Setting

The close connection between the opening of this passage and the concluding verses of the previous passage tells us that the scene of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is set in Jerusalem. Many believed in Jesus’ name when they saw the signs Jesus had done, and Nicodemus, likewise, seeks for Jesus because of the signs. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night—a fact by which he will later be identified ( Jn 7:50; 19:39). While Nicodemus considers Jesus as a teacher from God, Jesus directs Nicodemus to the deeper and essential truth of spiritual rebirth and eternal life through the Son of God.

Key Verse

(3:5)

Did You Know...?

1. A ruler of the Jews (3:1): Since Jesus describes Nicodemus as “the teacher” of Israel, it is fair to assume that Nicodemus was a prominent rabbi in the Sanhedrin, the highest national council overseeing Jewish affairs. We may also infer from the Gospel according to John that he was a wealthy and just man (7:50, 51; 19:39).

2. “Wind” and “spirit” translate the same Greek word: pneuma (3:5–8).

3. “You must be born again” (3:7): The pronoun “you” here, as well as in verses 11 and 12, is in the plural.

Outline

  • Jesus’ Dialogue with Nicodemus
    (3:1–12)
  • Discourse on Eternal Life
    (3:13–21)

Keywords/Phrases

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General Analysis

  • 1.

    One striking feature of this passage is the numerous contrasts the Lord speaks of. List these pairs of contrast.

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    Spirit and flesh; earthly things and heavenly things; ascent and descent; belief and unbelief; perishing and everlasting life; condemnation and salvation; darkness and light.

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Segment Analysis

  • 1:1–12

    1.

    Why is Nicodemus commendable? What is the lesson for us?

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    Jesus came from a relatively unknown town (cf. 1:46; 7:52) and did not undergo rabbinical training (7:15). But Nicodemus, being a prominent teacher himself, humbly sought out Jesus after concluding that Jesus must be from God. Furthermore, the growing opposition of the Jewish authorities toward Jesus also meant that it took courage for Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, to stand on Jesus’ side. Various inferences have been offered on why Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” but whatever motivated his timing, Nicodemus’ attitude and action are praiseworthy. It takes much humility for us to admit our insufficiency and seek help, especially when people look up to us. Unless we are willing to remove the pride within us, we can easily become our own obstacle to spiritual growth. Many people reject the message of salvation because they value the wisdom of this world more than the will of God (1 Cor 1:18–20). We can only receive God’s grace if we are willing to humble ourselves (Jas 4:6).

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  • 2.

    Compare what Nicodemus knew and testified (v. 1) with what Jesus knew and testified (v. 11).

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    The extent of Nicodemus’ knowledge, having contemplated on the signs Jesus did, was that Jesus was a teacher come from God. But the Lord Jesus did not need such a testimony, as much as it was a great compliment from a human perspective (cf. 2:25). Without even acknowledging Nicodemus’ confession, Jesus went straight to the essential truth of salvation and taught Nicodemus the necessity of being born from above through faith in the Son of God. This knowledge and testimony, spoken by the One who had come down from and ascended to heaven, was far more important. Unfortunately, the people could not accept the Lord’s witness.

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  • 3.

    How is the birth Jesus spoke of different from the birth Nicodemus had in mind?

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    Jesus was speaking about spiritual birth, whereas Nicodemus was thinking of natural birth.

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  • 4.

    What does it mean to be “born of water and the Spirit”?

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    1. “Water” is a reference to baptism. This can be inferred from the context in the Gospel of John (1:26, 31, 33; 3:23). Peter also refers to baptism as “water” (Acts 10:47) and considers the water at the time of Noah a prefiguration of baptism (1 Pet 3:20, 21). Ananias commanded Saul to be baptized to wash away his sins (Acts 22:16; emphasis added). In other words, the water in baptism carries the spiritual effect of washing. For this reason, the washing that takes place in baptism is also called the washing of regeneration (Tit 3:5). Baptism affords a new life because our sins are washed away in baptism and we undergo a spiritual resurrection (Acts 2:38; Rom 6:3, 4; Col 2:12–13). No reference to water other than the baptismal passages in the Bible connects water so closely with salvation, the remission of sins, and the beginning of a new life. Therefore, when Jesus speaks of water as being a necessary part of spiritual birth and requirement for entrance into God’s kingdom, we cannot avoid the understanding that “water” is the water of baptism. For a fuller explanation, see The Doctrine of Baptism published by the True Jesus Church. 2. The water in baptism alone cannot effect spiritual birth, for baptism is not about the removal of the filth of the flesh (1 Pet 3:21). The effect of the remission of sins in baptism comes from the commissioning of Christ through the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:21–23; cf. Mt 28:18–20). Only the true church, being sent by the Lord Himself and having the presence of the Holy Spirit, has the authority to administer baptism for the remission of sins. By the witness of the Holy Spirit, the blood of Christ washes away our sins when we are baptized in water (1 Jn 5:6–8). For this reason, being born from above involves water and Spirit. 3. In short, being born of water and the Spirit means receiving a new life given by the Spirit of God through the washing in baptism.

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  • 5a.

    Many attempts have been made to detach verse 5 from baptism. Explain why the following interpretations of “water” are incorrect: “Water” means embryonic fluid. Everyone must be born of the Spirit after having been born naturally.

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    1. “Born of water and Spirit” is one thought. The Lord tells Nicodemus that unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. This means that water is part of the very spiritual birth that is required for salvation. There is nothing in the language that suggests anything like “born of Spirit in addition to born of water.” 2. Verse 6 clearly contrasts natural birth (born of the flesh) and spiritual birth (born of the Spirit). Making natural birth part of the requirement for entrance into God’s kingdom in verse 5 would directly contradict the very next statement in verse 6. 3. Lastly, the standard expression for natural birth is “born of a woman,” (Mt 11:11; Gal 4:4), not “born of water.”

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  • 5b.

    Using “water” as a symbol of the Spirit, Jesus was teaching the necessity of being born of water, that is, the Spirit. “Water” is not to be taken literally.

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    In John 7:38, 39, where water is symbolic of the Holy Spirit, the water is called “living water,” and it is explained by the Bible as representing the Spirit. However, in John 3:5, “water” is unqualified and unexplained, and thus we may not assume that it is referring to the Spirit. If all Jesus wanted to say is “unless one is born of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” without having anything else related to water in mind, He would have had no reason to even add “water” in such a succinct and crucial statement.

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  • 6.

    According to Jesus, why is it necessary to be born from above to enter the kingdom of God? What other teachings in the Bible support this explanation?

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    The Lord says in verse 6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This is the fundamental reason why a new birth is necessary to enter God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is spiritual, and therefore flesh and blood, which is subject to corruption, cannot inherit this incorruptible kingdom (1 Cor 15:50). The human race is spiritually dead in trespasses and sins and by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:1–3); everyone stands condemned and is bound to perish (cf., Jn 3:16, 18). Unless a person receives the spiritual birth from above and becomes a child of God again (made possible through faith in Christ and through baptism; Rom 6:3–11; Col 2:12–13; Gal 3:26–29), he has no part in God’s kingdom.

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  • 7.

    In what ways is spiritual birth like the blowing of the wind? Can you relate this to your own experience as a believer?

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    The spiritual birth that God gives us is beyond what we can see with our eyes. God grants us His life by His will (Jn 1:13; Jas 1:18), which far surpasses our thoughts and our ways. We are not able to point with our fingers at our new life or explain how this spiritual birth from above works. Nevertheless, just as we can hear the sound of the wind even though we do not know where it comes from or where it goes, our lives become living proof of the Spirit’s marvelous workings. We have been made free from the law of sin and death to live according to God and the fruit of the Spirit (Rom 8:1–4; Gal 5:16–25)

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  • 8.

    What distinction is Jesus drawing in verses 10 to 12? Who is Jesus referring to?

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    Jesus draws a sharp distinction between “we” and “you” (in the Greek text, the second “you” in verse 11 and all the “you”s in verse 12 are plural). By “we,” the Lord included believers who stand with him to testify of heavenly things. Those who are of God, both the Son of God from heaven as well as the sons of God born from above, testify what they have seen, i.e., the spiritual life in God (cf. 1 Jn 1:1–3). But those who are of the flesh, i.e., the unbelievers, do not know these things and do not receive their witness (cf. Jn 1:5; 3:19, 20).

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  • 9.

    What are the “earthly things” and “heavenly things” in verse 12?

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    What the Lord Jesus taught the people, including the truth about being born from above, are the “earthly things” in the sense that the Lord Jesus has come to this world to declare to us the things of God in ways that are accessible to us, for He is the way between heaven and earth (Jn 1:51; 14:6). However, many people still do not believe the words of Jesus. If, despite the signs the Lord Jesus performed and the teachings He expounded, people do not believe what Jesus said, it would be impossible for them to even begin to comprehend “heavenly things,” i.e., the glorious things of heaven God has in store for believers (cf. 1 Cor 2:6–16; Eph 1:3; Heb 3:1; 11:16; 1 Pet 1:4).

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  • 10a.

    Nicodemus could not grasp the important truth Jesus was conveying. According to Jesus, what was the reason for his slowness of understanding?

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    Nicodemus asked the question of “How can…” twice. While they may seem like innocent inquiries to gain further understanding, the Lord attributed his misunderstanding to unbelief (v. 12). Although the Lord was speaking to a larger class of people in verse 12 (“you” is plural in the Greek text), he did not exclude Nicodemus from it because he was speaking to Nicodemus (the first “you” in verse 11 is singular).

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  • 10b.

    What does this teach us about understanding God’s word?

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    Oftentimes, we are unable to understand the word of God because we are slow of heart to trust what God says (Lk 24:25; cf. Mt 22:29; 2 Cor 3:14–16).

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  • 3:13–21

    11.

    What must we do to have eternal life?

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    We must believe in the Son of God (3:13–18).

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  • 12.

    How has God revealed His love for us?

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    God loves the world by giving us His only begotten Son (Jn 3:16; Rom 8:32). This “giving” required that the Son be “lifted up” for our sake, i.e., that He be crucified and exalted (Jn 3:14–15; 8:28; 12:32).

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  • 13.

    How is the lifting up of the Son of Man like Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the wilderness (Num 21:4–9)?

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    The expression “lift up” is a crucial one in the Gospel according to John. It represents the death, exaltation, and glorification of the Son of Man (cf., Jn 8:28; 12:32). The fiery serpents in the wilderness were God’s punishment. But God told Moses to make a fiery serpent—a replica of the very instrument of death—and set it on a pole. Everyone who was bitten may look at it and live. In the same way, our Lord Jesus, by His death, underwent the punishment for sin that we deserve and was therefore exalted to the highest. By trusting Him as our Savior, we may have eternal life

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  • 14.

    Why can only the Son of God bring us eternal life?

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    Only the Son of God, who came down from heaven, has ascended to heaven (Jn 3:13). That is why He alone can be the way to heaven (Jn 1:51; 14:6).

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  • 15.

    How does the message of this segment relate to the teaching about spiritual birth in the previous segment?

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    Jesus’ teachings about faith in the Son for eternal life in the second segment (3:13–21) closely parallels and elaborates on His words to Nicodemus in the first segment (3:1–12). Jesus, the Son of God, is the only way to the heavenly kingdom. We must believe in Him to have eternal life. Believing in the Son of God involves being born of water and Spirit—the spiritual birth made possible by of the sacrifice of the Son of God and made effective by His name. That is why the washing in baptism is founded on the death, resurrection, and universal authority of Christ (Mt 28:18, 19; Rom 6:3, 4; Col 2:12–13; 1 Pet 3:21, 22).

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  • 16.

    What motivates a person to come to Christ? What keeps him away?

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    Our evil deeds make us love darkness rather than light (Jn 3:19–21). We would not want to come to Christ if we enjoy our lives in sin because coming to Christ demands giving up what we enjoy and facing our own guilt. But if we are willing to humbly submit to God’s truth, we would be drawn to the light, which the Son of God has brought into this world (Jn 1:4, 5), because God Himself is that light and is the source of all goodness (1 Jn 1:5; Jas 1:17).

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