The Savior of the World

39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

43 After the two days he departed for Galilee. 44 (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) 45 So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast. – John 4:39-45 ESV

Like the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish religious leader, had enjoyed a personal, one-on-one encounter with Jesus. He had heard with his own ears how Jesus described the requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God:

“…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

Jesus had gone on to explain the need for spiritual new birth – a birth from above – made possible by God and accessible only through belief in His Son.

“…whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:15 ESV

But Nicodemus had simply walked away from that late-night discussion with Jesus. There was no indication by John that this prominent member of the Pharisees had accepted what Jesus had said and believed in Him for eternal life. But John had opened his gospel with the sad, but accurate news that Jesus would find few among His own people who would receive Him as their Messiah and Savior.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV

Yet in the case of the Samaritan woman (who was considered a non-Jew), she had literally run away from her encounter with Jesus, leaving her water jar behind, and making her way into her village so that she could tell them about her experience.

“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” – John 4:29 ESV

And John indicates that many of her fellow villagers “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39 ESV). When they had heard her story of how Jesus had somehow known all about her five former husbands and had exposed the truth behind her current adulterous relationship, they had believed. Their belief was based on her words and nothing else. It was on the basis of the woman’s personal testimony that they made their way to the well to see Jesus for themselves. Their curiosity was piqued and they wanted to see if Jesus just might be the Christ, the Messiah.

As Samaritans, they worshiped the same God as the Jews and shared a common belief with them concerning the Messiah. So, when their neighbor had come to them with her story about an encounter with a strange Jewish man who had revealed hidden secrets concerning her life, they had wanted to know more. According to John, they were so intrigued by Jesus that they convinced Him to remain with them for two more days. And the result was that “many more believed because of his word” (John 4:41 ESV).

John makes it clear that the nature of their belief had changed. They had gone from believing what the woman had said about Jesus to believing in Jesus.

They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” – John 4:42 ESV

Her story had led them to believe that Jesus just might be the Christ. But, now that they had heard Him for themselves, they were convinced that He was the Savior of the world. This designation concerning Jesus is unique to the writings of John. It appears here and in one other place: 1 John 4:13-14.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

It coincides with the message the angel gave to Joseph concerning his betrothed’s unexpected pregnancy.

“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 NLT

In Greek, the word “save” is sōzō and it means “to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction.” It is the root word from which the designation “Savior” is derived. This was a common term among the Greeks and Romans and used to refer not only to their deities but to men of great distinction.

But the Samaritans were using this term to describe Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. Like the Jews, they believed He would come to redeem God’s people from their oppression at the hands of foreign powers. The Samaritans, as half-Jews, were just as anxious to see the arrival of the Messiah because they believed He would restore order to the entire world by establishing His kingdom and righting all wrongs.

It’s interesting that these verses contain no mention of the disciples. But it seems obvious that they would have remained with Jesus throughout His two-day stay among the Samaritans. And it seems equally clear that they would have been appalled at the idea of spending an additional 48 hours among a people whom they believed to be unclean and unacceptable to God. Yet, here was their Rabbi and teacher spending extended time with these unworthy “dogs” and sharing with them His message of new birth from above and the promise of eternal life.

John would have been one of the ones who stood by in amazement as he watched Jesus interact with the Samaritans. And his emphasis on their “belief” in Jesus is intended to drive home the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus: “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 NLT).

Jesus had made it perfectly clear to Nicodemus that the Son of God had come to offer salvation to “the world,” not just the Jews.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” – John 3:16-17 NLT

And the Samaritan woman and her neighbors were evidence that the Son was no respecter of persons. His message of salvation, while offered to the Jews, was not reserved for them alone. He had come to provide salvation to all who would believe in Him, regardless of their country of origin, economic status, religious affiliation, or educational background.

It was the prophet Isaiah who wrote concerning the coming Messiah:

God, the Lord, created the heavens and stretched them out.
    He created the earth and everything in it.
He gives breath to everyone,
    life to everyone who walks the earth.
And it is he who says,
“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
   You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:5-7 NLT

Jesus had come to fulfill the words of that prophecy and the Samaritans were living proof that He was a light to guide to the nations, opening the eyes of the spiritually blind, setting free those held captive by sin, and bringing release to all those sitting on death row, condemned to suffer the consequences of their rebellion against God. Jesus was the Savior of the world. And while not everyone living in the world would accept His offer of salvation, He made it available to all, and “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Not What They Expected

27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” – John 4:27-38 ESV

The Samaritan woman had come to the well to draw water. The disciples had gone to a nearby town to find food. John’s emphasis on the contrast between the physical and the spiritual is all over this section of his gospel. With his depiction of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, John accentuates the stark contrast between earthly and the heavenly, the temporal and the eternal. The woman’s life depicts mankind’s obsession with meeting physical needs. The water was a symbol of her insatiable need to satisfy her earthly desires. Jesus’ revelation concerning her five failed marriages speaks volumes about her neediness, insecurity, and susceptibility to her own passions and desires. That she was living with yet another man, outside the bonds of marriage, reveals her deep-seated desire for acceptance and love. She had tremendous physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Yet, she was blind to the fact that her greatest need was spiritual in nature.

All the while Jesus had been attempting to quench this woman’s spiritual thirst, His disciples had been in search for food. And John points out their shock when they returned to find Jesus speaking to a woman, and a Samaritan woman at that. This was unacceptable behavior for someone like Jesus. The disciples, as Jews, would have been appalled that their teacher had been willing to risk becoming ceremonially unclean through interaction with a Samaritan. And while they were dying to know what had prompted Jesus’ actions, they kept their questions to themselves.

Meanwhile, the woman had made her way back into town, anxious to share the exciting news of her unexpected encounter with Jesus.

The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” – John 4:28-29 NLT

John’s mention of the water jar is an important part of the story that can be easily overlooked. That jar was an essential part of her daily routine. It was the key to her drawing water from the well, which, as she had told Jesus, was deep. Without the jar, she would have no means of satisfying her thirst. But her willingness to leave it behind is a subtle statement by John that she had found something far more important and significant. It is reminiscent of the words of Jesus, spoken during His sermon on the mount.

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” – Matthew 6:31-33 NLT

Jesus would later reiterate this same thought to His disciples, telling them, “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22-23 NLT). And He would add a further note of instruction:

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.” – Luke 12:31-32 NLT

By leaving her water jar behind, the Samaritan woman was putting the teaching of Jesus into action. She was illustrating what it means to seek the Kingdom of God above all else. Suddenly, the earthly things that had meant so much to her, lost their value and appeal. She had discovered something of far greater worth.

Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” – John 4:29 NLT

Her interest was piqued. She was curiously intrigued by all Jesus had said to her. And her excitement was contagious because she eventually returned with a crowd of her fellow townspeople in tow.

But John returns our attention to the contrast between the physical and the spiritual by describing the disciples’ attempt to get Jesus to eat. They had gone out of their way to get food, even risking their own purity by entering into a Samaritan town to purchase it, and now they expected Jesus to satisfy His physical hunger with it. But Jesus refused their offer, informing them instead that He had “food to eat that you do not know about” (John 4:32 ESV). This admission confused them because they could not imagine where Jesus had found anything to eat. And what Jesus said next did little to clear up their confusion.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. – John 4:34 ESV

And just a few chapters later, John records the words of Jesus as He declares His resolute determination to accomplish His Father’s will.

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:38-40 NLT

The disciples were focused on the physical, while Jesus had His eyes set on accomplishing the spiritual and eternal will of His Heavenly Father. And, interestingly enough, just before Jesus made that statement to His disciples, He had told them:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. However, those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them.” – John 6:35-37 NLT

Hunger and thirst. Jesus had come to meet a need the disciples didn’t yet know they had. They were more concerned about a physical meal and the coming of the Messiah’s physical kingdom. But Jesus was on a mission from God to satisfy man’s spiritual hunger and provide a means by which sinners could gain access to the kingdom of God.

This entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples was meant to refocus their attention. They were obsessed with physical and temporal matters. Their attention was focused on their own needs and their own self-centered understanding of the kingdom. Here they were, standing in the middle of Samaria, surrounded by people they believed to be unclean and unworthy of God’s attention. And yet, Jesus said to them:

“You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest. The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike!” – John 4:35-36 NLT

It seems likely that, as Jesus spoke these words, the Samaritan woman and the townspeople had come into sight. And His mention of eternal life in conjunction with a crowd of Samaritans would have shocked His disciples. But He wants them to wake up and understand the unique nature of the moment. They were standing in the presence of the Messiah, the Son of God, who had come to do the will of His Father. And the need He had come to meet was spiritual in nature, not physical. Even the physical differences between the Jews and the Samaritans were insignificant in light of God’s plan to bring redemption to all mankind through His Son’s death and resurrection.

And Jesus wants His reluctant disciples to understand that they are going to play a significant part in the coming harvest of souls.

“You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ And it’s true. I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.” – John 4:37-38 NLT

Jesus had come sowing the good news of salvation that He had come to offer. He would plant the seeds, but the disciples would reap the harvest. But they would have to be willing to reap wherever the seeds had been sown – even if that meant returning to the “fields” of Samaria.

This was a head-scratching, paradigm-shifting scene for the disciples. And while John does not give us their response to Jesus’ words, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of them staring at one another in equal parts confusion and consternation. Everything about this scenario was distasteful to them. They were in a place they didn’t want to be. They were soon to be surrounded by Samaritans whom they considered unclean and unworthy of God’s mercy and grace. And yet, their Rabbi and teacher was inferring that these very same people would be included in the kingdom of God.

Whether they realized it or not, the disciples were slowly discovering that God’s will stood in stark contrast to their own. His plans for the world looked nothing like what they were expecting or hoping. And this would be just the first in a series of eye-opening, expectation-shattering lessons they would receive from the lips of Jesus.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

In Spirit and Truth

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:16-26 ESV

The woman wanted what Jesus had to offer. The thought of a source of freely flowing water that would eliminate her constant need to draw water from the well of Jacob was more than appealing to her. But, like Nicodemus, she was missing the point of Jesus’ words. She had come to the well to meet a physical need. Her mission had been to draw water from the well for use in drinking, bathing, and cleaning. Water was a daily necessity that made living in that arid region possible. Without it, life would be impossible.

But even water has its limitations. It can be consumed to quench thirst, but in time, the thirst will return. Water can be used to wash away the dirt and grime of life, but it can’t prevent one from becoming filthy again. That’s why the woman was forced to return to the well on a daily basis. Her need for water was insatiable.

Yet Jesus had piqued the woman’s interest with His mention of  “living water.” But don’t miss how He had opened His conversation with her.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” – John 4:10 ESV

The woman was clueless as to Jesus’ identity. When she had arrived at the well, she was surprised to find an unknown Jewish man waiting there. And her surprise turned to shock when this stranger dared to speak to her – “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). Yet Jesus assured her that, had she known who He was and the nature of the gift He had to offer, she would have been the first to speak that day.

Jesus, in need of water to satisfy His thirst, had stopped at the well. But as the woman pointed out, He had “nothing to draw water with” (John 4:11 ESV). So He had asked her for help because she was the only one who had the means by which to satisfy His need. Yet, the inference behind the story is that the woman had a need for something far greater than water. And if she had only known the true identity of the stranger at the well and what He was capable of offering her, she would have been begging Him for the gift of God. 

It is easy to overlook the fact that both Nicodemus and this woman were worshipers of Yahweh. He was an orthodox member of the sect of the Pharisees. She was a Samaritan. He worshiped the God of Abraham at the temple in Jerusalem. Her people chose to worship Him at Mount Gerizim. Nicodemus prided Himself on his identity as a purebred Jew and a strict adherent to the Mosaic Law. The Samaritan woman, though viewed as a half-breed by the Jews, believed that her people were worshiping Yahweh in the manner prescribed by Moses. But what both failed to take into account was their need for a Savior. While the Jews and the Samaritans believed in the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, they were clueless as to His real mission. 

The primary message found in chapters 3 and 4 is that of need, and Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had the same need in common. The need for eternal life. But in order to have eternal life, they would have to experience cleansing from their sin. Jesus had described it to Nicodemus as birth from above. He described it to the woman at the well as living water. Both of these individuals, despite their obvious differences, would be denied access into God’s kingdom for the very same reason: Sin.

Nicodemus, while outwardly righteous in appearance, was guilty of hypocrisy, just like the rest of his fellow members of the Pharisees. Jesus would have some harsh words of indictment against these well-respected members of Israel’s religious elite.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” – Matthew 23:27 NLT

But the woman at the well had her own set of issues. Not only was she a Samaritan and, therefore, guilty of practicing idolatry, but she was also guilty of violating the law of God. As Jesus was about to point out, she was an adulteress. When he asked her to go get her husband, she confessed that she was unmarried. But Jesus knew more about her than she could have ever imagined, and He revealed to her the true nature of her need.

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” – John 4:17-18 ESV

Suddenly, Jesus shifted the topic of conversation away from water to sin. He made it painfully personal. And while the woman’s statement had been anything but a confession, Jesus declared that what she had said was more true than she realized. She had no husband because she was in an adulterous relationship. She was guilty of sin.

But in a somewhat awkward attempt to change the subject, the woman declared, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19 ESV). She desperately wanted to talk about something other than her five failed marriages and her current live-in relationship. So, sensing that Jesus had some kind of prophetic powers, she decided to ask Him about an important point of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” – John 4:20 ESV

By refocusing the topic of conversation, she was hoping to divert attention away from her own personal problems. But Jesus was not going to allow that to happen. He addressed her question, but in a way that brought the focus right back on her. In essence, Jesus let her know that the issue had less to do about where God should be worshiped, but the motive behind the worship. The Jews and Samaritans were busy debating about location, but Jesus was far more interested in motivation. Why were they worshiping God?

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on her that must have left her reeling.

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. – John 4:21 ESV

The worship of God wasn’t about a temple in Jerusalem or a shrine on Mount Gerizim. It was a matter of the heart. While the Jews had a more accurate understanding of God, they were guilty of worshiping Him falsely. Jesus would later declare of the Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:8-9 NLT).

And He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22 ESV). The Samaritans practiced a form of syncretism that blended the worship of Yahweh with that of false gods. Their doctrine was polluted and filled with pagan ideas that rendered Yahweh virtually unrecognizable.

Jesus fast-forwarded the conversation to the future, revealing that a day would come when “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23 ESV). Worship will no longer be about location and the ritual observation of rules and regulations. It will be about a relationship with God based on spirit and truth. And Jesus informed the woman that the future hour to which He referred was actually “now here.” It had arrived. And He had been the one to usher it in.

But what did He mean by “spirit and truth?” And how had His arrival changed the nature of man’s worship of God? The two terms “spirit and truth” are actually meant to convey one idea. Jesus is attempting to define worship that which is “truly spiritual.” In other words, it is not some physical activity practiced in a particular place and according to some man-made set of governing rules. It is a matter of the heart, not the head. It is spiritual in nature and not physical. Going through the religious motions either in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim was not going to cut it. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had been guilty of worshiping the one true God falsely and unfaithfully.

But Jesus had come to make the true worship of God possible, by restoring sinful men and women to a right relationship with Him. To do so, they would have to be born of the Spirit, just as He had told Nicodemus. They would have to have their spiritual thirst quenched by the living water Jesus would provide. And just a few chapters later, John will describe Jesus standing in the temple courtyard, shouting:

Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”(When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.).” – John 7:38-39 NLT

The true worship of God would be made possible by the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. And to receive the Spirit, one would have to accept the gracious gift of salvation made possible through the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

These words left the woman in a state of confusion. She was having a difficult time following what Jesus had to say. But she proclaimed her belief in the coming of the Messiah and her hope that He would clear up all the confusion regarding where to worship God. And that’s when Jesus boldly proclaimed to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26 ESV). The not-yet had become the now. The long-awaited Messiah had shown up and He was talking to her. The answer to her question regarding the true worship of God was standing right in front of her.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Gift of God

A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” – John 4:7-15 ESV

It is interesting that John makes special note that Jesus stopped in “a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (John 4:5 ESV). This reference to Joseph has special significance because of the role he played as Israel’s “savior” hundreds of years earlier. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and he ended up in Egypt. But through a series of divinely orchestrated events, Joseph eventually became the second-highest-ranking official in all of Egypt. Years later, when a famine struck the land of Canaan, Jacob sent his remaining sons to Egypt to seek food. But what they discovered was their long-lost brother. And to their surprise, rather than use his position and power to punish them for their past treatment of him, Joseph showed them mercy and grace. He provided them with forgiveness for their sins against him as well as well-watered land for their flocks. So the Israelites, just 70 members strong at that time, settled in Egypt. And, in response to his brothers’ concern that he might seek to harm them, Joseph told them:

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” – Genesis 50:20 ESV

Jacob and Joseph would both die in Egypt. But, years later, when the sons Jacob returned to the land of Canaan, they brought the bones of Joseph and buried them in Shechem (Sychar), near the spot where Jesus had chosen to take His midday rest stop.

John mentions, almost in passing, that Jesus was weary from His journey. This rather oblique reference is intended to remind the reader that Jesus, while fully God, was also fully human. And in His humanity, Jesus experienced the same physical attributes as any other man, including hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. In this little scenario, Jesus would have looked like any other travel-worn Jew making his way through the region of Samaria. So, when the Samaritan woman appeared on the scene, she would have taken very little interest in this unknown Jewish man – until He spoke to her.

John indicates that Jesus was the first to speak, saying to the woman, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7 ESV). While this scene may appear somewhat innocuous to us, for the original readers of John’s gospel, this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman would have been shocking. Here was Jesus, a Jewish male, daring to strike up a conversation with a Samaritan woman. This kind of thing wasn’t done in Israel. First of all, Jesus broke social protocol by speaking to a woman in public. And to make matters worse, the woman to whom He spoke was a lowly Samaritan. She would have been considered idolatrous and, therefore, unclean. Yet, shockingly, Jesus chose to speak to her. 

Even the woman reveals her surprise that this Jewish man would dare to address her.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” – John 4:9 ESV

Just so his audience understands the gravity of the moment, John adds an important aside: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). This entire encounter was out of bounds and unexpected. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was smack-dab in the middle of Samaria, in the middle of the day, and speaking to an unclean Samaritan woman. Not only that, but He was also asking her to serve Him water from the vessel she used to draw from the well. What Jesus was about to do would render Him ceremonially unclean and in need of purification.

But Jesus shows no concern for His own spiritual well-being. Instead, He seems focused on the plight of the woman and replies to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10 ESV). 

In a sense, Jesus was informing the woman of His true identity. He was much more than an unidentified Jewish man asking for a drink of water. He was someone who had the power and authority to offer her “the gift of God,” a source of “living water.”

Confused by Jesus’ words, the woman responded, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (John 4:11 ESV). At this point in the exchange, the reader should recall the earlier conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, the highly orthodox member of the Pharisees. He too had been perplexed by the words of Jesus concerning the new birth from above and had quizzically replied, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV). 

Don’t miss the contrast: A well-educated Jewish Pharisee and an idolatrous Samaritan woman. Both found themselves in a conversation with Jesus, the Son of God. But their minds were stuck on a horizontal plane, and incapable of understanding the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words. The woman, well-acquainted with the task of drawing her daily water from the well, could not understand what Jesus meant by His reference to “living water.” In her mind, Jesus was offering her a source of free-flowing water, like that found in a mountain stream. It stood in stark contrast to the well water to which she was accustomed. Access to water from a stream would mean she would no longer have to go through the arduous task of drawing stagnant water from a well. But as far as she could see, Jesus had no means of providing the “the gift” of which He spoke.

The woman not only found Jesus’ words confusing, but also a bit off-putting. Who was He to denigrate the water from Jacob’s well? Was it not good enough for Him? It had served to meet the needs of Jacob, so it was good enough for her. But Jesus pointed out the limitations inherent in Jacob’s well and the water it provided.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again…” – John 4:13 ESV

Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to understand that there was a physical and a spiritual dimension to life. Being born into the family of Israel was not going to be enough to earn Nicodemus entrance into the kingdom of God. And drinking water from the well of Jacob was not going to satisfy the Samaritan woman’s spiritual thirst. Both of these individuals had a need that could only be met through Jesus. He was the light of life and the source of living water.

And Jesus informed the woman that the gift He was offering her was far greater than any water she might draw from a well.

“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:14 ESV

At this point in the story, we know nothing about this woman, other than her status as a Samaritan. Her very presence at the well reveals her need for and dependence upon water in order to survive. But Jesus knew there was a much greater need in this woman’s life. Her thirst was far more than physical. Just as Nicodemus was going to need a different kind of birth if he wanted to enter God’s kingdom, the Samaritan woman was going to need a different kind of water if she ever wanted to have her deep spiritual thirst satisfied. But the woman’s response to Jesus reveals just how blind she was to her own neediness.

“Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” – John 4:15 ESV

She was intrigued by the thought of a source of free-flowing water. And if this unknown Jewish man could tell her where to find it, she was all ears. The thought of never having to draw water from the well again was appealing to her. But like Nicodemus, she was missing the point. She was neglecting to see her real need. Nicodemus had seen himself as fully righteous and fully deserving of entrance into God’s kingdom. But he had been wrong. Just like everyone else, he required a birth from above. And this woman was never going to satisfy her real spiritual need with water from a well. Her sins, like those of Nicodemus, were great. Yes, they may have been of a different sort, but they were sins nonetheless. And she, like Nicodemus, stood before the Son of God, condemned by her sin and in need of a Savior.

Which brings us back to the story of Joseph and his brothers. The day came when they found themselves standing in front of the brother they had sold into slavery and left for dead. They were guilty and deserving of judgment. But Joseph showed them mercy. He extended grace. He used his power and authority to reward rather than punish them.

And like the brother’s of Joseph, this unidentified woman was going to discover the joy of having her sins forgiven. Jesus was about to let her know that God “brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20 NLT). And she would be graciously and unexpectedly included among the saved.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

An Unscheduled and Ill-Advised Rest Stop

1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.  – John 4:1-6 ESV

Chapter 3 featured Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, who was a well-respected member of the Pharisees, an extremely orthodox sect of Judaism. This learned man, who also happened to be a member of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin, was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, with special knowledge of the Mosaic Law. Yet, with all his knowledge and wisdom, he had been unable to comprehend the words of Jesus. In fact, Jesus exposed Nicodemus’ surprising lack of understanding when He somewhat sarcastically asked, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10 ESV).

Nicodemus prided himself in his knowledge of both the written and oral traditions of Israel. But he had been unable to understand what Jesus meant when He said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV). Nicodemus’ wisdom had proved insufficient because his mind was stuck on a horizontal plane, and incapable of comprehending the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words.

Now, John shifts the scene of the story as he describes Jesus’ departure from Judea to the northern region of Galilee. Jesus is vacating the confines of Jerusalem because the Pharisees have gotten wind of His growing popularity.

…when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. – John 4:1-3 ESV

Jesus had come to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover, but He had found the temple of His Father being desecrated and profaned by those who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation. Rather than encouraging the people to “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23 ESV), they had turned the house of God into “a house of trade” (John 2:16 ESV). They were using the God-ordained sacrificial system as a means for making money, rather than making atonement for the sins of the people.

So, John describes Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, as turning His back on the city of Jerusalem and heading for Galilee. But to get there, Jesus was going to have to journey through the region of Samaria. And this seemingly insignificant geographic detail is far more important that one might realize.

The seismic nature of the shift in location is easily overlooked by modern readers. But John’s original audience would have recognized the fascinating juxtaposition between chapters 3 and 4 that John was creating. To understand what is going on, you have to know the historic significance of Samaria and its inhabitants. The land of Samaria had originally belonged to the tribe of Ephraim and the half-tribe of Manasseh. It had been part of the land of Canaan that God had promised as an inheritance to the nation of Israel. After God had divided the nation in two, due to the sins of Solomon, Samaria had become part of the northern kingdom of Israel. But when the people of Israel had continued to rebel against God and had refused His repeated calls to repent, He had brought the Assyrians against them as punishment for their sin. The book of 2 Kings describes what happened as a result.

The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. But since these foreign settlers did not worship the Lord when they first arrived, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.

So a message was sent to the king of Assyria: “The people you have sent to live in the towns of Samaria do not know the religious customs of the God of the land. He has sent lions among them to destroy them because they have not worshiped him correctly.”

The king of Assyria then commanded, “Send one of the exiled priests back to Samaria. Let him live there and teach the new residents the religious customs of the God of the land.” So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord.

But these various groups of foreigners also continued to worship their own gods. In town after town where they lived, they placed their idols at the pagan shrines that the people of Samaria had built. – 2 Kings 17:24-29 NLT

These foreigners ended up intermarrying with the Jews who had been left in the land. And 2 Kings describes how these “Samaritans” practiced a syncretistic brand of religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with the worship of false gods.

These new residents worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests to offer sacrifices at their places of worship. And though they worshiped the Lord, they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations from which they came. – 2 Kings 17:32-33 NLT

To the Pharisees and other orthodox religious groups in Israel, the Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” who had refused to maintain the purity of the nation’s bloodline. Not only that, but they were also guilty of idolatry and, therefore, in violation of the Mosaic Law. And to make matters worse, they had established their own place of worship on Mount Gerazim, refusing to recognize the temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. And much to the chagrin of the Pharisees, the Samaritans rejected all the writings of the prophets and the Jewish oral traditions, which the Pharisees held near and dear.

So, when John describes Jesus as having “to pass through Samaria,” there is an intentional tension in his words. It was impossible for Jesus to travel from Judea to Galilee without having to make his way through this land occupied by “half-breeds” and heretics. And any self-respecting, God-honoring Jew would pass through this region as quickly as possible, making certain to avoid any interaction with the inhabitants. To the Jews, the Samaritans were considered unclean and of no more value than a dog. They were to be avoided at all costs.

All of these details are essential if one is to understand the significance of all that John is about to describe. Jesus’ transition from Jerusalem to Galilee takes on a special significance because He must pass through the region of Samaria. And the intense animosity between the Jews and Samaritans would have been well-documents and fully understood in John’s day. A contemporary reader of John’s gospel would have expected Jesus and His entourage to expedite their passage through Samaria, spending as little time in the region as was physically possible.

But John describes Jesus as arriving at the town of Sychar, located in the heart of Samaria, at about Noon. The inference is that Jesus has only a few hours left before darkness falls, so He should have been in a hurry to complete His journey to Galilee. But instead, He decides to take an unscheduled and highly unrecommended rest stop at the base of Mount Gerazim, where the Samaritans practiced their syncretistic brand of religion.

Again, the details are critical to understanding what follows. Sychar, also known as Shechem, was located in the valley between Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal, and this spot held a special significance for the Jewish people. It was there, during the initial conquest of the land of Canann, that Joshua had instructed the people to build an altar to the Lord, to recommit themselves to the covenant, and to give thanks for their recent victories over Jericho and Ai.

Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal. He followed the commands that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of Instruction: “Make me an altar from stones that are uncut and have not been shaped with iron tools.” Then on the altar they presented burnt offerings and peace offerings to the Lord. And as the Israelites watched, Joshua copied onto the stones of the altar the instructions Moses had given them.

Then all the Israelites—foreigners and native-born alike—along with the elders, officers, and judges, were divided into two groups. One group stood in front of Mount Gerizim, the other in front of Mount Ebal. Each group faced the other, and between them stood the Levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant. This was all done according to the commands that Moses, the servant of the Lord, had previously given for blessing the people of Israel.

Joshua then read to them all the blessings and curses Moses had written in the Book of Instruction. – Joshua 8:30-34 NLT

Notice the reference to “all the Israelites – foreigners and native-born alike.” Here, centuries later, the Messiah of Israel was making His way to this very same spot, accompanied by native-born Jews, and He would encounter a woman who was considered a foreigner and a violator of the covenant of Israel. But the message Jesus had to share with her would be similar to that which He had shared with Nicodemus, a native-born Jew, a Pharisee, and a so-called keeper of the law.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Is True

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. – John 3:31-36 ESV

These closing verses of chapter 3 act as a kind of closing statement that summarizes all that has taken place since the initial encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. It appears that the apostle John is the one providing this summary, in an attempt to reinforce his overarching theme of Jesus’ divine nature. John takes various aspects of the chapter 3 chronology and uses them to support his premise that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah of Israel.

John the Baptist had clearly stated, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him” (John 3:28 ESV). He knew his role as the precursor to the coming Messiah. And with the Messiah’s arrival, John the Baptist knew that his role would naturally diminish.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30 ESV

He would be little more than a friend of the bridegroom, a spectator watching as his friend took center stage. And John the Baptist found great joy in accepting his diminished importance because the one for whom the nation had long waited had finally appeared.

And John points out that the appearance of the Messiah was not an everyday occurrence. He had come “from above.” The Greek word John used is anōthen, and it is the very same word Jesus used when speaking to Nicodemus about the new birth.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

Jesus had been trying to let Nicodemus know that entrance into the kingdom of God would require something other than physical birth into the family of Israel. It would require a spiritual birth – from above. That’s why Jesus informed Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Entrance into God’s eternal kingdom was going to require that all men be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 ESV), and Jesus had come to make that possible.

John goes on to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature by dispelling the long-held belief among the Jews that the Messiah would simply be a man, after the likeness of King David. Their expectation was like that of their ancient ancestors, who had demanded of the prophet Samuel, “Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5 NLT).

Even after centuries of lousy leadership under a long line of human kings, the Israelites were still hoping for someone to show up who would follow in the footsteps of David. But John is emphasizing that Jesus, the Messiah, was from above and not of the earth. He had not only been sent by God, but He was actually God in human flesh. This further supports the opening statement of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 ESV).

Two times in verse 31, John asserts that “He who comes from heaven is above all” (John 3:31 ESV). In other words, Jesus, because of His divinity, is superior to anything and everyone that is of this earth. He is the Word of God. He speaks on behalf of God and as God, and “He bears witness to what he has seen and heard” (John 3:32 ESV). Jesus was revealing divine truth, received directly from the throne room of God in heaven. He was not a mere mortal speaking man-made words, but He was the Son of God speaking the words of God. He would later claim: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10 ESV).  And Jesus would later expand on His divine authority to speak His Father’s words.

“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” – John 12:49-50 ESV

And yet, John sadly notes that “no one receives his testimony” (John 3:32 ESV). Jesus was the incarnate Word of God, speaking on behalf of His Heavenly Father. And the gist of His message was the gracious offer of eternal life that would be made available through His death and resurrection. But the people did not believe His testimony. They refused to accept that He spoke for God.

But John counted himself among the few who had chosen to believe the testimony of Jesus. And, writing long after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and having experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, John’s early belief in Jesus had been fully justified and proven well-founded. That is why he was able to say, “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true” (John 3:33 ESV).

Verse 34 seems to be John’s personal testimony that his belief in Jesus had resulted in his anointing by the Holy Spirit.

For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. – John 3:34 ESV

The indwelling presence of the Spirit was all the proof John needed to believe that Jesus had been sent by God and had spoken on His behalf. John remembered the promise that Jesus had made to His disciples.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” – John 14:12 NLT

Jesus rather obliquely refers to His ascension, indicating that His departure would be necessary in order for the Spirit of God to come. And just a few verses later, John records the further promise of Jesus that would be the key to accomplishing greater works than He had done.

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth.” – John 14:16 NLT

For John, this was all about authority. Jesus had been sent by God. He spoke on behalf of God. And all that He said was the truth of God. John is trying to get his readers to understand that Jesus was divine, which is why he states, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35 ESV). Jesus possessed divine authority over the wind, waves, disease, and demons. His word was greater than that of kings, religious councils, or political parties. God loved Jesus so much that He imbued Him with all His divine authority. And Jesus would later tell His followers that they would experience that same love of God and have access to the full authority of God.

“When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” – John 14:20-21 NLT

Having received the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, John was fully convinced that Jesus was exactly who He had claimed to be. John knew the full extent of God’s love because He had been filled with God’s Spirit, just as Jesus had promised. God the Father and God the Son had taken up permanent residence in John’s life in the form of indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:23). And it had all begun when John had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God sent from above. So, he reminds his readers that it all begins with belief.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. – John 3:36 ESV

His emphasis is on eternal life, which will be experienced within the coming kingdom of God. Jesus had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. He had not come to sit on a throne but to die on a cross. He had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT). And John had witnessed that selfless, sacrificial act with his own eyes. He had seen Jesus crucified and buried. But he had also seen Him in His resurrected state and had stood by as Jesus ascended back into heaven where He was restored to His rightful place at His Father’s side.

John wants his readers to believe. He wants them to have the same remarkable experience he has had. And he warns them that, if they refuse to believe, they will remain under the righteous wrath of God. There was only one way to escape God’s pending judgment and that was through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Heavenly Calling

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:22-30 ESV

Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus ended somewhat abruptly, with John providing no details concerning the Pharisee’s final reaction to all that he had heard. The next time John mentions Nicodemus is in chapter 7, in reference to a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, of which Nicodemus was a member. They had called a meeting in order to discuss the disturbing reactions of the people regarding Jesus.

…some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” – John 7:40-41 ESV

Even the high priest’s personal guard, who had heard Jesus speak, reported, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46 ESV). But Pharisees reacted angrily, shouting, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:47-49 ESV). These men, who prided themselves in their superior knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures believed themselves to be too astute to be fooled by this charlatan from Nazareth. But the people were fools and easily deceived. But John adds an interesting note concerning Nicodemus, “who had gone to him before, and who was one of them” (John 7:50 ESV). Nicodemus risked his reputation by speaking up on the behalf of Jesus.

“Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” –John 7:51 ESV  

It seems clear that Nicodemus’ nighttime discussion with Jesus had made an impression on him. The words of Jesus had been bouncing around in his head and he was wrestling with what he believed about this man from Galilee. The next time we hear about Nicodemus is in chapter 19, in reference to the death and burial of Jesus. John records that Joseph of Arimathea, who he describes as a disciple of Jesus, had sought permission from Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. And John adds that Nicodemus, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight” (John 19:39 ESV). This prominent member of the Pharisees took the risk of bringing spices and oils to anoint the body of Jesus. This does not prove that Nicodemus believed Jesus to be his Messiah and Savior, but it is hard to imagine that Nicodemus did not have the following words of Jesus in mind.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV

After his late-night encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus had returned to his life as a Pharisee, but with much to think about. But John describes Jesus as returning to the Judean wilderness, where He had been baptized by John the Baptist.

John sets up another contrast between these two men. He describes both Jesus and John the Baptist as baptizing all those who came. In the very next chapter, John points out that Jesus “was making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:2 ESV), but adds the following point of clarification:although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (John 4:3 ESV).

John the Baptist had appeared on the scene first and he had garnered his fair share of disciples. But with the arrival of Jesus, things began to change. The disciples who had chosen to follow John the Baptist were confused by the notoriety of Jesus and had begun to see Him as competition. And they brought their concern to John the Baptist.

“Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” – John 3:26 ESV

With the arrival of Jesus, John the Baptist had not shut down his ministry and sought early retirement. He had continued to preach his message that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and he baptized all those who were willing to repent and seek forgiveness for their sins. But further down the Jordan River, Jesus and His disciples were doing the same thing.

The disciples of John the Baptist have just had a discussion with a Jew concerning the exact nature of the baptisms they were performing. The Greek word John uses is katharismos, and it refers to the practice of ceremonial cleansing or washing with water. It seems likely that the debate or discussion between John the Baptist’s disciples and the unnamed Jews had centered around a question of just what kind of baptism Jesus and His disciples were performing. John the Baptist had made it clear, “I baptize you with water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But what was the nature of the baptism or ceremonial washing that Jesus and His disciples offered?

The real issue seems to be the practice of ritual and completely external ceremonial cleansing. Jesus had come offering something completely different. He had told Nicodemus that entrance into the kingdom of God would require birth from above. His ministry was focused on heart purification, not some form of external and temporary physical cleansing. And what Jesus was saying and doing could have been seen as contradictory to the accepted teachings of Judaism. So, this could be what motivated John the Baptist’s disciples to bring their concerns to him.

But he responded by reminding his disciples that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27 ESV). As far as John the Baptist was concerned, Jesus was doing what He was doing by the sovereign will of God. And if God wanted to make the ministry of Jesus more impactful and successful, so be it.

John the Baptist reminded his disciples that he had never claimed to be the Messiah. He had simply been the faithful witness, preparing the way for the one “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27 ESV). He wanted his followers to know that his star was fading because the one he had been proclaiming had finally appeared. The focus was shifting away from John the Baptist and onto the ministry of Jesus, and he was perfectly at peace with that transition.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30 ESV

John the Baptist was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Which is why he told his disciples, “It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success” (John 3:29 NLT). He had never been the star of this show. He had simply been the first act, preparing the way for the principal protagonist in God’s divine play. And now that Jesus had appeared on the scene, John the Baptist was willing to fade into the background, having played his part and completed his divine task.

But it’s interesting to note that, a short time later, John the Baptist would seem to have a change of heart. His confidence in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah would be put to the test by an unexpected change in his own circumstances. He would find himself arrested and imprisoned for having accused King Herod of committing adultery with his deceased brother’s widow. Suddenly, his optimistic outlook began to fade and he sent two of his disciples with a question for Jesus that reveals his growing doubt.

“Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Luke 7:19 NLT

His less-than-satisfactory circumstances were causing him to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah. You can sense that John the Baptist had been expecting Jesus to fulfill the commonly held view that the Messiah would restore the Davidic kingdom. Things would get better, not worse. And with his arrest, he had questions as to whether Jesus really was the one they had been expecting.

But Jesus had an interesting answer to John the Baptist’s inquiry.

“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” – Luke 7:22-23 NLT

In a sense, Jesus told His imprisoned friend to take his eyes off his own circumstances and to look closely at what was happening all around him. Jesus used prophetic terminology to describe His earthly ministry. He was doing the very works that the prophets had ascribed to the coming Messiah.

“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
   You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:6-7 NT

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed. – Isaiah 61:1 NLT

Jesus was pointing to the evidence of His works. He was doing the very ministry that the prophets had predicted the Messiah would do. But notice that Jesus leaves something out. He does not stress that He will “free the captives from prison” or release “those who sin in dark dungeons.” He doesn’t tell John the Baptist that  the “captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” Because John the Baptist would never experience freedom from his imprisonment. He would be beheaded by Herod.

Jesus had come to bring spiritual healing to people who were spiritually blind, lame, poor, and imprisoned by sin. He had come to provide something far more significant than ceremonial cleansing from sin. His ministry was from above and His miracles were intended to point to a form of healing that would be eternal and not temporal in nature.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Not What He Expected

19 “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”– John 3:19-21 ESV

Nicodemus’ head must have been ready to explode. In just a few short minutes, Jesus has delivered some of the most shocking and paradigm-shifting news this Pharisee has ever heard. Nicodemus’ entire belief system has been shaken to its core. For starters, Jesus has informed him that unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That was news to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a well-respected member of the Pharisees, he believed himself to already have full rights and privileges to a place in God’s coming kingdom. When the Messiah finally came and restored the Jews to power and prominence, Nicodemus believed he would be among those who enjoyed the joys and delights of a reinvigorated kingdom.

But Jesus had put a strange and unexpected condition on anyone who hoped to be a part of the coming kingdom of God: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then Jesus upped the ante by adding a further requirement: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).

Nicodemus was having a difficult time understanding what Jesus was saying. He was mind was focused on earthly, temporal concepts of the kingdom, while Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters. His concept of the coming Messiah was centered around a human deliverer who would lead Israel in an overthrow of the Roman occupying forces and reestablish the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s dominance in the region. But all that Jesus has shared with this highly esteemed religious leader has been spiritual in nature. It is not that Jesus is eliminating the idea of an actual physical kingdom of God, but He is letting Nicodemus know that something new is happening. The kingdom was coming, but not in the form Nicodemus expected. And entrance into that kingdom was going to require far more than Nicodemus could ever imagine.

While Nicodemus was secretly longing that Jesus was the Messiah and had come to set up the kingdom of God on earth, Jesus let him know that the real reason for His coming was to offer eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 ESV

In all his study of the Hebrew scriptures, what Nicodemus had failed to understand was that when the Messiah came, His mission would be to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He would come to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold. He would be lifted up and nailed to a Roman cross rather than placed on a royal throne in David’s palace.

Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means to escape the coming condemnation of God. He was going to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). He would sacrifice His life in the place of humanity, taking on the sins of the world in order to satisfy the just and righteous judgment of God. The apostle Peter would later describe the full impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

And Peter was presenting the atoning death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Isaiah had penned centuries earlier.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

But Jesus reveals a sad truth to his mystified and mind-muddled guest.

“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

Jesus’ reference to Himself as the light ties directly back to the opening lines of John’s gospel.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

Now we can see where John got the idea of Jesus being the light of men and the true light that shines in the darkness. He had heard it directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And Jesus reveals that his entrance into the darkness of this world would be met with disbelief and indifference. His life, death, and resurrection would fail to convince many that He truly was the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Everyone, including Nicodemus, recognized that there was something remarkable about this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. His message and miracles were like nothing they had ever heard or seen before. Some were impressed. Others were intrigued. A few were even convinced. But the majority continued to reject the light because they preferred to continue living in the darkness of sin.

But Jesus had come to illuminate the darkness of sin and to eliminate the penalty that accompanied it. And throughout the years of His earthly ministry, He continued to declare His divine mission to bring light to a sin-darkened world and life to a spiritually dead people.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:5 ESV

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. – John 12:46 ESV

And Jesus makes it clear that the peoples’ refusal to believe in Him would be based on their love affair with sin.

“…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

No one likes having their sins exposed. So, they try to keep them concealed. They attempt to hide them from others. Darkness serves as a metaphor for the secrecy that accompanies a life of sinfulness. But that darkness takes a variety of forms. Too often, we can try to veil our sinfulness with acts of self-righteousness. That is exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 25-28 NLT

So, we can attempt to cover our sins with a thin veneer of righteous-looking deeds or we can simply commit our sins in secrecy, hidden away from the sight of others. As long as no one sees what we are doing, our reputations remain intact. The apostle Paul warns that even believers can find themselves attempting to harbor secret sins, hidden away from the eyes of others. But light has a way of exposing what is hidden.

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT

Jesus made it painfully clear that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:20 ESV). Their sinful natures crave hiddenness and despise exposure. Like a roach that scatters when a light is turned on, a sinner will tend to run from the illuminating light of the gospel “lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20 ESV).

One of the most indicting statements Jesus ever made was directed at the sect to which Nicodemus was a member. Luke records a scene in which Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for having eaten with tax collectors and sinners. They were appalled by His actions and arrogantly asked, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Luke 5:30 NLT). And Jesus simply responded:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT

The Pharisees were living in darkness, convinced that their outward displays of righteousness were enough to cover up their inward need for repentance and restoration. They were diseased, dying, and in need of a doctor, but refused to admit it. Because they loved the darkness rather than the light. 

Even Nicodemus would refuse to have his deeds exposed by the light. He had come under the cover of darkness, attempting to find out if Jesus was the Messiah. But he would walk away, still in the dark, both physically and spiritually. He had come into the presence of the light but would walk away just as he had come.

Jesus leaves Nicodemus with a final word that re-emphasizes the spiritual nature of all that He has said.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV

Salvation is a work of God. And this would have been a foreign concept to Nicodemus. He had been raised to believe that human effort was the essential ingredient for finding acceptance with God. Good works were the criteria by which men were judged by God and deemed worthy of His love. But Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that no man could earn a right standing with God through self-effort. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, put it this way:

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

This would have been shocking news to Nicodemus. And he would walk away that night with his head spinning from all that he had heard. Jesus had just enlightened him as to the true means by which sinful men can be made right with a holy God. Now, Nicodemus had a decision to make.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Believe It, Or Not

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.– John 3:9-18 ESV

This section contains one of the most well-known verses in the entire Bible: John 3:16. But we rarely view this beloved verse within the context of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Yet, it is a continuation of a theme that begins in chapter two.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. – John 2:23 ESV

The entire conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was based on the topic of belief. Nicodemus had come to Jesus, believing Him to be “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2 ESV). And based on the fact that Jesus immediately directed the conversation toward a discussion of the kingdom of God, it seems clear that He knew Nicodemus believed Him to be the Messiah. At least, this learned Pharisee had hopes that Jesus might be the Anointed One of Israel.

But Jesus surprised Nicodemus by announcing that entrance into God’s kingdom was going to require a “new birth” – a birth from above made possible by the Spirit of God. Only those who are born of the Spirit will receive the cleansing necessary to enter into God’s kingdom. And this unexpected news left Nicodemus exclaiming, ““How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).

He was nonplused and totally perplexed by the words of Jesus. None of it made any sense. Nicodemus was having a difficult time believing what he was hearing. And this led Jesus to explain the kind of belief necessary to experience the new birth. It was not going to be enough to simply believe in His miracles. Even a strong belief that He might be the long-awaited Messiah would prove insufficient. The presence of belief was not the issue. Even the object of one’s belief was not what really mattered.

Nicodemus believed himself to be a righteous man. But he was wrong. The Jews believed themselves to be the children of God, and deserving of a permanent place in His kingdom. But they too were sorely mistaken. Their faith was misplaced. Their belief was mistaken. The apostle James provides a sobering statement regarding insufficient or unbelieving faith.

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. – James 2:19 NLT

The people had seen Jesus perform miracles and believed in His name. But they had no idea who He really was. Nicodemus had witnessed the same supernatural signs and believed Jesus to be someone special, a teacher sent from God. But he was totally unaware of Jesus’ true identity or the purpose behind His earthly ministry.

Of all people, Nicodemus, as a teacher of the law and an expert in the Hebrew scriptures, should have understood that no one comes to God without cleansing. The whole sacrificial system was based on this idea. The high priest could not enter into the presence of God ad offer atonement for the sins of the people until he had been thoroughly cleansed himself. The rite of purification was a central theme within the Mosaic law. Yet, Nicodemus was having a difficult time accepting Jesus’ words concerning the necessity of the new birth.

This led Jesus to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony” (John 3:11 ESV). He accused Nicodemus of refusing to believe. And Jesus, in using the plural pronoun “we” is speaking on behalf of the Godhead. Jesus had been anointed by the Spirit and verbally endorsed by His Father at His baptism. And Jesus had performed signs that clearly evidenced His divine mandate. He was the Son of God.

Nicodemus was having a difficult time believing what Jesus had to say about the new birth. And Jesus stated, “if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven” (John 3:12-13 NLT). Jesus refers to the new birth as an “earthly thing” because it is designed to take place on this earth. It is a supernatural event that takes place within this temporal plain and yet has eternal ramifications. It is the key to our entrance into God’s eternal kingdom.

But this is where Jesus dropped a major truth bomb on the unsuspecting Nicodemus. He states, “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven” (John 3:13 NLT). With this rather cryptic statement, Jesus was associating Himself with the prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14.

As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed.

Jesus was proclaiming Himself to be the Messiah. But He was also going to explain that there was a vital aspect to the Messiah’s mission that was missing in Nicodemus’ understanding. This is where Jesus begins to explain to Nicodemus what was missing in His messianic doctrine. And He uses a story from Scripture with which any Jew would have been familiar.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV

This verse contains the key to understanding the new birth. Jesus was announcing the necessity of His substitutionary death on behalf of sinful men, and their obligation to look to Him for salvation. The story to which Jesus refers to an actual event in Israelite history when the people were traveling from Egypt to the promised land. They found themselves weary and worn out from the journey and, in their impatience, they “spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:5 ESV). As a result of their rebellion against Him, God sent poisonous snakes among them “and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6 ESV). When Moses interceded on behalf of the people, God instructed him to “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Numbers 21:9 ESV).

The people, when bitten, had to believe the word of God and look at the serpent in order to receive healing for their sin. The bronze serpent on the pole was a representation of their rebellion against God. They had to look and believe that this substitute for their sin could bring them forgiveness and healing. And Jesus uses this story to reveal that He too will be “lifted up” and “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15 ESV). Jesus was speaking of His crucifixion. The day was coming when He would be nailed to a cross so that He might take on the sins of the world. He would bear the sins of mankind, becoming the substitutionary atonement that would provide forgiveness and healing to all those who looked on Him and believed.

And this is where John 3:16 takes on a whole new depth of meaning. When kept in the context of chapter 3 and Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, this verse becomes so much more meaningful. In it, Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus the key to the new birth and eternal life in the kingdom of God.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

Jesus makes it clear that all humanity stands condemned before God. They have all been bitten by the serpent of sin and are doomed to experience the pain of death – eternal separation from God. But Jesus had good news for Nicodemus.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 ESV

Nicodemus, though a Pharisee, stood before God as condemned and worthy of death. His status as a descendant of Abraham was not going to save him from the wrath to come. Every one of those people who had been bitten by a poisonous snake in the wilderness had been one of the chosen people of God. Yet when they refused to look on and believe in God’s plan for their salvation, they had died. They had believed that their status as the descendants of Abraham made them invincible and untouchable. But they were wrong. Deadly wrong.

And Jesus is trying to let Nicodemus know that everything he believed about the righteousness of man, the role of the Messiah, and the kingdom of God, was wrong. Jesus was the Messiah, just as Nicodemus suspected Him to be, but He had not come to rule and reign, but to suffer and die. And as Jesus would later say of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

The day was coming when Nicodemus and all those who had believed in Jesus’ name were going to have to decide whether they believed in His sacrificial death on the cross on their behalf. They would have to look upon the One who was lifted up in their place and believe that His death had paid for their sins. If they did, they would experience the new birth, a Spirit-empowered purification from their sinful state and a transformation into a new creation, covered by the righteousness of Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Born From Above

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” – John 3:3-8 ESV

Whatever signs Jesus had performed that day in Jerusalem had gotten the attention of the people and many had believed. But there were others in the crowd who, while impressed by Jesus’ exploits, were choosing to reserve judgment. This included the religious leaders of Israel. Among them were the Pharisees, a fairly conservative religious sect that was comprised predominantly of men from the working class of Israel. On the evening of the day when Jesus had cleansed the temple and performed signs and wonders, Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, came to call on Him.

Nicodemus came alone. And he does not appear to have been sent by his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, the religious council of Israel. Nicodemus had been impressed by the miracles of Jesus and his curiosity about Jesus got the best of him. He had to more. So, he showed up, addressing Jesus with the respectful title of “Rabbi.” But he seemed to know that there was more to Jesus than met the eye.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:2 ESV

Nicodemus sensed that Jesus was anointed by God, and he wanted to know more about Him. His statement stands in stark contrast to that of his religious peers, who, upon hearing that Jesus had healed a blind, mute, and demon-possessed man, had accused Jesus of being in league with the devil.

Then a demon-possessed man, who was blind and couldn’t speak, was brought to Jesus. He healed the man so that he could both speak and see. The crowd was amazed and asked, “Could it be that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah?”

But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” – Matthew 12:22-24 NLT

But Nicodemus was intrigued. He believed there was something different about Jesus. Unlike his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done by the power of God, not Satan. But Jesus responds to Nicodemus in a rather strange and cryptic manner.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

With this rather abrupt statement, Jesus seems to be cutting to the heart of the matter. He knows that Nicodemus has shown up because he is curious to know if Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah. As a student of the Scriptures, Nicodemus would have expected the arrival of the Messiah to usher in a new age, featuring the much-anticipated revitalization of the kingdom of Israel. Nicodemus seems to have a glimmer of hope that Jesus is the anointed one of God, the Messiah.

But Jesus reveals to Nicodemus a detail about the coming kingdom of God about which he was ignorant. Nicodemus could long for it, but he would never see it unless he was “born again.” The Greek word Jesus used is anōthen, and it can mean “again” or “anew.” But it can also mean “from above” or “from a higher place.” It seems that Jesus had the second meaning in mind, speaking of this new birth as being spiritual in nature. Yet Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to be talking about a second physical birth, an image that left him scratching his head in confusion.

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” – John 3:4 ESV

Nicodemus, while a wise and well-educated man, was completely puzzled by the words of Jesus. The condition Jesus had placed upon seeing the kingdom of God was a second birth. It made no sense. It was physically impossible. And what Jesus says next doesn’t seem to help clear up the matter.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. – John 3:5 ESV

Jesus provides a bit more information, but it seems to provide little in the way of clarification. Notice that the focus has shifted from seeing the kingdom of God to actually entering it. The new birth Jesus is speaking about will be the key to anyone entering and enjoying life in the kingdom the Messiah will establish on earth.

Verse 5 has been proved to be a difficult passage to interpret. And there are a number of different views as to what Jesus meant by “water and the Spirit.” In the Greek text, the definite article “the” before “Spirit” is not present. It was added by English translators for clarification. So, verse 5 could be translated, “unless one is born of water and spirit.” The point Jesus seems to be making is that this new birth will be from above and it will involve a spiritual cleansing that makes the recipient worthy of entrance into the kingdom of God.

This imagery of cleansing by the Spirit is found throughout the Old Testament and Nicodemus, as a student of the Scriptures, should have been aware of it.

And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. – Isaiah 4:3-4 ESV

Isaiah went on to talk about a future day when the Spirit of God will be “poured upon us from on high” (Isaiah 32:15 ESV). Even John the Baptist had understood that Jesus was going to bring about a different kind of baptism, one that would include a king of purification that was far from symbolic or ceremonial in nature.

“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” – Luke 3:16 NLT

Jesus’ reference to “water and spirit” is meant to let Nicodemus know that the kingdom he longs to see will only be occupied by those who have received purification from above. Jesus is not talking about physical birth, but spiritual rebirth or regeneration. The kingdom He will eventually establish on earth will be reserved for those who are righteous and holy, having been cleansed from the stains of their sin by faith in the Son of God. And that day will be in fulfillment of God’s promise recorded by Isaiah.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18 NLT

Sensing that Nicodemus was still struggling to understand what He was saying, Jesus provides him with an important point of clarification: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus is informing his learned visitor that there are two types of birth – one physical and one spiritual. Nicodemus had already experienced the first, but he was in need of the second. And it was going to require belief. But there would have to be more to that belief than simply an acknowledgment that Jesus was a teacher sent from God.

Nicodemus, like every other Jew of his day, thought of the kingdom of God in physical terms only. It would be a literal kingdom ruled by a literal king who would sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem. And, as far as he understood, entrance into that kingdom was reserved for all those who could claim to be a descendant of Abraham. Nicodemus believed he had an inherited right to the kingdom God due to his birth into the line of Abraham. But Jesus is letting him know that there was going to be another birth required – a new birth – a birth from above.

Nicodemus, like every other Pharisee, took great pride in his position and viewed himself as one of the spiritual elite of Israel. But Jesus was breaking the news that his flowing robes, biblical knowledge, sterling reputation, and longing for the kingdom of God would not be enough to guarantee his entrance into the coming kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that this information had left his visitor perplexed so, He told him, “don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8 NLT).

The things Jesus was describing to Nicodemus were virtually impossible for him to comprehend. Like the wind, the ways of God are invisible and imperceptible. You can hear the wind, but you can’t see it. You can feel the wind, but you can control it. And the new birth Jesus is attempting to describe to Nicodemus is just as impossible to understand. Without the illuminating and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus would remain incapable of understanding the nature of the new birth and his need for it. And his continued confusion is illustrated by his response: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).

But Jesus will go on to answer that question with a clear and concise explanation of how sinful men and women can be made right with God and gain access into His kingdom and presence. And it will all be through belief in God’s Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson