9 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.