“How can these things be?” Nicodemus speaks for a wealth of insiders and outsiders who wonder at the impossible possibility of a new future. How is real newness possible? It is a question that saps the energy of lone souls in despair, of congregations in fatigue, of families in dysfunction, and of peoples in oppression. Nicodemus names Jesus “a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2) but this teaching is more than he has bargained for. It is one thing to be taught to live a more faithful life. It is another thing to learn that the future calls for re-birth “from above” (John 3:7). Those who know too well what it is to endure cycles of abuse and those who witness the continued degradation of the planet by human consumption wonder with Nicodemus how anything truly new can be.
Jesus appears surprised: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). Jesus imagines that Nicodemus should be well schooled in the rebirth of a people. From the barren future of Abraham and Sarah to the grinding oppression of Pharoah’s system and the dry bones of utter loss in exile, the memory of Israel is well stocked with stories of impossible newness from above. After a long season of Christendom the church we know also falls victim to the amnesia that affects Nicodemus. Teachers of the church often find that they, too, do not understand these things. Being “born again” is regularly reduced to a one-time personal experience of the individual when it holds the promise—and threat—of radical renewal for whole communities being born anew into the kingdom of God.
Now Jesus enters the witness box. The dialogue with Nicodemus gives way to Jesus’ singular testimony. The encounter is no longer framed as teacher and student. Nicodemus slips quietly off the stage of the textuntil later in the Gospel ( 7:50, 19:39-40). Now we, the reading community, become the jury who must weigh the evidence before us. Jesus swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen” (John 3:11). This is the foundation upon which our life together will be lived. This is how we will know it is true. We will know it is true because we witness the testimony of Jesus life, death and resurrection and judge it to be the truth.
But trusting in Jesus to bring new life is not easy for jurors who witness strong counter-testimony from a “real world” in which rebirth is an impossibility. Such counter-testimony is often convincing even to those who long to place their trust in Jesus. It saps courage for change, drains energy for risk and sacrifice, feeds the twin cancers of apathy and despair. Jesus notices the jury’s hesitancy, the heads shaking “no” in response to his vision of life born from above (John 3:11). The reception of Jesus’ testimony as the truth—as a faithful depiction of the real world in which we live—is a critical pastoral issue facing the church, whether gathered in worship or when scattered in mission. This is the reason that congregations benefit from honest testimony in which doubt and uncertainty are safely given voice. Witnesses are to be protected in God’s sanctuary. Their proclamation is not canned. In this way the community comes to trust the testimony that says “yes” to Jesus and confirms the truth of his way.
Jesus pushes on. His testimony about rebirth has been “about earthly things” (John 3:12). Now he will tell the truth about “heavenly things.” First he has testified that the kingdom of God requires human beings to be born from above into a new world. Now he says that there is One who has bridged the chasm between heaven and earth - the Son of Man. Here we receive the two most audacious claims of Christian faith - that Jesus is “descended from heaven” (John 3:13) and that broken, flawed, sinful humankind can be reborn, saved, made new. We will not be surprised if the jury—whether outsiders or insiders—often arrives at a verdict of disbelief.
Disbelief comes with a cost. Disbelief leaves those who do not trust Jesus’ testimony living in the status quo, the rat race, the real world in which new life “from above” is, by definition, impossible. Belief in him, on the other hand, will lead to life “from above.” The One who has descended from heaven must be “lifted up” just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:9). The text prefigures the lifting up of Jesus on the cross and from the grave so that a world poisoned by the powers of death may be healed, saved, reborn. Trusting the Son of Man who is lifted up will result in life with a capital L, new life lived in the real world of the kingdom of God, life that is eternal.
This language is thick. John’s Gospel is at once accessible and inaccessible, familiar and unfamiliar, clear and opaque. For many the word “belief” has come to mean to accept certain statements about God as true. When communities are learning to live this text they will need to re-define belief that leads to eternal life as risky, courageous trust in Jesus to lead his people into a new way of being. Then eternal life will not be defined by chronological time and restricted to life after physical death. Then eternal life will describe the time on either side of mortal death when lives are lived on the cruciform path of Jesus. Then believing in Jesus will not lead those who entrust their lives to him on a path out of the suffering world. Instead, trust in the testimony of Jesus will lead believers into the suffering world as witnesses who have seen the shape of life eternal. Their lives and deaths will then testify to the newness that lies on the other side of dying to the ways of the world and being born from above into the way of Jesus Christ.
- Edwin Searcy (from "Feasting on the Gospels - John, Volume 1")