Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.(John 3:3)
This passage, recorded in John 3:1-21, is the first of seven discourses spoken by Jesus and recorded by John. Certainly Jesus preached many more sermons than the seven recorded by John, but these seven, as least for John, uniquely demonstrated the deity of Jesus. Indeed, John records, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30-31, emphasis mine).
The passage opens with the introduction to the audience – one man, Nicodemus, “a man of the Pharisees … a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). His name means “conqueror of the people” or “victorious among his people.” Given the strength of his name, it seems strange that “The same came to Jesus by night” (John 3:2). At a glance, it seems as though Nicodemus came by stealth to avoid detection by those more adamantly opposed to Jesus, but that is not the case. “The Pharisee may have chosen this time in order to be sure of an uninterrupted and leisurely interview. During the day, Jesus would be busy and there would be crowds (crowds of common people!). Not so at night. Then there could be a long, private discussion.”
At this point in his Gospel, John had not detailed many of Jesus’ miracles or any of His teachings. Certainly, turning water into wine (John 2:1-12) rates highly as the first of His seven signs. From there, Jesus celebrated the first Passover of His ministry by turning over the tables of the moneychangers at the Temple (John 2:13-22). His action drew fire from the “Jews” who challenged Him: “What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?” (John 2:18). Apparently, Jesus made Himself known during this time, although John provides little detail. “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (John 2:23).
So, it seems that Nicodemus had at least heard of Jesus. Perhaps he witnessed the miracles of Jesus, and heard Him teach. Now he comes to Jesus by night for a private meeting. “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus addresses Jesus with the sincere title of respect. “Rabbi” acknowledged Jesus as “Master,” that is to say, “Master Teacher.” What little he knew of Jesus instructed him that He was more than an ordinary man. Jesus, he concluded, came “from God” because “no man can do these miracles … except God be with him.”
Nicodemus assessed correctly, but Jesus was not interested confirming what He knew to be fact. Nicodemus was not unlike the other “Jews” in many respects. “But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25, emphasis mine). Instead, He went right to the heart of the matter. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, emphasis mine). “Again” is a poor translation of the Greek anōthen, which means “from above.” Being “born from above” is in keeping with what John penned in the prologue to his Gospel. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13, emphasis mine). Nicodemus clearly understood the term “born,” genneithei, in the normal sense of procreation (John 3:4), but he missed the spiritual aspect of Jesus’ message.
To clear up the confusion, Jesus affirms John’s statement in the opening chapter. “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). Jesus prefaces His statement with “verily, verily,” i.e. “truly, truly.” Coming from God incarnate, this makes the statement immutable – it is unchangeable. Rebirth is not a matter of external changes, but rather it is a transformation from within, and accomplished “from above” through the saturation of the Holy Spirit. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). We are all born of flesh. That is by design. The spirit of man died at the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), and thus we are excluded from “the kingdom of God.” Only the rebirth of our spirit can fit us for heaven.
The “teacher of Israel” failed to grasp the lesson the Master taught. This called for further instruction. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12, emphasis mine). Jesus addresses Nicodemus (thee). “We speak that we do know.” Some commentators suggest that Jesus refers to Himself and His disciples. However, at this point in His ministry, His disciples were novices; there was little that they “did know.” Indeed, His disciples did not receive “full knowledge” until after His resurrection, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). Therefore, I believe the “we” Jesus refers to is the Trinity. I conclude that from His statement in the next verse: “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13). He, the Son of Man, has direct knowledge “from heaven,” from the Creator Himself (John 1:1-3). When Jesus said, “ye receive not our witness,” the “ye” in the KJV indicates that the Greek, second person personal pronoun is plural. Jesus did not single out Nicodemus; He referred to all the “Jews,” i.e., the religious establishment to whom Jesus later referred to as “blind guides” (Matthew 23:16, 24).
The rebirth is simple; Jesus explained. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus referred to Jewish history recorded in Scripture, the Torah to be precise. Numbers 21:4-9 records the time when the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness complained against God and Moses for the free food God provided daily. “And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6). The Hebrew word translated as “fiery” is śârâph, which means, “burning.” The same Hebrew word (seraphim) is applied to the angelic creatures witnessed by Isaiah in his vision of God on His throne (Isaiah 6:2, 6). In the case of the Hebrew Children, it referred to the burning bite inflicted by the venomous snakes. It may also imply the copper color of the serpents. We derive this from the instructions given to Moses. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21:8-9, emphasis mine). The Hebrew word translated as “brass” is nechôsheth, which means “copper.”
The act of looking upon the bronze snake on the pole when bitten included recognition of the sin that brought about the snake bite, and the faith to believe that simply looking upon the likeness of the serpent on the pole would result in healing and preservation of life. In the same way, Jesus compared the simplicity of the rebirth. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15, emphasis mine). Once again, this reaffirms John’s assertion, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12, emphasis mine).
If one has a red-letter edition Bible, verses 16-21 are attributed to Jesus. However, man, not God, inspires red letters. While many Bible scholars agree that Jesus spoke these words, to me this seems that John added his commentary to expand on what Jesus said. It seems redundant that Jesus would say, “That whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life (v. 15), and then repeat “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (v. 16) in the next sentence. Regardless, the Holy Spirit, inspired these words through John’s pen, so they remain God’s Word whether they were spoken directly by Jesus, or whether John, through the Holy Spirit, expounded on Jesus’ words.
The teaching is clear. “That old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan” (Revelation 12:9) inflicted a deadly bite on mankind in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) from which there is no cure. “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Death is antithetical to God who is life (John 1:4; 14:6). Simultaneously, God is holy and cannot tolerate sin. Yet, He loves His creation too much to allow it to “perish,” i.e., die, with no hope for reconciliation. So, “He gave.” His gift stemmed not from man’s merit, but from His love. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, emphasis mine). “He gave His only begotten Son.” The burden of sin was too great for any man to bear, so God Himself took on the insurmountable debt of man’s sin. “And the Word [who was God] was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God became man so “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The Greek word translated “perish” is apólētai meaning “to destroy fully.” The verb is in the aorist tense indicating that it occurred in the past and its effects continue into the present. It is in the middle voice indicating that the subject is acting on itself, and it is in the subjunctive mood meaning that the action is contingent, probable and eventual. That all means that man in the past brought eventual death and destruction upon himself contingent on what he does with the gift God offers.
As in the beginning, it comes down to two choices: the tree of life or the tree of death, aka the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For the children of Israel in the wilderness it was to look upon the bronze serpent and live, or doubt and die. We all have the curse of death upon us. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We also have a choice. “Whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The other choice is unbelief. “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18, emphasis mine). We are “condemned already” because, to begin with, we are all born of the flesh, but not of the Spirit. Then, we are “condemned already” when we reject the gift of salvation God freely offers.
“For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). The condemnation was accomplished at the Fall. God’s solution was to take on human flesh to pay the “wages of sin.” He paid the debt with His own innocent blood. “For if the blood of bulls and of goats … sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14, emphasis mine). He did all the work. The choice to believe or not believe is ours.
Nicodemus took Jesus’ words to heart. In the end, he came to His defense. At the Feast of Tabernacles when the Jews wanted to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up for him. “Nicodemus saith unto them, … Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” (John 7:50-51). After they crucified Him, Nicodemus accompanied Joseph of Arimathaea in the burial of Jesus, without regard to his Pharisaical reputation (John 19:38-40). He made the choice to believe. We have the same choice.
 Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenbert, The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel, (Tel Aviv, Israel, Jewish Studies for Christians, 2015), 32-33.
 Definition from Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries.
 Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John, Revised, (Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 187.