Turnbull, Steve: Nichodemus and the New Humanity

Nicodemus and the New Humanity

Steve Turnbull

6th International Crossings Conference

January 26, 2016

[Editor’s note:  Dr. Turnbull’s original paper had Greek words properly printed out in a Greek font, but our WordPress system was not able to  accommodate it.  We apologize for that deficiency.]

I think it might be helpful to begin this reflection on the role of the Holy Spirit in giving us life with a personal anecdote. You know that saying about how there are two kinds of people in the world? Those who believe there are only two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. Well, I’ve noticed there are two kinds of people in the world when it comes to a morning shower. There are those who get up, get clean, get dry, get dressed, and get on with the day. And then there are those who slide into a cascade of water set to just the right temperature to transmit a gentle warmth to their still slumbering skin and who enjoy every long minute of their water tank draining, time consuming, daily morning ritual. (Can you guess which one I am?) Years ago I had a friend named Joe. He was of the latter variety. He told me one day, “Steve, some people think that their master bathroom includes a shower stall. To me, it’s not so much a shower as it is a rehumanization chamber.” It’s been almost 20 years since I heard that description, and if the good Lord gives me 40 more, I don’t think I’ll forget it. This is the topic we’re going to explore today: the life-giving work of the Spirit as a process of rehumanization.

Have you ever noticed how ambivalent we are about the word “human”? We are conflicted about how to use that word. Our common usage betrays our mixed feeling about what it means to be human. On the one hand, to err is human. (Some of you will think I have erred just now in my pronunciation.) Either way, don’t blame me. I’m only…human. This kind of usage reflects our pessimistic view of humanness. Being human is basically what’s wrong with us. Other times we can talk about someone as being truly “humane,” and we mean it as a high compliment. Or we study the “humanities” because they enrich our selves our our society. Or I wonder if we mean something like this when we say that someone is a real “Mensch.” Being human, from this perspective, is not what’s wrong with us. It’s what we aspire to. I hope to show you today that both of these views are Biblical. What is needed is to inquire about the relationship between them. Or, more to the point of this gathering, to ask, “How does the Holy Spirit create the humanity God wants from the humanity we are.”

And it is my assignment, joyfully received, to take my starting point from the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3.

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

If you have studied this story before, you may know that John presents this exchange to us as more than a private conversation. Nicodemus stands for more than himself. When Jesus speaks in direct address to Nicodemus, he moves from the second person singular pronoun to the plural. To Jesus, Nicodemus isn’t just a “you;” he’s a “y’all,” a representative figure.

At the opening of the story Nicodemus, along with all that he stands for, approaches Jesus in the darkness of night. Details like this are rarely coincidental in John. All the more so when, in the closing verses of this episode, Jesus teaches Nicodemus, and the Nicodemus in all of us, about darkness and the coming of the light. The light has come into the world, Jesus said, but people have loved the darkness rather than the light. This is one of those scenes in John that indexes back to John’s brilliant prologue, specifically to John 1:9. John wrote in his prologue that Jesus is the true light, which gives light to all people, and he has come into the world, but the world did not receive him.

This word “people” that appears in both passages is a word that we need to explore. We find “the true light which gives light to all people” in John 1:9, but Jesus tells us that ‘people loved the darkness rather than the light” in John 3:19. The word translated here as “people” is a word familiar to Greek readers and perhaps also to many who read the New Testament in English. The word is anthrohpos, from which we get words like anthropology. It is the word for human beings or for humanity. Not “man” in the gendered sense of the term, that’s aneyr; not woman, that’s guney; but “human.”

By the end of this episode, humans don’t look very good. They love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil. The pessimistic side of our perspective appears justified. And we were set up for this pessimism already at the start of the scene. The very first words of this scene in Greek are Hey de anthrohpos ek tohn Pharisaiohn,” “there was a human, from among the Pharisees.” In a lesser piece of literature than John, or read out of context, this might seem insignificant. The word anthrohpos can be used neutrally, without much theological freight. But if we can manage not to be too distracted by the large, pesky number 3 interrupting John’s text and tricking us into thinking of this as a cold start to a new chapter, we might also notice that in the last verses of what we now call John 2, Jesus would not entrust himself to the humans who had gathered at the Passover because he knew all things. John 2:24 says, “He did not need any testimony about humans for he knew what was in each human.” And then the very next words, later designated as John 3:1, say “There was a human, from among the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a ruler of the Judeans.” It’s practically the title of this story. This is a story about humanity. And so far, it’s mostly a tragedy.

But all is not lost. Although Nicodemus cannot comprehend how, Jesus suggests that those born once as anthrohpoi, humans, can be born again, from above, by the Spirit. Jesus describes for Nicodemus et al. a new birth, which, as births usually do, issues forth in new life—a new life given by the Spirit. And now we are back at the topic that gathers us here. How shall we understand this Spirit-born life? And in John’s context, I think we are urged to ask, “What sort of life does the Spirit give to our darkened humanity?”

To answer that question, let’s fast forward to John’s final and climactic use of that same term, anthrohpos, in John 19. Jesus is on trial before Pilate. It seems to be his great defeat, the story of his failure for pretensions to Kingship. In fact, the language of Kingdom, ubiquitous in the other gospels, appears in John in only two stories, the story of Nicodemus (3:3), and the story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. In this scene, John tells the story of Jesus’ gruesome, ironic coronation. Pilate’s goons twist together a crown of thorns and work it down onto Jesus head. They find some purple cloth and drape his would-be kingly shoulders with this would-be royal garb. And just in case anybody missed the point they were none too delicately trying to make, they mock him, “Hail, king of the Jews.” Later they would crucify him under a placard advertising this same charge, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

After this royal mocking Pilate brings Jesus out to the crowd. There has been no time for Jesus to change costumes in the intervening two verses, but John refuses to let even his dullest readers miss the point. Pilate brings Jesus out to the crowd “wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe,” and presenting the soon-to-be crucified king he says, Idou ho anthrohpos. “Behold, the human” (19:5).

To earthly eyes, this scene would be a no more hopeful picture of humanity than the one painted 16 chapters earlier. Worse, actually. For now the light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness has overcome it. But read in resurrection retrospect, as John intends his gospel to be read, a whole new picture emerges, one visible only to the eyes of faith, and offering those eyes of faith a picture they would not, could not, certainly did not imagine on their own. Here, John tells us, we may behold true humanity. Here we see the truly human one, faithful to God as Israel and Adam were meant to be but never were. Faithful up to and through the point of death. Here now stands the world’s first and only truly-human being. Here now is that human being receiving his coronation as the world’s true Lord and King.

Humanity and kingship. Humanity and reign. What John has joined together, we would be wise not to rend asunder.

But this is not just an idiosyncrasy of John. The synoptic evangelists do it too. And they add some color to the picture. There are two different, prominent themes in the Synoptics that teach us about the cruciform Lordship of Jesus and the gift of rehumanization. First, there are the Son of Man sayings. John said that Jesus was the true a[nqrwpoß. Both John and the synoptic gospels include Jesus self-designation as the huios tou anthrohpou, which we have traditionally rendered as “the son of man,” an inevitably imperfect translation for a language in flux. Some have tried again to render it “the mortal one” or “the human being.” What’s important in translation is that we see through to the word anthrohpos and that we see that Jesus has adopted this phrase from the prophet Daniel.

Daniel’s Son of Man appears in a dream described in Daniel 7. In his dream Daniel sees 4 terrible beasts arise to reign and wreak havoc upon the earth. Then Daniel sees another character, a huios tou anthrohpou in the Septuagint that most New Testament writers seem to have read and in the language they reflected, a “son of man” in most of our English translations. This son of man is transported upon the clouds into the presence of God, the Ancient of Days, and God confers upon him authority, glory, and sovereign power. It will be his vocation to establish an everlasting Kingdom and to subdue the destructive reign of the beasts.

A few verses later, Daniel is given the interpretation of this dream. Daniel 7:17-18 says, The four great beasts are four kings that will rise from the earth. But the holy people of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, forever and ever.’” According to the provided interpretation, the Son of Man represents the people of the Most High. They are the ones who are destined to receive the Kingdom and possess it eternally, and to do it as humans.

This vision is an anti-creation and re-creation narrative, highlighting the role of the human one. In contrast to God’s Edenic purposes, at the start of this vision it is not human beings who are given dominion over the beasts or who fill the earth and subdue it, but it is the beasts who exercise dominion over the humans and all the earth. This is bad. This may be why the first beast especially is anthropomorphized. The lion with the wings of an eagle is said to stand up on two feet and take the mind of a human. Creation is become chaos because the Kingdom of our Lord has become the kingdom of this world. This is a narrative of dehumanization. But God reestablishes the good of creation as he reestablishes the primordial vocation of his humans, to serve as his vice-regents and to reflect His image as they exercise his dominion over creation, to subdue the beasts, that chaos will be kosmos again. First, Daniel sees, they must suffer, but then they will be vindicated to permanent, benevolent, delegated reign. This second stage of the narrative is a narrative of rehumanization.

This is the destiny that Jesus claims as his when he calls himself the Son of Man. He is the representative who fulfills the vocation of Israel, whose role it was to fulfill the vocation of humanity in the first place. And Jesus seems to use this title in full awareness of the narrative of Daniel’s dream. Thus the Son of Man must suffer many things and be killed, and on the third day rise to reign at the right hand of God. These ideas may come to us by the pen of Mark, but we are also right back where we began in John’s thought. “Behold, the man,” who wears a crown on his head above his purple bedecked shoulders The one who suffers and dies, later to be vindicated and take up his reign, is the truly human one, God’s true anthrohpos, the one in whom the kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.

When Jesus claims the title and vocation of the Danielic Son of Man, we see that He is the one in whom humanity is restored. But it is another topic in the Gospels that tells us how this rehumanizing reign comes to us. For this we must hear the announcement that the Reign of God has come among us. In the words of the Synoptists, we must hear the Gospel.

Now, I know that mixing Kingdom and Gospel can make some Lutherans nervous. We’ve seen it done poorly. But this need not be so. In fact, Gospel has been a Kingdom word from the very beginning. And everyone who heard the Gospel from Jesus or from his scattered apostles knew this.

The Jews among them who knew their Scriptures would have learned it from Isaiah. Here it is in Isaiah 40, “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.” Or again, Isaiah 52.7, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” For Isaiah, the Gospel was the good news of the restoration of the reign of Yahweh.

But the Gentiles who heard the Gospel would have known this too. For them euangelion could be roughly translated as something like “good news about the king.” Allow me to spin a little story, something to help us imagine how this term was used in Jesus’ world.

Imagine an average Joe who lived in the 1st Christian century, long before anybody thought to call it that. Let’s say his name was Alexander. Alexander was a humble guy. He farmed the land that had been in his family since before anyone could remember. And it was good land too, a little hilly, he noticed more and more as he got older and his knees began to remind him of how hard he was working. But he grew figs and olives on that land, which his family ate with special pleasure. They believed they were the best figs and olives grown anywhere nearby. And Alexander sold and bartered his crop at the market. In exchange for his produce he brought home milk to drink and cloth that his wife Livia made into clothes and blankets. They never had too much, but they only rarely had too little. They lived their life quietly and didn’t want trouble.

But their lives were not without scars. When Alexander and Livia were younger, they had known mostly peace. But the minor kings of local tribes had grown bolder in recent years. The peacekeeping powers of Rome were preoccupied with their own affairs. The assassination of Julius Caesar brought chaos to the realm. His adopted son Octavian, the heir to the throne had been betrayed by his friend and ally Marc Antony, and Octavian and Antony were spending all their energies – and the resources of the Republic – trying to outmaneuver one another seize control for themselves. Luxuries like providing security for farmers on the borderlands weren’t getting much attention.

It was because of this Alexander and Livia had lost their oldest son two years ago. He was 14. He’d have been 16 now. He had the body of a man but the head of boy, brimming with courage, still lacking in wisdom. When some lieutenants of a nearby tribal king were threatening to steal the produce from Alexander’s fields, the boy threatened them right back. “You touch this field and you might not live to regret it.” The fight that resulted from those words caused enough pain and injury to the men that they decided to pick on easier targets next time, but the boy paid for that reputation with his life. And Alexander cursed the olives that had been traded for the life of son, and he’d trade them back in a minute if he could. But, of course, he couldn’t.

And in addition to his grief, now Alexander lived with a constant low grade fear. When would the next threats come? Today, next week, next month? What about his other kids? His wife? Would he lose them and his livelihood next time? And, although he couldn’t prove it, he was sure that people were damaging his crops at night while he slept. Life was a struggle every day now.

And then one day Alexander got news that changed all of that. He was sitting down to eat with his family when a young man came running by the house. Out of breath from having done this all day, half panting with no energy for polish or explanation, he blurts out that Octavian had finally secured the front. His rivalry with Antony had actually settled down last fall when Antony died in Egypt. And since that time, Octavian had returned to Rome and solidified his power. The armies were under his unified command, and the Senate was giving him more and more authority. Soon they would even begin to call him “Caesar Augustus.”

The local chieftains and the bands of raiders would have to learn their place as security returned to the region. Alexander noted silently to himself that the recent decrease in threatening activity must have been no coincidence. There was a new sheriff in town, and the criminals had known it even before he did.

There was still some mopping up to do in that area, but this was beginning to feel like a whole new day, like the long night of waiting was over. And Alexander’s life began to improve dramatically. The crops on the edges of the field were mysteriously staying much healthier. So his family ate better and took better crops to market. The scars of his loss remained, but his heart began to lighten considerably. The constant fear for the safety of his family began to recede, and soon he would wake up without a pit in his stomach for the first time in two years.

Alexander had been the victim of strong and wicked powers for a long time. He was no match for them, and they were stealing his life right out from underneath him. But now a stronger and better power had risen. Augustus would have his own detractors, of course, but for Alexander he was a savior. And his arrival to power was a whole new day for Alexander and for his world. And the people of Alexander’s world had a word for that news, for the report that was brought to them by the young man running from town to town with the report of good king Octavian. They called it good news. The called it the gospel. And the herald who brought it was a euangelistes, an evangelist.

An ancient Greek stone carving from about that time celebrates the salvation of the world accomplished by Caesar Augustus. The inscription in a town called Priene says, “The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world, which came through him.” They revered Augustus as a god, and sometimes as the son of God because he was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Similar “gospels” or pronouncements of “good news” are recorded by other ancient sources.  At the end of a bloody war, the good news of victory and peace would be carried by sailors to distant lands. When the emperor Vespasian’s reign was secured, very close to the time of Mark’s writing, a “gospel” message was delivered to him while he was in Alexandria in Egypt, reporting that his opponents had finally succumbed. The historian Josephus writes, “On reaching Alexandria, Vespasian was greeted by the good news from Rome…The whole empire being now secured and the Roman state now saved beyond expectation.”

So it should come as no surprise that Jesus’ gospel was a word about Kingship. The Kingdom of God is here. Not the Kingdom of Augustus or Vespasian, or Jupiter or Zeus, or wealth or violence, or me. And a gospel declaration of anyone’s kingship puts its hearer in a position of no neutrality. You bow the knee and rejoice at the saving reign of the king or you are in rebellion. And what do we say when we receive and acknowledge the kingship of Jesus? We say “Jesus is Lord,” kurios Ieysous. We confess in faith the very first Christian creed. Before there was Nicea or Chalcedon, there was this New Testament confession, “Jesus is Lord.” Which no one can say, except by the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12. Or as Paul explained in Romans 10, “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you shall be saved.”

And when the Spirit delivers this life-giving gospel to us, by whatever herald the Spirit chooses, and we are emboldened to bow the knee and confess that Jesus is God’s living Lord of heaven and earth, then we are rehumanized. We give up our dehumanizing rebellion, our complicity in the sinful project of running God’s world wrong, and our collusion with Satan’s attempted coup, in which we were guilty pawns. And finally we begin to fulfill our human vocation to reflect and enact the rightful reign of God over his world.

And, moreover, we will know how to reflect it. Because we will have seen it in the truly human one. We will reflect cruciformity. We will reflect the reign of God in sacrificial love of neighbor, like Jesus. We will know how to do it, and we will be able to do it. Not because we’ve found the strength or the power inside us somewhere. But because the power of the Holy Spirit found us and gave us life and conformed us to the image of the son, that he might be the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, all of whom reflect the image of our heavenly father, chips off the old divine block.

And that is what Jesus told Nicodemus already in John 3. Y’all humans have loved the dark, and you’re less human because of it. Y’all’ve been born into one kind of life, but it has become a human life only in the most pessimistic sense of that term. If y’all are going to see the Kingdom of God, you’re going to need to be given new birth and new life. You will need rehumanization. The water of a hot shower will probably not do it. You must be born of water…and the Spirit.


I think there are some practical benefits that accrue when we recentralize the Lordship of Jesus in the Gospel and recognize the Spirit’s rehumanization project in making us his disciples. Here’s a few suggestions for our collective consideration:

a. I think this has the potential to reintegrate our practices of evangelism and discipleship. These have gotten separated. We have separate committees for evangelism and discipleship. We have separate churches…evangelism churches that reach the lost and grow in numbers and discipleship churches that focus on doctrine, prayer, and “spiritual maturity.” And too often we think about separate phases of ministry, one where you receive the Savior and another one where you obey the Lord, one where you receive eternal life and one where you clean up this life. The trick with the Lutheran habit of “distinguishing” things is that we sometimes fall into the bad habit of separating them entirely from one another when they still belong together. Instead of all this separating, we may declare to all people the Gospel that Jesus is Lord and invite them to trust it. In fact, we will find that Jesus is Savior precisely because he is Lord. Satan has tried to run a dehumanizing, life-stealing, death-dealing Kingdom. But Jesus has come to bring the Kingdom of God that is humanizing and life-giving, and even we rebels are invited to lay down our arms and receive new citizenship. And, in response to that Gospel, one of the “yes’s” we say to the Lord Jesus will be the first one, but the rest of our lives will be the same response to the same Spirit of Jesus, making the same cheerful reply, with Thomas. “Yes, my Lord and my God.”

b. Second, in doing so, I think we can better fulfill that great Lutheran dipstick, was Christum treibt, what drives Christ. Right now too much of what we call evangelism is about what drives me. “Yes, I’d love to go to heaven when I die. What do I need to do to make that happen for me?” And too much of what we call discipleship is also about me or about the law. “These are tips for a better, more fulfilling life for you or this is what you must do now if you really mean it.” Instead, we can make them both about the Spirit driving Christ, actualizing the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus in us and our world.

c. Third, I think this understanding of Christian discipleship to Jesus as the Spirit-driven process of rehumanization might open up new doors for evangelistic conversation. Too many of us are handcuffed in our evangelistic imagination. We only know how to share the benefits of Christ with someone who is trapped by their own guilt or tortured in their conscience or in whom we can manage to conjure up that feeling. What if you could talk to people who have an imagination, however incomplete or distorted it might be, for a better, more humane world, people in whom that original human vocation to steward the world well is sputtering and coughing and stumbling in hungry frustration. Could we engage them in conversation about the truly human one, who is full of grace for the failures and shame they do experience and full of the Spirit’s power for the enactment of the calling they properly feel but are impotent to fulfill.

d. And, I think, this vision for Christian discipleship as a process of rehumanization can enrich our teaching on vocation. Too many Christians still struggle to answer the question “How do I connect my faith with the stuff I do every day?” If being a disciple of Jesus is being made fully human, then our vocation is to reflect the reign of God when we promote humane workplaces, humane learning, humane relationships, et cetera. We will contribute to the running of the world as if God were the one in charge. (This is entirely consistent with traditional Lutheran two kingdoms theology, but it saves us from the temptation to which we sometimes succumb to think of the Kingdom on the Left as a God-free zone or a theology-free zone.) As one of my tablemates at this conference said last night, “Sometimes in our jobs we have to fire people. There must be a difference in how we do that as Christians, right?” There’s no difference in how God expects us to do it, but we’ll do it with the knowledge and power that comes from the humanizing Spirit of God. And perhaps that too can be a witness, that other anthrohpoi, not yet newly born, will recognize a better way of being human. Perhaps they’ll see Jesus in his followers and ask us what they asked him, “Why do you do this?” And God grant that our testimony may reach them as Gospel and lead them too to the new birth.

Steve Turnbull

6th International Crossings Conference

January 26, 2016