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Often, we treat John 3:1-15 like a candy wrapper. John 3:16 and 17 are the candy and all of the other verses are the candy wrapper: we eat the “candy” and throw away the “wrapper”.
Many of us know John 3:16: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Even the Nicene Creed quotes this verse, saying that Jesus is “eternally begotten of the Father.”
But read alone, John 3:16 and 17 raise more questions than they answer. For example, why would they need to emphasize that God loved the world? Who would argue against that? And why would they need to say that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world?” These questions can be answered by reading the whole passage in context, beginning with John 2.
In John 2, we see Jesus enter the temple during Passover. The temple is crowded—people are hawking oxen, sheep, and pigeons. Others offer to convert foreign money to local currency. John 2:15 tells us that Jesus made “a whip of cords” and used it to “drive [the hawkers] all out of the temple with the sheep and the oxen.” Then Jesus “poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.”
Because of this, many Jews confront Jesus.
They ask, “what sign do you show us for doing these things?”
“Destroy this temple,” Jesus says, “and in three days I will raise it up.”
The Jews are shocked.
The author of John explains to us that Jesus was not talking about the temple building. He was “speaking about the temple of his body.” He was telling the Jewish people, “destroy my body and I will raise it up in three days.” But the Jews did not understand what he was saying.
To them, Jesus was a blasphemous, violent man who had chased salesmen from the temple (with a whip), upturned tables, and insisted that he would rebuild the temple in three days if it was destroyed.
From their perspective, the Son was violent. He did hate men and was eager to condemn them.
But John 3:16 asserts that precisely the opposite is true. Our own knowledge—based on sight, tradition, and reason—can completely deceive us.
Ultimately, John 3:1-17 is about more than a loving God or a Son who came to redeem humanity; it is about knowledge—the limits of human knowledge, and how one can overcome those limits.
After Jesus has caused commotion at the temple, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus during the night. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a very important person and a very powerful person. Yet he humbles himself before Jesus.
“Teacher,” Nicodemus says, “we know you come from God, for no one can do the things you do unless God is with him.”
But Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Truly, I say to you, unless anyone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
At first glance, this response seems to be beside the point. After all, Nicodemus is asserting that God must be behind Jesus’ actions. How does Jesus’ response relate to Nicodemus’ statement?
Jesus is responding to Nicodemus’ claim that he “knows” Jesus came from God.
Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you could not possibly know where I come from. The only one who can know anything about the Kingdom of God is the person who has been born again.”
We are born into a fallen Creation. We are fallen and our eyes are blinded from the Truth. To combat our fallen nature, we use our reason to discover truth. Reason can show us many things about the world, but like us, reason is fallen. When we try to rationalize the character of God, for example, we will become very confused. This is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born again.
The character of God is not something that we can figure out on our own. Even if we read the entire Bible, we would be unable to understand God’s character. We lack the proper faculties. Reason, although a gift, is not enough to bridge the gap of our understanding. If we, like Nicodemus, said to Jesus, “I have read the entire Bible and have concluded that you must be the son of God,” Jesus would rebuke us too!
Almost as if to prove Jesus’ point, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus’ admonition.
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asks. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
But if everything born into creation is fallen, then even a mother’s womb is fallen!
So Jesus must correct Nicodemus’ understanding. He explains that this new birth must happen through water and the Spirit—not through a mother’s womb. Water and the Spirit hearken back to Genesis 1: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
All was born from water and the spirit. But humans fell into sin and dragged all of creation down with them. All of Creation has been groaning since this moment, awaiting restoration.
Then came Christ, the restorer.
How does he restore? Through water and the Spirit, the same materials through which all was created.
You may remember our study of the Baptism of Jesus.
Many sinners came to John to repent of their wrongdoings. Despite being without sin, Jesus joined these people in line. When his turn came, Jesus walked up to John and requested to be baptized. John was shocked.
“I need to be baptized by you!” John said. “Why do you ask to be baptized by me?”
“John, baptize me,” Jesus replied. “For my baptism is an important step in the process of fulfilling all righteousness.”
Jesus descends into the water. When he ascends from it, we see water and spirit for the second time in scripture: the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ. In this occurrence, the Spirit isn’t hovering over all of creation; it hovers on Christ alone. This is an important distinction: The redemption of creation happens in Christ himself. Reborn, then, means to be born a second time—through baptism—in Christ.
Only through Christ can we know God, for Christ is the only one who “knows” heaven because he descended from it.
After explaining all of this to Nicodemus, Jesus references a story from the Old Testament: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
When the Israelites were readying themselves to cross the desert, God directed them on a rather counterintuitive route. Frustrated, the Israelites spoke out against Moses and God.
“Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” They cried.
When they complained, God sent venomous snakes among the people. The snakes bit and killed many of those who had complained. As a result, the Israelites came before Moses and admitted they had sinned. They pleaded with Moses, “Please pray to the Lord, that he will take the serpents away from us!”
But God did not take the serpents away.
Instead, God says to Moses, “Make the image of a serpent and place it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”
And that is precisely where John 3:1-17 brings us: To the recognition that the world is so completely fallen, so snake-bitten, that our instincts to navigate through it successfully (even religiously) will certainly leave us dead. We plead with God to remove the sin. But the problem is deeper than the sin-snakes that surround us: Something must happen to us—in us—in order for us to be saved. That something is a second birth, through the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit. Only in this way can we know God and be saved by him.
Anything less leaves us stumbling around in the night.