John 3:17 (ESV) … “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Darkness, as we have seen (1:5), is an important feature in this Gospel, which promises light. In this scene a ‘ruler of the Jews’ named Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, under cover of darkness, with an enquiry. Nicodemus seems to represent those in the community who are attracted to Jesus, but as yet are not fully tuned in to who he was, and what he represents. They have not recognized him as the ‘light of the world’.
We need to remember that this Gospel comes from a situation in which there is a breakdown in relationships between Jews and Christians. Many in the Christian party have been expelled from the synagogue because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. We shall come across a number of allusions to this in the text. Such a painful situation is rather like a family row. There will be those who choose to sit on the fence, those who try to do secret deals and those who indulge in special pleading. As far as John is concerned, things have gone far enough. It is time for a decision.
This passage illustrates, in dramatic terms, the necessity for decision and commitment. Nicodemus’s flattery is probably ironic. He tries to ingratiate himself with Jesus with what may be empty words but are in fact a summary of the truth. This device often occurs in John. Jesus ignores this deviousness and gets straight to the point. The phrase ‘Truly, truly’ emphasizes the solemnity of what he has to say. ‘Unless you are born from above, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (v. 3). The prologue tells us (1:13) that those who receive the Word are ‘born of God’. In other words, an entirely new outlook is required for those who wish to see God’s Kingdom here on earth. Heaven is open for those who can see (1:51). The Word is made flesh for those who can perceive grace and truth (1:14).
Sadly, Nicodemus doesn’t get the message. He, like many in a position of authority, can only hear and see the mundane. They have only a ‘this-worldly’ view of reality. So Jesus talks further about what is required for those who wish to see and enter the Kingdom of God (vv. 5–8). In the plainest terms he distinguishes between the material and the spiritual. The ‘flesh’ represents a limited and restricted outlook. The ‘Spirit’ is about freedom and openness. Access is gained by water and spirit—a clear reference to the life-changing effects of baptism which Paul develops in Romans 5. Nicodemus’s reply, ‘How can this be?’, is reminiscent of Nathanael’s reply (1:46). Again Jesus talks in terms of a bridge between heaven an earth and about his own role in achieving this; hinting darkly at his own death in the process (vv. 14–15).
A bright beam of light is shining which will expose the truth of God as it is seen in Jesus. What is that truth? This is the question Pilate will ask, but he will have no interest in knowing the answer. The truth is the witness of Jesus to a God who offers life to those who will receive it (vv. 16–17).