Let’s walk through this conversation…or confrontation. . .
between Jesus and Nicodemus.
What the context of the gospel points to is the conflict between
A provocative introduction, vs. 1-2.
Verse 1 in this pericope moves us from the general to specific.
Ch. 2:12-25 moves from “the Jews” in a corporate sense to an individual Jew, Nicodemus.
The narrative also moves from “humanity/man” (2:25) in a corporate sense to an individual man.
John writes, setting up a tension between the Light and the darkness, God and the world.
Jesus is confronting a representative of the opponents of God, where Nicodemus embodies both broken religion and broken humanity.
The encounter ultimately is between God and humanity and what God has done to make Himself accessible to humanity.
V.1 helps link this section with the previous one.
By Night - six times “night” is used in the gospel; each time it is used it is in a negative cast or in contrast to the light.
Cf. that to “darkness,” used in our text today which John uses to speak of a state of being or character of man’s actions.
This coming by night by this certain man is not necessarily a good thing, but will be a challenge that he will feel to the very core of his being when he confronts the Son of man.
There are three pieces of information we gain here about this particular man:
one of the Pharisees … a group distinguished as strict and precise in regard to the law and marked by their commitment to “the traditions of the elders” as supplementing or amending biblical law.
Most Pharisees had only popular support and indirect authority, most being neither politically connected nor aristocratic.
a ruling official from the Jews … there were a small number of wealthy aristocratic Pharisees belonging to the ruling elite, suggesting that this man comes from an elite family, a unique case.
The phrase “from the Jews” should clue us in that this is not a friendly meeting.
His family connection.
Nicodemus, a common Greek name, is a rare name among Palestinian Jews of the first century, with only 4 Jews with that name between 330 BC and 200 AD, which has been traced to one Jewish family, the Gurion family, with a heritage as a conqueror, a “very wealthy, very prominent Jerusalem family of Pharisaic allegiance” (Bauckham, “Nicodemus and the Gurion Family” in Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, 137-172 ).
This will be the start of a social challenge dialogue.
It begins as these dialogues commonly do, with the honorific title, “Rabbi.”
The term here, on Nicodemus’ lips, suggests that Jesus is to be viewed as a religious authority to the highest degree.
In this challenge, this flattery has no sense of genuineness until the dialogue continues, but shows that Nicodemus considers Jesus a worthy person to engage in this dialogue.
He describes Jesus as a teacher who has “come from God.”
This is not a normal expression for a divine messenger, where “sent” is much more common.
Here the plain sense of the words is that Nicodemus is seeing Jesus “as a new, heaven-sent interpreter of the Law and the prophets,” but not the “prophet like Moses” of Deut.
This is where Nicodemus creatively jabs at Jesus which under the surface challenges Jesus ability to serve as a teacher and religious authority.
Nicodemus claims to speak on behalf of others: “We have become aware.”
This points to the conflict, for what he is saying in the context is, “While some say this is who you are, we do not buy it!”
This statement in the text connects the text to what has come before and certainly to what will come later.
Nicodemus is representing the Jews; even though he describes accurately what the common people are perceiving in Jesus’ activities, this is exactly what “the Jews” must confront.
Apparently the shaming they tried to attribute to Jesus during the temple cleansing incident seemingly did not affect Him, so now they move to a more direct and formal shaming by one of their most prominent ruling officials.
The social challenge dialogue has begun, but Jesus will not play their game.
2. Need: To be “born new,” vs. 3-4.
With His statement in verse 3, Jesus immediately and forcefully responds to the challenge, by identifying His words and with the God to whom He appeals, i.e., “Truly, truly.”
The adverb here is intentional ambiguous, which has a meaning of “again”, or “from above.”
Nicodemus has mockingly linked Jesus to the “prophet like Moses” in Deut.
The irony is that Jesus actually is, according to the testimony of Philip in John 1:45.
The new birth would enable the ability to “see the kingdom of God.”
This echoes back to what Jesus declared to His disciples in John 1:51.
“Seeing” God or the kingdom of God is entirely dependent upon Jesus.
Verse 4 gives us the record of Nicodemus’s response, most likely a mixture of both confusion and rebellion.
His counterquestion here fail to provide an adequate response to Jesus and merely moves the plot of the dialogue forward.
The reader has already heard in John 1 about the “new birth;” Nicodemus has yet to understand.
3. Explanation: “Born from water and spirit,” vs. 5-10.
Another authoritative response by Jesus follows, where He declares a person must be born “from water and spirit.”
Grammatically these must be understood together, not separately as it explains the ambiguity of the adverb translated “again” in verse 3.
John uses the creation motif in his gospel.
Note Genesis 1:2
Compare the words of Ezekiel 36:24-28, where he specifically speaks of a renewal of Israel which cleansed the people with clean water from all uncleaness and gave them a new heart and a new spirit:
with Ezekiel 37 speaking of the resurrection of a new people and Ezekiel 40-48 the building of a new temple, Ezekiel is fully adequate to account for the phrase “born of water and spirit.”
This is the full manifestation of what God promised long ago, a radical new birth yielding a cleansing and renewal whose very origin is “from above.”
Jesus directs Nicodemus not only to see but inviting him to enter into this new birth.
The very one who speaks these words is the one who became flesh, so that we might be born new, a new creative act of God.
Jesus presses further his response of the rebuke and mockery of Nicodemus, authoritatively responding to him and by so doing silences any kind of response.
In so doing he changes from speaking to Nicodemus as an individual to speaking to Him as the representative of Israel . . .
and ultimately the world.
Nicodemus should not have been surprised, and should cease treating Jesus’ teaching as though it were something strange or surprising, emphasizing the negative attitude of Nicodemus due to a lack of insight of something he should have known.
The prologue in this gospel has foretold that the world did not know Him (1:10); Nicodemus was wrong in claiming in verse 2, “We know.”
The challenge dialogue has been turned back upon the challenger; Nicodemus is now forced to face his true challenger: God Himself.
Jesus uses an analogy from nature; in the context of this social challenge, it makes sense.
Both wind and spirit have one thing in common: the mysterious, the unseen.
The wind cannot be controlled; it contains its own power.
Wind can be heard and recognized, but cannot be known or analyzed.
Its activities, though active in and around us, are wholly other.
It is a part of our experience and yet totally beyond us, entirely outside of what we can know or do.
The comparison is between wind and “the Spirit” — only the Spirit is able to provide new birth.
Jesus is able to explain forcefully the mysterious power and activity of the Spirit.
“The one born of the Spirit” is nothing less than a mysterious, supernatural creation of God.
Ezekiel 37:10 is echoed in Jesus’ use of the term “water/spirit/Spirit.”
This is the nature of being born new about which Jesus speaks.
Nicodemus’ response in verse 9 is not so much a question as it is a counter to what Jesus has just said By asking this, it is likely that Nicodemus is rejecting the terms, but seems to be a move out of desperation, not a competent counter to Jesus’ words.
In a social challenge dialogue, this is shockingly impotent conclusion.
Here we see the representative of the Jews silenced before the representative of God.
Nicodemus was not only defeated by the argument, he became the argument.
Jesus has brought the argument around full circle; he received the honorific title bestowed upon Him by Nicodemus and now He takes away the title Nicodemus would have claimed for himself: “the teacher of Israel.”
The true teacher of Israel, the definitive Word of God already owns that title and it does not belong to another.
Nicodemus was very likely a very well-respected teacher, but Jesus’ crushing counter completes the dialogue here.
Nicodemus is rebuked for his inability to see what the prophets had foretold in the OT; in another sense, he receives a rebuke of his inappropriate posture toward himself and toward God.
The One who came by night to shame the shameless has himself received the shame; the one who thought he as the teacher became the student.
4. The victory found in the cross, vs. 11-15.
For the third time Jesus authoritatively makes a strong statement filled with first-person plurals, “we” and “you,” the “we” here being used of authoritative testimony, not referring “to any other persons along with the speaker, but to give added force to the self-reference … the plural intensifies the authority expressed” (Bauckham, 372).
Only Jesus can speak this way; His testimony and message are connected to his presence with God as a person of God.
Jesus is the “thus says the Lord.”
Verse 12 is a contrast that Jesus gives to merely focus the specific dialogue He has been having with Nicodemus.
By putting it in question form, Jesus deems it it beyond what Nicodemus is able to grasp.
Both earthly things and heavenly things are ultimately being made manifest in Jesus.
“Earthly” used here must refer to those things which take place here, to that connected to and related to the flesh — including the very fleshly presence of Jesus; yet also includes the new birth offered to humanity.
The “heavenly” things go beyond what Jesus inaugurated with His arrival, pointing to the consummation of history.
The gospel message is not abstract and otherworldly but is fleshly and about the real, physical world.
His authority is what gives Jesus the right to speak this way; He is authoritative in both His position “with God” and in His person as God (1:1).
As the Son of Man, He is the only one who has gone into heaven.
Human limitation is transcended by the unique Son who can reveal the Father, for no one else has ever seen God … “except … the Son of Man.”
Illustration from Numbers 21, OT picture of the gospel.
Israelites mocked and rebelled against God; Nicodemus mocked and rebelled against Jesus; humanity enacted rebellion and sin before God.
Moses intercessor for Israel, the gracious work of God carried through him by something apart from him (bronze serpent on a staff), God and Jesus Christ both behind the work of Christ, involving Christ’s own “flesh.”
Moses’ lifting of the staff was temporary; Christ as intercessor providing a permanent lifting of the cross.
Here is the irony of the gospel.