Understanding John 3:1-21
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.”
3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
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?”
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? 11 Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
The Pharisees as a whole despised Jesus. Many of them were driven by jealousy because of the authority and power that Jesus walked with. Wherever Jesus went He performed signs, wonders, and miracles. Everything Jesus did drew people to Him. It opened the door for the gospel to be proclaimed into the hearts of people. The Pharisees were hardened by their pride and legalism. They simply viewed Jesus as the son of a carpenter. They failed to see Him as He truly is. What determines the eternity of a person is simply who they say Jesus is. Salvation is not based on performance or behavior. It is based on faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. But not all the Pharisees despised Jesus. Nicodemus was clearly being drawn by the Holy Spirit to Jesus. But because of his position and the hatred the Pharisees had for Jesus, Nicodemus met Jesus at night. We are told that he was a ruler of the Jews, which means he was part of the Sanhedrian which means that he had great authority and influence with the people. Some believe his meeting with Jesus at night was because of fear of what others may think. That may have been part of it. But I believe he desired to meet with Jesus during a time when they could have an uninterrupted meeting and he could truly question and examine Jesus for who He is. When a person is being drawn by the Holy Spirit towards salvation their curiosity and desire to know Jesus will increase.
Nicodemus called Jesus Rabbi and made the statement “you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him”. The purpose of John’s gospel is for all who would read his gospel would come to believe. Signs are a major part of John’s gospel for they reveal the full deity of who Christ is. Nicodemus could not discredit God’s hand upon Jesus because no one did the things Jesus did. No matter how much the Pharisees tried to discredit the authority Jesus had, they could not trip Him up by their questions or discount the power He walked with. They would accuse Him of doing the things He did by the power of demons but clearly this was not the opinion or attitude of Nicodemus.
This phrase translated in the english born again would be better translated born from above. Jesus speaks of a spiritual rebirth that for anyone to see the kingdom of God they must be born from above. When we are born into this world we are born into sin because of Adam and Eve. Every person is mired in sin and because of that sin is separated from God. What keeps us from entering into heaven is our sin. But God has provided a way for people to enter the kingdom of Heaven. This statement by Jesus would have shaken Nicodemus. The Jews believed that entrance into God’s kingdom was solely based on whether a person was a Jew. They believed because they were God’s covenant people that being born a Jew made them able to enter into God’s kingdom.
But we see from the Genesis account that because of the faith of Abraham, righteousness was accredited to him. Salvation has always been based on faith alone. There were many Jews throughout the history of Israel who lived in rebellion and rejected the Lord and His ways. But this statement by Jesus shows us that the way of salvation has been made available to all people and not simply the Jews. Our entrance into God’s kingdom is not based on performance or behavior. It is based solely on our faith in Jesus Christ. This is the mechanism by which a person is born from above. Our initial faith in Christ begins a journey with the Lord that continues over a person’s lifetime.
Nicodemus became fixed on the statement that a man must be born again. He was blinded to the spiritual truth Jesus was speaking to him. The only way a person can come to understand spiritual truth is if the Holy Spirit reveals to them the truth. Nicodemus couldn’t understand how a person could return to the womb of their mother a second time. But Jesus spoke of spiritual rebirth. Being born from above. Being born of the Kingdom. For through faith in Christ our sins are washed away, our spirits are reborn and we are reconciled in our relationship with God the Father. The only way any of us can truly enter into the kingdom of Heaven is faith in Christ alone. He has paid the price for our salvation. Through His precious blood we are redeemed.
Verse five has divided many who have studied scripture and commentated on it. Some take water and the spirit to mean physical birth and spiritual birth. Some take water and the spirit to point to the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. But in this case it is to elevate water baptism as a requirement of salvation and we know from scripture that salvation takes place by placing one’s faith in Jesus Christ. Why this is important is because scripture tells us those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). If a person is in the last moments of their life on earth and cries out to Jesus but doesn’t have time to be water baptized, that individual is still saved.
But many commentators believe the phrase water and the spirit speak of the same thing. It is in place of the phrase born again or born from above. For it is the Spirit who gives us new birth through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the Spirit who washes us and cleanses us. What I truly believe is important in Jesus statement in verse five is showing us once again the importance of entrance into God’s kingdom is based on being born again. It is not based on our race or gender. It is not based on behavior, performance, or the family we are born into. When we are presented with the truth of who Jesus is, what truly matters is who we say Jesus is. This is what truly matters when it comes to where we will spend all eternity.
Here Jesus says that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Jesus is confronting the question Nicodemus asked about reentering the womb of one’s mother. Spiritual rebirth is very different from physical birth. We are born into this world and we are born into sin. We are separated from Almighty God because of the sin of Adam and Eve. The sin nature is passed through the seed of Adam. But through faith in Jesus Christ we are reborn spiritually. Our sins are forgiven and now we have access to the throne of grace with confidence. Because of Jesus we are able to walk with God intimately. There is no longer any separation.
Jesus states very clearly: you must be born again. Jesus tells Nicodemus not to marvel at what He just said. As a man who was born Jewish, he believed his status of a jew made his standing with God right and better than a gentile. But here Jesus has proclaimed the truth of the kingdom. For a person to enter into the kingdom of God they must be born again. They must be born from above. They must go through a spiritual rebirth. It is not based on works, performance, behavior, gender, race, or background. It is based solely on what Christ has done and faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation is a gift and therefore it is to be received. Our receiving the gift of salvation and placing our faith in Christ begins a journey of walking with Jesus each day and seeing our lives transformed. Faith without works is indeed dead. Not that works earn our salvation, but that works are an outward sign that an inward change and transaction has truly taken place. Faith is meant to be lived out on a daily basis. Every decision we make once we are in Christ is solely dependent on our relationship with Jesus and how our decisions will impact that decision.
Jesus uses the example of the wind to give Nicodemus a greater understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person when they come to saving faith. God has revealed Himself through His creation and there is much we can learn and understand from simply viewing creation. Jesus says “you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it goes”. When we examine the wind we can see the effects of the wind, but we can’t actually see the wind. When you view the power of a hurricane, you can’t necessarily see the wind, but you see everything the wind touches. This is why the fruit of the Spirit is so important in the life of a true believer in Jesus. We can’t necessarily see the person of the Holy Spirit moving and working, but we can see the effect the Holy Spirit has on that person. We are transformed from the inside out and no matter who Jesus begins with, if that person will yield and surrender their life to the work and person of the Holy Spirit, they will be transformed and begin to reflect the very character and nature of Christ in all that they do.
Nicodemus asks the question “how can this be”. He can’t wrap his head around what Jesus is talking about. Jesus now rebukes him with the statement “are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things”. Nicodemus was a pharisee, he was part of the sanhedrin. His role in the nation of Israel was to instruct the people on God’s word. Jesus didn’t speak of something that was foreign to what the prophets already had said in the Old Testament concerning the coming new birth and work of the Spirit (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:25–27; 37; Joel 2:28–29). But as the teacher of Israel it was important that Nicodemus understand this truth to properly instruct the people. But we understand that until a person has the Spirit of God living inside them, they can’t rightly understand truth. Jesus always confronted people with truth and it either caused them to draw near to Jesus for greater understanding or become offended and turn away from Jesus. Jesus is truly full of love, grace, and mercy. But truth is essential when it comes to Jesus because He is the way, the truth, and the life.
Jesus says “we speak what we know and testify what we have seen”. Here we see that Jesus uses the word we. Most likely Jesus included Himself in the prophets of old who were continually sent to the nation of Israel, but time and time again the people rejected the truth. Here Jesus is speaking the truth to Nicodemus and Nicodemus cannot at this time fully understand what Christ is speaking. When confronted with the truth of who Jesus is we will either draw near to know more or we will flee because we reject Him. Truth is the greatest tool Jesus used to separate those who truly were given to God and chosen by Him and those who were not. We may claim we love Jesus and follow Him when we hear about how much He loves us, but the rubber meets the road when we find out we must deny ourselves and pick up our cross.
Jesus had spoken of the work of the Spirit like the wind. Jesus had spoken of the need for being born again. If Nicodemus rejected this and failed to believe this truth there was no way that He could come to understand Heavenly things that Jesus would continue to teach. Salvation comes as a result of revelation from Almighty God. It is God who enables us to believe and come to repentance. It is the Holy Spirit who reveals to us the depths of our sin and our need for a savior. But lest we think that salvation is solely based upon God, it requires for us to respond in our freewill to Almighty God. To respond to the revelation we receive. Knowledge will never save us. Studying the bible will never save us. What truly saves us is the Holy Spirit revealing who Christ truly is. Knowledge and the study of God’s word is important, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual that is of the utmost importance. Nicodemus had not come yet to rightly understand because the Spirit of God had not yet revealed it to Him.
Jesus says no one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from Heaven. Jesus spoke from a place of authority because He is the Son of God. He left His home in Heaven with the Father and came to this earth. He emptied Himself and became a servant. He was born to two people living in poverty. He was the Son of Mary and Joseph on the earth and the religious leaders did not feel He was qualified or had the authority to teach and do the things He did. But in this conversation with Nicodemus He is continually showing Nicodemus that He is not speaking of another physical birth but He is speaking of a Heavenly birth. For through faith in Christ we come to the place of salvation receiving what Christ has done, having our sin removed, and being restored to right relationship with the Father.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Whenever John speaks of lifting up, he is referring to the crucifixion of Jesus. For it was upon the cross that Jesus both took the sin of the world upon Himself and He was glorified by the Father. Just as in the account in Numbers 21:6-9 where Moses placed a serpent on a pole and when the people looked to it they were saved and delivered from physical death. Jesus was crucified upon the cross and all who look to Him are saved. The people of Moses day had a rebellious attitude against the Lord as they wandered in the desert, for their attitude and sinfulness the Lord sent forth a plague of fiery serpents. But Moses interceded before the Lord for the people and the Lord provided a way of salvation even though the people did not deserve it.
Just as God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, the Lord has provided His Son. Born of a virgin into this world, lived a life without sin, simply loved all and displayed the grace and mercy of God. But He was rejected, He was hated, He went to the cross not because we deserve it, but because of the Father’s love for us. None of us deserve salvation. But just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness and all those who looked upon the snake were saved, The Father has sent His Son, lifted Him up on the cross and all who look to Jesus as Lord and Savior will be saved.
The purpose of John’s gospel is that those who would read it would come to believe and come to salvation (John 20:31). Here in verse fifteen John writes whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. John in the previous verse spoke of how Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness and the Israelites were saved. The word believe here in the Greek means to believe, trust, or entrust. It is not simply mental assent but it is placing one’s trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is understanding that we are a sinner in need of salvation and that salvation can only be found in Jesus Christ. Many today reject Jesus Christ because they love this world and their sinful lifestyle more than they love or want Jesus. God has not made salvation complicated nor has God based it upon works. He has based it upon faith alone in Jesus Christ. Upon the cross Jesus paid our price in full. His final words were it is finished. He fulfilled all that the Father required. He suffered and died for us. It was not the nails that held Him to the cross, it was His love for us. He was not forced to go to the cross nor forced to give up His life. Three times He prayed “Father if this cup can be taken from me, not my will but yours be done”. If we ever doubt how much God truly loves us all we need to do is look to Jesus and what He has done for us.
Verse sixteen is one of the most well known verses in all of scripture. For God so loved the world. The word love means a deep level of affection or intimacy. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. God did not have to send His Son Jesus to this earth to die for the sins of humanity. Nothing within us deserves salvation. The heart of man is inherently wicked. People left to themselves will destroy themselves. God understands this more than anyone. But this is why He has offered His Son. He has sent His Son because of His love for humanity. He has created us in His image and His desire is that we would receive the precious gift of salvation found in Jesus.
The mechanism by which God has made salvation possible is faith. It speaks of those who believe will not perish but have everlasting life. That word perish means to destroy. Everlasting life begins the moment a person comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ. It is not a life that begins after death. Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly. To know God Almighty intimately and be able to approach the throne of grace with confidence is what eternal life is all about. It is our sin that separates us from Almighty God, but through the blood of Jesus our sin is dealt with.
In this life people really have two choices when it comes to Jesus. Either receive what Christ has done and begins to walk with Him and surrender one’s life to Him and the result is eternal life. Or reject what Christ has done and continue to live in darkness and be forever separated from Almighty God. For entrance into God’s kingdom is based on one thing alone and it is the answer to this question: what did we do with one called Jesus? For all those who know Him personally they know there is no greater love, no greater joy, no greater restoration, no greater forgiveness than knowing Jesus. Many in our world are broken and in darkness because they simply don’t know Jesus.
The world before Jesus came was already condemned. It is mired in sin. God did not send His Son to condemn the world. The first time Jesus stepped into creation, it was for the sole purpose of giving His life that all those who would believe would be saved. God’s desire is that none would perish but all would come to everlasting life. God does not take pleasure in the destruction of wicked people. The more time we spend with the Lord in His presence through prayer and the study of God’s word, the more we will become like Him. His love will consume us and we will find ourselves seeing the world, thinking, and speaking as God would. The journey of Christianity is one of transformation and change on a daily basis. But it is important to see that God sent His Son to save the world. There will come a day when Jesus will judge all and those who have rejected Him will be condemned to suffer for all eternity. But God in His mercy has provided a way for all people to receive the precious gift Jesus has provided. Sadly what sends a person to Hell is not God, it is their choice to reject what Jesus has done, see no need for a savior, and therefore have no hope for the sin that infects their life, destroys them and separates them from Almighty God.
The importance of Jesus cannot be overstated. In verse eighteen it makes it very clear that those who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior are not condemned and will enter into the kingdom of Heaven. But those who fail to believe and receive the gift of salvation that Jesus has are condemned and will face the judgement of Almighty God. Our ability to enter into Heaven or not is based solely on what we do with Jesus. Jesus is the only begotten of the Father. There is no one else like Jesus. He lived a life without sin so that when He went to the cross all the sins of humanity could be placed upon Him. To reject such a precious salvation is to our detriment. God presents the gospel to people through our lives and it shows us the importance of being responsible and faithful to carry that message.
Why would people reject so precious a salvation found in Jesus? God has done all the work. God sent His only Son to come to this earth, to suffer, and die in our place. To take the wrath that we deserve. Why would anyone reject such a precious salvation? Here John gives us the answer. People reject the light because they love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. People don’t reject Jesus based on intellectual grounds. They may argue against the truth of the bible and say it is simply fairy tales written by men. But the true issue, the root of it all is their love of darkness and sin. They don’t want to be accountable for their actions. They don’t want to answer to anyone for their choices. They desire to be their own god instead of coming into the light, having their life and deeds exposed, and confessing that indeed there is a God and they are accountable to Him. People reject the light and truth of Jesus Christ because they love darkness. Jesus says that He is the light of the world. Throughout the gospel of John there is a contrast between light and darkness. In coming to Christ we must come to repentance in which we turn from the things of darkness and turn fully to the things of God and base our life and every decision upon truth.
The word practice in verse twenty means perform repeatedly or habitually. It is the picture of living continually in sin. John writes everyone who practices evil hates the light. A person’s actions will reveal the true condition of that person’s heart. Someone can claim that they love Jesus with their mouth, but if they are living in habitual sin in which it is their lifestyle then the truth is they don’t love Jesus, they love the idea of Jesus as Savior, but they don’t embrace the truth of Jesus as Lord.
People run from Jesus because they don’t want their deeds exposed. We live in a culture in which people claim that man is good by nature. This is a deception and lie from the pit of hell. If God is to leave man to his own devices, he will in the end destroy himself. Man by nature is self-centered because of sin. When Adam sinned in the garden, his very nature was changed from being God centered to self-centered. The reason people destroy the lives of others is because they simply stand in the way of what they want. We see this in the halls of leadership in America. Wicked decisions are being made and justified because those in power simply desire absolute power and influence.
Jesus is the light of the world and when a person comes into a relationship with Jesus, everything is exposed. We can no longer remain living in sin. We may try to justify our behavior and actions, but if we truly love Jesus and we belong to Him, we will not be able to resist the conviction and work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will continually reveal things that need to be pruned and if we are truly committed to Christ we will surrender to the work of the Father. We don’t make a decision to serve Jesus because of what He can do for us and that He will simply make us happy. We serve Jesus because we have come to understand our need for a savior and without Him we are eternally lost. No matter what He asks of us, we will lay down because He is Lord and without Him we have nothing.
Those who have come to Christ, will give their lives to Jesus and will do or practice the truth. Coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ means that our lives are built upon the truth of God’s word. God’s word begins to dictate to us how to live. It is not a book of rules to be followed. But within the word of God we find the character and nature of God revealed. Jesus says here “he who does the truth comes to the light”. Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. When a person comes to Jesus they will no longer live in the things of darkness. They will live in the place of light and truth and will be continually changed and transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It is impossible to truly come to Chrst in salvation, begin to follow Him each day, and not be transformed.