Night class for Nicodemus1Nicodemus was a leader among the Jews, and a Pharisee. 2He came to Jesus one night with a question. “Rabbi, we know God sent you here to teach us. Your miracles are proof of that. No one could do them without God’s help.”
3Jesus said, “I’m going to tell you something, and it’s the absolute truth. Anyone who wants to see the Kingdom of God has to get reborn.”
4Nicodemus said, “What? How’s that possible? How can a grown man return to his mother’s uterus and get born again?”
5Jesus answered, “Seriously, I’m telling you the truth. There are two kinds of birth: water and Spirit. You need them both to get into the Kingdom of God. 6When you’re born of humans, you’re human. When you’re born of the Spirit, you’re spiritual. 7So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You’ve got to be born again.’ 8The wind blows where the wind goes, and it goes wherever it wants to. We hear it, but we don’t understand it—so we don’t know where it came from or where it goes. There are mysteries like that about being born of the Spirit.”
9Nicodemus said, “I don’t understand. How could it possibly work like this?”
10Jesus said, “Come on now. You’re a Jewish teacher and you can’t follow what I’m saying? 11It’s a fact, I tell you what I know and I tell you what I’ve seen. But you don’t believe it. 12I tell you about earthly matters and you don’t believe me. So how are you going to believe me when I talk about spiritual, heavenly matters? 13The only one who has ever gone up to heaven is the one who came down from heaven. You’re looking at him, the Son of Humans. 14Just as Moses in the badlands lifted up a bronze image of a snake, the Son of Humans is going to get lifted up 15so that everyone who believes in him can live forever.
16God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son here so people could see that he’s real and believe in him. No one who believes in him will die. They’ll live forever. 17God didn’t send his Son here to condemn everyone. He sent him to save the people. 18Those who believe in God’s Son aren’t condemned. It’s the people who don’t believe who are condemned—right now. They’re condemned because they don’t believe the only Son of God. 19They’re getting judged because Light has come into this world, but the world prefers darkness. That’s because people want to hide the bad things they do under the cover of night. 20Folks who do things they know are wrong will dodge the light. They don’t want people to see what they’re doing. 21But honest people are drawn to the light. They’ve done good things in God’s name, and they want to be seen for who they truly are.”
John the Baptist’s fading star22After this, Jesus and his disciples went into the countryside of Judea. They stayed for a while, baptizing people. 23John was baptizing in the area, too. He was at Aenon, close to Salim. He baptized there because there were a lot of freshwater springs in the area and people kept coming to get baptized. 24This is before John got arrested and tossed into prison.
25John’s disciples got into an argument with a Jew. They argued over ritual washing, which was intended for spiritual cleansing. 26John’s disciples went to him and said, “Teacher, that man you spent time with on the far side of the Jordan River, the one you said is the Messiah, he’s baptizing. Everyone is going to him, now.”
27John said, “Whatever we get, we get it from heaven—from nowhere else. 28You heard me say, ‘I’m not the Messiah. I’m his advance man, sent ahead to get everything ready for him.’ 29The groom gets the bride. The best man gets to wait. When the groom finally shows up, the best man hears his voice and greets him with a happy celebration. That’s me, doing the happy dance now that he has come. 30His star is rising. My star is slipping into the horizon.
He came from heaven31This one we’re talking about was sent here from heaven. He’s greater than any of us. We earthlings talk about earthling things. He’s from heaven and he’s above all that. 32He tells us what he has seen and heard, but hardly anyone believes him. 33Those who do believe him are essentially confirming that God tells the truth. 34God sent this man. This man speaks for God. We know it because God doesn’t give just a little of his Spirit. He gives it all. 35God the Father loves his Son. The Father has entrusted everything to him. 36People who believe in the Son have already started their journey in eternal life. People who don’t do what the Son tells them they need to do won’t get to take that trip into life. Wherever they go, God’s anger goes with them.”
Pharisees were one of several groups of Jews. Pharisees were known for not only strictly keeping the laws of Moses, but also for keeping hundreds of other laws that were a bit like the rules in church manuals today. See note for 1:24.
It’s unclear what Jesus meant. In Bible times, “water” and similar words such as “dew” were polite ways of talking about semen. So one theory is that “water,” referring to semen or perhaps to the pregnant woman’s water that breaks before delivery, means physical birth. “Spirit,” may refer to spiritual birth that takes place years later, when a person decides to start living like citizens of God’s kingdom, devoted to him and his principles of love, compassion, and justice. Another theory is that the water represents baptism. So “water” and “Spirit” together might refer to one spiritual experience. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean…I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezekiel 36:25, 27 New Living Translation).
The word for “spirit,” is pneuma, which is Greek for breath, wind, or spirit. We use this word when we talk about air-powered tools: pneumatic. When Jesus compares the wind to the Spirit, he’s using the same Greek word for each. That probably makes his example all the more engaging for Nicodemus. The Spirit is like the wind. We don’t understand how either works. But we can experience both and know they are real.
Bible scholars don’t seem to have a handle on what Jesus meant here. The most obvious question, often ignored in commentaries: “If Jesus is saying that only he goes up to heaven, where are the godly dead, like Abraham, Moses, and King David?” No solid answer. Scholars, instead, say Jesus was emphasizing that he had unique insight into heavenly matters because Heaven is his hometown. Some might speculate, based on this verse, that godly souls remained in a spiritual holding pattern until the resurrection of Jesus opened the gates of heaven. But as Jesus seemed to say in 3:8, we don’t understand the wind or the Spirit. And we may not know much more about heaven than Nicodemus did. Yet believers trust God to do right by them, as Jesus taught that his Father would do (see 3:16).
During the exodus out of slavery in Egypt, many Jews got bitten by poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). They were saved if they looked at the snake image that Moses lifted up on a pole. Jesus, too, would be lifted up on a pole during his crucifixion. Those who looked to Jesus, putting their faith in him and his teachings, would be saved.
Jesus is saying this to Nicodemus, who has come to him under the cover of darkness, perhaps to hide this discussion from his colleagues who hated Jesus.
Location of Aenon and Salim are both uncertain. Scholars identify several possible well-watered sites along the Jordan River, including Wadi Al-Far’a. It’s a stream from the central highlands near Nablus that empties into the Jordan River at the Damia Bridge. The bridge is about 15 miles (24 km) north of Jericho, as the dove flies, if it flies straight.
Jews, in certain situations, would wash not to get rid of physical dirt, but to get rid of spiritual dirt. Some would wash before eating, to make sure they were ritually clean if they had come into contact with some kind of defilement, such as touching a non-Jew. Women had to bathe after their monthly period before they could worship at the Jerusalem Temple. Jews had to wash in “living water,” which came from a moving source such as a river, an underground spring, or a well that has tapped into an underground lake. Ponds that lay stagnant were not kosher for this ritual.
Most of the top Jewish leaders did not take kindly to Jesus, as the Bible reports the stories. But one leader, Nicodemus, was curious enough to go talk with Jesus under the cover of darkness. How do you think Jesus might have felt about Nicodemus coming to him that way?
Jesus told Nicodemus, “There are two kinds of birth: water and Spirit. You need them both to get into the Kingdom of God” (3:5). Jesus does not make it clear what he means by those two kinds of birth. How do you understand what he said?
Why do you think Jesus was so mysterious in the way he talked about his coming crucifixion? He compares it to the story of snakebite people getting saved when they look at a bronze pole Moses holds in the air. By simply looking at that bronze image of the snake, they were saved. Jesus says, “The Son of Humans is going to get lifted up so that everyone who believes in him can live forever” (3:14-15). They’ll be saved, forever. Nicodemus probably had no idea what Jesus was talking about. Why didn’t Jesus make it clear?
Take a look at what Jesus says to Nicodemus in 3:18-21. Do you think Jesus was simply getting a dig in at Nicodemus who came to see him in the darkness? Or was something else going on? We can’t know for certain, so feel free to guess, like the scholars do who make the big bucks.
LIFE APPLICATION. Jesus said, “When you’re born of the Spirit, you’re spiritual” (3:6). How would you explain to a curious person outside the faith what it means to be spiritual? Assume they want to know why someone as intelligent as you would believe that stuff.
LIFE APPLICATION. Jesus seems to paint a black and white picture about why people reject him. “They’re getting judged because Light has come into this world, but the world prefers darkness. That’s because people want to hide the bad things they do under the cover of night” (3:19). Is it really that simple? Are the teachings of Jesus so obviously good and righteous that anyone with the heart of a Hallmark movie would embrace them?
LIFE APPLICATION. There are some cool one-liners in John 3. What’s one of your favorites?