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NT Sunday School Lesson 5 (JF): John 3-4

Posted by Jim F. on January 29, 2011

There is a tremendous amount of material in this lesson, more than I can deal with in a few pages. So I have shortened my study questions by focusing on John 3:1-10.

Verse 1: The name “Nicodemus” means “conqueror,” and it was a common name. We know little about Nicodemus. We know that he was a Pharisee because this verse tells that he was. We know that he was some kind of ruler, though we don’t know what kind, because this verse tell us that he was. Many have speculated that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, but we have little evidence for that speculation and we know little about the Sanhedrin. If he was a member of the Sanhedrin, then he was a member of the ruling body of Jerusalem, a Pharisee, and a teacher (scribe). He was the height of what most people would have taken to be a good Jew, and he probably would be one of those referred to in John 12:42. How these facts relevant to what we are taught by this story?

Verse 2: Why might Nicodemus have come to Jesus by night? Is Jesus doing something during the day that might have made it easier for Nicodemus to come at night? Is Nicodemus doing something during the day that might have made it easier for him to come at night? Might he have been trying to protect himself? Might he have been trying to protect Jesus? Is there any symbolic significance to the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus out of the night. (Think about other ways that John uses the night in his gospel.)

Why does Nicodemus call Jesus “Rabbi”? The word “rabbi” is a transliteration of a Hebrew term meaning “great.” In Jesus’ time it was used as a term of respect and it was primarily applied to the scribes—those who taught from and interpreted the scriptures—by their followers. Thus, “rabbi” was a term of respect that one used for one’s teacher. What is Nicodemus saying by calling Jesus a teacher? Why does Nicodemus us the plural, “we,” rather than the singular, “I”?

How does Nicodemus claim to know that Jesus has come from God? Do miracles prove that the person who works them has a divine origin? Is it relevant that, during the temptation in the desert, Jesus refused to work miracles as a proof of his divinity and power? Does Nicodemus’s confession help us understand him any better than we might without it?

What does Nicodemus mean when he says that Jesus has come from God? How does Jesus give him a different understanding of what it means to come from God?

Verse 3: How do you explain the disconnect between Nicodemus’s greeting in verse 2 and Jesus’ response in this verse? Is he rebuking Nicodemus for misunderstanding Christ’s mission, admiring Christ’s miracles but not seeing that he himself must be born again? Or, is Jesus responding to an unuttered question in Nicodemus’s heart?

Why does Jesus begin what he says with “verily, verily,” or—literally “amen, amen”? The word “amen” is used by both individuals and the community as a whole in the Old Testament, and it is used to confirm the acceptance of a task given to human beings by God (e.g., 1 Kings 1:36), to confirm the application of a divine curse (e.g., Numbers 5:22; Deuteronomy 27:15ff.; Jeremiah 11:5; and Neheniah 5:13), and to verify the praise of God (e.g., 1 Chronicles 16:36 and Nehemiah 8:6). Thus “amen” means “that which is sure and valid” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1:335).

The Greek word translated “again” could have been translated “from above.” It is an ambiguous word. How does that ambiguity effect the conversation that follows? In other words, what if we read the word as “from above” rather than “again.” Does it change the meaning of what Jesus says?

The Greek word translated “see” could also be translated “know.” As in Matthew 3:2, the word translated “kingdom” could also be translated “reign.” So another way to understand what Jesus says is “Except a man be born again / from above, he cannot know the reign of God.” Would understanding the sentence in that way change how you understand what Jesus says? If so what would it mean? What could “know the reign of God” mean? How do we know it? Must we wait for death or the Second Coming? What are the types and shadows on this earth of that reign? What does Jesus tell us must happen for us to know the reign of God?

Nicodemus has seen Christ’s miracles (verse 2), but he has not seen the Kingdom of God (verse 3). What does that teach us.

Verse 4: How does Nicodemus misunderstand what Jesus has said to him? Does the ambiguity of “born again” in verse 3 help explain Nicodemus’s response? What does the sheer grotesqueness of Nicodemus’s interpretation of Jesus’ remark tell us about Nicodemus?

Did Nicodemus believe that his first birth had conveyed spiritual advantages on him? What have the Pharisees said to John the Baptist about their birth? (Compare Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:8, and the JST version of Luke 3:8.) Might that explain Nicodemus’s misunderstanding? If Nicodemus does believe that his first birth gave him a spiritual advantage over others, why would Jesus’ teaching have been shocking?

Verse 5: Are the differences between what Jesus says here and what he said in verse 3 important? Does he say something new here?

We understand “born of the water” to refer to baptism. To what else might it refer? How would we decide between these possible meanings? Does the fact that what the King James version translates “again” in verse 3 could also have been translated “from above” help us decide? Do we need to decide between them? How is the teaching of this verse connected to John the Baptist’s teaching (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, and Luke 3:16)?

The word “born” can also be translated “begotten”: “Except a man be begotten of water and of the Spirit.” What does it mean to be begotten of the water? of the Spirit? Does Psalms 2:7 shed any light on what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus?

“He cannot enter” translates a Greek phrase that means “he has no power to enter.” By what power do we enter the kingdom of God?

What does it mean to “enter the kingdom of God”? Is there more than one meaning? If you can think of more than one possible meaning, consider each meaning and ask yourself when, according to each meaning, one enters the kingdom or reign of God.

Verse 6: How do you relate John 1:14 to what Jesus says here? What about John 6:63? Does Genesis 2:7 have anything to do with what Jesus is teaching here? 2 Corinthians 4:18? (See also Job 10:9-12 and 33:4.)

Verses 7-8: Why does Jesus use the plural of “you” rather than its singular in verse 7: “Ye (plural) must be born again”? (We don’t distinguish the two, but King James English and Greek do.) Why does he switch back to the singular “you” in verse 8? How are the ideas of these two verses connected? We can understand the phrase “be born again” to mean “get a new lineage or genealogy.” What is the genealogy of one born of the Spirit?

In both Aramaic (the everyday language of Palestine during Jesus’ time) and Greek (the language in which the gospel of John was written), the word translated “Spirit” can also be translated “breath” or “wind.” It can refer to the breath of God, given to Adam (Genesis 2:7). What does it mean to say that the wind / Spirit / breath goes where it desires or wills? How does the desire of the Spirit differ from the desire of the flesh? How is the nature of the Spirit’s desire relevant to the rebirth that Jesus says must occur?

What is Jesus teaching Nicodemus? How does that teaching compare to what Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, believed? How does that teaching apply to us? Compare what Jesus says in verse 8 with Ecclesiastes 11:5.

Verses 9-10: When Nicodemus says “How can these things be?” he is asking “How can this happen?” or “How are these things possible?” What does he find astonishing?

The word translated “master” might be better translated “teacher.” It is a form of the same word translated “disciple.” The relation between the two words in Greek is comparable to “teacher” and “teachee” in English. Nicodemus has addressed Jesus as a teacher, taking the part of a disciple. Is Jesus doing the same thing here? If not, why does he point out that Nicodemus is a teacher? If he is, why and what does he mean? Where does Jesus suppose that Nicodemus would have learned the things that Jesus is teaching? Does Jesus believe that the teachings he has just rehearsed to Nicodemus are hidden or new? What criticism is Jesus making of Nicodemus by calling him a teacher and asking the question of verse 10? To what does “these things” refer?

The idea that the metaphor of birth describes conversion seems to have been part of Jewish thinking at the time of Jesus, as these two sayings from first- or second-century Judaism show:

“When someone brings a man under the wings of the Shekinah [i.e., converts him to Judaism], it is counted as though he had created and fashioned and formed him” (from Midrash on the Song of Solomon)

and

“A proselyte just converted is like a child just born” (from the Babylonian Talmud).

(See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 1:666.)

Nicodemus would surely have known that. So what would he have found surprising in Jesus’ teaching? Is it the same thing that the Pharisees who went to John the Baptist found surprising (Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:8, Luke 3:8)?

We can infer from verse 2 that Nicodemus marveled at—was astonished at—the miracles that Jesus performed (cf. Matthew 8:27; 9:8, 33; 15:31; 21:20; Mark 2:12; Luke 5:26, 9:43), but Jesus said nothing about that. Here, however, he tells Nicodemus not to marvel: don’t marvel at the teaching that you must be born again. Why shouldn’t he be astonished at that teaching? Does the story of the tempation of Christ (Matthew 4) perhaps help explain why Jesus has nothing to say about Nicodemus’s astonishment at the miracles but responds to his astonishment at the teaching about spiritual rebirth?

4 Responses to “NT Sunday School Lesson 5 (JF): John 3-4”

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  3. greenfrog said

    Thank you for these questions. During the lesson, I realized that the Nicodemus verses talk not only about being born of water and of spirit, but also being born of flesh (v. 6). It made me wonder (how or whether) fire was left out.

    A bit wide of a gap to jump from John to Acts, right?

    • Jim F. said

      Yes, there’s a chasm between John and Acts, one that I’m not sure how to fill in. I wonder when the language of fire first began to be used.

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