3:1 Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish council.
John introduces us to a man named Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, the Jewish sect most devoted to the law and the oral traditions of the rabbis. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was one of the most prominent citizens of his nation, belonging to the Jewish Council of seventy men known as the Sanhedrin. These men governed the Jewish world in all matters both civil and religious. They were responsible for interpreting and enforcing the Law of Moses. They functioned during this time under the authority of the Roman procurator of Judea. From this we know that Nicodemus was a man of considerable influence and wealth, a doctor of the law, a Pharisee, and a rabbi.
3:2 He came to Jesus one night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that God has sent you as a teacher. No one can perform the miracles you perform unless God is with him.”
We don’t know Nicodemus’ reasons for coming to Jesus at night, but there are several possibilities. It is widely assumed that Nicodemus was fearful of incriminations from fellow members of the Sanhedrin. If so, he would have approached Jesus under the cloak of darkness because he had been greatly impressed by the miracles that Jesus performed and wanted to know more about Him. In this case, if Nicodemus’ colleagues discovered his interest in Jesus, it could damage his reputation.
Then again, it is also possible that this was the only time when Jesus was available. Each day, Jesus was busy speaking to the crowds and helping the less fortunate. Nicodemus also had a full schedule of governmental duties. That left little time for him to speak with Jesus privately about some of the personal questions he had.
There is also another possibility. After the rush of the day, it was common for rabbis to sit and discuss the import of the Scriptures. In early rabbinical writings we find comments that would encourage and endorse such study of the law at night. “Whoever studies in the law in the night, the holy blessed God draws a thread of mercy upon him in the day”; and likewise, “every one that studies in the law in the night, the Shekinah is over against him.”
As a rabbi, Nicodemus addressed Jesus with respect, addressing Him also as Rabbi. There was a distinct difference between the two, however. Nicodemus was a man of the law, properly educated in the rabbinical traditions. Jesus, in contrast to his wealthy and prominent counterpart, was from a poor family and not formally educated as a rabbi. Yet, Nicodemus was seeking some answers from Jesus. Why? Because the evidence of God’s power was upon Him! Jesus had done remarkable things, and the crowds, as well as the members of the Sanhedrin, had been watching closely. Nicodemus acknowledged this, addressing Jesus as a “Teacher sent from God.” One thing was certain. Jesus was performing miracles (signs) that no member of the Sanhedrin had ever done.
3:3 Jesus replied to Nicodemus, “I can guarantee this truth: No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Jesus responded to Nicodemus in a cryptic fashion. He did not comment on Nicodemus’ statement regarding His identity. In fact, Jesus raised more questions than He answered. Jesus told Nicodemus something of profound importance: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This was far beyond the bounds of normal rabbinical conversation. In fact, this statement bore no resemblance at all to the Law or the Prophets.
Nicodemus likely came to Jesus in an honest effort to discover who Jesus was. The Jewish people were longing for the arrival of their Messiah. There were prophecies from the Old Testament Scriptures that would reveal His presence. Was this Jesus the Prophet of Moses? Was He Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah? Most important, was He the Messiah? Every Jew earnestly looked to the Scriptures and searched the current events to see if the Promised One had finally arrived. When the Messiah came, the Hebrew people expected deliverance from bondage and the arrival of the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God? Yes! Perhaps Jesus’ answer was not so strange after all. While Nicodemus had approached Jesus with some degree of caution, the questions foremost in his mind were: “Are You the Messiah? Will I now live to see the kingdom of God?” Jesus’ answer only raised further questions for Nicodemus. “You must be born from above!” In this way, Jesus affirmed that a person must be born in God “from above” (John 1:12-13).
3:4 Nicodemus asked him, “How can anyone be born when he’s an old man? He can’t go back inside his mother a second time to be born, can he?”
Nicodemus was astounded. He had never heard such theology. What Jesus proposed sounded preposterous. It was impossible for a man to be born twice. A grown man could never reenter his mother’s womb and be born again.
Obviously, these two rabbis were communicating on two different levels. Nicodemus was at a loss to grasp what Jesus was saying.
3:5 Jesus answered Nicodemus, “I can guarantee this truth: No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.
Jesus acknowledged that a man could not be born twice in the physical sense. Of course, this was ridiculous! But that did not mean that Jesus’ statement was wrong. In fact, quite the opposite.
Earlier in verse three, Jesus simply told Nicodemus that one must be born again or he would not see the kingdom of God. Because Nicodemus understood this statement only in the physical sense, Jesus now attempted to enlighten his understanding. This was not about physical birth, but a birth in which a person’s spirit comes alive and is regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit of God.
What does “born of water” mean? Many theological traditions have gone their separate ways because of this passage. Is water baptism a prerequisite to regeneration? Surely, this is not what Jesus meant! We all know people who have been baptized, yet their lives do not reflect the regenerate soul. We also know of people who have been profoundly affected by the gospel of Jesus Christ and follow Him closely in a committed discipleship, yet have never received the physical baptism of water.
Many of the Jewish customs concerning the washing of the hands and related rituals meant more than the simple removal of dirt. They also symbolized the removal of sin—a washing ritual reflecting the washing of the soul. Thus, in the prophecy of Ezekiel the Lord told His people, “25I will sprinkle clean water on you and make you clean instead of unclean. Then I will cleanse you from all your idols. 26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stubborn hearts and give you obedient hearts. 27I will put my Spirit in you. I will enable you to live by my laws, and you will obey my rules. 28Then you will live in the land that I gave your ancestors. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:25-28) It has always been the intention of the Lord to wash His people in His Spirit in order to cleanse them from their sin. This is further clarified in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to Titus:
4However, when God our Savior made his kindness and love for humanity appear, 5he saved us, but not because of anything we had done to gain his approval. Instead, because of his mercy he saved us through the washing in which the Holy Spirit gives us new birth and renewal. 6God poured a generous amount of the Spirit on us through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7As a result, God in his kindness has given us his approval and we have become heirs who have the confidence that we have everlasting life.” (Titus 3:4-7)
We must indeed be washed in the regenerating work of the Spirit of God, or we will never see the kingdom of God!
3:6 Flesh and blood give birth to flesh and blood, but the Spirit gives birth to things that are spiritual.
Jesus clarified His meaning. We are all born of the flesh. We are created in the image of the eternal God, but thoroughly corrupted by sin. This is our fleshly inheritance. But the Spirit of God performs His work, washing and cleansing and renewing the hearts of those that belong to Him. If one is to see the kingdom of God, he must be the recipient of new birth by the work of the Holy Spirit.
3:7 Don’t be surprised when I tell you that all of you must be born from above.
Simply, Jesus told Nicodemus that he should not be so astonished at this teaching. This doctrine really was not new. It was the familiar message of God’s redeeming and saving work that had been in progress from the beginning. Soon it would be authenticated by Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity’s sins. Today we understand that this good news of spiritual rebirth reflects the truth that each person’s heart can be made new by the work of the Spirit of the living God.
In this private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” A parallel can be seen between Christ’s words in verse three and the following verses from chapter one: “12But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13, NKJV).
These passages draw our attention to important truths about salvation: 1) God is the One Who redeems; and 2) Rebirth has absolutely nothing to do with one’s own merit. There is nothing in these Scriptures to suggest that man has somehow earned God’s favor. In fact, these passages once again allude to the fact that God is always the initiator in saving man.
Nicodemus was the cream of the crop. He was religious, influential, and educated. He was curious about this rabbi, perhaps even fascinated. It is likely that Nicodemus approached Christ for one thing but got something quite different. Maybe, he knew that he needed something but did not know what it was or how to get it, or maybe his inquiring mind just wanted to know more about this extraordinary man. Notwithstanding, Nicodemus sat on the highest council of the Jews and was suppose to know all about religious matters, but despite his religious affiliation, none of the temporal, earthly attainments that he possessed would have granted him adoption into the eternal, spiritual kingdom of God.
Like Nicodemus, when God approaches us through the various channels at His discretion, we may not initially recognize that the Lord and Savior is confronting us with our deep-seeded need versus simply with answers to our questions. Truly, rebirth is not merely a transformation of our thoughts but of our hearts as well. Christ, therefore, revolutionizes every part of our being that has been controlled by sin—our perceptions, emotions, attitudes, and affections.
The Spirit was at work in Nicodemus, prompting him to seek Jesus. The Spirit is at work in us as well. Realizing this, how will we respond to the absolute truth of Christ’s words, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”?
3:8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it’s going. That’s the way it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
The focus on new birth continued. This sentence in the Greek is a play on words, making it more cryptic than it appears in English. The same Greek word πνευμα (pneuma) is used for our English words wind and spirit. Interestingly, the Hebrew word רוּחַ (ruach) also means both wind and spirit.
Jesus first described something that is known by everybody. He often used a common experience to explain a profoundly spiritual reality to those whose understanding seemed limited to the physical world. Today, with our satellite views of global wind patterns, we know more about wind movement, but are no closer to understanding what creates the patterns. So Jesus reminded Nicodemus that the wind is beyond human comprehension. We do not understand what makes the wind move continuously, but we observe its effects. We see trees shaken in a violent wind. We hear the howling. We see the breeze gently waft across the face of a flower. It all happens without most of us understanding anything about its source. That source is found in the treasures of the living God. Perhaps Jesus is drawing from the Jewish Scriptures: “Just as you don’t know how the breath of life enters the limbs of a child within its mother’s womb, you also don’t understand how God, who made everything, works.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
Jesus told Nicodemus that this was how the Spirit operates. No human commands Him. He is the completely free agent of regeneration. John Gill, in his expositions of John’s gospel, expresses the scope and majesty of the Spirit’s work. “This grace of the Spirit in regeneration, like the wind, is powerful and irresistible; it carries all before it; there is no withstanding it; it throws down Satan’s strong holds, demolishes the fortifications of sin; the whole posse of hell, and the corruptions of a man’s heart, are not a match for it; when the Spirit works, who can let?”
Since we cannot control the Holy Spirit, we are apprehensive about the full impact of Jesus’ words. Certainly, He is describing a vast ocean of understanding that separates the regenerate person from the unregenerate. Everyone that is born of the Spirit is an enigma to the unredeemed mind. How can we possibly believe that there is only one way to God? How can we be so narrow-minded and confident at the same time? Yet, for all the explanation of the Christian perspective, the unregenerate mind cannot grasp the simplest principles of God’s kingdom. But even the Christian is sometimes perplexed at the work of the Holy Spirit. If we were God, we would do things differently. Be careful, O proud man! Remember Lucifer, who, in his arrogance, attempted to usurp the throne of the Most High God. Understanding this truth of the Spirit’s work, believers who are born again and washed in the baptism of the Spirit’s regenerating power can only rejoice and praise God for rescuing them from their awful dilemma:
9“Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” 10“Rain and snow come down from the sky. They do not go back again until they water the earth. They make it sprout and grow so that it produces seed for farmers and food for people to eat. 11My word, which comes from my mouth, is like the rain and snow. It will not come back to me without results. It will accomplish whatever I want and achieve whatever I send it to do.” (Isaiah 55:9-11)