This John 3:1-21 Bible study contains outlines, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications.  Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.

John 3:1-21 Bible Study Commentary And Inductive Questions


I. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (3:1-3)
II. Jesus discusses the concept of being born again (3:4-8)
III. Jesus discusses some spiritual truths (3:9-21)

Discussion Questions

  • What important group was Nicodemus part of?
  • Why did he visit Jesus by night?
  • Explain verse 3. Why does Jesus greet Nicodemus and reply to him like this? What is his point?
  • In what way does Nicodemus misunderstand Jesus?
  • What does it mean to be born of water and the spirit?
  • What analogies does Jesus use?
  • Explain verse 8. What does the comparison to wind and a born-again believer mean?
  • How can a person be born again?
  • Why did Jesus ask the question in verse 10 since he knew the answer already? What is his point?
  • Who is the “we” in verse 11?
  • Who is the “you” in verses 11-12?
  • What common biblical “bible logic” can we see in verse 12?
  • Who is the Son of Man? What does this title mean?
  • Haven’t other people or beings descended from heaven and ascended to heaven? Then what does verse mean?
  • Explain about Moses lifting up a servant in the wilderness.
  • What are the similarities between this and Jesus being lifted up on the cross?
  • What does verse 16 tell us about love?
  • Explain the word “begotten”.
  • What does darkness represent? Why do people love it?
  • Are you living in the light or in the dark?


John 7:50-51 – Nicodemus suggests the council to listen to Jesus before condemning him.

John 19:39 – Nicodemus brings a hundred pounds of perfumes for Jesus’ burial.

Numbers 21:6 – Moses made and set-up the serpent.

Mark 1:8 – John baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Spirit.

Matthew 3:11 (John 1:26, 31, 33) – John baptized with water for repentance, but Jesus with the Holy Spirit.

Ephesians 5:26 – cleansed the church by the washing of water.

Hebrews 10:22 – hearts sprinkled clean and body washed with pure water.

1 John 5:6-8 – Water and the blood.

Titus 3:5 – Washing of regeneration.

Acts 2:34-36 – The disciples understood that Jesus ascended to heaven in a special way that others did not. He ascended to heaven as the Lord of the universe with his enemies as his footstool.

Ephesians 4:8-10 – Jesus ascended up on high that he might fill all things.

John 3:36 – John the Baptist says that those who believe have eternal life and those who reject already have the wrath of God on themselves.

Key Words

Ascended – The word used for “ascend” is “ainabano”, which can be used figuratively or literally. It occurs 85 times in the NT. The word for “bano” is “foot” or “base”. So it fits very well with the interpretation of Acts 2:34-36 where Jesus ascends and his enemies are at his feet.

Begotten – “monogenes”, sometimes translated one and only and conveys the idea of uniqueness.

Light – “anos” to shine or make manifest especially by rays.

Darkness – “skotos”, shadiness or obscurity. Closely tied to shadow or something that blinds.

Verse by Verse Commentary

Verses 1-2

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, probably on the Sanhedrin ruling council. He was a man of high position and with a lot of wealth. He is mentioned two other times besides this passage. In both cases he is showing support for Jesus. In John 7:50-51 the Pharisees are angry with Jesus and want to condemn him but Nicodemus says they should first listen to Jesus. And in John 19:39, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus brings about one hundred pounds of spices and perfumes for Jesus’ body. Nicodemus clearly respected and even believed in Jesus, realizing Jesus must have come from God. We can learn something positive from him in that he didn’t follow all his peers to condemn Jesus and even made some attempts to support Jesus. At the same time it is evident he didn’t do all that he could. He came to Jesus at night, probably because he was scared and didn’t want the other Pharisees to know he was visiting Jesus. And in John 7 he could have been more outspoken against the other Pharisees. It seems his heart and eyes were open because He realized Jesus must have come from God since he was doing so many amazing signs.

Verse 3

It would be unlikely that Jesus would make a completely random comment so he must have in some way be replying to what Nicodemus said, probably the latter part about Jesus coming as a teacher, doing many signs, and being from God. Nicodemus showed some signs of understanding and knowing about the kingdom of God. To me it looks like Jesus was saying one of two things.

One is like a commendation and can be paraphrased like this, “Nicodemus, because you are born again you are able to show some understanding of God’s kingdom by realizing I come from God.”

The second would be a mild rebuke showing that Nicodemus didn’t understand yet and could be paraphrased something like this, “Nicodemus, you don’t yet truly understand the kingdom of God. You need to be born again so that you can see it.”

The second of these possibilities seems more likely to me. Nicodemus still didn’t understand (4,9) the kingdom of God so Jesus had to explain it to him.

A third possibility I read from a commentary is that Jesus knew Nicodemus was coming to question about the Messiah’s kingdom so basically skipped straight to the point.

Remember that without re-birth we are spiritually depraved. As we learned last week in Corinthians the natural man cannot understand the things of God because they are foolishness to him. A prerequisite of truly knowing and understanding God and His Word is a new, vital relationship with Him. That only comes from being born again.

Verse 4

Nicodemus, like many others, didn’t realize Jesus was talking about being born again spiritually. I can see how this misunderstanding would make him pretty confused! He made the mistake of thinking on a physical plane when Jesus was talking on a spiritual level.

Verse 5-8

Here Jesus answers Nicodemus and shows that it is a spiritual rebirth. Jesus uses some analogies and symbolic language. The Jews would have been kind of shocked to hear that they (they thought only Gentiles needed to) needed to be born again. They were pretty proud of themselves and they were already children of Abraham. They already had a relationship with God, right? WRONG! The ONLY way to have a relationship with God is if one is born again. That means our old self dies and we are born again as a completely new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). We will cease to be a citizen of this world and a member of Satan’s group.

The language used is strong and powerful and shows that following God is not just a normal or easy thing. We aren’t followers of God simply because our parents, neighbors or friends are. Going to church isn’t enough. Being born again is very personal language. The individual’s rebirth will bring about a radical shifting of one’s priorities and relationships. One should be able to look at them and see that they are indeed a new person (many new believers have witnessed that their friends or family wonder why they changed so much!) The ONLY way to enter the kingdom of heaven is to be born of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit must enter our lives. So the question for you is “have you been born again?” Is there a time in your life when you could look back and say you accepted Christ and were born into his family? Has there been a radical change in your life?

Now comes the difficult part of interpreting, the water and the Spirit. The Spirit is pretty clear, referring to the Holy Spirit. But what does the “water” refer to? There are several main interpretations, three of which I will mention here.

  1. Water refers to baptism and baptism is a prerequisite for salvation. We don’t need to take this interpretation seriously since the rest of the Bible is quite clear that faith alone is necessary for salvation and it would not be wise to build such an important doctrine from one unclear and hard-to-understand verse. The large context of the Bible rules this possibility out.

  2. The “water” refers to physical birth. A mother’s womb is filled with water. So to be born of water means to be born physically into this world. This view does make sense. Paraphrasing the verse would read like this, “In order to enter the kingdom of heaven a person must not only be physically into this world, but also be born of the Holy Spirit.” This would fit with the context and Nicodemus’ question. Nicodemus asks if a person can or must be born physically a second time and Jesus answers that a person must be physically, but again spiritually. It would also fit with verse 6 that if a person was born only of “water” then that person is flesh and is distinct from a person born of the Spirit. A major problem with this translation is that it imposes a definition for water that would likely not be understood that way at that time. When looking at literature of that time, including the Bible, this kind of term is never used to describe giving birth. It seems to be an interpretation for water completely unused and unknown at that time. When interpreting we need to take into mind immediate context (check), large context of Scripture (could work, but doesn’t fit perfectly with the definition and water isn’t defined in this way elsewhere) and historical context (nope).

  3. The “water” refers to the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives if we are willing to repent and turn away from our sins. Hebrews 10:22 alludes to this. Also Matthew 3:11 tells us that John baptized with water for repentance, but one later would with the Holy Spirit. Also Titus 3:5 and Ephesians 5:26 refer to the cleansing or washing of the believer/church. Historically, the Jews at that time often used water for purification and cleansing, to take off the dirt. The large context of the Bible also often uses this definition or function for water. And it makes sense to interpret it like this in the immediate context. In verse 5 Jesus is showing Nicodemus that he is not referring to physical rebirth, but a spiritual one. And in this case verse 6 would probably refer back to verse 4. So water doesn’t refer to baptism, but to the “idea” that baptism represents, that is repentance and cleansing. These ideas are linked together because one cannot be cleansed without repenting and if one repents one will be cleansed. One must want to wash off the dirt before he will do so. This is the interpretation I agree with because doesn’t break any rules of interpretation. It makes sense in the immediate context, the context of all of Scripture, and the historical context.

It is also interesting thinking about the actual interchange between Jesus and Nicodemus. It looks like in between verses 6 and 7 Jesus could see surprise on Nicodemus’ face or at least know that it was going on his heart. So he told Nicodemus not to be amazed and continued with his teaching.

Verse 8 is also a bit difficult to understand. What does the analogy about the wind mean? My thought on this is that a person cannot see the wind. The wind has effect and a purpose, but again, it cannot be seen. And also the work of the Spirit in the believers’ life cannot be seen. The Spirit’s working is mysterious.

Also there is a destination and a goal. There is effect, but it is not visible to the naked eye. Both are powerful and miraculous. The Spirit’s working is powerful.

An additional comparison from Matthew Henry is the fact that He works arbitrarily. God directs the wind and God directs the Spirit. We do not control it or lead it and its effects cannot be attributed to us (Psalms 148:8).

Have you been born again? Did you enter God’s family through the power of the Holy Spirit or by “sneaking into the wedding”(of course we can’t really enter by sneaking, but we can think we are there)? Do you trust in works of your flesh such as attending church, doing righteous deeds, or intellectual assent in God? Are you really in a new and vital relationship with God? Has your life changed?

Being born again is the beginning of a new life! By nature it cannot be the same as the old life, or it won’t be new! So make sure you have been truly born again. Examine your life to see there is evidence of change. Make sure you are not living in the flesh (see Galatians 5). Repent of your sins continuously and allow God’s cleansing to sweep through your heart.

Verses 9-12

Nicodemus still didn’t truly understand. In these verses it appears that Jesus is addressing Nicodemus as one of the ruling council, one of the Pharisees. So when he says “you” it refers to the whole group. This is not a strange interpretation, but a common method of speech. So Jesus rebukes the office of the leader of the Jews because they are teaching the people, but don’t truly understand the things of God. They don’t accept Jesus’ and his disciples’ testimony. They don’t believe the plain obvious earthly facts Jesus shares and therefore they won’t believe the heavenly ones either. A common logical argument in Scripture is the greater-lesser argument. This is another example. If they don’t believe the earthly things (the greater, meaning the easier to understand and accept) then they won’t believe the heavenly things (meaning the more difficult to understand and accept).

Do not be surprised if the world and people in it don’t believe when you share Scripture and things of God with them. They don’t have the Spirit and don’t really have the capacity to understand. They are skeptical even of obvious things such as the fact that they are sinners, so how will they believe Jesus died to save people from sin?

Verse 13

Refer back to the word studies. This ascension isn’t just a physical going up into heaven. Rather it is going up in glory and power to be exalted (Philippians 2:5-11) and to take the leadership and control. All his enemies will be put under his feet as a footstool. It is used in the sense of a king ascending the throne of his respective kingdom.

Do humans descend to earth? Jesus is the only human to descend to earth. All the rest of us are created. We didn’t exist before conception and we didn’t come down from another world. But Jesus did. He was pre-existent and lived forever. He literally came down from heaven to earth. This is another verse that shows Jesus was not only man, but God.

Son of Man – A title applied to Jesus 43 times in the New Testament. It shows his human nature and his role as representative and Savior of the human race. He is Son of God and Son of Man.

Verses 14-18

In the Old Testament when Israel was wandering in the wilderness God sent snakes to bite them because of their complaining. However, he also made for them to be saved from the poison. Basically, people were deadly poisoned by a snake and need look in faith to the serpent God commanded to be set there in order to be healed. This was a foreshadowing of the Messiah being lifted up on a cross for the salvation of the world. If we want to be saved we have to look to Him in faith. If we do, He will save us from our deadly disease of sin. Here is the first time in John where Jesus’ prophecy of His coming death is recorded. Some have said that Jesus never claimed to be God or the Messiah and was just a teacher who taught others some good morals. But these verses were spoken by Jesus, not Paul. Jesus knew exactly who He was, what He was doing, and what the result would be. He planned (and spoke out his intention) to give His life for the world so that any who believed would be saved.

And here we come to the most famous verse in the Bible. In it we see a lot of things. First we see everything starts with God. He loved us first. He gave to us first. He initiated the contact. Second we see His love. His love is a giving love. He so loved the world that He gave. Love is dead if it doesn’t reach out to others. True love is giving. It is action. Notice this verse doesn’t say “For God so loved the world He wept every night for its lost souls.” Sure, part of love is at times a feeling. But it is so much more than that. It cares about others eternal destiny and doesn’t just sit and watch them die in their sins and go to hell! Again, there are a lot of levels and expressions of love. But the most important is to take action for the reconciling of them to good. To bring this down to a practical level think of people around you and how to show the most important and eternal kind of love to them. Say you see a brother practicing sin. Is it love to feel bad and say nothing because you don’t want to hurt his feelings? No, that is fear! Or perhaps your unbelieving father is growing older. He gets sick and is in the hospital in danger of dying. He is weak and in pain. Is it love to simply watch him die without saying anything so that you don’t offend him or disturb his peace? No, again it is fear! If you truly love him you MUST tell him the gospel while there is still a chance.

Third, look at what God gave. Does it say, “For God so loved the world that He sent an angel to help out”? No! He sent His ONLY Son. He gave up the most precious and valuable thing in the world because of His love for us. Do you give of your most valuable things? Are you willing to sacrifice to God that which you hold most dear? If you really love others, you need to be willing to give up the best that you have for them. True love is not stingy. It doesn’t keep back anything selfishly. It doesn’t regret it once it has given something to others.

Fourth, it is available. God doesn’t say someone has to be good to get eternal life. It is not only offered to the “righteous”, the rich, the great, or the mighty. It is there for anyone, no matter how poor or rich, no matter what country or status in life, and no matter how many or how bad the sins that person has committed. There is no one too sinful for God to forgive.

Fifth, the result is that we can have eternal life.

In verses 17-18 we see the purpose for which Jesus came into the world the first time. That purpose was to save the world. He didn’t come to cast judgment or pour out punishment. He came to save. Eventually Jesus will come back to judge. One time back to save, one time back to judge. He is a merciful and a just God. Notice that first He offers His mercy and only then He pours out His judgment to those who don’t take His mercy.

Verses 19-21

Look at the word study for light and dark. Light is a title given to Jesus like bread of life and the good shepherd. These show us truths about Christ, about our needs and nature, and about Christ’s relationship to the world. He is the light, meaning His truth is beams shining upon everything to reveal what is right and what is wrong. There is no grey and nothing can be hidden from Him. He is willing to open the eyes of and lead anyone who comes to Him.

People have one of two reactions when they see the light. One is they will hide and run. They love doing sin and are scared that it will be shown out. Therefore they hate the Light and want it to go away so they can feel comfortable in their sinful lifestyle.

The second kind of person is the believer who is saved by God and wants to live a truthful and righteous life. This kind of person will be attracted by Christ. He is not scared of having his deeds shown out because He is living for Jesus and they are godly.

Which group are you in? Are you hiding some wrong thing or things in your life from others? Do you do wrong in secret? Do you cringe and grow uncomfortable when we talk about sin? Is there something specific in your life that is comes to your mind now? If so, and there likely is something, you need to confess it immediately. Ask for God’s forgiveness. If is a habit you can get some accountability and share your problem with a brother who can encourage you to overcome it. Don’t live your life in darkness and in fear of being found out. Surrender to God and go to the Light so that He can give you the strength to have victory.

Main Points

  1. A pre-requisite to entering God’s kingdom is to be born again. This can only come about through repentance and the cleansing work of the Spirit. No good deeds or fleshly acts, as great as they may be, can save us. Someone who is born again must evidence this by a new life.

  2. True love will motivate us to act. God wasn’t indifferent and He didn’t just love the world a little. He so loved that He gave. True love is a giving love, not a taking love. It is others-centered and outward-reaching. Reach out to the people around them to give them from the best that you have.

  3. Many people live in darkness and in fear of being found out about something. Others have a free conscience and can be joyful because they live in the light of God. Which group are you in? Confess any dark areas and turn to God for His light!
Study John 3:22-36
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