Gospel: John 3:14-21
Epistle: Ephesians 2:1-10
Lesson: Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm: Psalm 107:1-9
CLB Commentary on the Gospel Text by Dr. Rich Erickson
(Originally published in 2012)
These famous words, including perhaps the most famous Sunday school verse ever memorized, form one integral part of a complete Gospel narrative, a narrative for which the author’s goal is clearly stated at the end: “These signs are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). All parts of the story must be read in terms of this goal statement.
The “signs” John refers to (20:30–31) begin with the wedding at Cana (2:11); Jesus’ second sign is the healing of an official’s son (4:43–54; cf. v. 54). Altogether John narrates only seven signs, or perhaps eight, that Jesus did (among many others; 20:30). The pericope for this fourth Sunday in Lent comes between the first and second signs. Likely the intervening material is intended to unpack the significance of the sign of turning water to wine at Cana.
The pericope is puzzling in that it’s not easy for us to decide where Jesus’ words to Nicodemus end (if they do) and John’s words of explanation, commentary, and expansion begin. What is clear, however, is that Jesus’ midnight, clandestine encounter with Nicodemus, the “teacher of Israel” (3:1-21), is contrasted with Jesus’ midday, public encounter with the morally compromised woman at the Samaritan well (4:1–42). What Jesus (or John) says in reply to Nicodemus’ confusion about things must be read in the context of the Samaritan woman’s grasping things well enough to evangelize her village.
What Jesus (or John) says in 3:14-21 is rooted in Israel’s exodus experience. Some NT texts allude to OT texts (the authors’ Bible) without openly indicating it. At Phil 1:19, e.g., Paul uses language from Job 13:16. Only if someone points it out to us (as happened in my case) or if it rings a bell for us, are we able to “get it.” Other texts explicitly refer to sources (Matt 2:15, e.g.). Here in John 3:14, the text directs our attention to a particular storyline in the exodus narrative (Num 21:9). Our job is to ferret out the connection John has in mind, if we can, and then to see how he has recontextualized it into the story of Jesus’ ministry, a story he is writing for his late first-century fellow (Jewish?) believers.
We must take together then (a) John’s presumed first-century situation; (b) his purpose in writing this Gospel for his people, expressed in 20:31; (c) the relation of this text to the “sign” at the wedding in Cana; (d) its relation to the conversation Jesus has at the Samaritan well; and (e) the significance John sees in the incident from Numbers 21.
With all of that in the mixing bowl, we now ask ourselves, How does all this relate to Lent, and more importantly, how does it relate to our church, our denomination, our local congregation? Are we “out of wine”? Are we so steeped in what we teach that we cannot see the Truth? Do we need fresh eyes to help us see, even if they are the eyes of people we wouldn’t normally associate with? Does God’s purpose in sending the Son (3:17) clash with our view of the “end-times,” for example? If we bring into this picture the astounding contrast between the Lion of Judah and the Slaughtered Lamb of God (Revelation 4–5), how does that fill us with new wine? What is God’s mission in the world? What is he calling us to do as part of it? Good Friday comes before Easter.