John 3:1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.
Nicodemus was one of the most prominent people in Israel. He was a member of the highest political body, and a leading Bible teacher. He was both widely known and highly regarded. Nicodemus was aware of Jesus and his miracles, and may have heard him preach more than once. In fact, he was so impressed with Jesus, that he arranged a meeting at the end of the day, for an unhurried theological conversation. And he was very respectful.
John 3:2 Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.
This was quite an endorsement from a renowned teacher at the top of the socio-religious hierarchy. Jesus was younger than Nicodemus, and had not received rabbinical training, in any formal sense (John 7:15). Yet Nicodemus addressed him as Rabbi, and a teacher who has come from God. If Jesus would be even slightly diplomatic, Nicodemus could connect him to the most influential people in the nation. But as usual, Jesus was not diplomatic.
John 3:3 Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
In light of the respect that Nicodemus showed Jesus, we might expect a little more small talk. (Thank you, Nicodemus, I’ve heard good things about your ministry too.) But with a total disregard for pleasantries, Jesus made his point: no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.
This was all the more troubling since Nicodemus was a respected teacher of the Bible. He had given his life to the study and teaching of Scripture, and was famous for it. In the public’s mind, if anyone was in the kingdom of God, it was Nicodemus. But Jesus had the brashness to tell him otherwise. Jesus could be rude.
But Jesus was never rude in order to be mean. Sometimes Jesus shocks us in order to awaken us. Sometimes he condemns us in order to convert us. Sometimes he wounds us in order to heal us. Like a good doctor, first he tells us what we need to hear, then he provides an effective cure.
John 3:7 You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again.
And yet we are surprised. When I was growing up my mother took me to church every week. And because I was in church, I assumed I was in the kingdom of God. But then a friend brought this passage to my attention. In fact, he opened his Bible and read it out loud to me. When I heard the words, You must be born again (and realized I wasn’t) I knew I had a problem.
Christianity is a supernatural religion from beginning to end. We have a supernatural Savior who died on a cross for our sins, and rose from the dead to prove it. And when we come to believe in him, something supernatural happens to us. The Spirit of Christ comes into us, and we are born again. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9), wrote Paul. The indwelling Spirit is the mark of a true Christian.
John 3:8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
We can imagine this conversation taking place on a flat roof porch wherever Jesus was staying. Perhaps a gust of wind came up, which Jesus used to illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for wind and spirit is exactly the same—as it also is in Hebrew. The Spirit is like the wind because he is powerful, unpredictable, and beyond human control.
Wind can be a hurricane, or a gentle breeze. The new birth is dramatic for some, and barely perceptible for others. The crucial thing is not the force of the experience, but believing in Jesus Christ. Real faith comes from the Spirit (Ephesians 2:8), and produces deep confidence in the person and work of Christ.
John 3:10 You are Israel’s teacher, said Jesus, and do you not understand these things?
Jesus chided Nicodemus because he should have known about the new birth from the prophet Ezekiel. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). Being born again is like getting a new heart from God.
Suppose you went to the doctor and he said these words to you: Congratulations, you are my one thousandth patient, and you just won a free heart transplant. You might not think that was very good news at first. But if you learned that your heart was bad, and without a new heart you would die, it would be very good news indeed.
Christianity is only good news to people who know the bad news—the badness of their heart. Everyone’s heart is infected with most deadly form of heart disease there is: S-I-N. But everyone who believes in Jesus Christ receives a new heart that will never stop beating. This is another way of talking about the new birth.
John 3:14-15 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Jesus ended the conversation by comparing his crucifixion to a strange event in Israel’s history. Many were dying from snake bite, so God commanded Moses to put a snake on a pole, and lift it up for everyone to see. Whenever they were bitten, all they had to do was look at the snake on the pole, and they would live (Numbers 21:4-9).
Likewise, Jesus was lifted up on a cross so all who look to him will live forever. The snake on a pole is a suitable image of the Savior bearing our sins on the cross. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), wrote Paul. Jesus is the cure for the snake-bite of sin.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This is the clearest summary of the gospel in the Bible, and it presents us with two important facts. First, God’s love is extreme. To send his Son to die on a cross for sinners is the greatest act of sacrificial love ever performed. God proved his love, once and for all, by paying the ultimate price for our salvation.
Second, anyone can be saved by believing in Jesus Christ. No matter what we have done, how often we have done it, or if we do it again—all we need to do to be saved is to believe in Jesus Christ. His perfect life and sacrificial death are sufficient payment for all our sins: past, present and future (Hebrews 10:14).
These important facts bring us to a choice. We can believe in Jesus Christ and live forever, or not believe in Jesus Christ and perish forever. What we cannot do is remain undecided, since that is the same as not believing.
If your car stalls on the railroad tracks, and a train is coming, you have to decide to abandon your car or die. The train of God’s judgment is coming, so we must chose to abandon our unbelief or die. The stakes could not be higher. Happy are those who choose well.
Reflection and Review
What does it mean to be born again?
How is the Spirit like the wind?
What is the gospel?