Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/The Gospel of John/Chapter 3

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John chapter 3[edit]

Key ideas and points worthy of discussion in this chapter include :

  • Spiritual rebirth from above.
  • Nicodemus as a representative character
  • Baptism (if that is what the reference to 'water' is referring to)
  • The idea that judgment has already occurred and is based entirely on one's response to Jesus. This theme reflects what is known as realized eschatology, and (particularly as interpreted by existentialist exegeses such as Rudolf Bultmann [1]) it has had a profound influence on Evangelical theology and preaching.


In John 3:1, Nicodemus is presented at the beginning of this chapter as a "ruler of the Jews.", a Senator, a sage, a Doctor of the Law, teacher of teachers and a leader of the Sandhedrin The Supreme Court). He came to Jesus at night and questioned Him, because he knows that Jesus does not perform these "signs" with out God. The time which Nicodemus chooses to meet with Jesus shows, along with his position as ruler of the Jews may be linked. Jesus, not a popular man with Jewish leaders, was usually talked to with a negative view. Nicodemus recognizes a more positive side to Jesus and His relationship to God. Rather than approaching Jesus during the day, Nicodemus' timing may reflect a fear of association with Jesus and in his recognizing Jesus Himself as a teacher and ruler. The word "night" has also been seen as symbolic referring to evil deeds or sin and as playing opposite to the word meaning pure or sinless, "light." With that said Nicodemus is seen as coming to the father at night (with sin). Jesus then proceeds to inform Nicodemus on the necessity of a new birth from above. Jesus explains more fully that a man must be born of water

(Water is a symbol for the Wisdom of God. Faith come first by hearing Yah's words of Wisdom. We are cleansed and birthed by the words)

Nicodemus would understand that water meant God's wisdom: 

The word of Yah on high is the fountain of wisdom. (Ecclesiasticus (from the Latin Vulgate) 1: 5) Wisdom is poured forth like water. (Enoch 48:1A) A wise man's knowledge wells up in a flood, and his counsel, like a fountain of life. (Sirach 14:13) A person's words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook. (Prov 18:4 )

In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Yerushalayim, for sin and for impurity. (Zech 13:1) With joy you shall draw water from the wells of salvation. (Is 12:3)


so Jesus spent more time explaining the part of the spirit. God is a spirit. He is the father of spirits (elohim sons and daughters).

Some are fallen (elohim -demons). Some are messengers to men (angels). One is called the angel of Yah's presence. Yah only dealt with men in the old testament via the angel of his presence -also known as the angel of wisdom by whom Yah created all things. Once you hear the words of the Father if your heart repents and is cleansed by them your body becomes a vessel for the angel of Yah's presence to enter. It is this infilling that makes you spirit born.

Nicodemus was not getting it.

(The Greek word for wind and spirit are one and the same 'pneuma'). Here in John is the only place in the new Testament where it is translated as wind and it muddies the water to do so. Jesus said:

That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the angel of his presence is spirit. Do not look so surprised Nicodemus. Father breathes and his breath carries his words and those who hear them and obey them, become spirit born. "The Spirit (angelof Wisdom) flows where it wants, and you are hearing its voice right this minute; but you are unaware from where the voice (Bat kol) comes or to where it returns. Nicodemus was astonished and asked, “How can this be possible?”

Jesus' use of words with double meaning.

Jesus uses three words that have a double meaning. anothen, meaning “from above” and “again”, hypsoo, meaning “lift up” and “exalt”, and pneuma, meaning “wind” and “spirit”. It is imperative that the reader understand the nature of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus to be able to recognize the human ignorance embodied by Nicodemus that actually kept him from “seeing and believing”. Jesus knows exactly what he is doing and is making every effort to bring Nicodemus to a right understanding of who he is, who God is and how this new covenant relationship works.

In talking about new birth, Jesus uses a word that surpasses the concept of being born of the flesh. The brilliant Nicodemus cannot get past the idea of entering his mothers womb to understand that Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth. In trying to explain this spiritual rebirth, Jesus talks about the Spirit. The word used here, as noted above, has a double meaning. The second meaning, “wind”, speaks directly to the mystery of what Jesus is offering.

Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus’ question of “How can this be”, comes in the form of a self-designation. Obviously his reference to the Son of Man is a reference to himself, but even Jesus seems confident that Nicodemus doesn’t get it (v12). Jesus then talks about the Son of Man being lifted up, referencing an OT story that Nicodemus knew forward and backward. While it doesn’t comment on whether or not Nicodemus understands this teaching, the implication is that he followed his previous pattern of not being able to transcend the physical, what he knew, to embrace the mystery of the spiritual.


John 3:14 states, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent ( another mistranslation. Neither Jesus nor Moses would use satanic serpent symbols. The Hebrew for seraphim (angel creatures) is meant here). in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." This is a reference to Numbers 21, when the people became impatient with God and Moses because they were in the wilderness for so long. Yahweh sent poisonous serpents among the people and many died. The people admitted they had been sinning, so Moses prayed for the people and the Lord told Moses if he put a seraph on a pole, everyone who looked at it would live. Numbers 21:9 states, "So Moses made a saraph of bronze, and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the seraph of bronze and live." This is why angel worship became a mjaor problem among the Jews.

John 3:14 can symbolize and be foreshadowing Jesus' crucifixion on a pole, as Jesus died on the cross in order to take away the power of death. One thing that differentiates the Numbers passage from the John passage is that John states people must believe in the Messiah in order to be saved. This is a very common concept in John, and it is arguably an idea seen more often in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. 

Yahshuah continues with Nicodemus: Those who gaze upon my wisdom teaching, and unite with the words (devarim, Memra , logos, angel of wisdom) I speak, and obey them, will find this wisdom will heal them of their sins and give them the Spirit-birth that leads to immortality and the Father’s love. As it is written in the Scroll of Wisdom: For when the dire venom of beasts came upon them and they were dying from the bite of crooked serpents, your anger endured not to the end. But as a warning, for a short time they were terrorized, though they had a sign of salvation, to remind them of the precept of your law. For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the savior of all… But not even the fangs of poisonous reptiles overcame your sons, for your mercy brought the antidote to heal them. For as a reminder of your injunctions, they were stung, and swiftly they were saved… For indeed, neither herb nor application cured them, but your all-healing word. (Wisdom 16: 5)

We are cleansed and healed by Yah’s words of wisdom. Yahshuah was the vessel that contained Yah’s wisdom. All who are wise come to that vessel and drink the words that cleanse and heal those who obey them.


In John 3:15, eternal life is used for the first time and emphasizes zoe life in the world to come.

The Greek word for believe in Greek is Pistis. It takes six English words to translate it: Believe,unites with, love and obey.

Whoever believes (unites with, loves, and obeys) the son, will have Zoe-life, but whoever disobeys the son, will reap a bitter harvest of vengeance.  

Chapter 3 contains two of the most popular verses in the entire Bible, John 3:16 & 17, which summarize the significance of Jesus Christ and His purpose for the world. "For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes (unites with, loves, and obeys) Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved."

Verse 18 goes on to explain that those who hear the message of Jesus, understand it, and yet refuse to believe are already judged. This reiterates the lesson of verse 15: that one must believe (unite with, love, and obey)  the Messiah to be saved. Those people who have already been judged are the ones in verse 19 who love the darkness and flee from the light. They are afraid of what the light will expose. Those who are saved love and come to the light, and God knows that their actions are done in God's name.  Once again, the author returns to the dichotomy of light and darkness.  Verses 19 and 20 reiterate this separation by focusing on how those not in the light are in fact fleeing the light. 
This Johanine theme revisits the prologue statement of the Word as Light and also fits well with much of the first chapter of the letter 1 John.  Outside of the works of John, this also lends itself well to Paul's views on life outside Christ and life "in Christ" (cf. Romans 1 and Romans 6).

In this chapter, Jesus explains how eternal life works to Nicodemus, who is one of the teachers to the Jewish people in Israel. The famous verse John 3:16 [for God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, so that whomever will believe in him will not perish, but have eternal life] is found in this section. It is interesting that these words seem to be spoken by Jesus himself in a third person oration.

John 3:22-30 shows Jesus's disciples as baptizing individuals who came to them (Jesus never water baptized but until his resurrection allowed his disciples to water baptize).

This is the first and (other than John 4:1-3) only reference to a baptizing ministry during Jesus' lifetime. Further, John points to an overlap of  ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. During the overlap a dispute arises that will lead John the Baptist to recap his testimony that His ministry points to Jesus. It does not compete with Jesus. Verse 24 notes that John the Baptist had not yet been imprisoned. The Synoptics imply that Jesus did not begin his ministry until John's imprisonment. In verse 27 John the Baptist acknowledges that his ministry is not his own. It has been a gift from God. This refers back to the first chapter of John, where John the Baptist tells of the one who comes after him. John the Baptist uses this opportunity to make it quite clear that he is in fact subordinate to Jesus. Verse 28 repeats the statement by John from 1:20 that he was not the Messiah. Verse 29 introduces a very important title for Jesus and John the Baptist. 

Jesus is a bridegroom and he has the bride (the new completed Torah). John the Baptist is the friend of the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom was a mediator for the groom making necessary arrangements. John was essentially Jesus' best man. There is a question of which parts of this text are direct quotations of John the Baptist and which are commentary by the author. Although many Bible translations show that John the Baptist speaks from verse 27 through the end of the chapter, it is also argued that John the Baptist's quotation ends at verse 30, leaving the rest of the chapter as commentary. In verse 34, we read that "He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure." While the interpretation of Jesus the Messiah giving Spirit without measure fits better with the overall book, the author could be implying that God gives Jesus the Spirit without measure. The first two verses of chapter 4 return to the competition between Jesus and John the Baptist. These verses bring to a close the section that began in 3:22. Verse 3 then provides the transition verse to Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman described in chapter 4 (Hahn).

John 3:36 lends itself to some very interesting and different interpretations. It states, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath." One interpretation of this can be that there is a contrast between eternal life and eternal punishment. While this interpretation can make complete sense, especially considering "God's wrath" is spoken of, the idea of eternal life vs. eternal damnation (possibly hell) should not be simply implied without looking deeper into the text, especially its relationship with the rest of the Gospel. Another interpretation of this verse is that the phrase, "whoever disobeys the Son will not see life" is referring to a more present tense. To back this up, one can go back to earlier in Chapter 3, (3:18) when the present tense is spoken of again, in terms of judgment: "Those who believe in him are not condemned: but those who do not believe are condemned already..." Since judgment doesn't just happen later on, but every day, the idea that those who disobey the Son won't see life can be thought of in a present tense: those who disobey won't live their lives every day the way they are supposed to. Possibly, there is a sense that those who disobey the Son will live unfulfilled lives, and won't truly connect with God on a daily basis.


Nicodemus and his relationship with Christ Nicodemus was one of the Sanhedrin (from the Greek synedrion), which was a kind of council or judiciary body for the Jewish people during the time of Christ. Nicodemus was described as 'the teacher of Israel' which certainly implies that he had some standing among the rabbis of his day. He enjoyed considerable wealth, a high-ranking position, and significant influence over his fellows. This is precisely why he should have been opposed to Christ - remember the pride, fear, and intolerance frequently evidenced by the Pharisees? But Nicodemus, even though Christ's 'Baptism of the spirit' was a concept very foreign to him, still acknowledges that Christ could not perform his miracles without divine aid (Verse 2). A unique occurrence indeed! Why would a man of Nicodemus' standing, 'the teacher of Israel' have a hard time comprehending Jesus' teaching? As Jesus states being born 'from above' and in(3:4) the repetition of a natural birth to Nicodemus was out of the question. By natural birth people become members of an earthly family; and to become members of the family of God, a birth 'from above' is necessary (Bruce). The author of John portrays Nicodemus as being a "believer" in Jesus for the duration of his ministry until his death. In John 19:39, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus and even brought seventy-five pounds of "myrrh and aloes".

Nicodemus as a representative character. The Gospel of John is not written to simply provide numerous examples of beautiful, poignant conversion experiences in all of it’s key characters. Throughout the narrative we hear very clearly that “not everyone believed”. “Everyone” includes people like Nicodemus. It seems the example of the character of Nicodemus highlights a very well-known lifestyle still being lived out in and around the Johannine community. Not to add an “example” to learn from, but to represent accurately the reality of believing in and following the person of Jesus.

To come to the end of this story and conclude that Nicodemus was a true believer in every sense of the word is disastrous to the message. Christ then becomes a good teacher, who is from God; a title that no doubt was personally adopted by many pharisees. Belief is more about simply picking and choosing and being in control of what is true.

In similar fashion to the first disciples, Nicodemus was holding onto what he had found. A stunt that would be detrimental to his ability to see and understand who Jesus was and what he must do to truly believe. Jesus simply wanted Nicodemus to let go of his preconceived ideas so he could receive this fresh outpouring of God. The character of Nicodemus can represent more than “pharisees”. We carry our preconceived ideas to God’s fresh outpouring all the time. While Nicodemus “misses” it and Jesus speaks of judgment, I think to interpret this passage in a way that brings about “7 steps to judging an un-believer” is wrong. Refusal to accept Jesus as the Son of God brings about a self-imposed condemnation, not a judgment or condemnation of God or of Jesus. Some scholars argue that Nicodemus exhibited a partial faith. Where does partial faith get us? According to this story within the larger narrative, it seems that we wind up with a cheap knock-off version of a true saving knowledge of Jesus.

How do we create boxes for God that cause us to miss God’s “new” and “fresh” grace “from above”? The inclusion of the Nicodemus story seems to be an intentional move by the evangelist to not only communicate the truth behind the message of Jesus, but to remind those a part of the Johannine community of what it means to truly follow Jesus.


Nicodemus as symbolism We know now that Nicodemus is a very distinguished teacher at the time of Jesus and his own mission to teach. It has been said in the commentary by D. Moody Smith that although Nicodemus is "a teacher of Israel, (he) is not yet in a position to converse with Jesus, because he has not attained knowledge of who Jesus really is. Jesus cannot be understood by old standards....."(101). This new knowledge seems to bring about again the idea that in order for all things to go accordingly, Jesus must be the new that replaces the old. In this scenario Nicodemus is playing the role of old standards and teachings that must be redone and renewed. In order for Jesus to take his rightful place, Nicodemus' way of thinking must change. If he is a symbol of the old teachings of Judaism, then maybe what this passage in John is saying is that the Jewish teachings, which once used to be valid, are not so valid anymore, with respect to Jesus and the new replacing the old. In addition to the above symbolism embodied by Nicodemus, he quite possibly embodies those who are interested in Jesus' teachings today. Many people educate themselves in a quest to attain as much knowledge as possible but yet still cannot comprehend the teachings and principles that Jesus teaches and represents. Even to the smartest of people, Jesus can still be an enigma.

The symbolism continues through the reference to Nicodemus coming to Jesus "by night". Light and dark have been interpreted to symbolize both good and evil as well as the idea of new and old. The fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus furthers the interpretation that Nicodemus is not yet in position to converse with Jesus. D. Moody Smith says this is because he has not attained knowledge of who Jesus really is yet. Furthering the symbolism, Smith continues, " Jesus cannot be understood by old standards, even those of the traditional Judaism represented by Nicodemus. He is God's new and final revelation to Israel."(Smith 101)


John the Baptist Vs. Jesus In the second part of chapter three the reader is introduced to a dialogue between John the Baptist and his own disciples, regarding himself and Jesus, and who has the right to baptize followers. Although John's disciples believe in him, he says that he was put here to bear witness to Jesus, he has been sent in advance of Jesus. He further tells them that Jesus is the one that comes from above and is over all others. Jesus has been sent from God and "must go on increasing, while I must go on decreasing" (John 3:30). His disciples must realize and accept this fact.

Chapter 3 of John explains the main belief of the Christian faith. This chapter details how Jesus came into the world so that mankind would know the nature and character of God. It also refutes many of the long-held beliefs the Jews had had about God being an angry punishing God. They believed God punished people for all sorts of sins without there being a loving side to God. Jesus' speech to Nicodemus shows that God is a loving God.