Being Born Again of the Spirit (3:1-15)
1 Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and also a ruler of the Jews; that is, he was a member of the main Jewish religious committee called the SANHEDRIN. This Sanhedrin, made up of seventy members, exercised authority in all Jewish religious matters. The Roman governor held authority in all civil matters, but the Romans allowed the Jews to take charge of their own religious affairs—as long as they did not oppose the Roman government.
2 Nicodemus was a properly educated Jew. He was himself a teacher (verse 10). He went to Jesus at night because he didn’t want anyone else to know he had gone to talk with Jesus, who in the Jews’ eyes was not a legitimate teacher. But Nicodemus had seen Jesus’ miracles. He knew that Jesus was a special teacher or Rabbi (Jewish religious teacher) who had come from God, andhewantedto learn more from Him.
Unlike the other Pharisees, Nicodemus was not opposed to Jesus. He didn’t try to trap Jesus in His conversation, as other Jewish leaders did (Matthew 22:15). Later, he took Jesus’ side before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52). And after Jesus’ death, when all the other disciples had fled, Nico-demus helped bury Jesus’ body (John 19:39). Although in the beginning Nico-demus was a timid and fearful follower of Jesus, in the end he proved more faithful than Jesus’ twelve disciples.
3 As a Pharisee, Nicodemus believed that if a man carefully followed the Jewish law and the traditions of the elders, he would obtain salvation. That is, Nico-demus believed, like all Jews, that salvation came by works of the law. Jesus knew that Nicodemus was sincerely seeking to obey God and to enter the kingdom of heaven.24 Therefore, Jesus immediately told Nico-demus what he wanted to know; namely, that a man can enter the kingdom of heaven only by being born again.
In this one statement Jesus told Nico-demus that he could never be saved by doing the works of the law. Man in his nature is so sinful that God will never accept him into heaven, unless he is made completely new. What Nicodemus needed was not a new law, but a new heart. He needed a new spiritual power that would change his inward nature and make him acceptable before God. “You must be born again from above,” said Jesus. “… no one can see25 the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”26 Man cannot enter heaven by his own effort; he can enter heaven only by receiving a new life through faith in Christ (see Galatians 2:15-16; Ephesians 2:8-9 and comments).
The kingdom of God means the reign of God both in heaven and on earth. When a person believes in Christ and gives his or her life to God, that person enters the “kingdom of God.” In other words, as soon as we place true faith in Christ, we are born again into the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom. Therefore, even when our bodies die, our spirits continue to live on in His kingdom. The person who has been “born again” never dies. To enter the kingdom of God is the same as to receive eternal life (verse 15). This eternal life begins as soon as we believe in Jesus, and it never ends (see 1 Peter 1:23 and comment).
4 “How can a man be born again?” asked Nicodemus. No one can enter his mother’s womb again. Therefore, since bodily rebirth is not possible, how then can one get a new heart and a new nature? It seemed impossible to Nicodemus.
5 Jesus then repeated what He said in verse 3 (see verse 3 and comment). This time He added that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit.
The water is a sign of purification and baptism. Baptism is a sign of the washing away of our sin. In order for a man’s sin to be washed away, he must first repent. That is why both John the Baptist and Jesus preached a baptism of REPENTANCE for the forgiveness of sins (see Mark 1:4,14-15 and comment).
Therefore, in order to be born again, one must first repent and receive forgiveness for his sins; that is, he must have his sins washed away. The sign of this is baptism with water (see General Article: Water Baptism).
Baptism with water also means the dying of our old sinful self. Unless our old self dies, we cannot receive a new self (see John 12:24; Romans 6:3-7; Galatians 2:20 and comments).
Thus, to be born again, we must first be washed, baptized, purified. Our old sinful selfmust die. Then we shall be ready for the second step: to be reborn of the Spirit.
The Spirit, is God’s HOLY SPIRIT (see John 14:16 and comment). It is God Himself. When a person repents and believes in Christ, God enters that person and gives him new spiritual life. That person is then born again of the Spirit. This new spiritual life is true life, eternal life, life in the kingdom of God. Just as physical life is impossible without being born of a woman, so spiritual life is impossible without being born of the Spirit.
Only when we are born again of the Spirit can our lives be acceptable to God. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives can we obey God’s commands and lead a life pleasing to Him (Ezekiel 36:25-27).
Imagine what Nicodemus thought when he heard Jesus say these words. Nicodemus was a mature and upright man, a leader of the people, a teacher. He was a strict Jew, and considered himself righteous. He honored God. But Jesus told him, “You cannot enter the kingdom of God the way you are. You are still controlled by your sinful nature. You need to repent, to be cleansed, to die. And then you must be completely reborn spiritually through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. You must be completely changed—just like being born from your mother’s womb a second time.”
Jesus says the same thing to every man and woman today. No one is ever a Christian from birth. No one is a Christian just because his parents and grandparents were Christians. Every man or woman must be born again spiritually. And that is the greatest and most amazing thing that can ever happen in any person’s life.
There is one final question: How can we be born again in this way? There is only one answer: through faith. Just as we were not physically born through our own efforts, so we cannot be spiritually reborn through our own efforts. Only through faith in Christ can we be spiritually reborn. For this reason Christ came to earth and died in order to wash us from our sins and give us new life through the Holy Spirit (see John 1:4 and comment). He came to give us eternal life. He came to save the world (verse 17). Therefore, whoever believes in Him is not condemned (verse 18), but has eternal life (verse 36).
Jesus is the Savior of the world. He is the Lord. He is God Himself. Let us come to Him in faith, that we might be cleansed of our sins and receive new life from above. In this way we shall be able to enter the kingdom of God.
6-7 When we are born from our mothers, we are born as flesh. We cannot become spiritual unless we are born again of the Spirit. Our nature is determined by that which gives us birth. We are born as citizens of a sinful world. In order to become citizens of the kingdom of God, our sinful self must die and we must be born again spiritually. … flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 15:50). Let not Nicodemus be surprised at this.
8 The person born of the Spirit is like the wind. We can hear the wind, but we cannot tell where it has come from or where it is going. In the same way, natural worldly men27 can see and hear a person who has been born of the Spirit, but they cannot understand from where his spiritual life and power have come. They cannot understand what motivates a person born of the Spirit. And they cannot understand what is the goal and destination of a person born of the Spirit.
9-10 Nicodemus still didn’t fully understand what Jesus was saying. Jesus asked him, “How can you not understand these things? You claim to know about God. You should know that you cannot come to God by your own strength.”
11 “You speak only of what you think about God,” said Jesus to Nicodemus, “but we28 speak of what we know. We have seen and experienced these spiritual things. We don’t merely have opinions about these things; we have certain knowledge” (see John 1:18; 8:26).
Nevertheless, even though Jesus spoke of what He knew, most of the Jews did not believe His teaching.
12 Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus of earthly things, such as birth, flesh, wind. If Nicodemus couldn’t understand these earthly illustrations, how would he ever be able to understand heavenly things, that is, pure spiritual teaching?
13 Only Jesus could speak about heavenly things, because only He had come from heaven to earth (Proverbs 30:4). Only He had true knowledge of the things of heaven.
When men are spiritually born again through faith, they enter the kingdom of God, that is, the kingdom of heaven. But they do not enter heaven itself. We must understand that there is a difference between “heaven” and the “kingdom of heaven.” We enter the kingdom of heaven as soon as we believe in Christ. We enter heaven itself only after we die. Therefore, when Jesus said, “No one has ever gone into heaven,” He was talking about living men. Jesus was the only living man who had ever been in heaven.
14 According to Numbers 21:4-9, God sent poisonous snakes among the Jews, because they had been grumbling against Him. Then the Jews repented. Therefore, God told Moses to make a snake from bronze and put it on a pole so that all the people could see it. Those who looked at the bronze snake were not harmed by the poisonous snakes.
Therefore, just as Moses lifted up the bronze snake, so the Son of Man (Christ) must be lifted up. This has two meanings. First, Jesus had to be lifted up on the CROSS. That is, Jesus had to die (John 12:32-33). Second, Jesus had to be lifted up into heaven. That is, He had to be raised from the dead and exalted at God’s right hand (Ephesians 1:20-21; Philippians 2:9-11). Thus, through His death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has gained complete victory over death and over Satan. Therefore, He is able to give ETERNAL LIFE to all who believe in Him (see Hebrews 2:14-15).
Notice that for Christ to be lifted up to heaven, He first had to be lifted up on the cross. In order to be glorified in heaven, Jesus first had to die on earth. And as it was for Jesus, so it is with each believer. For each of us, the road to heaven goes by way of the cross (see Mark 8:34-35).
15 The purpose of Jesus’ death was that we might have life, eternal life. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). He came to give his life as a ransom for many (see Mark 10:45 and comment). Christ died that we might live.
To whom does Christ give life? To all who believe in Him. To “believe” has a very deep meaning. It means to believe fully, deeply. It means to depend totally on Christ, to trust in Him and not on oneself. Above all, to “believe” means to obey Christ and to love Him. If our faith does not result in obedience to Christ, it is a false faith (see Matthew 7:21; Galatians 5:6; James 2:1417 and comments).
What kind of life does Christ give? He gives eternal life. Eternal life is not just a life that lasts forever. It is life with God. It is a life of joy, peace, righteousness. It is life without tears, sorrow, or pain (see Revelation 21:1-4). It is the reward, the heavenly inheritance for all those who believe in Jesus. It is our salvation.
God’s Love for the World (3:16-21)
16 In this verse John gives us the entire Gospel of Christ in brief.29 Everything begins with the love of God for the world. God is love (1 John 4:8). God loves the whole world. He doesn’t love only Jews (as the Jews thought), but He loves everyone—high caste and low caste, rich and poor, black and white. And He loves us so much that He gave up His only Son to save us (see 1 John 4:9-10 and comment).
Christ is a gift, the highest gift. God gave us what was most dear to Him. God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, in order to give everyone the opportunity to be saved, He gave us His Son.
But only by faith can man receive this salvation, that is, eternal life (see verse 15 and comment). If a man believes in Jesus, he will not perish; he will receive eternal life. if a man does not believe, he will perish. To “perish” means to be separated from God, to suffer forever in hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; 25:30,41).
There are only two roads for men: one leads to life, and the other leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). Thus there are only two ends for men: one is to receive eternal life, the other is to perish. Christ came to show us the right road, the road that leads to eternal life. Christ is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). Not to believe in Christ is to choose destruction.
17 Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world (Luke 19:10). His purpose in coming was to save us. If He had not come, all men would have been condemned. Now there is no condemnation for those who believe in Jesus Christ (see Romans 8:1 and comment).
But we must understand another truth. When Christ came into the world, some people believed and some did not. Those who believed were saved; those who did not believe were condemned. And the same is true today.
Therefore, when Jesus came into the world, some people were condemned because they refused to believe His words. They brought condemnation upon themselves (see verse 18). Jesus’ coming separated believers from unbelievers.
Although Christ’s main purpose was to save men and women, He also through His word brings judgment on those who refuse to believe (John 12:47-48). The sun shines in order to give light; but at the same time, it also creates shadows. Just as the sun causes shadows to appear, so the light of Christ reveals unbelief and sin, and condemns it (verses 19-20).
Christ is man’s Savior (1 John 4:14). But it is also true that He will be man’s judge on the day of judgment. God has entrusted all judgment to the Son (John 5:22,27). If we do not accept Christ as our Savior today, we will have to accept Him as our judge tomorrow.
18 Here again, John emphasizes the importance of faith (see verse 15). We are judged according to our faith. Those who believe are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned. John is talking about those who continue in unbelief until their death. Such people are already condemned.
19-20 Light—that is, Christ—has come into the world (see John 1:4-5,9). But men did not want the light, because it exposed their evil deeds (Ephesians 5:13). Rather, men loved the darkness—that is, evil. In this, they condemned themselves.
What is the main reason people refuse to believe in Christ? In these verses John has given us the answer. They do not believe because they do not want to give up their evil and selfish ways. They love darkness, because in the darkness their evil remains hidden—though not from God!
This is why faith is so important to God. When we believe, it means we truly want to leave the darkness and come into the light of Christ. Thus, in God’s eyes, unbelief is the same as unrighteousness. Likewise, faith is the same as righteousness. We are justif ed—declared RIGHTEOUS—by faith (see Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:15-16 and comments).
21 … whoever lives by the truth comes into the light. To live by the truth means to repent of one’s sins and to open one’s heart to receive Christ. It means to turn from darkness and to hate evil. Such men do not need to fear the light.
Those who come in to the light are born again of the Spirit (verse 5). Their new life and new heart is from God. They cannot say, “These are my good works.” All good works are done through God. Man can claim no credit for his good works (see Ephesians 2:8-9). All our righteousness comes from the Holy Spirit, who lives within us who believe.
John the Baptist’s Testimony About Jesus (3:22-36)
22 After the Passover festival (John 2:13) and the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus went out into the Judean countryside—into the surrounding district of Judea.30 He and His disciples began to baptize also, calling on people to repent and turn to God (Mark 1:15). The actual baptizing was done by Jesus’ disciples under Jesus’ direction (John 4:2).
23-24 John was also baptizing nearby. John had not yet been put in prison (Mark 6:17-29). From this we can understand that the Galilean ministry of Jesus mentioned in Mark 1:14 had not yet begun. According to this, Jesus had not yet finally called Peter, Andrew, John, and James (Mark 1:16-20). Only after He returned to Galilee (John 4:43) did He finally call those four disciples.
25 Some of John the Baptist’s disciples began to argue with a certain Jew about the Jewish purification laws. Perhaps the Jew was one of Jesus’ disciples. Perhaps he had said it was not necessary to follow the purification laws (Mark 7:1-2,5).
26 During the argument over purif ying, John’s disciples learned that people in increasing numbers were going to Jesus to be baptized. More people were now going to Him than to John. John’s disciples felt badly about this. It seemed to them as if everyone was now going to Jesus. They were envious.
27 John admonished his disciples not to complain about Jesus’ success. Each man is appointed by God for a certain task. Each man is given different gifts to enable him to fulfill that task. A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. John was appointed only to prepare the way for Christ. Therefore, it was according to God’s will that people should now begin to turn to Jesus.
Let us never envy others who have received from God a greater appointment or greater gifts. Envy is one of the most common and also one of the most harmful sins found among Christians. Envy is a great cause of strif e within the church. Let each of us be thankful for the gifts God has given us, and let us use them diligently in His service (1 Corinthians 4:7).
28 John the Baptist himself had said, “I am not the Christ” (John 1:20). John had never tried to exalt himself. When people tried to give him more honor than he deserved, he did not accept it. How many of us do likewise? Let us strive to follow John’s example. John’s sole aim was to lead men and women to Jesus, not to himself. Let that be our sole aim also.
29 John was only the friend of the bridegroom. The bridegroom is Christ. The bride is the church, that is, all believers (Ephesians 5:23,31-32; Revelation 19:78). The bride belongs to the bridegroom, not to the friend of the bridegroom.
Instead, the friend rejoices in the bridegroom’s happiness. In the same way, John rejoiced that people were coming to Jesus.
30 As the morning light increases, the light of the morning star decreases. John the Baptist was like the morning star, sent to announce the coming dawn of Christ.
John knew his place. His entire goal was to magnif y Jesus. That is the purpose of all disciples of Christ. Our work is to show forth the light of Christ among men, not our own light. We must remain nothing, in order that Christ might be all.
If church leaders would concentrate only on exalting Christ, they would soon stop trying to exalt themselves above each other. Let every church leader continually say to himself, as John did: “I must become less.” Paul gave us the rule: Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10). And, of course, we must honor Christ above all (verse 31).
31 The one who comes from above—that is, Christ—is above all.31 John the Baptist was from the earth. Only Jesus came from heaven (John 3:13; 8:23). Therefore, Jesus was greater than John—indeed, greater than all men. He is above all.
32 Jesus testified to what He had seen and heard in heaven. His testimony, then, was absolutely sure and true (see verse 11 and comment). The prophets of the Old Testament saw and heard things in visions and dreams. But Christ received the things of God directly from God Himself.
Nevertheless, no one accepted Jesus’ testimony. That is, worldly men did not accept Jesus’ testimony. They refused to believe. They rejected the light. Natural worldly men cannot accept Jesus. They cannot understand heavenly things. Only when a man’s heart is humble and open to the Holy Spirit can he accept the testimony and teaching of Jesus.
33 Whenever we “certif y” someone’s testimony, we are agreeing that that person’s testimony is fully true and trustworthy; that is what certif ying means. The man who has opened his heart to Christ and has accepted His testimony has also certified that God is truthful. Christ is God’s Word (John 1:1). If Christ is true, then God also is true. But if a man rejects Christ, he also rejects God. The man who does not accept the testimony of Christ calls God a liar (1 John 5:9-10).
34 Jesus speaks the words of God. Jesus has come from above. He knows the Father’s mind completely. He has God’s Spirit without limit, that is, in full measure. We believers receive the Holy Spirit according to measure. … to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it (Ephesians 4:7). But to Christ unlimited grace was given. Christ was given the Spirit in full measure. He was filled with all the fullness of God. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Colossians 1:19).
35 We can trust Christ completely, because God the Father has placed everything in his hands (see John 13:3). The Father has given Christ the Spirit without limit (verse 34). Jesus said, “All things have been committed to me by my Father” (Matthew 11:27). “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
Men can come to Christ as they would come to God. All of God’s spiritual blessings are available to us in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). As God has given His Holy Spirit to Christ,32 so Christ gives the Spirit to those who believe in Him. And when Jesus gives us His Spirit, He also gives us His knowledge (John 15:15), His authority (John 17:2), His joy (John 17:13) and His glory (John 17:22).
36 Above all, Jesus gives us eternal life. This is the sum of all His spiritual blessings. To believe in Jesus is to have eternal life. Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
When we believe in Christ, we are reborn from “above” (from heaven) and receive new spiritual life. This life begins as soon as we believe and it never ends. Our bodies will die, but our spirits will never die.
But there is a greater gift even than eternal life. And that gift is Christ Himself. All gifts are included in Christ. When we receive Christ as our Savior and Lord, we receive all the riches of heaven. He who has the Son has life (1 John 5:12). He who has the Son has everything (see Romans 8:32 and comment).
But we must never forget what happens to the man who rejects33 Christ. He will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (see verses 16-17 and comment). He stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (verse 18).
We Christians talk much about God’s love, but we must not neglect to talk about God’s wrath. God is opposed to all who oppose Him. To refuse to believe in Christ is to oppose God. It is to disobey God. Man must either believe and be saved, or not believe and be condemned. Man must choose one of these two; there is no other choice.