Chapter 3 of John’s gospel is a discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, identified as a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus by night. It’s possible that Nicodemus is simply being prudent in coming to Jesus after hours so that he can talk to him without the distraction of the crowds. It is more likely that Nicodemus comes by night for fear of the Jews. Driven to curiosity in Jesus by the signs that he performs, Nicodemus nevertheless does not wish his reputation tarnished by associating with Jesus. That he comes by night is perhaps important that in John the darkness does not comprehend the light which was coming into the world. (John 1:5, 9).
Jesus’ first statement to Nicodemus seems to be an abrupt change in direction, given the first quasi-confession of Nicodemus in verse 2. Jesus gets right to the point. “Amen, Amen I say to you, unless one is born from above he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). Apparently Nicodemus forsook the baptism of John, who was preaching and baptizing at Bethany across the Jordan (John 1:19-28). Common translations render the Greek word anothen as “again” but “from above” is probably more the meaning. Clearly Nicodemus understood it the first way from his question about re-entering his mother’s womb. Jesus indicates here a birth which comes from above, but which is also a second birth, a birth by water and the Spirit (John 3:5).
This language concerning birth in reference to salvation is first introduced by the evangelist in chapter one “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13 ESV). Spiritual birth is thus unilaterally the work of God, and Jesus ties this work of God to the birth of water and the Spirit – Holy Baptism. In the first chapter of Genesis we hear how the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at creation, a theme picked up by Paul when he speaks of the baptismal life as the new creation (Gal 6:15). Peter also teaches this baptismal rebirth (1 Pt. 1:3, 23). Paul teaches Titus that we are saved not by works but by the mercy of God, by the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit…” (Titus 3:5). These verses tie water and the Spirit together as the work of God in and for us. The sacramental gift of Baptism which Christ gave the Church after his resurrection ties the believer to his death and resurrection (Col. 2:12, Matt. 28:19).
Nicodemus’s skepticism about rebirth (John 3:9) merits something of a rhetorical rebuke from Jesus “You are teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). The whole Old Testament speaks of Jesus and his work (John 5:39) but this teacher of the scripture had not the eyes to see it. The “heavenly things” (John 3:12) which Nicodemus does not understand is nothing less than the identity of Jesus, who is not only the key to the interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures, but the name by which all men must be saved (Acts 4:12).
Jesus hearkens back to the book of Numbers to teach about his mission and work (John 3:14). The serpent lifted up in the wilderness saved those who looked at it in faith (Nu 21:8-9.) So also, those who look on the crucified Jesus in faith, those who receive that birth from above in water and the Holy Spirit are spared from eternal death (John 3:15).
This identity of Jesus and his work on the cross are the key to understanding all that Jesus speaks about here in this dialog with Nicodemus. Everything is encapsulated and interpreted through his death on the cross. Spirit, water, regeneration, rebirth, new creation, Holy Baptism, and the death of Jesus are intimately tied together. One is not to seek one at the expense of, or in lieu of the others. Where Christians have separated them and downplayed the gift of Holy Baptism they have unwittingly downplayed the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This intimacy of these concepts is not missed by another Pharisee and teacher of the Law, St. Paul. He beautifully summarizes this teaching of Jesus to the church at Rome:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4 ESV).