No one has seen God but Jesus.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 3:1-21
After Jesus' confrontation in the temple, Nicodemus thought to challenge Jesus in a more private setting. It didn't go as planned. Instead, Nicodemus learned that the Jews had misunderstood the most fundamental motives and purposes of God who instead had to send His own Son to explain and give His love and salvation.
16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The first Sunday of any calendar year is always a great time for reflection as a group, and this year we have the ultimate new-year-new-you passage to help us approach this with hope -- being born again.
Our present is a function of our past, and some of our past choices will follow us our entire life, but in Jesus we can "start over" in a way that our future can be bound wholly to Him
If you've followed my posts for more than a year, you know that I'm not a big fan of "new year resolutions". Generally speaking, "resolutions" are how we justify putting off the things we know we should already be doing and then excusing ourselves when we don't stick to them. They're a gimmick. As James says -- if you know of the good you should be doing and don't do it, that's sin (4:17).
That said, we know from experience that we still do things we know we shouldn't, and we don't do things we know we should. And those choices are influenced by things that happen around us and to us.
So, start group time with questions like these:
What are blessings from 2022 you will never forget?
What are sorrows from 2022 you would like to forget?
What are ways you showed spiritual growth in 2022?
What are areas you realized you still have a long way to go?
What are your prayers for 2023?
What are things you need to change in 2023?
In our passage this week, we get the greatest motivation to be a new person, and we learn that we shouldn't wait for a calendar quirk to claim it.
Bonus exercise. You may not have time to do this this week, but your group challenge is to set some group goals for 2023. How many people are you going to reach out to? What mission or ministry project are you going to take on?
Where We Are in John
In our previous lesson in John, we watched as Jesus somewhat reluctantly launched His public ministry -- a great miracle at a wedding in Cana, and a confrontation with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. This week's encounter with Nicodemus is intended to be read in light of the encounter in the temple.
In 2:13-25, Jesus has a very public encounter with the Jewish leaders in which they think they leave with the upper hand
In 3:1-21, Jesus has a very private encounter with a single Jewish leader in which it becomes clear that the Jews have no hand at all
Scholars have tried to give Nicodemus a good face -- after all, he helps Joseph after the crucifixion -- but really, we need to read this encounter in light of John's prologue:
5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.
It's no coincidence that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. If Jesus' encounter with the Jewish leaders at the temple revealed the stakes as the conflict between God and humanity, Jesus' encounter with Nicodemus reveals that even the best of humanity (i.e., human religion) is still woefully broken.
This Week's Big Idea: Nicodemus
Here's a polarizing character among Bible scholars. What do we know about him for certain?
A ruling official
Member of the Sanhedrin (7:51)
That alone makes Nicodemus a conundrum. Pharisees were popular influencers -- they positioned themselves as champions of right Jewish living as a model for all Jews -- but they were not political influencers. In fact, they largely eschewed politics because of the heavy Roman (Gentile) taint on the upper-most circles of power.
But Nicodemus was a ruling official; this means more than just being a member of the Sanhedrin. We know from Josephus that some Pharisees were also extremely wealthy, and as such their families had a great deal of influence in Jerusalem. A big clue that ties Nicodemus to this wealth is his name: "Nicodemus". It's an extremely rare name among Jews at this time. One scholar said he found only 4 Jews with name between 330 BC and 200 AD, and all belonged to the same powerful family (the Gurion family) known for its military heroes. The word "Nicodemus" means "conqueror of the people".
This makes Nicodemus a truly wealthy, powerful, influential, ruling elite. In other words, he is the very best Judaism has to offer. When he comes to Jesus, he comes as the ultimate presentative of the Jews. When he leaves, it is very clear that the Jews have failed.
Getting Into the Passage
1 There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
These few verses are too important to skip. They introduce Nicodemus, they introduce the setting, and give us some big clues as to what's really going on.
(Everybody loves to create art for this encounter. I wonder which creations have influenced how you imagine these verses to play out?)
(For example, this video makes Nicodemus to be an earnest seeker, and I've certainly always thought of him like that. But was he?)
I'll just hit the high points.
Calling Nicodemus "a man" immediately points us to the previous verse -- "24 Jesus, however, would not entrust himself to them, since he knew them all 25 and because he did not need anyone to testify about man; for he himself knew what was in man." And then here comes "a man" to talk to Jesus. This is our first clue that Nicodemus is not a well-intentioned, sincere seeker (at least, not yet). He is one of those men who thinks he can use Jesus for his own purposes.
Setting the encounter "at night" does more than suggest that Nicodemus is a little embarrassed or insecure. Do your own study -- look up everything that happens "at night" in John's Gospel. John uses "night" as a representation of the darkness that opposes the light of God. (This is our second clue about Nicodemus, btw.)
Nicodemus's opening honorifics ("rabbi" "teacher") indicate that Nicodemus has come with an agenda. He's come to offer what is often called a "social challenge". Jesus had just issued a challenge to the Jewish leaders in the temple, and now one of their best leaders has come to respond in kind. (This is our third clue about Nicodemus.) Yes, this is flattery. But before you put on it the negative connotations of today's flattery, realize that that was how "the game was played". By saying that Jesus was "come from God", at least we can know that Nicodemus takes Jesus very seriously; it would be blasphemous to use that phrase flippantly.
Using the word "we" clearly establishes Nicodemus as a representative of the Jewish authorities. Jesus' words in the temple, though publicly dismissed as meaningless by the Jewish leaders, clearly stirred up some contention behind closed doors. Certainly the Pharisees could not be thought to allow such a major challenge to propriety in worship! The people -- and the Pharisees are the party of the people -- have been quite impressed by Jesus' words and actions. They cannot let such a challenge to their public status go unchecked.
Here are our two main takeaways:
Nicodemus is not coming as a humble supplicant but as a representative of the very best (worst) of Judaism.
Nicodemus has come to challenge Jesus about His prophetic authority. In his mind, Nicodemus expects to trap Jesus and expose Him as a country bumpkin.
Nicodemus isn't just a man. He's "the man".
And then verse 3 sets up this week's dialog. Jesus drops what might be the most important line in the entire Bible:
"Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus starts with the phrase "Amen, amen". The word "amen" means "that's true" or "I completely agree". [Note: all of the people say "amen" at the end of a prayer as our way of saying "I agree with what was just prayed". If you don't agree with the prayer for whatever reason, don't say amen!] "Amen, amen" is a phrase that simply means "this is as true as anything I can say".
The translation "born again" is somewhat limiting. Jesus says "born anew". Nicodemus certainly latches on to the temporal aspect ("again"), but Jesus means more than that. If I just translate this as "unless someone is born anew", what connotations does that stir up in your mind?
Paul really leaned into the image of salvation as something "new", including this favorite verse (2 Cor 5:17):
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!
Jesus definitely includes "new" in His description of salvation. There's nothing wrong with the phrase "born again" as long as we realize everything it means.
An obvious discussion question to get started with: What does it mean to be "born again"? Do a little research on this this week. Make sure that your group is aware of the "newness" aspect of it. When we are born again, we become a new creation. That's obviously a great tie-in for our New Year setting. Follow that: what does it mean to be made new?
[Note: we just don't have time, but the reference to "the kingdom of God" is telling. It's something Nicodemus would have grasped onto. We might conclude that the fulfilled kingdom of God is what we now call heaven. But we might also conclude that being saved brings somebody into the kingdom of God right away. I think we are safest associating "the kingdom of God" with John's description of "eternal life" which we will see shortly.]
Part 1: Born Again? (John 3:4-8)
4 “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. 8 The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Well, Nicodemus sure didn't get it.
In just 1 verse, Jesus completely turned the tables of Nicodemus and reset this conversation as a challenge not to Jesus but to the Jewish establishment. Nicodemus came to Jesus with overly lofty honorifics only to immediately realize that Jesus was entirely worthy of every praise Nicodemus could give Him (and more). I like to believe that Nicodemus left this conversation as a broken man, the early steps of being a seeker for truth. It wouldn't have happened overnight, but we see a few clues in John's Gospel that he did eventually choose to follow Jesus. Hopefully, he was truly born again/anew.
By focusing on the "again" part of Jesus' phrase, Nicodemus missed what Jesus meant. This is exactly what the Jews had just done to Jesus in the temple:
2:19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” 20 Therefore the Jews said, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and will you raise it up in three days?”
They took the easy/wooden understanding of Jesus' words and missed Jesus' meaning. Jesus wasn't talking about literal re-birth; He was talking about a new kind of birth. In the temple, the Jews walked away from Jesus thinking they had rendered Him a fool. But here, Nicodemus cannot walk away from Jesus. He will be forced to realize that He had Jesus all wrong -- and with Him, everything God had been saying to the Jews.
"Water and Spirit"
Let me admit that for a long time I assumed that this phrase meant "natural birth and spiritual birth" (a kinda gross reference to amniotic fluid). The problem with that is that the ancient Hebrew speakers never associate water with childbirth. The phrase "born of water" just isn't a thing. But Hebrew speakers regularly associate water with cleansing. This reflects better the "born anew" idea of what Jesus was saying -- salvation is a cleansing from above, a "fresh start". (If you've ever said something like "I feel like a new person" after a shower, that's a bit of the idea.)
In other words, "born of water and Spirit" refers to one birth -- the spiritual re-birth of salvation -- not two.
What "Water and Spirit" Does Not Mean
For starters, Jesus isn't talking about our initial natural birth and our later spiritual birth. That should only make sense. If you're alive, you've been born. There's simply no need to say it. Nicodemus took that understanding because He was interpreting Jesus' words very narrowly; that's not Jesus' fault. But more importantly, Jesus was not talking about water baptism. Nowhere does anybody refer to baptism as "born of water". This is a product of people who have decided that baptism is necessary for salvation. Nor does it refer to any other physical cleansing ritual. Jesus is talking about something spiritual.
In fact, Jesus immediately refers to natural birth as "born of flesh". That should be a solid clue that "born of water" did not mean "childbirth". Rather, it's "born of flesh" vs. "born of Spirit".
Here, Jesus is introducing the "dark vs. light" conflict that John highlighted in His prologue. He will call direct attention to it in verse 19, but for now we want to highlight the "flesh vs. spirit" contrast. (We've talked at length about how Paul uses the word for "flesh"
In just a few verses, Jesus will clarify this conflict as between "earthly" and "heavenly", and then a "light" vs. "darkness". There are no neutral bystanders in this conflict. Anyone who has not been born again/anew by the Spirit is living in the world as an opponent of God.
Nicodemus thought He was really laying it on thick by invoking the image of God's prophets in his flattery of Jesus. Well, Jesus takes things all the way back to creation itself (which may be where John got his idea for the prologue):
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
Remember that the Jews didn't have a strong concept of The Spirit of God. This would be the final piece of the "Trinity Puzzle" that Jesus came to reveal. But the Spirit was no secret! The teachers of the Jewish Scriptures should have known much about the Spirit; the fact that Nicodemus knew next to nothing is a huge indictment of their learning. Here Jesus is mentioning basic truths of God, and Nicodemus is stuck on the fact that some words have multiple meanings. It's a bad look.
We don't have time to get into a full doctrine of the Spirit (pneumatology), but don't worry -- John will give us plenty of chances to learn more! Here, just know that the word for "Spirit/spirit" (pneuma) is the same word in Greek for "wind". But realize that Jesus is not just using simple wordplay. His intention is much deeper.
In what ways could Jesus be helping us understand the Spirit by likening the Spirit to wind?
(Remember that they didn't have giant motorized fans in the day. They could not create any semblance of wind. And even today, we cannot replicate the power of the wind except at very small and controlled scales.)
(And I've always remembered Billy Graham's line, "You can see the effects of the wind, but you cannot see the wind." Does that help you as much as it did me?)
Part 2: How? (John 3:9-13)
9 “How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus. 10 “Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. 11 “Truly I tell you, we speak what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven —the Son of Man.
Things just get worse for Nicodemus. He has come to Jesus as the excellent representative of the best of Judaism, looking to put Jesus in His place, and he's gone from one dumbfounded admission to another.
In the context of a social challenge, Nicodemus isn't blurting out something incredulously -- he's trying to save face and retain authority. But he's out of his league. Even this response reeks of desperation. His challenge to Jesus is completely powerless. He would have been better off keeping his mouth shut.
Jesus doesn't hesitate to put Nicodemus in his place. Nicodemus came to Jesus with a semi-mocking honorific of "rabbi" and "teacher"; now Jesus wonders what kind of "teacher" Nicodemus really is. Nicodemus thought he was coming to teach Jesus a lesson; instead, he learns that he himself has not learned the most important lessons of the Old Testament.
Jesus' use of the word "we" is critical. I had always thought He was referring to His group of disciples. But that would make no sense. He's the One teaching them, and in any event they haven't become an official unit yet. No, this "we" counters Nicodemus's "we" from verse 2. Nicodemus came as a representative of the Jewish leaders. Jesus comes as a representative of God Almighty. The "we" refers to no one other than Jesus Himself. He needs no one else to corroborate His testimony or give Him authority.
When Jesus says "you do not accept our testimony", that "you" is plural. He's not just talking to Nicodemus -- He's talking to everyone and everything Nicodemus represents. Remember that witness/testimony is one of John's key themes in this Gospel. Jesus Himself is the ultimate witness.
Jesus testifies to what He has seen (which is the very definition of being a witness). And what has Jesus seen? Heaven itself! If we didn't know this to be true, this would be shocking blasphemy. Jesus -- the Son of Man -- has gone into heaven. We aren't as shocked because John has already told us:
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
18 No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.
To an already-reeling Nicodemus, it's impossible to know what he might have been thinking. He has already discovered that he is no match for this rabbi. Could it be that this rabbi is so much more than he realized?
Now we get our clearer picture of the contrasts Jesus has painted:
Flesh / Spirit
Earthly / Heavenly
And here's what should really blow our mind -- everything Jesus has said so far has been of the earth. In other words, everything He has said is something an earthly person should have known. This reminds we very much of what He said to Nathaniel in 1:50:
“Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.”
The people are all so amazed by the most basic teachings of truth. What will they say when Jesus starts to reveal the deeper truths of the universe? (Imagine buying tickets to a world-class magician, and then leaving after the opening parlor trick, thinking you've "seen it all". As they say, "You ain't seen nothing yet.")
Part 3: Believe (John 3:14-18)
14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God."
A lot of Bible versions end the quote with verse 13 or 15. They consider verses 14-21 or 16-21 to be a narrative addition by John the author. Truly, that doesn't change the meaning at all. But I am really compelled by the scholars who believe that Jesus said all of these words.
But let's start with verse 14. The heavenly truths have begun. There's no way that an earthly person could have anticipated God's plan for salvation. God set all of these plans in plain sight for all people -- the people just missed it.
The blink-and-you'll-miss-it bizarre episode of the bronze snake appears in Numbers 21:4-9:
4 Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. 5 The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. 7 The people then came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Intercede with the Lord so that he will take the snakes away from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.
Who could have possibly thought that God intended this to be a very clear illustration of His eternal plan for salvation?
In Numbers, the people physically lifted their eyes to a statue of a bronze snake and were healed of their physical illness. But now we see that it has a direct spiritual parallel with Jesus. We're not physically looking at Jesus (a crucifix has no innate power). We are spiritually looking to Him -- and that means to believe in Him.
A big point with this illustration is its gracious nature. The people had screwed up. (Again.) They had brought calamity on themselves, and they begged God for a way out. God gave that to them. All they had to do to receive this gracious gift of healing was to acknowledge that they needed God's intervention for rescue. That's a pretty advanced picture of the gospel, isn't it?
The Israelites were complaining to God. They were impatient and self-absorbed. They were rebellious and disrespectful. They mocked God and His servant. Isn't that exactly what the Jewish leaders (and Nicodemus in specific) were doing?
"Lifted up" is a very powerful word. Because we know what will happen on the cross, we know that Jesus uses this word to represent humiliation, defeat, and death. But John the author also has another theme in mind -- exaltation. Yes, Jesus will be lifted up in humiliation, a spectacle of death. But that humiliation will turn into exaltation as Jesus conquers death itself and rises to sit at the right hand of God Almighty. Jesus will "win by losing". And Nicodemus -- or at least the earthly powers he represents -- will lose by winning.
Verses 16-21 explain what it means to believe in Jesus. Whether John that author quotes Jesus or summarizes this from his own reflection on Jesus' teachings, the meaning is lifechanging.
In the one place, draw up a chart:
Believe in the Son
Do not believe
This is pretty simple -- just go with exactly what was said in these verses (go all the way through verse 21). They give a pretty robust picture of the difference between the two.
The key phrase is "eternal life". John uses it more than any other author. Look up each instance, and you will get a pretty good understanding of what John believes it to mean. It's not just about the length of life, it's about the quality of life. Life from Jesus is life to the full.
The other thing to note is the introduction of the word "saved". This is the first time the word for "salvation" appears in the Gospel (which is a reason given for thinking of these verses as a narrative addition). We will talk about this more in the future weeks, but I wonder if we can start with a simple definition of salvation as "having the eternal life Jesus talks about". What do you think about that definition of salvation?
Another thing to realize is that everything Jesus says and does is a function of God's love for the world. The CSB is right in translating this "For God in this way loved the world" (which doesn't roll off the tongue). "The world" refers to every person on earth who has not been born of the Spirit -- everyone who opposes God (and thus Jesus). Those are the people Jesus came to give Himself for.
And that makes for a very easy answer to many hard questions -- why would God do such a thing? Because He loves us.
And how did God show His love for us? By sending us Jesus -- His "unique" Son. The word translated "only begotten" has been used by heretics to argue that Jesus was God's actual Son, that "there was a time when He was not". The word actually means "unique" ("one of a kind"), in the way that an "only child" is unique. The emphasis is not on Jesus' being a child but that there is no one else like Him. God didn't have hundreds of "children" and so wouldn't be missing anything when Jesus died. No, there is no one else with a relationship with God like Jesus has. It is the greatest sacrifice God could possibly make.
Note that Jesus did not come to condemn us. We've already condemned ourselves. Jesus came to give us a lifeline, a way out. He came to save us from the future we had already marked for ourselves.
I'm going to let you do the rest of this as homework. What does it mean to "believe" in the Son? These verses (please continue through verse 21) give us a very compelling picture of what it means.
Happy 2023! I pray God helps you live more and more in the light of Jesus, walking with Him every day. I pray God helps you take seriously the schemes of our enemies who live in darkness, who want to lead you astray and destroy everything good in your life. I pray God will make you more and more like Jesus, the perfect Son of God and author of our salvation.
Let me share my new favorite commentary on the Gospel of John:
It's super thorough, and he is happy to get into the weeds of translation and interpretation, but he never lets it get far from meaning and application. He explains things with "normal language" and doesn't expect his readers to have advanced training in theology. He explains everything clearly. If you want a great commentary on John, this is for you.