John 3:1 – Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
We actually find quite a bit of information in this short verse.
Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee. That means he has dedicated his life to studying, understanding and teaching others about the law. He was a very well educated man. He obviously took religion very seriously and he had a high degree of confidence in his spiritual life.
Nicodemus is also described as a ruler of the Jews. This probably means he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews and he may have been the ruler of a synagogue. He definitely commanded a lot of authority. He was a highly respected member of his community. He was wealthy. He no doubt lived in Jerusalem, the headquarters of the Sanhedrin.
Apart from this chapter in John, Nicodemus is mentioned twice more in scripture. In the first instance, he is defending Jesus against the unjust suspicions of his fellow Pharisees (John 7:50). In the second, we find him assisting Joseph of Arimathea in the embalming of Jesus’ body (John 19:39).
These actions indicate a belief in Jesus as the Messiah. This is a good place to note that Jesus called ALL men to salvation; the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, etc. Nicodemus is an example of a wise/noble/rich man of that day who believed in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:26).
John 3:2 – 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.”
For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of Nicodemus. You have devoted your entire life to the study of the law/religion. You think you understand everything there is to know about the coming Messiah, and you truly desire to see him appear.
At some point, you become aware of Jesus from Nazareth. He is proclaiming a new teaching about the kingdom of heaven. There are whispers that he may be the Messiah, and there is indisputable evidence of the miraculous.
But on the other hand, Jesus isn’t what you expected in a Messiah.
- He is not from a wealthy, respected family. In fact, his mother’s reputation is questionable at best.
- He is accepted and even welcomed by the common uneducated people and crazy radicals like the Baptist. But your colleagues, the religious leaders of the day, are rejecting him.
- He isn’t showing any signs of raising an army to fight against Rome. So far, his only rebellion has been to disrupt commerce in the temple during Passover.
- You are expecting a Messiah who will usher in a new golden age for Israel, but this man is focused on an unseen heavenly kingdom.
Naturally, you are experiencing a lot of doubt and indecision regarding this Jesus of Nazareth. You would probably like to just dismiss him outright as many of your fellow Pharisees have done, but there is a problem… deep down in the bottom of your soul you feel something. You feel a conviction. Something about this man and his message resonates with your spirit. Because of that, you are compelled to examine him and his message more closely. You prefer a one-on-one meeting with this guy, so you can have your questions answered privately.
Now if you really were Nicodemus, how would you make that happen?
Trying to get him alone during the day is going to be a problem:
- He is constantly surrounded by followers, and besides, you really don’t want your colleagues to see you with him. That could lead to all sorts of problems you don’t want at this point!
- He isn’t scheduling office appointments.
- There doesn’t seem to be a way to manufacture a ‘chance’ meeting out on the street.
- The cover of darkness may be the best way to accomplish your goal.
Although we don’t know exactly how Nicodemus arranged that meeting with Jesus, we know he did. And it was life changing for him.
Nicodemus begins his meeting with Jesus by addressing him with a title of honor (Rabbi) and acknowledging his divine miracles.
Interestingly, he uses the phrase ‘we’ know…. This indicates that Jesus was a subject of discussion between himself and the other religious leaders (no doubt the entire Sanhedrin). While many of the leaders had already rejected Jesus, there was a group who felt differently.
Their conclusion was that Jesus had been sent to Israel from God. This conclusion was based on the undeniable miracles that Jesus has exhibited. These men correctly reasoned that miracles only come from God. And because God would not work a miracle to confirm a falsehood or support a false teacher, Jesus and his message/teaching were approved of God. In essence, the miracles are credentials from heaven.
Miracles serve a secondary purpose as well – they prepare the mind and heart for faith, which is what we see happening here in the heart of Nicodemus. Have you ever seen or experienced a miracle? Did it increase the faith of you or those around you?
There are some denominations that teach miracles are not for today, but they are wrong. God continues to work miracles in our age; there are countless proofs of it. Rather than trying to deny them as many of the Pharisees did, we should be looking for an increase in the miraculous. God is planning an astonishing end time harvest of souls for his kingdom and he is going to pour out signs and wonders to confirm his message.
John 3:3 – Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
There does not seem to be any apparent connection between the words of Nicodemus and the reply of Jesus. We can only conclude that John omits part of the conversation. However, we can be confident that the content of John’s gospel was inspired by Holy Spirit; this narrative contains the exact information He wants us to have.
Truly, truly: Jesus begins his statement with the phrase ‘truly, truly’ (your version may say ‘verily, verily’). This is an expression of strong affirmation which denotes both the certainty and importance of what is being said.
Unless one: In this case, the King James Version might be a little clearer. It says ‘unless a man’. This is a universal form of expression designed to include each and every individual member of the human race. You (and you alone) must make the choice for or against Christ for yourself. Your grandma or your minister or your friend can’t decide for you. Clearly, Jesus intended to convey this same idea to Nicodemus – he himself must choose to be born again.
This was probably a startling revelation to Nicodemus. It was not enough to be a Jew, or a teacher of the law, or a man of rank. Acknowledging that Jesus was sent from God was not sufficient either. The only way into the kingdom of heaven is to experience spiritual rebirth.
Born again: Let’s begin by noting that the original Greek word translated ‘again’ also means ‘from above’.
The Jews had a general idea of the concept of new birth. The entire nation believed that they had a place in the kingdom of God because they were born as physical descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9). If a Gentile wanted to become a proselyte, the Jews required adherence to the law (circumcision, etc) and baptism. Once the candidate was baptized in water, they considered him like a child new born into the Jewish nation; they believed he now had a place in the kingdom of God.
This baptism of ‘new birth’ was done with earthly water (from below). But Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus that new birth cannot come through external washings, religious professions or circumcision of the flesh. It must come from above by the work of Holy Spirit; it requires circumcision of the heart. In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, every person will must undergo two births – an earthly, physical one involving his body and a heavenly, spiritual one involving his soul.
The analogy of birth is an easy one for us to understand.
In the physical realm, a child must be born in the flesh before he can experience all of the joys and wonders of this life. Likewise, a person must be spiritually born before they can enter into the joys and wonders of the kingdom of heaven.
Just as a child is born physically immature and develops over time, each one of us is born spiritually immature. Over time we are sanctified; we mature in holiness and countless other spiritual graces through prayer, spiritual discipline and faith.
Kingdom of God: The kingdom of God should not be understood as referring to heaven, although heaven is an eventual part of it. The kingdom of God refers to a state of reconciliation/relationship with God. Only reconciliation with Him will produce spiritual life.
John 3:4 – 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?”
We must understand the response of Nicodemus in light of what we have already mentioned.
The Jews were familiar with the concept of being ‘born anew’. But they understood it exclusively in terms of a Gentile becoming a Jewish proselyte through baptism. In their eyes it signified a change from being a heathen to being a Jew.
Consequently, no Jew would EVER apply that concept to another Jew, because in their minds they were already a part of God’s kingdom because they were born Jewish in the flesh. All Jews, including Nicodemus, believed that as Jews they were already children of God and entitled to all the privileges that included. When Jesus plainly and emphatically states that EVERY man must be ‘born again’ (even Jews) Nicodemus cannot reconcile the teaching of Jesus with his doctrine.
So he answers Jesus according to the typical method of Rabbinic dialog – he carries out the meaning of Jesus’ statement to its logical conclusion, in order to prove how absurd or impossible it is. In this way, he seeks to draw out the true meaning of the words of Jesus. (Again, this was a typical method of communication among the teachers of the law.)
We could accurately paraphrase it this way: ‘You cannot mean that a person is required to enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born yet again, because that is impossible! So what do you mean?’
John 3:5 – Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The response of Jesus has been interpreted different ways.
The most common understanding is that ‘water’ refers to baptism and ‘Spirit’ obviously refers to the person of the Godhead who is the agent of conviction and repentance; it is Holy Spirit who transforms the mind and heart of a sinner from death to life.
Those who agree with this interpretation believe that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that in order to have a right relationship with God (enter the kingdom of heaven), he must be changed/renewed by Holy Spirit. Once that change has taken place, he must be baptized in water as the outward sign of the change that has taken place in his soul.
Now, we want to be careful with this interpretation. While it does credit Holy Spirit with the work of saving the sinner, it may give the act of baptism undue importance.
There can be no doubt that Jesus prescribes baptism as an ordinance of the church. There can be no doubt that those who wish to show obedience to Christ should be baptized. But I think we need to be careful in asserting that water baptism is required for salvation.
Salvation is a free gift of God, not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no ‘work’ or action (including water baptism) that must be added to the work of Holy Spirit in order to produce salvation/new life. Consider the case of the thief on the cross. Holy Spirit convicted him of sin, and he repented. He was never baptized in water, yet Jesus assures him that he has entered into the kingdom of God and that very day he will inherit heaven. So again, we want to exercise caution with this interpretation.
There is a less widely embraced interpretation that we should also consider. It says that the words ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ refer to the same thing – the Holy Spirit and his work (John 7:38-39). It is a metaphorical way of speaking which was designed to help Nicodemus make the connection between baptism and salvation.
It could be paraphrased this way: ‘No man is a son of God until he has been renewed by water, that is, by the Holy Spirit who washes away his iniquity and makes him a new spiritually reborn child of the kingdom’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Therefore, by ‘water’ Jesus simply means the inward purification of the soul which is produced by Holy Spirit during salvation. This interpretation alleviates any hint that water baptism is a necessary component for salvation.
Titus 3:5 – Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit;
This is consistent with the testimony and work of John the Baptist. He paved the way for Christ by advocating repentance through water baptism.
Matthew 3:3 – For this is he [John the Baptist] that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare you the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
What was John preparing the way for? He was preparing the hearts and minds of the people to embrace/admit Holy Spirit into their lives to work salvation in their hearts/spirits (Matthew 3:11).
John 3:6 – “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Jesus goes on to point out an underlying principle of the earth: Like begets/produces like.
Genesis 1:21 – And God created great sea creatures, and every living thing that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after its kind: and God saw that it was good.
(See also Genesis 1:12, 1:25). In the book of Genesis we see that God created the earth in such a way that living things always reproduce living things of the same kind. If a dog has offspring, they will be dogs/puppies. If a bird lays eggs, they hatch to reveal more birds, not dinosaurs or snakes. Likewise, when apple trees reproduce, you get more apple trees. When you plant cucumber seeds in your garden, you expect cucumber plants to sprout up and grow. This same principle is true of man. When you and your spouse reproduce, you have a baby – a new human being.
This principle is true in the spiritual sense as well. When Adam fell, sin entered into the human race, and every offspring since then (except Christ because he is the Son of God/Holy Spirit) has been born into sin (see Romans 5):
Romans 5:12 – Therefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:
The conclusion is that when man reproduces, his offspring is ‘fleshly’ or spiritually fallen. So even if Nicodemus could enter back into his mother’s womb and be birthed a second time, nothing would be changed. He would still be utterly and completely cut off from God and spiritual life.
Likewise, the man or woman who is spiritually reborn of Holy Spirit is made a partaker of the divine nature of Christ. He or she is then eligible to be a part of the kingdom of heaven.
2 Peter 1:4 – By which are given unto us exceedingly great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
Jesus is showing Nicodemus that entrance into the kingdom of heaven cannot be produced by any physical means.
Entrance to the kingdom requires radical change to the soul, which can only be wrought by Holy Spirit. Of course, that change then manifests itself in the natural realm.
John 3:7 – “Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again’.”
Keep in mind that Nicodemus is just now seeing religion as something that emanates from his spirit, not his flesh. His training has taught him to believe in physical birth through the line of Abraham, physical rites of purification, physical practice of the law, a Messiah who would set up a physical kingdom on earth, etc.
Christ’s way of looking at religion clearly perplexed him, and caused him to marvel! Isn’t it wonderful that later on, after meditating on these ideas, Nicodemus believed in Jesus and experienced spiritual rebirth by Holy Spirit for himself? Perhaps one day, when we run across him in heaven, we can ask him about this conversation!
John 3:8 – “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.”
Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he should not be surprised if there were things about spiritual rebirth that he did not understand or could not fully explain. There are many instances of this dilemma in the natural realm. As an example, Jesus mentions the wind.
We cannot see or control the wind. We don’t understand where it comes from or why it chooses to go one direction or another. But just because you can’t explain it is no reason to doubt or disbelieve it. After all, we can see clear and definite evidence of the wind. We can hear the sound of it. We can feel it on our skin. We can see the way it affects the objects it touches. We can even harness it for power.
Ecclesiastes 11:5 – As you know not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so you know not the works of God who makes all.
In the same way, we cannot understand or control the way in which Holy Spirit produces new birth in the heart of a person. But we know when he has given someone new birth by the effects that are produced. Sinful men become holy, the rebellious become meek, the tough become tender, etc.
Just because Nicodemus can’t explain the workings of Holy Spirit in creating new life is no reason to doubt or disbelieve it.
John 3:9 – Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Nicodemus has acknowledged Jesus as a divine teacher, yet he was unwilling to receive his teachings when they were inconsistent with his own beliefs/doctrines. But before we condemn Nicodemus, we should examine our own lives.
Do we believe in ‘speaking in tongues’ or the gift of a heavenly prayer language from Holy Spirit? Many in the church today do not, though it is plainly taught in scripture and routinely exercised by many in the body of Christ.
Do we believe in the other gifts of Holy Spirit such as words of knowledge, words of wisdom or discerning of spirits? Or do we choose to reject the operation of these gifts because we don’t fully understand them, even though we can see the Spirit move through them?
What are your beliefs regarding worship? I am just going to be honest with you… some of you think you have worship all figured out. You think you are on the cutting edge of what God is doing in worship, but let me tell you this – don’t get comfortable. Don’t get set in your ways. God is always doing something new and unless you move with him, you will wind up an old wine skin!
What is your definition of church? Must it occur on Sunday morning in a specific building with a preset agenda and a time limit? Or are you willing to follow the Spirit of the Lord if he leads you in a new direction?
If you want God to do something new in your life, you need to be willing to follow the Spirit even if you don’t fully understand what he is doing.
John 3:10 – Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”
This is a significant and stern rebuke from Jesus. Despite the undeniable arguments of Jesus, Nicodemus persists in unbelief and doubt.
We know the Pharisees were famous for zealously adhering to the minute portions of the law, like tithing the herbs in their garden, measuring the exact length of the fringes on their garments or washing their hands at every turn. Yet they neglected the truly important parts of the law (Matthew 23:23-25).
It seems that Nicodemus is guilty of this as well. He has claimed the title of teacher of Israel. He has taken it upon himself to instruct his fellow man in the truths of the scripture, yet shockingly, he himself has absolutely no clue as to the doctrine of regeneration, even though it appears extensively in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31-33, Jeremiah 32:38-40, Ezekiel 11:19-20, Ezekiel 18:31, Psalms 51:10, Deuteronomy 30:6 etc). Jesus rebukes him for this ignorance.
John 3:11 – “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.”
Again we come across the phrase ‘truly, truly’ which indicates that what Jesus is about to say is both certain and important.
He then declares ‘We speak of what we know’. The first question that arises is this: Who does ‘we’ refer to? Many answers have been given:
- Jesus means himself and his disciples; those who have already believed in his doctrine.
- Jesus is referring to himself and John the Baptist.
- Jesus is referring to himself in connection with all the prophets of God.
- Jesus is referring to the Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- Jesus is referring only to himself, but using the pleural word ‘we’ in contrast to the opening words of Nicodemus. There are other times in the scriptures when Jesus refers to himself in the pleural form (Mark 4:30). In the next verse, he reverts back to using the singular form ‘I’.
We speak of what we know: Regardless of which definition of ‘we’ seems best to you, the overall meaning of the phrase ‘we speak of what we know’ is clear. Jesus is saying that he fully understands his doctrine and message. He has an intellectual, spiritual and practical understanding of the gospel.
Those who are a part of his kingdom also understand the gospel, because they have experienced it.
We bear witness to what we have seen: Obviously, Jesus knew all about the Spirit and his work of regeneration in the hearts of men. This was always plainly visible/evident to him.
While those who truly follow Jesus are unable to see the Spirit, they have seen the effects of the Spirit – they have seen sinful men repent and go on to live holy lives. Therefore Jesus (and those in his kingdom) can testify from first-hand experience to the rebirth brought about by Holy Spirit in the lives of men and women. Everyone in the kingdom of heaven is a witness to the saving power of the gospel.
This is in contrast to the Pharisees, who fill the office of teacher, but do not even understand the basic principles of true religion.
You do not receive our testimony: The gospel message was changing the hearts and lives of people. The preaching of the word was accompanied by miraculous signs and wonders. All around there was proof of the truth of the gospel, yet the Pharisees (and other religious leaders) rejected this evidence.
John 3:12 – “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Jesus illustrated the spiritual concept of regeneration/new birth by a metaphor taken from earthly things. Yet, Nicodemus still refuses to accept and understand the truth that Jesus is teaching him.
Jesus now rebukes Nicodemus again – if he cannot or will not believe concepts that have an earthly parallel, how can he understand things that have no counterpart in this life?
How can he understand things pertaining to the government and plans of God? Or the workings of angels? Or the mysteries of Christ’s priestly intercession? Or the experiences of those pass from this life? Or any one of a million other things about God that we don’t know or understand?
Let me offer you some encouragement:
Nicodemus was NOT rebuked by Jesus because he didn’t know everything. He was rebuked because he refused to accept the obvious truth of the gospel when it didn’t line up with his beliefs.
Are you clinging to some religious beliefs that have no root in scripture? Are you accepting certain things or holding certain beliefs because our culture says they are true, even when the Bible says they are not?
If so, I encourage you to make a change and take a stand for biblical truth.
Let me offer you some relief:
No one starts out as an expert in spiritual matters. Whether Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, or his disciples or the crowds at Jerusalem, he meets people at their level, then seeks to elevate their understanding of his kingdom.
The key is to walk in the understanding that you have; as you do so, God will bless you with greater spiritual wisdom and insight.
Let me offer you some strength:
Many Christians are afraid to teach Sunday School or share their faith with others, because they don’t consider themselves to be knowledgeable Christians. But I want to challenge that belief.
If you have experienced salvation, then you are qualified to share your testimony with others! All you really need is some boldness and strength. The early believers prayed and asked God to grant them boldness – and he did! Why don’t you join with me in praying that same prayer?
Acts 4:29-31 – And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto your servants, that with all boldness they may speak your word, by stretching forth your hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of your holy child Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.