John 3

The text




This chapter contains two incidents. In the first, Jesus encounters Nicodemus, who was a member of the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of Jerusalem. The second incident features John the Baptist, and contains his last recorded words.

3:1-15 – Jesus and Nicodemus

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. This is probably to stop the Sanhedrin from finding out about this meeting and thinking that Nicodemus was a supporter of Jesus. There is no record of Nicodemus coming to Jesus with a specific question, rather he simply praises Jesus and recognises that he is from God (John 3:2). Jesus’ response does not seem to be linked to the question (John 3:3), instead he challenges Nicodemus about his understanding of the Kingdom of God. Apart from one reference in 1 Peter 1:23, this conversation is the only use of the phrase “born again” in the Bible. Nicodemus fails to understand what Jesus means by “born again”, and Jesus explains that he refers to a rebirth through the Holy Spirit, which is a requirement for anyone to be part of the Kingdom of God (John 3:5-7). Apart from Jesus’ baptism, this is the first reference to the Holy Spirit, which becomes a major theme in the latter half of John (See Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John). Nicodemus still fails to understand, and Jesus rebukes him (John 3:9-10). Jesus’ response indicates that he expected Nicodemus (as “Israel’s Teacher”) to have understood this before he met Jesus. This shows that the foundations for Jesus’ teaching of the scripture and rebirth are found in the Old Testament.^[1]^

Jesus then begins a monologue with the solemn pronouncement ???? ???? ???? ?? (“I tell you the truth...”, “truly, truly I say to you...” or “very truly I say to you...”). Unlike Nicodemus, he and the disciples (presumably what he means by “we”^[2]^) speak of things that they have seen first-hand (John 3:11). This knowledge is partly because of what the disciples have seen of Jesus in their time with him. Jesus’ has this knowledge because he is the Son of Man who come from heaven (John 3:13 cf. John 3:31-32). The “heavenly things” (John 3:12) that Nicodemus – and even the disciples – fail to understand is that this same Son of Man must die to bring about the new birth and the Kingdom of God (John 3:14-15. Also see Sonship in the Gospel of John). Jesus’ mention of Moses lifting up the snake in the desert (John 3:14) is a reference to Numbers 21:6-9. In this incident, God punished the disobedience Israel by sending poisonous snakes, but instructed Moses to erect a statue of a snake, so that anyone who looked at the statue might live. Just like that incident, God provides a means of salvation for us, which only requires an obediently faithful response as we “look to Jesus”.^[3]^

3:16-21 – The Gospel in a nutshell?

Many scholars suggest that John 3:16-21 is not a continuation of Jesus’ speech, but is a comment by the author. This is not a rejection of the original text, since the original Greek lacks quote marks, or any way of defining when a quotes speech ends. One of the signs pointing to this suggestion is the change in tense between John 3:14-15 (future – “the Son ’’will’’”) and John 3:16 (past – “God ’’loved’’ and ’’sent’’”).^[4]^ Whether it is the words of Jesus or of John, it is still a powerful statement of many core facts of the Bible, and of John’s theology of Jesus and his works.

John 3:16 is one of the most translated and quoted verses in the Bible. This passage has often been described along the lines of “the Gospel in a nut shell”. John 3:16-21 raise the very important Johannine topics of the Father sending the Son, salvation, faith, light and darkness, revelation and the complex issues of Judgement in the Gospel of John.

3:22-30 – John’s last speech

The next section returns to John the Baptist, and is essentially the last that we hear from him (The Baptist is mentioned in passing in John 4:1, 5:33-36, 10:40-41). The passage deals with the important issue of the relationship between John and Jesus. People around John seem to see themselves in competition with Jesus for disciples (John 3:26). John however shows his great understanding of his position. John repeats that he is not the Christ but that he was preparing the way for the Christ (John 3:28). He describes himself as a bridegroom’s friend, who waits for the bridegroom and is full of joy when he comes (John 3:29). John shows the remarkable ability to accept the role that God had given him and not seek greater glory (John 3:26). His ministry was all about preparing for, and pointing towards, Jesus. Once Jesus arrived and began his ministry, John’s work and importance dwindled (John 3:30). This passage, among many other things, shows the humility needed in Christian life, that we are called to point away from ourselves and towards Christ.

3:31-36 – The Author’s conclusion

Like John 3:16-21 (above), many scholars believe that John 3:31-36 is an explanation by the author, rather than a continuance of John the Baptist’s speech. The reasons are predominantly the same.^[5]^ What is most notable is that this speech share so many common themes as 3:16-21. Along with sonship, salvation, faith, revelation, and judgement, this passage also discusses important issue of the Holy Spirit.

Other Resources

Online commentaries


  1. ? Andreas J. Köstenberger, John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 125. Cf. Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27; Isa 44:3; 59:21; Jer 31:31-34; Ps 51:10.
  2. ? Kostenberger, 125-6
  3. ? Kostenberger, 128
  4. ? Kostenberger, 114
  5. ? Kostenberger, 114