And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. -John 3:14-15
We can imagine Jesus sitting in the cool of the night, perhaps talking quietly with his Disciples, or perhaps just resting after a long day. He’s just left Jerusalem, where he cleansed the Temple, and deftly avoided being proclaimed King of Israel.
Through the darkness of that night a man comes to the fire. He approaches Jesus tentatively, perhaps. Maybe Jesus recognized the difficulty this man would have coming to Jesus, and tells the Disciples to leave, to allow them to speak alone. Or maybe he allows them to listen, to learn, as we can do through the Scriptures.
The man is Nicodemus, a well known and highly respected Rabbi of the time. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin, and Pharisee, who, perhaps, feels emboldened by the cleansing of the Temple, which he would have seen as a strike against the religious arch-enemies of the Pharisees, the Sadducees.
Jesus and Nicodemus proceed to have a rather strange conversation about being born again, a conversation that can only really be understood in the context of Second Temple Jewish thought on the concept of being born again. There were many ways a man could be born — through birth, through his Bar Mitzvah, through marriage, through having children, through being called a Rabbi — for the Jewish life was full of rites of passage, incidents that identified the man with another group or another family.
But here was Jesus, this man from Nazareth, who was hanging around in the Galilee with a group of disciples, and calling himself a Rabbi, and he is speaking of some new sort of being born again. Being born of the Spirit? What is that, and what does it mean?
So Jesus explains, in this passage, precisely what he means.
The new birth, this being born in the Spirit, this is brought about through faith. Just like the people who looked at the bronze snake that Moses lifted up in the wilderness became identified with that snake through faith, so Jesus would be lifted up, and those who had faith in Jesus would become identified with him. And this new community, this new association, would be a new birth, just like being married, or having children, or becoming a Rabbi.
But in so saying, Jesus let slip who he is — God himself. For if only God can give eternal life and Spirit, and if faith in Jesus can bring about that eternal life and birth in the Spirit, then who must Jesus be, but God?
For those who claim that Jesus never claimed to be God in the flesh, this is a difficult verse indeed, for here Jesus claims to be God in terms that are very difficult to deny.