Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
Our Gospel reading is a very familiar one. It is one that the fathers have written about extensively and has been expounded in our protestant evangelical background extensively albeit with a slightly different focus. Parts of it were quite puzzling before I understood the historical teaching of the church, that we have learned together over the last several years.
The first thing that we see is that Nicodemus came by night to Jesus, as he was one of the ones at the end of John chapter two who had seen the signs and had believed. Some have said that the reason that he came at night was because he had to work during the day. However, none of the fathers, mention anything like this.
So, why did he come at night? He came because like all of us he struggled with fear. His faith was not fully illumined by the heavenly light. He believed because of the signs but he did not yet have understanding of the doctrine. He came at night to learn more of the mysteries of the faith.
In Nicodemus’ fearful approach, our Saviour does not rebuke or malign him for his fear, but rather in His mercy and grace He explains some of the mysteries of our faith to him.
There is some disagreement over how “again” is to be understood/translated both back in the day of the fathers and still today. However, St. John Chrysostom warns us not to miss the point of being born again. The point is that we cannot we see the kingdom of God without this process. Through these words our Lord is revealing that His nature is more than meets the eye. He has both a human and a divine nature.
We need to be born again. Our first birth came without our choice or knowledge but through our parents. We are brought up with their habits and their training. We now, however, have the choice to become the children of God and to learn and to partake of His habits and His training.
The phrase being born of water and spirit causes no end of puzzlement, if we do not see baptism as a sacrament, but merely a symbol. In Bible School, the way Bible survey was taught was to write your own personal commentary with as little preconceptions as possible. It is probably the closest thing to sola scriptura that you’ll ever see. This created some theological problems, which I still have to deal with.
For the most part things went smoothly, but this passage caused a lot of confusion. Because, obviously, baptism isn’t part of salvation so water has to mean something figurative and there were a lot of ideas of what actually that would mean. However, if we take these verses in the ancient understanding of the church, this is very clearly speaking of baptism.
The fathers tell us that just as the womb is the place where the child is formed and perfected by the Lord who forms it as he has since the beginning, so also the water takes the place of the womb and the Holy Spirit is the one who forms and perfects the child of God. Baptism is the death of the old man and the creation of the new.
Nicodemus asks how can one be born again? The answer is through baptism and the Holy Spirit when we of our own will choose to believe in Christ. The fathers tell us that this being born of water and spirit is the definition of baptism in the great commission. As easy as it is to dip the heads of those being baptised and lift them up again is as easy for God to bury the old man and create the new man.
Baptism is the remission or the forgiveness of sins, but it is also much more than that. It is a promise of greater and future gifts. It tells us that the future resurrection will come, it is our garment of salvation and we are clothed in the light of Christ through it. Because baptism is not merely the forgiveness of sins, we baptise newborns who have not yet tasted of sin.
In baptism our body, heart and soul are cleansed. Our bodies by the waters, our heart is purified by faith and our souls are washed by the Holy Spirit. God has created us to be complex creatures and His salvation encompasses the complexity of our nature. He is not satisfied to save just our souls as Gnostics, in their various manifestations over the centuries, have taught. He wants to save our entire being, which is why Christians bury the departed rather than practise cremation.
The Spirit moves where He wants when He wants to and even though we have been regenerated through the new birth, we are still in ignorance of why. There are some things about God’s nature and what He does that will always remain a mystery that we can trust in.
Jesus, in His question, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?” was confronting his pride, for He desired Nicodemus to be born of the Spirit. The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and the Lord resists the proud. The Fathers tell us that at this point he was puffed up with his mastery and that he thought himself of some importance because he was a teacher of the Jews.
We need to ask the question, why should he be expected to know that washing of water was part of the rebirth? These things were hidden in the law and the prophets. We remember that Jesus will say to the Jews as a whole in a couple chapters that they are searching for life in the Scriptures but are missing Him. Nicodemus was having the same problem. Ephrem the Syrian points out that the cleansing of hyssop, the waters of ceremonial sprinkling, and the washings of purification are just a few of the things that would have pointed towards this understanding of the rebirth.
We must remember though that our Lord did not come to Nicodemus with harshness but showed gentleness. Christ did not want to crush him with what he should’ve known. Rather He saw that Nicodemus was ill, but close to being healed. Nicodemus simply did not understand so the Lord revealed to him the baptism of complete cleansing of body soul.
Christ comes to each of us the same way. He sees that we were ill in our sins and transgression and teaches us the way of healing. Cleansing us, He makes us alive in Him. He does not come to us with harshness or anger but rather with gentleness and tenderness leading us to the truth.
We see, however, that part of Nicodemus’ problem was not merely lack of understanding, but also unbelief. He did not believe earthly things and the question is asked how can he then believe heavenly things? Lack of understanding can be corrected by further instruction, but if we find ourselves in a place of unbelief, we must ask God to remove the unbelief from our lives.
What are the heavenly things that he is referencing? The Son of Man is the only one who has ascended and descended from heaven. In doing this, this One who is divine took on humanity in such a way that Word, soul, and flesh are one in Christ. Furthermore, He opened up the way of salvation through this descent. Spiritual birth happens when human beings, being earthly, become heavenly. (This is theosis which our Metropolitan talks so much about.) This can only happen when humans become members of Christ. Therefore, everyone who needs and desires to be changed must come together into union with Christ. After this Christ who descended might ascend again taking with him the Church whom he considers as his body. We joined to Christ through the Church may ascend with Him.
Christ now concludes His instruction about the gift of baptism and turns to speaking about its source i.e. the cross. These two together, explain the fathers, declare the immensity of His love more than anything else. For He both willingly suffered for His enemies and having given His life for His enemies, He freely gave them through baptism the complete and utter forgiveness of all their sins.
The Fathers make a big deal about the serpent being brazen whereas in the past I have heard more emphasis on the fact that the rod it was placed on was in the shape of a cross. This may come from the fact that my background and possibly yours as well emphasises the empty cross. Which is a glorious truth, our Lord is risen and has defeated death. However, by focusing on this I think we miss a truth that the fathers saw as quite obvious.
The serpent raised by Moses was not real but was made in the likeness of the real serpent. In the same way Christ took of our flesh without taking our sinful nature. “In this way, he imitated a serpent through the deceitful appearance of human weakness, so that when He laid aside the slough of flesh, He might destroy the cunning of the true serpent.”1
Christ in our flesh destroyed both sin and also defeated the evil one. Furthermore, the serpent was raised upon a high base points us to the fact that Christ was clearly manifested or seen by His cross so that it would not be possible for any to fail to see him. All those who look to him in faith, like those who looked to Moses’ serpent, will be saved forever from the death that they have been rewarded with from sinning in mind and body.
We know as has been emphasised in our backgrounds that Christ did not remain in death through His conquering of death. The fathers tell us it is impossible for Him to give us life and not have life himself. He gained life for us by destroying death through His death, but He would not remain in death but would rise again after defeating it.
We now come to the verse that if we were raised in the Church, we have known from a very young age. However, if we received salvation later in life then we probably learned it at least in our first year with Christ. This verse proclaims to us the intensity of His love. In the words of St. John Chrysostom,
He laid down His life for us and poured forth His precious blood for our sakes – even though there is nothing good in us – while we do not even pour out our money for our own sake and neglect him who died for us when He is naked and a stranger….We put gold necklaces on ourselves and even on our pets but neglect our Lord who goes about naked and passes from door to door….He gladly goes hungry so that you may be fed; naked so that He may provide you with the materials for a garment of incorruption, yet we will not even give up any of our own food or clothing for him….These things I say continually, and I will not cease to say them, not so much because I care for the poor but because I care for your souls.2
His point is that since we have been saved by so great a love, we should also love greatly. We show our love for him, as I have said many times in the past, by caring for those who cannot care for themselves. In this way our souls are cared for and nurtured. As we receive God’s love we pass it on to others and are thus made capable of receiving more of His love.
God gave His only begotten Son that our race might live. If He had had anything more dear to Him, He would have given it for our salvation. We are precious in His eyes. Man had fallen and what was God to do? He was going to rescue us! The proof of his love is that He gave His only begotten Son and not an adopted Son. He gave of himself for our salvation.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
~ Fr. Matthew
1 Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVa (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 123
2 Ibid, 125
Tresham, Henry, 1749?-1814 ; Shipster, Robert. The Macklin Bible — Nicodemus Came to Jesus by Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54051 [retrieved May 13, 2020]. Original source: A gift to Vanderbilt University from John J. and Anne Czura..
Unidentified. Moses and the Brass Serpent, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55665 [retrieved May 13, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flemish_17th_century_Moses_and_the_Brass_Serpent.jpg.