Illustration by the Wandsbecker Art Institute,
some time before 1910
Key text: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
Main point: Jesus stands at the threshold of salvation and is the sole life-giving source of all who enter the kingdom of God.
The Pharisees were a religious sect of great influence that developed during the intertestamental period. The first seeds of this group can be seen in the development of a scribal system during and after the Babylonian Exile. Israel’s Exile was understood to have been their punishment for having violated the Mosaic covenant-law (Torah). Israel then turned more diligently toward that covenant-law and founded a scribal system to safeguard its violation.
At the time of Jesus, scribes were considered experts in the interpretation of the Torah and the Oral Tradition. In the time of Jesus there were perhaps 6,000 Pharisees in Israel, most of them being scribes, and thousands more people looked to them for religious leadership. The Pharisaic party had influential members in the Sanhedrin, Israel’s ruling elite, although most of the Sanhedrin members were Sadducees (the priestly class).
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and privileged to belong to Israel’s ruling class of elders, the Sanhedrin. Our passage (3:1-18) indicates that Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus took place at night. The reason is not given, but we can guess that Nicodemus does not want to be seen talking with Jesus in public, probably fearing rebuke from his own party members. Nicodemus does not come with deception, to test or trap Jesus in order to hold some accusation against him—he has come with a sincere desire to know.
It is fitting that this meeting takes place at night, because Nicodemus cannot see (understand) what Jesus reveals to him, although the “true light” and the “light of the world” is right in front of him!
The messianic age has dawned in the person and work of Jesus, and with it, the kingdom of God has arrived! However, it is perceived only by people who have faith. The old Mosaic covenant-law has come to an end, and is now entirely fulfilled and no longer obligatory. The new covenant takes its place and opens salvation’s door, which is Jesus Christ. He is the life-giving source of God’s Spirit and, like water that gives life to organic matter, so Jesus gives new spiritual life to whoever believes in him!
In the new covenant, salvation comes with belief in Jesus. Nicodemus could not see because he was still focused on Moses, even though Moses is pointing to Jesus! To be born again is to experience new spiritual life in Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Many people today are like Nicodemus – they look for a future kingdom of God, which in its time will surely come. But Jesus invites anyone who believes to enter his kingdom in the here and now! Those who enter spiritually by faith today will also enter it the future, with glorious, transformed.
Questions for Bible study
Read the following verses and respond to the questions:
1. John 3:1-8
a. Who is Nicodemus? Verse 1. Explain his prominence in Jewish society. Note: The ruling council is the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest governing body under Roman occupation.
b. At what time did Nicodemus meet with Jesus? Verse 2a. Why do you think Nicodemus chose not to meet Jesus in the plain light of day and in public?
c. With what title does Nicodemus address Jesus? Verse 2b. Explain what this title means. Consult a Bible dictionary.
d. What does Nicodemus believe about Jesus? Verse 2c-d. On what evidence does Nicodemus base his belief about Jesus?
e. What does Jesus say to Nicodemus? Verse 3. Jesus seems to anticipate Nicodemus’ question before he even asks it. From Jesus’ reply, what do you think Nicodemus wants to know?
f. In verse 3, what does Jesus mean by the “kingdom of God”? Note: The kingdom of God is both present and future. It does not necessarily refer to a place, but to God’s messianic rule in Christ over the believing hearts of persons who submit to his authority. These people are privileged to live with God, and that begins in this age.
g. How does Nicodemus interpret Jesus’ words, “born again”? Verse 4. Is Nicodemus having a hard time understanding Jesus?
h. What is the difference here as opposed to verse 3 where Jesus uses the words, “no one can see…”? Verse 5. The two terms are two ways of conveying the same thing. In the Gospel of John, entering the kingdom of God is synonymous with entering eternal life. Both are accessible here and now through Jesus.
i. What other terms are used in verse 5 to describe “being born again” (verse 3)? What does it mean to be born in this way? Note: “Water” may not refer to baptism in this verse. It may be used figuratively to refer to spiritual renewal. For John’s use of water in the figurative sense, see also 4:10, 13-14; 7:38-39.
j. What contrast is being made between the two manners of birth described? Verse 6. Explain the difference.
k. What should Nicodemus not be surprised about? Verse 7. Is being born again an optional condition, or an absolute requirement for entering the kingdom of God? Why?
l. What analogy is presented here? Verse 8. What is it that Jesus is attempting to convey to Nicodemus by this analogy? Note: Spiritual regeneration (the new birth) is something that only God can give to persons. Humans cannot produce it, deserve it, or control it (decide for it to happen on their own terms). God gives spiritual rebirth on his terms alone, and it comes by God’s grace through faith (believing) in Jesus Christ alone. See John 1:12-13.
2. John 3:9-15
a. What is Nicodemus’ reaction to what Jesus has told him so far? Verse 9.
b. What admonishment does Jesus give him? Verse 10. Explain.
c. What messianic evidence does Jesus present? Verse 11. What is the reaction of the Jews as a whole?
d. What is Jesus referring to in this verse? Verse 12. Compare with verses 6-8.
e. Who has gone into heaven to bring back and reveal God’s redemptive will? Verse 13a. Where does the Son of Man (Jesus) come from? Verse 13b.
f. What is God’s redemptive will, and who is to both reveal it and accomplish it? Verse 14. How does the old illustrate the new? Verse 15. See Numbers 21:8, 9.
1. If you could use only this one verse, how could you use it to briefly present the gospel to someone else? Verse 16. The verse can be broken down into three or four parts. Present the gospel one part at a time in your own words.
2. What attitude should the Christian worker have when presenting the message? Verse 17. Explain the difference between presenting the “good news” of the gospel versus condemning with “bad news.”
3. What is the present condition of those who do not believe? Verse 18. Why? What about those who have never heard the gospel? Note: This question gets at the root of humanity’s problem. Although the medicine is available to everyone who hears, it must be received to be effective. But what about those to whom the medicine never arrives?
Nicodemus, as hard-pressed as he was to understand Jesus, mercifully, finally saw the light (John 19:38-39). Many of us also stumbled in the night, until we encountered Jesus and were spiritually “born again” in him.