John 3:1-22, LeGrand Baker, the Saviour and Nicodemus
Last week we read Alma 33:19-22 and observed that the Old Testament does not give an explanation of the meaning of the brass serpent Moses made, with the promise “that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Numbers 21:1-13).”
However, the ways the story is used in the Book of Mormon leave no doubt that Moses understood that symbolism, and that its explanation was found on the brass plates. The Nephite prophets knew the story and explained that it was a representation of the Saviour’s atonement. In Helaman, Nephi shows that the symbolism of the serpent on the pole foretold “the coming of the Messiah… the Son of God,” and was about the Saviour’s atonement and his dying on the cross (Helaman 8:12-19).
In the New Testament, the Saviour uses the story as part of his conversation with Nicodemus, and thereby helps us understand that dialogue which was so sacred that John gives us only just enough detail that we can know what was discussed, without knowing just what was said.
I would like to review that conversation, not to elaborate but to open a window just wide enough that you may see for yourselves what is there.
This is one of my favorite stories in the New Testament because it lets us watch Jesus and Nicodemus become friends.
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John’s introduction to the story is in the last part of the previous chapter, so lets start there.
23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.
24 But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men,
25 And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.
His reluctance was based on the very simple fact that he knew in advance how they would respond to him and to his testimony(John 2:23-25).
That’s the key to the whole story. The footnote in our Bible says that “commit” might have been translated “entrust.” I just learned that the Greek word is a form of pistis, and so implies a covenant. That is, it says that Jesus was willing to let the people see his miracles, but if that’s all they were interest in, then he was not willing to let them know who he was, or by what authority he did those miracles. President McKay explained how the Saviour knew what he could say and to whom:
Every man and every person who lives in this world wields an influence, whether for good or for evil. It is not what he says alone; it is not alone what he does. It is what he is. Every man, every person radiates what he or she really is. Every person is a recipient of radiation. The Saviour was conscious of that. Whenever He came into the presence of an individual, He sensed that radiation — whether it was the woman of Samaria with her past life: whether it was the woman who was to be stoned, or the men who were to stone her; whether it was the statesman, Nicodemus, or one of the lepers. He was conscious of the radiation from the individual. And to a degree so are you. and so am I. It is what we are and what we radiate that affects the people around us (President David O. McKay, “Radiation of the Individual” The Instructor, October, 1964, 373).
With the background information that the Saviour never revealed himself except to those whom he knew he could trust, John tells the story of Nicodemus.
JOHN, CHAPTER 3
1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him (John 3:1-2).
So Nicodemus appears to have introduced introduces himself to Jesus by saying the very thing that would have disqualified him from receiving Jesus testimony. But Jesus knew his heart, so the words he spoke was not the thing that mattered. After that introduction, John writes, “Jesus answered and said unto him…” John does not give us the question that evoked that answer, nor, indeed, does he tell us most of what was said. Leaving us to ask, why did John give us these parts of the conversation and leave out so much else of what must have been said?. I’m convinced John’s primary purpose was to let us know us the true depth of what was said, and show us the beginnings of Jesus’s friendship with Nicodemus, but he also was determined not to tell those who could/would not understand. So he gives us just enough of the conversation that we can know what ideas were discussed, but only just enough that we can understand. Therefore John wrote it in code.
Much of the New Testament is written in a temple code, and its authors tell us so over and over again. The phrase the Saviour uses is “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matthew 11:15, 13:9-17; Mark 4:9; Mark 7:16; Luke 8:8; Luke 14:35.) The gospel of John does not use that phrase, but it quotes the Saviour as saying: “they that hear shall live (John 5:25-31)”; “He that is of God heareth God’s words (John 8:47)”; and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10:27).” However, in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, John uses a variant of the Saviour’s phrase many times. In the surface text, those chapters are seven unrelated letters to seven churches. But in the encoded sub-text they are a colophon in which John identifies himself as one who really knows. If we read only the first half of each of John’s letters, he walks us through an encoded version of the New Testament temple drama. If we read only the second half of each, tells us why it is important. He alerts us to what he is doing by repeating over and over again, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.”
John’s report of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus contains a similar sub-text. It is to be understood only by those who already know, and therefore have ears to hear. So the first thing we hear Jesus saying is answering a question that is unspoken in our text.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
Borsch explains at least part of what Jesus really said:
Of much more interest to us is the water imagery of the Gospel along with some of its associations. Let us look first at Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in John 3:1ff. and the discussion there about entering the Kingdom of God. Here one of the key words is [words written in Greek]. This adverb has two primary meanings, ‘from above’ and ‘anew’, but the former has predominance. This is true in the New Testament as well as in other literature, and, more importantly, in John, where, outside this passage, ‘from above’ is the meaning. The whole force of the culmination of this passage (3:13) along with the use of the word in 3:31 strongly suggest that ‘being born from above: is the primary sense intended in 3:3, 7. Yet it is probably just as obvious that Nicodemus, understands it as ‘anew’ when he asks Jesus, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Almost surely, then, we are dealing with Johannine irony. Not only does Nicodemus misunderstand [words written in Greek]., but he fails to understand the mode of the birth which Jesus is describing. (Frederick Houk Borsch, The Son of Man in Myth and History [London, SCM Press, 1967, 270])
Nicodemus was a scholar, therefore he understood what Jesus said. However the adoption/kinship ordinances of Solomon’s temple had not been performed for 600 years, not since Solomon’s temple was destroyed. Nicodemus’s next question reflects his amazement that the notion that those ordinances might be performed again. So he asks for clarification, and does it in a silly way whose intent is to challenge Jesus to see if that really knows what he is talking about
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (John 3:4)
There are two ways to read that. The usual way is to assume that Nicodemus thought that was a stupid thing to say, and was trying to bate Jesus. The second way – the one I think is a necessary introduction to the rest of the story – is that Nicodemus did understand and wanted to know what, how, and why. The reason I think that, is that the ideas of sonship and birthright were central to Jewish legal and theological thought. In Psalm 2, in Jesus’ baptism, and on the Mt. of Transfiguration, “You are my son” is a designation of royal birth and kingship. The Jews had lost the ancient temple rites suggested in Psalm 2, but the scriptures talk about those rites, and Nicodemus, who was a scholar, must have known about them. If he did, he also knew that the Jews had not practiced those ceremonies for 600 years — not since Solomon’s temple was destroyed.
Jesus answer addresses Nicodemus’ question precisely: He explained there is another birth that introduces one into the kingdom of God – if it is a birth, then, by definition, it makes the person both son and heir.
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
I suspect this statement is, as it implies, about kingship and the Kingdom. If it is then that is further evidence that the conversation is about ancient kingship rites.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:5-6).
There are two ways of understanding that verse. The first, which we use all the time in missionary work, is correct because it is a legitimate introduction to the second. The first is that the Saviour is talking about baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. However, if John’s report of the conversation is sub-textually about the ancient temple rites, then the second meanings are about the coronation ceremony that follows baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. In that case, to be born of water would imply a different washing, and to be born of the Spirit would be a reference to an anointing to be king. There are two important examples of this understanding in the Old Testament.
When David was only a boy, “Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13). Johnson referred to that story, and called the experience an “endowment of the Spirit” whereby the king received extraordinary religious authority, as well as wisdom in government and military matters. Mowinckel understood that the “Ideas about the fruits of this endowment with the spirit are, naturally, strongly influenced by older biblical conceptions of the gifts of the spirit in the Messiah.” (Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, 253-4)
During the coronation ceremony which was part of the Feast of Tabernacles temple drama, the king (representing every man in the congregation) was washed in preparation to receiving the anointing. Then he went into the temple where he was clothed in kingly robes, anointed, crowned, and given a royal king name. The anointing during that ceremony was a dual ordinance. It made him king, and it also adopted him as a son of God who could sit on the Lord’s throne and not be a usurper. We learn the new king-name in Psalm 2. It is “son.” (Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, 461-571)
Even though those ceremonies were no longer performed after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, there is evidence in the New Testament that the memory of them was not entirely lost by the Jews. After the Saviour established his church, the Saints in New Testament times understood that a similar adoption ceremony was necessary to make one a son and heir of God. Thus, Paul wrote,
5 [The Father] Having [foreordained] us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,
6 To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. (Ephesians 1:5-6)
If this sonship and adoption ceremony is what Christ meant when he told Nicodemus that he must be born again, and if Nicodemus understood that. It is little wonder that this learned Jew was amazed. To that amazement, the Saviour said,
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again [from above] (John 3:7).
Then he explained what it was that Nicodemus was feeling. The translation of the next verse is interesting. Because Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be?” the translators of the King James Bible believed he was simply dumbfounded at the Saviour’s answer. So they have Jesus say to him:
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).
The word that they translated as “spirit” in the second instance, is the same the Greek word that they translated as “wind” in the first. It would be more correct, then, if they had Jesus saying , “The Spirit moves as it will.” Nicodemus is experiencing something he has probably never felt before, or at least that he has never identified, and Jesus is simply explaining to the same thing our missionaries tell new investigators: “The feeling you are feeling just now is the Holy Ghost.” To which Nicodemus responds much like the new investigator:
9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? (John 3:9-10)
If Jesus was chiding (as many interpretations suggest), his words mock Nicodemus’s scholarship. But that does not fit the rest of the situation. If Jesus was smiling (as I believe he was), then his words would have meant: “lets look into the depth of your knowledge so I can show you.” Where he takes Nicodemus mind from here, insists that he was smiling. Jesus is about to open his own soul and let Nicodemus know who he really is, However, before he does that, knowing that Nicodemus’s first impulse will be to help others also understand, Jesus explains that it won’t do any good to try to teach those who do not want to know. He tells him that he must not share what he is about to learn. He says:
11Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye [plural] receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye [plural] believe not, how shall ye [plural] believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? (John 3:11-12)
The word “ye” is plural. (It is roughly equivalent to the Southern “y’all.”) So when Jesus says “ye believe not,” he is talking about an entire group of people and is not talking about Nicodemus personally. He is not accusing Nicodemus, but rather is reminding him that the Pharisees who do not then, and will not ever, believe what he says.
I am absolutely convinced that the next lines would never have been spoken by Jesus to anyone whom he distrusted. In the Inspired Version, Joseph Smith helps us understand that and the next verse by adding the words, “I tell you,” which I take to mean, “I am telling only you, and therefore you are not to tell those Pharisees who will not believe.” What he tells him must have been both amazing and wonderful to Nicodemus.
13 And [I tell you] no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven (John 3:13).
Jesus had just finished saying, “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen.” Now he confides to Nicodemus that what he has seen is the sode. Telling him that was necessary, because it would have been the only evidence that Nicodemus (a learned Jew) could have accepted that Jesus was a true prophet. I have no doubt that Nicodemus knew the same criterion of what is a true prophet as Jeremiah understood it. This is what Jeremiah wrote (I added the italics):
18 For who hath stood in the counsel [ the word is sode] of the Lord [had a sode experience], and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it?19 Behold, a whirlwind of the Lord is gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked.
20 The anger of the Lord shall not return, until he have executed, and till he have performed the thoughts of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it perfectly.
21 I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.
22 But if they had stood in my counsel (sode), and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. (Jeremiah 23:1-40.) (For a discussion of a sode experience, see Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord, 195-208)
Jeremiah wrote that a false prophet is one who has not had a sode experience and therefore can only speak from his own imagination. In contrast, he identifies a true prophet as one who has had a sode experience, and who has then returned to the people to deliver the words which God commissioned him to speak. I suspect that the reason Nephi begins the Small Plates by saying he had a “great knowledge of the … mysteries [mysterion = sode] of God,” and then by telling us about Lehi’s sode experience immediately thereafter, was to clearly identify to his readers that he and his father had been to the Council, received instruction, were delivering the message they had received, and were, therefore, true prophets. For the same reason, the First Vision is both the beginning and the most critical part of the Joseph Smith story.
The next part of Jesus statement is a necessary conclusion to the first: “And [I tell you] no man hath ascended up to heaven [had a sode experience], but he that came down from heaven.
To “come down from heaven” is the necessary conclusion of a sode experience, for the prophet id to return to his people and warn or instruct them, according to the instructions he received at the Council.]
Then the Saviour tells Nicodemus the great secret: Not only was Jesus at the Council in Heaven, but it was he who conducted the meetings there, he is Jehovah, and it was he who gave the assignments to the other prophets and kings. He said “
“…even the Son of man which is in heaven.”
“Son” is the royal king-name, so by declaring himself to be “the Son of Man,” he is declaring his position in the Council. He has just explained to Nicodemus that not only did he attend the Council, but that he conducted the affairs of the Council over which his Father presided.
(By this time, it is evident to me that what John is telling us is only the barest outline of a conversation that may have lasted many hours, or more likely, may have continued over several days.)
As a confirmation that Jesus, Jehovah, and Messiah are the same person, Jesus added,
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up [This is the same doctrine taught by the Book of Mormon prophets]:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:14-15).
The explanation of that incident is not given in the Old Testament, but it is in the Book of Mormon. When Nephi referred to it, he did not explain it, but used it as evidence – suggesting that the people had a full understanding of its meaning.
14 Yea, did he not bear record that the Son of God should come? And as he lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, even so shall he be lifted up who should come.
15 And as many as should look upon that serpent should live, even so as many as should look upon the Son of God with faith, having a contrite spirit, might live, even unto that life which is eternal.
16 And now behold, Moses did not only testify of these things, but also all the holy prophets, from his days even to the days of Abraham. (Helaman 8:14-16)
Nicodemus might have understood that because he had access to ancient sacred records that were later lost when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple. It is possible that some of those records contained the same interpretation of Moses’s brazen serpent as was on the brass plates. If so, Nicodemus’s study would have helped him to understand that the Saviour’s reference to Moses’s serpent was a way for Jesus to identify himself as the Messiah who will perform the atonement.
Or else Jesus might simply have explained it to him. In that case, it is clear that Nicodemus understood what Jesus was saying.
John does not explain that to his readers, just as he does not explain many things. But John does tell us about its implications for the atonement, and what Jesus told Nicodemus about it:
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The title, Only Begotten Son, is frequently used in the scriptures as a title for Jehovah who will be the Saviour. By using that title, Jesus identifies himself as Jehovah, and then he adds that he is also the Son of God:
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:16-17).
So far in this conversation, Jesus completely entrusted himself to his friend. He has not only told Nicodemus that he is a true prophet, but he has explained that he is Jehovah/Messiah, the Son—heir— of the Eternal Father. Having done all that, Jesus now tells his new friend everything else there is to tell.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God (John 3:19-21).
Jesus just identified himself as the personification of the Father’s “Light”, that is, the power of creation and of life, “the light and life of the world.” Jesus has now told Nicodemus almost all there is to say. He has defined himself the same way John defines him at the beginning of the gospel — not only as the Son of God, but also as the very source of light, truth, and life—the origin of all things.
The next verse tells us how Nicodemus responded to what Jesus told him.
22 After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized (John 3:22).
The usual reading of that verse is that it was Jesus who was doing the baptizing, However this cannot be, for in the next chapter John explains:
1 When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John,
2 (Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) (John 4:1-54)
If Jesus did not personally baptize anyone, than verse 22 must not say it was he who baptized. Therefor, it must read:
22 After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he [Nicodemus] tarried with them, and baptized (John 3:22).
Showing that after their very intimate conversation, Nicodemus became one of Jesus’s disciples.
Later, John shows us what a true friend Nicodemus was. He defended Jesus against the Pharisees (John 7:45-53.), and after Jesus was crucified, he and Joseph of Arimathaea attended to Jesus’s burial. (John 19:38-42.)
I love the story of Jesus and Nicodemus because it is one of the very few accounts where we can actually watch Jesus making a new friend. He does it, not by chiding or admonishing, but simply by making himself visible to one whom he could trust. We watch as he “entrusted” himself — made himself vulnerable— to Nicodemus. The Saviour virtually exposed his own soul and let his friend see who he was. I cannot envision that conversation without imagining that it concluded with a hug— a long and very meaningful hug.