From the scene in the temple, the narratives moves to a private settings. This is the first of dialogues so characteristic of this Gospel.
Nicodemus was a member of the Pharisaic group in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50). His name was very rare in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. It is established that those who were named Nicodemus between 330 BC till 200 AD - only four men - all belonged to Gurion family. Apparently, they were wealthy family from Jerusalem entrusted with supplying water to pilgrims during the festivals.
The meaning of his name is “conqueror of the people”. Was the first Nicodemus in the family, a general, honoured with such a name and received estates for his service? Perhaps.
Not all scholars, however, are convinced by the arguments that identify Nicodemus as a member of that family.
Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” and one of “the Pharisees” comes to Jesus by “night” (cf. 1:5). “Night” is often connected with unbelief and misunderstanding (John 9:4; 11:10; 13:30; 21:3).
He has difficulty grasping what Jesus teaches. Jesus speaks of spiritual, supernatural things, but Nicodemus tends to think in terms of earthly, natural things. Jesus seeks to lead Nicodemus into a deeper understanding, to raise his natural thinking to reckon with spiritual realities. But Nicodemus asks: “how can it be?”
The lesson contained in this dialogue is about the new, eternal life brought by Jesus as a pure gift from God that totally exceeds our natural abilities.
Nicodemus will appear two more times in the Gospel: (1) trying to defend Jesus in John 7:50–52; and (2) after Jesus’ death (John 19:39).
“We know”. Did he come alone to Jesus or with a group of others? Or perhaps that “we” expresses his authority in the group.
“Rabbi” and “teacher” both titles given to Jesus indicate a statues of spiritual guide for the people.
“From God” (cf. 13:3; 16:30). It points to Jesus’ origin.
So, apparently, Nicodemus and those he represents knew a lot about Jesus. But, he was not prepared for what he heard.
“Amen, amen” - something serious is coming.
The kingdom of God (Ex 15:18; Ps 103:19). The kingship of God is manifested on earth where it is accepted and obeyed by people - first of all by His people, Israel, and by other nations when they associate themselves with Israel becoming proselytes.
In the Synoptic Gospels, “the kingdom of God” is the core of Jesus’ message (Mk 1:15), but in John the term “kingdom of God” appears only twice (3:3, 5). Because for John, God’s reign in the world is manifested in Jesus, Jesus himself is the Kingdom of God.
According to Talmud, the proselytes “take on themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” and become “like a new born child” (cf. Mk 10:15; Luke 18:17; Mt 18:3). Perhaps, that is the reason why it is so hard to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 10:24). It is very difficult for a person with adult experiences revert to the simplicity of childhood. And, while a convert to Judaism from paganism could be understood as starting life all over again, how could such language be applied to a true-born Israelite?
In the book of Daniel we find a prediction regarding the coming of God’s kingdom (Dan 2:44; 7:14, 27).
To a Jew with Nicodemus’ upbringing, seeing the kingdom of God would mean participating in the age to come - the resurrection life. In the Gospel, “the kingdom of God” is interchangeable with “eternal life” (compare ‘to enter life’ in Mark 9:43, 45, with ‘to enter the kingdom of God’ in Mark 9:47).
To be born ‘from above’ or ‘anew’ - both meaning are included in the Greek adj. “ἀνωθεν”. The meaning indicates to be born from God (John 1:13), and it can be experienced here and now.
It is commonly accepted that Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ statement and therefore he asks ‘how can it be’? But, perhaps, there is a possibility of also challenging Jesus with his statement that an old man cannot enter into his mother’s womb for a second time.
If he was a convert from paganism, he would understand the meaning of Jesus’ statement. Had he read the prologue (1:13), he would also understand what Jesus meant. But, at that moment it was all difficult for him to grasp.
The background of Jesus’ statement can be linked to Ezekiel (see Ezek 36:25–27 and 37:9).
In Ezek 36:24–28, the prophet speaks about a new heart and new spirit. Then, he speaks about the resurrection of a new people (Ezek 37) and the building of a new temple (Ezek 40–48). See also Ezek 11:16–20; Jer 31:31–34.
The promise in Ezekiel referred to national renewal, but it was also understood as applying to individuals. The cleansing with water in Ezek 36:25 was invoked as biblical authority for the baptism of proselytes.
“Water” in John evokes images of cleansing (9:7; 13:5) and of sustaining life (6:35; 7:37–38). “Spirit” is the “life-giving” Spirit (6:63) and purifying Spirit (Mt 3:11).
John develops this symbolic connection between water and the Holy Spirit throughout the Gospel (John 4:10, 13–14; 7:37–39).
John the Baptist called on his hearers, true-born Israelites, to enter the repentant and believing remnant of Israel, the people ‘prepared for the Lord’, by accepting baptism at his hands. But, he pointed out that, while he administered a baptism in water, another would come after him and baptise them with the Holy Spirit. Both John’s ministry and that of Jesus were necessary to fulfil the prophetic promise. Now, Jesus urges Nicodemus to accept the promise in its fulness - the new birth “of water and Spirit”.
The Evangelist was writing when the followers of Christ administered Christian baptism with its deep transforming significance (see Rom 6:3–4). Thus, the second birth takes place in baptism and it is done by the power and action of the Holy Spirit.
If the kingdom of God is Jesus himself, then to enter the kingdom of God is to be given a share in Jesus’ own divine life (cf. John 3:36; Mt 19:17; Mk 9:43,45). By means of baptism, we are born into communion with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Peter 1:4).
This is the heart of Jesus’ message to Nicodemus and to the world.
By natural birth people become members of an earthly family. Through faith and baptism, people become members of the family of God - the children of God (cf. Rom 8:14–17). This new heavenly life is a gift from God, not a matter of physical descent or human choosing (1:12–13)..
Thus, we have two “births” - one in the realm of flesh and one in the realm of Spirit.
For John “flesh” means the body, its limitations and consequences of those limitations. The Word who became flesh came to take us from the realm of flesh into his own divine realm.
“You must all be born from above”. There is no other way to the kingdom of God. Thus, the Church always preaches the necessity of Christian baptism to salvation.
St. Justin Martyr (ca. 100–165 AD). - On natural and spiritual birth.
"At our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice by our parents coming together. We were brought up with bad habits and wicked training. However, so that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance but may become the children of choice and knowledge and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over the one who chooses to be born again and has repented of his sins the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe….
This washing is called illumination because those who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. The one who is illuminated is thus washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus" (First Apology 61).
In Hebrew ‘ruah’ and Greek ‘pneuma’ may be rendered as ‘breath’, ‘wind’ or ‘spirit’ according to the context. Here, the word ‘pneuma’ is used twice, but once is translated as “wind” and another time as “spirit”.
As the coming or going of the wind cannot be controlled by human power or wisdom, so the new birth of the Spirit is independent of human volition. The hidden work of the Spirit in the human heart cannot be controlled or seen, but its effects will always be evident.
Nicodemus is still unable to grasp the sense of Jesus’ words. He who was a teacher in Israel, who probably taught others the law of Moses and what was required to join the faith of Israel, could not understand Jesus’ explanation. And yet, all these should be evident from the OT.
The safe passage of Noah and his family through the flood, to start life anew in a new world (Gen 6:13–9:19), the redeemed Israelites’ crossing the sea of reeds to be a people set apart for God (Ex 14:15–15:21), Naaman the Syrian’s ‘baptism’ in Jordan, whereby “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14) - these and other passages were parables of the truth which Jesus was conveying to Nicodemus. The Naaman story was particularly regarded as a precedent for proselyte-baptism.
Apparently, Nicodemus was unable to understand the Scriptures (cf. Luke 24:45) and grasp the meaning of this Christian message, that both an Israelite and a Gentile need salvation that only the Saviour of the Word - Jesus Christ can offer.
From this verse, the dialogue moves into monologue of Jesus and then the monologue passes into a meditation by the Evangelist on the subject of the new birth. But, where the monologue passes into meditation of the Evangelist is not so clear - probably after 3:15.
The “we” of Jesus is interpreted in two ways. Some see it as an authoritative “we” - so-called ’the plural of majesty" or even as the revelation of the mystery of Triune God.
Others think the “we” includes his disciples. The message of Jesus and later on his disciples about him is no hearsay message but one that is based on personal experience and testimony (cf. 1 John 1:3).
The three-fold witness:
(1) Jesus gives his personal witness (3:32); (2) the scriptures testify to Jesus (5:39), and the disciples give witness to Jesus (15:27).
But no matter which form the testimony took, his witness was often refused, whether during his ministry or in the ministry of his disciples.
What are the “earthly things”, which are set in contrast with the “heavenly things”? It is difficult to answer (cf. Wisdom 9:16–17).
The “earthly things” can refer to what Jesus brings here into the earth - his teaching about the necessity of new birth of water and the Spirit, for example. The “heavenly things” would indicate the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ (cf. Heb 5:11–6:3).
"No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man [who is in heaven].
The clause at the end of verse 13, ‘who is in heaven’, is absent from our oldest manuscripts pf John (Papyri 66 and 75), but is present in many other manuscripts.
If it was present in the original text of the Gospel, one can understand how a scribe or editor omitted it on the ground that the Son of Man was not in heaven but on earth as he spoke these words. On the other hand, the scribe could add it thinking that when the Gospel was written and when even more so he was copying the text the Son of Man is in heaven.
Prov 30:4 finds the answer to its questions in Jesus’ statement. Only the Word of God who became flesh has the authority to speak about “earthly and heavenly things”. Only He knows what he is speaking about - that is why it so important to believe in Him (John 1:18; 14:6).
Jesus refers to Num 21:5–9.
How would those bitten by the deadly snakes felt when after looking at the bronze snake they recovered?The story can serve as a parable of receiving spiritual life.
The verb used for the Son of Man being “lifted up” is in Greek “ὑψοω”. On a literal level it means lifting up in space, but it also denotes exaltation in glory (Acts 2:33). In this Gospel Jesus is glorified by being crucified (8:28; 12:23,32,34).
The allusion is to Is 53:13 LXX. There the Lord says that his servant will be “lifted high” - using the same Greek verb - “and be exceedingly glorified”.
Jesus descended into the earth through the Virgin Mary and he ascended up on high again by the way of the cross. Thus, we can view also the cross as the ladder leading to the Father’s presence (John 1:51).
One more thing is needed to say.
There was no healing virtue in the bronze serpent. It was the saving grace of God that healed the bitten Israelites when they believed God’s word spoken to them through Moses and obeyed his command. When later on their descendants worshiped it, king Hezekiah broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4).
On the other hand, in the Son of Man lifted up on the cross resides infinite healing virtue exceeding our imagination. The Israelites were cured of physical disease and received a prolongation of mortal life, but it is eternal life that the Son of Man ensures to those who look to him in faith (cf. 1:12–13).
Here is the answer to Nicodemus question: “how can this be?” The new birth is experienced, the kingdom of God is entered, through the saving work of Christ, accepted by faith.
This is the first place in the Gospel where the often repeated phrase ‘eternal life’ occurs.
Primarily, this means the life of the age to come, resurrection life. In the Gospel of John, however , the eternal life is the very life of God which resides in the eternal Word (‘in him was life’) and is communicated by him to all believers.
The believers in Christ can enjoy this life in advance because of their union with the one who is already risen from the dead.
Thus, this phrase speaks not merely about the quantity of life (life forever) but also about the quality of life. Eternal life is life in the eternal Word - Jesus Christ.
“It is necessary” - a divine necessity - it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer in order to accomplish God’s plan of salvation.
“In him” in verse 15 is probably to be taken with ‘may have eternal life’ rather than with ‘believes’. The Greek is “ἐν αὐτῷ”, whereas “εἰς αὐτὸν” is regularly used when reference is made to believing “in him” (cf. 3:16).
NIV John 3:15 translation - “that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him”.
With the verse 15, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus probably comes to an end.
In verses 16–21, we have the Evangelist’s application to the reader of the significance of that conversation.
If there is one sentence which sums up the message of the Fourth Gospel, it is this one
The love of God is limitless, it embraces all humankind. The best that God had to give, he gave - his only Son, his well-beloved. The Gospel of salvation and life has its source in the love of God. God loves us “in this way”. God’s love is made manifest in him whom he gave to the world.
To “perish” (cf. 8:24) is the alternative to having ‘eternal life’ or to being ‘saved’ (3:17). But, God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9).
‘Faith’ should be our response to this message. We accept the gift of salvation through faith in Jesus.
Faith is yielding to the action of the Spirit, who first moves a person to accept what God has revealed and to commit one’s whole life to God.
The Greek word used here, can mean “judgement or condemnation”.
This is the first occurrence out of seven of “the Son” without any qualification (cf. 3:17, 36; 5:19; 6:40; 8:36; 14:13; 17:1).
The statement here agrees with John 12:47 (cf. 2 Peter 3:9), but it seems to be contradicted by John 9:39. We have to look at the context to understand the intended meaning in both cases.
Perhaps the next verse can help us to grasp the meaning of the word “judgment/condemnation”. The decision for belief or unbelief in the Son is directly linked to eternal life or condemnation. One either accepts the testimony of/about Jesus or refuses this testimony and remains under the condemnation and in the darkness of sin.
The judgement is inherent in the act of turning away from the truth which is embodied in Christ (John 14:6).
The man who depreciates Christ or considers Christ to be unworthy of his allegiance, passes judgment on himself, not on Christ. He does not need to wait until the day of judgement; the verdict on him has been pronounced already. There will be indeed a final day of judgement (5:26–29), but that day will serve to confirm the judgement already passed.
The way out of darkness of sin that the world remains in is “faith in Jesus”. Those who believe in the name of the Son of God become God’s children; for those who will not believe there is no alternative but self-incurred judgement.
The essence of judgement is presented in terms of light and darkness. This verse explains the prologue’s statement (1:4–5).
The world manifested its darkness by its self-love and selfishness which exclude God. Christ was the true light shining in the darkness, the light which came into the world to illuminate everyone. But, people love darkness more than light.
Does this statement reveals the reality of Jesus’ ministry and the time of writing the Gospel, where still only few accepted the Gospel? Or it is a general statement revealing the problem of humanity as such? Do we all need to have Paul’s Damascus experience - to be blinded by the light - in order to come to light?
Without the light darkness feels safe. But light exposes what is done in darkness. The coming of the Word of God into the world does exactly this. The Word of God exposes our sinful way of life. This is already evident in Gen 4:1–16. The first murder is revealed to us in the Bible and the message is clear - “you shall not murder” (Ex 20:13; cf. 1 John 3:12).
In the Evangelist’s thought the coming of the light necessarily involves the separation of those who welcome it from those who avoid it for fear that it should reveal them as they really are (cf. Gen 3:8–9).
‘Coming to light or rejecting it’ is not simply an intellectual matter: it also has moral dimensions. And here is the problem. St. Augustine said, people “love the truth for the light it sheds, but hate it when it shows them up as being wrong”.
John unmasks our reluctance to break off from our evil ways and come into the light of truth as a consequence of our attachment to our evil acts. We hesitate to embrace the truth because it means having to give up all those sinful behaviours.
The author likes to use contrasting terms: good and evil, love and hatred, life and death, salvation and judgement, light and darkness, truth and falsehood.
“He who does the truth” stands in contrast to the one who does evil.
In the OT “to do the truth” means “to act honourably” (cf. Gen 32:10; 47:29; Neh 9:33). Those whose lives and actions are this sort have no reason to avoid the light. On the contrary, the true light is their reward.
While the action of the evildoer reflect who he is, the action of the one who does truth reflect who God is. The purpose, denoted by “in order that” (ἱνα), is that his deeds may be made manifest “as having been accomplished in/through God”.
One can ask: what about those who have never opportunity of believing in Christ, those on whom the light in its fulness has never shone?
In every culture and generation, the light of God to different degrees is available to the people. All goodness and true light has its source in the perfect Goodness and perfect Light - God himself.
Those who accept the partial light that is available to them will gladly accept the perfect light when it shines on them. Those who refuse the light, in whatever fashion it shines on them, pronounce sentence on themselves.