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John 3:1-15 Study Guide: Born From Above

Community Group Study Guide — Born From Above
John 3:1-15

Main idea:
God brings people into his kingdom by making them spiritually new. This is an act of the Holy Spirit as one looks to Jesus in faith. 

Study Information:
John gives us four snapshots of completely different types of people who receive Jesus’ teaching in chapters 3-5 including Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the synagogue ruler and a man who was paralyzed and waiting for healing for 38 years. These encounters highlight the diversity of the people who follow Jesus and God’s power to save. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus teach us about the nature of God’s kingdom and the need to be born again by the Spirit of God. 

Nicodemus is a picture of the highly educated, highly religious coming to have their understanding challenged as they approach Jesus in curiosity. He was likely a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, having been called “a ruler of the Jews.” The Sanhedrin was the ruling group of God’s people in Jerusalem made up of rabbis, priests and nobility. Jesus would later be put on trial before the Sanhedrin that led to his being given over to Pontius Pilate under false charges that he was stirring up a rebellion against Rome. Nicodemus is also called “a teacher of Israel” signifying that he knew the Mosaic Law really well and was in a place of authority to teach it to others (John 3:10). Genuine interest in Jesus and his teachings drove Nicodemus to seek him out, but we notice that he does so under the cover of night. Look at John 3:2, he asks him about the source of the sings Jesus was doing. Most of the Jewish leaders attributed Jesus’ works to demonic power and yet Nicodemus acknowledges that it must come from God. At this point in time Jesus was already popular among the common people of Israel but the religious leaders saw him as a threat so Nicodemus was taking great risk, breaking with the other leaders, to show genuine curiosity towards Jesus. For that reason John paints a picture of Nicodemus as the “Secret Disciple”. Going to Jesus at night likely shows that at this point in time that even though he was knowledgeable about God’s word, he was still in spiritual darkness but Nicodemus does not stay that way; this conversation with Jesus was life changing for him. We next meet Nicodemus in John 7:50 where he defended Jesus to the other spiritual leaders of Israel and later on in John 19:39 Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea to remove Jesus’ body from the cross to place it in the tomb with burial spices which would have been an expensive act and one that would have made him ritualistically unclean. John 19:39 shows us that Nicodemus is no longer hiding his faith in Christ and that is highlighted by John bringing up once again Nicodemus having first come to Jesus at night. How does this teacher and ruler of Israel come to genuine faith in Christ? Jesus says it clearly for us, regardless of all of Nicodemus standing and knowledge he too must be born again. 

One cannot see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3). Nicodemus would have been an expert in God’s kingdom and God’s ways and yet he was helpless to see the kingdom of God unless he was made new by God. This is good news for all of us; even the most learned individual in Israel at the time was powerless to figure out God apart from God’s help; we’re all in the same boat when it comes to being made spiritually alive and need God’s spirit. Jesus uses a word with a double meaning when he says one must need to be born “again”. The word above can mean “born from above” or “born again.” Nicodemus goes the literal route and asks how one can be born a second time by entering his mother’s womb again. Maybe Nicodemus had a good sense of humor and was making a joke with Jesus, but most likely this really knowledgeable teacher was genuinely curious about Jesus but struggled to understand who he is and what he actually came to do. Jesus explains what he means and that it is not a matter of being physically born a second time but rather being made new spiritually. In some sense it is both being born again, but born in a new way as one is born from above. John 3:6 tell us that what is born of the flesh is flesh and born of the spirit is spirit and Jesus uses this to point to our need to be spiritually made new. Jesus is essentially explaining how Ezekiel 36:25-27 is fulfilled in him. There are a few passages in the Hebrew Prophets about God giving his people a new heart and a new spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-33, Ezekiel 36:25-27). These promises are unconditional covenants of God which means they are not given because they were earned or deserved but because God is faithful. He tells his people through the prophet Ezekiel that a day would come when he’d sprinkle his people clean, give them new heart and a new spirit and remove their hard hearts from them so they can walk in God’s ways. This is not because of their ability or worthiness but rather an act of God’s grace. This is good news and as we see the other encounters of people meeting Jesus we will be encouraged by how people from very different backgrounds and stories receive God’s grace by being born a new by the Spirit.

John told us early on in this gospel that all who receive Jesus and believe in his name are given the right to be children of God and are born again by the will of God and not be flesh and blood (John 1:12-13). This conversation with Nicodemus is at the same time a one on one conversation and for us to be part of. Jesus uses a singular “you” and a plural “you”in this verse (basically a “y’all). John 3:7 can read: “Do not marvel that I said to you (singular) ‘You (plural) must be born again.” Regardless of your sense of worthiness, your knowledge or your credentials all of us must be born again by God’s Spirit. Jesus uses the image of the wind to underscore his point. The wind blows where it will and you cannot see the wind but you can feel the wind and experience its effects. You can “see” the wind in how the tree branches sway and you can feel it against your skin. Likewise, the wind cannot be controlled or fully understood by human beings yet you know its power. Same goes with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit blows where it will and you can see his activity by the changed lives and new hearts of those who are born again by the Spirit. 

Nicodemus is left astonished because this turns his whole understanding upside down and he asks “how can it be?” Jesus answers with another story from the Hebrew Bible that Nicodemus would be familiar with to show that he is the fulfillment of God’s promise and that one becomes part of God’s kingdom and is born again through faith. In Numbers 24:1-9 the people of God were wandering in the wildness after being freed from slavery in Egypt and receiving God’s Law (Exodus 20). Instead of being grateful and walking in faith they grumbled and complained against God and fell into worshipping other gods. God allowed judgment to come during a specific incident of their rebellion with “fiery” or venomous serpents going through their camp. To provide relief, healing and salvation from the serpents the people of God had to look at a bronze serpent that Moses made and lifted up on a pole in the midst of the camp. It would be a simple enough act that anyone in the camp who was bitten could do but it required trust and humility which are both demonstrations of faith. Jesus is pointing to how this story is fulfilled in him; he will be lifted up on a cross and any who look to him in trust and humility will experience this new birth and any and all can receive it regardless of their worthiness, training or good they’ve done. The same is true for Nicodemus and any who’d be born by the Spirit; whether you’re a person like Nicodemus or like the woman at the well any who look on Christ in faith will live (John 4). This type of faith is an active trust in Christ as the fulfillment of all God promised, a means for salvation and new life that flows in walking in his ways. 

In many ways all of these interactions that Jesus has in John 3-5 are demonstrations of the variety of people who placed their faith and trust in Jesus by actively looking to him to live (John 3:14-15). In this passage Jesus claims to bring the kingdom, the cleansing that God promise in the Holy Spirit and that he is the fulfillment of the image of the Bronze Serpent in providing salvation to the people of God. To be part of God’s kingdom one must be born again by the Spirit. 

At your community group:

Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.

How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week? 

Discussion Questions:

Describe the credentials and standing in the religious community Nicodemus had. What kind of cost would he have for seeking out Jesus?

How does Nicodemus’ interactions with Jesus highlight the grace of God? Many in that community would have thought that Nicodemus was already an insider into God’s kingdom.

How does Jesus teaching here point to him being the fulfillment of what the Hebrew Scriptures promised? 

Read Ezekiel 36:25-27, what parallels show up in John 3:1-15? What does it mean to receive a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone?

How does this passage shape your view of God and what it means to be saved?