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John’s Birth Narrative

April 10, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve taught about this topic based on this section of text at church before, but for no reason in particular, this passage has been running through my head again and I thought I would try to clarify and solidify my thoughts through writing.

Unlike the gospels of Luke and Matthew, the gospel of John does not tell us about the birth story of Jesus at the beginning of the book. Instead, John chooses to explain Jesus’ entrance into the world as the Creator God taking on human flesh to bear His image perfectly and put on display humanity as humanity was intended to be. However, it is my contention that John’s gospel does contain a birth narrative, but the birth of Jesus does not occur until the end of the book.

So as not to get bogged down, we will be flying through these texts, only pointing out what is pertinent to my argument, and deliberately ignoring some of the most important elements of the story. We’ll start with Jesus on the cross nearing death.

John 19.25a-27
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
26 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He *said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then He *said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.

For our purposes, there’s only one thing I want you to pay attention to in this passage, which we probably normally wouldn’t give a second thought. Who are the women here? Well, we have Jesus’ mother, whose name every reader or hearer (hereon, we’ll use only the term reader, even though most of John’s original audience heard this text read to them) knows. Mary of course. Then we have Mary and Mary. So, Mary, Mary, and Mary.

The text goes on to tell us about the death of Jesus. He’s given sour wine, then He parallels Elohim in Genesis, with, “It is finished.” At this moment, Jesus gives up His Spirit.

Everyone is in a hurry to bring him down from the cross before the Sabbath or they would have to leave the bodies on the cross for a whole day cuz silly reasons. To double check to make sure Jesus was dead, they pierce his side, and out of him flows blood and water. He was quite dead.

Then we come to the story of Jesus’ burial.

John 19.38-42
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body.
39 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

We’re reading through John and we hear Mary, Mary, Mary, there is a ten verse depiction of Jesus’ death, and after we come immediately to Joseph. Mary, Mary, Mary… Joseph. “Mary” is fresh in reader’s minds, and then “Joseph.” What is commonly associated with these two names in close proximity to one another? Jesus’ birth. I think John wants us to have the story of His birth in mind right now. Given that both of these names are common, it is perfectly plausible their usage is purely coincidental. I would tend toward calling it a coincidence, except for other elements of the text.

Because of what we see in the rest of this gospel, we know John is a well thought out writer who is very deliberate about what he says. Rarely, if ever, does he provide specific details without reason. He tells us Jesus is going to be laid in a tomb, a new tomb. No one had ever been laid in it. Just like the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus (Pun not intended in the Greek). It’s a virgin tomb.

Here’s the kicker of the passage, and perhaps the most important reason for seeing this part of John as a sort of birth narrative. John tells us Nicodemus is there. Nicodemus is here to both foreshadow what is about to happen and to provide a theological explanation of what does happen. No other gospel tells us about him. Not only that, John also happens to specifically point us to the first meeting Nicodemus had with Jesus. The importance of referencing Nicodemus is found in this conversation.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to get some questions answered. We pick up this iconic conversation in John 3.2

this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus *said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus continues on in the conversation to frame this new birth as a “heavenly thing” and as what brings the “life of the age (of the kingdom of God)” to the reborn. He also talks about himself being raised up as the means by which the people of God will receive the salvation from death to receive the life he speaks about in this passage.

With this background in mind we come to the resurrection in John 20, the climactic moment of the author’s birth narrative. In this chapter, Mary goes to Jesus’ virgin tomb and finds it empty. Later she is the first to see the risen Jesus whom she mistakenly believes to be the gardener.

John’s reference to the story of Nicodemus provides one lens through which we are to view Jesus’ resurrection. It is the new spiritual birth which allows the reborn to see the kingdom of God. What was confusing in John 3 has now become quite clear. No, it’s not about climbing back into the mother’s womb. Other than being impossible, that would simply result in another birth of the flesh. This is a birth of a different sort.

The gestation process of the new birth takes place in a tomb. The precursor to a birth of the spirit is a death to the old fleshly ways of law, sin, division, centralized religious control, and the like. Jesus’ death to sin on the cross was his conception and the resurrection with a new, imperishable body is his birth. Jesus was born again with a body fit to see and experience the kingdom of God.

The resurrected Jesus in the garden is the new Adam, the first of humanity to experience both a birth of water and one of spirit. Jesus lovers are to follow him into the tomb that they might also be born, “not of [blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1.13). As revealed in the conversation with Nicodemus, it is the raising up of Jesus like the serpent which enables us to share with Jesus in this spiritual rebirth through death and resurrection – experiencing the life of the age in the present as we await the fullness of this life in the future.

*As a pertinent post-script, Jesus frames his death and resurrection as a birth story in John 16.20-22 as well.

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