The wind is a mystery, but everyone can experience it. Thus it is with those born in the Spirit. The Spirit like the wind is beyond control and incomprehensible. Nicodemus ' response is limited since he does not perceive that he is summoned into God's realm. Jesus finally chides his inability to move beyond his limited categories into the mysterious life in the Spirit which is being offered. The bridge passage, John 3:11-12, brings the encounter with Nicodemus to a close, and then Jesus addresses a larger audience, opening the discourse in John 3:13-21.

15. Contrast the revealers of Israel such as Moses, with the revelation of the Son of Man.

Facilitator - None of the great revealers of Israel had ever been to heaven, seen heavenly secrets, and returned to reveal them. Only Jesus, the Son of Man who has come down from heaven can reveal the secrets of heaven.. Jesus repeats what has been said in the Prologue, John 1:18: "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is turned toward the Father, he has made him known." In Num 21:8-9 (read aloud) the people of Israel, suffering in their sins, looked upon the raised serpent to be healed. Eternal life will come to the ones who believe in the elevated Son of Man.

16. What does the discourse teach about those who believe in Jesus and those who do not in John 3:18?

Facilitator - This raises the issue of God's judgement, those who believe in him have gained eternal life, while those who do not are already condemned. The evangelist then returns to the language of the Prologue speaking of "life," "light," and "darkness." Belief/trust leads to life, unbelief/distrust produces condemnation and death. Lack of belief brings self-condemnation evidence by evil deeds and the presence of darkness. Johannine eschatology stresses the response of the believer, not the action of God. "Jesus alone makes God known and judgement flows from acceptance or refusal of that revelation."

17. What do you believe about the fate of Nicodemus?

Facilitator - Note that Nicodemus' belief does not match the established criteria in John, however all may not be lost. He demonstrates an initial openness to Jesus, and unlike "the Jews" he never rejects the word of Jesus. He could not grasp that the only way to full acceptance of Jesus was to recognize that he offered a gift "from above." At this point in the story he has demonstrated "partial belief."

18. What further questions or comments do you have before we close?

Closing Prayer - "Release Me" (Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace, 50-51).

For Session 5 - Read John 4-5, esp. the Samaritan Woman at the Well

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