1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Ioudaioi.
Nicodemus is named here as ruler of the Ioudaioi. While we cannot know this for sure, it is probable that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, whose limited authority was sanctioned by the Roman government. It is obvious that Nicodemus had an uneasy connection with the Ioudaioi. On the one hand, he was an integral part of it; on the other, he was afraid and pressured by it. As such, he often felt he did not belong. For example, we see that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. In John 7:50-52 we read that when Nicodemus raised doubts about the legitimacy of Jesus’ arrest, he was immediately questioned concerning his loyalty: Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our Torah judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee too?’
Nicodemus’ final appearance, this time with Joseph of Arimathea, can be found in John 19:38-40:
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Ioudaioi, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Ioudaioi.
The meaning of the name Nicodemus, in Koine Judeo-Greek, the language in which this Gospel was written, is “conqueror of the people.” A reader of the Bible in its English translation must reimagine how a Greek speaker would have heard these texts. This “Conqueror of the People” (Nicodemus) was consistently afraid of the Ioudaioi – a closed network of people of which he was an honored member as long as he complied with the agenda and abided by the group’s rules.
2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus addresses Jesus using the respectful term “Rabbi,” (Ῥαββί), which acknowledges that, despite the acrimony towards him, Jesus was still someone important, even for a powerful member of the Jerusalem ruling elite. The term “we know” most likely refers to a group of leaders inside the Sanhedrin who thought Jesus was indeed a very positive figure. Although there may have been other reasons for doing so, it is likely that the reason Nicodemus came to Jesus at night was to avoid being seen and questioned about him by others within the Ioudaioi system.
3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Ancient Judaism celebrated several rituals which marked the stages of the Jewish life cycle, beginning with birth and circumcision (Gen 17:10-14; Josephus, Ant. 1.10.5), continuing on to ordination and various levels of Jewish leadership, and culminating in the death of that individual at a ripe age. Nicodemus was in his final stage of such a life cycle (ripe age and high-level Jewish leadership status) when Jesus surprised him with his statement that “you must be born again.” Later in the story, Jesus respectfully challenges Nicodemus’ affiliation with the Ioudaioi by saying: Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? (Jn. 3:10)
In verse 8 we read that Jesus explained to Nicodemus that God’s Spirit is an unbridled personal cosmic force that submits to the leadership of God alone. This personal cosmic force brings about the new birth that allows someone to be counted among those belonging to the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ rhetorical question to Nicodemus was also a challenge to the authority of the Ioudaioi of which Nicodemus, at least for the time being, was still a part. Throughout the Gospel we see that the Ioudaioi show themselves to be clueless and insensitive to the things of the Spirit. It is no wonder that Nicodemus, the best and most spiritually aware of them, does not know what the One sent by God has in mind.
On one hand, this challenge showed the Jerusalem leaders in a negative light, while at the same time it was meant to provoke an appropriate question in the mind of the Samaritan and other Israelite readers: “What if my sages/leaders are also just as blinded and spiritually incapable as the leadership of Jerusalem?” The story was a Judean self-critique that was meant to provoke Samaritan Israelites, among others, to challenge their own authorities and to seriously consider pledging their allegiance to Jesus. The main challenger to the current Judean and Samaritan leadership structures was talking with Nicodemus at night. His name was Jesus. He was the Son of the Living God.
12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
Jesus continued his conversation with Nicodemus around the familiar theme of the Son of Man. This was a well-known concept at the time of Jesus. For example, the Book of Enoch speaks about a divine eschatological figure: the Son of Man. We read:
And in that place I saw the fountain of righteousness which was inexhaustible: and around it were many fountains of wisdom; and all the thirsty drank of them, and were filled with wisdom, fountains of wisdom… And at that hour that Son of Man was named in the presence of the Lord of Spirits, and his name before the Head of Days. Yea, before the sun and the signs were created, before the stars of the heaven were made, His name was named before the Lord of Spirits. He shall be a staff to the righteous whereon to stay themselves and not fall, and he shall be the light of the Gentiles… All who dwell on earth shall fall down and worship before him, and will praise and bless and celebrate with song the Lord of Spirits. And for this reason hath he been chosen and hidden before Him, before the creation of the world and for evermore.” (1 Enoch 48) “… and from henceforth there shall be nothing corruptible; for that Son of Man has appeared, and has seated himself on the throne of his glory, and all evil shall pass away before his face, and the word of that Son of Man shall go forth and be strong before the Lord of Spirits. (1 Enoch 69)
This Enochite Jewish tradition is of course working very closely with texts like Daniel 7:13-14:
I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.
It is based on this passage in Daniel that Jesus told Nicodemus no one could go up to heaven if he had not first come down from heaven (3:13). Jesus then predicted that the Son of Man would also be lifted up (3:14) just as the bronze serpent was raised up by Moses (Num. 21) when the Israelites were dying in the desert. Before we continue, let’s stop and think about this analogy. We almost automatically connect the pole and the serpent with the wooden cross where Jesus was crucified. We do so mostly because, in many pictorial presentations, Christian artists have painted Moses holding up the cross with the bronze serpent pictured on it. However, does the “lifted up” refer only to Jesus’ crucifixion? We must remember that Jesus said this to Nicodemus before the crucifixion took place, not after.
What is important at this moment is that we also continue to reimagine Jesus talking to Nicodemus in 3:16-21 in the famous “for-God-so-loved-the-world” text. Why is this important? Because normally, our reading ends with verse 15 and we think of verse 16 as the beginning of a new section with new ideas. I would like to suggest that such a division is arbitrary and problematic. If read separately, these words are no longer the words of Jesus, but rather a theological commentary by the author of the Gospel on the preceding words of Jesus. While possible, nothing in the text necessitates such a conclusion.
The most natural reading of the text is to see it being fully continuous with the previous words of Jesus to Nicodemus. It is Jesus who continues to speak to Nicodemus with the words: “for God so loved the world.” If this is correct, then what Jesus tells Nicodemus does not refer primarily to the future event of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, but to Israel’s God’s appointment of Jesus to rule over Israel.
I fully realize that Jesus’ death on the cross is very important to John and in another sense it would become part of what “God gave,” however, since Jesus’ death has not yet taken place, Nicodemus could not be expected to understand it the way we do. It is much more likely that Nicodemus would have understood “the lifting up” as the ascension of Jesus as the Son of Man according to Daniel’s night visions. This is why this section directly follows the discussion about the Son of Man who comes down in order to go up. (Jn. 3:13 and Dan. 7:13-14) On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus was not also preparing Nicodemus for another intermediary “lifting up” – the kind that the enemies of Israel’s God did to Jesus on Calvary’s cross. In the Torah, looking up at the bronze serpent on the pole destroyed the venom of the serpent’s bite and brought life to the people of Israel. Likewise, Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross also speaks of judgment and victory over the “venom of the serpent’s bite.” The ascension is a glorious picture of victory over the enemies of God and his Israel, but one must first look to the Cross where Jesus, the King of All Israel, is first lifted up. When Nicodemus saw the Son of Man crucified/lifted up, he must have recalled Jesus’ words, and yes, also by faith understood that his ascension was soon coming. At the time, Jesus’ statement sounded strange and disconnected. After the crucifixion, one imagines that Nicodemus waited quietly to see the fulfilment of what he believed Jesus had said.
The above discussion brings Psalm 2 to our minds. There we read:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’ Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
In a surprising twist, the unworthy shepherds of Israel, whom Jesus had come to judge, have joined the nations raging against the Covenant Lord of Israel and the God-appointed King. It is they who have raised their voices and fists against the Lord and His Anointed One, Jesus. Yet, the royal decree appointing and installing Jesus as the King over Israel has made things clear: They must honor God’s royal Son or perish in their ways. (Jn. 3:18-21)
 Cf. 2 Sam 7:12-14.