We come to the ever-popular John 3!  While most who profess Christ know only verse 16, the entire chapter is chock-full of incredible passages. For example, verse 16 requires faith for salvation, while verses 21 and 5 require repentance and baptism, respectively. And verse 30 is an amazing passage on humility.

Click the arrow to play the podcast (19 minutes). Or right click here to save and listen later.

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 

  • The nocturnal visit of Nicodemus is well known (v.1ff).
    • Nicodemus was a Pharisee, the sect of the Jews deeply concerned that people follow the scriptures. While generally speaking they did not "walk the walk" (Matthew 23), they were correct about the need to obey God´s word.
    • Nicodemus was one of their better representatives, and approaches Jesus in a positive and apparently sincere way. He accepts his miracles and even -- unlike some Pharisees -- his divine authority.
    • The visit takes place at night. Perhaps this was because of fear or discretion, but it may also have been in order for Nicodemus to have uninterrupted conversation with Jesus.

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

  • Jesus does not mince words, but directly tells Nicodemus that he must be born again -- make a new start (vv.3,5,7).
    • The Greek ánōthen has a double meaning: again or from above. That is, the new birth is not something man can accomplish; it comes only from heaven.
    • The notion of new birth in the new covenant is an O.T. concept, found in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and other books. Thus it should have been familiar to someone who knew his Bible well.
    • Therefore Nicodemus should not have stood aloof from the baptism of John.

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

  • Yet Nicodemus seems not to understand (v.9). Jesus attempts to explain this spiritual truth to Nicodemus, using several illustrations:
    • Water and Spirit (v.5). The new birth comes in baptism. See the parallel verse in Titus 3:5. This was the unanimous interpretation of the early church fathers.
      • The water of verse 5 refers to baptism, as virtually every N.T. scholar agrees. Attempts to make it refer to amniotic fluid are far-fetched. For example, British Baptist scholar George Beasley-Murray (see Baptism in the New Testament) rejects the notion as unconvincing, insisting rather than baptism and salvation were always directly connected in the N.T.
      • Water and Spirit are conjoined in a number of ancient Jewish texts. See, for example, the O.T. passage Ezekiel 36:25-27. Among the apocalyptic and sectarian writings, see Jub. 1:23; Pss. Sol. 18:6; Test. Jud. 24:3; 1QS 3:6-9; 1QH 11:12-14.
    • The wind (v.8), the point is not that the motions of Spirit-led people are weird and erratic, but rather that the wind, though invisible, still has definite effects. In other words, something unseen may still be quite real and tangible.
    • The bronze serpent (next section)
  • Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not knowing these important spiritual precepts (v.10).
    • Those who teach and lead need to know the Bible, and there is no excuse for ignorance.
    • If he does not accept these truths, Nicodemus (v.11) is illustrating the resistance of the Jews to the light (1:11). If he does accept them, he can be born again (1:12-13).

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

  • Nicodemus appears again in chapters 7 and 20. The trajectory of his faith is clear: from the night visit to defending Jesus before the Jewish leaders to approaching Pilate for the body of Jesus...
    • If he continued on this path (and here we can only speculate) then he would have become a strong Christian.
    • Listen to the podcast on Nicodemus in the NT Character Studies series (login required).
  • The serpent (v.14). Referring to a well-known event recounted in Numbers, once again Jesus tries to draw Nicodemus' spiritual gaze upwards.
    • An amazing analogy: Jesus' crucifixion is compared to Moses´ raising of the snake on a pole! This image is directly connected with verse 16 – a fact seldom noticed by Bible readers.
    • In John, the lifting up of Jesus (v.14 and 12:32) encompasses the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ -- not just the crucifixion.
    • Early Christians saw this as a sign of the Tau Cross (in the shape of a T, a capital tau in Greek).
    • In Hezekiah's time the object had become venerated as an idol and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).
  • Notice that in all three passages we are drawn upwards. The snake was lifted up; the wind comes from above, the source of the new birth also is heavenly.
  • It´s hard to know where words of Jesus end and where the words of the evangelist begin.
    • Does Jesus stop speaking in verse 12? 16? 21?
    • One difficulty is that in ancient Greek there were no quotation marks.
    • Theologically, nothing is affected whether these words are Jesus' or those of the gospel writer, since it is the Spirit speaking either way.

Wrap-up

  • John's gospel is carefully constructed, and there are many connections that we might miss on first reading it.
  • Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus is best understood in connection with the miracle of his changing water into wine (chapter 2). Both are about transformation and the new life.
  • Similarly, his conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 is connected with this cleansing of the Temple. Both concern returning to God in truth, and not putting our trust in holy places or institutions.
  • Some questions:
    • In my outreach, am I more direct and to the point with religious people than I am with those unfamiliar with God´s word?
    • Do I follow Jesus´ lead in calling to commitment those with greater knowledge, responsibility, and influence?
    • Am I using the whole arsenal of the Bible, the OT included?
  • Tomorrow we will continue from 3:16.