The Visit of Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)

Submitted by admin on Sun, 2007-07-08 09:13.

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One night during Jesus’ stay in Jerusalem, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (probably meaning a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme council or the highest religious authority), came to see him. Likely Nicodemus was aware of negative sentiments about Jesus among influential Jews and may have chosen to be cautious to avoid potential problems. A night visit would also have been more suitable for an uninterrupted private interchange. He addressed Jesus as “Rabbi” and acknowledged him as a teacher having come from God, for the miraculous signs he had performed proved that God was with him. The first person plural verb oídamen (“we know”) may indicate that he was aware of others who recognized Jesus as having come as a teacher from God. On the other hand, this could simply be the editorial first person plural verb. (John 3:1, 2)

In response, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) The expression “amen, amen” signifies “truly, truly,” and serves to introduce an important truth in a solemn manner. For one to see the “kingdom of God” (or to be part of the royal realm where the Most High is recognized as Sovereign and all the members thereof share in the blessings and privileges he grants) requires a tremendous change. The Greek term ánothen means either “above” or “again.” Earlier in John’s account, the new birth is attributed to God (John 1:13), and this suggests that “born from above” (instead of “born again”) is the preferable significance.

Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus meant. He replied, “How can a man who is old be born? Indeed he cannot enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born.” Clarifying what the new birth involves, Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, Unless a person is born from water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Whoever is born from flesh is flesh, and whoever is born from spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised that I say to you, You must be born from above [ánothen]. The wind [pneúma, meaning “wind” or “spirit”] blows where it wills, and you hear its sound, but you do not know from where it has come and where it is going. Thus [it] is [with] everyone who is born from the spirit.” Still not grasping the significance of Jesus’ words, Nicodemus said, “How can these things take place?” Based on his knowledge of the Scriptures, he should have understood what Jesus meant. This is evident from Jesus’ response, “You are a teacher of Israel, and you do not know these things?” (John 3:4-10)

As a recognized teacher among fellow Jews, Nicodemus knew what the holy writings contained. The prophets Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel, for example, spoke about a future outpouring of God’s spirit. Isaiah referred to mourning resulting from divine chastisement as ending upon God’s spirit being poured out from on high upon the people. (Isaiah 32:12-15) Joel’s prophetic words (2:28, 29) indicated that the spirit would be poured out on sons and daughters, men and women, young and old. Ezekiel (36:25-28, Tanakh) specifically mentioned cleansing as preceding the outpouring of God’s spirit: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules. Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people and I will be your God.”

Repeatedly, the prophets urged the people to repent and change their ways in order to be recipients of God’s mercy and blessing. (Isaiah 1:15-20; Ezekiel 18:31; Joel 2:12-14; Malachi 3:7) Therefore, from what he knew the prophets had proclaimed, Nicodemus should have understood that repentance preceded a cleansing as by water and only then would God pour out his spirit upon those whom he recognized as clean before him. This was also the message John the Baptist proclaimed, and his immersing Israelites in the Jordan followed an acknowledgment of their sins. Moreover, he announced the future outpouring of God’s spirit, saying of the one to come, “he will baptize you with holy spirit.” (Matthew 3:2, 5, 6, 11; Luke 3:10-16)

Accordingly, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, without being made new by the kind of cleansing represented by the water and receiving God’s spirit, a person would not be able to “see” the kingdom of God. He would not be recognized as one of God’s people and so could not possibly be in his royal realm.

Born of flesh, all humans are flesh, and are burdened by the flawed condition they have inherited. This is why all are sinners, repeatedly disappointing themselves and others in attitude, word, and deed. All are in need of help from outside the human sphere. That aid must come from “above” or the realm of the spirit. A newness of life can only be brought about by an operation of God’s spirit, and the outward manifestation thereof would be a marked change in conduct, motivated by a desire to do God’s will. As Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus, just how God’s spirit operates within an individual cannot be perceived. One can hear the wind and observe its effects, but one cannot see its source or where it is going. Nevertheless, just as the wind is real and its effects are real, the invisible working of God’s spirit within individuals is real.

The Son of God, having come from the spirit realm, fully understood the functioning of holy spirit. He knew what none of earth’s inhabitants knew and had seen what they had never seen. His authoritative testimony, however, did not gain general acceptance. The transformation about which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus related to the earthly realm, for it involved a change in the human condition. If this earthly aspect was not believed, how could it possibly be that Jesus’ words about heavenly things only known to him would be believed? No man had ascended to heaven, precluding any possibility of possessing testimony regarding heavenly things. Jesus, though, had descended from heaven. When referring to himself as the “Son of Man,” Jesus evidently identified himself as the promised Messiah portrayed in the book of Daniel (7:13, 14). Having come from heaven, he alone could teach what no one else could. Additionally, only he could reveal how an eternal relationship with his Father would be possible. (John 3:11-13)

An event during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness revealed an aspect of how restoration to divine favor would come about. When many Israelites died from being bitten by poisonous serpents, Moses was divinely instructed to make a serpent and place it on a pole. Anyone bitten by a serpent, upon looking at the bronze serpent Moses had made, would live. There was nothing in that metal serpent that could remove the lethal venom from those who had been bitten. Their response to God’s arrangement made it possible for them to continue living. (Numbers 21:5-9)

Similarly, response in faith to Jesus’ being lifted up on the implement on which he would die would lead to eternal life. Just as the Israelites acknowledged their sin and had to recognize the danger in which they found themselves because of having been bitten, humans must acknowledge their sinful state, recognize the death-dealing effects of sin, and avail themselves of God’s provision through Christ to be liberated. It is an arrangement that reveals the hideous nature of sin (considering what Jesus endured for sinners) and God’s great love by having his Son die for the world of mankind, reaching the inmost selves of those who believe and appreciatively acknowledge that God and Christ did this for them so that they might live in eternal fellowship with them. (John 3:14-16)

In expression of his boundless love, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, depriving humans of all hope, but to save the world of mankind, opening up to all the opportunity for eternal life or an abiding relationship with him. The individual responding in faith would not have a condemnatory judgment expressed against him. A failure to put faith in the “name” or in the person of the unique Son of God when the testimony concerning him is presented would, however, lead to adverse judgment. (John 3:17, 18)

The only-begotten or unique Son of God is the “light” that came into the world, dispelling the darkness of ignorance and evil. Whenever people love the darkness more than the light, preferring a life contrary to God’s upright ways, they are not drawn to his Son. Having chosen to engage in wicked works, harming themselves and others by their lawless actions, they hate the light embodied in him. They do not want their works to be exposed by the light that radiates from God’s Son. (John 3:19, 20)

The person who “lives the truth,” striving to harmonize his life with what is true and right, is drawn to the light. Instead of fearing exposure, such a person makes a confident approach, letting the light reveal his works as having been done “in God.” The expression “in God” suggests that the individual recognized the need for divine aid and lived a life that acknowledged the Most High and focused on pleasing him. (John 3:21)


The words of John 3:16-21 are not necessarily part of the discussion with Nicodemus, but may be the comments of the writer of this account. Translations vary in the placement of the quotation marks, either ending the quotation with verse 15 or verse 21.