Exegetical Notes -- John 3.1-17



A. Comparison of texts:

v. 2 - miracles (KJV)

- signs (NRSV, NJB)

v. 3, 7 -- born again (KJV)

- born from above (NRSV, NJB)

v. 8 -- where it listeh (KJV)

- where it pleases (NJB)

- where it chooses (NRSV)

v. 10 -- master (KJV)

- teacher (NRSV, NJB)

v. 11 -- testify what we have seen, and ye receive not our witness (KJV)

- witness only to what we have seen, and yet you people reject our evidence (NJB)

- testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony (NRSV)

v. 16 -- only begotten son (KJV); only son (NRSV, NJB)

- everlasting life (KJV); eternal life (NRSV, NJB)

B. Greek criticism: v. 3: anothen can mean both ""again"" and
from above"" v. 5: Codex Bezae and some other Western texts read ""kingdom of heaven;"" v. 7 -- ""do not be astonished that I said to you (singular), you (plural) must be born from above;"" v. 8: pneuma along with its Hebrew counterpart rûûah means both ""wind"" and ""spirit""

v. 11: lalein -- ""to speak;"" in classical Greek it meant ""chatter;"" in LXX it was used for words of the prophets; v. 13: some ancient texts add at the end of the sentence, ""who is in heaven'' (the Latin and some Syriac versions); v. 15: en auto is the best reading (P75, Vaticanus) of ""in him"" regarding to ""believe"" instead of eis autov; v. 16: apollynai -- characteristic of Johannine texts, occurs ten times, and has two meanings: 1.) to be lost; 2.) to perish, be destroyed.

C. Rough Translation: 1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, 2 who came to him at night. ""Rabbi,"" he said to Jesus, ""we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for, unless God is with him, no one can perform the signs that you perform."" 3 Jesus gave him this answer: ""I solemnly assure you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."" 4 ""How can a man be born again once he is an old man?"" answered Nicodemus, ""Can he re-enter his mother''s belly and be born all over again?"" 5 Jesus replied, ""I solemnly assure you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being begotten of water and spirit. 6 Flesh begets flesh, and spirit begets spirit. 7 Do not be surprised that I told you: you must all be begotten from above. 8 The wind blows about at will; you hear the sound it makes but do not where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone begotten of the spirit."" 9 Nicodemus replied, ""How can things like this happen?"" 10 Jesus answered, ""You hold the office of teacher of Israel, and still you don''t understand these things?"" 11 I solemnly assure you, we are talking about what we know, and we are testifying to what we have seen; but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If you do not believe when I tell you earthly things, how are you going to believe when I tell you about heavenly things? 13 Now, no one has gone into heaven except the one who came down from heaven -- the son of man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal. 17 For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.


A. Genre: John''s gospel differs from the synoptics, but he retains certain like elements. This discourse with Nicodemus has led some to think that this pericope was either an addition made by John, or later redactions to the texts. To begin with, its chronology seems out of place. An encounter that alluded to Jesus'' working signs in Jerusalem needs to be much later after such signs have been described (though 2.23 seems to refute this argument granted that it is mentioned but not described). And the seemingly baptismal language in v. 5 has led some scholars to suggest ""that this whole exposéé would appear more natural on the lips of a Christian catechist long after the Church''s foundation than on Jesus'' lips as his opening words of the ministry."" (Brown) This leads to several questions and observations.

B. Personal interaction/questions & observations: Why did Nicodemus come at night? Was it merely a fear of being seen? Do the images of birth allude to a re-generation or a new way of receiving an old idea (i.e., the spirit)? It seems that John continues to deal with dualisms -- both in Greek and Gnostic thought -- in his language (water & spirit, flesh & spirit, etc.). Perhaps this language is John''s way of talking about old things in a new way. This would explain the sarcasm of Jesus'' statement to Nicodemus in v. 10. Pertaining to the baptismal language, some preachers continue to make that connection. Are they making a connection that is not necessarily found in the text, and if so, is this a valid leap?

C. Organization: Verses 2-8 introduces how one enters the kingdom of God: being born of the spirit, not natural birth alone. John unpacks this by a series of questions and answers between Nicodemus and Jesus: a.) vv. 2-3 -- the introduction of the statement -- ""you must be born from above. b.) vv. 4-8: another question and answer -- explain by using the wind/spirit analogy. Verses 9-21 then tells how this new birth is made possible -- only by the son being lifted up for the believers. The third question then ties together this whole question. But the problem is the shift that seems to be present and has thus led some to think that two authors were present. The first introducing the questions and the second answering the questions at a later time.


A. Immediate context: This pericope lies after the cleansing of the temple and before the encounter with John the baptizer.

B. Organization and composition of the whole: However this pericope was compiled, it reveals an encounter with one who was seeking Jesus, and thus we conclude, seeking faith. This pericope deals with how one ""sees"" faith, experiences the new birth, and how it is Jesus who affects both for the believer.

C. Authorship issues: This pericope is consistent with John''s theme of revealing Jesus as the son of God. It is not merely another proclamation as with other leaders of religion and Jewish antiquity. Rather John presents a son whose source if from God; he was not just sent by God, but he came from the being of God.


A. Primitive Christianity: Though the story is unique to John''s gospel, the heart of the discourse was one known by Pharisees, Scribes, and Essenes. John has Nicodemus appear in two other places in the Gospel (7.50 & 19.39). He is seen in the same light each time: one who seems to be on the verge of grasping faith in Jesus, but not quite achieving it fully. Conversely some might view him as one who indeed embraced the Christ and was in the inner circle of followers.

B. Old Testament & Judaism: The connection with Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness is made with Jesus being lifted up.

C. Hellenistic world: John seems to be speaking to some themes known in that world. The dualisms of spirit/flesh and natural birth/spiritual birth may were known by both Greek and Gnostic thought.


A. Salient features: John is presenting a story of one who is seeking faith, but in the wrong way. Nicodemus is wanting a ""sign faith"" based on what he''s seen and witnessed. Yet, he misses the point when Jesus reveals spiritual matters rather literal, physical matters. The play on words are key to understanding: natural birth and spiritual birth, wind and spirit, lifted up and allusions to the cross. In this way, John places the emphasis on faith in things in the spiritual realm. The acceptance of this is what makes salvation possible.

B. Smooth translation: A theology professor at the nearby seminary came to Jesus for a late night preceptorial, and asked, ""Rabbi, we know that your credentials are in order, because no one could do the things you''ve done unless you were God-led."" Jesus answered, ""To be sure, no one can see the kingdom of God unless you experience birth again."" What? How can a person enter again into his mother''s womb again? Look how old I am! This is not possible!"" Nicodemus answered. Jesus replied, ""To be sure, no one can enter the kingdom of God without experiencing life of water and spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to spirit. Don''t be shocked when I tell you: you must experience birth again. It''s like wind. It blows wherever it wants; you hear the sound it makes but can''t tell where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit."" Nicodemus said, ""What are you talking about?"" Jesus answered, ""You are a tenured professor of Jewish theology, and you still don''t know what I''m talking about? Listen, we''re talking about what we know, and we are testifying to what we''ve seen; but you guys just won''t listen. You don''t see it! If you miss it with simple, earthy illustrations, how do you expect to get it when I start using spiritual metaphors? No one has gone into heaven except the one who came down from heaven -- the son of man. And just as Moses lifted up the brass snake in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Yes, God really loved the cosmos that much, that he sent his son so that everyone may be delivered from death by believing in him. God didn''t send his son to condemn the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him.

C. Hermeneutical bridge: This text reveals John''s perspective of faith. It''s not a faith in signs or miracles. It''s not a faith based on the ritualistic laws that required adherents to ""do something."" For John, faith in God as revealed in Christ is a gift. All one has to do is accept it; nothing else is required. This does not encompass all of the salvific experience of Christians, but it represents a Johannine perspective of sola fide as the basis for the Christian experience.