3:1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” 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.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 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 deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”

I hate to do this, but I”m going to begin this post with a rant. John 3:16 has been one of the most obnoxiously mis-quoted and misunderstood verses in the whole bible. I’ve seen it on posters and t-shirts (“JOHN 3:16” in big letters) at wrestling matches, football games and other major public events that draw a big crowd. It has been used by many Christians to argue that Jesus’ mission was to save every individual person on earth (if this were true, why aren’t all people running around with these shirts on? He is the Son of God after all).

This verse, however, must be kept in the context of the story in which John wrote it. The context of the passage is Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus (how many of you who have memorized this verse know it is in the context of this story?) and it doesn’t exactly go Nicodemus’ way. I love the way John introduces Nicodemus to us. Jesus had just kicked ass in the temple and threw out all the money changers and made a pretty bold statement about who he was. Then here comes Nicodemus, a religious leader – a guy from the other team – coming at night so he’s not seen by his teammates and he gives away the team’s strategy – they believe he is a teacher sent by God. How strange is it that Jesus’ deepest agitators (the one’s who ultimately take him down) believe that his miracles validated his person.

That is something that modern opponents of Christianity need to consider. If Christianity is just a big hoax – how did it spread? How come these religious leaders couldn’t put a lid on guys like John? Jesus was running around challenging the religious system that gave them their positions of power but they also knew that Jesus was someone sent by God. This was quite the conundrum. They couldn’t put a lid on guys like John because they weren’t quite sure what to do until it was too late.

What comes next is very important, though, and it provides the context for verse 16. Jesus says that in order to see the kingdom of God, a person must be born again. What does Jesus mean by this? Unfortunately, he doesn’t totally explain how this can happen because Nicodemus could never understand. This is one of the hard things for opponents of the gospel to understand and why arguing with people is pretty much useless – they can never understand the gospel until they believe it. Faith must precede understanding and faith can only happen when one has been born again – when one has been given the eyes to see the kingdom.

This is pretty important and pretty profound. In one breath Jesus explains that re-birth is an act of the spirit and must be spiritually discerned and that the Spirit sort of has a mind of his own – a life-giving loose cannon – who blows around like the wind giving life where ever he wants. In other words, he gives life to some but not to others.

And this is the essence of the paradox of the gospel – it has a formula while at the same time it doesn’t have a formula. Nicodemus wanted an easy formula – he wanted the simple Jesus, the formulaic Jesus, the predictable Jesus. Instead Jesus is not quite so simple, formulaic or predictable – he’s not what we expect. Perhaps what is most interesting about Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus is that Nicodemus never even asked Jesus a question. He simply stated that he knew Jesus was from God and then Jesus jumped into this statement about being born again. And yet he got right to what was on Nicodemus’ mind.

What was on his mind was a simple question, really, “How does a person discern the kingdom of God?” What Nicodemus really wants is for Jesus to validate him as a teacher of the law and to say, “you have done so much for my Father that he’s got a seat for you right beside him.” Instead, Jesus gives him this complicated answer and then puts a cherry on top by telling Nicodemus that as a teacher of the law he should have known these things. Jesus is never willing to validate someone who comes on their own merit hoping to commend themselves to him. The gospel demands that we realize we have no merit on our own and that we need the merit of another.

“How does a person discern the kingdom of God?” Jesus gives the answer to the question that was never asked – “believe in Him” (v. 14-15), but they can only believe in Jesus if they’ve received the life-giving power of the Spirit (i.e. being born again). Believing in Jesus is the requirement of eternal life, but belief in Jesus is only possible if the Spirit gives a person the eyes to see the Kingdom. What a paradox. And if you don’t believe the message, you can see why it is hard for you to understand. The gospel is spiritually discerned – Nicodemus wasn’t born again, he couldn’t understand it.

This brings us to the controversial verse – verse 16 – which in some ways is one of the most simple and concise statements of the gospel in all of Scripture. By all means, memorize this verse, but memorize it for the right reasons. Think about what it says – we deserve to perish, but because God loves us he sent Jesus to perish in our place. He had life but he gave it up so that we might have life. We all deserve condemnation (because admit it – we all love darkness and the deeds that are done in darkness), but instead he brought salvation for those who believe (or those who are born again).

No formulas just himself.