Please read John 3:1-21.
CONTEXT = As this is only the third chapter of John’s gospel, this encounter obviously happened early in Jesus’ ministry. That is important, however, because Jesus’ teachings in John 3+4 set forth facts that are foundational to our faith.
Faith requires a willingness to learn.
1. The bell rings: school is in session. (1-2)
What we know about Nicodemus the “teacher/student.”
- He was a Pharisee. (1)
- The name “Nicodemus” meant “victory of the people.”
- He was on the JEWISH RULING COUNCIL; aka the Sanhedrin, aka the Seventy (it had 70 members).
- John 7:50 tells us he was ONE OF THEIR OWN NUMBER; a follower of Jesus. This proves the teaching Jesus gave Nicodemus here in chapter three took root and bore fruit.
- John 19:39 informs us that, along with Joseph of Arimathea, he buried Jesus. As Jesus’ burial is one of the chief proofs of His Resurrection, this means the conversion of Nicodemus has great historical significance.
This passage gives evidence of Nicodemus’ belief in Jesus at that moment. (2) HE CAME TO JESUS AT NIGHT. We suppose this is due to fear of being seen. This may imply anything from a case of curiosity to a tentative faith (I do not believe John would include this detail in his narrative if there were not some significance to it), but it clearly shows Nicodemus’ initiative.
“YOU ARE A TEACHER,” Nicodemus said to Jesus. Jesus was not part of the religious establishment. His status as a rabbi was not recognized by the established authorities, so this statement implies anything from simple respect to a decision that Jesus held authority regardless of the recognition Nicodemus’ own party (Pharisees) extended or withheld.
“WHO HAS COME FROM GOD.” Nicodemus is volunteering his opinion here. As we unfurl his statement, he is making a greater and more accurate assessment of Jesus.
On the basis of the miracles Jesus had wrought, Nicodemus was convinced God had sent Jesus. “FOR NO ONE COULD PERFORM THE MIRACULOUS SIGNS YOU ARE DOING IF GOD WERE NOT WITH HIM.” Nicodemus is not expressing a belief that Jesus is God, but is, with his words, confessing there was a great deal more to Jesus than any of his colleagues were willing to allow.
2. Nicodemus’ first lesson: you must be born again. (3-8).
Jesus taught Nicodemus something brand new: “Be BORN AGAIN.” (3) This teaching had no connection to Nicodemus’ opening statement; it is unrelated to the MIRACULOUS SIGNS he’d mentioned or Jesus’ role as a TEACHER. This teaching had nothing to do with any previous Jewish teaching. For these reasons, Nicodemus’ surprise (as Jesus recognized it in verse six) is understandable.
Nicodemus surprise is also implied in his first reaction: he took Jesus too literally (4). Obviously, it is not physically possible to re-enter the womb and be born a second time. People tend to say things like this in moments of surprise. They are thinking out loud, checking their perceptions to see if they misheard or misinterpreted the speaker.
Jesus explained the teaching as a figure of speech in verses five to eight. Being BORN AGAIN is figurative; not a physical repetition of childbirth, it is a spiritual event. It is the formational spiritual event, required to enter the KINGDOM OF GOD (5). Jesus developed the difference between physical birth and spiritual birth by making a distinction is between WATER birth and SPIRIT birth. Being born of WATER refers to physical birth, what Nicodemus assumed Jesus was talking about. Being born of the SPIRIT is the spiritual act of faith.
In nature, each species reproduces in kind. Similarly, in matters of faith, FLESH reproduces FLESH and SPIRIT, SPIRIT (6).
Though Nicodemus was surprised, Jesus informed him this call to be saved is like the wind, coming unseen and unanticipated (7-8). This is another description Jesus used to make a distinction between being born and being BORN AGAIN. Like the WIND, the Holy Spirit comes to whomever He wills. As the WIND is invisible to our eyes, the Holy Spirit is invisible to physical senses. His coming and going, His actions, can only be perceived in the effects the Spirit has on people.
Jesus’ explanation of the second birth puts the initiative for salvation where it belongs; on God. The Holy Spirit acts; we observe the effects of His ministrations and react by faith in order to be saved.
3. Nicodemus’ second lesson: you must believe. (9-18)
Nicodemus questions this. He doesn’t yet understand but deserves credit for hanging in there. Because he’s asking questions, we see he’s trying to get it (9). The idea of being born again boggled him (4) and Jesus’ explanation involving the Holy Spirit (5-8) didn’t clear it up as much as Jesus hoped. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus’ theology must have included belief in the Spirit, but the part about the Spirit’s role in spiritual rebirth was news to him. So he asked, “HOW CAN THIS BE?”
Jesus’ response starts with a mild rebuke, “YOU ARE ISRAEL’S TEACHER AND DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THESE THINGS?” (10-12) Jesus is effectively saying, “You’re the authority on all matters of faith and you don’t get this?”
His remarks assess the reaction of the Seventy to His teaching. Jesus’ teachings are THE TRUTH. They are all things He has learned and have been confirmed by His experience. Even though His teaching is with divine authority, Nicodemus’ party (the Pharisees) had rejected His teaching. Since they had rejected His teaching on EARTHLY THINGS, they could not hope to understand His teaching on more advanced subjects: HEAVENLY THINGS. To paraphrase Jesus, He said to
Nicodemus, “Your people have rejected my message so it’s plain you don’t understand it.”
Jesus concludes His second lesson by clarifying His authority and mission in verses thirteen to fifteen. In verse eleven Jesus taught His teaching carried divine authority because it was testimony of the things He had seen. His teaching was authoritative because His experience had been in HEAVEN.
He taught them the TRUTH because He had personally experienced the TRUTH; He’d seen it for Himself in HEAVEN. Referring to Himself as the SON OF MAN, Jesus related that His life did not begin at birth, but He existed in heaven before then. This is a proof of Jesus’ divine nature. The SON OF MAN exercised divine authority and told the truth because He was in HEAVEN was sent to Earth to do that very thing.
There is another aspect to Jesus’ mission. He didn’t come just to tell us the truth, but to save us from the penalty of sin (14-15). Verse fourteen refers to an incident that happened as the Hebrews moved from Egypt to the Promised Land. It is recorded in Numbers 21. Some of God’s people complained and rebelled against God. As a disciplinary measure, God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. Only the bellyachers were bitten. All of those bitten got sick. In mercy, God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze snake. It was held aloft on a pole and everyone who saw it was spared death.
Jesus used this historical account as a symbol of His own mission. He came from heaven to earth to be lifted up on a cross to impart life. One difference being, with Jesus being lifted up, belief - not sight - is what is required to be saved.
Another difference is that the Hebrews were only restored to earthly life; they still died later (hopefully older and wiser). Jesus’ being lifted up achieved ETERNAL LIFE for all who believe in Him.
In verse sixteen to eighteen, Jesus explained the promise of ETERNAL LIFE. Verse sixteen is the familiar one-sentence explanation of the Good News; ETERNAL LIFE is available to all people because God’s Son perished on the cross. Those who believe in Him receive the life God the Father offers.
Verse seventeen explains that saving people is what God intended in sending His son from heaven to Earth. As 2 Peter 3:9 states, God’s will is that all people be saved. Unfortunately, most people will exercise their will negatively to reject Him, and are self-condemned to hell.
Verse eighteen promises that the invitation to be saved is universal: WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM IS NOT CONDEMNED. Free will is not really “free” if there is no actual choice involved. Refusal to believe must logically be an option, but that option has the most negative consequence possible: the unbeliever is CONDEMNED. The consequence is eternal death instead of ETERNAL LIFE.
4. Nicodemus’ third lesson: you must step into the light. (19-21)
THIS IS THE VERDICT (19) means, “This is the decision of God the Righteous Judge.” God sent His Son to be the “Light of the World (John 1:1-9). LIGHT is a biblical symbol of purity, knowledge, and understanding (“enlightenment”).
Because Jesus has revealed all this truth about God and His salvation (v. 11), people are without excuse. Instead, when they have seen the LIGHT and been told the TRUTH and they still reject God, they are utterly self-condemned.
Why would anybody see the LIGHT and still make the choice to reject God? Why would they do the foolish thing and turn down His offer of ETERNAL LIFE? Jesus explains in vs. 19-20. They reject the LIGHT because they love the DARKNESS; they mistakenly think it hides the fact that their DEEDS WERE EVIL. The LIGHT exposes their true nature. They FEAR being seen for who they truly are, their deeds being accurately seen as evil.
On the other hand, everyone who is truly a believer comes into the LIGHT (21). They live by the truth and want others to do the same, so they will also be saved. The LIGHT here is not a “spotlight.” True believers don’t want to draw attention to themselves through their deeds. Instead, they want to draw attention to Jesus. Just as the LIGHT exposes evil, it also verifies the TRUTH. The LIGHT helps people to become believers by showing them the truth.
Faith requires a willingness to learn.
True disciples are revealed in a humble attitude that acknowledges their need to mature and acts upon it. Nicodemus is an example of that attitude and the way Jesus taught him is an example of how to work on it.