Trinity Sunday: the offer of new life

SanDamianoCrossThe Monologue. At v. 11, the text shifts from a dialogue to a monologue. The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus alternated between Jesus’ offer of new birth (vv. 3, 5-8) and Nicodemus’s resistance (vv. 4, 9). The shift to the monologue allows Jesus’ voice to silence the voice of resistance. Jesus’ discourse runs through v. 21 and divides into two parts. Verses 11-15 interpret Jesus’ offer of new birth through his death, resurrection, and ascension, and vv. 16-21 focus on the theme of judgment.

We know. Jesus begins the discourse by speaking in the first-person plural. English translations of v. 11 mask the Greek word order. The translation “we speak of what we know ” flows in English, but the sentence literally reads, “what we know we say” (oidamen laloumen). This word order is important because it means that the beginning of Jesus’ discourse and Nicodemus’s opening words to Jesus (v. 3) are the same: “we know…. “ It is possible to read Jesus’ words as a continuation of the irony of v. 10; Jesus parodies Nicodemus’s assertion of his knowledge.

The first-person plural of v. 11 has another function. Jesus’ words in v. 11 are all words of witness: we know; we see; we speak; we testify. In its immediate context, Jesus’ “we” speaks for John the Baptist and the first disciples who have already borne witness to what they have seen. Jesus speaks for all those who have testified to this point in the Gospel narrative. In a broader context, however, Jesus’ “we” speaks for the witness of the early church. This “we” stands in contrast to the “we” for whom Nicodemus speaks: the synagogue. The church’s witness is contrasted with the non-responsiveness of the synagogue. Nicodemus and his community are representative of all who do not receive the church’s witness.

Earthy and heavenly things. Jesus uses the expressions “earthly things” and “heavenly things” to summarize the witness that has already been given and the witness still to come (v. 12). “Earthly things” (ta epigeia) can be understood as referring to things about human beings, specifically the discussion of new birth in 3:3-8, whereas “heavenly things” (ta epourania) refers to things about God and Jesus to which Jesus has privileged access (1:18; 3:13) and that have not yet been revealed to Nicodemus and his community.

Jesus is the source of “heavenly things”: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” This is the second time Jesus has spoken of himself as the “Son of Man” (see also 1:51) and both uses of the term are associated with language of heavenly ascent and descent. The Son of Man’s privileged access to God is expressed in spatial terms: The Son of Man moves between heaven and earth and brings the two together. The emphasis in this verse is on Jesus’ descent. Jesus knows heavenly things because he has descended; this contrasts Jesus with other figures who were believed to have ascended and through their ascents received heavenly knowledge. For example, Moses went up the mountain and then descended with God’s Word. The writings of Philo make clear that some Jews believed that Moses’ ascent gave him special status before God. Verse 13 underscores that Jesus first descended, then ascended.

Lifted up to Eternal Life. The significance of the ascension of the Son of Man is elaborated through an OT example (Num 21:8-9). The key to interpreting this analogy between Moses’ lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness and the ascension of the Son of Man is the verb (hypsoō), meaning both “lift up” and “exalt.” (The Hebrew verb nāsā’ has a similar double meaning; see the pun based on this verb in Gen 40:9-23.) Once again the Fourth Evangelist asks the reader to hold two meanings together simultaneously. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross. The double meaning of hypsoō implies, however, that the physical act of lifting up is also a moment of exaltation. That is, it is in the crucifixion that Jesus is exalted. John 3:14 is one of three statements about the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in John (see also 8:28; 12:32-34). These three sayings are the Johannine analogue to the three passion predictions in the synoptic Gospels (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33.34; and parallels).

The overlap of crucifixion and exaltation conveyed by v. 14 is crucial to Johannine understanding of salvation, because the Fourth Evangelist understands Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension as one continuous event. Verse 14 also contains a key to the theological grounding of the Evangelist’s attraction to irony; the cross as humiliation is actually exaltation. This will become especially clear in the crucifixion narrative of John 18-19. The Fourth Gospel is often criticized for having an inadequate theology of the cross, but such criticism misconstrues the Johannine treatment of the crucifixion. As v. 14 makes clear, there is no exaltation apart from the crucifixion for John.

The overlap of crucifixion/exaltation also provides the context for interpreting the role of the ascent/descent language in v. 13 (and 1:51) and the Fourth Evangelist’s use of the title “Son of Man.” The Fourth Evangelist appropriates the traditional apocalyptic figure of the Son of Man (cf. Dan. 7:13) and invests it with his christological perspective. Ascent/descent language thus speaks of Jesus’ relationship to God and to the world. The Son of Man’s ascent to heaven is salvific, because he is the one who has descended from heaven, the very one whom the Prologue celebrates.

John 3:15 makes explicit the salvific dimension of the crucifixion. Jesus’ offer of his life through being lifted up on the cross makes “eternal life” (zōēn aiōnion) possible for those who believe. “Eternal life” is one of the dominant metaphors in the Fourth Gospel to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus (e.g., 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 17:4). To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (cf. 1:13). “Eternal” does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God. To speak of the newness available to the believer as “eternal life” shifts eschatological expectations to the present. Eternal life is not something held in abeyance until the believer’s future, but begins in the believer’s present. The focus on the crucifixion in 3:13-15 provides the key to interpreting Jesus’ earlier metaphors of new birth and the kingdom of God. The offer of new life, “to be born anal-hen,” has only one source—Jesus’ offer of his own life. The cross thus makes sense of the double meaning of anōthen: To be born from above is to be born again through the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.

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