John 3:1-2. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, which means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin were the “Supreme judicial council of Judaism with 71 members, located in Jerusalem.” We are also told that he was a teacher of Israel (John 3:10) who came to Jesus by night. This late visit was undoubtedly made so as to go unnoticed by his peers. The first words we have recorded from his mouth are “rabbi,” meaning “teacher” (See John 1:38), which should interest us considering Nicodemus’ position among the Jewish people. Quoting Moulton and Milligan, Vincent writes, “We may be sure that a member of the sect that carefully scrutinized the Baptist’s credentials (1:19–24) would not lightly address Jesus by this title of honor, or acknowledge Him as teacher.” Such an address gives us an understanding that Nicodemus’ visit was one of sincerity and not for the purpose of assault or accusation.
Nicodemus’ use of the plural in “We know that you have come from God as a teacher” (John 3:2b) shows that this was a subject of discussion amongst the Pharisees. Not only was it concluded that Jesus was a teacher and that YHWH had sent Him, but that the signs that He performed were a testimony to the uniqueness of His ministry and person, serving as a statement that God was with Him (3:2c). In light of what is later concluded by the Pharisees in Matthew 12:24, we see a solid witness against the anti-belief of accusing Jesus of wielding the power of the devil. Also in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:28, we see that even the signs that He had performed in His early ministry already served as a testimony that “the Kingdom of God has come upon you” being done by the power of the Spirit of God.
For the Pharisees, there was no excuse. All of them should have responded as Nicodemus did because God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ along with the signs that He performed are Biblically assessed as sufficient revelation.
John 3:3-6. Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ conclusion about Him in stating that one must be “born again” in order to “see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3b). While much has been written on the phrase “born again/born from above,” it is clear that something needed to happen in Nicodemus’ life in order for the kingdom of God to be a reality for him. The theological term for “born again” is “regeneration,” a vital term that can be understood as meaning “receiving spiritual life, that is, eternal life. Christ is this life (Jn 14:6). We only receive this life as we receive Christ, who then may be said to be in us, ‘the hope of glory’” (Col 1:27). All men are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1) and this is a fact regardless of the dispensation under consideration. However, it must be clearly stated that in Jesus’ earthly ministry, regeneration and the baptism of the Holy Spirit were still two separate things and they did not become something that occurs at the same time at the moment of faith in Jesus Christ until after the founding of the Church in Jerusalem in Acts 2. In that time period, we see a noticeable transition that takes place between OT saints (who were saved and justified before God by faith, yet were without the Holy Spirit), and those who are Church Age believers after the events of Acts 2, with the book of Acts demonstrating that the Holy Spirit would come upon already believing individuals as an evidence of their redemption (See Acts 19:1-7 for an example).
Jesus’ use of the term the “kingdom of God” is consistent with every mention that we have seen in Scripture thus far. Therefore, this orthodox Jewish teacher and prominent societal figurehead would have automatically been drawn to the future, literal time of Messiah’s reign on Earth as He sat upon the throne of David, ruling with a rod of iron (Ps 2:9a).
It is clear from Nicodemus’ response in John 3:4 that he is unsure of what Jesus has just said. His reply shows his logical progression in thinking through only the physical. Can an old man be reborn? Is it possible to retreat into the womb only to appear again? All of this was nonsense, for such feats were impossible.
However, Jesus restates His antidote adding further clarification for Nicodemus’ sake. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Now we have the introduction of the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit in connection with the kingdom of God. According to Jesus both “water” and the “Spirit” are necessary for this birth, not one physically reentering the womb.
In this verse, we can also see that Jesus has connected the idea of “seeing” the kingdom from v.3 with “entering” the kingdom in v.5. While our previous lessons have shown that “entering” the kingdom must be understood by its surrounding context to be speaking to either one’s justification or sanctification, it is obvious from this context that justification is in view.
The idea of being born “of water and the Spirit” has seemed to confuse many regarding what it means to be “born again.” For example, in referring to the Old Testament overtones of this idea in the Greek, Barry writes, “Ezek 36:25–27 clearly combines the imagery of cleansing by water with inner renewal by the spirit (pneuma) from God.” However, this cannot be correct because Jesus does not say “of water by the Spirit,” but “water and the Spirit.” There are obviously two births that must happen, not just one.
Another explanation finds Borchert going to great lengths to explain the idea of being “born of water and the Spirit.” He writes, “the linkage between water and Spirit would have been familiar to the Jews since both are related to the theme of life. For a people like the Jews, who lived on the edge of the desert, water was an indispensable requirement of life (e.g., Exod 15:22–27; Pss 23:2; 42:1; 63:1), and even Christians viewed heaven as having a life-endued stream flowing from the throne of God (Rev 22:1). Concerning the life-giving Spirit, one only needs to be reminded that the breath of God brought life to Adam (Gen 2:7), and the Spirit/wind/breath of God brought life to dry bones (Ezek 37:1–14).” This understanding has been concluded from specifically chosen examples in the Old Testament. Borchert’s view finds friction in that his example of Christians in the first century and their understanding of how to view “water” is derived from the book of Revelation, which had not yet been written at this point. Why not connect the “Spirit” in John 3:5 to the “Spirit” being upon King Saul or David? With no clear direction given in the text that we should understand the water and the Spirit in light of the Old Testament, we must conclude that such interpretations have no credible merit.
So what is the answer? Most reasonably, and in maintaining a consistent, literal interpretation, it would seem that Jesus provides the explanation in John 3:6. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, being a “natural” or “carnal” birth. However, that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, which aligns itself perfectly with the need for one to be born of “water and the Spirit” in order to “enter the kingdom of God” (3:5b). Thus, being “born of water” is one’s natural, physical birth. One must be a flesh and blood human being. This would exclude animals and demons, if for no other reason than that Jesus did not die for them. However, He did taste “death for every man” (Heb 2:9). Being “born of the Spirit” would be “regeneration,” which is something that must be elaborated upon, which Jesus does in 3:7-16.
John 3:7-13. At this point, Nicodemus’ mouth must have been standing open. Jesus tells him not to be amazed (3:7). The new birth that takes place by the Spirit is likened to the wind (3:8). MacDonald writes, “Just as no one can fully understand the wind, so the new birth is a miraculous work of the Spirit of God which man is not able to comprehend fully. Moreover, the new birth, like the wind, is unpredictable. It is not possible to state just when and where it will take place.” What is astonishing is that Nicodemus is seemingly ignorant of these truths (3:9). Such ignorance causes Jesus to ask, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). How could one who holds the responsibility of leading Israel in their understanding, worship, and devotion to YHWH not know these truths? Obviously, Jesus is upset with Nicodemus’ inadequacy regarding spiritual things.
He then elaborates that He is testifying to what He knows and sees, which probably has a connection to Jesus’ later statements like “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure” (John 3:34) and “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30). Jesus’ testimony and words are in complete consistency with those of the Father because they are from the Father and not from Jesus Himself. Such statements show us that, though He is equal with God, being perfectly God Himself, He was intentionally subservient to God, humbling Himself to do the Father’s will. In this example, Jesus shows us how to live a life on Earth that is walking with God at all times.
Nicodemus’ greatest problem is that he does not accept Jesus’ testimony (John 3:11b), though He is testifying about what He knows and sees (John 3:11a). He continues in stating that Nicodemus’ rejection of earthly things shows that he cannot begin to understand “heavenly things” (John 3:12b). Jesus can testify to these things because He is the Son of Man, the One who has ascended and descended to and from heaven (John 3:13). These statements are lead to the necessary means of being “born again” by the Spirit.
“If Nicodemus couldn’t grasp the meaning of spiritual truth as conveyed by concrete analogy, how would he do so if it were couched in an abstract statement? No one had ever entered into heaven to experience its realities directly except Jesus himself, the Son of Man, who had come from heaven. Revelation, not discovery, is the basis for faith.” John 3:13 shows Jesus testifying to His own credibility as a sound witness to those things that He is conveying; namely that being born again is a spiritual truth that is necessary to “see/enter” the kingdom of God. He knows this because He has ascended into, and descended from, heaven.
John 3:14-15. Meeting Nicodemus where he is, Jesus draws from a historical account that every Israelite would have been immediately familiar with- the serpent in the wilderness (Num 21:1-9). After being given the victory over the Canaanites (21:3), the people became impatient and began to complain about their situation. To discipline them, fiery serpents were sent among them and some of those who were bit died (21:6). In acknowledging their sin, the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help. The Lord had Moses make a bronze serpent and place it in the midst of the people. Those who looked upon it would live, even though they had been bitten (21:8-9).
Jesus’ use of this historical incident serves to communicate the spiritual truth of one being born again. Jesus likens the “lifting up” of the serpent by Moses in the wilderness to His own “lifting up” that must take place on the cross (John 3:14; also 12:32-33). Jesus then supplies the reason that He must be lifted up in John 3:15 stating, “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (ESV). Just as the people whose veins were circulating with venom were told to look upon the bronze serpent that Moses had crafted so that they could live, Jesus tells Nicodemus, with sin coursing through his being, that in order to be born again he must “look” (believe) upon Jesus and live.
Look and live! That is the requirement. This “looking” is encapsulated in the word “believe,” being pisteuō in the Greek, meaning “to think to be true; to be persuaded of; to credit, place confidence in.” This meaning is consistent with the idea of “conviction” and “assurance” as found in Hebrews 11:1. The result of believing is having “Life” in Him, which is eternal life. As told in John 1:4, the Life is in Christ Jesus, and only in Him; and by believing in Him, one is then given this Life.
This life is eternal in that it can never be lost, since it is found in Him (Christ). Upon believing in Jesus Christ, one is imparted with Life, and this Life comes from being born again by the Spirit.
Hawley writes, “While it is Biblically true that apart from Christ, the unregenerate (along with the regenerate) can do nothing to merit God's favor, faith is not meritorious and the Bible clearly teaches that regeneration is the result of faith, not the other way around.” The one who believes is regenerated, meaning that they are now alive to God, have been born of the Spirit (John 3:5-6).
John 3:16-18. This truth is then elaborated upon, and there is some debate about whether this elaboration (which stretches to the end of the chapter) is that of John the author, or a continuation of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus.
While well known, the truths of v.16 are paramount. God loves people. This is the motivation behind Him supplying a Savior for the world. People are unable to save themselves and will never be redeemed apart from some sort of intervention. God’s love sends forth His Son to live perfectly and to die perfectly for those who are imperfect. This death provides the satisfaction necessary so that justice is upheld, wrong is paid for, and guilt is extinguished. The death of Jesus Christ makes righteousness available to all who believe. This “belief” is not something that is only possible by a few, but all may believe, seeing that their sins have been paid for in full. Belief in Jesus guarantees that they will not perish but have now been given “eternal life” because they have been born again by the Spirit.
Verses 17 & 18 provide clarification. In fact, v.17 speaks of God’s reason in sending His Son, namely for the purpose of saving the world. Apart from Jesus coming to Earth, there is no salvation for the human race. Jesus Christ is God’s provided perfection for the infinitely ill-deserving. His first coming was not about judgment but providing salvation for the world. However, His second coming will be a visitation of judgment in which the world will not escape (Rev 1:7, 13; 11:18; 14:7; 19:1-2, 11).
But with v.18 we find that judgment is not an issue for the one who has believed in Jesus. It is only those who have not believed that are in danger of judgment. For them, the free pardon from sin’s penalty, power, and presence that Jesus supplied in His death and resurrection has not been applied. By believing (faith), this pardon is applied, and forgiveness of sin occurs. This situation is so certain that judgment is “already” upon the unregenerate person, and the cause for this condemnation is the same pitfall that has plagued mankind from the beginning: Unbelief.
Jesus Christ is the Name above all names. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). When one believes in Jesus that person is born again. The Holy Spirit makes that person alive unto God, regenerating them so that they are now a forgiven and full accepted child of God.