In John 3, Jesus referenced the Old Testament to articulate the forthcoming works of God. Jesus told Nicodemus that only those born of the Spirit will enter the kingdom of God. Jesus’ statement anticipated His teaching on the Spirit in John 7:37-39; 14:15-26; and 16:5-15. After Jesus was raised, He breathed the Spirit on the apostles (John 20:22-23). Jesus also prophesied to Nicodemus that the Son of Man would be lifted up just as Moses’ snake was lifted up in the wilderness. Jesus’ statement foreshadowed His death on the cross—of which Nicodemus was an eyewitness.
(1) In John 3:5, Jesus described new birth by water and the Spirit in language Ezekiel used to describe God’s sovereign regeneration of Israel. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews and a prominent Pharisee, came to Jesus one night to inquire of Jesus’ status. Nicodemus, whom Jesus called “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10), lacked understanding about the means by which one comes into the kingdom of God. When Jesus told Nicodemus that one had to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, Nicodemus was confused. Jesus said, “Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). In Ezek 36:16-37:14, the prophet announced that the Lord would renew His jealousy for Israel and glorify Himself through them by sprinkling them with water to cleanse them from their wickedness (Ezek 36:25). The Lord also said, “I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statues and carefully observe My ordinances” (Ezek 36:27). The Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to the valley of dead bones and said that He would put His Spirit in them that they would live (Ezek 37:14). Jesus was helping Nicodemus understand his true condition. Since he was not sure about Jesus and His miraculous power, Nicodemus was not born again. Nicodemus, like his Pharisaic contemporaries, had rejected Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God on earth. Unless Nicodemus was born again, he would have no hope of understanding Jesus’ crucifixion and gift of eternal life for all who believe (John 3:14-15). Birth from above, by the cleansing of the Spirit, was Nicodemus’ only hope for assurance about the kingdom of God. John described Nicodemus’s spiritual awakening, noting that during the Feast of Tabernacles Nicodemus confronted some of the chief priests and Pharisees for not giving Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:45-52). After Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus supplied spices to embalm Jesus and assisted Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus in Joseph’s tomb (John 19:39).
(2) In John 3:14, Jesus said that He would be lifted up just as Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness and the people who looked upon it were saved from God’s wrath.
After wandering for almost forty years, Israel had migrated from Mount Sinai to an area less than forty miles south of the Dead Sea. Israel was approaching Canaan. But the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, denied Israel direct passage to the settlements on the far side of the Jordan river. There Israel became impatient because of the journey and complained against God and Moses. They longed to return to Egypt and grumbled that they were still having to eat manna (Num 21:5). The Lord responded by sending poisonous serpents among the people and many died from the snakebites (Num 21:6). When the people repented and cried out to Moses, the Lord instructed Moses to craft a snake and lift it up on a pole, saying, “When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover” (Num 21:8). Jesus told Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). What Moses offered temporarily; Jesus offered permanently.