This is the passage where religious assumptions are turned on their heads.
Jesus has confronted the very profitable practice of the church exchanging Roman coins; which, having the face of the emperor were considered unacceptable currency for use in the Temple. This caused a stir among the church leaders who detested Jesus’ challenges but struggled to explain away the miracles he performed among the people. Nicodemus, a religious leader, comes to Jesus to apparently seek clarification and is immediately given more than expected as Jesus calls his doctrinal understanding into question.
To better envision the narrowness of religious thought expressed at the time… There is a story told about a student asking a famous teacher why God created “unbelievers?” The teacher responds, “To provide fuel for the fires of Hell.” In this case it was a rabbi who made the arrogant statement; but it could have just as easily been a pastor making a similar comment in some churches today. And sadly, there are many congregations that would welcome the remark.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit of God blows like the wind throughout the world touching anyone. The suggestion that God is not “owned” by one small group is revolutionary to a people who hated their neighbors, the Samaritans. Jesus goes on to say that God so loved “the world” that he sent himself to die that whoever believes in him (not some imperfect human doctrine that lifts up some people over others) would not perish but have true life. Jesus expresses frustration that one who is a religious teacher does not comprehend the difference between the physical and spiritual worlds.
Jesus goes on to tell Nicodemus that the Messiah which the church is waiting for will not be what they expect. They were looking for a political redemption that would show the world with power that they were God’s chosen. Jesus explains that God’s Messiah would be a servant that would sacrifice himself (be lifted up) that the whole world might be saved through him.
It is not surprising that the message of Jesus continues to challenge the church today.