5. Nicodemus and the Discourses on Salvation (3:1–36)
The story of Nicodemus contains the first of the extended theological discourses of Jesus, one of the hallmarks of this Gospel. Each of the discourses contains an event, question, or sign around which the discourse is focused, and each of the discourses contains one or more key statements by Jesus that epitomizes some aspect of the Christian faith. Many of these key statements are so well conceived that they are easily remembered like frequently quoted maxims that take on a life of their own. Such is the case in this third chapter of John with statements such as “You must be born again” of v. 7 and “God so loved the world … ” in v. 16. The power of such verses is a testimony to the genuine inspiration behind them and the captivating nature of this book.
The power of these key verses is one reason many Christians think this Gospel ought to be given to new converts as the book of the Bible they should read first. Although John has great verses that epitomize many of the great realities of the Christian faith, the Gospel must not be thought to be a simple book. Many of its theological formulations press even the best of Christian minds just as Jesus pressed Nicodemus to consider a new depth of reality involving truth and salvation.
(1) The Story of Nicodemus (3:1–10)
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
3:1 This pericope begins with what seems to be a clear connection to the linking section of 2:23–25 by the use of the Greek de (best rendered here as “now”) and the vague expression “there was a man.” Nicodemus, however, was an important man, a Pharisee and a ruler (archōn) of the Jews. John’s description of him marks him not merely as a community leader but as one of the revered seventy, who along with the high priest composed the Sanhedrin, the equivalent of the Jewish Supreme Court (cf. 7:45–52 and especially 11:47). As the story progresses, it becomes clear to the reader that this leader of the Jews actually serves as a first-class example of why Jesus did not believe in human believing (2:24)
3:2 Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Although seasonal and day/night designations can properly be understood as time notations in this Gospel, they usually are more importantly also symbolic representations of the spiritual temperature of the people in the story (e.g., 10:22–23; 11:9–10; 13:30). As indicated in the Prologue, light and darkness are conceived as opposing principles (1:4–5) with darkness in John illustrating the negative aspects such as the realm of Satan, error, evil, doubt, and unbelief. Some interpreters might suggest that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night” (3:2) to prevent detection or alternatively that (as an intense rabbi) he studied late into the night, but most commentators are agreed that the reference to night is a picture of a man who was in an uneasy state of unbelief or doubt.
Nicodemus’s initiation of the conversation with Jesus reminds us of some modern popular introductions of guest speakers at banquets that are geared to make them feel both welcome and accepted while announcing to the speaker and the audience that great words of wisdom are expected. In this case, however, the statement proves to be a perfect example of Nicodemus’s ironical misunderstanding of Jesus.
Nicodemus, representing his learned group, began by addressing Jesus with the polite title “Rabbi.” In so doing, he “graciously” acknowledged Jesus as his equal, even though Jesus would be popularly recognized by council members as one of the “ignorant,” the working people of the land (‘am ha’areṣ). Since Jesus had to work with his hands (a carpenter), he was expected to be unable to spend his time in the minute study of the law and in the traditions of the elders (cf. 7:15; also note Acts 4:13). He was therefore not expected to know theology. But Nicodemus was in for a surprise. The irony of John is here evidenced, when Nicodemus in his evaluation concerning Jesus said, “We know.” By the time Nicodemus (as a representation of his group) had finished with Jesus, however, it was his ignorance rather than Jesus’ that was clearly evident.
To be fair to Nicodemus, we should note that he was in some ways quite accurate because, as he said, no one would be able (dunatai) to do the signs (sēmeia; plural) Jesus was doing “if God were not with him.” Signs were pointers to reality, and one of the important themes of this Gospel is the recurring call of Jesus for people to recognize the witness being given in the signs (e.g., 5:36; 6:26–32; 9:39–41 and note 14:8–11). But the signs were not ends in themselves. Thus Nicodemus’s mere reliance on signs at this stage became an excellent example of the type of believing that is not really sufficient. Jesus understood the nature of genuine believing and knowing, and he recognized a façade or pseudoknowledge when he encountered it (2:23–24). Nicodemus actually did not realize what he was saying about knowing!
The fact that the plural for “signs” is once again used in this pericope together with the fact that there is a close connection with the earlier temple pericope have led a number of scholars to join the second-century Tatian in suggesting that this pericope is a displaced story from the last week of Jesus’ ministry. Some interpreters also have suggested that because this story does not occur in the Synoptics that it must be a construct of a redactor. Here again the problem is rooted in an overconcern for chronological order. The Gospel has a great inner coherence, but its coherence and development are not that of a newspaper report.
3:3 Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is a vivid contrast to Nicodemus’s introductory words that no one is able (dunatai) to “perform the miraculous signs.” Jesus’ reply is a play on “ability”; namely, unless one is born from above, such a person is not able (ou dunatai) to “see the kingdom of God.” This contrast sets up a further series of statements about what is possible according to Nicodemus’s finite mind-set and what is actually possible according to Jesus (cf. also 3:4a, 4b, 5, 10) Jesus’ response begins with that familiar Johannine double amēn (lit., “truly, truly”) first introduced in 1:51. It is a clear signal of an important affirmation by Jesus. The phrase “kingdom of God” (which is so familiar in the Synoptics) is used only here and at v. 5 in the entire Johannine Gospel. Normally John did not use kingdom terminology because he seems to have preferred eternal life terminology. The use of kingdom at this point reminds the reader that John was not unfamiliar with the fact that Jesus employed such vocabulary in trying to explain the dynamic relationship humans can have with God.
The key words of the response here, however, are gennēthē anōthen, which in the KJV, RSV, and NIV have been translated as “born again/anew.” The verb rendered “born” (gennan) can be translated, as Newman and Nida have correctly indicated, either in terms of the mother word “born” or the father word “begotten.” Although most English translations have favored the “born” terminology, a growing tendency among some English commentators like Beasley-Murray and Brown is to favor the latter term. The argument supporting such a rendering seems to be that texts like 1 John 3:9 and John 1:13 seem to suggest the male side of such imagery or symbolism. From my perspective, however, there seems little convincing reason to abandon the traditional English “birth” terminology, particularly when we are becoming increasingly aware that God is not bound by human sexual distinctions. Birth terminology related to salvation in the Bible is really suprasexual just as are the parental designations for God in the Bible.
The meaning of anōthen, frequently rendered “again,” is an intriguing matter. The Greek word anōthen here is multidimensional and can mean “again” or “from above” as well as the less likely “from the beginning.” There does not seem to be an Aramaic/Hebrew term that would allow such a variety of meanings. Accordingly, there probably would be no play on the meanings of “again” and “from above” in Aramaic as it is here with the Greek anōthen. The story, however, is intriguing because it suggests a misunderstanding on the part of Nicodemus. The Johannine writer obviously found the Greek word anōthen to encapsulate this misunderstanding. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, he meant that this Pharisee should experience birth from God or birth “from above” (anōthen). That is the meaning of anōthen when it is used here and at v. 31 (see the NIV).
3:4 When Nicodemus heard Jesus’ assertion that he should have a birth experience, however, his imagination apparently went into high gear, and he interpreted Jesus’ birth statement as born “again” (anōthen). A birth other than that like his natural birth seems to have been beyond the thinking of Nicodemus. Birth for him apparently was limited to physical birth.
Some might think that there were concepts in the eschatological views of late Judaism concerning new creation terminology (e.g., Isa 65:17–66:9) or ideas of true Jews as children of God (e.g., Wis 5:5 and Pss Sol 17:30) that could have provided Nicodemus with some background for this idea. Yet the concept of birth from above was hardly one that would have been readily discussed by Jews like Nicodemus. His questioning and puzzlement at the possibility of being born when one is old or of the reentry into a mother’s womb (3:4) are quite understandable for one unfamiliar with the regeneration terminology of the New Testament age. The situation is actually not very different today among those who are from nonevangelical backgrounds where this terminology, in the past at least, was seldom used.
3:5–8 Jesus responded to Nicodemus’s twofold frustrated question by providing in 3:5 a more precise statement concerning this birth. He began once again with a double amēn statement. Then he identified this birth from above (3:4, 7) as a birth of water and Spirit. This linkage of the motifs of water and Spirit was not unknown in Israel (e.g., Ezek 36:25–27; T. Jud. 24:3; Jub. 1:23; Qs 3:6–9). Although both “water” and “Spirit” here are anarthrous (without the Greek definite article), they must not be treated as indefinite nor prefixed with an indefinite article “a.” These two words also should not be bifurcated as in some inadequate folk interpretations of the text where water is equated with the water of natural birth (either that of the sack in which the baby floats or the male fluid of the sex act). Water appears with Spirit conjunctively in 3:5, and flesh is contrasted with Spirit disjunctively in 3:6. Accordingly, water and flesh should not be equated. In this Johannine context the combination of water and Spirit represents birth from above, a picture of life (cf. 7:38–39) that involves a direct contrast to Nicodemus’s perspective on life as involving physical existence. As indicated earlier, the linkage between water and Spirit would have been familiar to the Jews since both are related to the theme of life. For a people like the Jews, who lived on the edge of the desert, water was an indispensable requirement of life (e.g., Exod 15:22–27; Pss 23:2; 42:1; 63:1), and even Christians viewed heaven as having a life-endued stream flowing from the throne of God (Rev 22:1). Concerning the life-giving Spirit, one only needs to be reminded that the breath of God brought life to Adam (Gen 2:7), and the Spirit/wind/breath of God brought life to dry bones (Ezek 37:1–14).
Excursus 2: Baptism
This dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus involving the motifs of water and the Spirit raises the question of whether or not a baptismal reference is here intended. At the outset it should be asserted that any reference to Christian baptism in an encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus would likely not have been understood by Nicodemus. On this basis many writers like Bultmann and Haenchen have argued that the words “water and” (hudatos kai) are ecclesiastical additions of a redactor. They point out that the reference to water here is the only one in the entire Nicodemus episode. But such a view is based on a conjecture concerning a stage prior to the completion of the Gospel itself. Concerning the written stage there is absolutely no textual evidence that such an addition was ever made. Arguments of this nature are generally quite subjective and usually involve circular theological logic that concludes at the point of presupposition.
Some scholars alternatively suggest that the reference may be to the baptism of John, and in support of such a view it must be recognized that the Baptizer is mentioned in 3:23. But to argue that birth here refers to the baptism of John when Jesus is on the scene and John in this chapter is portrayed as one who must decrease (3:30) seems odd indeed.
Could the text of 3:5 then possibly refer to Christian baptism? The answer is certainly not a simple one. Birth from above for John was the equivalent of salvation or eternal life. Such birth, as some scholars have noted, is in John similar to being children of God in the Synoptic Gospels (e.g., Matt 18:3; Mark 10:15). In the early church baptismal language could be used in contexts that refer to the salvation process. Examples are numerous, but a few will suffice, such as being buried and raised (e.g., Rom 6:1–11), or the putting off of the old way and the putting on of the new (e.g., Col 3:1–17), or in the commission to evangelize (e.g., Matt 28:10).
In such contexts baptism and salvation were clearly linked within the thinking of early Christians. Was the same true for John, who later in the first century was writing reflectively on the significance of the Nicodemus story for his community of believers? In trying to answer this question, we are trying to make silence speak. Yet when we remember that the purpose of the Gospel is not simply to provide a newspaper report of the life of Jesus but to direct the reader’s attention to life in Christ, such a deeper level of application may not be impossible. That the early Christian readers at least would have seen in the Nicodemus story a symbolic reference to the whole process of salvation is quite probable.
But a word of extreme caution needs to be added here lest the reader interpret the text in terms of the later doctrines of sacrament or ordinance. There is nothing of such doctrinal development here. R. Brown, a Roman Catholic, makes that fact eminently clear. Furthermore, baptism should never be discussed apart from dealing with the roles of both God (Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit) and the human being. In terms of the act of water baptism, if personal commitment is lacking and if the Spirit is not present, such baptism becomes itself an act of the flesh.
Authentic baptism is a combination of the work of the gracious acting God and the believing human. It is this combination that makes baptism a spiritual reality. It is not a mere human activity (such as the ceremony of a priest who believes that the act works automatically or the activity of a person who thinks that human confessing or witness is all that is involved). Salvation is always a matter of the interaction between God and the human being. It is this interaction that creates a tension in our Christian lives and in our theological formulations.
In John “flesh” (sarx) means “human frailty, weakness, or finiteness” (cf. Gen 6:3; Isa 31:3) and represents that which is mortal or that which has been created from the dust of the earth (cf. Job 34:14–15). It is neither to be identified with Paul’s expressions of fleshly or carnal (sarkinos, e.g., Rom 7:14) nor with his ideas of “according to the sinful nature” (kata sarka, e.g., Rom 8:4–5). In those contexts Paul was emphasizing that humanity’s tendency is to make the fleshly (or created) aspects of existence determinative for life (or substitutes for God, cf. Rom 1:22–25). In such contexts the flesh becomes identified with the bondage of sin (Rom 7:13–20).
The Spirit by contrast with human frailty represented the power of God that can invigorate or transform frail humans into powerful servants for God. The flesh of itself is unable, because of its frailty, to attain the destiny of eternal life, but the Spirit is the empowering means of life (cf. John 6:63). In the Old Testament the hope of the eschatological era was tied to the coming days of the Spirit (e.g., Joel 2:28–29; Ezek 36:26–27) and the expectation of Israel centered on the coming of the one who would embody the presence of the Spirit (e.g., Isa 61:1; cf. John 1:31–32; Luke 4:18). It is no surprise therefore to find that birth by water and Spirit is linked to one of the two uses of the “kingdom of God” in John’s Gospel (3:5). Such birth is indeed a birth from above. Neither Nicodemus nor the reader of this Gospel should marvel or be surprised at the assertion that one needs to experience this birth (3:7).
The wordplay on “wind” and “Spirit” at 3:8 is different from anōthen because it works both in Greek (pneuma) and in Hebrew (ruacḥ). This wordplay introduces a delightful little parable illustrating the nature of Christians as children of the wind or Spirit. There should be no attempt made here to counter the lack of knowledge suggested in this verse by reference to the modern science of meteorology. When the ancients thought of the wind, they could not locate either its place of origin or its final destination. But they certainly could feel and hear its force (its sound or voice = phonē).
In these characteristics of the wind there was provided to Nicodemus and to the reader of John an example of how believers in Christ appear to outsiders. First-century outside observers probably knew little of how Christians became followers of Jesus, and they understood little concerning their eschatological destinies. But what they could sense was the presence and work of these children of the Spirit in the midst of pagan and Jewish societies. What they saw and heard from the Christians who were present in their societies was telling as to how they formulated their understandings of Christianity (cf. John 13:35). Their lives were a witness to an unseen reality. Is this picture not also an appropriate word for today?
3:9–10 Nicodemus’s final question to Jesus reveals that he was stuck in an intellectual and philosophical quagmire of the flesh (earthly realities) and that his earlier lack of comprehension seems here to have deteriorated into helpless doubt. Jesus’ reply in 3:10 is an excellent example of Johannine patterns of reversal. Nicodemus, as leader (archōn, 3:1) and teacher (didaskalos, 3:10) of the Jews, had come to Jesus as a seeking “knower.” By the time Jesus asked his first question of Nicodemus (a man who was filled with questions), it became clear that Nicodemus was a confused “nonknower.” The irony in the exchange is that Nicodemus, the earthly teacher, was shown to be a poor learner of the message of Jesus, the teacher sent from God (3:2). Nicodemus was in fact one who did not know (ou ginōskeis) the core subject matter of his vocation as a Pharisee.
At this point the reader of John should be reminded of the importance of the questions Jesus asks of people. These questions are a significant feature in the Johannine repertoire of literary tools. Many of these questions come at decisive points in a story (cf. 1:50) and direct the reader to watch for important affirmations in a teaching segment (cf. 3:12). With the present question Nicodemus ceases in this story to be important to the evangelist, and the focus of attention shifts to Jesus and his personal witness. But the evangelist will return to Nicodemus and reveal his development toward believing in his quest for having a fair hearing in the Council concerning Jesus (7:50–51) and later in his willingness to provide a proper burial for Jesus after the unjust condemnation and death of Jesus (19:39–42).
(2) A Discourse on Salvation (3:11–21)
11I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
3:11–12 The third double amēn statement of this chapter (3:3, 5, 11; cf. also 1:51) introduces the first of the extended didactic sections related to Jesus in the Gospel. The overall motif of this section deals with the purpose of Jesus’ coming and with the importance of receiving or of believing in him. It is brought into focus in v. 11 by referring to speaking (laloumen) and witnessing (marturoumen), couplets that are based on knowing (oidamen) and seeing (heōroakamen). All of these verbs represent important themes in John. The statement obviously is intended to be a solemn assertion (amēn) about the nature of bearing witness and the fact that adequate testimony is rooted in personal experience.
The major problem interpreters have found with the text is the mixture of singulars (“I,” vv. 11–12; “you,” v. 11) and plurals (“we,” v. 11; “you,” v. 12). The preceding conversation is pictured as one that took place only between Jesus and Nicodemus. What then of the plural verbs? Some have sought a solution by suggesting that they are editorial plurals or plurals of majesty, but that does not greatly help the interpretation of the plural “you” (not normally evident in English). Could the plurals be the Johannine way of inserting into the conversation the concerns of the community in the continuing struggle between the church and the synagogue of his day?
Excursus 3: Nicodemus and the Quest for the Historical Jesus
It is evident that this Gospel theologically can be read at two levels of reality: the level of physical or human reality and the level of a deeper spiritual reality. The issue of the plurals here brings up another question for the interpreter: Can the reader of the Gospel also recognize the presence of a discussion at two levels historically? Those two intermingled contexts are the context at the time of Jesus and the context after the resurrection when John was writing. If the reader is able to recognize this pattern, then the Gospel can become an exceedingly vital testimony and a model of how the stories of Jesus can be applied to church situations.
The basic problem with such an approach, however, is not the Gospel itself but the way in which some scholars seek to deal with the Gospel. They try to divide the Gospel into those verses that go back to Jesus from those that go back to the early church. From my perspective that type of study is an unproductive quest for the historical Jesus. The Gospel of John is a magnificent testimony that affirms both its testimonial nature and the fact that it is deeply rooted in history (21:24). Such a testimonial work allows, I believe, no such separation between history and theology as though one could strip off the layers of the testimony and get back to some isolated core of history. Trying to strip off layers from the Gospel is like peeling an onion that really has no core. We then have to decide subjectively where to stop in the stripping process or else we inevitably come to the conclusion of a Bultmann that we can know virtually nothing about the historical Jesus.
But a similar criticism can be made of the editors of red-letter Bibles, which are devotedly carried by many Christians. When one asks readers what the red letters mean, the response is usually, “They are the words of Jesus.” But my concern is why put them in red letters? Are the red letters more significant than the rest of Scripture? Why separate them? Have they not gone through the same process of writing as the rest of Scripture? Are the red-letter words like taped television interviews? Do they contain no reflection or selection by the inspired Gospel writer? Is there no room for the continuation of the Spirit of God and human giftedness in the delivery process? These are important questions that must be answered by the reader of the Gospel texts.
These questions are brought to a focus in the third chapter of John with the movement from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and the insertion of the plurals. As we read the third chapter, we may ask: “Where does the interview with Nicodemus really end? Can one actually tell? Then we may ask: Who really was responsible for the best known verse of Scripture, John 3:16? Did Jesus actually say it? Or did John write it about Jesus? Very much as Bultmann, the editors of the red-letter Bibles try to decide which words go back to Jesus and which words do not. But all the words are directed at fulfilling John’s purpose of leading the reader to believe in Jesus and experience life.
If vv. 16–21 would be a theological confession from John about the Son of God, would they be any less authoritative than if they had been said by Jesus? I think it is time for Christians to question the use of red-letter Bibles as poor attempts at doing source criticism. The Gospel is a marvelous testimony or reflection about the meaning of the coming of Jesus that resists pedantic forms of source analysis from either the left or the right. To recognize this Gospel as a testimony is one of the most fundamental ideas in understanding inspiration and what a Gospel is all about. The Gospel is a powerful testimony God uses to bring us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (20:30–31). Our reaction should be that of gratitude and commitment to become those who do the work of God (3:21).
This story of Nicodemus thus provides a profound combination of theology and history. It calls on the reader to think theologically about the meaning of the coming of Jesus and to reflect on the implications of that coming based on divine inspiration and the church’s witness. It reminds us that Jesus conversed in terms of “earthly” (epigeia) realities because earth was the place where he came to minister (3:12). Created, earthly people were the objects of his conversation. But if earthly people like Nicodemus (and by implication the readers of the Gospel) have difficulty understanding spiritual truth in human terms (the “earthly things”—epigeia—about which Jesus was speaking), what would happen to human receptive capacities if Jesus were to have started talking about “heavenly” (epourania) realities? Humans think anthropomorphically (in human, space-time terms), but God and heaven do not fit our terminology very well. For that reason everything we can think about God is just an anthropomorphic approximation of the actual reality. To think like Jesus takes a transformation which can begin on earth by being born from above (3:3) but which will not be finally completed until we enter heaven (5:28–29; 14:3).
3:13 The next three verses provide an answer to Nicodemus’s perplexity and doubt and also expand the Christological significance of the Gospel. In the ancient world there were many tales, such as in Homer or Virgil, of humans journeying to the remote places of the world and encountering mythological figures who reputedly affected the destinies of humans. Moreover, in the late formulations of the Gnostics there are numerous mythological explanations of an alien messenger visiting the realm of the cosmos to provide knowledge for the devotees concerning their origin and to remind them that they had suffered forgetfulness through a tragic error of a subgod like Sophia, who strayed from her natural relationships and caused the creation of the mundane world in which we exist.
The descent of the Son of Man here (3:13), however, is not like the mythological journeys of the ancient Hellenistic heroes or the mythological formulations of the Gnostics. The text here is rooted in an affirmation that the heavenly realities (3:12) are being opened to humanity because the divine Son of Man descended (katabas) into history! The aorist tense is intended to enunciate an event in history quite unlike any concept of the Son of Man in Enoch (68:2–6) or aniel (7:14). The descent here obviously picks up the theme of a preexistent Son of Man in those earlier Jewish texts, but the descent and ascent of the Son of Man in John is clearly unlike anything in Jewish or Hellenistic literature. This descent of Jesus, the Son of Man, involved Jesus actually becoming human (“flesh,” sarx, John 1:14), an idea totally rejected by the later Gnostics and, although hinted at in texts like Isaiah 53, actually missed by Jewish interpreters. Indeed, it was hardly understood by Jesus’ own disciples—until after the resurrection!
This combination of ascent and descent is part of the great Christological formulation concerning Jesus, whom John knew had come to earth from heaven (ek tou ouranou), lived, died, was raised, and is once again with God in heaven. To understand about heavenly realities (epourania), therefore, the God-given means is through “no one but the one” (ei mē ho; translations like the NIV break the expression for ease of English) who has descended from heaven (3:13). For John, with his postresurrection perspective, the Christian gospel was the only way to salvation because Jesus alone descended and “has ascended” (anabebēken) to heaven. He knew the whole incarnational story when he started writing.
3:14–15 With the fact of the descent and ascent of Jesus clearly in mind, John turned to the historical reason for the coming of the Son. As I have already indicated, the theological “crux” of the Gospel is the paschal death and resurrection of Jesus. Here John employed another illustrative saying to emphasize his point concerning the death of Jesus. Verse 14 is the first of three “lifted up” (hypsoun) sayings (cf. 8:28; 12:32) that highlight the historical importance of the crucifixion in the formulation of the Johannine doctrines of Christ and Salvation. The “sign” or pole on which Moses placed the bronze snake (Num 21:8–9) served as a symbol of life to the dying, snake-bitten Israelites of the exodus. That symbol has been employed here to illustrate the lifting up of Jesus on the cross as God’s way of providing eternal life to all who believe (John 3:15).
The expression “eternal life” (zoē aiōnios), which appears seventeen times in this Gospel, is used in 3:15 for the first time. It occurs only once in the LXX (the Greek Old Testament) to render the Hebrew ḥayyê ‘ôlām (“life to the end of the age” or “life of eternity”; Dan 12:2; cf. Dan 12:7). There it is linked with the concept of resurrection and is most clearly represented in the later thought development of the Pharisees (cf. 2 Macc 12:43–44). In John the expression zoē aiōnios probably is best translated “eternal life,” stressing the qualitative feature of life as over against mere physical endless life or everlasting life. Such a rendering, however, is not meant to exclude the idea of life without end because it is also said that those who eat the bread of life “will live forever” (John 6:58).
In interpreting these verses it is well for readers not to overextend the parallels of the Pentateuchal bronze snake story with respect to Jesus. The point of the Johannine illustration is the “lifting up” of the Son of Man and the power of God in giving life to the believer. Beyond that, the stress in the text falls on the fact that Jesus was operating according to a divine imperative. He was “under necessity” (dei) to be crucified (John 3:14; cf. Mark 8:31; and edei in Luke 24:26; cf. also the use of dei concerning the resurrection in John 20:9). The life and death of Jesus was a model of the meaning of obedience, and the Father later pointedly affirmed the Son’s obedience in the voice from heaven (cf. John 12:27–28).
Some readers may be desirous of seeing in the concept of the “lifting up” of Jesus a reference to his exaltation just as some readers may wish to see in the Johannine concept of glorification a similar reference to exaltation. Of course Jesus is alive and has experienced an “ascent” to heaven (20:17). But the reader of John must not skip over the death of Jesus too quickly. This evangelist took the death of Jesus seriously because it was in the death of the Son that God revealed most clearly the loving purpose of the divinely initiated work of salvation. This fact becomes eminently clear in the subsequent verses.
3:16–18 When turning to vv. 16–18, which contains what probably is the best known verse in Christian Scripture (3:16), the reader finds one of the primary theological summaries concerning salvation in the New Testament. Yet the reader must take great care not to lose the marvelous balance in this wonderful summary. Interpreters should deal with a minimum of the three verses i am treating together because it takes at least that many verses here to obtain the correct meaning. Verse 16 serves as a statement of fact involving the agency (the Son) God used to bring salvation to the world. Verse 17 expands on God’s intention and clearly identifies God’s Purpose in sending the son. Verse 18 provides a pointed reality statement concerning the present nature of judgment, a reality no reader should fail to understand. Only when the three verses are allowed to hang together does the reader begin to grasp the full meaning of the coming of Jesus and the Johannine message of salvation expounded here.
John’s Gospel does not offer the world a superficial idea of the love of God in salvation. The verbs for “loved” (ēgapēsen) and “gave” (edōken) here express the genuine self-giving nature of God in having sent (apesteilen) his “only Son” (monogenous huiou) on an unrepeatable mission into the world (3:16; cf. 1:14, 18). The pathos of those words “only Son” should remind the interpreter of the pathos in the story of Abraham when he was told by God to take his son, his “only son Isaac,” and sacrifice him at Moriah (Gen 22:2). Christian salvation has been very costly because it cost God his Son. Therefore one does not truly enter the process of salvation unless one recognizes the incalculable cost and accepts the implications of that cost in one’s life. The “lifted up” one is God’s gift that must be received by authentic believing, which was discussed earlier (cf. at 1:10–13; 2:23–25). To come to Jesus like Nicodemus with a superficial view of who Jesus is will not result in salvation but will lead to confusion and frustration. Interpreters of Scripture must be very clear on the inestimable cost of our salvation.
John 3:16 can be read from different theological perspectives and has been a source of different doctrinal positions. The Augustinians and Calvinists will tend to emphasize the role of “God” in loving the world and in giving the Son. The Arminians will tend to stress the word “whosoever” as indicating human freedom and the human decision-making process in salvation. But this verse is in fact an excellent reflection of the wonderful tension in the Bible that must be maintained in all discussions on salvation.
The full perspective is that God is the initiator and principal actor in salvation, and we should never think that salvation originated with us (cf. 1 John 4:9–10). God, however, has given humanity a sense of freedom and requires us to make a choice. Accordingly, people are responsible for their believing. It is unproductive theological speculation, therefore, to minimize either the role of God or of humanity in the salvation process. The Bible and John 3:16 recognize the roles of both.
God’s purpose in sending (apesteilen; 3:17) his only Son (monogenē; 3:16) was not to destroy the world or humanity. God is not angry and self-centered as Marcion and the Gnostics interpreted the God of the Old Testament. God is a caring God. Loving-kindness (ḥesed) is a principal characteristic of the God of the covenant. In the New Testament God’s purpose in sending Jesus was not to condemn (krinē) but to build the bridge in reconciling sacrifice (hilasmon; cf. 1 John 4:10) for human beings. God’s goal always has been the salvation or wholeness of the world (John 3:17). The Bible will not allow the reader to blame God for the desperate plight of humanity. The sin problem is a human one that since the beginning of time has been repeated continuously (cf.Rom 5:12, 18).
God’s plan has been to reverse the human problem—namely, to provide the means by which humanity might be saved (sōthē; 3:17). Undoubtedly God’s desire is that all might be saved (e.g., Acts 17:30–31; 22:15–16; 1 Tim 2:6), but because of human freedom or choice (“whosoever,” 3:16), all of humanity does not respond in believing acceptance of the Son (e.g., John 1:11–13; Rom 1:5; 10:16; 1 Tim 4:10). As a result, the rejection of God’s love brings judgment or condemnation (John 3:17). Although many people think primarily of this Gospel in terms of the bright side of love, it has a dark side that is perhaps more threatening to the unbeliever than almost any other document in the New Testament except the Apocalypse. To overlook the dark side in John is to miss the full message of the Gospel. God’s judging (krinetai) is a negative theme that also is foundational to this Gospel and is obvious in these verses.
What makes human choice so crucial in this Gospel is the immediate nature of judgment/condemnation. Condemnation is not left to some remote future that might lull the unbeliever into a comfortable feeling that for a while one can sit on the fence of uncommitment. John makes it absolutely clear that condemnation has “already” (ēdē) taken place for the unbelievers. The idea here then is not one of a possible projected condemnation for the unbeliever but the necessity of escaping an already existing condemnation.
Such a view does not mean with existentialist interpreters that there is no future judgment in John. There is very definitely a futuristic perspective in John, particularly in 5:24–29, which expands the breadth of the message concerning the present sense of life and death. The authentic believer thus begins to deal immediately with future realities such as the threat of ultimate death and condemnation. Therefore the believer does not need to fear the death threat (5:24) because the believer’s expectation is a resurrection to life (5:29). But the unbeliever, who in the present time is under condemnation (3:17), has in the future only the prospect of a resurrection to condemnation (5:29).
Scholars who have argued that the Gospel contains only a realized eschatology and that John 5:24–29, with its futuristic perspective, is an ecclesiastical redaction have failed to understand Johannine thinking in these verses. When dealing with condemnation, the Gospel is genuinely consistent. Condemnation is a present reality that will be clearly evidenced in the future resurrection. The only way to overcome that condemnation is to believe in God’s Son and thereby experience the present reality of the kingdom of God (3:3, 5), that reality called eternal life (3:16).
3:19–21 By means of references to the theme of light and darkness previously introduced in the Prologue (1:4–8), the concluding three verses of this section expand our understanding of both those who are condemned and those who are accepted. Here the idea is expanded by the clear indication that what one does reflects who one is. Darkness, hating, and doing evil together are set against light, living by the truth, and the works done through God. The contrast between light and darkness is somewhat akin to the ethical dualism in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where a distinction is made between the sons of light and the sons of darkness (cf. 1 QS 3–4). Here those who side with the way of darkness were for John children of the devil, the prince (archōn) of the world (cf. John 8:44; 12:31).
The close connection between doing and being—namely, between practicing good or evil works and the nature of a person—is an important theological concept in John because believing is not merely a matter of mental affirmation but of life commitment. The world hated Jesus and continues to do so not merely because of some intellectual reason but because the deeds of world-oriented people are evil (John 7:7; cf. Col 1:21).
The coordination of works and faith in Jas 2:14–26, which Luther found so difficult to accept, is an integral part of New Testament thought (e.g., Eph 2:8–10; Phil 2:12–13; Heb 9:14; 2 Pet 2:8). The latter text from 2 Peter reminds us that the New Testament writers perceived the contrast between the two as rooted in the Old Testament concepts of obedience and disobedience. It also was reflected in the connected ideas of evil deeds and darkness of works at Qumran (e.g., 1 QS 2:5–7; 5:10–11; 1 QH 1:27; 6:8–9; 1 QM 15:9).
—New American Commentary