In John 3:1-21, we read of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night. Unlike some of the other Pharisees and Jews, Nicodemus did not outright reject Jesus. He saw the signs Jesus performed and concluded rightly that Jesus had come from God (John 3:2). However, Nicodemus did not see Jesus as anything more than just a teacher sent from God. The conversation and discourse that he had with Jesus were meant to challenge him to go deeper in understanding, from mere teacher to recognizing Jesus as the Christ.
Nicodemus Came by Night (John 3:1-2)
The chapter begins with, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus…” (v.1). The word “now” in the text carries the idea of “but on the other hand.” Nicodemus is being contrasted with the superficial believers in Christ at the Passover (John 2:23-24). This man is different from the others; his belief in Jesus is more than skin deep.
But what do we know of Nicodemus? The text tells that he was of some status in Israel because he was a “ruler of the Jews” (v.1). Most likely a member of the Sanhedrin (the ruling council of Israel that had authority over all Jews). He also was an open-minded individual because we see that he did not outright reject Jesus. He observed His works and concluded, rightly, that Jesus had “come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs … unless God is with him” (v.2).
His conclusion led him to “[Come] to Jesus by night” (v.2). Some have suggested that this indicated fear or caution on behalf of Nicodemus. Perhaps fearing what the other Pharisees may have thought of him. This would be understandable because we see this very thing in John 12:42-43, where many rulers of the Jews believed but did not make it public because of fear. There is another reason to consider. William Barclay notes that “The rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when a man was undisturbed. Throughout the day, Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may be that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus” (Gospel of John, Barclay, p. 112).
Must Be Born Again (John 3:2-4)
Jesus, in response to Nicodemus’ statement, says to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). This man knew that Jesus was sent from God as a teacher, but again, he did not see Jesus as anything more than that. So, Jesus drops this statement of the new birth to challenge Nicodemus to think harder and deeper about who Jesus is.
Let us note a few things about the new birth and see how this idea would have challenged Nicodemus:
- “unless one” – Does not specify a specific group of people but is universal in tone. So, this new birth is an essential requirement to entering the Kingdom of God.
- “is born again” – This is to be born anew and from above. I believe both are implicitly meant here by Christ. One must begin life anew in reference to their relationship with God.
- “cannot see the kingdom of God” – To see here means participating in. The new birth is absolutely essential if one is to enter the kingdom of God. To be in a right relationship with Him.
This statement would have been a shock to Nicodemus for a few reasons. Jesus’ statement said that your physical linage (a Jew by birth, for example) was not good enough to enter God’s kingdom. And on the other side, a mere profession of faith was not sufficient to enter the kingdom either.
However, Nicodemus, perhaps taken back or truly perplexed, responds with, “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?” (v.4). While he is a learned man, Nicodemus is stuck here. He cannot think of any other “birth” besides physical. This leads Jesus to explain further the new birth in the next section of the text.
Born of Water and the Spirit (John 3:5-8):
Jesus further explains the new birth to help Nicodemus through his bewilderment and confusion. He says again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v.5). To be born of “water and the Spirit” is to experience the radical, life-altering, transformative power of God in conversion. This idea should not have been a strange idea to Nicodemus since God has used similar language in the Prophets (E.X. Ezekiel 36:25-27) to convey the same idea to Israel.
But Jesus here is not calling Israel only to repentance but the world. This new birth is necessary for all peoples who wish to enter God’s kingdom. We read in Titus 3:5, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Here we have both water and the Spirit in something called the washing of regeneration. Elsewhere this washing is referred to as the life-changing event in a person’s life that takes them from sinner to saint (1 Corinthians 6:11). This washing is identified as Christian baptism in Paul’s conversion in Acts 22:16. It is Christian baptism, which is the new birth that Jesus is speaking of to Nicodemus. In baptism, one is put into Christ and, through Christ, receives new life, a new birth (2 Corinthians 5:17).
How Can These Things Be? (John 3:9-16)
Nicodemus now asks, “How can these things be?” The question is no longer about the nature or necessity of the new birth but how is it possible? Or how is one able to be born of water and the spirit?
Jesus now moves the discourse to how the Son of Man will give Himself for the salvation of the world. He says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so, must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (vv.14-15). Jesus draws upon Old Testament history (Numbers 21:6-9) to show Him how the new birth will be made possible. Just as the bronze serpent was raised as a cure for the punishment inflicted upon Israel, Jesus will be lifted up on a cross as the cure for the sins of all mankind. Mark Dunagan noted these similarities between these two events:
- “In both instances, the serpent was the only cure for Israel, and Jesus was the only cure for our sins. There is only one cure offered. Man could not provide his own remedy.
- Faith was necessary, and faith had to do something, even if it was nothing more than “looking.” Faith had to act and obey the command.
- The cure was accessible to all; God did not require the impossible.
- The cure is understandable, and the language is clear.”
The reason why Jesus is going to be, and was, raised up for us is found in the next verse. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John3:16). What should our response be to these things? John the Baptist, I think, gives us a good course of action down in John 3:36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life, but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”