Scripture Guide for John 3:1-17

Summary of the Text


This is a well-known passage full of well-known phrases, and yet reading and meditating on the text continues to offer fresh understandings and applications. John 3:1-17 is the account of Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus under the cover of night. This account comes right on the heels of John the Evangelist’s declaration that “Jesus himself knew what was in man.” 

Nicodemus is one example of Jesus’ intimate knowledge of the human heart. Two more examples will come up in the following two chapters when Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at the well and the man by the pool of Bethesda. Through these meetings, Jesus shows that he knows them, understands them, and takes the time to speak truth to them. 

This passage is all about transformation and the universal human need to be born again, from above, through Jesus. Full of misunderstandings between Jesus and his listener, like so many other passages in John, this passage requires careful reading and rereading as we meditate on Jesus’ words. 

Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?  

John’s Gospel begins on an epic level-not with Bethlehem and a manger as Matthew and Luke do- but with the very foundations of the world… and the Word who was with God in the beginning. John leaves us with no doubt: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. He has come to give light and life, and each person he encounters will have the opportunity to receive him. 

Though Nicodemus is a “man of the Pharisees” and a “ruler of the Jews,” he seeks out Jesus not confidently, nor boldly but “by night.” It has been suggested that he comes under the cover of darkness out of fear of his fellow Jews, but it should also be recognized that John, with his frequent use of metaphorical language, is perhaps using night to convey the moral and spiritual darkness in which Nicodemus and others sit. 

He does not yet see. And although Nicodemus’s question to Jesus relates to the signs Jesus is doing, Jesus’ response to him narrows in on what Nicodemus really needs to know: how to see. And that which he needs to see is the Kingdom of God. 

How does one see the kingdom of God? Jesus declares that one must be born again. The word Jesus uses also means “from above”, and both meanings are perhaps in mind as Jesus expounds what he means by the phrase. There is an “again-ness” to the new life that Jesus offers in himself, and the source of this life is “from above,” as Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. 

Jesus’ words tell us something about the type of change that is needed in order to see the kingdom. The type of transformation Jesus has in mind is not just a partial change, but a renewal of the whole nature made possible by God’s intervening spirit.

Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?

To see the kingdom of God is a glorious gift, one that scholars and teachers like Nicodemus had longed for for years. How can one “see” the kingdom of God? Jesus says one must be “born again.” Nicodemus is challenged to look to Jesus for a new birth that will lead to seeing the kingdom of God, which is already inaugurated now in Jesus and not exclusively a future expectation. 

Jesus patiently shows Nicodemus that all of these things he is telling him have been foretold. Jesus’ references to the cleansing and renewing of water as well as the pouring out of the Spirit should have tickled Nicodemus’s ears, reminding him of God’s great promises to cleanse his people by his spirit. 

Ezekiel 36:25-27 says “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” 

And Joel 2:28 declares  “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” For those who have been given eyes to see, who have been born anew by the Spirit, they can see the fulfillment of these words happening all around them as Jesus works. 

Again and again, Nicodemus is directed to the Old Testament to discover who Jesus is and how he can do all the signs he is performing. Jesus references the Son of Man being lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9). The people of Israel were offered new physical life when Moses fashioned the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is offering to Nicodemus eternal life, which will be accomplished through the saving work of Jesus on the cross. 

The purposes of God are made plain by Jesus: for deep love of the world, God gave his only son to save the world through him. 


Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts, and relationships today?

For anyone with questions about who Jesus is and what he came to do, this passage gives us a vision for our place in the coming Kingdom of God. Every one of us is caught up in the kingdom of God whether we know it or not. If we wish to see it and grasp it, we must look to Jesus, who pours out the Spirit in abundance on all who seek it. Jesus, full of grace, gives the gift of life and light to all who will receive it. The call goes forth for us to listen to him, seeking life and light from the source of living water. 

There is a whole lot going on in this conversation with Nicodemus- our heads are likely to spin as we imagine ourselves in his place. Nicodemus most certainly would not have been able to grasp all the implications of Jesus’ words right away. He would need to continue to rely on the saving work of Jesus. Nicodemus appears two more times in John’s Gospel: once in the company of other Jewish leaders as Nicodemus seems to defend Jesus and once in chapter 19 as he provides myrrh and aloe for Jesus’ burial. Nicodemus’s journey of faith began under the cover of darkness, but his continual listening to Jesus brought light and life. 

So it is with us as well- we need Jesus’ spirit to provide us with wisdom and insight as we walk this road of discipleship. When we are confused, when we don’t understand, we look to Jesus to lead us. Nicodemus was educated, powerful, influential, and orthodox, but there is one great thing he lacked: he needed Jesus. We all need Jesus, no matter our status in life. All of us are called to be continual disciples recognizing our ongoing need for Jesus to lead us throughout our whole lives. 

Along with my husband/co-Pastor, I have been leading a community Bible study on the Gospel of John. One question that has come up over and over again throughout the early chapters of John is: what is meant by eternal life? The phrase in used so frequently in church that sometimes we don’t stop to ponder what it means. Studying John (and particularly this passage from John 3) reminds us that eternal life is not just a distant reality that Jesus- followers are waiting for. Jesus talks about eternal life beginning now.

That abundant life that Jesus promises is available to us now. When we come to him, we experience the life and light in the here and now. Where do we see evidence of that eternal life in our lives? How do our churches point to the eternal life given to us in the present? These are questions that we should ponder and help our congregations to explore more fully. 

Rachel Clark

Rachel Clark is a pastor in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at New Monmouth Presbyterian Church. Rachel has a B.A. from Wheaton College and an M. Div from Princeton Theological Seminary.

She and her husband, Casey (with whom she co-pastors), have five children who keep them busy running around but also provide lots of laughter. In her free time, Rachel enjoys reading, hiking, baking, walking with friends, and playing board games.

Among her many accomplishments, Rachel played a pivotal role as a member of the 2006-2007 PTS intramural football championship team (The Golden Calves) alongside TPW founder Stu Strachan.

Sermon Resources

Key Quotes


And now we begin to see what it is that the New Testament is always talking about. It talks about Christians “being born again”; it talks about them “putting on Christ”; about Christ “being formed in us”; about our coming to “have the mind of Christ. Put right out of your head the idea that these are only fancy ways of saying that Christians are to read what Christ said and try to carry it out — as a man may read what Plato or Marx said and try to carry it out. They mean something much more than that. They mean that a real Person, Christ, here and now, in that very room where you are saying your prayers, is doing things to you.

It is not a question of a good man who died two thousand years ago. It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge and eternity.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Key Illustration

A Life Re-Defined by The Spirit of God

In his excellent book on worship, The Dangerous Act of Worship, pastor and president of Fuller Seminary Mark Labberton shares a story of the transformation of one of his former congregants:

Ben was a very successful man. His professional life flourished. His family life was challenging, as a parent of several teenagers. For him, Christian faith was a distant and disconnected reality. But he began to have conversations about it with his wife and later with me.

One Sunday I was surprised but pleased to see him in the worship service. As he approached me at the door afterward, his eyes began to fill with tears. He explained that while visiting Washington, D.C, for a professional conference, he had gone to visit the National Cathedral. He slipped into an empty side chapel and sat down for some quiet time and reflection. There, unexpected and unsought, God’s Spirit simply came upon him. Ben became a new person. The awe and wonder of grace and truth beyond his own mind, his own questions, his own needs, simply met him and changed him. It was as though his life was utterly redefined, and it has been ever since.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton. Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

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