By Dr. Mark Scott
This famous text contains the teachings of Jesus, the questions of Nicodemus, and the saving love of God. This late-night conversation between Jesus and this Pharisee led to a bright sunrise of teaching concerning saving love.
In each section of our text there is a rhetorical device (verses 3, 5, and 11). It is translated, Very truly. It is Jesus’ way of saying, “Take this to the bank,” or “This you can count on above all else.” It underlines the truthfulness of the teaching like an oath in court.
A Pharisee who was part of the Sanhedrin came to Jesus at night (not to be seen?). As the Gospel of John unfolds, Nicodemus became more bold—he almost defended Jesus (John 7:40-52) and finally helped bury Jesus (John 19:38-40). He started this conversation with a compliment about the source of Jesus’ teachings. But Jesus spoke to Nicodemus’s heart issue—not his compliment. Jesus implied that all of Nicodemus’s religious activities had left him with spiritually tired blood. The path to being able to see God’s government (kingdom) is a new birth based on the saving love of God. It is a second birth (or “from above” which fits the entire context better).
This was exactly what Nicodemus wanted to talk about, so he asked, How? How can a new birth take place? Jesus’ answer was that it takes place by water and the Spirit. The Greek text makes it clear that this refers to one action (most likely baptism). But it is larger than baptism. As a Jew Nicodemus had a reservoir from which to interpret the concept of water and spirit. This is creation of the world language (Genesis 1:2), and it is creation of a new nation language (Exodus 14:21-31; 1 Corinthians 10:1, 2). The saving love of God begins to remake creation by bringing life out of death. In this sense it is a birth.
This birth process is something very real, but it is spiritual in nature. In this sense it stands opposite what is physical or human. What is human can only reproduce human. But God is Spirit (John 4:24) so he can produce spiritual realities. This should surprise no one (notice the two “oh yeah” moments in today’s text—vv. 7 and 10).
The metaphor that Jesus used with Nicodemus is that of wind. This was very appropriate because the Hebrew word for Spirit means wind or breath (actually “something pulsating”). The wind just blows and blows. Its effects can be felt and seen, but it remains invisible and mysterious. The work of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration and renewal of someone (Titus 3:5) is a bit hard to quantify, but it is real. Saving love is like wind.
Nicodemus asked his second how question, and Jesus took the opportunity to mildly rebuke him. A paraphrase might be, “Did you flunk theology 101?” Jesus used his rhetorical device (very truly) for the third time and gave two sets of contrasts. The first contrast is between divine testimony and human response. Jesus said that we (the Trinity) speak of what we know and have seen. One would expect people to accept this testimony since it comes from God. But volition matters more than cognition here. Pride hinders the reception of divine testimony.
The second contrast is between Heaven and earth. The only way earth can know anything about Heaven is when Heaven reveals itself. That happened in the coming of the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13, 14). But an evil snake (Genesis 3:1, 2;
2 Corinthians 11:3) duped the earth. The end result was that the Son of Man had to be lifted up (crucified—John 12:32, 33). In this sense he was like a snake to defeat the snake (Numbers 21:4-9). (And even the good bronze snake was used for bad—2 Kings 18:4).
A rather crazy snake analogy helps us see the love of God that is cosmic in scope, warm in appeal, available in belief, and eternal in life.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.