Commentary. In John 3:1-21, the focus shifts from the interaction of the many with Jesus to Jesus’ interaction with a single individual, Nicodemus. What follows seems to naturally divide into two parts: vv. 1-10, the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus; and vv. 11-21, a discourse by Jesus. This text is the first instance of a common Johannine pattern of a central event, in this case a dialogue, followed by a discourse that draws general theological themes out of the particular event.
The Dialogue with Nicodemus. The opening verses (vv.1-2a) present both positive and negative images of Nicodemus. On the positive side, Nicodemus, a Jewish leader (v. 1), seeks out Jesus. To seek Jesus, as noted earlier (1:38), is one of the first acts of discipleship in John. On the negative side, however, Nicodemus hides his seeking under the cloak of night (cf. the night visit of King Zedekiah and Jeremiah, Jer 37:16-21). This reference to the time of Nicodemus’s visit is neither an incidental detail nor an attempt at historical reporting. Rather, it provides a clue to the significance of this story for the Fourth Evangelist. “Night” (nyktos)is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God (9:4; 11:10; 13:30). The symbolic significance of this night visit is confirmed by 3:19-21, which condemns those who prefer darkness to light.
The dialogue is initiated by Nicodemus’s pronouncement about Jesus’ identity in v.2b, but Jesus’ response in v. 3 shifts the initiative away from Nicodemus. As the dialogue unfolds, Nicodemus’s speech is reduced to questions (vv.4, 9), while Jesus’ speeches become progressively longer, leading finally to the discourse that begins in v.11.
Nicodemus’s opening words to Jesus in v.2b contain three positive acknowledgments of Jesus’ Identity.
- First, Nicodemus calls Jesus “Rabbi,” an address that acknowledges Jesus as a teacher (cf. 1:38, 49).
- Second, Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is a “teacher who has come from God.” Although “from God” is a traditional way of speaking of religious figures as God’s emissaries (e.g., John the Baptist in 1:6), that Jesus’ origin is from God is also a crucial Christological affirmation in the Fourth Gospel (e.g., 1:1, 18; 3:31; 6:38; 7:28-29). Nicodemus’s words here are like Caiaphas’s words in 11:50: the full truth is unwittingly told.
- Third, Nicodemus speaks to Jesus in the first-person plural (“we know”). Nicodemus does not speak to Jesus simply as an individual, but as a leader of his community, who at this point has a positive view of Jesus.
While Nicodemus’s words are positive, they are however based on Jesus’ signs (v.2b). From 2:23-25, the reader knows that Jesus will not entrust himself to those whose faith is based on signs. Nicodemus’s confident assertion of who Jesus is (“we know”) is thus immediately called into question by the warrants he offers for that knowledge: Jesus’ signs. Moreover, Nicodemus assumes that he can explain what Jesus does through his preconceived categories of the possible (“no one can do these signs” v.2). This certainty about what is and is not possible with God will be challenged as the dialogue with Jesus unfolds.
What unfolds is a leader of the Jews has come to Jesus – albeit timidly – to begin a dialogue. But this is Jesus who understood human nature and so he does not respond directly to Nicodemus’s acknowledgment of him. Instead, he challenges Nicodemus with a teaching – one that directly challenges Nicodemus’ world view. It as if Jesus is saying “You want to see heaven? You think you ‘know’ what is necessary? Hardly, you must be born anōthen (more on that later).” Each of Jesus’ teachings in John 3:1-11 begins with the introductory formula “Amen, amen” (here in v. 3, later in vv.5, 11). Jesus’ teaching here combines the traditional image of the kingdom of God with a new metaphor, “to be born anōthen”.
John 2:23 for the feast of Passover: the expression is literally “ during the Passover festival in the festival many [or crowds].” The emphasis is that these things happened among the throngs of people in Jerusalem. In other words, there were many witnesses and thus the rumors would have quickly spread among the people and rapidly reached the ears of the leadership.
John 2:24 Jesus would not trust himself to them: This expression appears nowhere else in the NT.
John 3:1 ruler of the Jews: the word archōn means “ruler, prince, leader” [EDNT 1:67]and in this gospel is only said of the Pharisee and the “Jews” – terms John seems to use interchangeably. It is suggested that it will be incrementally shown that the Pharisees/Jews are historical representatives of the princes of this world (cf. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)
John 3:2 at night: Rabbis did sometimes study the Law at night, but that does not seem the primary referent in this context. More significant is the fact that elsewhere in the Gospel the word ‘night’ appears to have negative connotations. In 9:4 Jesus urges people to work in the ‘day’, for the ‘night’ is coming when no-one can work. In 11:10 he says that those who walk in the ‘night’ stumble because they have no light. In 13:30, after receiving the bread from Jesus’ hand, Judas went out into the ‘night’ to betray him. Bearing these things in mind, the statement in 3:2 that Nicodemus came ‘by night’ suggests he was in a state of spiritual darkness (or at least not in the ‘light’) when he approached Jesus
Image Credit: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus