Typically when we hear someone reference John 3 two things come to mind. I say two because in reality I think in our minds we’ve separated the two as if they’re separate in context. We either think of Jesus speaking to Nicodemus about baptism or we think about the well-known passage in John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
If you’re like me when you think of Jesus speaking to Nicodemus you probably summarize that text with Nicodemus struggling to understand baptism and Jesus is trying to explain it further to him. Is that really what Jesus is teaching him? Is that really what Nicodemus is struggling with? While baptism is surely a part of the discussion I think that we can see that there is more to that discussion than maybe we’ve given credit to.
Baptism wasn’t as foreign to them as we might naturally think. Let me say that I’m still studying the culture and traditions as to what made it more familiar to them as it was not in the Old Law. Maybe it was because of their traditions of the different washings that made them “clean” like the "Jewish rites of purificaiton." But in reality the Jews weren’t as surprised with the act of baptism as we have often thought.
In John 1 it’s interesting that as John comes onto the scene proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3) they suppose that because of this that John is the messiah. The Jews question John about this and he of course confessed “I am not the Christ.” They then ask “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (John 1:25)
Here’s what’s interesting to me. Why would they ask that question? Why are they connecting the dots of baptism naturally pointing to the messiah? Again I don’t have a concrete answer as to what made it something that was familiar and expected but none the less that’s the conclusion the Jews drew.
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This meant that he was most likely a member of the Sanhedrin court and a professional student and teacher of the law. He’s familiar with what Jesus has been teaching and doing as he confesses to Christ “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” It’s then that Jesus says to him “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus of course struggles with this and Jesus teaches him that one must be born of water and the spirt and because of Nicodemus’s struggle with this Jesus gently rebukes him because of all people Nicodemus should be someone who should see the connection.
The connection to what though is the real question. Is baptism a part of this discussion? There’s no doubt it is as Jesus references being born of water and the spirit. But I believe the bigger picture that Nicodemus is struggling with isn’t the act of baptism but rather what the kingdom of God is and who it’s for.
We readily know from scripture that a major hang up for the Jews, not only while Christ was here but even for many after the establishment of the church, was the kingdom of God being a spiritual kingdom and not a physical. Jesus is teaching Nicodemus about what it takes to enter the kingdom of God in contrast to Nicodemus’s perspective that only those who are born in the lineage of Abraham are kingdom citizens.
For some reason we often view John 3:16 as a break in context or scripture but it’s not. Jesus never stopped talking when he explains to Nicodemus that kingdom citizenship is for all who believe in him and who come to the light. Nicodemus should have been connecting passages like Deuteronomy 30:6, Ezekiel 36:25-27, and Jeremiah 31:31 that speak about true circumcision being of the heart and the new covenant isn’t found in the letter of the Law but rather on the heart. Later on Paul would explain that to those at Colossae in Colossians 2:11-14.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Col 2:11-14)
What I hope we can take away from this passage is that the kingdom of God is for all. Like Nicodemus we sometimes struggle with that. Not that we think only a certain nationality is God’s chosen people but that we often approach evangelism with the mindset that the gospel is only for certain types of people. Because of upbringing, history, looks, current religious affiliation, etc. we discount them as not worthy of the gospel. We’ve been called to sow the seed, others will water, and God will give the increase because “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Yes one must die, be buried, and born again to put on Christ (Romans 6, Galatians 3) but it must be based upon a true belief and faith in Jesus Christ as the Light.