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


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

·         The new birth (3:1-15)
·         Reflection or extended comment I (3:16-21)
·         Jesus and John the Baptist (3:22-36)
·         A question about purifying (3:22-26)
·         The reply of John the Baptist (3:27-30)
·         Reflection or extended comment II (3:31-36)


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       Pharisees had no vested interest in the Temple (which was the domain of the Sadducees) so they would not been unduly perturbed by the action of Jesus in cleansing the Temple courts.

Nicodemus was described as “a ruler of the Jews” (probably referring to the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin. He apparently was seeking for the truth but he was also a timid person. But in the end he came right out for Jesus at a time when all the disciples forsook Him.

3:2       He came at night, usually taken to be due to fear of being found out by others. But it also possible that he chose this time in order to be sure of an uninterrupted and leisurely interview.

He addressed Jesus with the respectful “Rabbi”.

The continuous tenses are perhaps meant to indicate that Jesus habitually did the signs. Nicodemus perceived truly that such signs point to God.

3:3       Jesus did not answer the question directly 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” expresses the significance of His next saying.

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.

Both senses are true and John in his style probably intends that we understand both.

Thus the phrase may mean “born from above”, a rebirth which only God can effect.

The word “kingdom” means “reign” rather than “realm”.

There is probably no difference between seeing and entering in v.5.

This is the only instance in the whole Gospel about the kingdom. But John frequently speaks of eternal life, and for him the possession of eternal life appears to mean the same as entering the kingdom of God described in the Synoptics.

3:4       Nicodemus possibly meant that he is the man he is today because of all the things that have happened to him through the years. He is a bundle of doubts, uncertainties, wishes, hopes, fears, and habits, good and bad, built up through the years. It is impossible to break the entire past and make a completely fresh beginning.

3:5       Once again Jesus used “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. Moreover, Christian baptism was still non-existent in Jesus’ lifetime. The more likely answer is (c) “water” is simply another way of referring to be born of the Holy Sprit, similar to “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

3:6       There is no evolution from flesh to Spirit.

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

The word “must” is a strong expression; there is no other way than that of rebirth.

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 who lacks spiritual life may have contact with those 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 word “we” shows His association with His disciples.

“You people” points to Jews at large who did not receive the witness.

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) but Jesus has come down from there.

Perhaps the meaning is “no man has gained the heights of heaven,” meaning continuing possession. No one has entered into communion with God and thereby posses an inituitive knowledge of divine things, except He to whom heaven was opened and who dwells there at this very moment.

People cannot raise themselves to heaven and penetrate divine mysteries so Jesus has brought heavenly realities to earth.

This is another claim of Jesus’ pre-existence.

There is another possibility. In some of the most reliable manuscripts, the words “who is in heaven” are absent. If they are included, they will point to the eternal being of the Son of man.

3:14     It is a statement of the purpose of His death, recalling the incident in the Sinai Desert where Moses made a snake of bronze and set it on a pole (Num 21) and whoever looked at the bronze snake was healed. That was a sign foreshadowing the “lifting up” on the cross of the Son of man.

The verb “lifted up” 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.

This is the first mention of eternal life.

The Greek word for “eternal” actually means “pertaining to an age”. The Jews divided time into the present age and the age to come. This word refers to life in the coming age, not the present age. “Eternal life” means “the life proper to the age to come.” Because the age to come is thought of as never coming to an end, the word came to mean “everlasting” or “eternal”.

The important thing about eternal life is not its quantity but its quality--the quality of divine order of life which fulfils the whole idea of life, the good of life, the perfection of life, the satisfaction of life in God.


3:16     In ancient times, there were no punctuation marks like quotation marks. So it is not known where exactly is the end of the Jesus’ speech. Although some Bibles marked the following passage as part of Jesus’ discourse, it is probable that the passage starting from v.16 is John’s reflections. First, the death on the cross appears to be spoken of as past. Second, the name “Son of man” used by Jesus occurs last in v.15.

The Jews always thought of God as loving Israel, but there was no reference to the statement that God loved the world. 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 stating it negatively and then positively.

John clearly sets perishing and eternal life against one another. There is no other final state.

3:17     Again, it is a negative statement followed with the corresponding positive.

God did not send His Son into the world in order to judge it. Yet, elsewhere (9:39) John says that Jesus did come into the world for judgment. The resolution of the paradox is that 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).

Here, “judge” has a meaning similar to “condemn”.

The word “world” occurs 3 times in this verse signifying emphasis (simple device of repetition).

3:18     This verse emphasizes the importance of faith--“believe” is used 3 times.

The truth is brought out both positively and negatively.

The tense for “does not believe” 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).

The coming of Jesus divides people into the saved and the condemned. It explains the paradox that Jesus both came to judge and did not come to judge.

3:19     NIV’s “verdict” is misleading; the word denotes the process of judging, not the sentence of condemnation. The Greek word (krisis) means “separating” or “distinguishing”. John tells us not about God’s sentence but about how the process works.

People choose darkness. They shut themselves up to darkness; they cut themselves off from light. Why? Immersed in wrongdoing, they have no wish to be disturbed. They set their love (aorist tense) on darkness, thereby they condemn themselves.

Christ is the light of the world (1:9; 8:12; 9:5).

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

3:21     The literal translation is “he that does the truth” (not “lives by the truth” in NIV).

John uses the term to contrast “does evil”(v.20).

Anyone who habitually performs the actions that can be described as true comes to the light.

The deeds are done “in God”.


3:22     Jesus was not recorded as baptizing in the Synoptics. From 4:2, the actual baptizing was carried out by the disciples. 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” are in continuous tense, indicating that “they kept coming and being baptized.”

3:26     The discussion on ceremonial purification took a curious turn into a complaint. The complaint was that Jesus was having great success.

“Everyone” was an indignant but very natural exaggeration.


3:27     John the Baptist’s immediate reply is an immediate justification of Jesus’ success. The gift may be applied to John the Baptist himself, meaning that he has what God has given him, that and no more. However, more likely, the gift can be applied to Jesus as the perfect tense indicates the idea of a permanent gift. The word “heaven” was used to refer to God in order to avoid the use of the divine name.

3:28     “I...am sent” is in perfect tense, indicating his permanent character as a man sent from God to be the forerunner of the Messiah.

3:29     In the OT, Israel was regarded as the bride of Yahweh (Isa 54:5; 62:4-5; Jer 2:2; 3:20; Eze 16:8; Hos 2:19-20). Jesus is the bridegroom. John the Baptist is the bridegroom’s friend whose cup of joy is filled to the full.

3:30     The last words of John in this Gospel are one of the greatest utterances from human lips, signifying his humility.


3:31     Again, it is difficult to know exactly where John’s speech ends. It seems more probable that from this verse on is the reflection of the Evangelist. It is difficult to see how the Baptist could say “no one accepts His testimony” (v.32) in answering the affirmation that “everyone is going to Him” (v.26).

The contrast is between the one (Jesus) who came from above (heaven) and who is superior to all human race to the one (the Baptist) is from the earth.

3:32     Jesus taught what He knows with certainty. “No one” is not to be taken literally; it refers to the world as a whole.

3:33     “The man who has accepted” is in aorist tense, meaning that it is not a continuous day-by-day receiving of the witness of Jesus but a single (never to be repeated) decisive act of accepting Jesus.

3:34     Literal translation of the last phrase is “He does not give the Spirit by measure.” It can mean the Father gives the Spirit to the Son without measure, meaning no limit; or the Son gives the Spirit to believers without measure. But the first meaning is more likely.

3:35     The verse describes the perfect unity in love of the Father and the Son, as well as the dependence of the human Jesus on the Father.

3:36     Eternal life is the present possession of the believers. The present participal also indicates a continuing trust. It would not fade away with the passage of time.

For those who reject the Son, again the present participal indicates a continuous rejection. The result is the persistent wrath of God that “remains”.