Jesus' Most Confounding Statements: John 3:1-21

Below is an excerpt from The Gospel According to John by D.A. Carson.  Se below to a link to this book and other resources mentioned from this week's message.

5. Jesus and Nicodemus  (3:1–15)

The one who ‘knew all men’, who ‘did not need man’s testimony about man’ (2:24–25), now enters into a number of conversations in which he instantly gets to the heart of individuals with highly diverse backgrounds and needs–Nicodemus (3:1–15), the Samaritan woman (4:1–26), the Gentile official (4:43–53), the man at the pool of Bethesda (5:1–15), and more.

It has become popular to follow the lead of Martyn (HTFG, pp. 119–123, 161–163), to see in Nicodemus a symbolic figure representing a local Jewish leader at the time John was writing, a figure who secretly believed but who needed encouragement to step out and make his faith public. The ‘inspiration’ for Nicodemus, then, is a person like Gamaliel (Acts 5). Martyn needlessly forces the text into anachronism at point after point, even though, as we have already seen (cf. notes on 2:22), John is perfectly willing and able to make distinctions between what happened ‘back then’ in the days of Jesus and what happened only after Jesus had risen from the dead. In any case, other readings, including an elementary sociolinguistic reading (i.e. one that focuses on the discourse in its own literary, linguistic and sociological context)179 makes admirable sense of the putative historical context, as the notes below will briefly demonstrate.

Schnackenburg (1. 380ff.) and others have argued that 3:31–36 has been displaced, and should be inserted between v. 12 and v. 13. Although sense can be made of the text that way, greater sense flows from the order preserved for us. Even at the structural level there is a certain symmetry about the chapter as it stands. In vv. 1–21, the words of Jesus probably trail off at the end of v. 15, to be followed by the meditation of the Evangelist in vv. 16–21 (cf. notes on vv. 16–21). Similarly in vv. 22–36: the words of John the Baptist probably terminate with v. 30, while vv. 31–36 preserve a balancing meditation by the Evangelist on what has just been reported.

1. The word that connects this narrative with the preceding chapter is de, commonly rendered ‘and’ (NIV’S Now is an idiomatic adaptation) or ‘but’. If some variation of ‘and’ is accepted, the idea is that Nicodemus exemplified those who in some sense believed in Jesus, but with a faith so inadequate that Jesus did not entrust himself to them (2:23–25).180 This interpretation may be reinforced by the fact that Nicodemus approached Jesus by referring to his signs–the very things that evoked spurious faith in 2:23–25. On the other hand, if de has its more usual adversative force (‘but’), it means that, in contrast to those with inadequate faith at the end of ch. 2, Nicodemus’ approach was not so faulty and Jesus did entrust himself to him. The Evangelist displays a habit of describing a bleak reception of the Son of God, followed by some alleviating exception (e.g. 1:10–13; 3:19–21; 6:66–69). In this instance a mediating position seems best. The most natural reading of 3:1–15 is that at this point Nicodemus, though interested, is not particularly open to the truth (after all, Jesus’ signs serve Nicodemus as a conversation starter, not, as in 2:23–25, as a trigger for faith, spurious or otherwise), yet eventually he comes around to side with Jesus (7:45–52) and ultimately to take his place at Calvary (19:38–42).

The name Nicodemus was common in Greek, but transliterated and made into a Jewish name. This Nicodemus has sometimes been identified with Naqdimon ben Gorion, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem who supplied water to pilgrims at the principal feasts, and who is known to have lived in Jerusalem at the time of its siege in the Jewish War (AD 70; B. Ta’anith 19b–20a; Gittin 56a; Ketuboth 66b). That would have made Naqdimon a very young man forty years earlier, during the ministry of Jesus, probably too young to have been a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, unless he was a very exceptional person indeed. Moreover, we may reasonably infer from v. 4 that Nicodemus was already an old man when he encountered Jesus. Regardless of his identification with any person named in extra-biblical sources, Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisees (cf. notes on 1:19, 24–25), and a distinguished teacher (cf. notes on 1:10).

2. Why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night is uncertain. Some have thought this reference to ‘night’ is nothing more than a personal reminiscence of an historical detail. Others remind us of the texts demonstrating that rabbis studied and debated long into the night. Still others speculate that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night in order to benefit from the cloak of darkness, fearing to be identified in the public mind with the Galilean teacher and wonder-worker. The best clue lies in John’s use of ‘night’ elsewhere: in each instance (3:2; 9:4; 11:10; 13:30) the word is either used metaphorically for moral and spiritual darkness, or, if it refers to the night-time hours, it bears the same moral and spiritual symbolism.181 Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew (cf. Hengstenberg, 1. 157–158; Lightfoot, p. 116).

Though he was a distinguished teacher, Nicodemus addressed Jesus with a collegial Rabbi. In a sense this was worth more than when the same word was uttered by two untaught disciples of John the Baptist (1:38); it was certainly more respectful than the tone of some of Nicodemus’ colleagues (7:15, 45–52). Nor was Nicodemus as dismissive of Jesus’ miracles as those who assigned his works to the power of Satan (8:48, 52; cf. Mk. 3:22ff. par.). It is the evidence of the miraculous signs that convinces Nicodemus that Jesus is no ordinary teacher: he must be a teacher who has come from God–which is certainly not a confession of Jesus’ pre-existence, but a recognition that God was peculiarly with him, very much as he was with Moses or Jeremiah (Ex. 3:12; Je. 1:19). At one level this assessment of Jesus must be judged disappointing. Nicodemus does not suggest Jesus is a prophet, still less the prophet or the Messiah, but simply a teacher mightily endowed with God’s power. Nicodemus was openly curious about Jesus, but still fell a long way short of confession that he was uniquely the promised Coming One.

Two plurals in this verse demand notice. First, Nicodemus refers to ‘miraculous signs’ (plur.), even though only one has been reported so far in any detail (2:1–11). But John has just mentioned others (2:23), and in any case this Gospel informs its readers that Jesus performed many miracles other than the ones found here (20:30; 21:24–25). The samples the Evangelist includes are those that are significant for his purposes (cf. notes on 2:1). Second, Nicodemus speaks in the first person plural ‘we know‘, not ‘I know’. Some think this ‘we’ makes Nicodemus a spokesman for the ‘many people’ whose faith was spurious (2:23–25). This view is in danger of making Nicodemus a mere cipher, a literary creation of the Evangelist, since it is quite clear that Nicodemus would not see himself as an exemplar of spurious faith. Cotterell (art. cit.) suggests Nicodemus approached Jesus with a group of his disciples in tow, and spoke for all of them; Jesus then replied with a similar plural form, speaking both for himself and his own disciples (v. 11). Disciples on one side or the other may have been present; but the text does not say so, and in any case this explanation will certainly not do for v. 11 (cf. notes below). It is most natural to think that Nicodemus saw himself speaking for at least some of the Pharisees or members of the Jewish ruling council (v. 1) who were in essential agreement with him. Nicodemus is likely hiding somewhat behind his colleagues, his ‘we’ betraying a touch of swagger or nervousness. (John is particularly adept at wielding deft strokes to flesh out his characters: compare, for instance, the two who are healed in Jn. 5 and Jn. 9 respectively.)

On the appropriateness of Nicodemus’ assumption that Jesus’ miracles testify to who he is, cf. notes on 9:16ff.; 10:38; 14:11.

3. Formally, Nicodemus has not yet asked anything, though the implied question seems to be something like, ‘Who are you, then? We know you are a teacher from God, but are you more? Are you a prophet? Are you the Messiah?’ (Cf. notes on 1:19ff.) But Jesus’ words are more than a response to a merely implied question. The fundamental presupposition behind the opening sally of Nicodemus, as behind the demand for a sign (2:18), is the ability of the interlocutor to assess the evidence Jesus may care to advance. Nicodemus, like other Jews (cf. notes on 8:31ff.), wants to set up criteria by which to assess who Jesus is. Jesus rejects the priority of Nicodemus, and radically questions his qualification for sorting out ‘heavenly things’ (v. 11; cf. Carson, p. 180; Haenchen, 1. 200). Nicodemus claims he can ‘see’ something of who Jesus is in the miracles; Jesus insists no-one can ‘see’ the saving reign of God at all, including the display of miraculous signs, unless born again. Even more fundamentally, if there is any possibility at all that Jesus is the promised Messiah, it would be more fitting for Nicodemus to ask himself if he is ready for him, rather than to ask if a proper claimant has arrived on the scene. As Christians today contemplate the Lord’s return aright only if in consequence they purify themselves (1 Jn. 3:1–3), so Jews in Jesus’ day best anticipated the coming of the Messiah when they most wanted to be transformed in line with the promises of life under the messianic age–to enjoy a new heart for God, cleansing and the fulness of the Spirit (e.g. Je. 31:28ff.; Ezk. 36:25–27).

That, at least, is the drift of Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, and the nature of its connection with v. 2; but closer inspection is necessary. Introducing his words with the solemn formula I tell you the truth (cf. notes on 1:51), Jesus declares that unless a man (the expression in Greek refers to a man or a woman) is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The full expression ‘the kingdom of God’ is not found in the Old Testament, though a number of passages speak of the LORD’S kingdom, or, more dynamically, insist that the LORD reigns, or that the LORD is king (e.g. Ex. 15:18; Ps. 93:1; 103:19). These texts speak of the universal sweep of God’s sovereignty. Everyone is ‘in’ that kingdom, whether or not one knows it or likes it. But the prophets also foresaw the advent of a kingdom at the end of history, presided over by a son of David (Is. 9:1–7; 11; Zc. 9:9–10), by the LORD’S servant (Is. 42:1ff.; 49:1ff.), by the LORD himself (Is. 9:1–7; 33:2; Zc. 14:9). The coming ruler was thus differentiated from the LORD, and in other passages identified with him–just as the Word is both differentiated from God, and identified with him (Jn. 1:1).

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Bibliography of Study Resources for further study:


The Gospel According to John


The Expositor's Bible Commentary: John


The Gospels and the Epistles of John


Phillip Santillan