John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000
The previous chapter ended with the fact that Jesus "would not entrust himself" to those who professed belief, "for he himself knew what was in everyone" (2:23-25). Faith could easily be short lived (John 6:66). But now John wants to introduce one prominent disciple whose faith transformed a highly educated, wealthy, influential theologian into a humble servant of the Messiah. Later in the Gospel we find Nicodemus boldly expressing his faith among the religious leaders of the city (7:50-52,19:39-42).
To make clear what genuine faith is John uses five word pictures of birth, water, Spirit, life, and a free gift. In the comments we will see how we are born with what we need to live in this world, but we need to born "from above" (or "again," 3:3) to enjoy God's eternal life (see 1:12-13). Baptism was used by both John the Baptist and the Messiah to enrol disciples to begin learning (see comments on 1:24-31). Teaching and transformation was by the Holy Spirit (3:5-8). The purpose was to enjoy eternal life (3:16), and that kind of life (like this life) is a free gift (3:16)
These words have often been given a one sided interpretation in Christian tradition. Baptists have emphasized a decision that gives us the new birth that saves us. Roman Catholics used to teach that it is baptism that saves us. Others focus on a particular experience of the Holy Spirit. Many have assumed that those who have not made this decision, or been baptized, or have the proper faith, are condemned to eternal damnation. And the free gift has frequently been made conditional on some kind of performance on our part. In this section of the Gospel the writer clarifies for us exactly what Jesus had in mind.
3:1 Nicodemus was a Pharisee, as was Paul before his conversion (Acts 26:5, Philippians 3:5). Jesus pointed out that some of the Pharisees were hypocrites (Matthew 23:2-31), which is a common condition among all religious people. But many were fine upright persons with a deep faith in God. Where they went wrong was in the assumption that salvation was by careful study and meticulous obedience to the Old Testament laws. What upset them about Jesus was that he denied many of their interpretations of the law, and encouraged a dangerous spiritual freedom.
Although many of the Pharisee leaders opposed Jesus' ministry and eventually had him crucified, some came to faith. Nicodemus was a member of the supreme Jewish parliament or Sandhedrin as John indicates later in the Gospel (7:45-51). Jesus called him "the teacher of Israel" (3:10, the Greek has the definite article) which indicates he was the most respected rabbi (theologian) in the city.
3:2 He came by night, presumably to avoid being followed by his own disciples, who waited on him at all hours. Perhaps he was also fearful of being rejected (as in 12:42).
"We know" suggests that Nicodemus had discussed reports of Jesus' teaching with others and they had been impressed by what was going on among his disciples. For the term "signs" see 2:11, 4:54, 20:30.
3:3 Jesus immediately diagnosed this great teacher's heart problem.
"The kingdom of God" is the way the Messiah reigns and individuals and nations respond to him. This cannot be grasped by human effort or by the study of rules and traditions (see 1:13). A person needs to be born into the life of the Spirit (see 3:5,6). That was something Nicodemus's vast knowledge could never impart to his students. And perhaps this was what brought him to question Jesus' evident spiritual impact on his followers.
3:4 Nicodemus could not grasp the metaphorical meaning of spiritual birth.
How could a highly respected senior rabbi go back to learning with a teacher who had never even studied in a rabbinic seminary? Or was Jesus talking about going back to begin again like a baby coming out of the womb?
When we don't understand something it is usually because we have the wrong idea of how it works. When some African villagers saw an automobile for the first time, one said it had a donkey inside. Another said "it must be a horse." A third tried to prove it was a mule. Similarly Nicodemus began with the wrong idea of what God had in mind to perfect us. As a rabbi he thought in terms of learning rules and trying to obey them. What he needed was to grasp how the Messiah intended to perfect us by the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 2:11-13).
3:5 The kingdom needed to be seen. Nicodemus needed a vision of who the Messiah is and what he is doing. John was one of the few who saw such a vision directly when he looked into heaven (Revelation 1:10-16). But Nicodemus would be able to see (as in 3:3) and "enter the kingdom" by being baptized with water to begin learning among Jesus'disciples. In our day we can also learn from the Spirit among Jesus' disciples (see comments on 1:26-31, Titus 3:5).
3:6-7 The contrast between living "according to the flesh" and living "according to the Spirit" is the key to Paul's solution for our total inability to live as we would like (Romans 7:15-24). Our flesh (the drives and instincts we receive through the genes of our parents) has no desire or ability to love the way God loves (going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving enemies, praying for others).
Rather than "setting their minds on the flesh" (living by human effort), the secret for humans is to "set their minds on the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-6). That quite different way of looking and living is what the Messiah gives us when we are born from above (see 2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 Peter 1:23, 2:2).
3:8 How can one tell when this birth from above has occured. The Hebrew word ruakh means wind. The same word was used for the Holy Spirit of God. The imagery suggests wind moving boats and lifting gulls and eagles in flight.
There is also wind breathing as in inspiration. And fire is wind burning whether for cooking or heating or in a forest fire. In each case one can see the powerful effects of ruakh or Spirit, but it is impossible to locate it in one place.
The experience might be compared to being pushed off a high hill in a glider. At first there is the insecurity of not knowing where the wind is taking us. Then we learn to trust the Spirit to lift us, and we find we can move gracefully by his power.
3:9-10 Nicodemus is still puzzled. The Greek has the definite article, so Jesus recognizes him as "The teacher of Israel" (the Greek definite article) which suggests he was the greatest of all the great rabbis in the country.
But how can such a great teacher have so little understanding of the most basic spiritual experience? He had missed the implications of Exodus 35:31-34, Judges 3:10, 6:34, 11:29, Isaiah 11:2, 344:3, 59:21, 61:1, Ezekiel 36:26-27.
3:11-13 Jesus is able to know and describe things from God's point of view because he is the eternal Son of God who has come from heaven (3:13, see comments on John 1:1-2, 14). This viewpoint inevitably clashes with the traditions of Nicodemus and his Pharisee friends (3:11, Matthew 15:1-3, Mark 7:3-9). They find even the ordinary practical teaching ("earthly things") that Jesus gives (as in the Sermon on the mount) strangely puzzling. No wonder they cannot grasp the viewpoint of heaven ("heavenly things")?
3:14-15 Nicodemus knew the Exodus story of people being bitten by deadly serpents (Numbers 21:6) and none of their usual medicines could save them.
Then Moses prayed and asked for God to intervene. He was given a very unlikely solution. "Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole" (the sign used to this day as the logo that represents healing). Those who looked in faith at this strange sign were healed (Numbers 21:7-9). If God could use that sign to encourage saving faith, why should faith in the signs of the Messiah from heaven be less effective?
The words "must be lifted up" are often taken as a prediction of Jesus' own crucifixion. It is true crucifixion was a common way of executing criminals among the Romans. But this would hardly have meaning to Nicodemus at that time. Perhaps Jesus was saying "just as the sign of the serpent was used as a focus for faith, so the Messiah must be lifted up and presented as a focus of faith among the Jewish people." The lifting up includes all the "signs" of the Messiah including his death and resurrection. That fits the purpose of the book to help people both of that day and our day into faith (20:30-31).
3:16 John now adds a comment to sum up what he has written in a nutshell.
This verse remains the classic statement of our Christian good news. God is love (as John spelled out in his Epistle, 1 John 4:7-12, 15-19) and loves all people in our world, not just those who respond to his love.
As the expression of his love we are given the gift of his Son. Some gifts are to be enjoyed like roses for an anniversary, a plaything at Christmas, a holiday paid for by a rich uncle. What the Son does is free us to love by the power of the Spirit.
Imagine a boy who is a good hockey player, but he knows he can never make it beyond his village team. Then Wayne Gretzky (the outstanding hockey player of our generation) comes and says "You've got the makings of a great player.
I will give you a summer of coaching at my hockey camp, and I will be there to train you."
That is the kind of gift the disciples of Jesus were given, and that is what Nicodemus needed to move out of legalism as usual into the power and freedom of the Spirit. The gift is free and without strings attached. Faith is simply accepting the invitation.
Eternal life is the very life of God. By faith we become children of God (1:12), and God delights in teaching his children to enjoy loving with his kind of love. Faith is not believing a creed or statement of faith, not is it the fact that we made some decision of faith in the past. It is a present looking to God to work in us and for us to perfect us in love.
3:17 In our story of Wayne Gretzky the gift is not to condemn the boy for his poor performance in the past, or make him feel guilty for the mistakes he keeps making as he learns. As Paul introduces his chapter about the freedom of the Spirit, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in the Messiah Jesus" (Romans 8:1). In all his dealings with us the Messiah is not interested in condemning us but in enabling us (however frail we are) into enjoying the perfect love of heaven.
3:18 There is no condemnation of any kind for those who are willing to let the Son of God take them in hand. But those who refuse the invitation are inevitably condemned to living out their lives in mediocrity, frustration, and spiritual darkness. As throughout the Old and New Testament, God's name indicates his character, intention, and power.
3:19-21 The Greek word translated "judgment" is krisis (from which we get the English word "crisis"). Here it means a "decisive moment" or "turning point." John has already told us that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (3:17). That means that the Messiah is not in the condemning business. But his coming to us does result in some people loving the darkness.
We have defined the light of God as a conversation with the Son of God (see comments on John 1:1-9). Why then do some love (choose, prefer) the darkness? One answer is that light (an open conversation) is very inconvenient if we want to hide. "Everything exposed by the light becomes visible" (Ephesians 5:13). That is why Adam and Eve "hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God" (Genesis 3:8). Hypocrisy is a refusal to be open to the light and love of God.
Jesus the Messiah has no problem with our sin and failure if we let him expose it and deal with it. "Lord, this and that in my life needs changing, and I am leaving you to change me by the power of the Holy Spirit." This makes clear that believers (those who have faith) are not better than others. What is different about faith is the willingness to be exposed and changed.
As we look at others, the dividing line may not be clear to us. Some do love (long for) the light of God, but they grope for the light and see it only dimly. In Athens Paul talked about God wanting people to "grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from us" (Acts 17:27).
Our assurance of salvation is not based on our goodness, or attainments, or quality of faith, but on the fact that we have "come to the light" (3:21).
We do not shrink from our deeds being exposed (3:20), and any goodness we may have is the work of God in us (3:21). As Paul said, "For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).
3:22-43 Jesus' Disciples