A Bible Lesson on John 3:1-18

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This passage is the account of Nicodemus coming to Jesus and learning that He is much more than a good teacher, rather is at the very center of God’s intentions for mankind.  Nicodemus is the classic picture of one with some cloudy knowledge of Jesus, ripe for salvation as he learns more accurately and clearly who Jesus is and what God has provided.  Jesus, as the last few verses of Chapter 2 indicate, wasn’t guessing when he sized up an individual or discerned that person’s spiritual state and motives.

John 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

“There was a man …”  What we know about Nicodemus comes from this passage and from John 7 and 19.  He urged the Sanhedrin to give Jesus a fair shake and after the crucifixion he went with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus’s body a proper burial.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  We usually think ill of these guys without really knowing much about them.  They were a minority party or sect of the Jewish people (about 6,000 only at this time!?) who were zealous for the keeping of the Old Testament law.  The history of the sect goes back 100-200 years before this time, and perhaps ultimately (at least in spirit, if not in name) to the time of Ezra.  They were a group called “God’s loyal ones” or “the separated ones.”  They opposed secularizing influences.  In this we cannot fault them.  What we must fault is their notion that by scrupulous obedience to the law and all of the hundreds of additions and interpretations they added to it, they could individually win God’s favor.  The fact is that not they, nor anyone else can present themselves to God approved by human behavior.  In our fallen state, we simply don’t have the ability to stand up to close scrutiny regarding God’s standards.

Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin or Jewish ruling council, the 70 member Jewish high court.  By Jewish standards of the time, this was an important guy.  He was also a guy with a responsibility to know what was going on in Israel.  Jesus had shown up in Jerusalem, cleansing the temple.  Word of His miraculous provision of wine at the wedding in Cana had no doubt reached town, and Jesus had been prophesying His death and resurrection.  Some have already begun to believe.  Nicodemus needs to know what’s going on, not only for himself, but more for the good of the nation, so he visits Jesus.

2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

There has been much made of the fact that Nicodemus came at night.  Maybe he did come then for fear of the other Jews or out of reluctance to be seen with Jesus at this tentative stage of inquiry.  But that’s not said, and maybe it had nothing to do with it.  It could be that this was the only time that he could get a private word with Jesus.  It apparently was also common belief at the time that the best time of day to study the Scriptures was the evening.  If we wanted to look for symbolism in the picture, we could see Nicodemus coming out of the realm of darkness, untruth, and evil, into the light that John talks about in the prologue to the book.

He calls Jesus “Rabbi.”  This is an extremely polite thing for Nicodemus to say to Jesus.  He was almost certainly quite a bit Jesus’ elder, and older Rabbis didn’t typically address youngsters in such a way.  Nicodemus is here well-intentioned, but theologically inadequate.  It seems that he sees Jesus as one of many prophets/teachers in Jewish history.  He doesn’t yet see Him for the one and only Son of God that He is.

Nicodemus says “We know.”  Perhaps he speaks of the Pharisees who are coming to belief?  He speaks of “signs.”  Nicodemus is right on this account.  Miracles are often referred to in John in this way, emphasizing their purpose and effect, namely to point to Jesus as the Son of God.

In this verse Nicodemus is really just trying to get a conversation going.  He’s really asking “Who are you?” and “How do I gain favor with God?”

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Jesus cuts through the peripheral issues and gets right to the heart of the situation.  Jesus says, “Indeed and in truth I tell you. Truly, truly.  Verily, verily.  Amen and amen.  I tell you the truth.”

“cannot” picks up on Nicodemus’s “can” in verse 2.  “see” means to experience/encounter/participate in.  “The kingdom of God” describes the sovereignty that God exercises, rather than a place or dominion.  It is more “reign” than “realm.”  That is, unless one is born again he or she cannot–absolutely cannot–experience God’s sovereignty.  He or she won’t have a part in God’s final kingly rule.

Jesus says “born again.”  The word “born” could also have been translated “begotten” (making it masculine rather than feminine in action).  The “again” could also have been translated “from above.”  There is a double meaning in the Greek.  This is “born again” or “begotten from above.”  Nicodemus hears “born again/for a second time.”  Jesus certainly means (secondarily, if not primarily) “begotten from above.”

4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

It is not clear what Nicodemus means by this.  It may be a defensive reply, intended to make Jesus’s statement seem absurd.  It may be that he is genuinely confused because of the Pharisaical thinking.  Or it may be that he understands Jesus completely in terms of the necessity of a radical change, but has no idea of the possibility of a radical change.  He may be saying “Jesus, I agree that to gain God’s approval a complete change of nature is required, but you might as well ask me to start physical life all over again!  It isn’t possible!”

It is worth considering what Nicodemus was really prepared to understand, based on his Old Testament knowledge.  The Old Testament had promised that there would be a time when God would 1) give men new hearts, exchanging ones of stone for ones of flesh, 2) pour out His Holy Spirit on mankind and 3) dwell with mankind.  The basic notion of God having to act on Israel’s behalf for them to know Him is not a huge leap from what Nicodemus should know.  And it’s relevant too that the Jews of the time regarded converts to Judaism as “reborn.”  The problem here is that Nicodemus is already IN the family, so to speak.  There’s no place else for him to go.  How does the metaphor apply to him, already a devout Jew?

5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus explains the situation in other terms.  He says, “Indeed and in all truth.  Truly, truly.  Verily, verily.  Amen and amen.   No one can enter.”  The “enter” here is no different in intent from the “see” in verse 3.

Jesus says, “born of water and the spirit.”  A variety things have been suggested as the intended meaning of this phrase.  I think that F.F. Bruce has it right when he says there is no difference between being born again (verse 3) and being born of water and the Spirit (verse 5), that spirit=water is one thing, something that God is going to do.  See Ezekiel 36:25-27.  But commentators have offered other interpretations like 1) water=natural birth, Spirit=eternal life, or 2) (Barclay suggests) water=cleansing, the Spirit=power and both are required to be part of God’s Kingdom, or 3) water may refer to baptism.  If this latter is the intention, Nicodemus could only be hearing John the Baptist’s baptism here (Christian baptism is yet to come).  John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, and Jesus may be warning Nicodemus that John’s baptism is itself not enough to make one right with God, that there must also be the work of God’s Spirit.

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

This is just a statement of fact.  It is not some kind of mystical or gnostic condemnation of physical life.  It is a statement that physical parents give us physical life.  Spiritual/eternal life must come from God.  The nature of those being born is determined by the source of their birth.  Even if it were possible for Nicodemus to enter a second time into his mother’s womb, it would avail nothing.  Hoskyns aptly said, “There is no evolution of flesh to Spirit.”

7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’

The first “you” is singular, meaning Nicodemus.  The second “you” is plural, referring to all.  Remember that Nicodemus said “we” in verse 2.  Jesus effectively says, “Nicodemus, what I’ve just been saying to you should be no surprise, it makes perfect sense.”

8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This analogy is a perfect one in both the Hebrew and Greek languages.  The words for “spirit” and “wind” are the same in both languages.  In Greek, the word for both is “pneuma.”  In Hebrew, the word for both is “ruah.”  The Spirit breathes and you hear His voice.  The wind blows and you hear its sound.  Jesus is saying to Nicodemus that he (and we with him) really understand the workings of neither the physical world nor God’s sovereign work by his Spirit.  See Ecclesiastes 11:5.  But the fact that we don’t completely understand the working of the wind doesn’t change the reality of it!  It is the same with the work of God’s Spirit.  Simply because we don’t completely comprehend the gracious work of God’s Spirit gives us no place to dismiss the fact that when we see a change of heart and life, a genuine bowing to the King of the universe, that is the doing of the Spirit of God, not anything that we can do on our own.

In natural terms, man first had life when God breathed the breath of life into him.  See Genesis 2:7.  We have eternal life when God gives us His Holy Spirit.

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Nicodemus’s first question, in verse 4, concerned man’s role.  Now his question concerns God’s.  How does God work to give us eternal life?”  Nicodemus came expecting perhaps to get some new insight on how to better conform to the law, wanting to know what he can do.  He’s found that what he can do is not the point.  Rather, it is that he must have a complete and radical transformation of what he is, and that it must be God that provides it.  But how?

10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?

“You, Nicodemus, are supposed to be the teacher!”  Nicodemus does have some Old Testament basis for understanding what Jesus is saying here.  But Nicodemus doesn’t understand.  It frequently happens in John’s Gospel that misunderstanding leads Jesus to explain something more fully and make Truth more completely known.

In the next few verses, before answering Nicodemus’s question from verse 9, Jesus makes a very clear statement of His divinity and authority.

11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.

Jesus says again, “Indeed and in all truth.  Truly, truly.  Verily, verily.”  He says, “We speak of what we know.”  The “we” may be the “we “of majesty?  Jesus may be referring to the trinity?  Jesus may be referring to Himself and the disciples/church?  It might be a parody or rebuke of Nicodemus’s “we”?

“… what we know, and testify to what we have seen.”  This is legal language.  The idea here is one of having firsthand knowledge and giving legally reliable statements.  Jesus then says, “But still you people do not accept–it is your regular habit to not accept–our testimony.”

12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

It is not clear exactly what is meant by “earthly things” versus “heavenly things.”  Possibilities are 1) what has already been discussed versus what is yet to be talked about, 2) things explainable in earthly analogies versus those that have none, or 3) things that can be spoken of/revealed in this life versus things that will only be revealed in heaven.  What is clear is that Jesus is saying that He has knowledge much beyond that of any mere mortal.

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

The “No one has” might be “No one has ever”  No one else has 1st hand knowledge of the things that Jesus is referring to.    It is “he who descended heaven” who is under discussion.  This is a direct claim to divinity.  Nicodemus in verse 2 admitted that God was with Jesus, that Jesus was sent from God in the sense that He had God’s approval.  Here Jesus makes it clear that He came from God in the sense that He has existed forever with the Father and is God and was sent as His emissary to earth.

Now Jesus gets ready to answer Nicodemus’s question posed in verse 9.  That is, “How does God work to give us His eternal life?”

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

Jesus cites an Old Testament analogy or object lesson.  See Numbers 21:4-8.  Moses was to lift up a   pole with the bronze serpent on it, a sign before the people.  All who looked at it were healed.  In John 12:31-32 Jesus uses the same kind of terms to describe His crucifixion.  The Biblical meaning of the “lifting up” of Jesus is first His crucifixion and second His ascension into heaven (Acts 2:33, 5:31 and Philippians 2:9).  The “lifting up” is that which was done in the sovereign plan of God, once for all on the cross.

The points of analogy/similarity between the Old Testament type and the New Testament reality are striking.  It is God who provides the cure for our ills.  What is required for life is to simply accept it, to “look” or believe.  And it is “must be lifted up.”  It is the only possible source of our life.

15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

It is “whoever,” it is “every one.”  It is every one who “believes in Him.”  This is “cleaves to Him,” “trusts in Him,” “relies on Him,” it is “flees to Him and commits his soul entirely to Him.”  Such people are given “eternal life.”  This is “indestructible life,” “life without beginning or end,” “God’s life,”  “infinitely high quality life,”  “life in fellowship with God.”  See John 17:3.   Any conception of everlasting existence that doesn’t center on relationship with God is counterfeit.  Nicodemus, you asked how this can be.  It comes about by looking to the Son of God.

A natural question is then “Why is this available to us?”  Jesus anticipates this question.

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

It is because of God’s love, not our own efforts to somehow please God.  As Paul argues clearly in Romans, there is nothing that we can do to merit it.

Ephesians 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

D.L. Moody said, “Suppose I were to say, I will give this Bible to ‘whosoever …’  What have you got to do?  Why nothing but take it.  But a man comes forward and says, ‘I’d like that Bible very much.’ ‘Well, didn’t I say “whosoever”?’  ‘I’d like to have the Bible; but I’d like to give you something for it.  I don’t want to take it for nothing.’  ‘Well, I’m not here to sell Bibles: take it if you want it.’  ‘Well, I want it; but I’d like to give you something for it.  Let me give you a penny for it; though to be sure, it’s worth twenty or thirty dollars.'”  Well suppose I took the penny; the man takes up the Bible, and marches away home with it.  His wife says, ‘Where did you get that Bible?’ ‘Oh, I bought it.’  Mark the point; when he gives the penny it ceases to be a gift.  So with salvation.  If you were to pay ever so little, it would not be a gift.”

Luther called John 3:16 “the Bible in miniature.”

“God loved so loved the ‘world.'”  God loved the whole of humanity.  This is not just the elect, but the whole of the rebellious human race.  It is a distinctively Christian notion that God’s love should extend to all, beyond race or nationality or spiritual elite.  The Greek carries with it the idea of “loved supremely” or “to the highest possible degree.”  The Greek construction carries with it a stress on the result of loving.

That “He gave,” “that He “actually gave, that He “even gave” (Amplified).  The notion is that it is completely amazing that He gave!  He actually gave His one and only Son.  This emphasizes Jesus’s absolutely unique nature and position.  God gives us His Spirit and nature and we become Sons of God, but not in the same sense that Jesus is His Son.

Again, “believes in” is “trusts in, clings to, relies upon.”  The one who believes in “shall not perish.”  The alternative is DEATH.  This is not just one of many possible options, it is the only one!

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The Son of God didn’t come to bring judgment, but rather to save souls.

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”  J.C. Ryle put it this way: “He is pardoned acquitted, justified, cleared from all guilt, delivered from the curse of a broken law, no longer counted a sinner, but reckoned perfectly righteous in the sight of God.”  Thanks be to the I AM!

Nevertheless, there is an implied judgment if people refuse the only provision possible for our salvation.  To look to Jesus is life.  To not do so is to choose destruction.  Our response to Jesus gives away our hearts.  If seeing Him brings us to our knees in worship, then there is the hope of heaven for us.  If we despise or ignore Him, the rightful Sovereign of the Universe, if we dodge the light, then we’ve revealed ourselves as unfit for His presence, and the love of God revealed in Him has become for us a judgment.  Again quoting Ryle: “The words before us … show in simple and unmistakable terms, that although man’s salvation is entirely of God, his ruin, if he is lost, will be entirely from himself.”  Luther’s comment was: “Henceforward, he who is condemned must not complain of Adam and his inborn sin.  The seed of the woman, promised by God to bruise the head of the serpent, is now come, and has atoned for sin and taken away condemnation.  But he must cry out against himself for not having accepted and believed in the Christ, the devil’s head-bruiser and sin-strangler.  If I do not believe the same, sin and condemnation must continue.”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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