How much of the chapter you choose to do is up to you. Doing just half of the chapter is a much more manageable chunk, but it will be very familiar to most and the last bit of the chapter does seem to bring to a close this opening section of the Gospel, harking back to earlier themes and mentioning John’s testimony again. If you decide to do all of it, then clearly you can’t dwell on all the detail. Both halves of the chapter seem to end with an extended comment from John (vv.16-21 and vv.31-36).
The crucial questions being addressed here are “Why don’t people believe in Jesus?” and “Why should people believe in Jesus?” – those two questions could almost be used to look at the whole chapter. Our natural state is to hate the light, to be under wrath, to be perishing, and without a radical new birth we won’t truly believe. In Jesus new life, salvation and truth is available to us.
Nicodemus is typical of the people mentioned in 2:23 who were impressed by the signs Jesus performed and professed faith of sorts in him. Here we see the reason for the comment in 2:24,25 that Jesus was not fooled by such professions of faith because of what he knew about the heart of man. Jesus’ “reply” in v.3 is not answering any explicit question but puts his finger on the fundamental issue. Jesus has shown himself in ch.2 to be the Messiah, come to bring God’s Kingdom, but to share in that Kingdom is something we in ourselves are helpless to do. It depends on the work of the Spirit in us and the work of Christ for us to bring us new life.
Being “born of water and the Spirit” alludes to Ezekiel 36:25-27, and Ezekiel 37 may also be in the background with its vision of new life being brought to God’s people by the Spirit of God. Certainly Nicodemus should have grasped from the Old Testament scriptures this need for new life, which only God can bring about, working sovereignly by his Spirit.
The true teacher of Israel is Jesus, who uniquely is qualified to speak of “heavenly things”. By believing in him we can know life, life made possible by his being “lifted up” on the cross, like the bronze serpent in Numbers 21. Through his death Jesus would save those who otherwise would perish, but believing in him is something we naturally hate to do because it means acknowledging our sin and our need of a saviour.
The reappearance of John the Baptist brings this opening section to a close. He confirms Jesus’ identity and authenticates the proper response of going to Jesus. His followers are unsettled by what they see and hear, but John speaks of his joy and desire that Jesus should be the focus of our attention. The concluding comment supports his testimony and draws the threads together. Jesus speaks the truth because he is the one who has come from heaven and has been given the Spirit without limit: his words are God’s words. Believing in him brings life. To reject the one God loves and to whom God has entrusted all things, is to know no life but the just wrath of God.