Gospel of John Sunday School | Week 9


Notes on John 3:1-15

What a blessing to live in a time and place where we have the full canon of scripture in our possession. Used to this status quo, it is difficult to fathom how the church of other places and times carried on with only parts and pieces of God’s revelation – if they even had any of it written down at all. Part of the benefit of possessing and knowing the Bible is the ability to see the end of the story from the beginning. As we read about man’s exile from the garden and the presence of God in Genesis, we know that we are promised to be reunited with Him one day in a heavenly city. This is a benefit for us as we understand the entirety of redemptive history, but it can also be a burden for the interpretation of individual passages.

Adam and Eve had glimpses of the future, but nothing like we have today. Moses, the author of the Genesis account, knew much of what God had done and would do. Still he was not privy to the whole of the Old or New Testaments. Thus, placing later revelation into the former accounts and teachings can help us see the big picture, but it can hinder our understanding of what was being communicated at that time to the original audience.

In the gospel of John, we see anachronisms (the use of concepts out of order in the chronology) used by the author. If we are not careful, we can also apply anachronistic thinking to our interpretations of the text. An example of the former is clearly seen in John 2:22, where John interjects an understanding of Jesus’ prophetic words that wasn’t realized until after His death. An example of the latter, however, can be seen in the passage of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus in 3:1-15. To understand that case study, it is necessary to look at what this passage is saying.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus because he knew that there was more to Him than just miracles and personality. As Jesus often does, He immediately raises the bar of the highest human expectations. It isn’t enough for Nicodemus, or any Pharisee, to be upright. They must be “born again” (3). This new birth entails being “born of water and spirit” (5). What occurs in the life of those who experience this transformation can’t be quantified by human means, but only by and through the Holy Spirit (8).

There are many interpretations of what “born of water and spirit” means, but some seem to be anachronistic and based upon tradition. This passage is referenced by those who claim baptism is essential for salvation. This passage is also cited by those who assume a “spirit baptism” of speaking in tongues as a necessary confirmation of salvation. Both concepts would have been foreign to Nicodemus, and impossible for him to carry out at present. Why? Believers’ baptism was instituted in part to identify with Jesus’ death (Romans 6:3), and the Holy Spirit would not come until Pentecost (Acts 2:4).

The clearest and most concise interpretation of Jesus’ words comes from frequent Old Testament imagery that a man such as Nicodemus should have known. Pictures of purification and renewal, for the sake of intimacy with God, were so common for Israel. Ezekiel 36:23-27 gives one such example:

I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.

If we read the Old Testament as God preparing people for the coming of His Christ, this passage shows the kind of washing with water and rejuvenation of spirit that the Messiah will ultimately accomplish. Once more, Jesus is establishing His ministry as one which fulfills the law and the prophets. His signs were meant to do precisely what this dialogue was doing: pointing people to the kingdom of God. Nicodemus, any other Pharisee, any Jew, or any person must first be purified and regenerated by God before they can “walk in (God’s) statutes” and in the end “have eternal life” (John 3:15).

Of course, this is all to be founded upon faith (15). A faith whose object is not an act of the will of man, but the work of the exalted Christ (13-14). This wonderful truth still holds true today. As we read the Bible, it ought to be our goal to understand it within its proper context for our own benefit, the edification of the church, and our outreach to those who God is calling unto Himself.


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