Chapter three contains the first, and possibly the most famous, of several personal conversations Jesus had that were recorded by John. Many people have speculated that Nicodemus approached Jesus at night because he was afraid of the other Pharisees or other people, but the text does not offer that picture. In fact, Nicodemus himself admitted, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (John 3:2). His position as “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10) possibly required that he “vet” up-and-coming rabbis who did not come through the official channels, in order to verify their teachings. Since every rabbi had a particular “yoke” or set of teachings that he placed on his followers so they could enter “the kingdom of God” (John 3:3; see Matthew 11:28-30), it would have been natural for Nicodemus to try to determine what Jesus was teaching.
Jesus, of course, had a spiritual message rather than a religious, works-based one. “Born again” can legitimately be translated “born from above,” making it a play on words. Nicodemus heard “born again” and thought biology, whereas Jesus meant “born from above” by the Spirit (John 3:4-8). Because the Hebrew Scriptures had already taught this truth (Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-27), this should not have been news to Nicodemus, and Jesus chided him for not understanding it. He followed it with a reference to Moses and the bronze serpent which prophesied the method of salvation (Numbers 21:4-9).
There is a debate over whether Jesus’ words stop at verse 15 or whether they continue through verse 21. It seems that the dialogue ends with John 3:15, at which point John wrote an explanation of Jesus’ meaning in John 3:13-15. There are at least three reasons to take this approach. First, the “for” at the beginning of John 3:16 is explanatory and does not require that it continues the dialogue. Second, it would be uncharacteristic for Jesus to switch from “Son of Man” (twice in John 3:13-14) to “Son of God” (three times in John 3:16-21), without some kind of transition. However, since the purpose of the book was to present Jesus as the Son of God, and John has already done so multiple times, it is a fitting follow-up to Jesus’ own words. Third, the topic changes rapidly between verses 15 and 16, and there is no other example of this in Jesus’ interactions in John. Rather, John explained that Jesus was indeed “lifted up” for the purpose of making salvation available to the whole world but effective only for those who believe. This will be the sole determining factor in a person’s eternal judgment and the basis for how a person lives in this life.
The chapter concludes with a “territorial dispute” between Jesus’ disciples and those of John the Baptizer (John 3:22-30). John’s disciples had become incensed that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people than they were. John quickly and carefully reminded them that his whole mission was to point people to Jesus, as he had often told them, humbly stating, “He must become more important while I become less important” (John 3:30). The writer, then, summarized again the practical doctrine leading to the Baptizer’s conclusion that all believers should embrace (John 3:31-36).