Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus is quite perplexing (akin to Peter’s reinstatement). Jesus’ declaration that one must be “born again” is a cornerstone of modern evangelicalism (at the end of his life George Whitefield said he preached on John 3:3 no less that 5,000 times!). However, the traditional evangelical explanation is, at best, shallow. I would offer an alternative explanation, one that is both historically tenable and true to the text.
At first glance, it seems to apparent that Jesus and Nicodemus are not buddies (since Jesus pointedly declares, “do not receive our testimony,” v. 11). Moreover, the entire interaction seems to fit better as a confrontation between apocalypticism (Jesus) and zealotry (Nicodemus). As “the teacher of Israel” (v. 9), Nicodemus should have understood that the kingdom of God cannot be inherited by zealotry and the strength of the man. The Day of the Lord and the messianic kingdom come suddenly by means of the Holy Spirit. Thus, one must be “born again,” or “born from above” (v. 3, NRSV), to inherit/see the kingdom (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50).
Being “born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5) is most likely a reference to Eze. 36, (cf. chapters 37–48), and as the wind “blows where it wishes” (Jn. 3:8), so also men do not determine the day of God (cf. Mt. 24:36; Acts 1:7; 1 Tim. 6:15). In this way, John and Jesus came preaching a radically apocalyptic message about the Day of the Lord, “but you [zealot-minded Pharisees] do not receive our testimony” (Jn. 3:11). Their message inherently undermined the insurgent cause, to which some (or maybe most) of the Pharisees were sympathetic. Thus, Jesus rebukes Nicodemus concerning the basic apocalyptic hope of the Law and the Prophets (i.e., “earthly things,” v. 12). If Nicodemus was guilty of confidence in the flesh concerning the basics of the day of the Lord, the kingdom, and the resurrection, how then would he understand the “heavenly things” of divine mercy and atonement (cf. Deut. 32:43; Ps. 79:9; Dan. 9:24)? Conversely, the Son of Man “has ascended” (v. 13) to stand in the council of the Lord (cf. Jer. 23:18), 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.” (vv. 14-15) Thus, the whole passage is most sensibly a polemic against confidence in the flesh concerning both the hope to be attained (resurrection) and the means of attaining that hope (atonement). Let us then cast off all worldly hopes and principles, setting our hope fully on the cross (Phil. 3:9) and the return of Jesus (1 Pet. 1:13)!