Commentary on John 3:1-17
This well-known passage from John is a rarity in the Gospels because it shows Jesus discussing in some detail all three persons of the Trinity.
This well-known passage from John is a rarity in the Gospels because it shows Jesus discussing in some detail all three persons of the Trinity. Jesus’ words here should not be mistaken for a theological treatise on the one God in three persons, however. Instead, in this encounter Jesus challenges Nicodemus to move from theory to practice, from knowledge to faith, from curiosity to commitment.
The narrator portrays Nicodemus as a learned man with impressive credentials, describing him not only as a Pharisee but as “a ruler of the Jews.” Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of Israel” (verse 10). By speaking in the first person plural (“Rabbi, we know…”), Nicodemus presents himself as a representative of the religious leaders. Jesus seems to acknowledge Nicodemus’ representative status as well, telling him, “we testify to what we have seen; yet you (plural) do not receive our testimony” (verse 11).
Nicodemus thinks that he, as a religious leader, understands who Jesus is and who God is. Jesus calls his understanding into question. Like a typical scholar, Nicodemus begins the conversation with a statement based on evidence. “We know” that Jesus is a teacher come from God. How do we know? By observation, logic, and deduction. Jesus’ signs provide convincing proof that God is with him. Though Nicodemus is not wrong in his conclusion, he is not right either. His perception is partial and incomplete. Along with the “many” mentioned in John 2:23-24 who believe in Jesus’ name because they have seen the signs he does, he is not a person to whom Jesus can entrust himself. Lacking both courage and commitment, he has come to visit Jesus by night. Far from being a follower of Jesus, he is unwilling even to be seen with him.
Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ opening statement cuts straight to the heart of the matter: no one can see God’s reign without being born again/from above (the Greek word anothen means both “again” and “from above,” and both senses are important here). Unless Nicodemus allows God to change his whole way of being in the world, he will not be able to perceive God at work. Nicodemus promptly demonstrates his lack of spiritual perception by missing Jesus’ wordplay and taking Jesus at the most literal level (as do most of Jesus’ conversations partners in John). Mystified, he asks, “How can anyone be born after growing old?” Jesus explains that by water and the Spirit God gives people rebirth into the reign of God. Those who are reborn in this way become spiritual beings, shaped and sustained by the Spirit who bears them.
When Nicodemus remains perplexed and confused, Jesus wonders how “the teacher of Israel” can fail to understand such things and assures Nicodemus that “we” (presumably referring to all those who participate in God’s reign, including the Johannine community) bear witness to what we have seen firsthand. We testify to a reality that we know from experience. What appears impossible to humans is possible with God.
In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus refers to all three persons of the Trinity. God is the One who loves the cosmos and who, unwilling to let it perish, gives the Son. God sends the Son not to condemn the world and its inhabitants, but to rescue and restore them (the Greek word translated as “save” or “saved” in John 3:17 is sozo, which means save in the sense of rescue, heal, and make whole). Jesus is both the only Son of God and the human one, the Son of Man. He descended from heaven and has ascended to heaven, thus connecting heaven and earth. He remains in constant contact with God the Sender, revealing God by bearing witness to what he has seen and known. Like the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:4–9), Jesus will be lifted up both to expose human sinfulness and to save people from its deadly effects. Here as elsewhere in John, “lifted up” refers to the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as a single whole (see John 8:28; 12:32, 34).
Those who place their trust in Jesus will have eternal life, being reborn from above out of/by water and the Spirit (Greek pneuma). Pneuma can mean “spirit,” “breath,” and “wind,” and Jesus plays with this ambiguity. Like the breath of God in Genesis 2, the Spirit gives life to believers. Like the wind, God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes, and though observers may perceive its presence, they neither comprehend it nor control it. Strikingly, Jesus says that those who are born of the Spirit share in the Spirit’s mysterious freedom (John 3:8).
Jesus refers to God’s gift of new life both as eternal life (John 3:15, 16) and as the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5 — the only occurrences in John of a term that is central to Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels). Both phrases refer to the same reality, though they emphasize different aspects of it. Eternal life is life shaped by and utterly dependent on God’s love. It is not simply life in heaven after death. It begins now, in the moment that believers entrust their lives to Jesus. When believers receive eternal life, they enter into God’s reign in the here and now. They become citizens of God’s kingdom, submitting to God’s rule and depending on the Spirit’s guidance. Citizenship in God’s reign is not a solo affair. Believers are reborn into God’s new family.
Rebirth into God’s reign comes not by knowledge or doctrine, but by faith. If religious training were enough, Nicodemus, as a representative of Israel’s religious leaders, should have all that he needs. But he is baffled, unable to enter into new life through his intellect. Only after the crucifixion does he take a step toward commitment, bringing myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial (John 19:39-40). This risky act signals a change of heart, the beginning of a transformation — though it is clear that he does not yet understand who Jesus is. As Gail O’Day says, “We cannot determine who Jesus is, but who we are must be determined by who Jesus is” (The Word Disclosed, [St. Louis, Missouri: CBP Press, 1987], p. 27).
Jesus invites all of us to receive life as God’s gift. The crucified Son of God shows us God’s love, scorned and rejected but triumphant. Those who trust Jesus, staking their lives on divine love, will be reborn from above through the Spirit. By God’s mercy they will be not merely forgiven, but made whole, remade in God’s image as participants in God’s new creation.