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Text Study for the Second Sunday in Lent

The Rev. Joseph Winston


March 20, 2011

Commentary
Genesis 12:1-4a
This is the call of Abraham. He is to leave His life of leisure and move into the
wilderness.

Genesis 12:1 the L ORD – Abraham was able to distinguish the L ORD’s voice
from all the others.
Go from your country and your kindred – Not only did Abraham leave the
city with all of its beauty behind, but even more importantly he left his
family.

Genesis 12:2 make your name great – In a world of honor and shame, having
your name raised up is of immense value.

Genesis 12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I
will curse – The L ORD will take care of Abraham including handing those
Abraham deals with.

Genesis 12:4 So Abram went – Unlike other call stories found in the Bible, Abra-
ham does not raise an objection to God’s call.

Psalm 121
The psalmist asks the question that is one the lips of most humans in times of trial,
“Who will help me?” This author believes that aid does not come from one of the

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nature gods but instead the One who brings assistance is the L ORD God of Israel.
The attributes of this One are amazing. Not only did He create existence but He
is also concerned about you personally. At all times, day and night, He is right
beside you and He will keep you forever.

Psalm 121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills – A traditional place for gods to reside
are somewhere out in nature. The author of the psalm begins with what
appears to be a request to these gods but quickly turns this around by posing
the introduction not as a simple statement of fact but instead as a question.

Psalm 121:2 My help comes from the L ORD – The psalmist and those who repeat
his words of praise believe in the One who created existence.

Psalm 121:3 He will not let your foot be moved – Unlike other gods, this One is
concerned with your existence.
he who keeps you will not slumber – At all times, He cares for you.

Psalm 121:4 He who keeps Israel – He is responsible to the well-being of the


descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
A question that Christians must address is how this psalm applies to them.
For the most part, Christians are not children of the promise but instead
are outsiders. Some groups will say that they are the new Israel. The prob-
lem with this approach is that God has then abandoned the old Israel. What
then keeps God from leaving you behind? Others might use Martin Luther’s
approach outlined in “How Christians Should Regard Moses” and discard
some portion of the law under the argument that it was given exclusively to
the Jews. Then, how does one include one’s self here when the promise is
given to the Jews? It seems that Christians must hope that they are grafted
on the the root stock of Israel. In no way does this remove the law’s require-
ments but it presents a way that the blessings may be received.

Psalm 121:5 The L ORD is your keeper – The One that looks after you is the
creator of the universe.

Psalm 121:6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. – In
other words, you will have a place to live, a promised land.

Psalm 121:7 The L ORD will keep you from all evil – In a world that has actively
persecuted the Jews, this line is difficult to take at face value.

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he will keep your life – People who believe in the resurrection of the dead
can find hope in this phrase.

Psalm 121:8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this
time on and for evermore. – For Lutherans, this is a traditional blessing that
follows the Lord’s pray in the sacrament of Baptism.
from this time on and for evermore – The concept of time has changed
through history. We read this phrase as God continuing this action of caring
for His people until the end of time and then we add on all of existence
outside of time. This understanding makes little sense during the author’s
life. The promise would be given to the children, the family, the tribe. That
is how it is carried forward.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17


In this section, Paul describes the inheritance a child of Abraham receives. It does
not come from an exchange of labor for resources. For if it did, then it is noth-
ing more than a law that describes the relationship between an employer and an
employee. A relationship of trust is built on something else altogether. This is
faith.

Romans 4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham – This question
frames the argument that Paul will make. The desired outcome to to show
the limits of the law and the abundance of grace.

Romans 4:2 if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about
– One way to determine the difference between actions that someone per-
forms and that of trust is to examine their behavior because if something
can be accomplished on your own, you have the right to tell others about
what you have done.
Paul does not see this in the written record, so he draws the conclusion that
works can be ruled out.

Romans 4:3 it was reckoned to him as righteousness – This is drawn from Gen-
esis 15:6. Paul is using this to booster his argument that Abraham received
the promise through faith.

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Romans 4:4 wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due – Genesis 15:6
does not name an amount, so Paul continues down the path that Abraham is
given faith.

Romans 4:5 trusts him who justifies the ungodly – The faith given to Abraham
does not explicitly say that God helps the ones that do not live up to His
standards. Perhaps, what allows Paul to make this leap in logic is to realize
that no one is able to stand before God.

. . . Missing is the discussion of how faith relates to circumcision. Paul argues that
this is a sign, an element that points toward the reality the Abraham is the
father of all who follow God.

Romans 4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to
Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteous-
ness of faith. – Paul picks up the argument once again that there is a distinct
difference between law and faith.

Romans 4:14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null
and the promise is void – Paul is identifying what brings the promise about.
It is work or faith? If it is work, then it cannot be a promise nor can it be
faith.

Romans 4:15 the law brings wrath – The record does not show God explicitly
outraged at Abraham. Because this is missing, Paul has yet another point
to prove that faith is at play. Of course, to give a point to his opponents
Paul mentions that the absence of law implies the lack of charges. So when
Abraham, who knew the law but yet was not charged, Paul can once again
point to faith.

Romans 4:16 For this reason it depends on faith – Paul uses a circular argument
here. He first asserts that Abraham is the father of all. To make this occur,
this must happen through faith because law does not allow that type of ex-
tension. Therefore, it cannot be law because law will not allow for this type
of reasoning.

Romans 4:17 in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to
the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist – Paul argues
that this is the proper work of God.

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John 3:1-17
Author’s Translation
1
Yet there was a man from the Pharisees, Nicodemus was his name. He was
the chief of the Jews. 2 This one came towards Him (Jesus) at night and said to
Him “Rabbi, we have perceived that you have come from God. For no one is
able to teach these signs, which you are doing, if God is not with him.” 3 Jesus
answered and He said to him. “Amen. Amen. I say to you, if one is not born from
above/again, then he is not able to see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said,
“How is an old man able to enter into his mother’s womb a second time to be
born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Amen. Amen. I say to you, if one is not born out of
water and wind/spirit, then one is not able to enter the Kingdom of God. 6 That
born out of the flesh is flesh, and that born out of the wind/spirit is wind/spirit.
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You should not be amazed that I said to all of you, ‘It is necessary to be born
from above/again.’ 8 The wind/spirit blows where it goes, and the sound/voice of
it you hear, but you do not perceive which place it is coming from and where it
goes. Thus, all is born out of the wind/spirit.” 9 Nicodemus answered and said to
Him, “How are these able to be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the
teacher of Israel and do no know! 11 Amen. Amen. I say to you, that we perceive
what we are talking about and we have seen what we have witnessed, but our
witness all of you are not getting. 12 If I say to all of you the earthy things and all
of you do not believe, then how do I say to all of you the heavenly things for all of
you to believe? 13 And no one has ascended into heaven. No one came down out
of the heaven except the Son of the man/human. 14 And as Moses exalted/lifted
up the serpent in the wilderness it is necessary to exalt/lift up the Son of the
man/human. 15 That everyone believing in Him may have life eternal. 16 For God
thus loves the cosmos. His only born Son he gives that all the believers in Him
should not perish, but may have life eternally. 17 For God did not send/apostle His
Son into the cosmos for judging the cosmos, but in order that the cosmos may be
saved through Him.”

Discussion
Just as with the rest of John, these verses in third chapter of John are composed of
ideas, which are then amplified in other portions of the Gospel. Because of this, it
is hazardous to look at any single concept in isolation since these themes depend
on other parts of the Gospel. If this basic insight into the Gospel according to
St. John is not applied during interpretation, then we run into the risk of drawing

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questionable conclusions.
An example of only looking at what a single word means, without looking at
the rest of the situation, can be found in John 3:3. Jesus tells Nicodemus God’s
kingdom cannot be seen with being born and then He uses ἄνωθεν. This word can
either mean “from above” or “again.” Without looking at the other uses of this
word in context, it is very difficult to know, which interpretation, if any, should
be used. The problem is not simply resolved by looking at the five other uses of
ἄνωθεν in John (John 3:3, 7, 31; 19:11, 23) because this information does not
give us enough background on the word. All that can be noted is that sometimes
it makes more sense to translate the word as “from above” rather than again (John
3:31; 19:11, 23).
A more fruitful approach would be to look at entire Gospel and try to under-
stand how the author is shaping this word’s meaning. One way to start this search
is by beginning with the word for water (ὕδωρ). Water is important in John and
this word is used twenty times. Outside of John 3:1-15, sometimes water is used
in conjunction with John the Baptizer (John 1:26, 31, 33; 3:23), the miracle at
Cana (John 2:7, 9; 4:46), the woman at the well (John 4:7, 10, 11, 13 - 15), the
miracle at Bethzatha (John 5:3, 4, 7), living water (John 7:38), the washing of the
disciples’ feet (John 13:5), and the piercing of Jesus on the cross (John 19:34).
Given this list, it does not appear that being born out of water in John 3:5 is an
allusion for a baptism of water.
In other words, it does not appear that Jesus wants Nicodemus to be baptized
with water. This argument is bolstered by the observation that Jesus never gives a
command to baptize.1 In fact, John the Baptizer clearly spells out the type of bap-
tism that Jesus brings: the baptism of the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). Jesus performs
this sort of baptism in John 20:22 when He breaths on the disciples and tells them
to receive the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps when Jesus states that one must be born of the πνεῦμα, He means that
this is a gift from Him, the Word, to us. This assessment agrees with John 6:63,
where Jesus states that His words are both Spirit (πνεῦμα) and life. Furthermore
in John 14:17, Jesus tells His followers that the Spirit is not received by the world
since it does not see nor know the Spirit. Maybe this is why Nicodemus is in the
dark (John 3:2) Nicodemus has seen Jesus and he has heard Christ’s Word but he
still does not know the Son.
1
The only purpose of Christ’s baptism in the Gospel is not the forgiveness of sins but instead
to make Jesus known to Israel (John 1:31). Additionally, John notes in 4:2 that Jesus does not
baptize, even though his disciples baptize.

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From looking at the uses of water in John, it appears that being born of Spirit
is hearing Christ’s Word or having Him breath on us.2 However, this answer still
does not tell us what water is. The solution to this problem is found in the story
about the Samarian woman. In John 4:10-14, the woman and Jesus first talk about
living water and then that whomever drinks from this water will never be thirsty
again. Next, the woman specifically asks Jesus for this water in 4:15. Instead of
answering her, Jesus tells the woman about her life and how one is to worship
God. After she sees the Christ Jesus tells her “I am.” John’s definition of water is
Jesus.
Having started with John’s utilization of water and proceeded through the use
of the Spirit throughout John, it appears that Christ is telling Nicodemus in John
3:5 that only those completely born of Jesus are able to enter the kingdom of
God. Nicodemus questions this understanding, has not received Jesus, and thus
has fulfilled the prophecy in John 1:10-11 because Nicodemus both did not know
Jesus and rejected Him.
Being born of Jesus literally means that we are His children. John uses the verb
γεννάω fifteen times in the Gospel and over one-half of these uses occurs in John
3:1-15. Out of these uses, the most important use of γεννάω is found in the first
chapter of John where we are told how an individual becomes a child of God. In
the prologue, the narrator tells the reader in verse 12 that all who receive Jesus and
believe in Him will be become children of God. This adoption into God’s family
does not occur due to any of our human ability but instead God does everything
that is needed to make us God’s children (John 1:13).
A more eloquent way to state that one must be completely born of Jesus in
order to enter God’s kingdom is to say that only the children of God can enter the
kingdom of God. This rephrasing is reminiscent of John 14:6 where Jesus states
that He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Are these two statements by Jesus,
Law or Gospel? Is Jesus being the door, which keeps people out? Or is Jesus the
One who heals the blind on the Sabbath? It seems that John’s Jesus is not the Law
who keeps people out because the Law came from Moses (John 1:17). Instead,
Jesus is both grace and truth (John 1:17).
Returning to the original question, what is the better translation for ἄνωθεν? It
appears that John is being deliberately ambiguous. We are both born from above
and we are born again because we have been made children of God.

John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus – The name given by the
2
It is interesting to contemplate why the early church did not incorporate Christ’s breathing on
disciples as a sacramental rite that passes the Holy Spirit to new believers.

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narrator is important because he will be named later in the story.

John 3:2 He came to Jesus by night – Many commentators note that the night-
time is a dangerous time. In doing so, they forget about the rhythm found
in Genesis that describes night as the beginning of the day. Nicodemus is
coming to make a new start.
Rabbi, we know – One can read this as Nicodemus speaking for all of Israel.3

John 3:3 Very truly – The double amen (ἀμὴν ἀμὴν) indicates a new section that
builds on what has already occurred.4
no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above – Jesus
tells Nicodemus God’s kingdom is only seen by those who are born ἄνωθεν.
This word can either mean “from above” or “again.” Because of the context,
the translation of ἄνωθεν demands both meanings of above and again.5
This mystical approach allows Jesus to say that the kingdom is real but only
some set of people can see what is happening.

John 3:4 How can anyone be born after having grown old? – Nicodemus focuses
on the action of birth rather than the assertion that the kingdom is present
on the earth. It is not one or the other, but both.6

John 3:5 no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and
Spirit – Nicodemus, who still cannot see it, has no chance of finding the
kingdom much less entering it.
A more direct interpretation uses the normal ideas about birth. Jesus says
you cannot enter the kingdom unless you are alive. That is you have broken
your mother’s water and you have the Spirit of God in your lungs.

John 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit
– There is a sharp demarcation between what is God and what is born of
woman. However, the use of flesh (σάρξ here is not one of condemnation
rather is is how God reveals Himself in the Son.7
3
S.D.B. Francis J. Moloney; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor, The Gospel of John, Volume 4,
Sacra Pagina, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 95.
4
Ibid., p. 98.
5
Ibid.
6
Ibid.
7
Ibid., p. 99.

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John 3:7 Do not be astonished – Nicodemus who came to make a new start,
cannot get his feet on the ground for having the rug yanked out from under
him.

John 3:8 The wind blows where it chooses – We have no way to control what the
Spirit will do.

John 3:9 How can these things be? – You can hear the frustration in Nicodemus’
voice. He came for a plain answer but instead finds mystery wrapped in
mystery.

John 3:10 Are you a teacher of Israel – Now comes the insult. It includes all
those who teach.8

John 3:11 I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen
– Jesus continues arguing of the physical nature of the kingdom.

John 3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe – This
could refer back to the citizens of the Kingdom being humans. Note that all
uses of you in the text are actually plural.

John 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from
heaven – Apparently, Elijah does not count (2 Kings 2:11). Neither does the
traditional ends of Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, Enoch and others.9

John 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, – This is a
parallel with Numbers 21:8-9 where those who look at the serpent on the
pole live even though serpents continue to exist on the ground. Likewise,
those who look at Jesus on the cross live even though sin continues to exist
all around.
so must the Son of Man be lifted up – The translation of lifted (from ὑψόω)
demands understanding of lifting up and exalting.10

John 3:15 whoever believes in him may have eternal live – There is a practical
benefit for believers.
8
Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, p. 100.
9
Ibid.
10
Ibid., p. 101.

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John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave – When we help others we
are following the model that God first set. This is one of the key texts for
the Orthodox in their concept of mission since they are more interested in
the self emptying God who shows humans how to love.11

John 3:17 God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world –
Christ’s purpose is clearly stated as helping and not hurting.

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world – God’s will is that
the entire universe be saved.

References
Bosch, David J., Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission,
(Orbis Books, 1991), American Society of Missiology Series, No. 16.

Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B.; Harrington, S.J., Daniel J., editor, The Gospel of John,
Volume 4, Sacra Pagina, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press,
1998).

11
David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, (Orbis Books,
1991), American Society of Missiology Series, No. 16, p. 208-209.

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