This is the second of five reflections on John’s gospel. John featured Jesus’ purpose to invite people to “believe” and have eternal life (John 20:31). In this post we look at the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 2:23 to 3:36.
Verse 2:23—“many believed in his [Jesus’] name”—seems a hopeful start but, “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them.” In the Greek text the word, “believe”—pisteuo—is used twice, but a negative adverb—ouk—before the second “believe” reverses its meaning: Jesus “did not entrust himself.” A literal reading is, “many believed…but Jesus didn’t believe in their belief.” Why not? Because “he knew what was in man.” Something in their belief wasn’t working!
A clue is present in the pairing of “believe” and “signs.” The men believed “when they saw the signs that he was doing.” Jesus offered a “sign”—a miracle—in the wedding-wine-making of 2:7-11. And this became a lid instead of a lead for them. What Jesus came to earth to address was vastly larger than changing water into wine. It was human hearts he meant to change.
A second reference to “signs” and “man” is the next stage of the account. Nicodemus was a case study. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” [3:1]. And Nicodemus, an alert religious leader, realized the signs linked Jesus to God, “for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” [v.2]. True, of course, but inadequate. Nicodemus, like the others, saw Jesus as a divinely-enabled miracle worker.
Jesus, however, called for more. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” [v3]. The broken feature, shared by all the men including Nicodemus, was exposed when Jesus called for Nicodemus to be “born again.” Nicodemus, we realize, was Spiritless—a man who was physically alive but spiritually dead. And the miracle he needed was greater than a water-to-wine sign. He needed God to revive him in a Trinity-defined awakening.
Let’s chase the problem-and-cure symmetry here. The problem of “dead” versus “not dead” began with the fall in Eden—where “man” went wrong. In Genesis chapter three God told Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit lest he die. Then Satan denied God’s word, claiming they would “not die.” Jesus certainly had this debate in mind as he set out the basis for belief. Satan boldly opposed God’s word, and faith looks to God’s word as wholly and solely true.
Satan, of course, lied. He, as an unholy spirit, knew he might be able to usurp the Holy Spirit’s place by offering a false claim. And it worked. Adam responded and died in the moment he ate the forbidden fruit. How? By grieving and driving away the Spirit of life in him. So, Nicodemus, many centuries later, was still on the wrong side of Adam’s response to God. And Jesus was not prepared to team up with spiritually dead men—men, like Nicodemus, who still live by the serpent’s deceptive aim in Eden to “be like God.”
The nub of the debate is that human physical life can exist without God’s life—without the Spiritual communion and life God initially shared with Adam. And it’s only in this union, by the Spirit who is life, that a person is both physically and spiritually able to engage Jesus.
Can we really make this link between John 3 and Genesis 3? Yes. It’s crucial. Spiritual death is the ultimate human problem—“original sin.” And in the atonement God sent the Son to swallow death by becoming sin for us, something we find in the narrative. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the episode in Numbers 21:9 where Moses was instructed by God to make a model of a snake on a pole to rescue snakebit, dying Israelites. Jesus identified himself with that model: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” [Jn 3:14-16]. The punchline for the dying Israelites was, “look” at the snake-on-the-pole “and live.”
The implicit link between Jesus and the speared serpent on the pole is Genesis 3:15, where God promised Satan’s defeat by the woman’s “seed”—as fulfilled in Jesus. Nicodemus was “the teacher of Israel”—the title Jesus used in 3:10–offering educational leadership in the Jewish Sanhedrin. This suggests he should have caught Jesus’ point, that the “Son of Man” was coming to defeat death by becoming death for all who were ready to “look and live.” Jesus, who had no sin, became sin. And in his divinity he was able to swallow death for all who believe.
Nicodemus missed all this—and it would take Paul to make the exchange clear in Galatians 3. So, John 3 offers at least two points. The first is that Jesus is more than a mere miracle worker. Second, Jesus’ call to believe is framed by the full Bible narrative. Satan, the liar, captured Adam in Eden by normalizing life-in-the-flesh: a physical life without the Holy Spirit. So, Jesus was sent by the Father “from above” to invite men to what Adam despised: total trust in God’s word. All this because God so loved the world that he was willing to send his Son to die.
In his exchange with Nicodemus Jesus set out the basis for proper belief. It requires a full confidence in God’s word. Yet here we also notice an underlying problem in 3:19. “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.” Misguided love was the motivational problem, and sound love is the solution.
As we continue in John we will get to see how life and love are united by the Spirit in a belief that brings eternal life. Let’s keep reading!