As I see it then, we have an emphasis in this chapter on the idea of believing especially in verses 14-21. Salvation comes as a gift through faith so that there is a response to the truth.
John 3:6-7, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.”
This brings us to a second illustration and it’s the idea of the wind. He’s going to be using the wind in a parallel way to speak about the work of the Spirit of God. Just as the Spirit of God births us so also the Spirit cannot be predicted or understood just like the wind. There’s a mysterious dimension to Him. John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going, so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” He connects those two images of birth and wind. As you know the word for Spirit is also the word for wind in both the Hebrew and also the Greek. There’s a double use once again of that kind of image. We see here that this picture of the mysterious process of the new birth of the Spirit is something unpredictable. Something about the behavior of the person who experiences it becomes unpredictable like the effects of the wind. They are undeniable and it moves with a power. This is telling us in a way that we’re not fully under the dominion of nature but that there is something new about us that cannot be accounted for merely on the basis of the lower. The higher can account for the lower but the lower can never account for the higher, not without reducing it down and eliminating truth.
Nicodemus is still wrestling with this issue. Again he’s trying to take it in a literal way on the physical level. Jesus is speaking about another kind of a level, a higher perspective. John 3:9, “Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?”
John 3:10, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Don’t miss the article “the”- the teacher of Israel. It assumes a very specific place for him. This is not some ordinary Rabbi. He is recognized as “the” distinguished teacher of Israel. He has an authority. That’s one of the reasons why he came by night because he doesn’t want to be caught with this controversial figure. It could compromise his position as the teacher of Israel. And yet, and here’s the thing I want to stress, that this man is willing though to break out of some darkness. That is to say, he’s willing to evaluate, consider and move into some truth. We have a person who is at least willing to wrestle with spiritual truth in this way. I want us to understand at least this man asks questions, makes inquiries and takes the risk.
I would like to mention something about verse 8 and the wind. There’s something powerful that Jesus may be alluding to as well in Ezekiel 37 where there is a valley of dry bones. Nicodemus, as the teacher of Israel, would’ve known this text. Ezekiel 37:1-5 speaks about the Spirit of the Lord who put him down in the valley full of bones and caused him to pass among them and roundabout. There were many on the surface. How could these bones live? The Lord said to prophecy over them so that they will hear the word of the Lord. And thus says the Lord God to these bones, “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life.” Do you see the imagery there? There’s already actually a hint about the word being prophesied, about the Spirit that would come upon them and about that, which is dead, coming to life.
Ezekiel 37:6, “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive, and you will know that I am the Lord.” It’s an image of decay in reverse. It’s a fascinating picture.
Ezekiel 37:7-8, “So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them.” That must’ve been a scary thing to see- you see a skeleton come together and then you see the musculature on them, then the skin covers it up- but they’re still dead. They are pictures of unanimated beings. They look like they could be alive but they’re not.
Ezekiel 37:9-10, “Then He said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God, ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they come to life.” So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and the breath come into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”
Ezekiel 37:13-14, “Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,’ declares the Lord.”
So the teacher of Israel surely must’ve read this text many times but he didn’t put it together. This is the image of an extraordinary picture and it’s also found in Ezekiel 36:25-27. This is another text speaking about God’s promise to take them from the nations- to take the scattered people who have been scattered as a consequence of their rebellion against God and be gathered from all the lands and brought into their own land. Verses 25-26. “Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Those are the kind of texts that I think Jesus was alluding to when He says in John 3-10, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things.”
There’s a part of us though and we understand, that so many texts that were concerning Jesus the disciples didn’t understand and recall until later on. Then as they reflected on it they saw that that was a prophecy of scripture. They put it together and they began to see the whole.
What, I think, Jesus is really implying here is something so radical that we could only call it the morning of a new eschatological era. Don’t you love that word? I love the word eschatological. Eschatos is just the word that means last. Logic- logos- means the study of. Eschatology simply means the study of last things. So when you put the word into and make it eschatological it means you’re looking at God’s work in the future but there’s a sense in which His future work is already becoming realized in the present tense. We’re between two ages. Right now, you and I dwell in two ages. We dwell in the present age but we also in some other way dwell in the age to come. How can that be? Because He put His Spirit within us and He’s animated us inside out there’s that in us now which is actually the stuff of the age to come. That’s already alive in us. We become now people who are participants in God’s kingdom even though the full manifestation of that kingdom awaits the future. There’s a sense in which we have one foot in this age and the other in another. It’s an anticipation of what God is going to do. So it is with the power of the Spirit of God who implants the life of Christ in us and causes us as Paul says, to be transformed and he can truly say that our dwelling place is now at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 1) That is a radical concept. I don’t’ know how often you think about yourself being there. Does this occur to you often? That’s where you really are. It’s not the stuff that we would normally meditate on and reflect upon but He says it is so and it is true.
If you are living and walking in the Spirit, you are actually manifesting the power of the age to come in the present tense. This is another word I’ll give you- proleptic. You’re living proleptically which means before the time. These aren’t bad words! These are good words and you shouldn’t be afraid of good words! You should learn these words. To live proleptically is to be a person who actually hints at the age to come. So as one person likes to put it and I like to quote it although I don’t know where he got it from (You know we have very few original thoughts in our lives. The key is to quote from the best!) It is, “The spiritual life is manifesting it so that wherever you walk you are spreading the geography, the invisible geography, of the new creation wherever you go.” You see that concept? The kingdom is there. He says as you walk you manifest the kingdom. There is a sense that even now anticipated proleptically (repetition is the mother of learning), the power of the age to come- you’re anticipating the power of the coming age. That is to walk in the Spirit and not to walk in the flesh. It is to walk now as we truly are by faith, believing what God tells us about ourselves is true even though we don’t feel that way or haven’t fully experienced that. He’s inviting us to choose to embrace that truth and to live accordingly.
I so often want to tell you that you will live out your understanding of yourself. Your understanding of your identity will be the way you live. If you see yourself as merely a person who is really in a position where they’ve got to merit favor with God and kind of win Him over and all that or if you see yourself as a worm, worm theology, you’ll live that way. You have to see yourself as something bigger than that and to see and embrace the truths about who you are. Romans 6 and 8, for example, are good to read.
Now on to John 3:11, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony.” I think the plural “we” seems to include the disciples and the plural “you” in this verse and the next verse may address the majority of the Jews who disbelieved.
John 3:12, “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things.” We see here that the religious leaders are really in the dark. They would not submit to the authority of Christ’s witness. That becomes a growing theme in John’s gospel.
Frankly and here’s another scary thing, He’ll tell them later on why one of the reasons you don’t respond to the light and my claims is because they love the praise of men more than the praise of God. That’s a frightening word. Look at John 12:43, “For they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Another powerful verse along those lines is John 5:44, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” My conviction here is that the audience to whom you play will shape your belief system. The audience you play to will actually shape your beliefs. If you want to play to the world and get the approval of men a great way to do that then is to buy into what the world teaches. It’s an easy thing for us to do.
We have to decide who are we playing to and who’s opinion are we treasuring? I promise you to treasure the truth of scripture and the authority of Christ above the authority of this world system will not make you that popular in the eyes of the world itself. There’s going to be a struggle that we’ll have. Certainly, that would be especially true in academic professions. Where for a person to confess Jesus as the Lord won’t help your academic career very well. Or if you believe for example in creation rather than just basically atheistic evolution, non-directed evolution, any hint that you may be a creationist and you won’t get past the referees in scientific journals. That’s just the nature of it.
You have to understand that if you come out and express your commitment to Christ that it can be a very real problem in the way in which you are received by the world. You have to choose whose opinion you treasure more. It will shape the way you live. You can rationalize your compromised belief if you choose to do that but who will that honor?
In Verse 12 Jesus is talking about earthly things or a human analogy, which can point to heavenly things or spiritual truths. But there are heavenly things where there is no earthly analogy. Look at Romans 5:7-8 for example of a truth that doesn’t have much of an earthly analogy where Paul says, “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” There’s no natural parallel. You won’t find people naturally and willingly die for a person that they are opposed to. You might die for your buddy, someone you love, but you won’t willingly die for a person who is your enemy, not in this world. And yet God says He sent His Son in such a way that while we were at enmity against Him, He still died for us. We have spiritual things and truths that are so high that we hardly have any analogy for them and we can hardly understand them.
John 3:13, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven; the Son of Man.” This revelation about the new birth is the gateway to the kingdom of God but it becomes a revelation about Jesus Himself that He’s the inaugurator of the kingdom of God. He’s the One seen in Daniel’s vision in chapter 7 as the Son of Man who stands before the Ancient of Days. He’s the One though who is not an apparition. He has come in the flesh. He’s come to reveal in human deeds and in human words the things that could never be discovered by human guesswork or intuition. I want to stress that we are seeing a Person who gives us a disclosure that is so beyond the capacity for human imagination or wisdom that no one could’ve made it up. That’s why it’s unique. You will not find this teaching about grace or this idea of God’s sacrificing and suffering for us anywhere else. You’ll find it here because of something that ultimately comes down from above. This is the truth that is actually revealed from above and so that there are a power and an authority but it must be responded to. A person still must make a choice.
To what extent did Paul influence John? I would say probably not much. Recall Paul came when John, Peter, and James were pillars in the church. Paul came and brought his message to them for them to verify it in Galatians 1. They affirm that the message was in fact true. But it would be a good deal more to say that Paul may have been more influenced by John than the other way around. However, their own course of ministry was different as well so they moved off in different directions. You don’t want to reduce John to Pauline thought. It’s a different witness. It’s a different understanding yet they do comport. One is not derivative from another. They are witnesses both one to another just like Peter and James. Each of them has their own unique presentation that they can make.
John 3:14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” We have this third image here of the serpent on the pole. You recall when the people were in rebellion in the wilderness, God sent serpents to bite them and it would lead to death unless they looked to the brass serpent that Moses was instructed to build and put up. When people came to see that and looked on it in faith they would be healed of their disease. Later on, we discover, many centuries later, that they kept the thing around and it became another idol that they would worship. Just as the serpent was lifted up and those looking on it in faith were healed, so the Son of Man is to be lifted up and we look to Him in faith and will not be subjected to the death penalty which is sin.
“Lifted up” again is hupsoo, it also means to be glorified and exalted. If you look at John 12:20 you’ll see that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. He uses that term speaking of His crucifixion and so He says there that He is the One who is going to be glorified. That is connected as well in Acts 2 and 5. It is a picture here that He is not just being crucified but He’s going back to the Father. This is all as it was meant to be. He must come. He must die so that He can be resurrected and that His sacrifice will have been something that now makes and leads to life and thus He returns to the Father from whom He came. It’s a portrait of His ultimate glorification.