Believing in Jesus’ name is a reiterated point from the book’s opening (1:12–13; 2:23; cf. 1 John 3:23; 5:13). The name, Jesus the Christ, literally means God Saves, The Anointed. Paul often referred to him as Christ Jesus (The Anointed Jesus). “Christ” is a title more so than a name. Later, Jesus prays for protection in the name God gave him (John 17:11-12). Simply put, to believe in the name of Jesus is to believe that the one and only God saves through him (cf. Acts 3:16; 4:12). A key theme in John’s gospel is that Jesus is God (1:1–2, 14). Here again, an attribute of God is applied to Jesus (2:24) because only God knows the mind and hearts of men.
The result of the signs Jesus did (2:23) was drawing the attention of an influential Jewish leader. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews (3:1). Corroborating evidence demonstrates that the name was common in Palestine at this time. Despite Pharisees often appearing as opponents of Jesus, Nicodemus and a few others were more amenable to him. Coming to Jesus at night has caused a lot of speculation. Maybe he wanted a private audience or was afraid to be seen with him. We don’t know, and we’re not told. Nicodemus addresses Jesus very respectfully and cannot deny the signs he has performed. Still, it would appear he is approaching Jesus on behalf of some group (“we” in v. 2). When Jesus replies, he uses the plural “you” in verses 7 and 11–12.
Jesus’ answer isn’t altogether best translated in English Bibles. It should say “born from above” or “born anew” rather than “born again.” Jesus is pointing to a heavenly birth, but Nicodemus envisions only the natural birth a mother gives to a child. Being born of water and Spirit entails baptism (1 Cor. 6:11; 12:13; Titus 3:5). This particular passage is the most quoted baptismal passage from second-century Christian literature. Plus, baptism has occupied portions of chapter 1 (vv. 24–34), and the Spirit is mentioned in conjunction with baptism at Christ’s immersion by John. The contrast between natural and spiritual birth has already been highlighted in 1:12–13.
The conversion language is taken from Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit work to cleanse the heart and achieve inner transformation. Gentile converts to Judaism were regarded as newborn children. “And the legal status of a convert who just converted is like that of a child just born” (b. Yebam. 22a). “A convert who just converted is like a child just born” (b. Yebam. 48b). Here we have the connection between conversion and infancy in Jewish law. The spirit associated with water in Ezekiel 36 was symbolized as the wind in Ezekiel 37.
Nicodemus, an established and recognizable teacher, fails to understand. The earthly things are water and wind, and the heavenly things are rebirth from above by the Spirit. Therefore, heaven can only give divine wisdom—the Spirit (1:32–33), angels (1:51), and the Son of Man (3:13). Yet it’s the Son of Man who will be lifted, as the serpent in the wilderness, so that all who believe may have eternal life (cf. 1:4). Each time you see “believe” or one of its cognates, think “faith,” or “trust” as I much prefer. It’s the same term translated as faith used here as belief.
The most famous verse of Scripture, John 3:16, appears to begin John’s reflection on the interview, given the past tenses from there till verse 21. We can’t trust the words in red but must rely on the grammar. When we read the first few words, “For God so loved the world,” we often think this is how much he loved the world. Yet, the tense doesn’t suggest the extent to which he loved the world but how he loved the world. It would be better to think, “God loved the world this way: He gave his only son.” The fact that God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world should make us pause in how we present the good news. Instead, it’s often presented as a threat: God loves you, so you’d better obey or burn in hell. I much prefer that Jesus came to rescue us from the consequence of our own decisions, and if we accept his rescue, we don’t have to face those consequences.