Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible
A man of the Pharisees - A Pharisee. See the notes at Matthew 3:7.
Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews - One of the “Sanhedrin,” or great council of the nation. He is twice mentioned after this as being friendly to our Saviour; in the first instance as advocating his cause, and defending him against the unjust suspicion of the Jews John 7:50, and in the second instance as one who came to aid in embalming his body, John 19:39. It will be recollected that the design of John in writing this gospel was to show that Jesus was the Messiah. To do this he here adduces the testimony of one of the rulers of the Jews, who early became convinced of it, and who retained the belief of it until the death of Jesus.
The same came to Jesus - The design of his coming seems to have been to inquire more fully of Jesus what was the doctrine which he came to teach. He seems to have been convinced that he was the Messiah, and desired to be further instructed in private respecting his doctrine, It was not usual for a man of rank, power, and riches to come to inquire of Jesus in this manner; yet we may learn that the most favorable opportunity for teaching such men the nature of personal religion is when they are alone. Scarcely any man, of any rank, will refuse to converse on this subject when addressed respectfully and tenderly in private. In the midst of their companions, or engaged in business, they may refuse to listen or may cavil. When alone, they will hear the voice of entreaty and persuasion, and be willing to converse on the great subjects of judgment and eternity. Thus Paul says Galatians 2:2, “privately to them which are of reputation,” evincing his consummate prudence, and his profound knowledge of human nature.
By night - It is not mentioned why he came by night. It might have been that, being a member of the Sanhedrin, he was engaged all the day; or it may have been because the Lord Jesus was occupied all the day in teaching publicly and in working miracles, and that there was no opportunity for conversing with him as freely as he desired; or it may have been that he was afraid of the ridicule and contempt of those in power, and fearful that it might involve him in danger if publicly known; or it may have been that he was afraid that if it were publicly known that he was disposed to favor the Lord Jesus, it might provoke more opposition against him and endanger his life. Since no bad motive is imputed to him, it is most in accordance with Christian charity to suppose that his motives were such as God would approve, especially as the Saviour did not reprove him. We should not be disposed to blame men where Jesus did not, and we should desire to find goodness in every man rather than be ever on the search for evil motives. See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. We may learn here:
1.That our Saviour, though engaged during the day, did nor refuse to converse with an inquiring sinner at night. Ministers of the gospel at all times should welcome those who are asking the way to life.
2.That it is proper for men, even those of elevated rank, to inquire on the subject of religion. Nothing is so important as religion, and no temper of mind is more lovely than a disposition to ask the way to heaven. At all times men should seek the way of salvation, and especially in times of great religions excitement they should make inquiry. At Jerusalem, at the time referred to here, there was great solicitude. Many believed on Jesus. He performed miracles, and preached, and many were converted. There was what would now be called a revival of religion, having all the features of a work of grace. At such a season it was proper, as it is now, that not only the poor, but the rich and great, should inquire the path to life.
Rabbi - This was a title of respect conferred on distinguished Jewish teachers, somewhat in the way that the title “Doctor of Divinity” is now conferred. See the notes at John 1:38. Our Saviour forbade his disciples to wear that title (see the notes at Matthew 23:8), though it was proper for Him to do it, as being the great Teacher of mankind. It literally signifies great, and was given by Nicodemus, doubtless, because Jesus gave distinguished proofs that he came as a teacher from God.
We know - I know, and those with whom I am connected. Perhaps he was acquainted with some of the Pharisees who entertained the same opinion about Jesus that he did, and he came to be more fully confirmed in the belief.
Come from God - Sent by God. This implies his readiness to hear him, and his desire to be instructed. He acknowledges the divine mission of Jesus, and delicately asks him to instruct him in the truth of religion. When we read the words of Jesus in the Bible, it should be with a belief that he came from God, and was therefore qualified and authorized to teach us the way of life.
These miracles - The miracles which he performed in the Temple and at Jerusalem, John 2:23.
Except God be with him - Except God aid him, and except his instructions are approved by God. Miracles show that a prophet or religious teacher comes from God, because God would nor work a miracle in attestation of a falsehood or to give countenance to a false teacher. If God gives a man power to work a miracle, it is proof that he approves the teaching of that man, and the miracle is the proof or the credential that he came from God.
Verily, verily - An expression of strong affirmation, denoting the certainty and the importance of what he was about to say. Jesus proceeds to state one of the fundamental and indispensable doctrines of his religion. It may seem remarkable that he should introduce this subject in this manner; but it should be remembered that Nicodemus acknowledged that he was a teacher come from God; that he implied by that his readiness and desire to receive instruction; and that it is not wonderful, therefore, that Jesus should commence with one of the fundamental truths of his religion. It is no part of Christianity to conceal anything. Jesus declared to every man, high or low, rich or poor, the most humbling truths of the gospel. Nothing was kept back for fear of offending men of wealth or power; and for them, as well as the most poor and lowly, it was declared to be indispensable to experience, as the first thing in religion, a change of heart and of life.
Except a man - This is a universal form of expression designed to include all mankind. Of “each and every man” it is certain that unless he is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. It includes, therefore, men of every character and rank, and nation, moral and immoral, rich and poor, in office and out of office, old and young, bond and free, the slave and his master, Jew and Gentile. It is clear that our Saviour intended to convey to Nicodemus the idea, also, that “he” must be born again. It was not sufficient to be a Jew, or to acknowledge him to be a teacher sent by God that is, the Messiah; it was necessary, in addition to this, to experience in his own soul that great change called the “new birth” or regeneration.
Be born again - The word translated here “again” means also “from above,” and is so rendered in the margin. It is evident, however, that Nicodemus understood, it not as referring to a birth “from above,” for if he had he would not have asked the question in John 3:4. It is probable that in the language which he used there was not the same ambiguity that there is in the Greek. The ancient versions all understood it as meaning “again,” or the “second time.” Our natural birth introduces us to light, is the commencement of life, throws us amid the works of God, and is the beginning of our existence; but it also introduces us to a world of sin. We early go astray. All men transgress. The imagination of the thoughts of the heart is evil from the youth up. We are conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity, and there is none that doeth good, no, not one. The carnal mind is enmity against God, and by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins, Genesis 8:21; Psalm 14:2-3; Psalm 51:5; Romans 1:29-32; Romans 3:10-20; Romans 8:7.
All sin exposes men to misery here and hereafter. To escape from sin, to be happy in the world to come, it is necessary that man should be changed in his principles, his feelings, and his manner of life. This change, or the beginning of this new life, is called the “new birth,” or “regeneration.” It is so called because in many respects it has a striking analogy to the natural birth. It is the beginning of spiritual life. It introduces us to the light of the gospel. It is the moment when we really begin to live to any purpose. It is the moment when God reveals himself to us as our reconciled Father, and we are adopted into his family as his sons. And as every man is a sinner, it is necessary that each one should experience this change, or he cannot be happy or saved. This doctrine was not unknown to the Jews, and was particularly predicted as a doctrine that would be taught in the times of the Messiah. See Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:25; Psalm 51:12. The change in the New Testament is elsewhere called the “new creation” 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15, and “life from the dead,” or a resurrection, Ephesians 2:1; John 5:21, John 5:24.
He cannot see - To “see,” here, is put evidently for enjoying - or he cannot be fitted for it and partake of it.
The kingdom of God - Either in this world or in that which is to come - that is, heaven. See the notes at Matthew 3:2. The meaning is, that the kingdom which Jesus was about to set up was so pure and holy that it was indispensable that every man should experience this change, or he could not partake of its blessings. This is solemnly declared by the Son of God by an affirmation equivalent to an oath, and there can be no possibility, therefore, of entering heaven without experiencing the change which the Saviour contemplated by the “new birth.” And it becomes every man, as in the presence of a holy God before whom he must soon appear, to ask himself whether he has experienced this change, and if he has not, to give no rest to his eyes until he has sought the mercy of God, and implored the aid of his Spirit that his heart may be renewed.
How can a man - It may seem remarkable that Nicodemus understood the Saviour literally, when the expression “to be born again” was in common use among the Jews to denote a change from “Gentilism” to “Judaism” by becoming a proselyte by baptism. The word with them meant a change from the state of a pagan to that of a Jew. But they never used it as applicable to a Jew, because they supposed that by his birth every Jew was entitled to all the privileges of the people of God. When, therefore, our Saviour used it of a Jew, when he affirmed its necessity of every man, Nicodemus supposed that there was an absurdity in the doctrine, or something that surpassed his comprehension, and he therefore asked whether it was possible that Jesus could teach so absurd a doctrine - as he could conceive no other sense as applicable to a Jew - as that he should, when old, enter a second time into his mother‘s womb and be born. And we may learn from this:
1.that prejudice leads men to misunderstand the plainest doctrines of religion.
2.that things which are at first incomprehensible or apparently absurd, may, when explained, become clear. The doctrine of regeneration, so difficult to Nicodemus, is plain to a “child” that is born of the Spirit.
3.Those in high rank in life, and who are learned, are often most ignorant about the plainest matters of religion. It is often wonderful that they exhibit so little acquaintance with the most simple subjects pertaining to the soul, and so much absurdity in their views.
4.A doctrine is not to be rejected because the rich and the great do not believe or understand it. The doctrine of regeneration was not false because Nicodemus did not comprehend it.
Be born of water - By “water,” here, is evidently signified “baptism.” Thus the word is used in Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5. Baptism was practiced by the Jews in receiving a Gentile as a proselyte. It was practiced by John among the Jews; and Jesus here says that it is an ordinance of his religion, and the sign and seal of the renewing influences of his Spirit. So he said Mark 16:16, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” It is clear from these places, and from the example of the apostles Acts 2:38, Acts 2:41; Acts 8:12-13, Acts 8:36, Acts 8:38; Acts 9:18; Acts 10:47-48; Acts 16:15, Acts 16:33; Acts 18:8; Acts 22:16; Galatians 3:27, that they considered this ordinance as binding on all who professed to love the Lord Jesus. And though it cannot be said that none who are not baptized can be saved, yet Jesus meant, undoubtedly, to be understood as affirming that this was to be the regular and uniform way of entering into his church; that it was the appropriate mode of making a profession of religion; and that a man who neglected this, when the duty was made known to him, neglected a plain command of God. It is clear, also, that any other command of God might as well be neglected or violated as this, and that it is the duty of everyone not only to love the Saviour, but to make an acknowledgment of that love by being baptized, and by devoting himself thus to his service.
But, lest Nicodemus should suppose that this was all that was meant, he added that it was necessary that he should “be born of the Spirit” also. This was predicted of the Saviour, that he should “baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” Matthew 3:11. By this is clearly intended that the heart must be changed by the agency of the Holy Spirit; that the love of sin must be abandoned; that man must repent of crime and turn to God; that he must renounce all his evil propensities, and give himself to a life of prayer and holiness, of meekness, purity, and benevolence. This great change is in the Scripture ascribed uniformly to the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; Romans 5:5; 1 Peter 1:22.
Cannot enter into - This is the way, the appropriate way, of entering into the kingdom of the Messiah here and hereafter. He cannot enter into the true church here, or into heaven in the world to come, except in connection with a change of heart, and by the proper expression of that change in the ordinances appointed by the Saviour.
That which is born of the flesh - To show the necessity of this change, the Saviour directs the attention of Nicodemus to the natural condition of man. By “that which is born of the flesh” he evidently intends man as he is by nature, in the circumstances of his natural birth. Perhaps, also, he alludes to the question asked by Nicodemus, whether a man could be born when he was old? Jesus tells him that if this could be, it would not answer any valuable purpose; he would still have the same propensities and passions. Another change was therefore indispensable.
Is flesh - Partakes of the nature of the parent. Compare Genesis 5:3. As the parents are corrupt and sinful, so will be their descendants. See Job 14:4. And as the parents are wholly corrupt by nature, so their children will be the same. The word “flesh” here is used as meaning “corrupt, defiled, sinful.” The “flesh” in the Scriptures is often used to denote the sinful propensities and passions of our nature, as those propensities are supposed to have their seat in the animal nature. “The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,” etc., Galatians 5:19-20. See also Ephesians 2:3; 1 Peter 3:21; 1 Peter 2:18; 1 John 2:16; Romans 8:5.
Is born of the Spirit - Of the Spirit of God, or by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Is spirit - Is spiritual, “like” the spirit, that is, holy, pure. Here we learn:
1.that all men are by nature sinful.
2.that none are renewed but by the Spirit of God. If man did the work himself, it would he still carnal and impure.
3.that the effect of the new birth is to make men holy.
4.and, that no man can have evidence that he is born again who is not holy, and just in proportion as he becomes pure in his life will be the evidence that he is born of the Spirit.
Marvel not - Wonder not. It is possible that Nicodemus in some way still expressed a doubt of the doctrine, and Jesus took occasion in a very striking manner to illustrate it.
The wind bloweth - Nicodemus had objected to the doctrine because he did not understand how it could be. Jesus shows him that he ought not to reject it on that account, for he constantly believed things quite as difficult. It might appear incomprehensible, but it was to be judged of by its effects. As in this case of the wind, the effects were seen, the sound was heard, important changes were produced by it, trees and clouds were moved, yet the wind is not seen, nor do we know whence it comes, nor by what laws it is governed; so it is with the operations of the Spirit. We see the changes produced. Men just now sinful become holy; the thoughtless become serious; the licentious become pure; the vicious, moral; the moral, religious; the prayerless, prayerful; the rebellious and obstinate, meek, and mild, and gentle. When we see such changes, we ought no more to doubt that they are produced by some cause - by some mighty agent, than when we see the trees moved, or the waters of the ocean piled on heaps, or feet the cooling effects of a summer‘s breeze. In those cases we attribute it to the “wind,” though we see it not, and though we do not understand its operations. We may learn, hence:
1.that the proper evidence of conversion is the effect on the life.
2.that we are not too curiously to search for the cause or manner of the change.
3.that God has power over the most hardened sinner to change him, as he has power over the loftiest oak, to bring it down by a sweeping blast.
4.that there may be great variety in the modes of the operation of the Spirit. As the “wind” sometimes sweeps with a tempest, and prostrates all before it, and sometimes breathes upon us in a mild evening zephyr, so it is with the operations of the Spirit. The sinner sometimes trembles and is prostrate before the truth, and sometimes is sweetly and gently drawn to the cross of Jesus.
Where it listeth - Where it “wills” or “pleases.”
So is every one - Everyone that is born of the Spirit is, in some respects, like the effects of the wind. You see it not, you cannot discern its laws, but you see its effects,” and you know therefore that it does exist and operate. Nicodemus‘ objection was, that he could not “see” this change, or perceive “how” it could be. Jesus tells him that he should not reject a doctrine merely because he could not understand it. Neither could the “wind” be seen, but its effects were well known, and no one doubted the existence or the power of the agent. Compare Ecclesiastes 11:5.
How can these things be? - Nicodemus was still unwilling to admit the doctrine unless he understood it; and we have here an instance of a man of rank stumbling at one of the plainest doctrines of religion, and unwilling to admit a truth because he could not understand “how” it could be, when he daily admitted the truth of facts in other things which he could as little comprehend. And we may learn:
1.that people will often admit facts on other subjects, and be greatly perplexed by similar facts in religion.
2.that no small part of people‘s difficulties are because they cannot understand how or why a thing is.
3.that people of rank and learning are as likely to be perplexed by these things as those in the obscurest and humblest walks of life.
4.that this is one reason why such men, particularly, so often reject the truths of the gospel.
5.that this is a very unwise treatment of truth, and a way which they do not apply to other things.
If the wind cools and refreshes me in summer if it prostrates the oak or lashes the sea into foam - if it destroys my house or my grain, it matters little how it does this; and so of the Spirit. If it renews my heart, humbles my pride, subdues my sin, and comforts my soul, it is a matter of little importance how it does all this. Sufficient for me is it to know that it is done, and to taste the blessings which flow from the renewing. and sanctifying grace of God.
A master of Israel - A “teacher” of Israel; the same word that in the second verse is translated “teacher.” As such a teacher he ought to have understood this doctrine. It was not new,” but was clearly taught in the Old Testament. See particularly Psalm 51:10, Psalm 51:16-17; Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26. It may seem surprising that a man whose business it was to teach the people should be a stranger to so plain and important a doctrine; but when worldly-minded men are placed in offices of religion when they seek those offices for the sake of ease or reputation, it is no wonder that they are strangers to the plain truths of the Bible; and there have been many, and there are still, who are in the ministry itself, to whom the plainest doctrines of the gospel are obscure. No man can understand the Bible fully unless he is a humble Christian, and the easiest way to comprehend the truths of religion is to give the heart to God and live to his glory. A child thus may have more real knowledge of the way of salvation than many who are pretended masters and teachers of Israel, John 7:17; Matthew 11:25; Psalm 8:2, compared with Matthew 21:16.
Of Israel - Of the Jews; of the Jewish nation.
We speak - Jesus here speaks in the plural number, including himself and those engaged with him in preaching the gospel. Nicodemus had said John 3:2, “we know that thou art,” etc., including himself and those with whom he acted. Jesus in reply said, we, who are engaged in spreading the new doctrines about which you have come to inquire, speak what we know. We do not deliver doctrines which we do not practically understand. This is a positive affirmation of Jesus, which he had a right to make about his new doctrine. he knew its truth, and those who came into his kingdom knew it also. We learn here:
1.That the Pharisees taught doctrines which they did not practically understand. They taught much truth Matthew 23:2, but they were deplorably ignorant of the plainest matters in their practical application.
2.Every minister of the gospel ought to be able to appeal to his own experience, and to say that he knows the truth which he is communicating to others.
3.Every Sunday school teacher should be able to say, “I Know what I am communicating; I have experienced what is meant by the new birth, and the love of God, and the religion which I am teaching.”
Testify - Bear witness to.
That we have seen - Jesus had seen by his omniscient eye all the operations of the Spirit on the hearts of men. His ministers have seen its effects as we see the effects of the wind, and, having seen men changed from sin to holiness, they are qualified to bear witness to the truth and reality of the change. Every successful minister of the gospel thus becomes a witness of the saving power of the gospel.
Ye receive not - Ye Pharisees. Though we give evidence of the truth of the new religion; though miracles are performed, and proof is given that this doctrine came from heaven, yet you reject it.
Our witness - Our testimony. The evidence which is furnished by miracles and by the saving power of the gospel. Men reject revelation though it is attested by the strongest evidence, and though it is constantly producing the most desirable changes in the hearts and lives of men.
If I have told you earthly things - Things which occur on earth. Not sensual or worldly things, for Jesus had said nothing of these; but he had told him of operations of the Spirit which had occurred “on earth,” whose effects were visible, and which “might” be, therefore, believed. These were the plainest and most obvious of the doctrines of religion.
How shall ye believe - How will you believe. Is there any probability that you will understand them?
Heavenly things - Things pertaining to the government of God and his doings in the heavens; things which are removed from human view, and which cannot be subjected to human sight; the more profound and inscrutable things pertaining to the redemption of men. Hence, learn:
1.The height and depth of the doctrines of religion. There is much that we cannot yet understand,
2.The feebleness of our understandings and the corruptions of our hearts are the real causes why doctrines of religion are so little understood by us.
3.There is before us a vast eternity, and there are profound wonders of God‘s government, to be the study of the righteous, and to be seen and admired by them forever and ever.
And no man hath ascended into heavens - No man, therefore, is qualified to speak of heavenly things, John 3:12. To speak of those things requires intimate acquaintance with them - demands that we have seen them; and as no one has ascended into heaven and returned, so no one is qualified to speak of them but He who came down from heaven. This does not mean that no one had Gone to heaven or had been saved, for Enoch and Elijah had been borne there (Genesis 5:24; compare Hebrews 11:5; 2 Kings 2:11); and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and others were there: but it means that no one had ascended and “returned,” so as to be qualified to speak of the things there.
But he that came down - The Lord Jesus. He is represented as coming down, because, being equal with God, he took upon himself our nature, John 1:14; Philemon 2:6-7. He is represented as “sent” by the Father, John 3:17, John 3:34; Galatians 4:4; 1 John 4:9-10.
The Son of man - Called thus from his being “a man;” from his interest in man; and as expressive of his regard for man. It is a favorite title which the Lord Jesus gives to himself.
Which is in Heaven - This is a very remarkable expression. Jesus, the Son of man, was then bodily on earth conversing with Nicodemus; yet he declares that he is “at the same time” in heaven. This can be understood only as referring to the fact that he had two natures that his “divine nature” was in heaven, and his “human nature” on earth. Our Saviour is frequently spoken of in this manner. Compare John 6:62; John 17:5; 2 Corinthians 8:9. Since Jesus was “in” heaven - as his proper abode was there - he was fitted to speak of heavenly things, and to declare the will of God to man And we may learn:
1.that the truth about the deep things of God is not to be learned from “men.” No one has ascended to heaven and returned to tell us what is there; and no infidel, no mere man, no prophet, is qualified of himself to speak of them.
2.that all the light which we are to expect on those subjects is to be sought in the Scriptures. It is only Jesus and his inspired apostles and evangelists that can speak of those things.
3.It is not wonderful that some things in the Scriptures are mysterious. They are about things which we have not seen, and we must receive them on the “testimony” of one who has seen them.
4.The Lord Jesus is divine. He was in heaven while on earth. He had, therefore, a nature far above the human, and is equal with the Father, John 1:1.
And as Moses - Jesus proceeds in this and the following verses to state the reason why he came into the world and, in order to this, he illustrates His design, and the efficacy of his coming, by a reference to the case of the brass serpent, recorded in Numbers 21:8-9. The people were bitten by flying fiery serpents. There was no cure for the bite. Moses was directed to make an image of the serpent, and place it in sight of the people, that they might look on it and be healed. There is no evidence that this was intended to be a type of the Messiah, but it is used by Jesus as strikingly illustrating his work. Men are sinners. There is no cure by human means for the maladies of the soul; and as the people who were bitten might look on the image of the serpent and be healed, so may sinners look to the Saviour and be cured of the moral maladies of our nature.
Lifted up - Erected on a pole. Placed on high, So that it might be seen by the people.
The serpent - The image of a serpent made of brass.
In the wilderness - Near the land of Edom. In the desert and desolate country to the south of Mount Hor, Numbers 21:4.
Even so - In a similar manner and with a similar design. He here refers, doubtless, to his own death. Compare John 12:32; John 8:28. The points of resemblance between his being lifted up and that of the brass serpent seem to be these:
1.In each case those who are to be benefited can he aided in no other way. The bite of the serpent was deadly, and could be healed only by looking on the brass serpent; and sin is deadly in its nature, and can be removed only by looking on the cross.
2.The mode of their being lifted up. The brass serpent was in the sight of the people. So Jesus was exalted from the earth raised on a tree or cross.
3.The design was similar. The one was to save the life, the other the soul; the one to save from temporal, the other from eternal death.
4.The manner of the cure was similar. The people of Israel were to look on the serpent and be healed, and so sinners are to look on the Lord Jesus that they may be saved.
Must - It is proper; necessary; indispensable, if men are saved. Compare Luke 24:26; Luke 22:42.
The Son of man - The Messiah.
That whosoever - This shows the fulness and freeness of the gospel. All may come and be saved.
d Believeth in him - Whosoever puts confidence in him as able and willing to save. All who feel that they are sinners, that they have no righteousness of their own, and are willing to look to him as their only Saviour.
Should not perish - They are in danger, by nature, of perishing - that is, of sinking down to the pains of hell; of being “punished with everlasting destruction” from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power, 2 Thessalonians 1:9. All who believe on Jesus shall be saved from this condemnation and be raised up to eternal life. And from this we learn:
1.that there is salvation in no other.
2.that salvation is here full and free for all who will come.
3.that it is easy. What was more easy for a poor, wounded, dying Israelite, bitten by a poisonous serpent, than to look up to a brass serpent? So with the poor, lost, dying sinner. And what more foolish than for such a wounded, dying man to refuse to look on a remedy so easy and effectual? So nothing is more foolish man for a lost and dying sinner to “refuse” to look on God‘s only Son, exalted on a cross to die for the sins of men, and able to save to the uttermost “all” who come to God by him.
For God so loved - This does not mean that God approved the conduct of men, but that he had benevolent feelings toward them, or was “earnestly desirous” of their happiness. God hates wickedness, but he still desires the Happiness of those who are sinful. “He hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” A parent may love his child and desire his welfare, and yet be strongly opposed to the conduct of that child. When we approve the conduct of another, this is the love of complacency; when we desire simply their happiness, this is the love of benevolence.
The world - All mankind. It does not mean any particular part of the world, but man as man - the race that had rebelled and that deserved to die. See John 6:33; John 17:21. His love for the world, or for all mankind, in giving his Son, was shown by these circumstances:
1.All the world was in ruin, and exposed to the wrath of God.
2.All people were in a hopeless condition.
3.God gave his Son. Man had no claim on him; it was a gift - an undeserved gift.
4.He gave him up to extreme sufferings, even the bitter pains of death on the cross.
5.It was for all the world. He tasted “death for every man,” Hebrews 2:9. He “died for all,” 2 Corinthians 5:15. “He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world,” 1 John 2:2.
That he gave - It was a free and unmerited gift. Man had no claim: and when there was no eye to pity or arm to save, it pleased God to give his Son into the hands of men to die in their stead, Galatians 1:4; Romans 8:32; Luke 22:19. It was the mere movement of love; the expression of eternal compassion, and of a desire, that sinners should not perish forever.
His only-begotten Son - See the notes at John 1:14. This is the highest expression of love of which we can conceive. A parent who should give up his only son to die for others who are guilty if this could or might be done - would show higher love than could be manifested in any other way. So it shows the depth of the love of God, that he was willing. to give his only Son into the hands of sinful men that he might be slain, and thus redeem them from eternal sorrow.
To condemn the world - Not to judge, or pronounce sentence on mankind. God might justly have sent him for this. Man deserved condemnation, and it would have been right to have pronounced it; but God was willing that there should be an offer of pardon, and the sentence of condemnation was delayed. But, although Jesus did not come then to condemn mankind, yet the time is coming when he will return to judge the living and the dead, Acts 17:31; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Matthew 25:31-46.
He that believeth - He that has confidence in him; that relies on him; that trusts to his merits and promises for salvation. To believe on him is to feel and act according to truth that is, to go as lost sinners, and act toward him as a Saviour from sins; relying on him, and looking to him “only” for salvation. See the notes at Mark 16:16.
Is not condemned - God pardons sin, and delivers us from deserved punishment, because we believe on him. Jesus died in our stead; he suffered for us, and by his sufferings our sins are expiated, and it is consistent for God to forgive. When a stoner, therefore, believes on Jesus, he trusts in him as having died in his place, and God having accepted the offering which Christ made in our stead, as being an equivalent for our sufferings in hell, there is now no further condemnation, Romans 8:1.
He that believeth not - All who do not believe, whether the gospel has come to them or not. All people by nature.
Is condemned already - By conscience, by law, and in the judgment of God. God disapproves of their character, and this feeling of disapprobation, and the expression of it, is the condemnation. There is no condemnation so terrible as this - that God disapproves our conduct, and that he will express his disapprobation. He will judge according to truth, and woe to that man whose conduct God cannot approve.
Because - This word does not imply that the ground or reason of their condemnation is that they have not believed, or that they are condemned because they do not believe on him, for there are millions of sinners who have never heard of him; but the meaning is this: There is but one way by which men can be freed from condemnation. All people without the gospel are condemned. They who do not believe are still under this condemnation, not having embraced the only way by which they can be delivered from it. The verse may be thus paraphrased: “All people are by nature condemned. There is but one way of being delivered from this state by believing on the Son of God. They who do not believe or remain in that state are still condemned, for they have not embraced the only way in which they can be freed from it. Nevertheless, those to whom the gospel comes greatly heighten their guilt and condemnation by rejecting the offers of mercy, and trampling under foot the blood of the Son of God, Luke 12:47; Matthew 11:23; Hebrews 10:29; Proverbs 1:24-30. And there are thousands going to eternity under this “double” condemnation:
1.for positive, open sin; and,
2.for rejecting God‘s mercy, and despising the gospel of his Son. This it is which will make the doom of sinners in Christian lands so terrible.
This is the condemnation - This is the cause of condemnation; or this is the reason why men are punished.
That light is come - Light often denotes instruction, teaching, doctrine, as that by which we see clearly the path of duty. all the instruction that God gives us by conscience, reason, or revelation may thus be called light; but this word is used especially to denote the Messiah or the Christ, who is often spoken of as “the light.” See Isaiah 60:1; Isaiah 9:2. Compare Matthew 4:16; also the notes at John 1:4. It was doubtless this light to which Jesus had particular reference here.
Men loved darkness - Darkness is the emblem of ignorance, iniquity, error, superstition - whatever is opposite to truth and piety. Men are said to love darkness more than they do light when they are better pleased with error than truth, with sin than holiness, with Belial than Christ.
Because their deeds are evil - Men who commit crime commonly choose to do it in the night, so as to escape detection. So men who are wicked prefer false doctrine and error to the truth. Thus the Pharisees cloaked their crimes under the errors of their system; and, amid their false doctrines and superstitions, they attempted to convince others that they had great zeal for God.
Deeds - Works; actions.
That doeth evil - Every wicked person.
Hateth the light - This is true of all wicked men. They choose to practice their deeds of wickedness in darkness. They are afraid of the light, because they could be easily detected. Hence, most crimes are committed in the night. So with the sinner against God. He hates the gospel, for it condemns his conduct, and his conscience would trouble him if it were enlightened.
His deeds should be reproved - To “reprove” here means not only to “detect” or make manifest, but also includes the idea of “condemnation” when his deeds are detected. The gospel would make his wickedness manifest, and his conscience would condemn him. We learn from this verse:
1.that one design of the gospel is “to reprove” men. It convicts them of sin in order that it may afford consolation.
2.that men by nature “hate” the gospel. No man who is a sinner loves it; and no man by nature is disposed to come to it, any more than an adulterer or thief is disposed to come to the daylight, and do his deeds of wickedness there.
3.The reason why the gospel, is hated is that men are sinners. “Christ is hated because sin is loved.”
4.The sinner must be convicted or convinced of sin. If it be not in this world, it will be in the next. There is no escape for him; and the only way to avoid condemnation in the world to come is to come humbly and acknowledge sin here, and seek for pardon.
Are that doeth truth - He who does right, or he that obeys the truth. Truth here is opposed to error and to evil. The sinner acts from falsehood and error. The good man acts according to truth. The sinner believes a lie - that God will not punish, or that there is no God, or that there is no eternity and no hell. The Christian believes all these, and acts as if they were true. This is the difference between a Christian and a sinner.
Cometh to the light - Loves the truth, and seeks it more and more. By prayer and searching the Scriptures he endeavors to ascertain the truth, and yield his mind to it.
May be made manifest - May be made clear or plain; or that it may be made plain that his deeds are performed in God. He searches for truth and light that he may have evidence that his actions are right.
Wrought in God - That they are performed according to the will of God, or perhaps by the assistance of God, and are such as God will approve. The actions of good people are performed by the influence and aid of God, Philemon 2:12. Of course, if they are performed by his aid, they are such as he will approve. Here is presented the character of a good man and a sincere Christian. We learn respecting that character:
1.He does truth. He loves it, seeks it, follows it.
2.He comes to the light. He does not attempt to deceive himself or others.
3.He is willing to know himself, and aims to do it. He desires to know the true state of his heart before God.
4.A special object of his efforts is that his deeds may be “wrought in God.” He desires to be a good man; to receive continual aid from God, and to perform such actions as he will approve.
This is the close of our Lord‘s discourse with Nicodemus - a discourse condensing the gospel, giving the most striking exhibition and illustration of truth, and representing especially the fundamental doctrine of regeneration and the evidence of the change. It is clear that the Saviour regarded this as lying at the foundation of religion. Without it we cannot possibly be saved. And now it becomes every reader, as in the presence of God, and in view of the judgment-seat of Christ, solemnly to ask himself whether he has experienced this change? whether he knows by experience what it is to be born of that Spirit? If he does he will be saved. If not, he is in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity, and should give no sleep to his eyes until he has made his peace with God.
Land of Judea - The region round about Jerusalem.
And baptized - Jesus did not Himself administer the ordinance of baptism, but his disciples did it by his direction and authority, John 4:2.
In Enon - The word “Enon,” or “Aenon,” means “a fountain,” and was doubtless given to this place because of the fountains there. On the situation of the place nothing certain has been determined. Eusebius places it eight Roman miles south of Scythopolis or Bethshan, and 53 miles northeast of Jerusalem.
Near to Salim - It would seem from this that Salim was better known then than Enon, but nothing can be determined now respecting its site. These places are believed to have been on the west side of the Jordan.
Because there was much water there - John‘s preaching attracted great multitudes. It appears that they remained with him probably many days. In many parts of that country, particularly in the hilly region near where John preached, it was difficult to find water to accommodate the necessities of the people, and perhaps, also, of the camels with which those from a distance would come. To meet their necessities, as well as for the purpose of baptizing, he selected a spot that was well watered, probably, with springs and rivulets. Whether the ordinance of baptism was performed by immersion or in any other mode, the selection of a place well watered was proper and necessary. The mention of the fact that there was much water there, and that John selected that as a convenient place to perform his office as a baptizer, proves nothing in regard to the mode in which the ordinance was administered, since he would naturally select such a place, whatever was the mode.
Where numbers of people came together to remain any time, it is necessary to select such a place, whatever their employment. An encampment of soldiers is made on the same principles, and in every camp-meeting that I have ever seen, a place is selected where there is a good supply of water, though not one person should be immersed during the whole services. As all the facts in the case are fully met by the supposition that John might have baptized in some other way besides immersion, and as it is easy to conceive another reason that is sufficient to account for the fact that such a place was selected, this passage certainly should not be adduced to prove that he performed baptism only in that manner.
For John was not yet cast into prison - See Luke 3:20. The mention of this shows that John was not imprisoned until some time after our Lord entered on his ministry. The design of John was to call men to repentance, and to prepare them for the Messiah, and this he continued to do after our Saviour commenced his work. It shows that a minister of religion should be industrious to the day of his death. John still toiled in his work not the “less” because the Messiah had come. So ministers should not labor less when Christ appears by his Spirit, and takes the work into his own hands, and turns many to himself.
A question - Rather a controversy a dispute.
John‘s disciples - Those who had been baptized by him, and who attached great efficacy and importance to the teaching of their master. Compare the notes at Acts 19:1-5.
And the Jews - Many manuscripts, some of the fathers, and the ancient Syriac version read this in the singular number “with A Jew,” one who, it is commonly supposed, had been baptized by the disciples of Jesus.
About purifying - What the precise subject of this dispute was we do not know. From what follows, it would seem probable that it was about the comparative value and efficacy of the baptism performed by John and by the disciples of Jesus. The word “purifying” may be applied to baptism, as it was an emblem of repentance and purity, and was thus used by the Jews, by John, and by Jesus. About this subject it seems that a dispute arose, and was carried to such a length that complaint was made to John. From this we may learn:
1. that even in the time of Jesus, when the gospel began to be preached, there was witnessed what has been ever since - unhappy disputings on the subject of religion. Even young converts may, By overheated zeal and ignorance, fall into angry discussion.
2. that such discussions are commonly about some unimportant matter of religion - something which they may not yet be qualified to understand, and which does not materially affect them if they could.
3. that such disputes are often connected with a spirit of proselytism - with boasting of the superior excellence of the sect with which “we” are connected, or in connection with whom we have been converted, and often with a desire to persuade others to join with us.
4. that such a spirit is eminently improper on such occasions. Love should characterize the feelings of young converts; a disposition to inquire and not to dispute; a willingness that all should follow the dictates of their own consciences, and not a desire to proselyte them to our way of thinking or to our church. It may be added that there is scarcely anything which so certainly and effectually arrests a revival of religion as such a disposition to dispute, and to make proselytes to particular modes of faith, and of administering the ordinances of the gospel.
Came unto John - Came to him with their complaint; envious and jealous at the success of Jesus, and evidently irritated from the discussion, as if their master was about to lose his popularity.
Rabbi - Master. See the notes at Matthew 23:7. Acknowledging him as their master and teacher.
That was with thee - Who was baptized by thee.
Thou barest witness - See John 1:29-35.
All men come to him - This was the source of their difficulty. It was that Jesus was gaining popularity; that the people flocked to him; that they feared that John would be forsaken, and his followers be diminished in numbers and influence. Thus many love their sect more than they do Christ, and would be more rejoiced that a man became a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Baptist, than that he became a sincere and humble Christian. This is not the spirit of the gospel. True piety teaches us to rejoice that sinners turn to Christ and become holy, whether they follow us or not. See Mark 9:38-39. Let Jesus be exalted, and let men turn to Him, is the language of religion, whatever denomination they may feel it their duty to follow.
John answered - John did not enter into their feelings or sympathize with their love of party. He came to honor Jesus, not to build up a sect, He rejoiced at the success of the Messiah, and began to teach them to rejoice in it also.
A man can receive nothing - All success is from heaven. All my success was from God. All the success of Jesus is from God. As success comes from the same source, we ought not to be envious. It is designed to answer the same end, and, by whomsoever accomplished, the hand of God is in it, and we should rejoice. If Jesus and his disciples are successful, if all men flee to him, it is proof that God favors him, and you should rejoice.
Bear me witness - You remember that at first I told you I was not the Messiah. As he had been “witness” to Jesus - as he came for no other end but to point him out to the Jews, they ought not to suppose that he was his superior. It was but reasonable to expect that Christ himself would be more successful than his forerunner. “I came, not to form a separate party, a special sect, but to prepare the way that he might be more successful, and that the people might be ready for his coming, and that he might have the success which he has actually met with. You should rejoice, therefore, at that success, and not envy it, for ‹his success‘ is the best proof of the greatness of my word, and of its ‹success also.‘”
He that hath the bride - This is an illustration drawn from marriage. The bride belongs to her husband. So the church, the bride of the Messiah, belongs to him. It is to be expected, therefore, and desireD, that the people should flock to him.
But the friend of the bridegroom - He whose office it is to attend him on the marriage occasion. This was commonly the nearest friend, and was a high honor.
Rejoiceth greatly - Esteems himself highly honored by the proof of friendship.
The bridegroom‘s voice - His commands, requests, or conversation.
This my joy - “I sustain to the Messiah the relation which a groomsman does to the groom. The chief honor and the chief joy is not mine, but his. It is to be expected, therefore, that the people will come to him, and that his success will be great. The relation of Christ to the church is often compared with the marriage relation, denoting the tenderness of the union, and his great love for his people. Compare Isaiah 62:5; Revelation 21:2, Revelation 21:9; Revelation 22:17; Ephesians 5:26-27, Ephesians 5:32; 2 Corinthians 11:2.
He must increase - his authority and influence among the people must grow. his doctrine shall continue to spread until it extends through all the earth.
I must decrease - “The purpose of my ministry is to point men to him. When that is done my work is done. I came not to form a party of my own, nor to set up a religion of my own; and my teaching must cease when he is fully established, as the light of the morning star fades away and is lost in the beams of the rising sun. This evinced John‘s humility and willingness to be esteemed as nothing if he could honor Christ. It shows us, also, that it is sufficient honor for man if he may be permitted to point sinners to the Lord Jesus Christ. No work is so honorable and joyful as the ministry of the gospel; none are so highly honored as those who are permitted to stand near the Son of God, lead perishing men to his cross. Compare Daniel 12:3.
He that cometh from above - The Messiah, represented as coming down from heaven. See John 3:13; John 6:33; John 8:23. It has been doubted whether the remainder of this chapter contains the words of “John the Baptist” or of “the evangelist.” The former is the more probable opinion, but it is difficult to decide it, and it is of very little consequence.
Is above all - In nature, rank, and authority. “Is superior to all prophets” Hebrews 1:1-2; “to all angels” Hebrews 1:4-14, “and is over all the universe as its sovereign Lord,” Romans 9:5; Ephesians 1:21-22; Colossians 1:15-19; 1 Corinthians 15:25.
He that is of the earth - He who has no higher nature than the human nature. The prophets, apostles, and John were men like others, born in the same way, and sinking, like others, to the dust. See Acts 14:15. Jesus had a nature superior to man, and “ought,” therefore, to be exalted above all.
Is earthly - Is human. Is inferior to him who comes from heaven. Partakes of his origin, which is inferior and corrupt.
Speaketh of the earth - His teaching is inferior to that of him who comes from heaven. It is comparatively obscure and imperfect, not full and clear, like the teaching of him who is from above. This was the case with all the prophets; and even with John the Baptist, as compared with the teaching of Christ.
And what he hath seen - See John 3:11.
No man receiveth his testimony - The words “no man” are here to be understood in the sense of “few.” Though his doctrine is pure, plain, sublime, yet “few,” comparatively, received it in faith. Though multitudes came to him, drawn by various motives John 6:26, yet “few” became his “real” disciples, Matthew 26:56; Matthew 7:22.
His testimony - His doctrine. The truth to which he bears “witness” as having “seen” and “known” it, John 3:11. Often many persons “appear” for a time to become the followers of Christ, who in the end are seen to have known nothing of religion, Matthew 13:6; Luke 8:13.
He that hath received his testimony - Hath received and fully believed his doctrine. Hath yielded his heart to its influence.
Hath set to his seal - To “seal” an instrument is to make it sure; to acknowledge it as ours; to pledge our varacity that it is true and binding, as when a man seals a bond, a deed, or a will. Believing a doctrine, therefore, in the heart, is expressed by “sealing it,” or by believing it we express our firm conviction that it is true, and that God who has spoken it is true. We vouch for the veracity of God, and assume as our own the proposition that it is the truth of God.
God is true - Is faithful; is the author of the system of doctrines, and will fulfill all that he has promised. We learn here:
1.that to be a true believer is something more than to hold a mere speculative belief of the truth.
2.that to be a believer is to “pledge ourselves” for the truth, to seal it as our own, to adopt it, to choose it, and solemnly assent to it, as a man does in regard to an instrument of writing that is to convey his property, or that is to dispose of it when he dies.
3.Every Christian is a witness for God, and it is his business to show by his life that he believes that God is true to his threatenings and to his promises. See the notes at Isaiah 43:10.
4.It is a solemn act to become a Christian. It is a surrender of all to God, or giving away body, soul, and spirit to him, with a belief that he is true, and alone is able to save.
5.The man that does not do this - that is not willing to pledge his belief that God is true, sets to his seal that God is a liar and unworthy of confidence, 1 John 5:10.
Whom God hath sent - The Messiah.
Speaketh the words of God - The truth, or commands of God.
For God giveth not the Spirit - The Spirit of God. Though Jesus was God as well as man, yet, as Mediator, God anointed him, or endowed him with the influences of his Spirit, so as to be completely qualified for his great work.
By measure - Not in a small degree, but fully, completely. The prophets were inspired on particular occasions to deliver special messages. The Messiah was continually filled with the Spirit of God. “The Spirit dwelt in him, not as a vessel, but as in a fountain, as in a bottomless ocean (Henry).
Loveth the Son - Loves him eminently, above all the prophets and all the other messengers of God.
Hath given all things into his hand - See the notes at Matthew 28:18.
Hath everlasting life - Has or is in possession of that which is a recovery from spiritual death, and which will result in eternal life in heaven. Piety here is the same that it will be there, except that it will be expanded, matured, purified, made more glorious. It is here life begun the first breathings and pantings of the soul for immortality; yet it is life, though at first feeble and faint, which is eternal in its nature, and which shall be matured in the full and perfect bliss of heaven. The Christian here has a foretaste of the world of glory, and enjoys the same kind of felicity, though not the same degree, that he will there.
Shall not see life - Shall neither enjoy true life or happiness here nor in the world to come. Shall never enter heaven.
The wrath of God - The anger of God for sin. His opposition to sin, and its terrible effects in this world and the next.
Abideth on him - This implies that he is “now” under the wrath of God, or under condemnation. It implies, also, that it will continue to remain on him. It will “abide” or “dwell” there as its appropriate habitation. As there is no way of escaping the wrath of God but by the Lord Jesus Christ, so those who will not believe must go to eternity “as they are,” and bear alone and unpitied all that God may choose to inflict as the expression of “his” sense of sin. Such is the miserable condition of the sinner! Yet thousands choose to remain in this state, and to encounter alone all that is terrible in the wrath of Almighty God, rather than come to Jesus, who has borne their sins in his own body on the tree, and who is willing to bless them with the peace, and purity, and joy of immortal life.
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