John's Gospel, John 3:1-13
Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image: The Cleveland Museum of Art
It would not have likely surprised Nicodemus had the kingdom of God had been mainly reserved for those born as Jews. Neither would it have seemed strange to him if the Mosaic Law were made its condition. Apparently, these were common assumptions of his day. That said, the Lord gave the kingdom of God another lineage and God’s people another source of life. John 3:1-8 shows how the Lord made the work of the Spirit the answer to the Pharisee’s misapprehensions. The Holy Spirit would create a people, and that people would enter the kingdom of God. That Nicodemus and others remained confused is evident enough. In the end, he could only ask, “How can these things be?”
If all of this sounded strange to Nicodemus, it also remains a point of disagreement among some Christians. Christians are united that the Holy Spirit is central to this portion of scripture. His work of giving life to the believer—what is frequently referred to as regeneration—is highlighted here in John 3. That point, I hope, is not debated. Neither should Christians debate the efficacy of the Spirit’s power, nor his sovereignty in its use. They do, however, disagree on how to describe the intent of the Spirit’s work here. That disagreement often finds its center in verse 8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Stated simply, some are convinced that John 3:8 reflects a qualified understanding of regeneration: That some are regenerated rather than others because the salvation of those persons is first determined in an eternal decree.1This article does not address the Reformed doctrine of a divine decree, which encompasses more than election. For a summary of the Reformed position, one might read Louis Berkhof, Sytematic Theology (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1949), 102-08. This article does, however, assume that the election of individual sinners to salvation is not prescribed by the Bible’s decrees. The affirmation of that view is a teaching often referred to as irresistible grace—the idea that God’s decision to regenerate the elect is brought about by the Holy Spirit, if only because the Spirit’s sovereign decision is synonymous with the pre-existing decree. In this way, proponents of Reformed doctrine see an unbreakable relationship between predestination and irresistible grace. For them, the former necessitates the Spirit’s work to bring about the latter. John 3:8 is often cited as evidence of this doctrine.2For example, The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) cites John 3:8 in 10.3, supporting the contention that the Spirit “worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.” In isolation, that view will have few detractors, except that it is offered as proof under the confession’s section entitled, Effectual Calling, a frequent synonym for Irresistible Grace.
This article presents another view, that the easy and natural reading of John 3 does not beg the importation of the Reformed idea. Indeed, this section does require readers to account for redemptive history, but not one in which that history’s individual beneficiaries are determined from eternity. The distinction is more readily understood as one between believing and unbelieving Israelites, which found expression after the resurrection.
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First, the imagery of the text is important to understand its meaning. This point should not be underappreciated nor neglected by the reader. After all, when we consider John’s gospel from its beginning (cf. John 1:1-14), we there recognize John’s effort to associate the events of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry with the very events of creation (cf. Genesis 1). It is obvious that similar images and language appear in both Genesis and John; but rather than assume that their similarities are incidental or accidental, we should instead appreciate how language is made to serve God’s revelatory purpose in scripture.
Indeed, John writes and the Spirit moves him to write—just as he had moved Moses (2 Peter 1:21).3See a previous post, Reading Peter, Seeing God: “And the fact that we see such sustained and repeated imagery in scripture does not at all reduce scripture to the product of human imagination. In fact, when the common themes of one author reappear elsewhere in the biblical revelation, under the press of another author’s hand and style in an altogether different era, the demonstrable continuity of the Bible becomes evident. Neither author nor era defies the continuity; it highlights it. This continuity is to be comprehended as the intention and work and words of God, which is accomplished by the Spirit in a man. ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’” (2 Peter 1:21). Under the guidance of the Spirit, the writers are two, but the effect is one: By two separate portions of scripture, the Holy Spirit casts the incarnation of Jesus as the beginning of a new creation. Still, the question remains as to what this reconstitution of creation language is meant to achieve in those who read it. That question is answered by John 3.
In Genesis the life which God gives in the creation week is there preceded by the appearance of light (Genesis 1:3). All other life follows the appearance of that light. John’s gospel, then, imports this imagery as a New Testament analogy; but in the gospel, the light that shines out of darkness is the Lord Jesus himself (cf. John 1:4-5).
John’s gospel is concerned with something other than natural generation;4This is not at all to suggest that the original creation was devoid of the supernatural. his gospel rather points to that kind of life that is given by God from above to men who are already fallen in sin below—to men who remain in spiritual darkness despite natural life. To that end, John the Baptist was a witness of the Light, that all men might believe (John 1:7-9). John clearly borrows the language of Genesis. The first creation was marred by a Fall, but the incarnation of Jesus Christ signals the beginning of a new creation.
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John’s gospel brings the creation and revelatory language of Genesis to bear upon the start of a new series of events: the regeneration of believers and their inclusion in a new body, the church. It is populated by new creatures, born again from above by the Spirit. Believers become the new creatures of that new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), while unbelievers will remain unregenerate. It will be remembered that when Jesus came into the world, many of his own people did not receive him, but those that did receive him became the sons of God (John 1:11-12). This is the distinction that John 3:8 moves us to take notice.
Accordingly, John 1:11-12 is indication of something that will become very prominent in John’s gospel: There arises a differentiation among the ethnic Israelites who refuse the Light and others who believe the gospel. Those who believe the gospel after the resurrection become a remnant among the Jewish people. This is the same distinction that we find in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. In Romans 11:5, Paul writes about believing Jews, which he calls a remnant of the Israelites, according to the election of grace.
The believing Jews are thereby confirmed as a distinct remnant, because of their faith in Christ Jesus. That distinction does not deny the efficacy nor intent of the covenant promises (see Romans 11:26); but the evident distinction is very helpful in understanding the consequence of Jewish unbelief at the time of the Lord’s ministry among that people. Individual Jews—before united by Old Covenant practices—will obtain new difference and distinction based upon their faith in Jesus Christ.
John 15:1-8 is probably another example of this distinction. This portion of scripture famously speaks of the Lord Jesus as the true vine. It is frequently and erroneously relegated to Christian devotional uses about the believer’s sanctification (i.e., subjective musings on what it means to abide in Christ); but evidently, it is actually intended to contrast those who are and those who are not properly associated with the true vine—Jesus Christ himself (John 15:5). To that point, those who are not joined unto the vine will perish in the fire (see John 15:6). Again, the best way to understand this passage is by recalling the same distinction between believing and unbelieving Jews, as the time of the crucifixion then drew near. It is a distinction between the believing remnant, which would be incorporated into Christ’s body, and those hoping in Moses, who would meet their fate as unbelievers.
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The fact of this distinction helps us to understand what transpires in John 3:1-8. The distinction between two kinds of Israelites—believing and unbelieving—is the focus of the text, rather than one created by a decree in eternity. The doctrine of Irresistible Grace is not comprehended here.
In chapter three John employs the same figurative language that he does in chapter one. Here, too, Light is made to shine into darkness. The narrative is so plain as to move the reader to this sense: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He wanders in darkness; and yet, as he approaches the place of their rendezvous, there he sees Jesus in the darkness, shining as the light of the world. Jesus is again confirmed as the Light. It is Genesis 1, again revisited in John’s gospel. It is at this very point that the language of creation is joined to the proclamation of the kingdom of God. There, too, metaphors are extended to the reader. Jesus tells Nicodemus that, except a man is born again, he cannot see that kingdom (John 3:3).
What does this mean? Clearly enough, Nicodemus and the Pharisees had taken notice of Jesus’ miracles. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to speak to him because they had all seen the miracles. Some of the Pharisees were, accordingly, even ready to say that Jesus was a teacher, sent by God (1:2). What Nicodemus could not understand, however, is how these evident, visible miracles related to the kind of kingdom that would come.
Herein we recognize another important contrast in scripture, one between things that are revealed and things that are hidden. Nicodemus and the Pharisee could see the miracles that Jesus performed, but Jesus then says that Nicodemus cannot see the kingdom of God. This is very simple, but I think the key to the passage: The language here forces us to consider that the intended, interpretative contrast is to what the Pharisees could see naturally when Jesus performed miracles, and what they could not see—the kingdom of God, created by the Spirit. That apprehension and entrance would require a new birth, effected by the Spirit (cf. John 3:3).
Presumably, Nicodemus would have associated the miracles with an outward, apparent kingdom, but the Lord confirms to him that the kingdom of God was hidden to the natural senses. It could not be observed by the eye, in the same way that the miracles can be seen (cf. Luke 17:20). Again, this is the important distinction, and brings to the fore the contrasts evident in John 1:11-12. Not all of ethnic Israel would enter the kingdom; only believers in Jesus would be regenerated and become incorporated into Christ’s body, the church.
Accordingly, John 3:8 does not refer to the Spirit’s mysterious work to regenerate those individuals whom God has elected from eternity; but it refers to the Spirit’s work to regenerate a remnant of the Jews who believe on the Savior in time. Those believers are born by the Spirit, living among others who are merely born of the flesh. They are outwardly indecipherable from their Jewish brothers; and yet, they are regenerated by the Spirit, by a course unperceived by men’s senses. Nicodemus would have been able to see Jesus’ miracles, but the work of the Spirit would proceed in a hidden way. Or, to recall the very words of John 3:8, Nicodemus would have been able to hear the sound of the wind, but not easily trace the people of God’s kingdom (John 3:8).
Notes & References
|↑1||This article does not address the Reformed doctrine of a divine decree, which encompasses more than election. For a summary of the Reformed position, one might read Louis Berkhof, Sytematic Theology (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1949), 102-08. This article does, however, assume that the election of individual sinners to salvation is not prescribed by the Bible’s decrees.|
|↑2||For example, The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) cites John 3:8 in 10.3, supporting the contention that the Spirit “worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.” In isolation, that view will have few detractors, except that it is offered as proof under the confession’s section entitled, Effectual Calling, a frequent synonym for Irresistible Grace.|
|↑3||See a previous post, Reading Peter, Seeing God: “And the fact that we see such sustained and repeated imagery in scripture does not at all reduce scripture to the product of human imagination. In fact, when the common themes of one author reappear elsewhere in the biblical revelation, under the press of another author’s hand and style in an altogether different era, the demonstrable continuity of the Bible becomes evident. Neither author nor era defies the continuity; it highlights it. This continuity is to be comprehended as the intention and work and words of God, which is accomplished by the Spirit in a man. ‘For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.’” (2 Peter 1:21).|
|↑4||This is not at all to suggest that the original creation was devoid of the supernatural.|