If there’s any verse known by a wide audience, it’s John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It tells the whole Gospel story in a sentence. On the night he presented this simple statement, he was having a conversation with a particular Pharisee, Nicodemus. Let me paint the picture a little bit for us.

The Ultimate Sermon on John 3:16

The hour is late and the streets are dark in Jerusalem. There’s a warm summer breeze that cuts into the lingering heat from the day. Why is this night different from any other? For one man it would be. Can you see him? He’s winding through the streets with a torch in his hand, walking with a particular purpose. He arrives at the house where he thinks Jesus is and knocks on the door. The last several days raised many questions, and Nicodemus carries the weight of his doubts and fears through the door to see if Jesus really holds the answers. He saw John at the Jordan and heard the rumors about the sky opening up when Jesus entered into the water. He knows the marketplace is full of whispers about miraculous acts and challenges to traditional Jewish teaching. The world seems upside down because of this Galilean, this rabbi, this unique person who claims to be the Son of God. 

You get the picture. If we look at John 3:16 in context, we see that Nicodemus comes that night with some faith. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (vs. 2).  It’s an important place to start. Nicodemus makes an effort with his sliver of faith and a whole bunch of questions. And Jesus spurs on the conversation about the very strange idea of being born again. Their exchange – Nicodemus’s simple but striking questions and Jesus’ heartfelt responses – frame both our points and our application. Their conversation leads us to John 3:16 and the verses that follow, namely verses 17-21.  So, let’s look at each question and then see what Jesus calls, “the verdict,” in his last response to Nicodemus. Then, to close, we’ll imagine Nicodemus in the story again because it’s an encounter that unravels and reshapes his life, or, as Jesus would say, gives him a second birth.

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Question #1 

The first question is really a statement that I already referenced. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (vs. 2).  If we listen carefully, there’s an assumed question, especially when we hear Jesus’ responses. We might address Jesus like this, “Rabbi, we know that you’re a teacher from God because how else would you be able to do all these miraculous, out-of-this-world things, right?”, or, “Rabbi, why do you perform these miracles? It must be that you are from God because I can’t figure out any other way you’re able to do it.”

Answer #1

There are three occasions in his conversation where Jesus says, “I tell you the truth…” or, in some translations, “Truly, truly…” This is the first occasion. Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (vs. 3:3). When Jesus says, “the kingdom of God,” what does he mean? It’s a phrase that is used 67 times in the New Testament, not including “the kingdom of heaven,” which Matthew uses another 31 times. It’s an important theological point! As best we can tell, Jesus meant both a present reality and a future hope: “thy kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven,” as he teaches us to pray, and the truth that, “I go to prepare a place for you.” The conversation with Nicodemus is best explained as actually the kingdom of heaven, the physical place in our hopeful future as Christians.

In Jesus’ second answer, that we’ll look at in a moment, he says, “… no one can enter the kingdom of God,” but in this first reply, he says, “… no one can see the kingdom of God.” It makes me think of Moses on Mount Nebo. As you might recall, Moses never enters the Promised Land. Instead, in Deuteronomy 34, we read about him going up on top of a mountain and seeing into the valley across the Jordan. The text says, “And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there’ (1-4). 

What a beautiful moment between Moses and God! Now, I’m not suggesting that Jesus is necessarily distinguishing between seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Scripture doesn’t support any stages of getting into God’s kingdom, but I think Jesus does use this to pace Nicodemus into the discussion as we’ll see in the more lengthy response to questions one and two.

Question #2

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (vs. 4).

It’s a legitimate question. If we take what Jesus says at face value, it seems absurd. Born again? We don’t know the tone Nicodemus uses. Perhaps he’s bewildered or maybe just asking a light question, knowing full well Jesus doesn’t mean a second birth like our first one. Whatever his tone, the question provides space for Jesus to lead in with a response that we hear echoed throughout the New Testament.

Answer #2

Jesus answers, “I tell you the truth, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (5-8). 

Jesus wants us to recognize definitions: flesh equals flesh, and spirit equals spirit. We cannot physically grasp at the heavenly realms. It’s not there for the taking, rather it’s there for Jesus to give. If we get this subtle nuance wrong, the gap is wider than the ocean. We cannot hunt down righteousness and claim it as it were a commodity. We cannot lay hold of the Holy Spirit as if he were manipulated by our reverent meditations. And for Nicodemus the Pharisee, this is difficult to grasp. For us, it’s easy, right? We get it. We understand the ins and outs of when and where God might show up, right?

Just like Nicodemus, we have the same struggle. I know I do. The Incarnation bridged the divide between heaven and earth that our sin caused. Our tendency is to continue to our retreat into the caverns of sin, away from the light. It’s nothing new. The Psalms speak of it. “Where shall I go from your Spirit?,” asks David, “Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (139:7-12).

When we come to Jesus with our questions–in all our doubts, uncertainties, sins, brokenness, and everything in between– that’s when we’re beginning to understand the Gospel. We no longer tuck sins around the corners of our mind. We no longer parade our goodness as if God might be impressed. Instead, we come to the place where we say, “That which born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit. God make me yours, through the power of your Son who died and rose again to find me, a lost sinner who doesn’t deserve anything.”

Question #3

If you’re still asking, “How can these things be?” your quoting Scripture! Nicodemus simply asks the same thing in verse 9. The answer is most certainly, they should not be. We should not have any opportunity. Like the devil and his angels, our path should lead to destruction without any alternative. Think about it. The devil and all the angels who fell from Heaven weren’t even made in the image of God, not like us humans. We are the imago dei, the God-bearers. Yet, God loves us and sent his Son, just like Jesus says in his response to Nicodemus.

Answer #3

Jesus is a bit stronger with Nicodemus with his reply. He says, “How can you understand when you haven’t accepted what I’ve been teaching and doing all along the way?” But (and there’s a huge but), he knows the time is coming when Nicodemus’ eyes will be open. Evoking that great passage in Numbers 21, Jesus says, And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 

“There’s more coming, Nick,” Jesus seems to say here. “The story isn’t quite over.” And then John 3:16 makes the most sense in this conversation, in this context. Why must the Son of Man be lifted up? Because God loves the world. That’s what the tiny preposition “for” leads us to. But not only that. Verses 17-18 say, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The Verdict

And that’s the judgment, right? Because Jesus, the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God has come, to quote the Nicene Creed, we are condemned. When once we were living in darkness, we have now seen a great light. Jesus doesn’t hold anything back. He fully and completely shares the verdict. The Bible says humanity is going down a path that leads to destruction. The only way that will change is if there is a change in course, an interruption, a revelation. We are all going down the road to Damascus, lost like Saul. It’s through the bright light of Jesus that blinds us into true reality, true repentance, and true faith. It was that kind of night for Nicodemus. Imagine it…

Nicodemus leaves that night having experienced the holy of holies in a common house, on a familiar Jerusalem street. He would monitor this Jesus, but now it isn’t because he threatens his ego. Jesus captured it, not by answering all his questions, but by answering only one. “How can this be, being born a second time?” he asks. And we know the answer. “That which is born of flesh is flesh,” Jesus says, and, “That which is born of spirit is spirit.”

By the end, we see Nicodemus huddled over a dead Christ, massaging dead hands and dead feet and weeping over a stopped heart in John 19:39. An unseated joy must have run over him when that whisper that Jesus says to Mary fills the marketplace and makes its way to his ears. He isn’t dead! He’s alive!

So, I tell you the truth – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. So, it’s true… it’s very true: that which is born of spirit is spirit. Hear the words of 1 Peter:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time….. Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; – 1 Peter 1:3-5, 22-23 (English Standard Version)

May those who have accepted Jesus walk accordingly, and for anyone who has not, may today be your day. Be born again in newness of life that only Jesus brings.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think John 3:16 is used so often?
  2. Jesus says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (3:17). Why do you think this often gets twisted into condemnation?
  3. What is Nicodemus really saying when he greets Jesus in 3:2, saying, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”? Pair this with how Jesus addresses Nicodemus in verse 10.
  4. Jesus compares the person born of the Spirit to wind, not knowing where they might come or go. Do we live like this? What does this mean in our everyday lives?
  5. I like the story of Moses holding up the snake. It’s both intriguing and disturbing. Jesus references it in verse 14. Read the story in Numbers 21 and discuss why Jesus picks this story to provide a foreshadowing of his death.
  6. From verse 19-21, Jesus talks about light. Why is light so important? Can you think of other verses that help us realize how the light is used to give us context and revelation?
  7. Look at 3:22-36. What’s the significance of Jesus going from the conversation with Nicodemus to the interaction of John the Baptist and his followers?

About The Author

Zach Kincaid is a part of the Sharefaith Editorial Team. He manages workoutyourfaith.com and has written on C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and general Christian thought for more than 15 years. He is a husband, father, and collaborator on a variety of Christian outreach projects, including films and educational resources.

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