Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
1.Now there was a man of the Pharisees. In the person of Nicodemus the Evangelist now exhibits to our view how vain and fleeting was the faith of those who, having been excited by miracles, suddenly professed to be the disciples of Christ. For since this man was of the order of the Pharisees, and held the rank of a ruler in his nation, he must have been far more excellent than others. The common people, for the most part, are light and unsteady; but who would not have thought that he who had learning and experience was also a wise and prudent man? Yet from Christ’s reply it is evident, that nothing was farther from his design in coming than a desire to learn the first principles of religion. If he who was a ruler among men is less than a child, what ought we to think of the multitude at large? Now though the design of the Evangelist was, to exhibit, as in a mirror, how few there were in Jerusalem who were properly disposed to receive the Gospel, yet, for other reasons, this narrative is highly useful to us; and especially because it instructs us concerning the depraved nature of mankind, what is the proper entrance into the school of Christ, and what must be the commencement of our training to make progress in the heavenly doctrine. For the sum of Christ’s discourse is, that, in order that we may be his true disciples, we must become new men. But, before proceeding farther, we must ascertain from the circumstances which are here detailed by the Evangelist, what were the obstacles which prevented Nicodemus from giving himself unreservedly to Christ.
Of the Pharisees. This designation was, no doubt, regarded by his countrymen as honorable to Nicodemus; but it is not for the sake of honor that it is given to him by the Evangelist, who, on the contrary, draws our attention to it as having prevented him from coming freely and cheerfully to Christ. Hence we are reminded that they who occupy a lofty station in the world are, for the most part, entangled by very dangerous snares; nay, we see many of them held so firmly bound, that not even the slightest wish or prayer arises from them towards heaven throughout their whole life. Why they were called Pharisees we have elsewhere explained; (54) for they boasted of being the only expounders of the Law, as if they were in possession, of the marrow and hidden meaning of Scripture; and for that reason they called themselves פרושים (Perushim.) Though the Essenes led a more austere life, which gained them a high reputation for holiness; yet because, like hermits, they forsook the ordinary life and custom of men, the sect of the Pharisees was on that account held in higher estimation. Besides, the Evangelist mentions not only that Nicodemus was of the order of the Pharisees, but that he was one of the rulers of his nation.
2.He came to Jesus by night. From the circumstance of his coming by night we infer that his timidity was excessive; for his eyes were dazzled, as it were, by the splendor of his own greatness and reputation. (55) Perhaps too he was hindered by shame, for ambitious men think that their reputation is utterly ruined, if they have once descended from the dignity of teachers to the rank of scholars; and he was unquestionably puffed up with a foolish opinion of his knowledge. In short, as he had a high opinion of himself, he was unwilling to lose any part of his elevation. And yet there appears in him some seed of piety; for hearing that a Prophet of God had appeared, he does not despise or spurn the doctrine which has been brought from heaven, and is moved by some desire to obtain it, — a desire which sprung from nothing else than fear and reverence for God. Many are tickled by an idle curiosity to inquire eagerly about any thing that is new, but there is no reason to doubt that it was religious principle and conscientious feeling that excited in Nicodemus the desire to gain a more intimate knowledge of the doctrine of Christ. And although that seed remained long concealed and apparently dead, yet after the death of Christ it yielded fruit, such as no man would ever have expected, (John 19:39.)
Rabbi, we know. The meaning of these words is, “Master, we know that thou art come to be a teacher. ” But as learned men, at that time, were generally called Masters, Nicodemus first salutes Christ according to custom, and gives him the ordinary designation, Rabbi, (which means Master, (56)) and afterwards declares that he was sent by God to perform the office of a Master. And on this principle depends all the authority of the teachers in the Church; for as it is only from the word of God that we must learn wisdom, we ought not to listen to any other persons than those by whose mouth God speaks. And it ought to be observed, that though religion was greatly corrupted and almost destroyed among the Jews, still they always held this principle, that no man was a lawful teacher, unless he had been sent by God. But as there are none who more haughtily and more daringly boast of having been sent by God than the false prophets do, we need discernment in this case for trying the spirits. Accordingly Nicodemus adds:
For no man can do the signs which thou doest, unless God be with him. It is evident, he says, that Christ has been sent by God, because God displays his power in him so illustriously, that it cannot be denied that God is with him He takes for granted that God is not accustomed to work but by his ministers, so as to seal the office which he has entrusted to them. And he had good grounds for thinking so, because God always intended that miracles should be seals of his doctrine. Justly therefore does he make God the sole Author of miracles, when he says that no man can do these signs, unless God be with him; for what he says amounts to a declaration that miracles are not performed by the arm of man, but that the power of God reigns, and is illustriously displayed in them. In a word, as miracles have a twofold advantage, to prepare the mind for faith, and, when it has been formed by the word, to confirm it still more, Nicodemus had profited aright in the former part, because by miracles he recognizes Christ as a true prophet of God.
Yet his argument appears not to be conclusive; for since the false prophets deceive the ignorant by their impostures as fully as if they had proved by true signs that they are the ministers of God, what difference will there be between truth and falsehood, if faith depends on miracles? Nay, Moses expressly says that God employs this method to try if we love him, (Deuteronomy 13:3.) We know also, the warning of Christ, (Matthew 24:14,) and of Paul, (2 Thessalonians 2:9,) that believers ought to beware of lying signs, by which Anti-Christ dazzles the eyes of many. I answer, God may justly permit this to be done, that those who deserve it may be deceived by the enchantments of Satan. But I say that this does not hinder the elect from perceiving in miracles the power of God, which is to them an undoubted confirmation of true and sound doctrine. Thus, Paul boasts that his apostleship was confirmed by signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds, (2 Corinthians 12:12.) To whatever extent Satan may, like an ape, counterfeit the works of God in the dark, yet when the eyes are opened and the light of spiritual wisdom shines, miracles are a sufficiently powerful attestation of the presence of God, as Nicodemus here declares it to be.
3.Verily, verily, I say to thee. The word Verily ( ἀμὴν) is twice repeated, and this is done for the purpose of arousing him to more earnest attention. For when he was about to speak of the most important and weighty of all subjects, he found it necessary to awaken the attention of Nicodemus, who might otherwise have passed by this whole discourse in a light or careless manner. (57) Such, then, is the design of the double affirmation.
Though this discourse appears to be far-fetched and almost inappropriate, yet it was with the utmost propriety that Christ opened his discourse in this manner. For as it is useless to sow seed in a field which has not been prepared by the labors of the husbandman, so it is to no purpose to scatter the doctrine of the Gospel, if the mind has not been previously subdued and duly prepared for docility and obedience. Christ saw that the mind of Nicodemus was filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs, so that there was scarcely any room for spiritual doctrine. This exhortation, therefore, resembled a ploughing to purify him, that nothing might prevent him from profiting by the doctrine. Let us, therefore, remember that this was spoken to one individual, in such a manner that the Son of God addresses all of us daily in the same language. For which of us will say that he is so free from sinful affections that he does not need such a purification? If, therefore, we wish to make good and useful progress in the school of Christ, let us learn to begin at this point.
Unless a man be born again. That is, So long as thou art destitute of that which is of the highest importance in the kingdom of God, I care little about your calling me Master; for the first entrance into the kingdom of God is, to become a new man. But as this is a remarkable passage, it will be proper to survey every part of it minutely.
To SEEthe kingdom of God is of the same meaning as to enter into the kingdom of God, as we shall immediately perceive from the context. But they are mistaken who suppose that the kingdom of God means Heaven; for it rather means the spiritual life, which is begun by faith in this world, and gradually increases every day according to the continued progress of faith. So the meaning is, that no man can be truly united to the Church, so as to be reckoned among the children of God, until he has been previously renewed. This expression shows briefly what is the beginning of Christianity, and at the same time teaches us, that we are born exiles and utterly alienated from the kingdom of God, and that there is a perpetual state of variance between God and us, until he makes us altogether different by our being born again; for the statement is general, and comprehends the whole human race. If Christ had said to one person, or to a few individuals, that they could not enter into heaven, unless they had been previously born again, we might have supposed that it was only certain characters that were pointed out, but he speaks of all without exception; for the language is unlimited, and is of the same import with such universal terms as these: Whosoever shall not be born again cannot enter into the kingdom of God
By the phraseborn again is expressed not the correction of one part, but the renovation of the whole nature. Hence it follows, that there is nothing in us that is not sinful; for if reformation is necessary in the whole and in each part, corruption must have been spread throughout. On this point we shall soon have occasion to speak more largely. Erasmus, adopting the opinion of Cyril, has improperly translated the adverb ἄνωθεν, from above, and renders the clause thus: unless a man be born from above. The Greek word, I own, is ambiguous; but we know that Christ conversed with Nicodemus in the Hebrew language. There would then have been no room for the ambiguity which occasioned the mistake of Nicodemus and led him into childish scruples about a second birth of the flesh. He therefore understood Christ to have said nothing else than that a man must be born again, before he is admitted into the kingdom of God.
4.How can a man be born when he is old? Though the form of expression which Christ employed was not contained in the Law and the prophets, yet as renewal is frequently mentioned in Scripture, and is one of the first principles of faith, it is evident how imperfectly skilled the Scribes at that time were in the reading of the Scriptures. It certainly was not one man only who was to blame for not knowing what was meant by the grace of regeneration; but as almost all devoted their attention to useless subtleties, what was of chief importance in the doctrine of piety was disregarded. Popery exhibits to us, at the present day, an instance of the same kind in her Theologians. For while they weary out their whole life with profound speculations, as to all that strictly relates to the worship of God, to the confident hope of our salvation, or to the exercises of religion, they know no more on these subjects than a cobbler or a cowherd knows about the course of the stars; and, what is more, taking delight in foreign mysteries, they openly despise the true doctrine of Scripture as unworthy of the elevated rank which belongs to them as teachers. We need not wonder, therefore, to find here that Nicodemus stumbles at a straw; for it is a just vengeance of God, that they who think themselves the highest and most excellent teachers, and in whose estimation the ordinary simplicity of doctrine is vile and despicable, stand amazed at small matters.
5.Unless a man be born of water. This passage has been explained in various ways. Some have thought that the two parts of regeneration are distinctly pointed out, and that by the word Water is denoted the renunciation of the old man, while by the Spirit they have understood the new life. Others think that there is an implied contrast, as if Christ intended to contrast Water and Spirit, which are pure and liquid elements, with the earthly and gross nature of man. Thus they view the language as allegorical, and suppose Christ to have taught that we ought to lay aside the heavy and ponderous mass of the flesh, and to become like water and air, that we may move upwards, or, at least, may not be so much weighed down to the earth. But both opinions appear to me to be at variance with the meaning of Christ.
Chrysostom, with whom the greater part of expounders agree, makes the word Water refer to baptism. The meaning would then be, that by baptism we enter into the kingdom of God, because in baptism we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Hence arose the belief of the absolute necessity of baptism, in order to the hope of eternal life. But though we were to admit that Christ here speaks of baptism, yet we ought not to press his words so closely as to imagine that he confines salvation to the outward sign; but, on the contrary, he connects the Water with the Spirit, because under that visible symbol he attests and seals that newness of life which God alone produces in us by his Spirit. It is true that, by neglecting baptism, we are excluded from salvation; and in this sense I acknowledge that it is necessary; but it is absurd to speak of the hope of salvation as confined to the sign. So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.
We must always keep in remembrance the design of Christ, which we have already explained; namely, that he intended to exhort Nicodemus to newness of life, because he was not capable of receiving the Gospel, until he began to be a new man. It is, therefore, a simple statement, that we must be born again, in order that we may be the children of God, and that the Holy Spirit is the Author of this second birth. For while Nicodemus was dreaming of the regeneration ( παλιγγενεσία) or transmigration taught by Pythagoras, who imagined that souls, after the death of their bodies, passed into other bodies, (58) Christ, in order to cure him of this error, added, by way of explanation, that it is not in a natural way that men are born a second time, and that it is not necessary for them to be clothed with a new body, but that they are born when they are renewed in mind and heart by the grace of the Spirit.
Accordingly, he employed the words Spirit and water to mean the same thing, and this ought not to be regarded as a harsh or forced interpretation; for it is a frequent and common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word Water or Fire, expressing his power. We sometimes meet with the statement, that it is Christ who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost and with fire, (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16,) where fire means nothing different from the Spirit, but only shows what is his efficacy in us. As to the word water being placed first, it is of little consequence; or rather, this mode of speaking flows more naturally than the other, because the metaphor is followed by a plain and direct statement, as if Christ had said that no man is a son of God until he has been renewed by water, and that this water is the Spirit who cleanseth us anew and who, by spreading his energy over us, imparts to us the rigor of the heavenly life, though by nature we are utterly dry. And most properly does Christ, in order to reprove Nicodemus for his ignorance, employ a form of expression which is common in Scripture; for Nicodemus ought at length to have acknowledged, that what Christ had said was taken from the ordinary doctrine of the Prophets.
By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit. Besides, it is not unusual to employ the word and instead of that is, when the latter clause is intended to explain the former. And the view which I have taken is supported by what follows; for when Christ immediately proceeds to assign the reason why we must be born again, without mentioning the water, he shows that the newness of life which he requires is produced by the Spirit alone; whence it follows, that water must not be separated from the Spirit
6.That which is born of the flesh. By reasoning from contraries, he argues that the kingdom of God is shut against us, unless an entrance be opened to us by a new birth, ( παλιγγενεσία) For he takes for granted, that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are spiritual. But we bring nothing from the womb but a carnal nature. Therefore it follows, that we are naturally banished from the kingdom of God, and, having been deprived of the heavenly life, remain under the yoke of death. Besides, when Christ argues here, that men must be born again, because they are only flesh, he undoubtedly comprehends all mankind under the term flesh. By the flesh, therefore, is meant in this place not the body, but the soul also, and consequently every part of it. When the Popish divines restrict the word to that part which they call sensual, they do so in utter ignorance of its meaning; (59) for Christ must in that case have used an inconclusive argument, that we need a second birth, because part of us is corrupt. But if the flesh is contrasted with the Spirit, as a corrupt thing is contrasted with what is uncorrupted, a crooked thing with what is straight, a polluted thing with what is holy, a contaminated thing with what is pure, we may readily conclude that the whole nature of man is condemned by a single word. Christ therefore declares that our understanding and reason is corrupted, because it is carnal, and that all the affections of the heart are wicked and reprobate, because they too are carnal.
But here it may be objected, that since the soul is not begotten by human generation, we are notborn of the flesh, as to the chief part of our nature. This led many persons to imagine that not only our bodies, but our souls also, descend to us from our parents; for they thought it absurd that original sin, which has its peculiar habitation in the soul, should be conveyed from one man to all his posterity, unless all our souls proceeded from his soul as their source. And certainly, at first sight, the words of Christ appear to convey the idea, that we are flesh, because we are born of flesh. I answer, so far as relates to the words of Christ, they mean nothing else than that we are all carnal when we are born; and that as we come into this world mortal men, our nature relishes nothing but what is flesh. He simply distinguishes here between nature and the supernatural gift; for the corruption of all mankind in the person of Adam alone did not proceed from generation, but from the appointment of God, who in one man had adorned us all, and who has in him also deprived us of his gifts. Instead of saying, therefore, that each of us draws vice and corruption from his parents, it would be more correct to say that we are all alike corrupted in Adam alone, because immediately after his revolt God took away from human nature what He had bestowed upon it.
Here another question arises; for it is certain that in this degenerate and corrupted nature some remnant of the gifts of God still lingers; and hence it follows that we are not in every respect corrupted. The reply is easy. The gifts which God hath left to us since the fall, if they are judged by themselves, are indeed worthy of praise; but as the contagion of wickedness is spread through every part, there will be found in us nothing that is pure and free from every defilement. That we naturally possess some knowledge of God, that some distinction between good and evil is engraven on our conscience, that our faculties are sufficient for the maintenance of the present life, that — in short — we are in so many ways superior to the brute beasts, that is excellent in itself, so far as it proceeds from God; but in us all these things are completely polluted, in the same manner as the wine which has been wholly infected and corrupted by the offensive taste of the vessel loses the pleasantness of its good flavor, and acquires a bitter and pernicious taste. For such knowledge of God as now remains in men is nothing else than a frightful source of idolatry and of all superstitions; the judgment exercised in choosing and distinguishing things is partly blind and foolish, partly imperfect and confused; all the industry that we possess flows into vanity and trifles; and the will itself, with furious impetuosity, rushes headlong to what is evil. Thus in the whole of our nature there remains not a drop of uprightness. Hence it is evident that we must be formed by the second birth, that we may be fitted for the kingdom of God; and the meaning of Christ’s words is, that as a man is born only carnal from the womb of his mother; he must be formed anew by the Spirit, that he may begin to be spiritual.
The word Spirit is used here in two senses, namely, for grace, and the effect of grace. For in the first place, Christ informs us that the Spirit of God is the only Author of a pure and upright nature, and afterwards he states, that we are spiritual, because we have been renewed by his power.
7.Wonder not. This passage has been tortured by commentators in various ways. Some think that Christ reproves the gross ignorance of Nicodemus and other persons of the same class, by saying thatit is not wonderful, if they do not comprehend that heavenly mystery of regeneration, since even in the order of nature they do not perceive the reason of those things which fall under the cognizance of the senses. Others contrive a meaning which, though ingenious, is too much forced: that, “as the wind blows freely, so by the regeneration of the Spirit we are set at liberty, and, having been freed from the yoke of sin, run voluntarily to God. Equally removed from Christ’s meaning is the exposition given by Augustine, that the Spirit of God exerts his power according to his own pleasure. A better view is given by Chrysostom and Cyril, who say that the comparison is taken from the wind, and apply it thus to the present passage: though its power be felt, we know not its source and cause.” While I do not differ greatly from their opinion, I shall endeavor to explain the meaning of Christ with greater clearness and certainty.
I hold by this principle, that Christ borrows a comparison from the order of nature. Nicodemus reckoned that what he had heard about regeneration and a new life was incredible, because the manner of this regeneration exceeded his capacity. To prevent him from entertaining any scruple of this sort, Christ shows that even in the bodily life there is displayed an amazing power of God, the reason of which is concealed. For all draw from the air their vital breath; we perceive the agitation of the air, but know not whence it comes to us or whither it departs. If in this frail and transitory life God acts so powerfully that we are constrained to admire his power, what folly is it to attempt to measure by the perception of our own mind his secret work in the heavenly and supernatural life, so as to believe no more than what we see? Thus Paul, when he breaks out into indignation against those who reject the doctrine of the resurrection, on the ground of its being impossible that the body which is now subject to putrefaction, after having been reduced to dust and to nothing, should be clothed with a blessed immortality, reproaches them for stupidity in not considering that a similar display of the power of God may be seen in a grain of wheat; for the seed does not spring until it; has been putrefied, (1 Corinthians 15:36.) This is the astonishing wisdom of which David exclaims,
O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all,
They are therefore excessively stupid who, having been warned by the common order of nature, do not rise higher, so as to acknowledge that the hand of God is far more powerful in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. When Christ says to Nicodemus that he ought not to wonder, we must not understand it in such a manner as if he intended that we should despise a work of God, which is so illustrious, and which is worthy of the highest admiration; but he means that we ought not to wonder with that kind of admiration which hinders our faith. For many reject as fabulous what they think too lofty and difficult. In a word, let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are formed again and made new men, though his manner of doing this be concealed from us.
8.The wind bloweth where it pleaseth. Not that, strictly speaking, there is will in the blowing, but because the agitation is free, and uncertain, and variable; for the air is carried sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another. How this applies to the case in hand; for if it flowed in a uniform motion like water, it would be less miraculous.
So is every one that is born of the Spirit. Christ means that the movement and operation of the Spirit of God is not less perceptible in the renewal of man than the motion of the air in this earthly and outward life, but that the manner of it is concealed; and that, therefore, we are ungrateful and malicious, if we do not adore the inconceivable power of God in the heavenly life, of which we behold so striking an exhibition in this world, and if we ascribe to him less in restoring the salvation of our soul than in upholding the bodily frame. The application will be somewhat more evident, if you turn the sentence in this manner: Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed man
9.How can these things be? We see what is the chief obstacle in the way of Nicodemus. Every thing that he hears appears monstrous, because he does not understand the manner of it; so that there is no greater obstacle to us than our own pride; that is, we always wish to be wise beyond what is proper, and therefore we reject with diabolical pride every thing that is not explained to our reason; as if it were proper to limit the infinite power of God to our poor capacity. We are, indeed, permitted, to a certain extent, to inquire into the manner and reason of the works of God, provided that we do so with sobriety and reverence; but Nicodemus rejects it as a fable, on this ground, that he does not believe it to be possible. On this subject we shall treat more fully under the Sixth Chapter.
10.Thou art a teacher of Israel. As Christ sees that he is spending his time and pains to no purpose in teaching so proud a man, he begins to reprove him sharply. And certainly such persons will never make any progress, until the wicked confidence, with which they are puffed up, be removed. This is, very properly, placed first in order; for in the very matter in which he chiefly plumes himself on his acuteness and sagacity, Christ censures his ignorance. He thought, that not to admit a thing to be possible would be considered a proof of gravity and intelligence, because that man is accounted. foolishly credulous who assents to what is told him by another, before he has fully inquired into the reason. But still Nicodemus, with all his magisterial haughtiness, exposes himself to ridicule by more than childish hesitation about the first principles. Such hesitation, certainly, is base and shameful. For what religion have we, what knowledge of God, what rule of living well, what hope of eternal life, if we do not believe that man is renewed by the Spirit of God? There is an emphasis, therefore, in the wordthese; for since Scripture frequently repeats this part of doctrine, it ought not to be unknown even to the lowest class of beginners. It is utterly beyond endurance that any man should be ignorant and unskilled in it, who professes to be a teacher in the Church of God.
11.We speak what we know. Some refer this to Christ and John the Baptist; others say that the plural number is used instead of the singular. For my own part, I have no doubt that Christ mentions himself in connection with all the prophets of God, and speaks generally in the person of all. Philosophers and other vain-glorious teachers frequently bring forward trifles which they have themselves invented; but Christ claims it as peculiar to himself and all the servants of God, that they deliver no doctrine but what is certain. For God does not send ministers to prattle about things that are unknown or doubtful, but trains them in his school, that what they have learned from himself they may afterwards deliver to others. Again, as Christ, by this testimony, recommends to us the certainty of his doctrine, so he enjoins on all his ministers a law of modesty, not to put forward their own dreams or conjectures — not to preach human inventions, which have no solidity in theme but to render a faithful and pure testimony to God. Let every man, therefore, see what the Lord has revealed to him, that no man may go beyond the bounds of his faith; and, lastly, that no man may allow himself to speak any thing but what he has heard from the Lord. It ought to be observed, likewise, that Christ here confirms his doctrine by an oath, that it may have full authority over us.
You receive not our testimony. This is added, that the Gospel may lose nothing on account of the ingratitude of men. For since few persons are to be found who exercise faith in the truth of God, and since the truth is everywhere rejected by the world, we ought to defend it against contempt, that its majesty may not be held in less estimation, because the whole world despises it, and obscures it by impiety. Now though the meaning of the words be simple and one, still we must draw from this passage a twofold doctrine. The first is, that our faith in the Gospel may not be weakened, if it have few disciples on the earth; as if Christ had said, Though you do not receive my doctrine, it remains nevertheless certain and durable; for the unbelief of men will never prevent God from remaining always true. The other is, that they who, in the present day, disbelieve the Gospel, will not escape with impunity, since the truth of God is holy and sacred. We ought to be fortified with this shield, that we may persevere in obedience to the Gospel in opposition to the obstinacy of men. True indeed, we must hold by this principle, that our faith be founded on God. But when we have God as our security, we ought, like persons elevated above the heavens, boldly to tread the whole world under our feet, or regard it with lofty disdain, rather than allow the unbelief of any persons whatever to fill us with alarm. As to the complaint which Christ makes, that his testimony is not received, we learn from it, that the word of God has, in all ages, been distinguished by this peculiar feature, that they who believed it were few; for the expression — you receive not — belongs to the greater number, and almost to the whole body of the people. There is no reason, therefore, that we should now be discouraged, if the number of those who believe be small.
12.If I have told you earthly things. Christ concludes that it ought to be laid to the charge of Nicodemus and others, if they do not make progress in the doctrine of the Gospel; for he shows that the blame does not lie with him, that all are not properly instructed, since he comes down even to the earth, that he may raise us to heaven. It is too common a fault that men desire to be taught in an ingenious and witty style. Hence, the greater part of men are so delighted with lofty and abstruse speculations. Hence, too, many hold the Gospel in less estimation, because they do not find in it high-sounding words to fill their ears, and on this account do not deign to bestow their attention on a doctrine so low and mean. But it shows an extraordinary degree of wickedness, that we yield less reverence to God speaking to us, because he condescends to our ignorance; and, therefore, when God prattles to us in Scripture in a rough and popular style, let us know that this is done on account of the love which he bears to us. (60) Whoever exclaims that he is offended by such meanness of language, or pleads it as an excuse for not subjecting himself to the word of God, speaks falsely; for he who cannot endure to embrace God, when he approaches to him, will still less fly to meet him above the clouds.
Earthly things. Some explain this to mean the elements of spiritual doctrine; for self-denial may be said to be the commencement of piety. But I rather agree with those who refer it to the form of instruction; for, though the whole of Christ’s discourse was heavenly, yet he spoke in a manner so familiar, that the style itself had some appearance of being earthly. Besides, these words must not be viewed as referring exclusively to a single sermon; for Christ’s ordinary method of teaching — that is, a popular simplicity of style — is here contrasted with the pompous and high-sounding phrases to which ambitious men are too strongly addicted.
13.No one hath ascended to heaven. He again exhorts Nicodemus not to trust to himself and his own sagacity, because no mortal man can, by his own unaided powers, enter into heaven, but only he who goes thither under the guidance of the Son of God. For to ascend to heaven means here, “to have a pure knowledge of the mysteries of God, and the light of spiritual understanding.” For Christ gives here the same instruction which is given by Paul, when he declares that
the sensual man does not comprehend the things which are of God,
and, therefore, he excludes from divine things all the acuteness of the human understanding, for it is far below God.
But we must attend to the words, that Christ alone, who is heavenly, ascends to heaven, but that the entrance is closed against all others. For, in the former clause, he humbles us, when he excludes the whole world from heaven. Paul enjoins
those who are desirous to be wise with God to be fools with themselves,
There is nothing which we do with greater reluctance. For this purpose we ought to remember, that all our senses fail and give way when we come to God; but, after having shut us out from heaven, Christ quickly proposes a remedy, when he adds, that what was denied to all others is granted to the Son of God. And this too is the reason why he calls himself the Son of man, that we may not doubt that we have an entrance into heaven in common with him who clothed himself with our flesh, that he might make us partakers of all blessings. Since, therefore, he is the Father’s only Counselor, (Isaiah 9:6,) he admits us into those secrets which otherwise would have remained in concealment.
Who is in heaven. It may be thought absurd to say that he is in heaven, while he still dwells on the earth. If it be replied, that this is true in regard to his Divine nature, the mode of expression means something else, namely, that while he was man, he was in heaven. It might be said that no mention is here made of any place, but that Christ is only distinguished from others, in regard to his condition, because he is the heir of the kingdom of God, from which the whole human race is banished; but, as it very frequently happens, on account of the unity of the Person of Christ, that what properly belongs to one nature is applied to another, we ought not to seek any other solution. Christ, therefore, who is in heaven, hath clothed himself with our flesh, that, by stretching out his brotherly hand to us, he may raise us to heaven along with him.
14.And as Moses lifted up the serpent. He explains more clearly why he said that it is he alone to whom heaven is opened; namely, that he brings to heaven all who are only willing to follow him as their guide; for he testifies that he will be openly and publicly manifested to all, that he may diffuse his power over men of every class. (62) To be lifted up means to be placed in a lofty and elevated situation, so as to be exhibited to the view of all. This was done by the preaching of the Gospel; for the explanation of it which some give, as referring to the cross, neither agrees with the context nor is applicable to the present subject. The simple meaning of the words therefore is, that, by the preaching of the Gospel, Christ was to be raised on high, like a standard to which the eyes of all would be directed, as Isaiah had foretold, (Isaiah 2:2.) As a type of this lifting up, he refers to the brazen serpent, which was erected by Moses, the sight of which was a salutary remedy to those who had been wounded by the deadly bite of serpents. The history of that transaction is well known, and is detailed in Numbers 21:9. Christ introduces it in this passage, in order to show that he must be placed before the eyes of all by the doctrine of the Gospel, that all who look at him by faith may obtain salvation. Hence it ought to be inferred that Christ is clearly exhibited to us in the Gospel, in order that no man may complain of obscurity; and that this manifestation is common to all, and that faith has its own look, by which it perceives him as present; as Paul tells us that a lively portrait of Christ with his cross is exhibited, when he is truly preached, (Galatians 3:1.)
The metaphor is not inappropriate or far-fetched. As it was only the outward appearance of a serpent, but contained nothing within that was pestilential or venomous, so Christ clothed himself with the form of sinful flesh, which yet was pure and free from all sin, that he might cure in us the deadly wound of sin. It was not in vain that, when the Jews were wounded by serpents, the Lord formerly prepared this kind of antidote; and it tended to confirm the discourse which Christ delivered. For when he saw that he was despised as a mean and unknown person, he could produce nothing more appropriate thanthe lifting up of the serpent, to tell them, that they ought not to think it strange, if, contrary to the expectation of men, he were lifted up on high from the very lowest condition, because this had already been shadowed out under the Law by the type of the serpent.
A question now arises: Does Christ compare himself to the serpent, because there is some resemblance; or, does he pronounce it to have been a sacrament, as the Manna was? For though the Manna was bodily food, intended for present use, yet Paul testifies that it was a spiritual mystery, (1 Corinthians 10:3.) I am led to think that this was also the case with the brazen serpent, both by this passage, and the fact of its being preserved for the future, until the superstition of the people had converted it into an idol, (2 Kings 18:4.) If any one form a different opinion, I do not debate the point with him.
16.For God so loved the world. Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish. And this order ought to be carefully observed; for such is the wicked ambition which belongs to our nature, that when the question relates to the origin of our salvation, we quickly form diabolical imaginations about our own merits. Accordingly, we imagine that God is reconciled to us, because he has reckoned us worthy that he should look upon us. But Scripture everywhere extols his pure and unmingled mercy, which sets aside all merits.
And the words of Christ mean nothing else, when he declares the cause to be in the love of God. For if we wish to ascend higher, the Spirit shuts the door by the mouth of Paul, when he informs us that this love was founded on the purpose of his will, (Ephesians 1:5.) And, indeed, it is very evident that Christ spoke in this manner, in order to draw away men from the contemplation of themselves to look at the mercy of God alone. Nor does he say that God was moved to deliver us, because he perceived in us something that was worthy of so excellent a blessing, but ascribes the glory of our deliverance entirely to his love. And this is still more clear from what follows; for he adds, thatGod gave his Son to men, that they may not perish. Hence it follows that, until Christ bestow his aid in rescuing the lost, all are destined to eternal destruction. This is also demonstrated by Paul from a consideration of the time;
for he loved us while we were still enemies by sin,
And, indeed, where sin reigns, we shall find nothing but the wrath of God, which draws death along with it. It is mercy, therefore, that reconciles us to God, that he may likewise restore us to life.
This mode of expression, however, may appear to be at variance with many passages of Scripture, which lay in Christ the first foundation of the love of God to us, and show that out of him we are hated by God. But we ought to remember — what I have already stated — that the secret love with which the Heavenly Father loved us in himself is higher than all other causes; but that the grace which he wishes to be made known to us, and by which we are excited to the hope of salvation, commences with the reconciliation which was procured through Christ. For since he necessarily hates sin, how shall we believe that we are loved by him, until atonement has been made for those sins on account of which he is justly offended at us? Thus, the love of Christ must intervene for the purpose of reconciling God to us, before we have any experience of his fatherly kindness. But as we are first informed that God, because he loved us, gave his Son to die for us, so it is immediately added, that it is Christ alone on whom, strictly speaking, faith ought to look.
He gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him may not perish. This, he says, is the proper look of faith, to be fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love: this is a firm and enduring support, to rely on the death of Christ as the only pledge of that love. The word only-begotten is emphatic, ( ἐμφατικὸν) to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die. To this name Christ has a right, because he is by nature the only Son of God; and he communicates this honor to us by adoption, when we are engrafted into his body.
That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found inthe world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.
Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ.
Still it is not yet very evident why and how faith bestows life upon us. Is it because Christ renews us by his Spirit, that the righteousness of God may live and be vigorous in us; or is it because, having been cleansed by his blood, we are accounted righteous before God by a free pardon? It is indeed certain, that these two things are always joined together; but as the certainty of salvation is the subject now in hand, we ought chiefly to hold by this reason, that we live, because God loves us freely by not imputing to us our sins. For this reason sacrifice is expressly mentioned, by which, together with sins, the curse and death are destroyed. I have already explained the object of these two clauses,
which is, to inform us that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves; for in this wretched condition of mankind, redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation.
17.For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world. It is a confirmation of the preceding statement; for it was not in vain that God sent his own Son to us. He came not to destroy; and therefore it follows, that it is the peculiar office of the Son of God, that all who believe may obtain salvation by him. There is now no reason why any man should be in a state of hesitation, or of distressing anxiety, as to the manner in which he may escape death, when we believe that it was the purpose of God that Christ should deliver us from it. The word world is again repeated, that no man may think himself wholly excluded, if he only keep the road of faith.
The word judge ( πρίνω) is here put for condemn, as in many other passages. When he declares that he did not come to condemn the world, he thus points out the actual design of his coming; for what need was there that Christ should come to destroy us who were utterly ruined? We ought not, therefore, to look at any thing else in Christ, than that God, out of his boundless goodness chose to extend his aid for saving us who were lost; and whenever our sins press us — whenever Satan would drive us to despair — we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because he has appointed his Son to be the salvation of the world
When Christ says, in other passages, that he is come to judgment, (John 9:39;) when he is called a stone of offense, (1 Peter 2:7;) when he is said to be set for the destruction of many, (Luke 2:34 :) this may be regarded as accidental, or as arising from a different cause; for they who reject the grace offered in him deserve to find him the Judge and Avenger of contempt so unworthy and base. A striking instance of this may be seen in the Gospel; for though it is strictly
the power of God for salvation to every one who believeth,
the ingratitude of many causes it to become to them death. Both have been well expressed by Paul, when he boasts of
having vengeance at hand, by which he will punish all the adversaries of his doctrine after that the obedience of the godly shall have been fulfilled,
The meaning amounts to this, that the Gospel is especially, and in the first instance, appointed for believers, that it may be salvation to them; but that afterwards believers will not escape unpunished who, despising the grace of Christ, chose to have him as the Author of death rather than of life.
18.He who believeth in him is not condemned. When he so frequently and so earnestly repeats, that all believers are beyond danger of death, we may infer from it the great necessity of firm and assured confidence, that the conscience may not be kept perpetually in a state of trembling and alarm. He again declares that, when we havebelieved, there is no remaining condemnation, which he will afterwards explain more fully in the Fifth Chapter. The present tense — is not condemned — is here used instead of the future tense — shall not be condemned — according to the custom of the Hebrew language; for he means that believers are safe from the fear of condemnation.
But he who believeth not is condemned already This means that there is no other remedy by which any human being can escape death; or, in other words, that for all who reject the life given to them in Christ, there remains nothing but death, since life consists in nothing else than in faith. The past tense of the verb,is condemned already, ( ἤδη κέκριται,) was used by him emphatically, ( ἐμφατικῶς,) to express more strongly that all unbelievers are utterly ruined. But it ought to be observed that Christ speaks especially of those whose wickedness shall be displayed in open contempt of the Gospel. For though it is true that there never was any other remedy for escaping death than that men should betake themselves to Christ, yet as Christ here speaks of the preaching of the Gospel, which was to be spread throughout the whole world, he directs his discourse against those who deliberately and maliciously extinguish the light which God had kindled.
19.And this is the condemnation He meets the murmurs and complaints, by which wicked men are wont to censure — what they imagine to be the excessive rigour of God, when he acts towards them with greater severity than they expected. All think it harsh that they who do not believe in Christ should be devoted to destruction. That no man may ascribe his condemnation to Christ, he shows that every man ought to impute the blame to himself. The reason is, that unbelief is a testimony of a bad conscience; and hence it is evident that it is their own wickedness which hinders unbelievers from approaching to Christ. Some think that he points out here nothing more than the mark of condemnation; but, the design of Christ is, to restrain the wickedness of men, that they may not, according to their custom, dispute or argue with God, as if he treated them unjustly, when he punishes unbelief with eternal death. He shows that such a condemnation is just, and is not liable to any reproaches, not only because those men act wickedly, who preferdarkness tolight, and refuse the light which is freely offered to them, but because that hatred of the light arises only from a mind that is wicked and conscious of its guilt. A beautiful appearance and lustre of holiness may indeed be found in many, who, after all, oppose the Gospel; but, though they appear to be holier than the angels, there is no room to doubt that they are hypocrites, who reject the doctrine of Christ for no other reason than because they love their lurking-places by which their baseness may be concealed. Since, therefore, hypocrisy alone renders men hateful to God, all are held convicted, because were it not that, blinded by pride, they delight in their crimes, they would readily and willingly receive the doctrine of the Gospel.
20.For whosoever doeth what is evil. The meaning is, that the light is hateful to them for no other reason than because they are wicked and desire to conceal their sins, as far as lies in their power. Hence it follows that, by rejecting the remedy, they may be said purposely to cherish the ground of their condemnation. We are greatly mistaken, therefore, if we suppose that they who are enraged against the Gospel are actuated by godly zeal, when, on the contrary, they abhor and shun the light, that they may more freely flatter themselves in darkness
21.But he who doeth truth This appears to be an improper and absurd statement, unless you choose to admit that some are upright and true, before they have been renewed by the Spirit of God, which does not at all agree with the uniform doctrine of Scripture; for we know that faith is the root from which the fruits of good works spring. To solve this difficulty, Augustine says, that to do truth means “to acknowledge that we are miserable and destitute of all power of doing good;” and, certainly, it is a true preparation for faith, when a conviction of our poverty compels us to flee to the grace of God. But all this is widely removed from Christ’s meaning, for he intended simply to say that those who act sincerely desire nothing more earnestly than light, that their works may be tried; because, when such a trial has been made, it becomes more evident that, in the sight of God, they speak the truth and are free from all deceit. Now it would be inconclusive reasoning, were we to infer from this, that men have a good conscience before they have faith; for Christ does not say that the elect believe, so as to deserve the praise of good works, but only what unbelievers would do, if they had not a bad conscience.
Christ employed the word truth, because, when we are deceived by the outward lustre of works, we do not consider what is concealed within. Accordingly, he says, that men who are upright and free from hypocrisy willingly go into the presence of God, who alone is the competent Judge of our works. For those works are said to be done in God or according to God, which are approved by Him, and which are good according to His rule. Hence let us learn that we must not judge of works in any other way than by bringing them to the light of the Gospel, because our reason is wholly blind.
22.After these things came Jesus. It is probable that Christ, when the feast was past, came into that part of Judea which was in the vicinity of the town Enon, which was situated in the tribe of Manasseh. The Evangelist says that there were many waters there, and these were not so abundant in Judea. Now geographers tell us, that these two towns, Enon and Salim, were not far from the confluence of the river Jordan and the brook Jabbok; and they add that Scythopolis was near them. From these words, we may infer that John and Christ administered baptism by plunging the whole body beneath the water; though we ought not to give ourselves any great uneasiness about the outward rite, provided that it agree with the spiritual truth, and with the Lord’s appointment and rule. So far as we are able to conjecture, the; vicinity of those places caused various reports to be circulated, and many discussions to arise, about the Law, about the worship of God, and about the condition of the Church, in consequence of two persons who administered baptism having arisen at the same time. For when the Evangelist says that Christ baptized, I refer this to the commencement of his ministry; namely, that he then began to exercise publicly the office which was appointed to him by the Father. And though Christ did this by his disciples, yet he is here named as the Author of the baptism, without mentioning his ministers, who did nothing but in his name and by his command. On this subject, we shall have something more to say in the beginning of the next Chapter.
25.A question then arose. Not without a good reason does the Evangelist relate that a question arose from the disciples of John; for just in proportion as they were ill-informed about doctrine, they are so much the more eager to enter into debate, as ignorance is always bold and presumptuous. If others had attacked them, they might have been excused; but when they themselves, though unfit to maintain the contest, voluntarily provoke the Jews, it is a rash and foolish proceeding. Now the words mean, that “thequestion was raised by them;” and not only were they to blame for taking up a matter which they did not understand, and speaking about it rashly and beyond the measure of their knowledge; but another fault — not less than the former — was, that they did not so much intend to maintain the lawfulness of Baptism as to defend the cause of their master, that his authority might remain unimpaired. In both respects, they deserved reproof, because, not understanding what was the real nature of Baptism, they expose the holy ordinance of God to ridicule, and because, by sinful ambition, they undertake to defend the cause of their master against Christ.
It is evident, therefore, that they were astonished and confounded by a single word, when it was represented to them that Christ also was baptizing; for while their attention was directed to the person of a man, and to outward appearance, (64) they gave themselves less concern about the doctrine. We are taught, by their example, into what mistakes those men fall who are actuated by a sinful desire to please men rather than by a zeal for God; and we are likewise reminded that the single object which we ought to have in view and to promote by all means is, that Christ alone may have the pre-eminence.
About purifying The question was about purifying; for the Jews had various baptisms and washings (65) enjoined by the Law; and not satisfied with those which God had appointed, (66) they carefully observed many others which had been handed down from their ancestors. When they find that, in addition to so great a number and variety of purifyings, a new method of purifying is introduced by Christ and by John, they look upon it as absurd.
26.To whom thou gavest testimony. By this argument they endeavor either to make Christ inferior to John, or to show that John, by doing him honor, had laid him under obligations; for they reckon that John conferred a favor on Christ by adorning him with such honorable titles. As if it had not been the duty of John to make such a proclamation, or rather, as if it had not been John’s highest dignity to be the herald of the Son of God. Nothing could have been more unreasonable than to make Christ inferior to John, because his testimony was highly favorable; for we know what John’s testimony was. The expression which they use — all men come to Christ — is the language of envious persons, (67) and proceeds from sinful ambition; for they are afraid that the crowd will immediately forsake their master.
27.A man cannot receive any thing. Some refer these words to Christ, as if John accused the disciples of wicked presumption in opposition to God, by endeavoring to deprive Christ of what the Father had given to him. They suppose the meaning to be this: “That within so short a time he has risen to so great honor, is the work of God; and therefore it is in vain for you to attempt to degrade him whom God with his own hand has raised on high.” Others think that it is an exclamation into which he indignantly breaks forth, because his disciples had hitherto made so little progress. And certainly it was excessively absurd that they should still endeavor to reduce to the rank of ordinary men him who, they had so often heard, was the Christ, that he might not rise above his own servants; and, therefore, John might justly have said that it is useless to spend time in instructing men, because they are dull and stupid, until they are renewed in mind.
But I rather agree with the opinion of those who explain it as applying to John, as asserting that it is not in his power, or in theirs, to make him great, because the measure of us all is to be what God intended us to be. For if even the Son of God took not that honour to himself, (Hebrews 5:4,) what man of the ordinary rank would venture to desire more than what the Lord has given him? This single thought, if it were duly impressed on the minds of us all, would be abundantly sufficient for restraining ambition; and were ambition corrected and destroyed, the plague of contentions would likewise be removed. How comes it then, that every man exalts himself more than is proper, but because we do not depend on the Lord, so as to be satisfied with the rank which he assigns to us?
28.You are witnesses to me. John expostulates with his disciples that they did not give credit to his statements. He had often warned them that he was not the Christ; and, therefore, it only remained that he should be a servant and subject to the Son of God along with others. And this passage is worthy of notice; for, by affirming that he is not the Christ, he reserves nothing for himself but to be subject to the head, and to serve in the Church as one of the rest, and not to be so highly exalted as to obscure the honor of the Head. He says that he was sent before, to prepare the way for Christ, as kings are wont to have heralds or forerunners.
29.He who hath the bride. By this comparison, he confirms more fully the statement, that it is Christ alone who is excluded from the ordinary rank of men. For as he who marries a wife does not call and invite his friends to the marriage, in order to prostitute the bride to them, or, by giving up his own rights, to allow them to partake with him of the nuptial bed, but rather that the marriage, being honored by them, may be rendered more sacred; so Christ does not call his ministers to the office of teaching, in order that, by conquering the Church, they may claim dominion over it, but that he may make use of their faithful labors for associating them with himself. It is a great and lofty distinction, that men are appointed over the Church, to represent the person of the Son of God. They are, therefore, like the friends whomthe bridegroom brings with him, that they may accompany him in celebrating the marriage; but we must attend to the distinction, that ministers, being mindful of their rank, may not appropriate to themselves what belongs exclusively to the bridegroom The whole amounts to this, that all the eminence which teachers may possess among themselves ought not to hinder Christ from ruling alone in his Church, or from governing it alone by his word.
This comparison frequently occurs in Scripture, when the Lord intends to express the sacred bond of adoption, by which he binds us to himself. For as he offers himself to be truly enjoyed by us, that he may be ours, so he justly claims from us that mutual fidelity and love which the wife owes to her husband. This marriage is entirely fulfilled in Christ, whose flesh and bones we are, as Paul informs us, (Ephesians 5:30.) The chastity demanded by him consists chiefly in the obedience of the Gospel, that we may not suffer ourselves to be led aside from its pure simplicity, as the same Apostle teaches us, (2 Corinthians 11:2.) We must, therefore, be subject to Christ alone, he must be our only Head, we must not turn aside a hair’s-breadth from the simple doctrine of the Gospel, he alone must have the highest glory, that he may retain the right and authority of being a bridegroom to us.
But what are ministers to do? Certainly, the Son of God calls them, that they may perform their duty to him in conducting the sacred marriage; and, therefore, their duty is, to take care, in every way, that the spouse — who is committed to their charge — may be presented by them as a chaste virgin to her husband; which Paul, in the passage already quoted, boasts of having done. But they who draw the Church to themselves rather than to Christ are guilty of basely violating the marriage which they ought to have honored. And the greater the honor which Christ confers on us, by making us the guardians of his spouse, so much the more heinous is our want of fidelity, if we do not endeavor to maintain and defend his right.
This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He means that he has obtained the fulfillment of all his desires, and that he has nothing further to wish, when he sees Christ reigning, and men listening to him as he deserves. Whoever shall have such affections that, laying aside all regard to himself, he shall extol Christ and be satisfied with seeing Christ honored, will be faithful and successful in ruling the Church; but, whoever shall swerve from that end in the slightest degree will be a base adulterer, and will do nothing else than corrupt the spouse of Christ.
30.He must increase. John the Baptist proceeds farther; for, having formerly been raised by the Lord to the highest dignity, he shows that this was only for a time, but now that the Sun of Righteousness, (Malachi 4:2) has arisen, he must give way; and, therefore, he not only scatters and drives away the empty fumes of honor which had been rashly and ignorantly heaped upon him by men, but also is exceedingly careful that the true and lawful honor which the Lord had bestowed on him may not obscure the glory of Christ. Accordingly, he tells us that the reason why he had been hitherto accounted a great Prophet was, that for a time only he was placed in so lofty a station, until Christ came, to whom he must surrender his office. In the meantime, he declares that he will most willingly endure to be reduced to nothing, provided that Christ occupy and fill the whole world with his rays; and this zeal of John all pastors of the Church ought to imitate by stooping with the head and shoulders to elevate Christ.
31.He who cometh from above. By another comparison he shows how widely Christ differs from all the rest, and how far he is above them; for he compares him to a king or distinguished general, who, speaking from his lofty seat, ought to be heard with reverence for his authority, but shows that it is enough for himself to speak from the lowest footstool of Christ. (69) In the second clause the old Latin translation has only once the words, is of the earth; but the Greek manuscripts agree in repeating the words twice. I suspect that ignorant men considered the repetition to be superfluous, and therefore erased it; but the meaning is: he who is of earth gives evidence of his descent, and remains in an earthly rank according to the condition of his nature. He maintains that it is peculiar to Christ alone to speak from above, because he came from heaven
But it may be asked, Did not John also come from heaven, as to his calling and office, and was it not therefore the duty of men to hear the Lord speaking by his mouth? For he appears to do injustice to the heavenly doctrine which he delivers. I reply, this was not said absolutely, but by comparison. If ministers be separately considered, they speak as from heaven, with the highest authority, what God commanded them; but, as soon as they begin to be contrasted with Christ, they must no longer be anything. Thus the Apostle, comparing the Law with the Gospel, says,
Since they escaped not who despised him that spoke on earth, beware lest you despise him who is from heaven,
Christ, therefore, wishes to be acknowledged in his ministers, but in such a manner that he may remain the only Lord, and that they may be satisfied with the rank of servants; but especially when a comparison is made, he wishes to be so distinguished that he alone may be exalted.
32.And what he hath seen and heard. John proceeds in the discharge of his office; for, in order to procure disciples for Christ, he commends Christ’s doctrine as certain, because he utters nothing but what he has received from the Father. Seeing and hearing are contrasted with doubtful opinions, unfounded rumors, and every kind of falsehoods; for he means that Christ teaches nothing but what has been fully ascertained. But some one will say that little credit is due to him who has nothing but what he has heard. I reply, this word denotes that Christ has been taught by the Father, so that he brings forward nothing but what is divine, or, in other words, what has been revealed to him by God.
Now this belongs to the whole person of Christ, so far as the Father sent him into the world as His ambassador and interpreter. He afterwards charges the world with ingratitude, in basely and wickedly rejecting such an undoubted and faithful interpreter of God. In this way he meets the offense which might cause many to turn aside from the faith, and might hinder or retard the progress of many; for, as we are accustomed to depend too much on the judgment of the world, a considerable number of persons judge of the Gospel by the contempt of the world, or at least, where they see it everywhere rejected, they are prejudiced by that event, and are rendered more unwilling and more slow to believe. And, therefore, whenever we see such obstinacy in the world, let this admonition hold us in constant obedience to the Gospel, that it is truth which came from God. When he says that NO-MAN, receiveth his testimony, he means that there are very few and almost no believers, when compared with the vast crowd of unbelievers.
33.But he who receiveth his testimony. Here he exhorts and encourages the godly to embrace boldly the doctrine of the Gospel, as if he had said that there was no reason why they should be ashamed or uneasy on account of their small number, since they have God as the Author of their faith, who alone abundantly supplies to us the place of all the rest. And, therefore, though the whole world should refuse or withhold faith in the Gospel, this ought not to prevent good men from giving their assent to God. They have something on which they may safely rest, when they know that to believe the Gospel is nothing else than to assent to the truths which God has revealed. Meanwhile, we learn that it is peculiar to faith to rely on God, and to be confirmed by his words; for there can be no assent, unless God have, first of all, come forward and spoken. By this doctrine faith is not only distinguished from all human inventions, but likewise from doubtful and wavering opinions; for it must correspond to the truth of God, which is free from all doubt, and therefore, as God cannot lie, it would be absurd that faith should waver. Fortified by this defense, whatever contrivances Satan may employ in his attempts to disturb and shake us, we shall always remain victorious.
Hence, too, we are reminded how acceptable and precious a sacrifice in the sight of God faith is. As nothing is more dear to him than his truth, so we cannot render to him more acceptable worship than when we acknowledge by our faith that He is true, for then we ascribe that honor which truly belongs to him. On the other hand, we cannot offer to him a greater insult than not to believe the Gospel; for he cannot be deprived of his truth without taking away all his glory and majesty. His truth is in some sort closely linked with the Gospel, and it is his will that there it should be recognized. Unbelievers, therefore, as far as lies in their power, leave to God nothing whatever; not that their wickedness overthrows the faithfulness of God, but because they do not hesitate to charge God with falsehood. If we are not harder than stones, this lofty title by which faith is adorned ought to kindle in our minds the most ardent love of it; for how great is the honor which God confers on poor worthless men, when they, who by nature are nothing else than falsehood and vanity, are thought worthy of attesting by their signature the sacred truth of God?
34.For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God. He confirms the preceding statement, for he shows that we have actually to do with God, when we receive the doctrine of Christ; because Christ proceeded from none else than from the Heavenly Father. It is, therefore, God alone who speaks to us by him; and, indeed, we do not assign to the doctrine of Christ all that it deserves, unless we acknowledge it to be divine.
For God giveth not the Spirit by measure. This passage is explained in two ways. Some extend it to the ordinary dispensation in this manner: that God, who is the inexhaustible fountain of all benefits, does not in the least degree diminish his resources, when he largely and plentifully bestows his gifts on men. They who draw from any vessel what they give to others come at last to the bottom; but there is no danger that any thing of this sort can happen with God, nor will the abundance of his gifts ever be so large that he cannot go beyond it, whenever he shall be pleased to make a new exercise of liberality. This exposition appears to have some plausibility, for the sentence is indefinite; that is, it does not expressly point out any person. (70)
But I am more disposed to follow Augustine, who explains that it was said concerning Christ. Nor is there any force in the objection, that no express mention is made of Christ in this clause, since all ambiguity is removed by the next clause, in which that which might seem to have been said indiscriminately about many is limited to Christ. For these words were unquestionably added for the sake of explanation, that the Father hath given all things into the hand of his Son, because he loveth him, and ought therefore to be read as placed in immediate connection. The verb in the present tense — giveth — denotes, as it were, a continued act; for though Christ was all at once endued with the Spirit in the highest perfection, yet, as he continually flows, as it were, from a source, and is widely diffused, there is no impropriety in saying that Christ now receives him from the Father. But if any one choose to interpret it more simply, it is no unusual thing that there should be a change of tenses in such verbs, and that giveth should be put for hath given (71)
The meaning is now plain, that the Spirit was not given to Christ by measure, as if the power of grace which he possesses were in any way limited; as Paul teaches that
to every one is given according to the measure of the gift,
so that there is no one who alone has full abundance. For while this is the mutual bond of brotherly intercourse between us, that no man separately considered has every thing that he needs, but all require the aid of each other, Christ differs from us in this respect, that the Father has poured out upon him an unlimited abundance of his Spirit. And, certainly, it is proper that the Spirit should dwell without measure in him, that we may all draw out of his fullness, as we have seen in the first chapter. And to this relates what immediately follows, that the Father hath given all things into his hand; for by these words John the Baptist not only declares the excellence of Christ, but, at the same time, points out the end and use of the riches with which he is endued; namely, that Christ, having been appointed by the Father to be the administrator, he distributes to every one as he chooses, and as he finds to be necessary; as Paul explains more fully in the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, which I lately quoted. Although God enriches his own people in a variety of ways, this is peculiar to Christ alone, that he has all things in his hand
35.The Father loveth the Son. But what is the meaning of this reason? Does he regard all others with hatred? The answer is easy, that he does not speak of the common love with which God regards men whom he has created, or his other works, but of that peculiar love which, beginning with the Son, flows from him to all the creatures. For that love with which, embracing the Son, he embraces us also in him, leads him to communicate all his benefits to us by his hand.
36.He who believeth in the Son. This was added, not only to inform us that we ought to ask all good things from Christ, but likewise to make us, acquainted with the manner in which they are enjoyed. He shows that enjoyment consists in faith; and not without reason, since by means of it we possess Christ, who brings along with him both righteousness andlife, which is the fruit of righteousness. When faith in Christ is declared to be the cause of life, we learn from it that life is to be found in Christ alone, and that in no other way do we become partakers of it than by the grace of Christ himself. But all are not agreed as to the way in which the life of Christ comes to us. Some understand it thus: “as by believing we receive the Spirit, who regenerates us in order to justification, by that very regeneration we obtain salvation.” For my own part, though I acknowledge it to be true, that we are renewed by faith, so that the Spirit of Christ governs us, yet I say that we ought first to take into consideration the free forgiveness of sins, through which we are accepted by God. Again, I say that on this all our confidence of salvation is founded, and in this it consists; because justification before God cannot be reckoned to us in any other way than when he does not impute to us our sins.
But he who believeth not in the Son. As he held out life in Christ, by the sweetness of which he might allure us, so now he adjudges to eternal death all who do not believe in Christ. And, in this way, he magnifies the kindness of God, when he warns us, that there is no other way of escaping death, unless Christ deliver us; for this sentence depends on the fact, that we are all accursed in Adam. Now if it be the office of Christ to save what was lost, they who reject the salvation offered in him are justly suffered to remain in death. We have just now said that this belongs peculiarly to those who reject the gospel which has been revealed to them; for though all mankind are involved in the same destruction, yet a heavier and double vengeance awaits those who refuse to have the Son of God as their deliverer. And, indeed, it cannot be doubted that the Baptist, when he denounced death against unbelievers, intended to excite us, by the dread of it, to the exercise of faith in Christ. It is also manifest; that all the righteousness which the world thinks that it has out of Christ is condemned and reduced to nothing. Nor is any one enabled to object that it is unjust that those who are otherwise devout and holy should perish, because they do not believe; for it is folly to imagine that there is any holiness in men, unless it have been given to them by Christ.
To see life is here put for “enjoying life.” But to express more clearly that no hope remains for us, unless we are delivered by Christ, he says that the wrath of God abideth on unbelievers. Though I am not dissatisfied with the view given by Augustine, that John the Baptist used the word abideth, in order to inform us that, from the womb we were appointed to death, because we are all born the children of wrath, (Ephesians 2:3.) At least, I willingly admit an allusion of this sort, provided we hold the true and simple meaning to be what I have stated, that death hangs over all unbelievers, and keeps them oppressed and overwhelmed in such a manner that they can never escape. And, indeed, though already the reprobate are naturally condemned, yet by their unbelief they draw down on themselves a new death. And it is for this purpose that the power of binding was given to the ministers of the gospel; for it is a just vengeance on the obstinacy of men, that they who shake off the salutary yoke of God should bind themselves with the chains of death.
Monday, February 27th, 2017
the Last Week after Epiphany
Search This Commentary