It is possible to link this passage to the proceeding one by suggesting that Nicodemus is one of those drawn to Jesus by his miracles but it is evident that his faith is not genuine. The key point is that at this stage Nicodemus thinks of Jesus as nothing more than an impressive teacher / prophet figure and clearly has no real understanding of who Jesus actually is. It is unclear as to why Nicodemus comes to see Jesus at night: some think it was when Pharisees took time to discuss theological issues, others think it because he was anxious not to be seen with Jesus.
Nicodemus would probably have understood the expression “the kingdom of God” (vv. 3&5) as a reference to the future Davidic kingdom where there would be eternal resurrection life for God’s true people. It is likely that Nicodemus would have had two major misunderstandings about the kingdom of God: first he no doubt believed all Jews apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness would be part of it and second that it was entirely a future end-time entity.
Jesus highlights that entry into the kingdom of God takes place by way of an inner transformation which effectively constitutes a new birth from heaven by the Spirit of God and that this eternal life needs to be entered into before the final consummation of the kingdom age – i.e. the return of Christ.
Jesus develops the concept of divine rebirth by way of the unusual expression “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). Some take “water” and “the Spirit” to be terms of contrast distinguishing between natural birth and spiritual birth, others see water as an allusion to baptism as a crucial step in regeneration.
First it is important to recognise that “water” and “the Spirit” are complimentary terms not contrasting ones and that the statement “born of water and the Spirit” is the equivalent of the expression “born again.” Second it is important to recognise that the correct Biblical view of baptism is that it is a picture of what has already happened to a believer and not itself instrumental in any way in regeneration itself.
An important clue as to the true significance of “born of water and the Spirit” lies in the fact that Jesus chastises Nicodemus for not understanding these things when as a teacher of the people he clearly should. The obvious deduction to make is that the explanation of what Jesus says about new birth in terms of water and Spirit is to be found in the OT – i.e. the very scriptures that Nicodemus would have taught from. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 water and Spirit are mentioned together to signify cleansing from impurity and an inner transformation of the heart.
The distinction made by Jesus that “flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (v. 6) confirms the vital point that the regeneration of new birth can only be brought about by God. Jesus goes on to reinforce the point about the need for an inner regeneration which is completely dependent upon a work of God in terms of an analogy about the wind inferring that i) just as the wind cannot be controlled or really understood in its ways, so the work of the Spirit of God is of another realm ii) but just as the effects of the wind can be seen so the effects of the Spirit are clear.
The expression “lifted up” communicates the paradox of Jesus’ death representing a display of divine glory where his being mounted on the cross in the agony and disgrace of crucifixion will also represent a first crucial part of his exaltation. The key expression “eternal life” occurs for the first time in the gospel at this point. Praise God that through the horrific death of Jesus we come to know new life – a re-birth meaning that we become children of our wonderful heavenly Father!
Prayer: As children of the Most High, we can come to him with all that concerns us. What is your biggest burden at the moment? Bring it to our Heavenly Father knowing he takes such great care of us, his children.
Song: You love awakens me