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John 3:1-21: Jesus With Nicodemus
Individuals: Take time to think back about your past week. Where have you seen God work in your life or answer prayer? Write down any prayer requests you have.
Group: Open the study by sharing life updates, reviewing highs and lows of your past week, or sharing prayer requests and praises.
Icebreaker: What question about or concept in the Bible is most confusing to you?
All: Begin the study with a word of prayer, asking God to open your heart for today’s study. You can also pray for any prayer requests now, or save that for the end.
Read today’s passage: John 3:1-21.
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The 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? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
What is the context for this passage?
The encounter in today’s passage happens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has already called his disciples (John 1), and he has performed his first miracle (John 2). Even this early in his ministry, Jesus has made a commotion at the temple, driving out the people who were using the temple as a market (John 2). So you can be certain that the religious leaders knew about Jesus.
One group of religious leaders was called the Pharisees. The Pharisees held tightly to the requirements of the law in the Torah (first 5 books of the Old Testament). Some of them held positions of authority on the Sanhedrin, which was kind of like the “supreme court” for Jews. (You can read more about the Pharisees here and the Sanhedrin here.) Nicodemus, the key character in today’s story, is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council, most likely the Sanhedrin.
Read the passage again.
Explore a different version if you have one available. If you are online, here is John 3 in NIV through Bible Gateway. You can change the version by using the dropdown menu at the top right of the page.
Try to summarize the passage in your own words.
Answer these three questions about the passage:
1. What does the passage say about God?
Jesus speaks truth (vs. 3, 5, 11). Several times in this passage, Jesus begins his statement by “Very truly I tell you…”. We learned in our John 14 study that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Anything Jesus says, we can completely trust because he is the source of truth.
God is OK with people asking questions if they don’t understand (vs. 4-5). Nicodemus had so many questions for Jesus, and Jesus answered each question, even when he thought Nicodemus should already know the answer. If you are struggling with something, it’s OK to come to God with questions.
The Son of Man (Jesus) has descended from heaven and ascended into heaven (vs. 13). Jesus has been with God in heaven from the beginning of time. When he came to earth to live a perfect life and die for our sins, he came from heaven. Similarly, when he left this earth, he returned back to heaven. Other than the few years that Jesus lived on this earth, he has resided with God in heaven.
The Son of Man must be lifted up (vs. 14). In this passage, Jesus indicates the way that he would die. To be “lifted up” in this case means lifted up on a cross. Even early in his ministry, Jesus knew why he had come and what his purpose was on this earth. He never lost sight of that purpose.
God loves the world (vs. 16). Scripture clearly teaches that one of God’s primary characteristics is love. In fact, he loved his creation, including humans, so much that he sent is one and only Son into the world to pay the penalty for their sins once for all. If you are a parent, you might have a small inkling of the love that God feels for his Son. Yet to send him to die for all of humanity shows how much God loves us too.
God gave his only Son to save the world (vs. 16-17). God didn’t send his Son to the world just to show off his power to perform miracles or to walk around and interact with his creation. He sent his Son for one purpose—to save the world. Jesus’s purpose on earth was to live a perfect life, die on the cross, and bear the full penalty for all the world’s sin. Then, those who believe on Jesus’s name can have eternal life rather than eternal punishment.
God’s light exposes wickedness (vs. 20). This passage draws a clear distinction between light and dark, truth and wickedness. People who love wickedness also love the dark because it is harder to see the sinful acts they are committing. If those who are wicked ever walk in the light, they risk their evil deeds being exposed. In contrast, people who perform good acts, who live by God’s truth, will walk in God’s light because they want to see their deeds exposed.
2. What does the passage say about people?
Religious leaders who wanted to talk with Jesus had to hide what they were doing (vs. 2). The religious leaders as a whole considered Jesus an enemy. Anyone who was seen talking to Jesus and trying to learn from him, rather than confronting him, would have been seen as a traitor. Therefore, if any religious leader wanted to learn from Jesus, they had to do it in secret.
Even the religious leaders were forced to recognize that Jesus’s power came from God (vs. 2). Despite their hatred of him, the religious leaders were forced to admit that Jesus had power, and that kind of power could only come from God. Yet they still refused to believe that Jesus came from God and was God’s Son, the Messiah.
Some people have a hard time believing heavenly things (vs. 12). Many people are skeptical of anything that seems to be supernatural or that goes against what they’ve always believed about God and heaven. Even the religious leaders, who should have been well-versed in Scripture and the first to recognize the signs that Jesus was the Messiah, couldn’t see through their own beliefs to see the truth.
People tend to love darkness, wickedness, and evil and hate the light (vs. 19-20). Ever since the first sin, people are born with a sin nature and gravitate toward sin and wickedness. Because we recognize that what we are doing is wrong, we try to hide what we are doing. Darkness is really good for hiding something you don’t want someone else to see. Therefore, people who sin want to stay in the dark and avoid the light.
People who love the truth will choose to walk in God’s light (vs. 21). When people choose to believe the truth about Jesus as our Savior, their heart changes. They no longer want to stay in the darkness and hide their sins. They want to expose those sins to the light so that the sins no longer have power over them. At the same time, their good deeds will also be exposed.
3. What does the passage say about God’s plan?
God’s plan is that those who are “born again” will see the kingdom of God (vs. 3). Jesus uses the phrase “born again” to describe those who are allowed to enter the kingdom of God. We must not only go through physical birth, but we must also go through spiritual birth as one who is made new in the spirit.
God’s plan is that people must be born of the water and of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God (vs. 5-8). Jesus clearly states that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must be born of the water and of the Spirit. What does this mean? The second part of the phrase, born of the Spirit, seems clear—we must allow the Holy Spirit to come in and change us and give us new life. However, the phrase “born of the water” is a bit more tricky. Some understand this to be physical birth, when we are born as babies. Others say that this refers to baptism by water. However, neither of these would have been immediately obvious to Nicodemus in this story, and Jesus seems to indicate that Nicodemus should understand what it means to be born of the water. As a religious leader, Nicodemus would have been familiar with the Jewish teaching related to being cleansed by water, as seen in Ezekiel 36:25. This speaks to spiritual purification from sins. (To read a good review of this topic, see this article.) Therefore, to be born of the water and of the Spirit means to be cleansed from our sins and to receive new life in the Spirit.
God’s plan is that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life and will not perish or be condemned (vs. 15-18). As sinners, we face God’s eternal condemnation and an eternity separated from God. However, if we believe in Jesus, we will not be condemned because of our sins. Instead, we will receive eternal life in the presence of God.
God’s plan is that whoever does not believe in Jesus will be condemned (vs. 18). The end result for those who reject Jesus or refuse to believe in him is condemnation and eternal perishing. If we reject Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross for our sins, then we must pay the penalty for our own sins, which is death and separation from God forever.
How does the passage fit into the overarching story of the Bible?
Sometimes it’s easier to understand a passage if you have a little outside knowledge from other passages in the Bible. This section will help provide that outside perspective.
In addition to holding one of the most famous verses in the Bible (John 3:16), this passage is important because it is Jesus speaking directly about what a person must do to be saved. Jesus is the first one to use the term “born again,” which is phrasing used by Christians even today to refer to the act of being saved. Jesus talks about the importance of the Holy Spirit. He predicts his upcoming death. And most importantly, he tells us that in order to be saved, we must believe in Jesus, God’s only Son.
Jesus also talks about the struggle between light and dark. He equates wickedness with the dark and truth and God with the light. This is the key struggle that humans face: Will you choose the side of sin and darkness, or will you choose God’s side and walk in the light? Will you be condemned because of your wickedness, or will you choose eternal life by believing in Jesus? These are fundamental questions that we must ask ourselves and respond to if we want to be saved.
Individual: Answer the following questions thoughtfully for yourself.
Group: Pose these questions for discussion.
All: If you are willing to share, I’d love to hear your thoughts to these questions. Feel free to use the comment section to start a discussion about this passage.
What else strikes you about this passage?
How does the passage affect how you view God? How you view yourself?
How does this passage affect how you will live your life?
For additional study related to this topic, read Romans 8:1-11.
For Bible Essential studies, you can use my thoughts as your devotional, or you can download and use the journaling sheet to work through the passage on your own. If desired, you can then compare your thoughts to mine. Journal sheets can be downloaded and used now or later. They can be printed and filled in by hand or saved and filled out electronically. Journal sheets are available for individual or group use.
If you plan to lead a group study, a PowerPoint presentation is also available.
You can access these resources by clicking here: John 3 Resources