It is the Passover season in Jerusalem, 30 A.D. The province of Judea is led by a council of 70 elders, called The Sanhedrin. This Council is sharply divided over the teacher who has come into town. This man has claimed to be their promised Messiah, and then acted on these claims by throwing out the priests’ businesses from the temple courts. The local priests and Sadducees are enraged, while the devout Pharisees in the council applaud this man for cleansing their temple from these corrupt practices.
All of Jerusalem watches in amazement over the next few days as this man teaches and performs miracles. His popularity grows daily as thousands come to hear him. The council argues about what to do with him, yet they are unable to reach any conclusion.
But there are a few from the council who are different. These few see more than an enemy, or a spectacular show. This man must have come from from God.
One of these few was a leader of the Council, named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the most devout keepers of the law. His Greek name shows that he was from a wealthy family and his title as a “ruler of the Jews” shows that he had wealth, power, and influence. He is referred later as the “The teacher of Israel”, showing that he was famous as a teacher of the law . In summary, Nicodemus was wealthy, educated, prominent, and very devout. Yet Nicodemus was missing something very important.
Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus at night, probably to keep his meeting secret. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is recorded in John 3:1-21.
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 are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus has seen Jesus’ signs and miracles and knows that he is from God. But as we see in Jesus’ immediate response, that is not enough!
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus has accomplished a lot in life. Nicodemus is a good man, but he is totally lost.
There is something much greater than your physical world. The kingdom of God exists beyond what we can see, hear, or touch. But unless you have a new life, you cannot even see this kingdom of God. The term, “born again”, can be better translated as “born from above”. You need to be given this new life from above.
“There was only one gate by which a man could pass into that kingdom of God – for that which was of the flesh could ever be only fleshly.” – Edersheim 
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?”
Nicodemus does not understand. Here is a man who has done everything possible in this physical world. But it is not about the physical world — Jesus is showing Nicodemus that he needs something more.
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.’”
How can you be born from above? You need more than a physical birth (“born of water”), but you also need a spiritual birth (“born of the Spirit”). Your physical being (flesh) will never give you life in the Spirit. (See the bottom of this post for a detailed discussion about “born of water”).
“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.”
Nicodemus is sitting with Jesus in an upper room of the house. The Springtime winds would be blowing through the the narrow streets of Jerusalem, and Jesus uses this example to explain the Holy Spirit. Both “wind” and “Spirit” are translated from the same Greek word: pneuma. The work of the Spirit is invisible and mysterious just like the blowing of the wind. You don’t see it and you don’t know where it comes from, but you know when it is there.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?
Nicodemus still does not understand and Jesus replies with a rebuke. Nicodemus is the premier teacher in Israel and he is having difficulty grasping the life in the Spirit. The Old Testament scriptures teach that the Spirit of God will renew you (see Ezekiel 36:24-27). Just like many of the other Jews of his day, Nicodemus did not understand this new life.
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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
This is why Nicodemus does not understand. It is not a matter of intellect but unbelief. Nicodemus does not understand because he does not believe. Nicodemus is not ready to hear about heavenly things until he first believes what Jesus tells him about what is on earth.
The final sentence shows that only Jesus is eligible to talk about heaven. No one is able to talk about heaven except for he who came from there.
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.
Jesus uses Nicodemus’ role model as a further example. As a Pharisee and a teacher of the law, Nicodemus deeply revered Moses and the law that he gave to Israel. But the Israelites did not obey and God sent poisonous snakes to kill them (see Numbers 21:5-9). When the people cried out to God, God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and raise it up on a pole. Anyone who looked at the bronze snake would live.
Jesus uses the bronze serpent as an illustration of himself. The bronze serpent represented God’s judgement. All a dying person needed to do was to look and be saved. Likewise, Jesus will be lifted up. All a dying person needs to do is to believe in him and they will be saved. Jesus will be lifted up when he is on a cross to to take God’s judgement for the entire world.
We are all dying in this physical world (Hebrews 9:27-28). Jesus has come to offer us a way to be saved from this world, and to be born a new life in the Spirit.
What does it mean to believe? Believing in Jesus is much more than intellectual assent. It is more than knowing the facts. Believing in Jesus means that you realize that you are totally helpless and you trust him completely.
“If the uplifted serpent, as symbol, brought life to the believing look which was fixed upon the giving, pardoning love of God, then, in the truest sense, shall the uplifted Son of Man give true life to everyone that believes, looking up in him to the giving and forgiving love of God, which his Son came to bring, to declare, and to manifest.” – Edersheim 
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Why would God give us eternal life? Because of his love for the world.
What did it cost God to give us eternal life? It cost him the life of his only Son.
What do we need to do to gain eternal life? We need to believe.
Nothing else. Just believe.
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.
The world is already dying. Jesus came into this dying world so that we might have life. God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23,32) but he desires that everyone be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9).
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.
We don’t need to do anything to be judged because we are judged already. We already are in this sinful, dying world and we need to be rescued in order to be saved from it. Those who don’t look to Christ are like the dying Israelites who refused to look at the bronze serpent.
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. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 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.
Here is our final choice. The contrast is between darkness and light. When we think of evil people we think of murderers, thieves, etc. But every one of us has done wicked things (compare Romans 3:23) and we are all in darkness. We now have the choice: we can hold on to our sin or we can come to the light.
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Water and the Spirit
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. (John 3:5-6)
There are several interpretations of the statement, “born of water”. Many seek a deep theological point from the comment about water. However, the text is contrasting the physical (flesh) with the spiritual. Jesus has just told Nicodemus that he must be born again and Nicodemus does not understand. The simplest explanation is that the “born of water and the Spirit” indicates that both a physical and a spiritual birth are needed.
Many commentators have seen a greater image of redemption, or repentance in the word “water”. However, this word is never used again in this passage. This entire passage is about being born again and it is highly unlike John (the author) to bring up an essential point and not to elaborate on it. John’s style is the opposite: he will repeat and re-emphasize the important points (compare 3:15 with 3:16). In addition, Jesus has not started discussing how to be born again at this point in the conversation. He is still explaining what it means to Nicodemus and the “how” comes later on in the passage.
However, it is important to note that there is no theological error in proposing different interpretations for “water”, provided that all conclusions are consistent with the rest of Scripture (for example, it would be wrong to say that the “water” implies action on your part to be born again since it is inconsistent with other parts of Scripture — see below). I list the most common interpretations below:
- The water refers to baptism as an essential act of salvation. This contradicts the free gift from God in Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-5. Most importantly, this is also the opposite of what Jesus says later (3:15, 16).
- Water indicates natural birth. This is the view that is proposed here.
- The water is the cleansing of the word of God (Ezekiel 36:24-27, Ephesians 5:26). The problem with this view is that it is trying to extract a point from a single word. It is as if Jesus interrupts his points to Nicodemus to introduce a new topic. The application of Ezekiel 36:24-27 would be better applied to later in the passage (3:10) when Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not understanding these things.
- The water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37–39). This is confusing though, to say “water AND the Spirit”.
- The water is a reference to the repentance ministry of John the Baptist. This is again an attempt to interrupt the current discussion with a new topic. A lot has happened since John the Baptist was baptizing in the Jordan and there is no indication that Nicodemus was thinking of John’s baptism.
 Stepen Davey, “Reborn…The Declaration”, http://media.colonial.org/files/PDFs/CBC/Face%20to%20Face%20Encountering%20the%20Messiah%20Part%20II.pdf
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Section III, “The Ascent”, Chapter vi.