I find that John 3:16 is misused sometimes because the historical context is not appreciated. To support my claim, let's replay the secret conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus within the historical setting of that night. I have taken certain liberties to make the discussion with Jesus more contemporary. See John 3:1-21 for the actual text..
Background: There was a wealthy man named Nicodemus who was a Pharisee. He was well educated, about the same age as Jesus and already, a respected member of the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus was the Director of Naturalization.
The Department of Naturalization was the agency providing administrative services allowing Gentiles to become Jews. Since the Romans, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, the office held by Nicodemus was more political than essential. Nicodemus was a rich politician. Like many bureaucrats, it did not bother him that his function required little work.
By nature, he was a thoughtful man. He possessed a keen mind and a quiet disposition. Those who knew him well, admired him. He was honest, but his indecisiveness and deliberation caused him problems. It took him forever to make up his mind. Because his department was not very active, he knew that his position was politically insecure. So, he carefully played by the rules to avoid embarrassment and personal controversy.
Nicodemus had heard much about the miracles and teachings of the Man from Galilee. He became curious about Jesus after he watched Him from a distance one day and saw a miracle with his own eyes! Nicodemus saw dignity in Jesus. He saw compassion in Jesus, and that touched his own doubting heart. Occasionally, he even allowed himself to wonder if Jesus could be the promised Messiah. Nicodemus' friends would never consider talking to Jesus in a one-on-one conversation. However, Nicodemus wanted to ask Jesus a few questions.
Jesus was highly controversial and treated with contempt by the leaders. To avoid open association, Nicodemus made an appointment through John to meet Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Concealed in his cloak, Nicodemus arrived just after the sun had set. He found Jesus and His disciples sitting around a small fire. When Jesus saw the cloaked visitor, Jesus excused Himself and moved to the deeper shadows to speak with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus: "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
Nicodemus had carefully prepared his opening remarks. Out of respect for the miracles he had seen Jesus perform, and not Messianic conviction, he addressed Jesus as Rabbi, a term of endearment for respected teachers in Israel's society. Jesus ignored his pleasantries. Knowing the visit would be short, Jesus cut to the purpose of the visit.
Jesus: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
The abruptness of Jesus surprised Nicodemus. But, he was even more surprised to hear Jesus utter words that were recorded on the first page of the by-laws of Israel. As Israels Director of Naturalization, Nicodemus believed that no one could be part of the kingdom of God unless he was born again. Nicodemus himself often repeated the same phrase when speaking to various groups in Jerusalem about his important, but infrequent duties.
Background: In those days, a Gentile could only become a Jew through a ritual that was called "new birth." First, there was a long and tedious indoctrination by Jewish teachers. Then, there was a public meeting where the Gentile renounced his former citizenship and pledged allegiance to Israel and the God of Israel.
Finally, after the ruling council's approval, the candidate was baptized by immersion into the nation of Israel. His past was believed to be washed away never to be mentioned again. Eight days later, the painful ritual of circumcision was administered to males.
Then, the converts Jewish name and date of rebirth (baptism) was entered on the rolls of Israel. Thereafter, the convert was regarded a descendent of Abraham with all the rights of citizenship.
The words of Jesus caught Nicodemus by surprise. The simplicity of Christs words was too clear. Immediately, Nicodemus saw a sharp difference between the kingdom of Israel (also known as Gods kingdom) and the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. Nicodemus became uncomfortable. To gain some conversational ground and mentally regroup, he foolishly asked:
Nicodemus: "How can a man be born when he is old?" "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mothers womb to be born!"
Nicodemus made this childish remark to deflect the embarrassment that occurs when the foolish darkness of arrogance is exposed. Nicodemus stood spiritually naked in the darkness. Here was One that read his inner thoughts and even worse, Jesus was telling Nicodemus, a specialist in naturalization, the process of changing citizenship! Seeing his discomfort, Jesus amplified his explanation of the process of conversion:
Jesus: "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, You must be born again.
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
Given his career and official responsibility, Nicodemus found special meaning in the words of Jesus. He knew that a Gentile could become a Jew by merely going through the rituals. (Very few Gentiles wanted to become Jews, and most of them wanted citizenship for the purpose of marriage.)
But, to be naturalized as a citizen of the kingdom of God, Jesus pointed out that a person needs to renounce his carnal life (being born of water), and must be born of the Spirit. This process only happens through the power of God. In other words, one must receive the gift of a new attitude from the Spirit of God!
Nicodemus: "How can this be?"
Jesus: "You are a teacher in Israel and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, people speak from what they know, and they report what they have seen. Your nation does not accept my teachings.
Therefore, their refusal demonstrates that they do not know God nor His teachings or they would receive Me with joy. I have spoken to Israel about Earthly things and they do not believe; how could they believe Me if I spoke of Heavenly things? No one has ever lived in Heaven and then on Earth except Me, the Son of Man who came from Heaven."
Jesus told Nicodemus that He was a man, born of a woman. Jesus made this point to remind Nicodemus that the Messiah would be born of a woman. (Isaiah 7) If this was the case, Nicodemus needed to consider the possibility that Jesus could be the Messiah.
Then, Jesus redirected the conversation from the person of Nicodemus to the nation of Nicodemus. Jesus made four profound statements.
The negative words spoken by Israels leaders against Jesus came from a faulty knowledge of God.
The abusive comments by Israels leaders about Christs miracles came from a perverted perspective.
The ugly reactions of Israels leaders toward Jesus confirmed that they did not have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus would have revealed much more about God if Israel had been open to hearing more.
Jesus: "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert and many were saved from death by looking to the snake, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved everyone born into the world that he gave His dearest companion, like Abraham gave up Isaac, that whoever trusts in Me as His lamb for sin, shall not perish but have eternal life."
These words were contrary to everything Nicodemus had been taught. He believed that eternal life was granted on the basis of complete conformity to the law. He believed that God transferred the guilt, that comes with the violation of law, by animal sacrifices. He believed sacrificial ceremonies produced forgiveness.
He believed that eternal life was limited to those people who were in the Church of Israel. But, Jesus set the truth before His visitor in simplest terms:
Many Israelites were saved from death by looking at the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole.
All people who live in the world have been bitten by that ancient serpent, the devil, and the only way people can be saved from eternal death is by looking to the One who will be lifted up on a pole.
God so loved the whole human race that He gave His most valued gift possible to provide the necessary atonement. For example, in Abraham's case, he did not have to kill his son Isaac, but God would have to go through with the sacrifice of His own Son Jesus.
The sacrifice of animals does not make atonement for man. Rather, the sacrifice of animals was a model pointing to the time when God Himself would provide an atonement for man. "Therefore," Jesus said, "everyone who looks to Me for that atonement, and out of gratitude, obeys my commands, shall have life eternal."
As Truth spoke, Nicodemus frowned. He clearly saw the doctrinal opposition between Jesus and Israel's leaders. The gulf between them was wide enough for the universe to fit between. He saw no room for compromise. Jesus paused, then continued:
Jesus: "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of Gods one and only Son."
Nicodemus looked at the moonlit face of Jesus. He was trying to sort out the realities of the moment. Was this young man, camping in the Garden with a scruffy bunch of uneducated Galileans, the Son of God?
Did this man really live in Heaven and then come to Earth? His thoughts focused as Jesus finished. Nicodemus pondered the last words of Jesus thoughtfully, "but whoever does not believe in Me stands condemned already!"
The teachers of Israel claimed that those born of Abraham were not condemned by God. All others were condemned at birth to eternal death. For this reason, the office of Nicodemus was important. As Director of Naturalization for Israel, he had the great privilege of processing people from death into life a point he often boasted about.
Nicodemus started to speak. He wanted to ask the Teacher, "How can you say that those born of Abraham are condemned already?" Jesus raised His hand to stay the question:
Jesus: "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."
This statement made Nicodemus uncomfortable; he felt the flush of anger. His religion and his heritage had been slandered. He wanted to retort from the sting. He wanted to say that Israel was the light. He wanted to recite Isaiah 42:6. But, the power of cowardice ruled over his mouth and the penetrating simplicity of Truth choked his response.
Without pleasantry or giving reason, Nicodemus said, "Teacher, I must be going." And with that remark, he got up, pulled his cloak around him more securely and left.
His feet carried him toward home while the words of Jesus kept going through his mind like a broken record. "Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed."
As Nicodemus reached the gate to his house, the tension had passed and a new realization filled the inner chambers of his heart. He saw a certain irony in his own actions. He had visited the Light under the cover of darkness. He sensed he had been in the presence of God. Nicodemus, the one who directed a department, had been directed. He began to see the larger view. He saw his need for citizenship in Gods kingdom.
Nicodemus made a decision before greeting his wife that night to find a way to help Jesus. That decision, although a good one, was not acted upon until the day of Christs crucifixion. He and Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. When his fellow Pharisees noticed this action, he received a public rebuke and demotion. This humiliation fueled his inability to stand firm in a decision.
Epilogue: Tradition holds that Nicodemus finally became a "born again" Christian after Stephen was stoned (about three years later). With Gods help, he faced his peers and publicly denounced his citizenship in Israels religious order. He used all of his wealth to meet the needs of persecuted Christians before A.D. 70. How or when he died is unknown.