(John 3:9-12 NIV) 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
Ouch. Jesus’ rebuke of Nicodemus surely stung a little, but Jesus is not being hateful. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, was in fact extremely knowledgeable in the Law and the Prophets. Very few American Christians would have a tenth of his knowledge of the Old Testament. A Pharisee in that age would have been a devoted scholar and a teacher of the people.
But he didn’t get it. Of course, he couldn’t flip to 1 Corinthians or Luke in his pocket New Testament. He had no cross-referencing Bible. But he would have been a master of the Old Testament, and Jesus was speaking of the Old Testament prophecies that plainly spoke of the Kingdom being ushered in with the Spirit and the Spirit transforming those who receive it.
In fact, many a First Century Jew would have understood that “begotten … of the Spirit” is a reference to Ezekiel 37, which we considered in the last post.
(Eze 37:5-6 ESV) 5 “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath [=ruach=spirit] to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath [=ruach=spirit] in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
— as well as —
(Isa 1:2 ESV) Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Children have I reared [Septuagint: begotten] and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.”
Nicodemus was likely not quite as dense as he at first appears. After all, the Jewish method of discourse is often to exchange questions. Jews could have an entire conversation made up entirely of question (one reason Jesus so often answered a question with a question). Nicodemus may have just been trying to lead Jesus into a deeper explanation (as happened!).
If so, then Jesus was not so much rebuking him as teasing him and leading him to think through what he’d said, to go deeper into the text — which tells us something of Jesus’ personality.
(John 3:11 ESV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”
A recurring theme of John’s Gospel is the fact that Jesus was teaching what he knew from personal experience — as a member of the Godhead. His expertise was not merely that of a great scholar of the Scriptures. He bears witness, not only to the prophecies, but also to the realities behind the prophecies.
“You” is plural, and likely is a reference to the leaders of the Jewish people, those who claimed to be teachers of God’s word and yet failed to see what God was doing in fulfillment of his word.
(John 3:12 ESV) “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Wow! Jesus’ words are challenging to even those of us blessed with the entirety of the canon. We have far more revelation from God than Nicodemus, and yet we struggle to fully comprehend Jesus’ teaching. Obviously, Jesus expects Nicodemus to be a serious student of the Old Testament. (He would have said “the Scriptures” or Tanakh, of course.) Surely, the same is true today.
In what sense was Jesus speaking of “earthly things”? The NET Bible translators say,
It makes most sense to take this as a reference to the things Jesus has just said (and the things he is about to say, vv. John 3:13-15). If this is the case (and it seems the most natural explanation) then earthly things are not necessarily strictly physical things, but are so called because they take place on earth, in contrast to things like v. John 3:16, which take place in heaven. Some have added the suggestion that the things are called earthly because physical analogies (birth, wind, water) are used to describe them. This is possible, but it seems more probable that Jesus calls these things earthly because they happen on earth (even though they are spiritual things). In the context, taking earthly things as referring to the words Jesus has just spoken fits with the fact that Nicodemus did not believe. And he would not after hearing heavenly things either, unless he first believed in the earthly things – which included the necessity of a regenerating work from above, by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was speaking of the necessity for Nicodemus to be re-generated by the Spirit — God’s work but something he could experience in this life, on earth. If this is the idea — found in several Old Testament prophecies — how could he understand even deeper concepts, some of which were barely even hinted at in the Old Testament? His faith was too small — at this time. (John 19:39 suggests that Nicodemus later came to faith.)
(John 3:13 ESV) 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
At this point, it’s unclear and translators differ as to whether Jesus is still speaking or John is commenting. It would make sense that Jesus would now begin speaking of “heavenly things.”
This saying is an allusion to —
(Pro 30:2-4 ESV) 2 Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. 3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. 4 Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!
Solomon is saying that no mortal has ever been in heaven to learn the deepest truths about God. Jesus is claiming to be the “son of God” — the one who, unlike Solomon, has “knowledge of the Holy One” from really having been there.
(John 3:14-15 ESV) 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
This is a reference to Numbers 21:9, and is a very creative and surprising metaphor. The Israelites who looked at the serpent crafted by Moses were healed of snake bites. Those who look at Jesus on the cross are healed of the curse that came because of the serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve.