Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (3:1–3)
The placing of the chapter break here is unfortunate, since the story of Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus is logically tied to the previous section (2:23–25). As noted in chapter 7 of this volume, John 2:23–25 described Jesus’ refusal to accept shallow, sign-based faith, since in His omniscience, He understood the people’s hearts. The story of Nicodemus is a case in point, since Nicodemus himself was one of those superficial believers whose heart He read like an open book. Instead of affirming his profession, the Lord refused to accept Nicodemus’s faith, which was solely based on the signs he had witnessed (v. 2). Jesus pointed him to the life-transforming nature of true saving faith.
Nicodemus (“victor over the people”) was a Greek name common among the Jews of Jesus’ day. Some have identified Nicodemus with a wealthy man of that same name mentioned in the Talmud. But since that Nicodemus was still alive when Jerusalem was destroyed in a.d. 70, he would probably have been too young to have been a member of the Sanhedrin during Jesus’ ministry four decades earlier (cf. 7:50–51). The implication of verse 4 that Nicodemus was already an old man when he met with Jesus argues further against that identification.
Nicodemus was a member of the elite religious party the Pharisees. Their name probably derives from a Hebrew verb meaning “to separate”; they were the “separated ones” in the sense of being zealous for the Mosaic law (and their own oral traditions, which they added to it [cf. Matt. 15:2–6; Mark 7:8–13]). The Pharisees originated during the intertestamental period, likely as an offshoot of the Hasidim (“pious ones”), who opposed the Hellenizing of Jewish culture under the wicked Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. Unlike their archrivals the Sadducees, who tended to be wealthy priests or Levites, the Pharisees generally came from the middle class. Therefore, though few in number (there were about 6,000 at the time of Herod the Great, according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus), they had great influence with the common people (though, ironically, the Pharisees often viewed some with contempt [cf. 7:49]). Despite being the minority party, their popularity with the people gave them significant influence in the Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 5:34–40).
With the disappearance of the Sadducees in a.d. 70 (after the temple was destroyed) and the Zealots in a.d. 135 (after the Bar Kochba revolt was crushed), the Pharisees became the dominant force in Judaism. In fact, by the end of the second century a.d., with the completion of the Mishnah (the written compilation of the oral law, rituals, and traditions), the Pharisee’s teaching became virtually synonymous with Judaism.
Ironically, it was their very zeal for the law that caused the Pharisees to become ritualized and external. Having unchanged hearts, they would only replace true religion with mere behavior modification and ritual. In response to their pseudo-spirituality, Jesus scathingly pointed out: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23; cf. 6:1–5; 9:14; 12:2; Luke 11:38–39). Even worse, the wide gap between their teaching and their practice led to gross hypocrisy, which both Jesus (e.g., Matt. 23:2–3) and, surprisingly, the Talmud (which lists seven classes of Pharisees, six of which are hypocritical) denounced. As a result, despite their zeal for God’s law, they were “blind guides of the blind” (Matt. 15:14), who made their proselytes doubly worthy of the hell to which they themselves were headed (Matt. 23:15). Even if they had not been hypocrites, keeping the law could never have saved them, “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Rom. 3:20; cf. 3:28; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 24; 5:4)—a truth that the zealous Pharisee Saul of Tarsus eventually discovered (Phil. 3:4–11).
But Nicodemus was no run-of-the-mill Pharisee; he was a ruler of the Jews. That is, he was a member of the Sanhedrin (cf. 7:50), the governing council of Israel (under the ultimate authority of the Romans). Jewish tradition traced the origin of the Sanhedrin to the seventy elders who assisted Moses (Num. 11:16–17). Ezra, also according to tradition, reorganized that body after the exile (cf. Ezra 5:5, 9; 6:7–8, 14; 10:8). However, the Sanhedrin of New Testament times probably originated during the period of Persian or Greek rule. It consisted of seventy-one members, presided over by the reigning high priest. It included men from the influential priestly families, elders (family and tribal heads), scribes (experts in the law), and any former high priests who were still alive. Under the Romans, the Sanhedrin exercised wide-ranging powers in civil, criminal, and religious matters (though the Romans withheld the power of capital punishment [18:31]). It had the authority both to make arrests (Matt. 26:47; Acts 4:1–3; 5:17–18) and to conduct trials (Matt. 26:57ff.; Acts 5:27ff.). Although its influence extended even to Jews of the Diaspora (cf. Acts 9:1–2; 22:5; 26:12), the Sanhedrin’s direct authority seems to have been limited to Judea (it apparently wielded no power over Jesus while He was in Galilee; cf. John 7:1). After the failure of the Jewish revolt (a.d. 66–70), the Sanhedrin was abolished and replaced by the Beth Din (Court of Judgment). Unlike the Sanhedrin, however, the Beth Din was composed solely of scribes (lawyers), and its decisions were exclusively limited to religious matters.
The fact that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin probably explains why he came to Jesus by night. He might not have wanted his coming to imply the approval of the entire Sanhedrin, nor did he want to risk incurring the disfavor of his fellow members. Nighttime would also have afforded more time for conversation than during the day, when both he and Jesus would be occupied. The important point, however, is not when Nicodemus came, but that he came at all. Though coming to Jesus does not always guarantee salvation (cf. the rich young ruler, Luke 18:18–23), it is a necessary beginning.
By using the respectful term Rabbi, Nicodemus, although a member of the Sanhedrin and an eminent teacher (v. 10), addressed Jesus as an equal. He did not share the suspicion and hostility that many of his fellow religious leaders had toward Christ (cf. 7:15, 47–52). Nicodemus, and others like him (cf. the plural, we know), accepted that Jesus had come from God as a teacher—even though He had not received proper rabbinic training (7:15). As Nicodemus acknowledged, “No one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Like the people in the previous section (2:23), he was impressed with and believed that the undeniable power manifested in Jesus’ miracles was divine. Undoubtedly, he was also aware of John the Baptist’s testimony about Christ. That, coupled with the evidence of them, may have caused Nicodemus to wonder if Jesus was the Messiah.
But Jesus was not interested in discussing His signs, which had resulted only in superficial faith. Instead, He went straight to the real issue—the transformation of Nicodemus’s heart by the new birth. Jesus answered Nicodemus’s unasked question (cf. Matt. 19:16) and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The phrase amēn amēn (truly, truly) appears in the New Testament only in John’s gospel. It solemnly affirms the veracity and significance of what follows. In this instance, Jesus used the phrase to introduce the vitally important truth that there is no entrance into God’s kingdom unless one is born again. The new birth, or regeneration, is the act of God by which He imparts eternal life to those who are “dead in … trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; Titus 3:5; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), thus making them His children (John 1:12–13).
The kingdom of God in its universal aspect refers to God’s sovereign rule over all of His creation. In that broadest sense of the term, everyone is part of God’s kingdom, since “the Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all” (Ps. 103:19; cf. 10:16; 29:10; 145:13; 1 Chron. 29:11–12; Jer. 10:10; Lam. 5:19; Dan. 4:17, 25, 32).
But Jesus is not referring here to the universal kingdom. Instead, He is speaking specifically of the kingdom of salvation, the spiritual realm where those who have been born again by divine power through faith now live under the rulership of God mediated through His Son. Nicodemus, like the rest of his fellow Jews, eagerly anticipated that glorious realm. Unfortunately, they thought that being descendants of Abraham, observing the law, and performing external religious rituals (particularly circumcision) would gain them entrance into that kingdom. But in thinking this, they were severely mistaken, as Jesus made clear. No matter how religiously active someone might be, no one can enter the kingdom without experiencing the personal regeneration of the new birth (cf. Matt. 19:28).
The implications of Jesus’ words for Nicodemus were staggering. All of his life he had diligently observed the law (cf. Mark 10:20) and the rituals of Judaism (cf. Gal. 1:14). He had joined the ultrareligious Pharisees, and even become a member of the Sanhedrin. Now Jesus called him to forsake all of that and start over; to abandon the entire system of works righteousness in which he had placed his hope; to realize that human effort was powerless to save. Describing the consternation Nicodemus must have felt, R. C. H. Lenski writes:
Jesus’ word regarding the new birth shatters once for all every supposed excellence of man’s attainment, all merit of human deeds, all prerogatives of natural birth or station. Spiritual birth is something one undergoes, not something he produces. As our efforts had nothing to do with our natural conception and birth, so in an analogous way but on a far higher plane, regeneration is not a work of ours. What a blow for Nicodemus! His being a Jew gave him no part in the kingdom; his being a Pharisee, esteemed holier than other people, availed him nothing; his membership in the Sanhedrin and his fame as one of its scribes went for nought. This Rabbi from Galilee calmly tells him that he is not yet in the kingdom! All on which he had built his hopes throughout a long arduous life here sank into ruin and became a little worthless heap of ashes. (The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Reprint; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998], 234–35)
Becoming New Men
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”
A young Arab was proceeding down the road on a donkey when he came upon a small bird, a sparrow, lying upon his back in the road. There he was, a small scrawny object with two thin legs pointed skyward. At first the Arab thought the sparrow was dead. When he found that the bird was alive, however, the Arab got down from his donkey and went forward to speak to him. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes,” the sparrow answered.
“Then what are you doing lying on your back with your legs pointed up at the sky?”
“Haven’t you heard the rumor?” the sparrow asked in return. “They say that heaven is going to fall.”
“If it does,” said the Arab, “surely you don’t think you’re going to hold it up with those two scrawny legs?”
The bird looked at him with a solemn face for a moment and then retorted, “One does the best one can.”
We laugh at the story, of course, but the folly of the sparrow is only an illustration of the folly of human beings who think they can hold off the wrath of divine judgment by the scrawny legs of human achievements. According to the Bible, this cannot be done. Thus, the first few verses of John 3 have been showing that no man can please God either by his own achievements or by his intellect. Instead a man must be born again. At this point, however, Nicodemus asks the question that anyone might quite properly ask, “All right, you say that a man must be born again. How, then, is it possible? How can a man be born again?” To this question—perhaps the most important question that anyone can ask—the third chapter of John gives two answers.
Birth from Above
The first answer to Nicodemus’s question is the answer Jesus gave even before he asked it. Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (v. 3). Later he said the same thing by repeating, “You must be born again” (v. 7). The answer involved in this statement lies in the meaning of the Greek word translated “again.” It is one of two Greek words that are often translated “again” in our Bibles. One is palin, which refers quite simply to the repetition of an act. The other word, the one used here, is anōthen, which also refers to the repetition of an act but which implies more.
In the first place, anōthen can also be translated “from above.” This is the meaning of the word in John 3:31 that says, “The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.” “Above” points to heaven. So when the Bible uses anōthen instead of palin in the first part of the chapter, it is suggesting that the new birth is supernatural and has its origin in God.
Then, too, there is an even finer distinction that also bears this out. Palin, as I have said, refers to the repetition of an act. Anōthen also refers to the repetition of an act, but it involves one additional detail, the fact that the repetition of the act has the same source as the first act. Suppose that the pianist Van Cliburn and I are in a room and that Van Cliburn has just completed playing the piano parts of Tchaikovsky’s great piano concerto. People want to hear it again. Now if they were Greek and should say, “Play it again (palin),” that would mean that I could sit down at the piano and try and do it. It would only mean that they wanted to hear the music repeated. However, if they should say, “Play it again (anōthen),” it would mean that the repetition of the music would have to have the same source as the first playing. In other words, Van Cliburn would have to play the concerto. Thus, when Jesus said, “Unless he is born again,” he was suggesting that the new birth would have to have the same source as the original birth. That is, Nicodemus would have to be brought to life spiritually by God.
This distinction takes us back to the early chapters of Genesis, before the fall, where we are told that “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). When Adam sinned he lost God’s life, first spiritually and then physically. Thus, Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again as Adam was born. God was the source. Therefore, Nicodemus needed to have a fresh impartation of spiritual life; there had to be a new creation.
Water and Wind
The second answer to Nicodemus’s question—“How can a man be born again?”—is the answer given in verse 5. Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (rsv). This verse carries Jesus’ explanation of the new birth a bit further, for having explained it in reference to its source he now begins to explain in a more technical way how the new birth takes place. It takes place literally by “water” and “breath” or, as most translations say, “of water and of the Spirit.” In other words, Jesus first spoke of the source of the new birth. He now speaks of the means by which it occurs.
At this point we must acknowledge that several interpretations of the phrase “of water and of the Spirit” have been given. One of these interpretations takes the word “water” as referring to physical birth. I heard this explanation first during my years in college. It is based on the fact that physical birth is accompanied by the release of the embryonic fluid from the womb of the mother. If this were the proper explanation, Jesus would be saying that in order for a person to be saved he must first be born physically and then his physical birth must be followed by a spiritual birth.
True as this may be, it does not seem to be the proper interpretation of the statement. For one thing, the word “water” is never used in this way elsewhere in Scripture. For another, a reference to the necessity of physical birth is so self-evident that the question arises whether Jesus would waste words in this fashion. The third and decisive problem with this view is that since Jesus was probably claiming that a person is born again by water as well as by the Spirit, if water refers to physical birth, this is simply not true. Physical birth is not part of the answer.
The second interpretation of the phrase is that which sees water as referring to water baptism. Unfortunately, this is not substantiated either by the text or by biblical theology. The text says nothing at all about baptism, and the Bible elsewhere teaches that no one is saved by any external rite of religion (1 Sam. 16:7; Rom. 2:28–29; Gal. 2:15, 16; 5:1–6). Baptism is a sign of what has already taken place, but it is not the agent by which it takes place.
Some years ago a young woman came to me wanting to be married to a young man whom I had not yet met. I arranged for us to get together and in the course of the resulting conversation discovered that neither the young woman nor the young man were Christians. The man was quite open about it and regarded the church service as merely a public ceremony. The young woman thought she was a Christian, largely because she had come from a family of churchgoers and had been baptized in her infancy by a bishop. When I pointed out that baptism never made anyone a Christian this woman was greatly offended. She was even more offended when later I declined to perform the ceremony.
Someone will object to this on the grounds that John the Baptist supposedly baptized people for new life, but this is wrong teaching. John called for repentance, and when men or women repented he baptized them as a sign to others that this had happened. The proof of this is seen in the fact that John actually refused to baptize certain of the Pharisees and Sadducees because they did not show evidence of any genuine change in their lives.
The third interpretation of the phrase “of water and of the Spirit” is one that takes both parts of the phrase symbolically. “Water,” the argument goes, refers to cleansing; “Spirit” refers to power. Therefore, one must be both cleansed and filled with power. William Barclay is one who holds this view. It is true, of course, that the sinner must be cleansed from his sin and that it is the Christian’s privilege to be endued with power from on high, but it is questionable whether this is the primary meaning of this passage. Strictly speaking, both cleansing and power accompany the new birth, while these verses are dealing with the way in which the new birth itself comes about. Moreover, neither of the ideas is related at all to the birth metaphor as the context seems to require.
One of the great students of the Greek New Testament, Kenneth S. Wuest, proposed a fourth explanation. It is based upon the use of the word “water” as a metaphor in other New Testament texts. Wuest points out that “water” often is used in Scripture to refer to the Holy Spirit. He thinks that this is the case in John 4, for instance, where Jesus tells the woman of Samaria that he will give her “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Another case is John 7:37–38, where almost the identical language is used. After this statement John himself adds, as if in parentheses, “By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (v. 39). Wuest also refers to Isaiah 44:3 and 55:1, both of which should have been known to Nicodemus. If this is the correct interpretation of the phrase “of water and of the Spirit,” then we have a repetition of ideas, and the word “and” should be taken in its emphatic sense. We would normally indicate this by translating the word as “even.” Thus, Jesus would be saying, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water, even the Spirit.”
The explanation given by Wuest is a good explanation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that another must be preferred. Wuest begins by pointing out that the word “water” is often a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. This is true, but it is not the only spiritual reality that is suggested by that metaphor.
Water is also a metaphor for the written Word of God, the Bible. Thus, Ephesians 5:26 says that Christ gave himself for the church “to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.” In 1 John the same author who composed the fourth Gospel distinguishes between the witnesses to Christ on earth of “the Spirit, the water and the blood” (1 John 5:8). Since he then goes on to speak of God’s written witness to the fact that salvation is in Christ, in this context the Spirit must refer to God’s witness within the individual, the blood to the historical witness of Christ’s death, and the water to the Scriptures. Psalm 119:9 declares, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).
A related text is James 1:18, which actually cites the Scriptures as the channel through which the new birth takes place, although without using water as the metaphor. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
When we see Christ’s words in this light, we see that God is here pictured as the Divine Begetter, the Father of his spiritual children, and we learn that the written Word of God together with the working of his Holy Spirit is the means by which the new birth is accomplished. That is why the Bible tells us that it pleased God to save people by the foolishness of preaching, for people are reborn through the efforts of others who proclaim God’s Word (Rom. 10:14–15; 1 Cor. 1:21).
One more verse makes this even clearer: 1 Peter 1:23. It says, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”
There are many symbols for the Word of God in the Bible. We are told that the Bible is “a lamp” to our feet and “a light” to our path (Ps. 119:105). The Word is like “a fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29). It is “milk” to the spiritual infant and “strong meat” to those of a more mature age (1 Peter 2:2; Heb. 5:11–14). It is a sword (Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17), a “mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12; 2 Cor. 3:18; James 1:23), a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). It is a branch grafted into our bodies (James 1:21). These are great images, but none is so bold as the one used by Peter in this passage.
In the first chapter of 1 Peter, Peter has been talking about the means by which a person enters the family of God. First, he has discussed his theme objectively in terms of Christ’s death, writing that “it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (vv. 18, 19). Second, he has discussed the basis of the new birth subjectively, pointing out that it occurs through faith: “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (v. 21). Finally, having mentioned these truths, Peter goes on to discuss the new birth in terms of God’s sovereign grace in election. This time, however, he emphasizes that God is the Father of his children and that we are born again spiritually by means of the Word of God, which Peter likens to the male life germ. The Latin Vulgate makes this image of Peter’s even clearer than our English versions, for the word used there is semen.
When we take these passages together and then add to them all that the Bible has to say about faith and about the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, we find that we are able to grasp the essential nature of the new birth in terms of human conception. What happens when a man or a woman is born again? The answer is that God first of all plants within the heart of the person what we might call the ovum of saving faith, for we are told that even faith is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Second, God sends forth the seed of his Word so that the seed of the Word, which contains the divine life within it, pierces the ovum of faith that God has already placed within our hearts. The result is conception. By this means, a new spiritual life comes into being, a life that has its origin in God and that therefore has no connection whatever with the sinful life that surrounds it.
God did not use anything of Abram when he made Abraham. He did not use anything of Simon when he created the new Peter. He did not use anything of Saul when he made Paul. He does not use anything of your old sinful and Adamic nature when he produces the new life of Christ within you. That is why we can now say, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Thus did Jesus speak to Nicodemus.
Thus does Jesus speak to you, whoever you may be. If you are one who has never believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, you must realize that you will never be able to enter God’s family by any achievements of your own. The work is God’s alone, and it was accomplished objectively through the death and resurrection of Christ. If you are a believer, you should find encouragement in the fact that all the people of God, from Abel on down to the last believer who will ever live, are born again by the same process and are therefore in the family of God through God’s activity. This should be your confidence, if you are a Christian. “For God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Moreover, we know that what God has promised “[he has] power to do” (Rom. 4:21).
3 It is reasonable to assume that Nicodemus had come prepared to ask Jesus much the same question as did the rich young man—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17 par.). But even before the question can be asked Jesus provides the answer. It is prefaced with the double amēn (“I tell you the truth,” GK 297), which stresses the validity of what is about to be said. Unless a person is “born again” he cannot see the kingdom of God. Anōthen (GK 540) is an adverb either of place (“from above,” as in Mt 27:51) or of time (“again,” “anew,” as in Gal 4:9). In this context the former meaning is primary. To be born “from above” means to be born of God (cf. the use of anōthen, 3:31). However, since spiritual birth is in fact a second birth, the temporal idea of “again” is included. Unless a person is reborn from above he or she is unable to “see the kingdom of God.” To see God’s kingdom means to enter into and have a part in the final establishment of God’s sovereign rule. As a Jew, Nicodemus would understand the kingdom of God as the long-awaited age to come. To “see” this kingdom would mean to experience resurrection life at the end of the age. What he did not understand was that to have a part in that kingdom required a second birth.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (pp. 99–103). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2005). The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 197–202). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 395–396). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.