Introduction – john 3 is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, but what it is really about?
Rollen Stewart, a.k.a. Rainbow Man, first showed up on the American sports scene during the 1977 NBA Finals. Initially he merely put on a rainbow-colored Afro wig and danced wildly for the cameras. But after the 1980 Super Bowl, Stewart sat in his hotel room watching a televangelist named Charles R. Taylor, and became a born-again Christian. Shortly thereafter, he came up with the idea for adding the John 3:16 sign to his repertoire.
For the next decade, he went wherever he could to display his signs and banners. Among the events he attended: the Olympics, the World Cup, NFL playoff games, the Indy 500, the Masters, horse races and even the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. He claimed that he drove 60,000 miles a year to attend sporting events. He figured out the prime positions for holding his signs by carrying a battery-operated television to games to help figure out where the cameras were pointed.
Rollen Stewart made John 3 synonymous with crazy-religious-life-change. This has continued ever since as evidenced in the recent song by the Indy band Lucius called “Born Again Teen” where they describe their emotions as so crazy that they feel “like a born-again teen.”
But what is happening in this chapter? We are going to look at the larger context of those famous verses
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[or from above]”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
The scripture says that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. This made Nicodemus one of the most devoutly religious people in the culture. He was a respected gatekeeper of the traditions. It says he came at night which could have bee because he did not want people to see him talking with this controversial young rabbi.
Jesus steered the conversation to the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God was God’s reign on the earth. It was when God returned and set all things straight. He got rid of the Romans, vanquished the sinners and created a kingdom built on his ways and his law. Nicodemus knew he would be a part of it because he was Jewish. Beyond that he was a man, a religious teacher and a member of the religious leadership. Nicodemus would have assumed that all Jews, or at least all righteous Jews would be welcomed into the future kingdom. He probably believed that a non Jewish person would be allowed into the kingdom if he came under Jewish law and converted. Such people were said to be “born from above” or born like a newborn child. Now Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be born all over again.
There is a chance that Nicodemus knew what Jesus was saying at least to some degree but it confused him and so he answers with an obvious response meant probably to buy time.
What Nicodemus expected Jesus to say was something like “well not you Nicodemus you are fine. But these other irreligious people, they need a new birth.” Nicodemus must have thought his first birth was fine and that he had done everything expected of him as a Jewish man. But Jesus did not give him point for good behavior or perfect attendance. He reiterated that everyone must be born again.
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You [plural You] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”[d]
Jesus answers again: You must be born of water and the spirit which is probably another way of saying you must be born spiritually. Nicodemus should know this and Nicodemus does know this. He knows that someday God will pour out his Spirit on his people, not just for a little while but forever. He knew that God would build his kingdom on the earth and he wanted to be a part of it, but now Jesus is saying that he, a very religious man, a man who follows the law and teaches the law of God must be transformed, reborn, like a pagan, to enter God’s kingdom.
To clarify, Jesus says two things. First he says that flesh gives birth to flesh and the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You were born once physically. In the same way you must be born again spiritually to be in a new spiritual kingdom. Second he says that the Spirit is like wind. It blows here and there. You cannot see it but you can see its effects. In the same way you cannot see the Spirit but you can see its effects. I think what Jesus was saying here is “do you see the effects of the Spirit around you? Do you see any people or any nations where the trees are bending under the influence of the Spirit? If not then everyone needs the Spirit.” Nicodemus was familiar with Ezekiel’s vision of a field of dry bones. He knew that God would renew the nation through his Spirit. Now Jesus said that everyone needed that move of the Spirit. We are all dead bone in need of new life.
Is there evidence of the Spirit in you?
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
Nicodemus now asks “How can you be the way, and how can you bring salvation?” Jesus answers that he is the only one who has been with the Father, so he knows. And, he reminds Nicodemus that God is in the transformation business.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g]
These verses don’t make much sense to us but here is what he meant:
The snake in the wilderness shows how people who are dying will be given new life.
Jesus is referring to a passage of scripture that both Nicodemus and he know very well. It is from the book of Numbers, when Moses was leading the people of Israel in the dessert. The people had escaped from Egypt. They were wandering in the wilderness until God allowed them to enter the Promised Land. At one point the people began to grumble and complain against God even though he had freed them from slavery and provided for them in the dessert. They complained. As a result the Lord led them into an area infested with snakes. Many of the people were bitten and died. Other who were snake bit, feared for their lives and realized that this was a punishment from God. They asked Moses to pray that God would save them. The Lord told Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a poll. Anyone who feared dying from a snake bite could look up at the snake and receive new life. Now, Jesus says, the Son of Man, by which he meant himself, would be lifted up. He meant on a cross. And anyone who looked upon him, anyone who believed in him, would have eternal life.
Jesus is saying that our current world is snake bit, that we are dying spiritually. Everyone is in the same situation we are poisoned by sin. God is not content to leave things this way; he loves the world too much to let it slip away. The chance for healing has arrived like light in the darkness. The question is, will people take it?
It can seem with all this talk of judgment and death that the motive behind Jesus’ coming is to test people or to judge people. But John reminds us that this is not the case. The motive is love.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
God loves the world and he is not content to see it slip away under the snake bite of sin. He has come to save the world. But it still feels like condemnation to many. They don’t want to “have-to” come to Christ to be healed or saved. Jesus says that such people have condemned themselves. But why would someone not want to take the forgiveness, healing and hope offered in Jesus? Jesus says that he is a light in a dark world. But if people are doing what is wrong, they like being in the darkness.
I heard an example of this on a podcast recently. It was the Radio Lab podcast and the topic was addiction (December 2015, The Fix). Specifically they were considering the theory that addiction might be curable through medication. Some people respond to certain medication in such a way that their addiction symptoms disappear. The podcast followed one such person whose life had been ruined by alcoholism. Over and over again he would get clean, start his life, move ahead with a job, and then wash out by returning to drink again. The pill took away his addiction almost immediately. This was, all in all, a good thing. But eventually he felt a “non-physical” pull to getting drunk. He explained that he did not know how to be sober. His missed his old self who was a drunk. In effect he had to re-learn how to live. This is what Jesus is talking about. People love the darkness because their deeds are dark.
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that those who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. The kingdom of God is make up of people who realize they have been saved from perishing only because the Son of God has died in our place. God wants to save the world through Jesus Christ
This is all good news to people who know that they are dying and want to be saved, but there are two groups of people who are not sure they want to respond: those who love the darkness and those who do not think they need the light.
The first are those who are so tied to their deeds, their appetites, their addictions, their solitude that they will not come to Jesus. Jesus is light. To come to him is to admit that what they do is wrong. They suspect that life will change and they don’t want to change. What they might not realize is that sin is a poison destroying them, keeping them also under the wrath of God and keeping them from the community that they probably want to belong to. The kingdom of God is open to people who realize they want a king.
The second group of people are more like Nicodemus. They have a hard time thinking that they need renewal because of their religious behavior. But beware of using religion to keep you from God. Good behavior and respectable living can fill us with pride and cause us to think we can run our own lives. To be a Christian is to live in grateful obedience to the God who rescued us. The religious person needs to ask himself is the Spirit alive in me? Am I only a well-behaved person or the Spirit of God alive in me, changing me and giving me a greater hunger for the Lord? If you do not see evidence, then you may need transformation as much as the addict.