Adam Clarke Commentary
The conversation between Nicodemus and our Lord, about the new birth and faith in his testimony, John 3:1-15. The love of God, the source of human salvation, John 3:16. Who are condemned, and who are approved, John 3:17-21. Jesus and his disciples come to Judea, and baptize, John 3:22. John baptizes in Aenon, John 3:23, John 3:24. The disciples of John and the Pharisees dispute about purifying, John 3:25. The discourse between John and his disciples about Christ, in which the excellence, perfection, and privileges, of the Christian dispensation are pointed out, John 3:26-36.
Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews - One of the members of the grand Sanhedrin; for such were ordinarily styled rulers among the Jews. A person of the name of Nicodemus, the son of Gorion, is mentioned in the Jewish writings, who lived in the time of Vespasian, and was reputed to be so rich that he could support all the inhabitants of Jerusalem for ten years. But this is said in their usual extravagant mode of talking.
Came to Jesus by night - He had matters of the utmost importance, on which he wished to consult Christ; and he chose the night season, perhaps less through the fear of man than through a desire to have Jesus alone, as he found him all the day encompassed with the multitude; so that it was impossible for him to get an opportunity to speak fully on those weighty affairs concerning which he intended to consult him. However, we may take it for granted that he had no design at present to become his disciple; as baptism and circumcision, which were the initiating ordinances among the Jews, were never administered in the night time. If any person received baptism by night, he was not acknowledged for a proselyte. See Wetstein. But as Jews were not obliged to be baptized, they being circumcised, and consequently in the covenant, he, being a Jew, would not feel any necessity of submitting to this rite.
Rabbi - My Master, or Teacher, a title of respect given to the Jewish doctors, something like our Doctor of Divinity, i.e. teacher of Divine things. But as there may be many found among us who, though they bear the title, are no teachers, so it was among the Jews; and perhaps it was in reference to this that Nicodemus uses the word διδασκαλος , (didaskalos), immediately after, by which, in John 1:38, St. John translates the word rabbi. Rabbi, teacher, is often no more than a title of respect: (didaskolos) signifies a person who not only has the name of teacher, but who actually does teach.
We know that thou art a teacher come from God - We, all the members of the grand Sanhedrin, and all the rulers of the people, who have paid proper attention to thy doctrine and miracles. We are all convinced of this, though we are not all candid enough to own it. It is possible, however, that οιδαμεν , we know, signifies no more than, it is known, it is generally acknowledged and allowed, that thou art a teacher come from God.
No man can do these miracles - It is on the evidence of thy miracles that I ground my opinion of thee. No man can do what thou dost, unless the omnipotence of God be with him.
Jesus answered - Not in the language of compliment: - he saw the state of Nicodemus‘s soul, and he immediately addressed himself to him on a subject the most interesting and important. But what connection is there between our Lord‘s reply, and the address of Nicodemus? Probably our Lord saw that the object of his visit was to inquire about the Messiah‘s kingdom; and in reference to this he immediately says, Except a man be born again, etc.
Be born again - Or, from above: different to that new birth which the Jews supposed every baptized proselyte enjoyed; for they held that the Gentile, who became a proselyte, was like a child new born. This birth was of water from below: the birth for which Christ contends is ανωθεν , from above - by the agency of the Holy Spirit. Every man must have two births, one from heaven, the other from earth - one of his body, the other of his soul: without the first he cannot see nor enjoy this world, without the last he can not see nor enjoy the kingdom of God. As there is an absolute necessity that a child should be born into the world, that he may see its light, contemplate its glories, and enjoy its good, so there is an absolute necessity that the soul should be brought out of its state of darkness and sin, through the light and power of the grace of Christ, that it may be able to see, ιδειν , or, to discern, the glories and excellencies of the kingdom of Christ here, and be prepared for the enjoyment of the kingdom of glory hereafter. The Jews had some general notion of the new birth; but, like many among Christians, they put the acts of proselytism, baptism, etc., in the place of the Holy Spirit and his influence: they acknowledged that a man must be born again; but they made that new birth to consist in profession, confession, and external washing. See on John 3:10 (note).
How can a man be born when he is old? - It is probable that Nicodemus was pretty far advanced in age at this time; and from his answer we may plainly perceive that, like the rest of the Jews, and like multitudes of Christians, he rested in the letter, without paying proper attention to the spirit: the shadow, without the thing signified, had hitherto satisfied him. Our Lord knew him to be in this state, and this was the cause of his pointed address to him.
Of water and of the Spirit - To the baptism of water a man was admitted when he became a proselyte to the Jewish religion; and, in this baptism, he promised in the most solemn manner to renounce idolatry, to take the God of Israel for his God, and to have his life conformed to the precepts of the Divine law. But the water which was used on the occasion was only an emblem of the Holy Spirit. The soul was considered as in a state of defilement, because of past sin: now, as by that water the body was washed, cleansed, and refreshed, so, by the influences of the Holy Spirit, the soul was to be purified from its defilement, and strengthened to walk in the way of truth and holiness.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh - This is the answer to the objection made by Nicodemus in John 3:4. Can a man enter the second time into his mother‘s womb and be born? Our Lord here intimates that, were even this possible, it would not answer the end; for the plant will ever be of the nature of the seed that produces it - like will beget its like. The kingdom of God is spiritual and holy; and that which is born of the Spirit resembles the Spirit; for as he is who begat, so is he who is begotten of him. Therefore, the spiritual regeneration is essentially necessary, to prepare the soul for a holy and spiritual kingdom.
The wind bloweth - Though the manner in which this new birth is effected by the Divine Spirit, be incomprehensible to us, yet we must not, on this ground, suppose it to be impossible. The wind blows in a variety of directions - we hear its sound, perceive its operation in the motion of the trees, etc., and feel it on ourselves - but we cannot discern the air itself; we only know that it exists by the effects which it produces: so is every one who is born of the Spirit: the effects are as discernible and as sensible as those of the wind; but itself we cannot see. But he who is born of God knows that he is thus born: the Spirit itself, the grand agent in this new birth, beareth witness with his spirit, that he is born of God, Romans 8:16; for, he that believeth hath the witness in himself, 1 John 4:13; 1 John 5:10; Galatians 4:6. And so does this Spirit work in and by him that others, though they see not the principle, can easily discern the change produced; for whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world, 1 John 5:4.
How can these things be? - Our Lord had very plainly told him how these things could be, and illustrated the new birth by one of the most proper similes that could be chosen; but so intent was this great man an making every thing submit to the testimony of his senses that he appears unwilling to believe any thing, unless he can comprehend it. This is the case with many - they profess to believe because they comprehend; but they are impostors who speak thus: there is not a man in the universe that can fully comprehend one operation, either of God or his instrument nature; and yet they must believe, and do believe, though they never did nor ever can fully comprehend, or account for, the objects of their faith.
Art thou a master of Israel, etc. - Hast thou taken upon thee to guide the blind into the way of truth; and yet knowest not that truth thyself? Dost thou command proselytes to be baptized with water, as an emblem of a new birth; and art thou unacquainted with the cause, necessity, nature, and effects of that new birth? How many masters are there still in Israel who are in this respect deplorably ignorant; and, strange to tell, publish their ignorance and folly in the sight of the sun, by writing and speaking against the thing itself! It is strange that such people cannot keep their own secret.
“Q. How many sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?”
Now, I ask, Whereby are such persons made the children of grace? Not by the water, but by the death unto sin, and the new birth unto righteousness: i.e. through the agency of the Holy Ghost, sin is destroyed, and the soul filled with holiness.
We speak that we do know - I and my disciples do not profess to teach a religion which we do not understand, nor exemplify in our conduct. A strong but delicate reproof to Nicodemus, who, though a master of Israel, did not understand the very rudiments of the doctrine of salvation. He was ignorant of the nature of the new birth. How wretched is the lot of that minister, who, while he professes to recommend the salvation of God to others, is all the while dealing in the meagre, unfruitful traffic of an unfelt truth! Let such either acquire the knowledge of the grace of God themselves, or cease to proclaim it.
Ye receive not our witness - It was deemed criminal among the Jews to question or depart from the authority of their teachers. Nicodemus grants that our Lord is a teacher come from God, and yet scruples to receive his testimony relative to the new birth, and the spiritual nature of the Messiah‘s kingdom.
If I have told you earthly things - If, after I have illustrated this new birth by a most expressive metaphor taken from earthly things, and after all you believe not; how can you believe, should I tell you of heavenly things, in such language as angels use, where earthly images and illustrations can have no place? Or, if you, a teacher in Israel, do not understand the nature of such an earthly thing, or custom of the kingdom established over the Jewish nation, as being born of baptism, practised every day in the initiation of proselytes, how will you understand such heavenly things as the initiation of my disciples by the baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire from heaven, if I should proceed farther on the subject?
No man hath ascended - This seems a figurative expression for, No man hath known the mysteries of the kingdom of God; as in Deuteronomy 30:12; Psalm 73:17; Proverbs 30:4; Romans 11:34. And the expression is founded upon this generally received maxim: That to be perfectly acquainted with the concerns of a place, it is necessary for a person to be on the spot. But our Lord probably spoke to correct a false notion among the Jews, viz. that Moses had ascended to heaven, in order to get the law. It is not Moses who is to be heard now, but Jesus: Moses did not ascend to heaven; but the Son of man is come down from heaven to reveal the Divine will.
That came down - The incarnation of Christ is represented under the notion of his coming down from heaven, to dwell upon earth.
Which is in heaven - Lest a wrong meaning should be taken from the foregoing expression, and it should be imagined that, in order to manifest himself upon earth he must necessarily leave heaven; our blessed Lord qualifies it by adding, the Son of man who is in heaven; pointing out, by this, the ubiquity or omnipresence of his nature: a character essentially belonging to God; for no being can possibly exist in more places than one at a time, but He who fills the heavens and the earth.
As Moses lifted up - He shows the reason why he descended from heaven, that he might be lifted up, i.e. crucified, for the salvation of man. kind, and be, by the appointment of God, as certain a remedy for sinful souls as the brazen serpent elevated on a pole, Numbers 21:9, was for the bodies of the Israelites, which had been bitten by the fiery serpents in the wilderness. It does not appear to me that the brazen serpent was ever intended to be considered as a type of Christ. It is possible to draw likenesses and resemblances out of any thing; but, in such matters as these, we should take heed that we go no farther than we can say, Thus it is written. Among the Jews, the brazen serpent was considered a type of the resurrection - through it the dying lived; and so, by the voice of God, they that were dead shall be raised to life. As the serpent was raised up, so shall Christ be lifted up: as they who were stung by the fiery serpents were restored by looking up to the brazen serpent, so those who are infected with and dying through sin are healed and saved, by looking up to and believing in Christ crucified. These are all the analogies which we can legitimately trace between the lifting up of the brazen serpent, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The lifting up of the Son of man may refer to his mediatorial office at the right hand of God. See the note on Numbers 21:9.
That whosoever believeth - Bp. Pearce supposes that this verse is only the conclusion of the 16th, and that it has been inserted in this place by mistake. The words contain the reason of the subject in the following verse, and seem to break in upon our Lord‘s argument before he had fully stated it. The words, μη αποληται αλλα , may not perish but, are omitted by some very ancient MSS. and versions.
For God so loved the world - Such a love as that which induced God to give his only begotten son to die for the world could not be described: Jesus Christ does not attempt it. He has put an eternity of meaning in the particle οὑτω , so, and left a subject for everlasting contemplation, wonder, and praise, to angels and to men. The same evangelist uses a similar mode of expression, 1 John 3:1: Behold, What Manner of love, ποταπην αγαπην , the Father hath bestowed upon us.
First, The world was in a ruinous, condemned state, about to perish everlastingly; and was utterly without power to rescue itself from destruction.
Secondly, That God, through the impulse of his eternal love, provided for its rescue and salvation, by giving his Son to die for it.
1.They are exempted from eternal perdition - that they may not perish.
They point out also the two grand operations of grace, by which the salvation of man is effected.
1.Justification, by which the guilt of sin is removed, and consequently the person is no longer obnoxious to perdition.
2.Sanctification, or the purification of his nature, by which he is properly fitted for the kingdom of glory.
For God sent not, etc. - It was the opinion of the Jews that the Gentiles, whom they often term the world, עלמה (olmah), and אומות העולם (omoth haolam), nations of the world, were to be destroyed in the days of the Messiah. Christ corrects this false opinion; and teaches here a contrary doctrine. God, by giving his Son, and publishing his design in giving him, shows that he purposes the salvation, not the destruction, of the world - the Gentile people: nevertheless, those who will not receive the salvation he had provided for them, whether Jews or Gentiles, must necessarily perish; for this plain reason, There is but one remedy, and they refuse to apply it.
He that believeth - As stated before on John 3:16.
Is not condemned - For past sin, that being forgiven on his believing in Christ.
But he that believeth not - When the Gospel is preached to him, and the way of salvation made plain.
Is condemned already - Continues under the condemnation which Divine justice has passed upon all sinners; and has this superadded, He hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God, and therefore is guilty of the grossest insult to the Divine majesty, in neglecting, slighting, and despising the salvation which the infinite mercy of God had provided for him.
This is the condemnation - That is, this is the reason why any shall be found finally to perish, not that they came into the world with a perverted and corrupt nature, which is true; nor that they lived many years in the practice of sin, which is also true; but because they refused to receive the salvation which God sent to them.
Light is come - That is, Jesus, the Sun of righteousness, the fountain of light and life; diffusing his benign influences every where, and favoring men with a clear and full revelation of the Divine will.
Men loved darkness - Have preferred sin to holiness, Belial to Christ, and hell to heaven. חשך (chashac), darkness, is frequently used by the Jewish writers for the angel of death, and for the devil. See many examples in Schoettgen.
Because their deeds were evil - An allusion to robbers and cut-throats, who practice their abominations in the night season, for fear of being detected. The sun is a common blessing to the human race - it shines to all, envies none, and calls all to necessary labor. If any one choose rather to sleep by day, that he may rob and murder in the night season, he does this to his own peril, and has no excuse: - his punishment is the necessary consequence of his own unconstrained actions. So will the punishment of ungodly men be. There was light - they refused to walk in it. They chose to walk in the darkness, that they might do the works of darkness - they broke the Divine law, refused the mercy offered to them, are arrested by Divine justice, convicted, condemned, and punished. Whence, then, does their damnation proceed? From Themselves.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light - He who doth vile or abominable things: alluding to the subject mentioned in the preceding verse.
Lest his deeds should be reproved - Or discovered. To manifest or discover, is one sense of the original word, ελεγχω , in the best Greek writers; and it is evidently its meaning in this place.
Wrought in God - In his presence, and through his assistance. This is the end of our Lord‘s discourse to Nicodemus; and though we are not informed here of any good effects produced by it, yet we learn from other scriptures that it had produced the most blessed effects in his mind, and that from this time he became a disciple of Christ. He publicly defended our Lord in the Sanhedrin, of which he was probably a member, John 7:50, and, with Joseph of Arimathea, gave him an honorable funeral, John 19:39, when all his bosom friends had deserted him. See Dodd.
Came - into the land of Judea - Jerusalem itself, where Christ held the preceding discourse with Nicodemus, was in Judea; but the evangelist means that our Lord quitted the city and its suburbs, and went into the country parts. The same distinction between Jerusalem and Judea is made, Acts 1:8; Acts 10:39; and in 1 Maccabees 3:34; and in 2 Maccabees 1:1, 10. See Bp. Pearce.
And baptized - It is not clear that Christ did baptize any with water, but his disciples did - John 4:2; and what they did, by his authority and command, is attributed to himself. It is a common custom, in all countries and in all languages, to attribute the operations of those who are under the government and direction of another to him by whom they are directed and governed. Some however suppose that Christ at first did baptize; but, when he got disciples, he left this work to them: and thus these two places are to be understood: -
1.this place, of Christ‘s baptizing before he called the twelve disciples; and
2. John 4:2, of the baptism administered by the disciples, after they had been called to the work by Christ.
In Aenon - This place was eight miles southward from Scythopolis, between Salim and Jordan.
There was much water - And this was equally necessary, where such multitudes were baptized, whether the ceremony were performed either by dipping or sprinkling. But as the Jewish custom required the persons to stand in the water, and, having been instructed, and entered into a covenant to renounce all idolatry, and take the God of Israel for their God, then plunge themselves under the water, it is probable that the rite was thus performed at Aenon. The consideration that they dipped themselves, tends to remove the difficulty expressed in the note on Matthew 3:6. See the observations at the end of Mark.
John‘s disciples and the Jews - Instead of Ιουδαιων , Jews, ABELS. M. BV, nearly 100 others, some versions and fathers, read Ιουδαιου , a Jew, which Griesbach has admitted into the text. The person here spoken of was probably one who had been baptized by the disciples of our Lord; and the subject of debate seems to have been, whether the baptism of John, or that of Christ, was the most efficacious towards purifying.
And they came unto John - That he might decide the question.
A man can receive nothing, etc. - Or, A man can receive nothing from heaven, unless it be given him. I have received, not only my commission, but the power also by which I have executed it, from above. As I took it up at God‘s command, so I am ready to lay it down when he pleases. I have told you from the beginning that I was only the forerunner of the Messiah, and was sent, not to form a separate party, but to point out to men that Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world: John 3:28.
He that hath the bride - The congregation of believers.
Is the bridegroom - The Lord Jesus - the Head of the Church. See Matthew 22:2, etc., where the parable of the marriage feast is explained.
The friend of the bridegroom - The person whom the Greeks called the paranymph - there were two at each wedding: one waited on the bride, the other on the bridegroom: their business was to serve them, to inspect the concerns of the bridechamber, and afterwards to reconcile differences between husband and wife, when any took place. John considers himself as standing in this relation to the Lord Jesus, while espousing human nature, and converting souls to himself: this is the meaning of standeth by, i.e. ready to serve. See the observations at the end of the chapter.
He must increase - His present success is but the beginning of a most glorious and universal spread of righteousness, peace, truth, and good will among men.
I must decrease - My baptism and teaching, as pointing out the coming Messiah, must cease; because the Messiah is now come, and has entered publicly on the work of his glorious ministry.
Is above all - This blessed bridegroom, who has descended from heaven, John 3:13, is above all, superior to Moses, the prophets, and me.
He that is of the earth - John himself, who was born in the common way of man.
Speaketh of the earth - Cannot speak of heavenly things as Christ can do; and only represents Divine matters by these earthly ordinances; for the spirit and meaning of which, you must all go to the Messiah himself.
And no man receiveth his testimony - Or, And this his testimony no man taketh up. That is, the testimony which John had borne to the Jews, that Jesus was the promised Messiah. No man taketh up. - No person is found to tread in my steps, and to publish to the Jews that this is the Christ, the Savior of the world. See this sense of the original fully proved and vindicated by Kypke in loc.
Hath set to his seal - That is hath hereby confirmed the truth of the testimony which he has borne; as a testator sets his seal to an instrument in order to confirm it, and such instrument is considered as fully confirmed by having the testator‘s seal affixed to it, so I, by taking up this testimony of Christ, and proclaiming it to the Jews, have fully confirmed it, as I know it to be a truth; which knowledge I have from the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. See John 1:33, John 1:34.
For God giveth not the Spirit by measure - He is the most perfect of all teachers, as having received the Holy Spirit as none before him ever did. Without measure - not for a particular time, people, purpose, etc., but for the whole compass of time, and in reference to all eternity. Former dispensations of the Holy Spirit made partial discoveries of infinite justice and mercy; but now the sum of justice, in requiring such a sacrifice, and the plenitude of mercy, in providing it, shall, by that Spirit with which he baptizes, be made manifest to all the children of men. It is worthy of remark that this was fully done after the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of pentecost, Acts 2:1, etc., as may be clearly seen in all the apostolic epistles. The Jews observe, that the Holy Spirit was given only in certain measures to the prophets; some writing only one book, others two. So Rab. Acba.
All things into his hand - See on Matthew 11:27 (note). A principal design of John is, to show that Christ was infinitely above every teacher, prophet, and Divine messenger that had ever yet appeared. The prophets had various gifts: some had visions, others dreams; some had the gift of teaching, others of comforting, etc.; but none possessed all these gifts: Christ alone possessed their plenitude, and is all things in all.
Hath everlasting life - He has already the seed of this life in his soul, having been made a partaker of the grace and spirit of him in whom he has believed. See on John 3:8 (note).
He that believeth not - Or, obeyeth not - απειθων : from α , negative, and πειθω , to persuade, or πειθομαι , to obey - the want of the obedience of faith. The person who will not be persuaded, in consequence, does not believe; and, not having believed, he cannot obey.
Shall not see life - Shall never enjoy it: there being no way to the kingdom of God, but through Christ Jesus, Acts 4:12. And none can expect to enter into this kingdom but those who obey him; for to such only he is the author of eternal salvation, Hebrews 5:9.
But the wrath of God abideth on him - Οργη , the displeasure of God. I should prefer displeasure to wrath, because the common acceptation of the latter (fury, rage) is not properly applicable here. Perhaps the original word is used in the same sense here as in Romans 2:5; Romans 3:5; Romans 13:4, Romans 13:5; Ephesians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:9; where it evidently means punishment, which is the effect of irritated justice. Taken in this sense, we may consider the phrase as a Hebraism: punishment of God, i.e. the most heavy and awful of all punishments; such as sin deserves, and such as it becomes Divine justice to inflict. And this abideth on him - endures as long as his unbelief and disobedience remain! And how shall these be removed in a hell of fire! Reader! pray God that thou mayest never know what this continuing punishment means!
1.There were generally two (shoshabinim); one for the bride, another for the bridegroom: though in many instances we find the (shoshabin) of the bride only mentioned.
2.These officers were chosen out of the most intimate and particular friends of the parties: - a brother might be (shoshabin) or (paranymph) to his brother.
6.Those who were engaged in this office, were excused, for the time, from some of the severer duties of religion, because they had so much to do about the new-married pair, especially during the seven days of the marriage feast.
These shoshabinan had a threefold office to fulfill, viz. before, at, and after the marriage: of each of these in order.
I.Before the marriage: it was the business of the shoshabin: -
1.To procure a husband for the virgin, to guard her, and to bear testimony to her corporeal and mental endowments; and it was upon this testimony of this friend that the bridegroom chose his bride.
II.At the wedding: it was the business of the shoshabin, if necessary: -
1.To vindicate the character of the bride.
1.The shoshabin was considered the patron and advocate of the wife, and in some sort her guardian, to which the apostle alludes, 2 Corinthians 11:2. He was generally called in to compose any differences which might happen between her and her husband, and reconcile them when they had been at variance.
From the preceding particulars, collated with the speech of John in John 3:29, and with the words of St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 11:2, it is plain that Christ is represented as the Bridegroom: the Church, or his genuine disciples, the Bride: the ministers of the Gospel, the שושבינים (Shoshbeenim), whose great and important duty it is to present to the bridegroom a pure, uncontaminated virgin, i.e. a Church without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, Ephesians 5:27, alluding evidently to the office of the paranymph, on whom the bridegroom depended to procure him, for wife, a chaste and pure virgin. Hence that saying of St. Paul, who considered himself the paranymph to Jesus Christ: I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ, 2 Corinthians 11:2.
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