Perhaps the most famous verse in the world, this verse is also one of the most misunderstood and misapplied. Interestingly, the first part of the verse is rarely taught wrong. I never hear of religious people who profess Christianity denying God’s great love for all of mankind, or that he sent Jesus his Son to die for us. However, there is distinct disagreement over the second part of the verse which proclaims that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Atheists deny this latter saying because of a lack of faith in God in general, in spite of the overwhelming evidence (Rom. 1:18ff). Religious people who do not profess Christianity deny this verse because they believe Jesus is not their Savior, even though he said he is the only way (John 14:6). Many who profess Christianity at the least argue over the various translations’ wording of the statement (1 Tim. 6:4), and at the most define faith as a simple belief and acknowledgement in the existence of Jesus and that he is the Messiah…even though the same chapter correlates obedience with faith and salvation, along with other scriptures (John 3:36; cf. Matt. 7:21-27; Heb. 5:9; James 2:14-26).
Perhaps there is so much disagreement over the part about faith because, taking into account everything God says about faith, it would require us to obey even to the point of sacrifice…whereas focusing only on God’s love requires nothing of us. May we focus on both! (Rom. 6:1-2; Tit. 2:11-12)
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is one of the most well known sections of the entire Bible. His statement in John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous verse in Scripture, but John 3:3 and 3:5 are also well known, seen on numerous billboards across the country. Christ’s command that we must be “born again” in order to see God’s kingdom is very revealing, especially when one recognizes its figurative nature (v. 3). Nicodemus didn’t; thinking that Jesus was speaking literally, he asked how a man could enter his mother’s womb a second time (v. 4). Jesus clarified by telling him that one could not enter God’s kingdom unless they were “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5).
Christ’s reference to water is a clear allusion to baptism. Baptism – literally immersion, and specifically immersion in water (John 3:23; Acts 8:36-39; 10:47-48; cf. Tit. 3:5; Eph. 5:25-26) – is required for salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21) and forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). It is also required for entrance into Christ (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27), specifically into his body (1 Cor. 12:13), which is his church (Col. 1:18). Since Christ’s church is the kingdom (Col. 1:13; Rev. 1:4, 6, 9), we see why Jesus would require being “born of water” before entering his kingdom.
His mention of water “and the Spirit” is a reference to the Holy Spirit, specifically the Spirit’s participation in the work of saving us from our sins. We have the gospel which saves us (Rom. 1:16) through the writings of men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20-21). Thus, the Word of God which saves our souls (James 1:21) is basically the voice of the Spirit, an allusion Jesus makes in verse 8. “The wind” in that verse would be better translated “the Spirit,” and “blows” would be better translated as “breathes.” Thus, Jesus is literally saying in verse 8, “The Spirit breathes where he wishes…”, and is referring to the voice of the Holy Spirit as conveyed through the Scriptures.
It is through the voice of the Spirit as shown through the Scriptures that we learn of our need and duty to be “born again.” If we believe God’s Word, we will respond by submitting to immersion in water and thereby enter the kingdom of God, the church of Christ. After our baptism, we are a new creation due to our repentance of our sins (2 Cor. 5:17; Acts 3:19); we are new people, different from our former selves. We will be truly “born again” through the power and message of the Holy Spirit, God’s Word (John 3:3, 6; cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21; James 1:21).