Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Sunday School Lesson #5

Posted by Jim F. on January 30, 2007

NOTE: THE MOST RECENT, UPDATED VERSION OF THESE NOTES IS AT: https://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/01/29/nt-sunday-school-lesson-5-jf-john-3-4/

Lesson 5: John 3-4

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 are 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 tempation 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?

The Greek word translated “see” could also be translated “know.” As in Matthew 3:2, the word translated “kingdom” could also be translated “reign.” How do we know the reign of God? 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? What does the sheer grotesqueness of his 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? (We don’t distinguish the two, but Greek does.) 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?

28 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson #5”

  1. Rob Osborn said

    The Kingdom of heaven and entering into it has to do with being saved. No man can be saved from the path he is on which leads to eternal banishment (second death) unless he becomes a new person- born again “into” the kingdom of heaven. No man is saved outside of the kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom of heaven is the place where all the righteous dwell with their heavenly father and savior. In the final state, the kingdom of god is the Celestial kingdom of God. All who find themselves saved on the right hand of god will be able to enter the Celestial kingdom after the great millennial reign of Christ because all of them will have been born again into the kingdom of heaven. Those who fail to become baptized and born again will not be saved but instead be damned to hell!

  2. Robert C. said

    The wind bit in John 3:8 will probably be the focus of my study this week. Here’s an explanation of a related passage in Eccl 11:4 about wind which I think provides an interesting faith connotation to Jesus’ words:

    This saying rests on the fact that there is a propitious time for sowing (wind) and for reaping (dryness). But the “right” time is ever uncertain, and the danger is that if one remains always on the watch for the perfect moment, one will never act. Hence the saying is aimed at those who are paralyzed by their concern for the right time. Once again human ignorance and impotence are scored, but the observation will not tolerate simple inaction. One has to get on with living (cf. v 6 and also 9:10) and give up the luxury of being “certain.” [Murphy, R. (2002). Vol. 23A: Word Biblical Commentary : Ecclesiates. Word Biblical Commentary (109). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.]

    I think Ezek 37:1-14 also gives very important background context relating the rebirth symbolically/typologicallyt to the gathering of dispersed Israel (the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision). I also think it suggests a relation between the Spirit and the Word since Ezekiel’s prophecying is what initiates the new spirit into the bones.

  3. Robert C. said

    (If anyone is up for posting SS notes for the remainder of John 3 or John 4, I’m sure it would be greatly appreciated. If you don’t already have permission to post here, email us your post–or request permission to post it yourself–at: fZeZaZsZtZbZlZoZg@gmail.com, without the Z’s.)

  4. brianj said

    Jim F: thanks for all the detail in these verses.

    I like how the author uses the word “man” to connect 2:25 and 3:1.

    v. 6: Jim made a very interesting list of cross-references. I focused on “…flesh is flesh” in my reading. I wonder if there are two meanings, depending on the audience: for some, this is just a way of saying, “don’t set your heart on the world”; specifically for Jews this might recall the message in Matthew 3:9 or Luke 3:8.

    Robert, #2: The NET Bible notes add Isaiah 44:3-5 to Ezekiel 37:1-14—verses Nicodemus should/would have known and would help him understand Jesus’ point about being born again.

  5. brianj said

    Also, I posted notes for the other parts of this lesson here.

  6. Robert C. said

    I’ve been wondering about the following question Jim asked:

    We understand “born of the water” to refer to baptism. To what else might it refer? How would we decide between these possible meanings?

    I drew a blank on this question when I first read it. However, BrianJ in #4 cited Isa 44:3-4 which interestingly mentions water:

    For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: And they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water courses. One shall say, I am the Lord‘s.

    Reading this and thinking a bit more, here’s my list so far of what water might be symbolizing: baptism; the fountain of life; the Red Sea and River Jordan; that which quenches our thirst during a drought and causes us to grow; ritual cleansings (perhaps with referencing Namaan and Elija and Elisha’s water miracles). Also it seems water plays an key role in creation, but I’m not sure if/how this relates. Anything else? Any suggestions on how to, as Jim put it, “decide between these possible meanings”?

  7. BrianJ said

    Robert C: I was thinking of Jesus’ use of the water in Chapter 2: “but whoever drinks of the water I give will not thirst.”

    So “born of the water” can mean “hears and accepts the Gospel.” Of course, that is not enough for anyone; i.e. I can believe all the scriptures, keep all the commandments, etc., but that is not going to get me to heaven. The second baptism, by fire, is required for that.

  8. Todd Wood said

    Brian J, I think John 3:5 is all that is necessary for one to enter the kingdom of God. And couldn’t we intersect Ez. 36 with the sprinkling of water into the discussion as well? Hudatos – Ez. 36. Pneumatos – Ez. 37.

    Jim, this is fantastic. You have asked almost every question that I have posed while going through these verses. Tomorrow, I am covering John 3:9-13.

    I’m curious. Do you see the last phrase in John 3:13 as an interpretational gloss?

  9. Jim F. said

    Todd: I think that perhaps all of 13 is an interpretational gloss. The verbs are in the perfect and the aorist tenses, referring to what has happened in the past. As a result, the verse doesn’t really fit into what Jesus is saying, but works well if it is a gloss by the writer.

  10. Matt W. said

    Dunno if this helps anyone, but I thought this was interesting looking at greek definitions.

    Born: gennao
    1) of men who fathered children
    1a) to be born
    1b) to be begotten
    1b1) of women giving birth to children
    2) metaph.
    2a) to engender, cause to arise, excite
    2b) in a Jewish sense, of one who brings others over to his
    way of life, to convert someone

    2c) of God making Christ his son
    2d) of God making men his sons through faith in Christ’s work

    Again: anwyen
    1) from above, from a higher place
    1a) of things which come from heaven or God

    2) from the first, from the beginning, from the very first
    3) anew, over again

  11. Matt W. said

    Now, having read the comments, I think we can assume baptism, because Mikvah was the traditional method of conversion into Judaism as well.

  12. Matthew said

    Born of water… here’s another interpretation.

    Born of water is the way we are all born. The point of these verses it to highlight the birth of the spirit in contrast to the natural birth we all have already had. Like verse 6 this verse is discussing two births–the first one is our literal birth–not baptism. The second one is our spiritual re-birth–of which baptism is a symbol.

    Maybe I am cheating…as I may be basing this on something I heard in my family scripture study long ago :) Anyway, reading the verse in context, I find this interpretation as the most natural.

  13. Jim F. said

    Matthew, you won’t be surprised to know that I have tended toward that explanation, especially given the parallel in verse 6. Verse 5 says “except a person is born [or “begotten”] of water and spirit he is unable to enter the kingdom of God.” Verse 6 then says, it seems in rhetorical parallel, “One born of the flesh is flesh and one born of the Spirit is spirit.” That suggests that the birth of the water is the birth of the flesh and the birth of the spirit is spiritual birth.

    However, Word Biblical Commentary (36:48) says “A popular interpretation has it that water represents human birth, whether semen of man or waters in the womb, in contrast to birth from the Spirit; this, however overlooks that the whole expression ‘of water and Spirit’ defines the manner in which one is born from above. Suggestions like these do not do justice to the text and have not commended themselves to scholarly opinion. It would seem that the text relates birth from above to baptism and the Holy Spirit.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary agrees.

    I didn’t know that was a popular interpretation. It certainly isn’t among Latter-day Saints. However, I think that the scholarly argument against the interpretation is reasonable, in spite of the fact that it makes a good reading. The key to the scholarly argument is that when Jesus speaks of being born of water and the Spirit in verse 5 he is explaining what he meant when he said, in verse 3, that we must be born from above. As my study notes point out and as Matt W reminds us, “from above” is another translation of anothen, probably a better translation here than “again.” (John 3:5 and 3:7 are the only places in the New Testament where the word is translated “again.”) So, the argument goes, “be born of the water and Spirit” restates “be born from above.”

  14. Joe Spencer said

    Today in SS I was thinking about these very questions, and it occurred to me that there may be an important echo of the creation: the Spirit of God brooding on the waters. If these are the two elements of creation and so of birth, then this seems to confirm the WBC reading.

  15. nhilton said

    The contrast between the two characters/episodes in John 3 & 4 strikes me as dramatic, i.e. Jewish,Pharisee Nicodemus & Samaritan Woman. The two couldn’t be more opposite. Note the difference in questions, answers, expectations, etc. I love the contrast and wonder about the women’s issues at play here in Ch. 4. Obviously, given the cultural context, the woman is representing the most humble of people to whom the Savior could teach. I love how she “ministers” or “serves” the Savior and then He serves her. The water symbolism continues in Ch. 4 with Jacob’s well. The progression of the woman’s understanding as to the Savior’s identity is beautiful, v. 15, 19,25,26. Additionally, the woman’s candor with the Savior & those to whom she reports the incident is in contrast to Nicodemus’ secretive actions. Nic. & the woman each acted as representatives for their peers. Note the differing responses of each group.

  16. Thank you, nhilton. I enjoyed these comments.

  17. nhilton said

    Robert #2, I didn’t have time to comment last night but needed to say that John 3:8, the verse you’re going to focus on, is MY least understood passage in the whole chapter. I’ve read your cross references but don’t really “get it.” I think it’s the last phrase “…so is…Spirit.” the part that messes me up. It’s all so poetic. I’d have to echo Nicodemus, but probably not for the same reason. Just how are you going to FOCUS your whole study/lesson on this verse? If it’s simply personal study, I understand, but if you’re going to do this with a class, I’m stupified (not the first time).

    Todd & Jim F. #8&9: what is “Hudatos – Ez. 36. Pneumatos – Ez. 37.” and “interpretational gloss”? I think that perhaps all of 13 is an interpretational gloss. The verbs are in the perfect and the aorist tenses, referring to what has happened in the past. As a result, the verse doesn’t really fit into what Jesus is saying, but works well if it is a gloss by the writer.” I must have been sleeping when they taught this stuff in Primary.

  18. Robert, I’d be interested to hear your interpretation of 3:8 as well. I love that verse, but I find myself interpreting differently every day. What did you end up teaching?

  19. Todd Wood said

    Jim, before you move too much into the realm of anachronisms inserted in John 3, would you read the conservative scholar D.A. Carson on John 3?

    Of course, I find the staunch ol’ Lutheran, R.C.H. Lenski, very moving on John 3:13. But I recognize that Aland and Metzger classify their Greek reading in omitting the last five Greek words of John 3:13 as a {C}.

    Back on John 3:5, I believe that the preposition governs the two words, humatos and pneumatos as one flowing thought (born again or from above) and not two separate events. Though I think one of the modern translations (the CEV? I don’t have it in front of me) confirms Matthew’s interpretation of the verse.

    One thing for sure, Nicodemus, was the teacher of Israel; and he completely missed it.

    Matt W., shouldn’t Nicodemus have known, not from the Mikvah, Rabbinical interpretations, but from the text itself, the Old Testament, what Jesus was talking about in a birth of water and spirit? Shouldn’t he have known from the OT that flesh can only produce flesh?

    The text this weekend had me thinking . . . it is not a problem with intellect . . . the problem is with heart belief on the part of one of the greatest religious scholars of the day.

  20. Robert C. said

    nhilton and Joe, I didn’t end up studying this as much as I was hoping/planning (and since I have more young 12-year-old boys in my class this year, my teaching never goes according to any plan I have, I just start reading the stories and go with wherever the students’ interests take me–like the wind I guess…). Nevertheless, here are a couple thoughts:

    Actually, a comment Joe made on the wiki some months ago piqued a renewed interest for me in this verse. Also, I think Jim’s comments above that advocates a pairing of “water and Spirit” referring to a single rebirth “from above” (rather than a rebirth of water and a–somewhat separate–rebirth of the Spirit…) have interesting bearing on 3:8. I think I have enough punk-rock in my core (i.e. I tend have more distaste for rules, systems, bureaucracy, etc. than most…) to like this verse for similar reasons as Joe: it emphasizes the unpredictability of the Spirit, the idea that no matter how much we study and think and plan, if we are truly to be born again, we must be responsive in the very moment the Spirit calls us, to whatever it calls us to do, no matter how absurd that call may be (e.g. to sacrifice our favorite son, or to cut off someone’s head, etc.). I think this also complements nicely Paul’s phrase “the law/letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life” in 2 Cor 3:6.

    But I’m not very confident any of this is really what the verse is saying. Is the idea that the Spirit bloweth the person who is born again, or is it the person who is born again that–through the Spirit–blows others? Or perhaps this distinction collapses in itself b/c the Spirit and the one born again become on in the same? Anyway, I’d like to study this verse a lot more carefully, and hear others’ thoughts on it….

    (Also, Joe, I think the “thou hearest the sound thereof” is very interesting and related to the seeing vs. hearing ideas we’ve been discussing on the wik; perhaps hearing/hearkening to the unpredictable Spirit is itself a form–or even definition–of faith, in contrast to simply following that which can be seen; perhaps this significane is deepened by the “night” occurrence of this saying here? typologically, we all approach Christ in the dark and only by following his word/light are we then able to truly begin to see.)

  21. I like the direction you’re going here Robert. I’d like to think about those comments more clearly before responding to them.

    Something else that has struck me here and there, but I’ve never taken the time to look into: might the phrasing of 3:8 suggest something like Elijah, the prophet who just sort of disappears and reappears, showing up wherever he wants because he has the full power of the Melchizedek priesthood (perhaps any Melchizedek figure)? Without having seen her do it, I assume Margaret Barker would read the passage this way. Perhaps the language is suggestive of apotheosis…

  22. nhilton said

    Joe, a question rather off-topic but one that I’ve been wanting to ask you…what is with “Margaret Barker?” She seems to be required reading to participate in this blog…referenced many times in several posts. What do you see in her & her writing that is so compelling and would cause you to cite her as a source so exclusively?

  23. I had to laugh out loud at that.

    She is a British Bible scholar (Methodist preacher, as well) who has devoted her studies almost exclusively to studying the temple. Her first few books drew a lot of attention from Latter-day Saints because they are very serious, non-Mormon studies that could well have been written by an LDS apologist: they go a long way towards explaining the background of the Book of Mormon.

    After a few more of these publications, she was asked to speak at BYU (in 2003) and she gave a talk about groups leaving Jerusalem about 600 B.C., though she knew almost nothing of Mormonism at the time. Several LDS scholars began to open dialogue with her on all of this around that time, and she has begun to cite LDS scripture, etc., in her books. She was asked to speak at the Joseph Smith Symposium held by the Library of Congress in 2005, and she presented a paper on how her studies ground the possibility of the Book of Mormon.

    Her studies are really fascinating, but there is reason to be rather careful about them at the same time, because they are grounded in some presuppositions that Latter-day Saints may not be comfortable sharing. But I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read by her. Her website may be found here [corrected], and there are a number of her articles posted there. I recently corresponded with her a little bit and discussed her growing relationship with Mormonism. I’m watching her very closely, and I think a lot of other LDS scholars are too.

  24. Todd Wood said

    Guys, consider this proposal.

    I think there could be some connection between John 3:5 and Isaiah 4.

  25. nhilton said

    Joe, your like didn’t work. [fixed]

  26. nhilton said

    Joe, oops. Your LINK didn’t work. :)

  27. Yeah, I’m still figuring this stuff out (I can do the wiki, but I’m still getting used to the blog). Anyway, you can cut and paste this:

    http://www.margaretbarker.com (surprise!)

  28. Matthew said

    Wow. Robert. Thanks for all the work moving this lesson material to the wiki.

    If others haven’t seen the results check out:

    http://feastupontheword.org/Site:SS_lessons/NT_lesson_5

    If you think your comment wasn’t represented correctly or something is left to be improved on there, please edit and improve!

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