[5]     Signs and Discourses 2: the New Birth (3:1-36)


[C3]    3:1-36............. FIRST Discourse - the new birth

Nicodemus was a typical representative of Pharisaic Judaism. But Jesus showed him that what was required was not a devout regard for the Law, not even a revised Judaism, but a radical rebirth.

3:1       Nicodemus was described as “a ruler of the Jews” (in the Sanhedrin, Jewish ruling council).

3:2       He came at night, usually taken to be due to fear of being found out by others. He addressed Jesus with the respectful “Rabbi”. Nicodemus perceived truly that the signs pointed to God.

3:3       Jesus did not answer the question but plunged immediately into the very heart of the subject. Clearly Nicodemus is seeking instruction in the way to life. “I tell you the truth” here again.

The word “again” should be translated “anew” as there is no Aramaic adverb with the meaning “again”. The word might also equally be translated “from above” in Greek (referring to God’s work). Both senses are true and John in his style probably intends that we understand both.

There is no difference between seeing and entering the kingdom in v.5. This is the only place in this Gospel about the kingdom. But John speaks of eternal life, and for him the possession of eternal life appears to mean the same as entering the kingdom of God in the Synoptics.

3:4       Nicodemus possibly meant that he is the sum of all the things that have happened to him through the years. It is impossible to break the entire past and make a completely fresh start.

3:5       Once again, “I tell you the truth”. “Water” may mean: (a) purification related with the baptism of repentance, or (b) Christian baptism, but both are not necessary for eternal life. Also, there was no Christian baptism then. Likely, (c) “water” is another way of referring to be born of the Holy Spirit, same to “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

3:7       The plural “you” points to more than Nicodemus or the Pharisees.

3:8       The Greek word for “wind” may also mean “spirit” (also “breath”). John possibly wants it to mean both. The wind can only be known from its effects. People know neither its origin nor its destination. Similarly, the person without spiritual life may have contact with people who have spiritual life but they would not know the origin of their life nor their final destiny. Yet the effect of their spiritual life could be seen.

3:10     Nicodemus as a teach should know that no one is able to come to God in his/her own strength or righteousness.

3:11     Third time, “I tell you the truth” “Testimony” (or witness) points to objective fact, not opinion that can be debated. The present tense indicates that the Jews habitually reject the witness.

3:12     If men like Nicodemus would not believe the simpler things (“earthly things”), they could not be expected to believe what is more advanced (“heavenly things”).

3:13     No man has ascended into heaven (Pr 30:4) probably means that “no man has gained the heights of heaven,” meaning continuing possession of a direct knowledge of divine things, except Jesus. In the most reliable manuscripts, the words “who is in heaven” are absent.

3:14     It is a statement of the purpose of His death, recalling the snake of bronze (Num 21) which was a sign foreshadowing the “lifting up” on the cross of the Son of man. The verb “lifted up” here can also refer to exaltation in majesty (see Ac 2:33). John may have a double meaning of both the humiliation and the exaltation of Jesus.

3:15     The present tense of “believes” points to a present possession of eternal life in Christ.

3:16     In ancient times, there were no punctuation marks. So it is not known where exactly is the end of the Jesus’ speech. It is likely from v.16 on is John’s reflections. First, the death on the cross appears to be spoken of as past. Second, the name “Son of man” occurs last in v.15.

Here God’s love for the whole world, not just the Jews, is clearly stated. Further, His love is not a vague, sentimental feeling, but a love that costs His one and only Son. The fact is emphasized by negatively-positive statements. There are only two choices: perishing or eternal life.

3:17     Again, the negative-positive emphasis. God did not send His Son into the world in order to judge it. Yet, 9:39 says that Jesus did come into the world for judgment. It is because salvation necessarily implies judgment. It is true that the purpose of Jesus’ coming is to bring salvation, but the fact of salvation for all who believe also implies judgment on all who do not believe.

In Jewish thought, the judgment of God is thought of as taking place at the last day. But John views judgment also as a present reality (v.18). “Judge” has a meaning similar to “condemn”.

3:18     This verse emphasizes the importance of faith--“believe” is used 3 times, and again the negative-positive emphasis. The tense points to the persistence in unbelief. Anyone who does not believe does not have to wait until Judgment Day as he/she is already judged (condemned).

3:19     This verses describes the process of judging (“separating”), not the sentence of condemnation. People choose darkness; they cut themselves off from light (Christ). They set their love (aorist tense) on darkness, thereby they condemn themselves.

3:20     Everyone who stays in evil hates (a strong term) the light.

3:21     The literal translation is “he that does the truth” (habitually), contrasting “does evil”(v.20).

3:22     From 4:2, the actual baptizing was carried out by the disciples, not by Jesus Himself. Since this could not be Christian baptism (as in Acts), it probably represents a continuation of the “baptism of repentance”. At the same time, it admitted those who wished to join Jesus.

3:23     The term “many waters” refers to seven springs in close proximity. The two verbs “coming” and “to be baptized” (continuous tense) indicate that “they kept coming and being baptized.”

3:27     John the Baptist justified Jesus’ success as a (permanent, perfect tense) gift from God.

3:30     The humble last words of John in this Gospel are one of the greatest sayings from human lips.

3:31     It seems probable that from this verse on is the reflection of the Evangelist, contrasting the one (Jesus) who came from above (heaven) to the one (the Baptist) who is from the earth.

3:33     “Has accepted” (aorist tense) means a single (never to be repeated) act of accepting Jesus.

3:36     The first present participal indicates a continuing trust; the second present participal indicates a continuous rejection; the result is the persistent wrath of God that “remains”.


§         Nicodemus was seeking for truth but he was also a timid person. Yet, after he knew that Jesus was the Messiah, he came right out for Jesus, even when all the disciples forsook Him (19:39-40).

§         God sets the pattern of true love in His love for the world. It involves the will to freely give to the point of self-sacrifice.


Hymnody no.202 “Above the hills of time the cross is gleaming” (Irish folk melody “Londonderry”)

Above the hills of time the cross is gleaming,

Fair as the sun when night has turned to day;

And from it love’s pure light is richly streaming,

To cleanse the heart and banish sin away.

To this dear cross the eyes of men are turning

Today as in the ages lost to sight;

And for the love of Christ men’s hearts are yearning

As Shipwreck’d seamen yearn for morning light.

The cross, O Christ, Thy wondrous love revealing,

Awakes our hearts as with the light of morn,

And pardon o’er our sinful spirits stealing,

Tells us that we, in Thee, have been reborn.

Like echoes to sweet temple bells replying,

Our hearts, O Lord, make answer to Thy love;

And we will love Thee with a love undying,

Till we are gathered to Thy home above.