John lay bound in prison, put there by Herod Antipas over the matter of Herodias (Luke 3:19-20; Mark 6:17-20; the same Herod who examined Jesus in Luke 23:6-12). Like Micaiah of old, his bold word against the king landed him there (2 Chronicles 18:23-27). But, much to his comfort and ours, the work of the kingdom did not falter or waver, even with the forerunner of God in prison. God uses us for a season to build His Church, but when our hour is past, He will raise up still more faithful workers.

Yet John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus an important question: “Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?” Whatever his motive for asking this question, whether for his own sake or for the sake of his disciples, it is good for a Christian to seek that assurance. Nor is it faithless to do so. Many of the Psalms cry out in the midst of distress, asking why God seems so far off in trouble (Psalm 22 is one such example). But these psalms also call out to God knowing that He will answer. It only becomes faithless when we think that God can no longer help. Christ gives that assurance to John or his disciples, because “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

Jesus directs them toward His own works as evidence of His identity. His miracles are proof that the promised deliverance of the Lord has come. Just as the return from exile surpassed the Exodus in glory (Jeremiah 23:7-8), so will the coming of the Lord in the flesh surpass the return. On the day when the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35). Jesus is the Coming One, and His works prove it beyond all doubt (John 10:38).

Scandal arises, however, when God puts to shame the wisdom of the world. Christ crucified is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), since it means boasting in the Lord rather than in the self. John’s question should not be understood as being scandalized, because scandal means rejection of the Lord’s message. The Jews were scandalized and therefore rejected the Lord (John 1:11). John’s question is not asked in jest.

As the disciples of John leave, Jesus points an important question to the crowd: who is John? The answer to that question is meant for their benefit, since John would not hear it, lest he might be puffed up with pride. The Lord knows His own and praises His own, but not in flattery (Job 1:8).

The crowd, however, has misunderstood the purpose of John’s ministry. Some simply wanted to spectate, to watch the show. In this mindset, they came up with wrong ideas about John. Jesus therefore gives two examples of this error and refutes them. John is not like a reed swaying in the wind. Reeds, like arundo domax which is common in that part of the world and grows up to 33 feet tall, seem firm but sway and shake in the wind. John never waffled in his confession of Christ (John 1). John is not a man dressed in soft clothing, used to luxury and hedonism. Rather, his very dress of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey show that he sought a heavenly homeland (Hebrews 11:13-16).

John is, on the other hand, a prophet, indeed more than a prophet. If the prophets pointed toward the coming of Christ while still far off, John prepares the way for the Lord coming suddenly. He is the one who walks right before Christ, not one who longed to see the day of Christ. Jesus quotes the words of Malachi 3:1 as proof of this, and in so doing reaffirms the whole purpose of John’s ministry: to point to Jesus. When the messenger prepares the way, the Lord suddenly comes to His temple and purifies the sons of Levi that they may bring offerings in righteousness as in former days. Yet His coming will also bring judgment against all law-breakers. John is Christ’s herald, and the messenger of the kingdom of God.

As a final note, I find it interesting that Jesus points to John as the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Peter similarly points to Judas as the fulfillment of passages like Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8 in Acts 1:20. While it is all connected with Jesus and His passion, prophecy may in fact point to other people. Thus, while it is true to say that the Bible is all about Jesus, one must clarify what is meant by that statement. Even when a passage points to the apostles (Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18; Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47), to John, to Judas, or to anyone else, they still center on and point toward the long promised Christ, who is the living Word of God.

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).