Summary: Jesus confounds Nicodemus’s ideas about Jewishness and salvation. This sets the context for John 3:16.
John is proving that Jesus is the Son of God and the promised Redeemer: He comes down from heaven, He gathers a few disciples, He turns the water into wine, and He drives the moneychangers and sacrifices out of the temple.
There’s a poor chapter break at 2:23; chapter 3:1 should begin here.
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.
We’re given certain details so we understand that the next sentence is in relation to the Jews. These were the ones who went to Jerusalem at Passover on the feast day; they believed in Jesus when they saw His miracles:
24But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, 25And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.
Imagine their shock! This is their Messiah and they believed in Him. Why wouldn’t He entrust Himself to them? We must keep in mind that He’s building up to verses 3, 5, and 7. It’s not Jewishness that saves a man, and He didn’t come just for Jews.
It’s very important that we understand how these verses fit with chapter 3 because, if we don’t, we’ll have a hard time with doctrinal truth when we get to John 3:16. Too many people throw out Romans 9 and John 6 and 10, Ephesians 1, and election and predestination and reprobation and say, “It’s doesn’t matter what anything or anyone else says, I’ve got John 3:16.” And they close their ears and ignore the truth, and we ourselves often don’t know how to take the verse.
What I’m going to show you here is that John 3:16 is not a verse which reveals a begging and pleading God, but one instead who has made a promise to wash His people clean and to give them His Spirit and save them from their sins. This is shown within the context and by the conversation with Nicodemus:
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
He came by night either because he was afraid (unlikely since no one yet hated Jesus) or because it was a cooler part of the day. He confesses that there’s something special about Christ, but Christ gives him what may seem like a bizarre answer:
3Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Why would He answer him in this way? Remember the context: Nicodemus thinks he’s going to see the kingdom just because he’s a Jew and even more so because he’s a Pharisee. He gives this profession, but Jesus knows what’s in a man’s heart so He cuts right to the point: you must be born again! The Greek word for “born” means “beget, sprung, or produced.” The Greek word for “again” is “from above, from on high, from the beginning, from farther back, earlier, over again, anew, or afresh.”
The Jews are waiting for the reign of God (Ex. 15:11-18), but Jesus says the only ones who will see this reign are not Jews, but those who are made new. Well, this blows Nicodemus’s mind, and he doesn’t know how to take it:
4Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
He takes it literally and thinks it sounds crazy.
5Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
There’s a lot of confusion about this verse because people try to separate the two, but I think the Spirit and the water are one event. Jesus is hinting at an Old Testament verse (I’ll show you at the end of this conversation), and Nicodemus ought to know it.
The point that Jesus is making to him is that Jewishness doesn’t save and non-Jewishness doesn’t hinder salvation:
6That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
The Greek for “of” is ἐκ (ek). It’s a preposition which means “out of.” He’s talking about birth and origin. Being a Jew is an issue of flesh, but this is not what will see God’s kingdom because the Spirit is what gives life:
7Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. 8The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.