John 3:1-17


John 3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.

"Now" has been explained in two ways:

  1. Nicodemus is an example of the people mentioned in 2:23-25, people with a weak, milk-faith;

  2. Nicodemus is different from those people.

If the former is correct "now" means "now" in the narrative sense. If the latter is correct, it means "but." Both explanations have been suggested by eminent exegetes. We shall not try to solve this, nor need we. But it is very clear that Nicodemus is not yet a Christian.

"Of" occurs approximately 160 times in John's Gospel and has a variety of meanings. Here it tells us that he was a member of the Pharisaic party.

"Nicodemus" is a Greek name. During the Hellenistic period many Jews were given Greek names.

The Jewish ruling council is also called the Sanhedrin.

Nicodemus is mentioned only here and again in John 7:50 and John 19:39. The last reference clearly indicates that he became a Christian.

Verses 1-10 constitute a dialog. Verses 11-21 constitute a monolog. John gives us eleven conversations of Jesus in full detail.

John 3:2 He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."

We do not know precisely at what time this happened. Why did he come at night? His secret visit was probably because he feared he would be exposed to the ridicule and hatred of his fellows, or because he thought himself too eminent a person to compromise his dignity by making this visit in public.

Stoeckhardt: He was ashamed of this visit to Jesus before his colleagues.
Hendriksen: We just do not know.

Nicodemus does not see Jesus as Savior, but merely as teacher. He bases this belief on the signs. For "these signs" see 2:23. There are many unrecorded signs in John's Gospel. Nicodemus implies that God not only accompanied the signs, but was the source of help and power. Nicodemus is not confessing Jesus' divinity in this verse. He thinks of Him as a prophet. Similar to Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament who performed miracles also, but only with the help of God.

John 3:3 In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

Jesus is neither flattered nor does He "talk down" to Nicodemus. Three times Jesus says "I tell you the truth." (3,5,11) Two times Nicodemus says "how." (4,9) And Jesus adds another "how" in 12. Nicodemus' questions clearly show his utter lack of faith. Jesus' answers clearly show the utter necessity and truth of conversion, a work of God in man.

Jesus use of grammar indicates there are no exceptions to what He is saying.

"Again" has caused much discussion. It is found in John 3:3; John 3:31; John 19:11 and John 19:23. In the last three instances it must mean "from above." But does it means that here? Eminent exegetes translate "from above." But the word as it is used in verse 4, clearly shows that the meaning is "again." Thus in most of our translations.

"Can see" means "to experience."

"The Kingdom of God" here means the invisible church. The  Una Sancta.  Repentance is required for entrance into this kingdom (though the Gospel of John does not use this word). Lenski has a beautiful discussion at this point.

Note that we have negatives in both protasis and apodosis. If both be dropped it means: "If ever anyone is born again he is able to see the Kingdom of God. We make this observation to bring out the point that "anyone" is universal, not restrictive, "anyone, no matter who."

John 3:4 "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

Though Nicodemus is not yet a Christian he is not ashamed to ask questions. "Man" means "human being." Nicodemus uses the Greek word for physical rebirth, showing that is what he is thinking Jesus means. Jesus responds, in verse 5, with the same word. But Nicodemus uses "to be born" sequentially in verse 4, whereas Jesus inverts the order of the verbs but does not make them sequential. Both of Nicodemus' questions in verse 4 are preposterous. These questions show us how ridiculous conversion appears to human reason, left to its own resources.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.

Again Jesus speaks of a universal truth, no exceptions. When He says "I tell you the truth" it denotes Jesus' divine authority, attributed to His human nature.

"Born of water and the Spirit." We note first of all: the preposition is not repeated after "and." Therefore "water and Spirit" are one indivisible unit. The water in baptism is not a mere symbol. Secondly, the only baptism known at this point in Jesus' earthly life was that of the Baptist. The Holy Spirit was bestowed in John's baptism. There is only one baptism, Titus 3:5. Thirdly, the effects of John's baptism and the baptism after Pentecost were the same.

What were the differences? First, John's baptism was for Israel only, see John 1:31. Secondly, John's baptism was given at the end of the Old Covenant. The apostolic baptism (Matthew 28:19) was given at the beginning of the New Covenant and is for all nations. Thirdly, there are those who say that the words "of water" are not important because Jesus does not use them at the end of verse 8. Dropping the world "water and" in verse 5 is supported by no Greek Manuscript evidence.

The commentaries will demonstrate the opposing views of the Reformed and Lutheran on the efficacy of water-baptism.

Who can understand conversion? That's what Jesus will say in verse 8.

John 3:6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Notice the beautiful symmetry in this compound sentence. "Gives birth to" is common to both parts. In Greek the perfect participles are used as nouns and denote existing state.

The first sentence denotes physical birth, "of the flesh." The word "flesh" denotes fallen human nature, totally devoid of goodness or righteousness. The two occurrences of "flesh" are identical in meaning.

"But" or "and likewise."

The two occurrences of "spirit" are not identical in meaning. The first means "Holy Spirit" but the second means simply "spirit."

Baptism, a means of grace, causes a person to be spiritual, forgiven, reconciled to God, a member of the Una Sancta through Jesus Christ.

John 3:7 You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'

The participle beginning this verse in Greek introduces a prohibition. Again, Jesus is saying something that pertains at all times to all human beings. Note that Jesus speaks forthrightly but lovingly without the niceties of such words as "please."

"You must" here and in verse 14, does not denote compulsion, but necessity in the sense that God wills conversion and also that man is totally unable to help himself. The "born" is passive in verse 6. But physical birth and conversion are passive experiences. "You" is plural, it refers not only to the Jews but also to all people. Here "again" means "again."

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."

The first part of this verse is an axiom. All people understand it. We can observe the fact that there is wind, that it blows and that it makes a sound. This is inherent knowledge.

Jesus is pointedly telling Nicodemus: "You're an educated man but cannot explain this physical phenomenon." Of course, it's true of all men, even the most educated meteorologist. They observe the movements of clouds and winds but what Jesus says here is still true and will be so until the end of time.

"In the same way." In what same way? Grammar requires that we say that Jesus is not speaking on the Holy Spirit himself, but the person who is born of the Spirit. Regeneration yields observable evidence. It shows in the life of the converted person. But regeneration itself is a deep mystery. It is God's work in its entirety, including faith.

Here the Reformed exegetes make a point that "water" is omitted here in some manuscripts. But there is more manuscript evidence for including "water" than for eliminating it. They say it is only the Spirit that is important. In this way the Reformed attempt to deny that baptism is a true means of grace. Compare what Luther says in the Small Catechism.

John 3:9 "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked.

Nicodemus' question truly reveals his spiritual ignorance, but let us not be fast to condemn him. Must we not admit that we often ask the same and similar questions? Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but a friendly and honest one. But friendliness and honesty cannot convert anyone.

John 3:10 "You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things?

The words imply that Nicodemus was a well known teacher. These words are not to be taken as a reproach, or as irony, but rather as an expression of sincere sadness over this sorrowful state of ignorance.

Kretzmann: The subject of regeneration is treated so often in the Psalms and in the visions of the prophets that a teacher of the people should have been thoroughly familiar with its full import. See Psalm 51:12; Ezekiel 11:19.

Here the dialog ends. Verses 11-21 are discourse, a monolog spoken by Jesus.

John 3:11 I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.

Again a divine asseveration as in verses 3 and 5. Nicodemus began by saying "we know." Now Jesus begins His monolog with "we know." Who are "we?" Jesus and John the Baptist? Jesus and the Holy Spirit? "We" might be a literary plural, which means Jesus is speaking only of Himself. It might be Jesus and the Father.

In any case, they know and have seen. And so they speak and give testimony.

"You people" is the Covenant people of God.

Here we have an excellent example of personal evangelism. Jesus is courteous but does not soften the stark reality of Nicodemus' ignorance.

John 3:12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?

This verse is a compound-complex sentence made up of two conditional sentences, the first a fact condition and the second, in the form of the question, future more vivid. The whole verse is really a lesser to greater argument. In the first conditional sentence the protasis is a past tense and the apodosis present tense. In the second conditional sentence both verbs are future.

What is meant by "earthly" and "heavenly" things?

Ylvisaker: Regeneration takes place on this earth in the hearts of men, even though it is a creative act of God. With the heavenly things He alludes to the atonement, the act resolved upon in the bosom of the heavenly and eternal Love, and executed on the earth, not IN us, but FOR us who are of the earth, by the humiliated and exalted Son of Man, who is in heaven.
Fahling: The spiritual regeneration, while a wonderful work of God, yet is an earthly things in this respect, that it takes place on earth, in the hearts of men . . . What if Christ will touch upon things wholly in the unseen? . . . . He speaks of the mysteries concerning His own person and of the gracious counsel and purposes of God.
Kretzmann: What would be the result if Christ should begin to teach of matters not open to human observation and experience, things wholly in the unseen, the essence and purposes of God?

John 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven -- the Son of Man (the One who is in heaven).

The first example of heavenly things is found in verse 13. The second example begins in verse 14. Among human beings there is only one human who is heavenly and that is Jesus.

"The One who is in heaven" is a variant reading, not found in all the manuscripts. Lutheran exegetes are unanimous in including the words. Lutherans say: "The amazing thing is that the incarnate Christ is in heaven also according to His human nature." The Reformed say: "His divine nature is in heaven, but only His human nature can be on earth in the state of humiliation." Lutherans insist that in the state of exaltation Jesus' human nature is everywhere. The Reformed deny this. We are dealing with a fundamental difference in theology here. Of our translations, only KJV and NKJV include these words.

For two reasons we must include these words:

  1. A difficult reading would hardly have been added;

  2. The diversity of variant readings shows an attempt to clarify these fathomless words.

While Jesus was on earth He could say: "I came from heaven and am in heaven."

John 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,

Some versions begin a new section at this point, others that a new section begins at verse 16. In either case they attribute these words (from here to verse 21) to the Evangelist John. But we note that Jesus is still speaking in verses 16 and 17.

Jesus is explaining. Verse 12 denotes what is observable: the results of regeneration. Verse 13 denotes what is not observable: the eternal counsel of God for man and the marvel of the person of the incarnate Christ. Verse 14 introduces the second unobservable truth: The salvation of mankind. Verses 15 to 21 are like the opening of the flower with beautiful petals. Jesus moves from the unobservable to the observable in verse 21, the good works of a Christian. In other words, Jesus is the speaker to the end of verse 21.

Back to verse 14.

Kretzmann: There are three points of similarity between type and antitype in this story. The brazen serpent of Moses had the form and appearance of the poisonous reptile after which it was modeled, just as Jesus was revealed in the form of our sinful flesh, had the needs and ways of an ordinary human being, was finally punished as a criminal. Just as the brazen serpent, however, had no poison, was altogether harmless, so Jesus, though in appearance like unto sinful men, was without sin, holy, harmless, undefiled. A strange curse was resting upon Him, He hung upon the cross. And finally, just as he that looked at the brazen serpent in faith remained alive, so also every sinner that has been poisoned by sin in its various forms, but now looks up to Jesus the Savior, in simple, trusting faith, shall not perish, but have eternal life.

"Must be" is impersonal and does not denote compulsion or fate. The necessity is caused by the will of God and the dire and awful condition of mankind.

John 3:15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

"Him" refers to the Son of Man. Note that the believer possesses life eternal already in this life.

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.

Very likely the best known verse in the Bible. Verses 16-18 explain verses 14-15.

"World" is the Greek word "kosmos." It must denote all human beings. Not just people who have been chosen, or "elected" to believe.

"So that" denotes actual result.

"One and only" is translated in KJV, NASB, AAT and NKJV as "only-begotten." Others translate it "only" in the sense of unique. The Nicene Creed and our Lutheran fathers understood this word in the sense of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father.

The verse clearly shows that Jesus is God's gift to all human beings of all time.

John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Another explanation. The obvious reason for which this verse is added is that people (even Christians) think of God merely as a judge. This verse has two more purpose clauses. The first tells us why God did NOT send His Son, and the second tells us why He DID send Him. Christians need to listen to this verse. Christians, too, often slip into the false idea that Jesus is merely a Judge.

Note that "world" occurs three times in this verse. The first instance, in a prepositional phrase, denotes the incarnation. The second and third instances denote all mankind.

By the way, if "kosmos" (according to the Reformed theology) in verse 16 means only the elect, the conclusion of verse 17 is difficult to understand. "Kosmos" simply must mean "all people."

Note: Pentecost I is the same day as Trinity Sunday. John 3:1-17 clearly speaks of the Trinity. The Triune God is the saving God. One cannot be saved without faith in the Trinity. It is suggested that on this day the Athanasian Creed be used rather than the Apostles' or Nicene Creed because the Athanasian Creed is so very clear on the doctrine of the Trinity. Many sects deny the Trinity. They are not Christian. Therefore, we must stress the Trinity in our teaching and preaching.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B Mark-John, Sundays after Pentecost, Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 1-5

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