Art Maier: John 3:16 -- Who actually said it?

Art Maier

Along with a famous comparison about being born again, an important man's conversation helped give us one of the greatest quotes in the Bible’s New Testament or Old Testament.

The quote itself came through an interesting historical incident, early in Christ’s career. We first meet, in the story, the distinguished man Nicodemus, who would learn from Christ, then help with the famous burial.

The name Nicodemus was common in Jewish culture. It translates as "victor over the people."

Nicodemus of the New Testament is first mentioned in chapter three of the gospel named for John. The gospel text refers to Nicodemus as a "ruler." He was probably a member of a kind of regional court or council in Judah, called the Sanhedrin.

At the time of Christ, Judah was part of the Roman Empire. Certainly, the Roman administration enforced basic imperial policies. However, the imperial government allowed its territories some limited home rule authority. In Judah, the Sanhedrin could make some laws and judge certain criminal cases. Service on the Sanhedrin was a prestigious honor.

At the point that Nicodemus appears in the New Testament history, Christ had probably been in public ministry less than a year. Messages and miracles were attracting notice. Perhaps, also, Christ was already making some of the authorities resentful and uncomfortable.

Nicodemus wanted to meet this divine celebrity. But Bible scholars think he may have been a little worried about disapproving criticism from other council members for associating with someone who was potentially controversial.

Of course, this is speculation. Still, it is interesting to read in the gospel that Nicodemus came to visit Christ "by night." (John 3:2 KJV). At this time, Christ was in Jerusalem, possibly staying with friends. Nicodemus heard the celebrity was in town and went to the house.

Undoubtedly the visit was lengthy, and we only have important parts of the discussion.

Nicodemus apparently opened the conversation, calling Christ a teacher -- a term of high compliment in that culture. It was possibly after a little more talk that Christ said to Nicodemus: “’Unless a person is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.'" John 3:3 KJV)

Obviously, the intelligent Nicodemus realized a physical rebirth was impossible. And yet, Nicodemus then asked a seemingly nonsensical question: Can a man enter his mother, and then be born again? One scholar feels Nicodemus may have said this sarcastically. That is, Nicodemus may have in effect said: Ha!! I am coming to you, teacher, for spiritual wisdom, and you tell me this?

Christ, however, was apparently not perturbed. The rebirth, as Christ explained, was different, and involved the Holy Spirit.

They continued to talk. Christ predicted his own sacrifice, which would be for the sin guilt of the world. Then, Christ made the statement of John 3:16, often memorized in the ringing, King James Version words:

"For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

It seems Nicodemus was impressed-- surely, with good reason -- and became a believer. After Christ’s crucifixion, this ruler helped with the temporary burial.

Today, borrowing from the ancient conversation, we sometimes say a person who has new faith in Christ is "born again." It is a good comparison. A saved soul does indeed receive a gift of new life forever, in heaven, and many blessings for this life.

The verse, John 3:16, is often considered a capsule of the whole gospel message. Here is the basic, great news of what is offered to all who believe in Christ. Anyone (the "whosoever" of the verse) who believes in Christ will come to everlasting life.

Anyone includes you. If, somehow, you missed the gospel message before, don't turn away from it now. Put faith in Christ. Then, in this faith, look forward to the vast glories of heaven, your home for eternity.

Art Maier is a semi-retired teacher, environmental science specialist and calligrapher. He is a regular columnist for the Boonville Daily News in Boonville, Mo. He can be contacted at