It’s unfortunate that the chapter break is here at verse 21 because it really needs to be included in this section. All of this is immediately after Jesus clearing the temple. These verses 23-25 are talking about “unsaved believers”. That is people who believe in Jesus but don’t trust in Him and this is what Nicodemus is when he goes to Jesus. He admits in verse 2 that he knows Jesus was sent from God, but he denies the authority that Jesus has.
Nicodemus has gotten curious about Jesus and goes to Him. It’s kind of funny how this conversation starts in verse 2-3. Nicodemus comes in telling Jesus what a powerful servant of God He is being able to perform miracles and stuff. Jesus knowing what is truly in his heart though, cuts him off. Jesus immediately turns to what is on Nicodemus’ mind. Nicodemus has come to ask a prophet when will the kingdom of God come and free them from Roman rule.
Let’s try to put ourselves in Nicodemus’ place for a minute. You are a teacher of the law. You are living in a city surrounded by pagan Caesar worshipping Romans. Every decision about the land promised to you by God is controlled by pagans. You hate these vile, violent, and offensive people. You look forward to the time of the kingdom of God. It will be a time when God will take control and remove these pagans and God will rule here. You pray for it daily. You make tons of rules so that you can live righteously and force others to obey them in hopes that this will please God and He will deliver you.
Then one day after 400 years without the voice of a prophet, a man shows up and with a whip chases greedy men from the temple. Then this man goes into the courts and performs miracles and healings.(John 2:23) You look to the heavens and asks God if this is a prophet that can tell you when this kingdom will appear? You feel unexplainably drawn to this man.
You listen to the other Pharisees and they are talking about this man. “How dare He stop our temple markets?” “How dare He build up followers that listen to Him more faithfully than us? How dare He claim God as His father? You are embarrassed for believing that Jesus was sent by God so in the evening you sneak off and go to talk to Him. But then when you start talking to Him, He knows your very thoughts. He knows the prayers that you have only shared with God.
You stare startled as He emphatically tells you, that you must be born again to see the kingdom of God. You don’t understand. How can one be born again? As you wrestle with this he states with the same emphasis that you must be “born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” How can this be you ask. Jesus asks you, how can you not understand this when you are a teacher?”
I want to switch gears here and take a moment to talk about this being born of water and spirit. There seems to be much confusion over what it means. It is not baptism. The Jews knew what baptism was. It was used when converting people to Judaism and some crazy man on the banks of the Jordan was doing it to Jews, but to Nicodemus this would not be something that could or should make sense to him. Jesus tells him in verse 10 that the Old Testament explains Water and Spirit.
Let’s go to Jeremiah 31:15 and try to make sense of this. Jeremiah makes a prophecy of Jesus. We see the fulfillment of this prophecy in Matthew 2:18. Jeremiah is speaking of a new covenant(Jeremiah 31:31) that Jesus will make with Israel. Now go to Ezekiel 36:25-26 to find the understanding of water and spirit. Verse 25 says I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean and verse 26 says I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.
This being born again is putting faith in Jesus Which cleanses us from the guilt of our sin (Jeremiah 33:8) and fills us with the Holy Spirit so that we can live by God’s law. Now for us today we know of the cross. So our faith is in the fact that Jesus came and lived a sinless life and died as a perfect sacrifice so that He could suffer God’s wrath for us. It also includes faith in the resurrection of Jesus on the third day and that we will be raised with Jesus.
Now Nicky would not have known of the cross during the conversation but Jesus gives him a clue. In verse 14 Jesus mentions the bronze snake that was lifted up and says that He shall have to be lifted up just as the bronze snake was. Nicodemus would have immediately thought of the people that had been bit by the serpents in Numbers 21:8-9. They were dying but when they looked upon the bronze snake on the pole they would be forgiven and live.
I love this symbolism. We have been infected with the poison of the serpent’s lies but when we look upon Jesus on the cross we can be forgiven and live. Nicodemus would have saw this symbolization immediately at the crucifixion and would understand the prophesy Jesus made that night.