Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)
1 Now there came a man of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus, a member of the council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God were with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”
5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will 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 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.146
A number of years ago, I read a newspaper account of a speech given by the president of a well-known university to a group of influential businessmen and civic leaders. The president told of a recent experience which he, his audience, and the newspaper reporter found humorous. The president was shopping during the Christmas season and happened to pass by a Salvation Army volunteer, standing by a “donation kettle” and ringing a bell. As he paused to make a donation, the woman volunteer asked this educator: “Sir, are you saved?” When he replied that he supposed he was, she was not satisfied, so she pursued the matter further: “I mean, have you ever given your full life to the Lord?” At this point, the president told his audience, he thought he should enlighten this persistent woman concerning his identity: “I am the president of such and such university, and as such, I am also president of its school of theology.” The lady considered his response for a moment, and then replied, “It doesn’t matter wherever you’ve been, or whatever you are, you can still be saved.”
The most tragic part of this incident is that both the seminary president and his audience actually thought his story was amusing. One can imagine that if Nicodemus had been confronted by this Salvation Army volunteer, he would have thought—and said—just about the same thing as the university president. Nicodemus is the “cream of the Jewish crop.” One dare not dream of having life any better than he has it. He is a Jew, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin (the highest legal, legislative and judicial body of the Jews), and a highly respected teacher of the Old Testament Scriptures. Can you imagine being Nicodemus and having Jesus tell you that all of this is not enough to get you into the kingdom of God? Yet this is precisely what Jesus tells Nicodemus. If a man like Nicodemus is not good enough for the kingdom of God, then who is? That is the question, and Jesus has the answer, which John records for us. Let us listen well to the inspired words of this Gospel to learn how one must enter the kingdom of God.
While the exact chronology of the following events may not be accurate, the sequence outlined by these texts cannot be too far from the way our Lord’s teaching (and John the Baptist’s) caught the attention of the Jewish religious leaders, particularly the Pharisees:
46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Jesus were astonished at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:46-47).
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed—he did not deny but confessed— “I am not the Christ.” 21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 So they asked John, “Why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:19-25)
30 However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John (Luke 7:30).
28 When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, 29 because he taught them like one who had authority, and not like their experts in the law (Matthew 7:28-29).
17 On one of those days, while he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting nearby (who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem), and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick (Luke 5:17).
At the age of 12, our Lord accompanied Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with them. When His family left for home, Jesus stayed behind, His absence unnoticed. When Mary and Joseph returned to Jerusalem in search of Jesus, they found Him in the temple listening to the teachers and asking questions (Luke 2:46). It wasn’t long before they were asking Jesus questions, and they were amazed at His answers (2:47). Our Lord was already an astounding teacher at 12 years of age, whose understanding of the Scriptures amazed Israel’s finest scholars.
A number of years later, John the Baptist commenced his public ministry, proclaiming the Word of God and calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming of Messiah. The Jewish religious leaders took note of him and sent a delegation to inquire about his ministry and message. It is apparent that the Pharisees chose not to identify themselves with John and his preaching, as they refused to be baptized by him (Luke 7:30).
When Jesus began His public ministry, the people who heard Him recognized a difference between His teaching and that of the Jewish religious teachers. Jesus taught as one having authority and not as their experts in the law. Our Lord’s authority was evident in His healing of the sick and casting out of demons. It also seems to have been evident in the impact His words made on His listeners. The experts in the law taught with great dogmatism (Romans 2:17-20; 1 Timothy 1:6-7; 2 Peter 2:18), but their message lacked the power of our Lord’s words. His teaching seems to have “rung true” to His audience.147
We learn from Luke 5:17, the Pharisees quickly take note of Jesus. At some point in time, Pharisees from the entire nation of Israel gather to observe His ministry and teaching. We know from Luke’s words that Jesus was also performing miracles at this time. It is uncertain whether this occurred before or after our Lord’s interview with Nicodemus, but it must have been close to the time Nicodemus comes to Him by night, as our text in John describes. The Pharisees are hard pressed to speak critically of our Lord or His ministry. How can His teaching be criticized? How can anyone speak against Him, when He performs miracles openly, and many take note of them? Jesus makes the Pharisees look bad, and there seems to be little they can say against Him at the moment, though this will soon change. But Jesus does not have much good to say about them:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
Jesus performed His first sign at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, but very few even realized what had happened. It was the cleansing of the temple which captured the attention of the religious leaders (John 2:18-22), while the signs our Lord accomplished in Jerusalem caught the attention of many others (John 2:23-25). Still, the Pharisees were not the ones who caught the brunt of our Lord’s attack. They were not the ones behind the merchandising which took place in the temple courts. This was the work of the priests and of the Sadducees.148 It may be that the Pharisees even stood by as Jesus cleansed the temple, looking on with great satisfaction as the priests and Sadducees were publicly humiliated.149
All of these events seem to rivet the Pharisees’ attention on Jesus. We know one Pharisee in particular is greatly impressed—a Pharisee named Nicodemus. At one time, I thought Nicodemus was seeking, on behalf of the Pharisees, to recruit Jesus as a kind of junior partner. I am not certain Nicodemus’ colleagues would even have accepted Jesus into their ranks. I also thought Nicodemus came with a memorized script, and when Jesus interrupted him, he was totally disarmed and disoriented.
I now view our text in a different light. For the moment, suppose you are a renowned pianist, trained by the finest concert pianist the world has ever known. When you perform, crowds gather to listen. Everyone hails you as the master in your area of musical expertise. Now suppose some young man comes along who grew up in the Ozarks and who never had a piano lesson in his life, but simply taught himself to play on a broken-down instrument in his grandmother’s house. When this hillbilly musician comes to town, his talent is discovered, and people throng to hear him perform. When he does, tears come to the eyes of those in his audience. You too listen to him play. You, better than anyone else, recognize in him a musical genius that you have never had and that you never will. When you hear him play, you wish you had his abilities.
I believe this is the way Nicodemus must have felt about Jesus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee who is at the top of his field. Not only is he a member of the Sanhedrin, he is the most renowned Bible teacher of his day—the “Billy Graham” of first century Jerusalem. Yet when he hears Jesus teach, he hears the answers to questions that have bothered him for years. He watches the crowds as they listen to Jesus, and he knows he has never held the attention of an audience like Jesus does. Jesus speaks in simple terms, but His message has great power. Nicodemus observes the miracles Jesus performs, knowing he has never performed so much as one miracle. By nearly any standard, Nicodemus does not hold a candle to Jesus.
Nicodemus’ Night Interview With Jesus
1 Now there came a man of the Pharisees whose name was Nicodemus, a member of the council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God were with him.”
Nicodemus cannot overlook the weight of the evidence. His fellow Pharisees will quickly begin to find alternative explanations for Jesus’ success, but Nicodemus cannot get away from his personal conviction that Jesus has some kind of divine mission, and that He possesses divine authority by which He speaks and heals. I am now inclined to read the first verses of chapter 3 in this way: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do the miraculous signs that you do unless God were with him …”
I am not sure Nicodemus knows what to say from here on, or that he came with a predetermined agenda for this interview. If he does have a plan, we do not know what it was as he never gets to it. He simply tells Jesus that, from what he has personally seen, he has concluded that Jesus has come from God on some divinely inspired mission. Having said this, Nicodemus may have waited, hoping Jesus would take up the subject where he leaves off, fill in all the blanks, and answer all his questions. If this is his hope, he is in for a big disappointment.
By his words, we can see that Nicodemus has a great respect for Jesus. Nicodemus calls Jesus “Rabbi.” No doubt this is the same title many used to address him, for he was a teacher of the law as well. He further refers to Jesus as “a teacher come from God.” When Nicodemus speaks to Jesus, he does not say, “Rabbi, I know that You are a teacher who has come from God,” but rather “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” To whom is Nicodemus referring when he says “we”? It must be the Pharisees, his colleagues.150 Is Nicodemus speaking for his fellow-Pharisees here, expressing their point of view? Has Nicodemus come as the official spokesman for the Pharisees? It is certainly possible, but it just does not seem to be the Pharisees’ style to act in such a secretive manner. In the cases above (John 1:19-25; Luke 5:17), the Pharisees make their moves very publicly, almost as though they intend to be seen. They wanted to be viewed as the accrediting agency for all those who taught the law.
I am inclined to think that Nicodemus is acting independently, without the sanction of the Pharisees. Why “we” then? Because Nicodemus is still a Pharisee, a member (and even a leader) of their organization. He thinks in terms of this system; his observations and preliminary conclusions are drawn as a Pharisee. When Nicodemus says “we,” this should suggest to us that at this point in his life, Nicodemus is still 100% Pharisee. Not until Nicodemus recognizes the failure of Pharisaism and renounces his faith in this religious system will he cast himself on Jesus alone for salvation. This is precisely what our Lord’s response is all about. Jesus seeks to show Nicodemus that his system of religion does not, and cannot, save anyone.
Before we move to our Lord’s response, we should observe that Nicodemus is partly correct in his assessment of Jesus. Jesus is a “teacher come from God,” and God is “with Him” (verse 2). What Nicodemus does not know is that his words are even truer than he realizes. Jesus is literally a “teacher come from God.” He has come down to earth from the Father. And God is “with Him.” But Jesus is much greater than Nicodemus ever imagined at this moment in time. He is God, and He manifests the power of God in His teaching and working of signs. It will be some time yet before Nicodemus realizes the full truth of what he has just said. What he hears next catches him completely off guard.
“You Must Be Born Again”
In the conversation which Nicodemus initiates, let us remember that Jesus is the focus. Nicodemus has not come to talk about himself or about Pharisaism. He has come to find out about Jesus, His message, and His relationship to God. What does Jesus have to say for Himself? Nicodemus opens the door by assuring Jesus that he sees Him as a man with a mission and a message from God. It is a perfect opener for Jesus. All He has to do is pick up from here and tell Nicodemus what His mission is. It doesn’t turn out at all as Nicodemus may have expected.
Our Lord’s words will stun Nicodemus. He begins by indicating to Nicodemus that the words He is about to speak convey a most solemn truth. He uses an expression unique to this Gospel, which in the King James Version is rendered, “Verily, verily …”153 Leon Morris sums up the impact of our Lord’s few words:
Then in one sentence He sweeps away all that Nicodemus stood for, and demands that he be re-made by the power of God.154
Nicodemus’ brand of Judaism did not know anything of re-birth.155 Quite frankly, the Pharisees thought one birth of the “right kind” was quite enough.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ because I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is ready at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7-10, emphasis mine).
To many Jews, to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. We know the Jews also believed that Gentiles are born “lost.” Even the Jerusalem church leaders had to be forcefully convinced that God had purposed the salvation of Gentiles (see Acts 10; 11:15-18), and even then, the practice of many Jewish believers did not match their profession (see Acts 11:19). Paul, likewise, hit hard at this point. All Israelites are not true Israelites (Romans 9:6). Those who trust in the atoning work of Jesus Christ for salvation are true Israelites, whether their racial origins are Jewish or Gentile (see Galatians 3:28; 6:16).
Imagine the shocked look on the face of Nicodemus when Jesus tells him that his natural birth (as a Jew) will not save him, and that he must be reborn from above. The implication is clear: Unless Nicodemus is reborn from above, he will not see the kingdom of God. Here is a man who thinks he has reserved seats on the 50 yard line of heaven. Jesus tells him that he is not even going to get into heaven as he is. He first must be born again, from above.
Nicodemus Takes Jesus Literally
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”
Nicodemus chooses to understand Jesus’ words literally, so that he assumes the expression “reborn from above” must refer to some kind of literal re-birth.156 I am not convinced that this is because our Lord’s choice of words forces Nicodemus in this direction, but because he does not wish to pursue the implications of the only other direction open to him. It is easier to take Jesus as Nicodemus does, because then His words might be brushed aside as ridiculous and absurd. And so Nicodemus objects, “You can’t mean that in order to enter the kingdom of God one has to repeat the human birth process, can you?”
The reader of this Gospel has an advantage over Nicodemus. First, we know John has already identified Jesus as God. The creation of life was His work in the beginning, and so it is in the work of creating spiritual life. We have also read that those who become God’s children are those born by a divine act of creation (John 1:12). All of this is beyond Nicodemus at the moment, who can only think in the most crass literalism, and who cannot understand Jesus at all.
What It Means to Be Reborn From Above
5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I said to you,157 ‘You158 must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Once again, Jesus begins His response to Nicodemus by indicating the solemnity of His words. He then goes on to answer the objection Nicodemus raises: “… unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (verse 5). I believe we can safely reason that to be “reborn from above” is synonymous with being “born of water and spirit.” The question many ask is, “What is meant by the terms “water” and “spirit”? Some take the term “water” to refer to natural birth, while they believe “spirit” refers to one’s spiritual re-birth from above. If this is what our Lord intended, then He would be saying that a man must first be born naturally (“of water”) and then supernaturally (“of the Spirit”). The support for interpreting “water” in this way is less than compelling. Neither do I find it necessary for Jesus to argue the need for both physical birth and spiritual birth.
I am inclined to understand the terms “water” and “spirit” as one expression, “water and spirit,” which together refer to spiritual rebirth. There are several Old Testament texts which seem to justify the conclusion that both “water” and “spirit” refer to one’s spiritual rebirth:
3 “’For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, And floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, And My blessing on your offspring; 4 They will spring up among the grass Like willows by the watercourses.’ 5 One will say, ‘I am the LORD’s’; Another will call himself by the name of Jacob; Another will write with his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ And name himself by the name of Israel” (Isaiah 44:3-5, NKJV).
24 “For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:24-27, NKJV).
This work of regeneration, is also described in the Old Testament as the work of the “wind”:
9 Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army (Ezekiel 37:9-10, NKJV).
The New Testament describes God’s work of salvation as the “washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit”:
3 For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another. 4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior appeared and his love for mankind, 5 He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-7).
I believe that the “water” of which our Lord speaks here is also related to the “water” of baptism. The Pharisees are most concerned to know why John is baptizing (John 1:25). Immediately after our text, John’s disciples express their concerns to him about the rising popularity of Jesus. John has just told us that Jesus has been spending time with His disciples and baptizing (3:22). John’s disciples then protest to John: “Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan River, about whom you testified—see, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him!” (3:26). I believe our Lord’s baptism and John’s baptism are, at this point in time, one and the same. It is the baptism of repentance, in preparation for Messiah’s coming. Baptism was a part of the message and the ministry of both John and Jesus, and baptism by the Spirit is what John said distinguished the Messiah’s ministry from his own (John 1:33). Thus, to be born of water and the Spirit is to be “reborn from above,” to be saved.
I do not mean by this that baptism is a good work that we perform that results in salvation. This would be the exact opposite of the point our Lord is making to Nicodemus in our text. John’s baptism was viewed as preparatory to the coming of our Lord. It was a baptism of repentance. By being baptized, one testified that he (or she) was renouncing Judaism (law keeping) as the means of their salvation. This is precisely why unbelieving and unrepentant Pharisees refused baptism:
29 (Now all the people who heard this, even the tax collectors, acknowledged God’s justice, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. 30 However, the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.) (Luke 7:29-30)
Jesus was very careful to identity Himself with John and his ministry. If a Pharisee or anyone else wished to enter the kingdom of God, they must do so through the means God had appointed—identification with John and with Jesus, the One of whom John bore testimony.
While I believe that baptism was expected, our Lord is not placing the emphasis on human action, but rather on the sovereign work of God in salvation. To be born from above is to be born of God. To be born of God is to be spiritually born by the work of His Spirit (born from above). Jesus now describes the sovereign saving work of God through His Spirit by using the analogy of the wind.159
Before we consider the meaning of our Lord’s words about the wind here, let us pause to consider the context in which they are spoken. Jesus shocks Nicodemus by indicating to him that apart from being reborn from above, neither he nor anyone else will see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus thinks that his birth alone (as a Jew) assures him of seeing the kingdom of God (see Matthew 3:9; John 8:39; Romans 9:6). But even beyond this, Nicodemus must feel as though he holds the keys to the kingdom. Pharisaism saw itself as the guardian of the Law of Moses. It viewed itself as the pure remnant of Judaism. Pharisaism viewed itself as the “gate keeper” of the kingdom, governing it by the rules and regulations it had added to the law through oral tradition (see Matthew 23:13-15). In short, Nicodemus, like his peers, felt as though the Pharisees had the kingdom under their control. Jesus is about to blow this myth away.
Jesus likens the saving work of God through His Spirit to the working of the wind. The effects of the wind can be seen, but the wind itself is not seen. Neither can the wind be controlled. The wind goes where it wishes and does what it will. Men do not control the wind. The Spirit’s saving work is like this. The Spirit goes about His life-giving work, and no man controls Him.160 No one, by his own works, or striving, or manipulation can direct the Spirit in His work. But when the Spirit brings about the new birth, the effects are evident. We know it is the work of God’s Spirit, unseen and beyond man’s control. In this sense, neither Nicodemus nor anyone else can save themselves, nor anyone else for that matter. Salvation is the sovereign work of God, accomplished by the Holy Spirit.
How Can These Things Be?
9 Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus has been at a loss for words ever since our Lord’s response to him in verse 3. In verses 4 and 9, Nicodemus asks two different questions, but both begin the same, “How is it possible …?”161 He is so dumb-struck by what Jesus has told him that he cannot conceive of how our Lord’s words could be true. Nicodemus is so much a part of the natural world that he cannot fathom the possibility of anything spiritual and supernatural. In theory, the Pharisees believed in the miraculous (see Acts 23:6-8), but in practice Nicodemus appears to be anti-supernatural. Let’s face it, we do the same thing. We claim to believe God is in control, and that He is all-powerful, yet we often fail to live like it is true.
Teaching the Teacher of Israel About Spiritual Things
10 Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? 11 I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people162 do not accept our testimony. 12 If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will 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 Just as Moses lifted up163 the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Our Lord’s words are a gentle rebuke: “Can you really be the teacher in Israel and not grasp these things?” Nicodemus is not only a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, he is “the teacher of Israel” (verse 10). It is generally understood that the definite article here indicates that Nicodemus was the most prominent and respected teacher of his day. How could a renowned teacher of the Old Testament not know what Jesus is talking about? It seems incredible; indeed, it is. Notice the words of verse 12 in this regard. Jesus contrasts “earthly things” with “heavenly things.” He seems to place the things of which He has been speaking in the category of “earthly things.” “Heavenly things” would thus refer to those things associated with the coming kingdom of God, things presently beyond our comprehension.164
How can Nicodemus, a teacher of the Old Testament law, not grasp those things the law teaches? The problem with mankind has always been with the heart (Genesis 8:21; Exodus 7:14; Deuteronomy 5:28-29; 8:14; Isaiah 29:13; Jeremiah 17:9), a problem which God alone can solve by giving men a new heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31-34). To be reborn by the Spirit of God makes one a new man (see 1 Samuel 10:6-13), and it is the Spirit who enables men to see such truths (see 1 Corinthians 2). Paul carries this even a step further:
12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness, 13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the end of the glory that was fading away. 14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; 16 but whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:12-18).
In verse 11, Jesus once again underscores what He is about to say with the words, “I tell you the solemn truth.” He assures Nicodemus, “We speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen.” He then goes on to say, “… but you people do not accept our testimony.” The NET Translation nicely informs us that the “you” is plural. Who is the “we” Jesus is speaking of, and who is the “you people”? The “we” seems to be John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom have testified to what they have seen. The “we” might conceivably include the Old Testament prophets, though this is less likely. The “you people” is Nicodemus and his fellow-Pharisees.
John bore witness to the coming of Messiah. The Pharisees sent a delegation to inquire of John just who he was and what his message might be (John 1:19-25). They obviously did not accept John’s testimony because they refused to be baptized by him (Luke 7:30). The Pharisees also assembled in large numbers, coming from all over the land of Israel to hear Jesus and to judge His message and ministry (Luke 5:17). They certainly did not submit to Jesus as their Messiah. Thus, the witness of both John and Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees.
Jesus has been speaking of re-birth, a re-birth which comes from above. It is the work of God’s Spirit, who sovereignly brings about new life (verses 7-8), and it is a work that comes “from above” (verses 13-15). Does Nicodemus believe in a heavenly kingdom? He certainly should, as did the Old Testament men and women of faith (see Hebrews 11:13-16). If anyone could ascend into heaven, they must first come down from heaven. It is a round trip, with heaven as the point of origin. Only the Son of Man can return to heaven, because this is where He came from (verse 13). This is why salvation is “from above.”
The story of the bronze serpent, recorded in Numbers 21, foreshadows the salvation which God will provide through the “Son of Man.” The Israelites had been complaining against God, grumbling about the journey and their apparent lack of food and water. They did not like the manna God gave them day after day. And so God sent fiery serpents among them, and many of those who were bitten died. God provided a salvation for this disobedient people, so that they might survive divine judgment. He instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and to set it on a pole, so that anyone who was bitten by one of the serpents could merely look up at the serpent and be healed. This is precisely what happened. All who were bitten and looked up were healed.
This Old Testament provision for Israel’s healing is illustrative of the salvation God is about to accomplish through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. As the serpent was lifted up, and thus became a source of salvation, so the Son of Man must be “lifted up,” so that those who look up to Him in faith can be saved from God’s wrath as well. The snake-bitten Israelites were smitten of God for their sin. They deserved to die, and apart from His provision of the serpent, they would have. Those who did not look up to the bronze serpent died. The act of merely looking up to the bronze serpent was an act of faith. So far as the people could see, there was no direct link between the snake bite they had received and the healing for which they hoped. But it was the means God provided for their salvation. It was the means God declared through Moses. It was the one way God said His people could be saved. Those who looked to the bronze serpent were saved from the death they deserved.
In verses 14 and 15, Jesus connects the serpent, which is lifted up on a pole, with His own death at Calvary, when He is lifted up on the cross. Nicodemus asks how a man can be reborn from above. Jesus first tells him by analogy; now He tells him more directly. If anyone is to be saved from the penalty of their sins, they must “look up” to Him for salvation. He, like the bronze serpent of old, will be “lifted up” on a cross, and He will later be “lifted up” in His resurrection and ascension. In so doing, He will be “lifted up” in another way—He will be exalted by God for His sacrificial obedience at Calvary. All those who “look up” to Him in faith, trusting in Him to remove the judgment for their sin, like the Israelites of old, will be saved.
The Love of God and the Coming and Cross of Christ
16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.
This brings us to verse 16, perhaps the most well known passage in the Bible. Unfortunately, this verse is almost always used in a “stand alone” fashion, without any reference to its context. In addition, virtually all the major later translations still follow the reading of the King James Version. This would not be bad except that the meaning of words change. The word “so” is particularly problematic:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (KJV, emphasis mine).
The Bible in Basic English most clearly conveys what most of us understand this verse to mean:
For God had such love for the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever has faith in him may not come to destruction but have eternal life (emphasis mine).
In so doing, the Bible in Basic English translation renders this verse in a way that obscures the principle thrust of what our Lord is saying. Fortunately, the NET Bible gets it right:
For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
A translator’s note in an earlier version of the NET Bible pointed me in the right direction. The note simply read, “Or, in this way.”165 As I began to search out the use of this word (rendered “so” in John 3:16) in John’s writings and the rest of the New Testament, I came to realize that I understood the word in a way that John does not seem to have intended. The two words, “for … so,” are the rendering of a two-word combination in the Greek text, which occurs nine times in the New Testament.166 None of these occurrences can or should be rendered in a “so much” way. Every one can, and perhaps should, be rendered “in this way,” or “this is the way,” or something very similar. This can be seen by the way the NET Bible handles these other eight occurrences of the expression found in John 3:16:
“In Bethlehem of Judea,” they said, “for it is written this way by the prophet” (Matthew 2:5, emphasis mine).
So Jesus replied to him, “Let it happen now, for [in this way] it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John yielded to him” (Matthew 3:15, emphasis mine).167
Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (Matthew 5:12, emphasis mine).
But the magician Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith (Acts 13:8, emphasis mine).
For this is what [this is the way] the Lord has commanded us: “I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47, emphasis mine).
We went on ahead to the ship and put out to sea for Assos, intending to take Paul aboard there, for he had arranged it this way. He himself was intending to go there by land (Acts 20:13, emphasis mine).
For in the same way the holy women who hoped in God long ago adorned themselves by being subject to their husbands (1 Peter 3:5, emphasis mine).
For thus [or, “For in this way …”] an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be richly provided for you (2 Peter 1:11, emphasis mine).
Based upon the consistent use of this expression in the New Testament, I believe we should understand John 3:16 the way the NET Bible has translated it.
Now notice something else. The expression, “for in this way,” points back to something previously stated. It links what is being (or is about to be) said to what has just been said. To find out what “this same way” is, we must look back to what has already been said. What will, or should, happen must happen in a way similar to the way something has already happened. A study of the eight verses above demonstrates this.
Now let us apply this aspect of the expression to John 3:16 and earlier by going back to verse 14:
14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so [in the same way]168 must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him (emphasis mine).
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn from above. Nicodemus is surprised and confused by what Jesus has said (3:4, 9). Jesus gently rebukes Nicodemus, a prominent teacher of the Old Testament law, because he finds our Lord’s words so new and so difficult (3:10). And so in verse 14, Jesus turns to the Old Testament to clarify what He has told Nicodemus. In this incident, Moses lifted up a bronze serpent in the desert, so that all who (by faith) looked up to it were saved. In the same way that Moses lifted up the serpent, the Son of man must be “lifted up.” The Son of man is to be “lifted up” so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.
The words which commence John 3:16, “For this is the way God loved the world … ,” pick up and expand upon the thought of verses 14 and 15. Notice the repetition of the statement, “so that everyone who believes in Him … may have eternal life,” in verses 15 and 16. The argument of Jesus (and John) goes something like this: “How can one be reborn from above, Nicodemus? Well, first, no one can ascend into heaven except the One who first descended from heaven. Thus, God’s provision for man’s salvation has come from above. The story of the salvation of the Israelites in the desert speaks of salvation from above. Moses lifted a bronze serpent up on a pole and placed it where all the Israelites could see it. All those bitten by a serpent could “look up” to this bronze serpent and live. The salvation of which I speak, and about which you inquire, is from above, not only in that God has provided it through Him who descended from heaven, but also in that men must look up to Him to be saved.”
This salvation in the wilderness by means of the bronze serpent was a prototype of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. “In the same way” that the bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole for all to see, the “Son of man” must be “lifted up,” so that all who look to Him by faith may have eternal life. “For in this way God loved the world: He gave His only begotten Son in order that all who believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life.” God gave His only begotten Son by sending Him to this world, by lifting Him up on the cross of Calvary, and by lifting Him up from the grave and exalting Him above every name.
God’s love for the world was demonstrated in Jesus, the One whom Pharisaism rejected, whose testimony (along with John’s) they did not believe. The Jews wrongly assumed that God loved them because they were Jews. Now they are informed that God loves them only through Christ. If they reject Christ, they also reject the love which the Father manifested toward them in Christ.
In verse 16, Nicodemus has yet another shock in store for him. This verse declares that God’s love extends to the world, and that God has purposed to save Gentiles as well as Jews. This was literally beyond the comprehension of many Jews, including believing Jews. The Prophet Jonah, for example, could not conceive of the Ninevites (Gentiles) being saved, and thus he did everything in his power to see that this city would be destroyed. John and his brother James wanted to call down fire from heaven and “torch” a Samaritan village (Luke 9:52-56). When Peter went to the home of Cornelius and preached the gospel to the Gentiles who had gathered there, the church leaders in Jerusalem called him to account for his going to the Gentiles with the gospel (Acts 11:1-3). After Peter convinced them that this was of God, and they confessed that God must be saving men from among the Gentiles, Jewish believers continued to go out, “speaking the message to no one but Jews” (Acts 11:19). When Paul addressed a hostile Jewish audience, they listened to him patiently—until he mentioned that God had called him to take the gospel to the Gentiles—and then they were enraged (Acts 22:1-24, note especially verses 21-22). For Jesus (or John) to say that God loved the world was revolutionary, shocking, and very distressing for a strict Jew.
I would like to highlight another lesson to be learned from John 3:16. The word “loved” is in the past tense. The Greek verb is in the aorist tense, indicating a specific act at a particular point in time. This verse does not say, “God loves (present tense) the world.” I believe the reason for this is because we are to understand that God has manifested His love for the world in a particular way. He “loved” the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. He “loved” the world by sending His son into the world, so that He might be “lifted up” as a sin-bearer.
This brings us to a new element in John’s Gospel, introduced in verse 16, which surely must have caused Nicodemus and his colleagues a great deal of difficulty. That “new” element is the concept of hell, or eternal judgment, introduced by the term “perish.” Our Lord’s earlier reference to the bronze serpent raised this issue in a more subtle way. The people who were “saved” by looking up to the bronze serpent were those who were dying. They were “perishing” because God was judging them on account of their sin, and they knew it. If they did not quickly look up to the serpent in faith, they would perish. Jesus first shocked Nicodemus by telling him that he would not even see the kingdom of God unless he was reborn from above. Jesus’ words in verses 14-21 are even more disturbing. Nicodemus is not only unable to see the kingdom of God in his present state, he is destined to perish.
Nicodemus must surely be in a state of shock by now. He is no longer even speaking. In fact, he may already have left, and it may be John who now fills in these details, writing these words after the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. The man who thinks he has arrived is told he isn’t even on his way to heaven; he is on his way to eternal torment. He is a condemned man. Spiritually speaking, Nicodemus is on death row.
God’s purpose in sending Jesus into the world was not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. We may wonder how our Lord (or John) can make such a statement in the light of these later verses in John:
26 “For just as the Father has life in himself, thus he has granted the Son to have life in himself; 27 and he granted the Son authority to execute judgment because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:26-27).
“I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30).
Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind” (John 9:39).
We see above in John chapter 5 that Jesus is talking about the judgment He will execute at the resurrection of the dead (see verses 25, 28-29). The judgment spoken of in John 9 seems to be essentially the same as that in verses 17-21 of John chapter 3. Jesus came into the world as the expression of God’s love for the world. He came to save those sinners who believe in Him. Those who do not receive Jesus Christ as God’s only way of salvation (see also John 14:6) reject God’s love. The primary purpose of our Lord’s first coming was to implement the love of God toward lost sinners by providing a way of salvation, like the bronze serpent provided a means of healing for all who would look up and be saved.
The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, recorded in chapter 8, illustrates the relationship between Jesus’ first coming and the judgment He will execute at His second coming. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who was caught in the very act of adultery (notice, they did not bring the man). Desiring to put Jesus on the spot, they virtually dared Him to “judge” or condemn her. Under the law, she did deserve to die, but Jesus did not respond as His opponents expected. Jesus did not deny the woman’s guilt; He showed her accusers that they were guilty sinners as well. Perhaps their form of sin was self-righteousness and pride, rather than immorality, but they were not “without sin.” No one present was truly qualified to condemn this woman, except Jesus. And rather than condemn her, He forgave her of her sins. The purpose of Jesus’ first coming was to make an atonement for man’s sins. Jesus refused to condemn this woman, because He had come to save her. Indeed, He came to bear the guilt and punishment for her sins, so that her sins could be forgiven.
Judgment is a secondary effect of our Lord’s first coming, and it will be a more dramatic part of His second coming. Those for whom He came to provide a way of salvation are guilty sinners, already under condemnation (see Romans 3:9-18, 23). Those who reject the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ reject God’s love, and fall under even greater condemnation for having seen the light and then rejecting it (see John 9:35-41). A person’s response to the light of our Lord’s coming is indicative of their moral and spiritual condition. Those who practice the truth do not fear the light, but welcome it. Light reveals the righteousness of righteous men. Those who are unrighteous hate the light because it exposes their sins. Wicked men reject the light while righteous men welcome it. One’s response to the light, then, demonstrates his or her moral and spiritual condition. Light condemns, both by exposing sin and by exposing sinners, who reject the light. In this sense, our Lord passively judged (exposed) the sins of men in His first coming. He will actively judge sinners at His second coming.
This text is rich in truth and applications. Let me conclude by pointing out some important principles.
First, being religious is not the same as being a Christian. Some time ago a book was published, based on the Book of Romans, and entitled “How To Be Christian Without Being Religious.” It attempted to show that one can become a Christian without having to act “religious.” I believe one could very well write a book entitled, “How To Be Religious Without Being a Christian.” This would apply not only to Nicodemus, but to many “religious” people today. One could not get much more religious than Nicodemus, but our Lord’s words make it clear that as “religious” as he is, Nicodemus is not yet a Christian. He must be reborn from above.
I must ask you, my friend, “Are you a Christian, or are you just religious?” If you take the words of our Lord seriously, there is a great difference between those who are religious and those who are reborn from above. Nicodemus was as lost as the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Hell will be populated by many people who are “religious,” who have trusted in their religion to save them, rather than trusting in Christ alone. There will be many in hell who trusted in their works to get them to heaven, rather than in His work—the work of our Lord Jesus Christ and the cross of Calvary. He came down from heaven, and He was lifted up on a cross to bear the penalty of your sins and mine. He was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of God. He offers to us His righteousness and His life. If you trust in Him, rather than in yourself, you will be reborn from above, and thus you can be assured that you will see the kingdom of God.
Second, God’s love for the world has been manifested through the coming and the cross of Jesus Christ. This is the way God “loved” the world. It is the only way anyone can enjoy the love of God for now and eternity. To reject Jesus Christ as God’s provision for our salvation is to reject God’s love, and to be under divine condemnation, awaiting the day of God’s eternal judgment. Many today seek to find comfort by assuring themselves that God loves them. God “loved” them in Jesus Christ. To reject Him is to reject His love. It is both foolish and dangerous to believe in a “God of love” without submitting to the Son of His love, Jesus Christ. How often I hear it said, “Well, I believe in a God of love …” They go on to say that such a God would never condemn anyone to hell. Our text tells us just the opposite. The God of love who sent Jesus Christ to save the world from sin is the God who will send Him a second time to judge the world for sin. Those who have “looked up” to Him for salvation, now “look up,” waiting for His return. Those who have rejected Him fail to grasp that when He returns He will come as their judge. What a terrifying thought! What a blessed salvation!
It is my hope and prayer that God will give you no rest or peace until you have experienced the love of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.
146 I have purposely formatted the text so that the words of Nicodemus are distinguished from those of our Lord. Notice that as the interview between our Lord and Nicodemus develops the comments of Nicodemus get shorter and shorter, and those of our Lord get longer and longer. In verses 16-21, I have changed the font, indicating the question of whose words these are, John’s or our Lord’s.
147 So too, we might add, with the teaching of John the Baptist. There was something forceful about his teaching, that even attracted and fascinated a man like Herod, and yet John never performed a sign (John 10:41).
149 I am not suggesting that the priests or the leaders of the Sadducees were actually present at the cleansing of the temple at the outset, but they most certainly got there in time to challenge our Lord (see John 2:18ff.).
151 “The word rendered “anew” [‘from above’ in our text] might equally be translated by ‘from above.’ Both senses are true, and in the Johannine manner it is likely that we should understand both here (as Barclay does; he gets the best of both worlds with his ‘unless a man is reborn from above’).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), pp. 212-213. In the Gospel of John, this term, which is capable of both meanings (“from above,” and “again”), is used three times in John 3 (verses 3, 7, 31) and twice elsewhere in this Gospel (19:11, 23). In the three uses not involving Nicodemus, the term always means “from above.”
153 The expression ‘Truly, truly’ or ‘Verily, verily’ is a translation of the repeated Greek word amhn, which would be transliterated ‘amen.’ John uses the word only as a doubled expression (‘Truly, truly’), and this he does 25 times in his Gospel. Matthew (31x), Mark (14x), and Luke (6x) use the term in a single form (‘Truly’), but never doubled. The statement by Morris, cited earlier in this series, bears repeating: “‘Verily’ is not a translation of a Greek word, but the transliteration of an Aramaic (or Hebrew) word, namely Amen. It is the participle of a verb meaning ‘to confirm,’ and it was used to give one’s assent. For example, it was (and still is) the response of the congregation to a prayer uttered by him who leads their worship. In this way they make it their own (1 Cor. 14:16). Very occasionally it is the conclusion to one’s own prayer (e.g. Tobit 8:7f.), when it has the nature of a wish. But this use is rare. Characteristically it is one’s assent to words uttered by another. In the Gospels it is used only by Jesus, and always as a prefix to significant statements. Presumably this is to mark them out as solemn and true and important. This use of Amen to introduce one’s own words appears to be Jesus’ own, no real Jewish parallel being adduced.” Morris, p. 169.
155 I like what L. S. Thornton has written: “‘The Christian doctrine of a new life stands in contrast to the contemporary Jewish expectation of a new world. Doubtless the two doctrines overlap in the New Testament. But the relation between them might be not inappropriately described in terms of kernel and husk.’” Cited by Morris, p. 209, fn. 1.
159 It should be pointed out that the same Greek word (pneuma) is rendered both “wind” (John 3:8) and “spirit” (John 1:32-33; 3:5, 6, 8, 34) in the New Testament. In John 3:8, the term occurs twice; the first time it is rendered “wind,” the second time “Spirit.”
161 In the Greek text the first two words of Nicodemus’ questions in verses 4 and 10 (pw" dunatai) are identical. Both inquire as to the possibility of what Jesus has just said. The same two words are found in Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:23; John 6:52; 9:16. In each of these instances, the issue is a matter of logic. Mary’s question to Gabriel in Luke 1:34 is similar, but significantly different, I think. She is not asking how it can be, but how it will be. She does not question God’s ability to give her a child as a virgin, she only asks by what means it will be. Zacharias, on the other hand, reveals his own doubts and asks for some verification, for which he is rebuked (see Luke 1:18-20).
163 The term “lifted up” (Greek, uywsen) has a double meaning. It can mean, literally, “lifted up,” but it also has the sense of exalting (see, for example, Matthew 11:23; 23:12; Acts 2:33). Our Lord was literally “lifted up” on a cross, but in the same breath we must also say He was “exalted” by being “lifted up” in this manner. His death on the cross also necessitated His being “lifted up” by His resurrection and ascension.
164 “He has borne witness to ‘earthly things’ without being believed. The simplest way of understanding this is to see a reference to the present discourse. It was taking place on earth and concerned a process with effects discernible on earth. In contrast with this, Jesus can impart ‘heavenly things,’ i.e. higher teaching. But if men like Nicodemus will not believe the simpler things they cannot be expected to believe what is more advanced.” Morris, p. 222.
167 In this instance, the NET Bible did not convey the full sense of the expression, which I have supplied in brackets. The NAS version does capture the correct sense, however: “But Jesus answering said to him, ‘Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to filfill all righteousness’” (emphasis mine).
Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)