“Nicodemus Learns of New Birth”
Lesson Text: John 3:11-21
Background Scripture: John 3:1-24; Numbers 21:4-9
Devotional Reading: Matthew 5:13-16
11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
12 If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
13 And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
16 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.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 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.
19 And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
To understand the importance of trusting in Jesus for eternal life.
To know God’s love is so great that He sent His only Son to tell the world about God’s love.
To tell others the good news of Jesus Christ!
In Jesus’ time, daily life cycles were controlled by the light of the sun. Oil lamps and candles were available, but they were expensive and provided dim light at best. Business, travel, teaching, and other activities generally were done during daylight hours out of practical necessity. It would have required many candles or oil lamps to equal the light output of a single 100-watt incandescent light bulb of today. Sunset was the time for one to be at home, preparing for bed.
It was unusual, then, for Nicodemus and Jesus to meet at night (John 3:2). The Gospel author does not say why, although there are many theories. A common idea is that Nicodemus wanted to keep his interest in Jesus a secret, fearing damage to his reputation if it were known that he associated with this controversial young teacher. Others think an evening meeting allowed for a more leisurely discussion since the crowds that followed Jesus during the day would be absent.
Whatever the reason, we can imagine Jesus and Nicodemus outdoors in the cool of the evening, perhaps sharing a light meal. They may have benefited from the light of a bright moon, enough for them to see each other’s face clearly and read unspoken messages as part of their conversation.
Nicodemus was a man of high moral character, deep religious hunger, and yet profound spiritual blindness. In order to instruct Nicodemus in the basics of salvation, our Lord used four quite different illustrations. Birth (vs. 1-7); The wind (vs. 8-13); The serpent on the pole (vs. 14-18); and Light and darkness (vs. 19-21). The words of Jesus were of high importance when He spoke them to Nicodemus that night, and they remain so for us today.
Time: A.D. 26
Nicodemus is mentioned only in the Gospel of John. His training was that of a Pharisee (John 3:1), a strict adherent of the Law of Moses. This was very helpful in his vocation as a teacher. And he was no ordinary teacher! Jesus calls him “a master of Israel” (3:10). All this signifies that Nicodemus was well educated and respected. He was surely a cut above the other teachers of his time.
Additionally, Nicodemus is identified as “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). This means he was a member of the Sanhedrin (“being one of them,” 7:50), the high council of the Jewish people (see 7:47-50). That was a select group of 70 priests, elders, and scribes of the people plus the presiding high priest (71 total; compare 11:47). These men were the elite of the elites in Israel—wealthy, influential, and admired. It is ironic, then, that this Jewish leader had a Greek name: Nicodemus means “victory of the people” in Greek. Perhaps his parents were Hellenistic Jews, that is, they were Jews who had adopted some Greek ways. But his status as a Pharisee and his membership on the Sanhedrin means that we should understand him to have been a very loyal, observant Jew.
Nicodemus spoke up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50,51). After the crucifixion, Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathaea in the burial of Jesus (19:39). Some believe that John wants us to understand Nicodemus as a secret disciple of Jesus, as was Joseph of Arimathaea (19:38). This may be true, but John never says this explicitly. We like to think that Nicodemus became a follower after the resurrection, though.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FAITH IN THE SON (John 3:11-15)
1. Why did Nicodemus have a hard time receiving what he witnessed about Jesus (John 3:11)?
Nicodemus came "by night," and he was still in the dark! He could not understand the new birth even after Jesus had explained it to him.
Verse 11 draws together several things from earlier sections of the book. Nicodemus is well aware of the miraculous signs Jesus has been performing (John 3:2). Yet we also know that witnessing these signs does not necessarily result in a faith that Jesus finds acceptable (2:23-25). Nicodemus has just been told that he must be “born again,” referring to a spiritual birth, if he is to be part of the “kingdom of God” (3:3). He has tripped on this directive, however, unable to understand birth in anything but physical terms (3:4). When Jesus explains the spiritual nature of this new birth, Nicodemus seems confused (3:9).
Jesus stated clearly that Nicodemus' knowledge of the Old Testament should have given him the light he needed (3:10). Alas, "the teacher of the Jews" knew the facts recorded in the Scriptures, but he could not understand the truths.
In the verse before us, Jesus takes a more direct approach. Jesus’ comments serve to say that He has been honest (“verily, verily”) and straightforward in His actions and words, yet Nicodemus has not accepted Him or His message. What follows is one of the most important explanations of Jesus’ person and mission in all of Scripture.
2. Why did Pharisees not accept the truth about Jesus (v. 12)?
For one thing, the religious leaders would not submit to the authority of Christ's witness (John 3:11). We will see this "authority conflict" increase as we continue in our studies. The religious leaders claimed to believe Moses, yet they could not believe Jesus (John 5:37-47). The Pharisees were more concerned about the praise of men than the praise of God (John 12:37-50).
Despite Nicodemus’s status as a leader of a very religious people, he has a problem conceiving of things on the spiritual level. Yet this he must do, for the treasure in Jesus’ words is to be found in heavenly things, not in earthly things (John 3:12).
3. What heavenly truth did Jesus declare to Nicodemus (v. 13)?
Thankfully for Nicodemus, he was talking with someone who could speak with authority regarding eternal matters. While the Jews possessed God’s revelation in the Mosaic law (see Rom. 9:4), no one but the Son of man had ever gone into heaven or come back to describe it (see John 1:51; 3:31; 6:41,42). He is the one who came down from heaven. Jesus is able to teach about God because He knows God intimately (John 1:18). It is through Jesus that Heaven is revealed (1:51). This is because Jesus is the Son, who is able to give Nicodemus direct knowledge of the Father. This is more than information about the nature of the Father. In the following verses, Jesus reveals the Son’s part in God’s plan for human salvation.
4. What analogy did Jesus use to explain His mission of salvation (vs. 14,15)?
Knowing that Nicodemus is an expert in Jewish history, Jesus draws on Numbers 21:5-9: the story of how God punished the grumbling, disobedient nation of Israel by sending a plague of poisonous snakes into their camp, causing many deaths. The terrified Israelites came to Moses and admitted their sin, begging him to save them. According to directions received from the Lord, Moses made a brass snake and raised it high above the camp on a pole. If anyone bitten by a snake looked at the brass serpent, that person was saved from death. This was God’s way of saving the people.
Jesus uses that story as a powerful analogy to explain His mission of salvation. For Jesus to “be lifted up” is a reference to His being raised on the cross (see John 12:32,33), although how this results in salvation is not made clear until later. The serpent in the wilderness, then, is a type of prophecy of the saving power of the cross.
As those who took a step of faith and looked at the brass serpent were saved, so those who look on Jesus in faith will be saved. The serpent-salvation of Moses’ day was temporary, for those people eventually died. The Son’s salvation is forever, for those who place faith in Him have “eternal life” (John 3:15).
While this text speaks to everyone, it is originally a direct challenge to Nicodemus. If he is to be part of the eternal kingdom of God, then he must be born anew. This spiritual rebirth is not put into effect by a ritual observance of the law, by secret knowledge, or by magical incantations. Today we might say it is not actualized by counseling therapy, by a personal makeover, or by a fresh start. It comes through belief in Jesus, the place where Nicodemus is falling short (John 3:12). This verse leads to the high point of the chapter, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16.
What Do You Think?
How can you do a better job of “lifting up” Jesus in a sense of honoring Him before others?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
-In your attitude toward others
-In how you respond when those around you are troubled by things of this life
-In how you take advantage of opportunities to share your faith
-In how you use the resources God gives you
THE TWO WAYS OF RESPONDING TO THE SON (John 3:16-21)
5. Why did God give the world “his only begotten Son” (vs. 16, 17)?
If there is such a things as the gospel in a nutshell, this verse is the leading candidate. It gives both the “what’s so” and the “so what?” of the Christian message of salvation. God works to save us because He loves the world. God saves by sending the one closest to His heart: the Son (Jesus). We must believe in Him, placing our trust in the Son of God. The result is that we no longer have to fear death, for we will not perish. Instead, we have the gift of everlasting life. Those who believe in the Redeemer will enjoy a reconciled, deeply satisfying relationship with the Son and His heavenly Father.
Verse 17 explains what God did not intend by sending His Son: He was not sent to condemn the world.
The word condemn has the sense of being judged, found guilty, and sentenced to death. Jesus is not sent to Israel as a judge, a fact He repeats at a later time (see John 8:15), even though He has the authority to judge (5:22). His mission is salvation, and He is not to be both Savior and condemner at the same time. He promises to come again and take His saved ones home (14:3). It is this second coming that will reveal the Christ as judge (compare Matthew 25:31-33).
6. What is the warning for those who choose not to believe (v. 18)?
There is a warning in these verses for Nicodemus and for anyone who chooses not to believe: the nonbeliever will not escape condemnation. The nonbeliever has no promise or hope for eternal life. The nonbeliever is condemned already. His or her lack of faith is a self-condemning choice. And a general belief in God (as Nicodemus and his fellow Jews have) is not sufficient.
The kind of belief necessary is a specific, focused belief: it is faith in the Son of God. There is no substitute, no other way. Jesus alone is the way to salvation (John 14:6; compare Acts 4:12).
7. Why do most people love darkness rather than light (vs. 19,20)?
Jesus seems now to appeal to Nicodemus to have the necessary, saving faith. Jesus’ words and deeds reveal Him to be the light that the ancient Jewish people are looking for (see John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5). Nicodemus is not one who loves spiritual darkness if he is a genuine seeker of truth.
However, Jesus said this is the verdict: “light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” The condemnation is that they want to persist in their evil deeds, and this keeps them from coming to the light; for the closer the sinner gets to the light, the more his sins are exposed. It is not "intellectual problems" that keep people from trusting Christ; it is the moral and spiritual blindness that keeps them loving the darkness and hating the light.
If anyone is confused as to his or her status, Jesus advises an examination of life (John 3:20). Have you rejected the light and the life He brings (John 1:4)? Faith is something we live, not just a one-time statement of belief.
8. What does it mean to do the truth (v. 21)?
This verse offers one of the most remarkable concepts in the Bible: that truth is more than something to be accepted mentally. Truth is also something we do and live. The lovers of darkness will be exposed by their evil deeds. The lovers of light will also be exposed by their deeds of truth. The actions of light do not come about by mere human effort. Rather, they are wrought in God, accomplished according to God’s power and will.
Again, what does it mean to do the truth? In the Gospel of John, Jesus is revealed as the personified truth of God (John 1:14; 14:6). Jesus came to save us for eternal life, but He also came to show us how to live in this life (10:10). We are living the truth when we follow Jesus as our Lord and seek to live like Him (compare 1 Corinthians 11:1). And it is by knowing the truth in our lives we are truly set free from sin and condemnation (John 8:32). In this sense, eternal life begins now.
POINTS TO PONDER
1. Truly seeking Jesus will clarify any inability to believe (John 3:11,12).
2. God sent His Son Jesus on a mission of love (vs. 13-15).
3. Jesus’ mission came at high cost for Him, but at no cost to you (v. 16).
4. God’s goal is to save all who are lost through Jesus, not condemn them (vs. 17,18).
5. Will you accept God’s light that has “come into this world,” or do you prefer darkness? (vs. 19-21) The choice is yours today...
To enter the kingdom of God, one must be “born again.” Because of His love for us, God sent His only Son into the world to save us. The good news of Jesus Christ is that by believing in Him we can be born again and receive eternal life.
Belief means far more than intellectual assent to the claims of Christ. It means placing one’s life and trust in complete surrender to the one in whom we believe.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9 NIV).
Precious Lord, we marvel at Your love for us. We wonder at the gift of eternal life through Jesus. We pray that You will guide us to be lovers of the light in all things, to live the truth in everything. We pray this in the name of the one whom You sent for us, Jesus Your Son; amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
Our salvation is the result of God’s love.