Verse 1: Nicodemus – Very little is known about Nicodemus because there is little about him in the Gospel accounts. There is some controversy over whether he is actually a real Pharisee or whether he was a symbolic figure representing a Jewish leader at the time of John’s writing who was struggling with his faith. I don’t think there is enough evidence to support him being symbolic so we will just assume that what the Bible says the Bible means. Nicodemus was an actual Pharisee who was a member of the Sanhedrin and he comes to Jesus at night to dialog with Him.
Verse 2: We are unsure what his motive was in talking to Jesus since he actually never gets to ask Him anything. He did come to Jesus in the undercover of the night probably because as a respected Jewish leader he didn’t want others to know he was going to Jesus to learn from him or even be associated with him. We can assume at this time that Jesus hadn’t made enough enemies with the Jewish leaders since he was still at the beginning of his public ministry… So there is a possibility that coming to Jesus at night was not because of fear of what others may think Some have suggested he went in the evening because this was the time Rabbi’s and teachers studied and others have suggested the night time was symbolic of his spiritual state. He may have come at night because he was living in spiritual darkness and wanted to inquire of the light.
Nicodemus says, “We know you are a teacher who has come from God…” Some believe the “we” implies that he came with a group of leaders or that it could be the general consensus among the leaders that he was a teacher who had the hand of God in his life and ministry. Nicodemus was acknowledging that Jesus was certainly a man with God’s hand on his ministry because of the miracles and wonders (plural) he saw Jesus perform. The rulers knew there was something special about Jesus but they certainly were not proclaiming that Jesus was a prophet, THE Prophet or even the Messiah. Regardless the Jewish leader(s) knew there was something unique about Jesus and I am sure Nicodemus wanted to talk to Him about this.
Verse 3: Before Nicodemus can even ask a question Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter (quite possibly because he knew Nicodemus’ motive, inquiry or just needed to tell him the truth right up front). Jesus says, “Unless a person is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
In Jesus’ statement there are two items we need to look at in order to get a grasp on what is being said and what is implied by Nicodemus…“Born again” and “Kingdom of God”.
Kingdom of God
This term only exists in the New Testament and much of the Old Testament points to the reality and anticipation of the Kingdom of God. In the OT the implication of the Kingdom of God was a future day when God is the sovereign ruler of all nations and over all of creation. The prophets longed for the day when God would physically bring peace to the nations of Israel and Judah (They would be one again) and justice, peace and mercy would spill over to all nations and over all of creation.
“Seeing the kingdom’ seems to be equivalent to the more familiar expression in (the Gospel of) John of eternal life. It is the central message of Jesus Christ in NT. It is mentioned twice in John (3:3,5 & 18:36) and is defined as the rule, reign and sovereignty of God over all. Since the Kingdom is equivalent to eternal life and the future reign of God as sovereign king. At the time of this writing Jews and Christians lived under Roman rule and the Apostle Paul, Peter and Jesus all say that the world is in the grasps of the evil one (often times Rome was considered all that is evil and other times the devil). This does not mean that God is not the true ruler of the world it just means the world is in bondage to Satan and evil because of sin and the fall of humanity. We continue to live in a sinful world where it seems as though evil is running rampant and Satan seems to be the god of the world. This is a false perception in part because God is sovereign (Supreme Rule) today and his Kingdom has already begun on earth through us (those who believe in Jesus and are obedient to His call). This Kingdom was inaugurated in the person, works and message of Jesus Christ. Eternal life starts now thus God’s Kingdom is now. This however, does not negate the reality that there will also be a future day when Jesus physically returns to set up His Kingdom here on earth and rule and reign sovereignly over all nations and creation.
On the other hand one cannot see, enter or even be a part of this Kingdom unless one is born again. This term is just as confusing to some today as it was to Nicodemus back then. Some may even respond as Nicodemus does… “Can one be born a second time? One certainly cannot enter the womb (as a grown adult) and be reborn!”
There are two interpretations to Nicodemus’ response…
- He was confused and could not understand how a second physical birth was even possible. He couldn’t even grasp how or why there was a necessity of a second birth in order to see the kingdom. What Jesus was saying was inconceivable
- He knew precisely what Jesus was saying concerning being born again. Nicodemus could not understand how a person who has lived a full life according the laws and Jewish scriptures could
a) not go to heaven
b) unlearn and accept this new way (rebirth, transformation of the heart) of entering the Kingdom.
To him it was nearly impossible to give up all he was trained for and taught in a lifetime and re-learn the “new” way into the Kingdom. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. Can one truly throw away a lifetime of devotion and start fresh and new?
These are hard words to swallow and digest. Jesus was saying you must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God. It wasn’t about keeping, enforcing and living the law; it was about being re-born (or as the Greek states, “Born from above). Rebirth means being born of God, transformation… a new heart and becoming a new creation.
Verses 5- 6: Jesus expands on this, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Some interpret the water to equal baptism… that one needs be baptized in order to enter the Kingdom but this is not likely what Jesus means.
The most probable interpretation is Jesus is talking about the new birth that cleanses and renews. Water is often symbolic of washing and refreshing. One needs individual regeneration (rebirth, renewal) where the person is cleansed from sin, and the heart is transformed (becoming a new creation). Regeneration does not mean that we become better versions of ourselves it means that we become a new versions of ourselves in Christ. In short Jesus says, unless one is cleansed from sin (through confession and repentance) and reborn in the Spirit of God (faith in Christ and becoming a new creation) one cannot enter or see the Kingdom of God.
Verses 7: “Do not marvel…” Jesus’ words are clear you (the you is actually plural which properly interpreted is ‘you all’) MUST be born again. This is the central message of Jesus in this passage and it is certainly a central message for us today.
Verse 8: The point of this verse is the wind cannot be controlled nor understood where it will go by human beings. We have no control whatsoever over the wind. We do know it exists because we can feel the effects of it but we cannot determine or make it go where it goes. It just goes. So it is with the Spirit of God. We cannot control him nor can we fully comprehend Him… However we know the Spirit works by seeing the effects of His work. When you see a transformed person you are seeing the direct working of the Holy Spirit. I think Jesus is saying is the person who is born again (in the Spirit) cannot be controlled by nor understood by unbelievers (those who have only been born once. We are in the sovereign hands of God.
The application for today’s passage is crystal clear for anyone who reads it. In order for anyone to have access to the Kingdom of God (eternal life) you must be born again. There must be a transformation of the heart and a cleansing of sin and iniquity. You have to become a new creation in Christ, not just a better version of your old self. A Spirit-filled believer in Christ acknowledges the sovereignty of God in his life and anticipates the future day when God will establish his Kingdom of peace, justice and mercy here on earth and we will be partakers in this Kingdom.
The challenge for today is simple… Ask yourself… Are you born again? Have you been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ? Have you had a transformed heart and become a new creation in Christ? Does God have complete (not just some) but complete rule and reign in your life? Have you experienced the new (second) birth in Christ? I pray you are and you have to all the statements above. This is the central message of Jesus Christ and it is available to all of us today. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand… Are you part of this Kingdom?
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jn 3:1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.