Introduction From part 1:
Of the four books narrating the life of Jesus up to his crucifixion, only John makes much use of the Passover. Many of the events recorded there are centered around this celebration. What would happen, I asked myself, if I tried to understand John’s entire account through the lens of the Passover?
John, Chapter 3
The third chapter of John contains some of the most quoted passages of the Christian Scriptures. And it, therefore, likely has the most entrenched theology surrounding those passages. Lay aside those theologies and look at this chapter with new eyes.
Since John the Baptist’s proclamation concerning the Passover lamb in chapter 1, John has taken the reader through Jesus gathering disciples, the wedding feast at Cana, and the cleansing of the temple. Now, during the Passover, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night.
In the discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus states, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” A human is brought from non-existence into this world by the process of being born. But the kingdom of God, the rightful habitation of human kind, is not to be seen from this birth. In the creation story, told in Genesis, man becomes a living being when God breathes into him the breath of life. In the first chapter of John, the agent of life is the Word. The “breath” of Genesis has become an intelligible Word that we must receive and by which we must live. Before we can see the kingdom of God, we must know the breath of life to be breathed into us by the Word that was in the beginning. Edward Burrough put it this way, “But of that birth are we which hath no crown, no glory, nor rest under the sun: a birth is brought forth amongst us which is heir of another kingdom, and possessor of another crown, whose glorying is in the Lord all the day long…” (Works of Fox, Vol.III, p.6) This is the birth that can see and dwell in the kingdom of God. This is a birth that comes at the expense of that birth that has its crown, glory, and rest under this sun.
Jesus continued, explaining God’s love and concern for His creation, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Even though the familiar quotation stops here, the passage continues.
For God sent the son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-20)
The light is come that dispels the darkness (misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, and wickedness). The Passover lamb has come and been recognized. The love of God has been set forth in pointing out the way to enter the kingdom of God. But men loved darkness, and all the associated connotations noted earlier, rather than the light that leads to life. When your deeds are evil, you seek out the darkness and shun the light.
“But he that does truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” When the angel of death visited Egypt, those whom death passed over escaped because of their deeds. They were instructed what to do and their deliverance was in accordance to their obedience. Notice Jesus’ insistence on deeds. If your deeds are evil you hate and shun the light. If you do the truth, you come to the light and you love the light; your deeds, one way or the other, are made manifest. “Doing truth” is not according to some formula or prescription of actions. “Doing truth” is hearing the voice of God and acting accordingly. Your deliverance from darkness is in accordance to your obedience.
John follows this discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus with another conversation between John the Baptist and various, unspecified, Jews. During this conversation, John the Baptist states, “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
All the sermons I ever heard that dealt with salvation and used John three, pick up on Jesus’ statement about being born again and pull John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Furthermore, those preaching these sermons have had a focus on Jesus’ death on the cross. Here, at this point, this study parts company with those theologies. It was not the death of the pascal lamb that caused the angel of death to pass over your dwelling. It was painting “the lambs life” on your doorpost that was effective.
Let us jump forward a little. In chapter six Jesus tells the Jews, “Except you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you have no life in you.” He later explained to the disciples, “The flesh profits nothing, it is the spirit that gives life. The words I am speaking to you, these are spirit, these are life.”
If Jesus’ words that he is speaking to us are spirit and are life, then lets rework John the Baptist’s closing statement of chapter three:
For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He [speaks to us] without measure…He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
Now, what does this do to our understanding of the message of this chapter? This is telling us something different than that proclaimed by those preachers-of-sermons I mentioned earlier. They would likely have agreed with this statement taken from an Evangelical pastor:
Salvation is the result of confessing one’s belief that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died so that our sins are forgiven, thereby reconciling us to God, the Father. We believe, we confess, that’s it. Salvation resides in Jesus plus nothing. That is, we need nothing except to believe in Jesus Christ and our fellowship with God is restored. What follows is an intimate life with God forever. If hearing His voice is a necessary condition of salvation, then the Jesus plus nothing statement becomes Jesus plus something, i.e. hearing His voice.
Look again at John’s progression in this chapter.
- He introduces the concept of a birth that can see the kingdom of God and a birth that cannot see the kingdom.
- He has portrayed God as being concerned enough for His creation that He has sent His Son so that any who believe in him can have everlasting life; the life man had in the beginning.
- He has given us the ‘field marks’ to distinguish those who live in the kingdom from those who do not. Those who do evil hate the light, while those who act in God love the light. Unlike identifying birds, for example, we can choose which field mark identifies us.
- He has explained that to “believe in” cannot be divorced from hearing and obeying the voice of the Son.
What does this have to say about the new birth and salvation? To as many as receive Him (i.e. the Word who was in the beginning in whom is the life that is the light of mankind), even to those who believe in his authority, to them he gives the power to become children of God, who are born, not of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God.” (See John 1:12-13) The new birth comes when we receive the light, accept and love the reproof and guidance of the light that shines in our darkness, and enter into the life that comes only from the Word. Thus are we recreated in the image of God — living beings. This is salvation for it takes us out of the darkness, out of death, and brings us into the light, the life, and the relationship with the Father we were created to enjoy. Here we experience death to pass over, leaving us untouched.
Our participation in this Passover is a continual relationship with the Lamb of God who takes away the death of the world. Our Lamb obstructs death by instructing us in the path of life. After all, his name is The Word of God! Instead of a theology purporting to thwart death by death, we are brought to a constant infusion of life into our very being. It is life that causes death to pass away. Jesus’ words that he is speaking are this life that we receive by hearing and walking accordingly. Are we listening? Are we hearing? Are we walking?