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Bible Commentaries

Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges
John 3



Other Authors
Verse 1

1. ἦν δὲ ἄνθ. Now there was a man. The δέ marks the connexion with what precedes: Nicodemus was one of the ‘many’ who believed on beholding His signs (John 2:23). Ἄνθρωπος probably refers to John 2:25, as in John 1:6 to John 1:4; Nicodemus was a sample of that humanity whose inmost being Jesus could read. Else we should expect τις.

Νικόδημος. He is mentioned only by S. John. It is impossible to say whether he is the Nicodemus (Nakedimon), or Bunai, of the Talmud, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem. Love of truth and fear of man, candour and hesitation, seem to be combined in him. Comp. John 7:50. In John 19:39 his timidity is again noted and illustrated.

ἄρχων. A member of the Sanhedrin (John 7:50 : comp. John 12:42; Luke 23:13; Luke 24:20), which was opposed to Jesus; hence, to avoid compromising himself (John 12:42), he comes by night. We do not know whether S. John was present; probably he was. Nicodemus would not be afraid of disciples.

Verses 1-21


This is the first of the discourses of our Lord which form the main portion, and are among the great characteristics, of this Gospel. They have been used as a powerful argument against its authenticity; [1] because they are unlike the discourses in the Synoptic Gospels, [2] because they are suspiciously like the First Epistle of S. John, which all admit was written by the author of the Fourth Gospel, [3] because this likeness to the First Epistle pervades not only the discourses of our Lord, but those of the Baptist also, as well as the writer’s own reflections throughout the Gospel. The inference is that they are, as much as the speeches in Thucydides, if not as much as those in Livy, the ideal compositions of the writer himself.

On the question as a whole we may say at once with Matthew Arnold (Literature and Dogma, p. 170), “the doctrine and discourses of Jesus cannot in the main be the writer’s, because in the main they are clearly out of his reach.” ‘Never man so spake’ (John 7:46). Not even S. John could invent such words.

But the objections urged above are serious and ought to be answered. [1] The discourses in S. John are unlike those in the Synoptists, but we must beware of exaggerating the unlikeness. They are longer, more reflective, less popular. But they are for the most part addressed to the educated and learned, to Elders, Pharisees, and Rabbis: even the discourse on the Bread of Life, which is spoken before a mixed multitude at Capernaum, is largely addressed to the educated portion of it (John 6:41; John 6:52), the hierarchical party opposed to Him. The discourses in the first three Gospels are mostly spoken among the rude and simple-minded peasants of Galilee. Contrast the University Sermons with the Parish Sermons of an eminent modern preacher, and we should notice similar differences. This fact will account for a good deal. But [2] the discourses both in S. John and in the Synoptists are translations from an Aramaic dialect. Two translations may differ very widely, and yet both be faithful; they may each bear the impress of the translator’s own style, and yet accurately represent the original. This will to a large extent answer objections [2] and [3]. And we must remember that it is possible, and perhaps probable, that the peculiar tone of S. John, so unmistakeable, yet so difficult to analyse satisfactorily, may be a reproduction, more or less conscious, of that of his Divine Master.

But on the other hand we must remember that an eventful life of half a century separates the time when S. John heard these discourses from the time when he committed them to writing. Christ had promised (John 14:26) that the Holy Spirit should ‘bring all things to the remembrance’ of the Apostles; but we have no right to assume that in so doing He would override the ordinary laws of psychology. Material stored up so long in the breast of the Apostle could not fail to be moulded by the working of his own mind. And therefore we may admit that in his report of the sayings of Christ and of the Baptist there is an element, impossible to separate now, which comes from himself. His report is sometimes a literal translation of the very words used, sometimes the substance of what was said put into his own words: but he gives us no means of distinguishing where the one shades off into the other.

Cardinal Newman has kindly allowed the following to be quoted from a private letter written by him, July 15th, 1878. “Every one writes in his own style. S. John gives our Lord’s meaning in his own way. At that time the third person was not so commonly used in history as now. When a reporter gives one of Gladstone’s speeches in the newspaper, if he uses the first person, I understand not only the matter, but the style, the words, to be Gladstone’s: when the third, I consider the style, &c. to be the reporter’s own. But in ancient times this distinction was not made. Thucydides uses the dramatic method, yet Spartan and Athenian speak in Thucydidean Greek. And so every clause of our Lord’s speeches in S. John may be in S. John’s Greek, yet every clause may contain the matter which our Lord spoke in Aramaic. Again, S. John might and did select or condense (as being inspired for that purpose) the matter of our Lord’s discourses, as that with Nicodemus, and thereby the wording might be S. John’s, though the matter might still be our Lord’s.”

Verse 2

2. οὗτος. S. John’s use, to recall a previous subject; comp. John 1:2; John 1:7; John 1:42, John 4:47, John 6:71, John 21:24.

νυκτός. This proved his timidity and illustrated his spiritual condition; he was coming out of the night to the Light of men, as Judas went out from Him into the night (see on John 13:30, John 10:22, John 18:1, John 21:19 and Introduction, chap. v. § 3). Jesus welcomes him; He does not quench the smoking flax.

οἴδαμεν. Others also are inclined to believe, and he claims a share in their enlightenment; but there is a touch of Pharisaic complacency in the word: ‘some of us are quite disposed to think well of you.’ The report of the deputation sent to the Baptist (John 1:19-28) and Christ’s signs have to this extent influenced even members of the Sanhedrin. On Ῥαββί see John 1:39, John 4:31.

ἀπὸ θεοῦ. First for emphasis; it was from God that His commission to be a Rabbi came, not from having gone through the ordinary training (John 7:15-16). Does ‘art come from God’ indicate the Messiah, ὁ ἐρχόμενος? If so, Nicodemus again shews his weakness; he begins with admitting Messiahship and ends with the vague word διδάσκαλος: the Messiah was never thought of as a mere teacher. But ἀπὸ θεοῦ may indicate only a Prophet (John 1:6), or even less.

ἐὰν μὴ κ.τ.λ. Again a weak conclusion; one expects ‘unless he be a Prophet,’ or, ‘the Messiah.’

Verse 3

3. ἀπεκρίθη. He answers his thoughts (John 5:17; Luke 7:40). Nicodemus wonders whether Jesus is about to set up a kingdom. see on John 2:25 and John 1:51.

ἐὰν μή τις. Except one be born: quite indefinite. Nicodemus changes τις to ἄνθρωπος.

ἄνωθεν. The strict meaning is either 1. ‘from above’ literally (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), or 2. ‘from above’ figuratively (James 1:17; James 3:15; James 3:17), or 3. ‘from the beginning’ (Luke 1:3; Acts 26:5). S. John uses ἄνωθεν thrice elsewhere; John 19:23, ‘from above’ literally; John 3:23 and John 19:11, ‘from above’ figuratively. This favours the rendering ‘from above’ here, which is generally adopted by the Greek Fathers from Origen onwards. Moreover ‘to be born from above’ recalls being ‘born of God’ in John 1:13 (comp. 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:4; 1 John 5:18). But ‘from the beginning’ easily shades off into ‘afresh’ or ‘over again’ (Galatians 4:9 we have πάλιν ἄνωθεν combined). Hence from very early times this has been one of the interpretations of ἄνωθεν here, preserved in the Peschito, Ethiopic, and Latin Versions. It confirms the rendering ‘over again’ or ‘anew’ to find Justin Martyr (Apol. I. lxi) quoting ἂν μὴ ἀναγεννηθῆτε, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τ. βας. τ. οὐρανῶν as words of Christ (see on John 1:23 and John 9:1): ἀναγεννᾶσθαι must mean ‘to be reborn.’ Comp. Christ’s reply to S. Peter in the beautiful legend of the ‘Domine, quo vadis?’, ἄνωθεν μέλλω σταυρωθῆναι: where ἄνωθεν σταυροῦν doubtless represents the ἀνασταυροῦν (crucify afresh) of Hebrews 6:6.

οὐ δύναται. It is a moral impossibility; not ‘shall not’ but ‘cannot.’ see on John 7:7.

ἰδεῖν. i.e. so as to partake of it: so ἰδεῖν θάνατον, Luke 2:26; θάνατον θεωρεῖν, John 8:51; comp. Psalms 16:10; Psalms 90:15.

τ. βας. τ. θεοῦ. This phrase, so common in the Synoptists, occurs only here and John 3:5 in S. John. We may conclude that it was the very phrase used. It looks back to the theocracy, and indicates the Messianic kingdom on earth, the new state of salvation.

Had Jesus been a mere enthusiast, would He have given so chilling a reply (comp. John 3:10) to a member of the Sanhedrin? Would He not have been eager to make the most of such an opening?

Verse 4

4. γέρων ὤν. He puts the most impossible case, possibly with reference to himself, ‘when he is an old man, like myself.’ New birth as a metaphor for spiritual regeneration cannot have been unknown to Nicodemus. He purposely misinterprets, in order to force a reductio ad absurdum: or, more probably, not knowing what to say, he asks what he knows to be a foolish question.

Verse 5

5. ἐξ ὕδατος κ. πνεύματος. The ἐξ answers to the εἰς which follows and reminds us of the ἐν in John 1:33. The convert is immersed in the material and spiritual elements, rises new-born out of them, and enters into the kingdom. Christ leaves the foolish question of Nicodemus to answer itself: He goes on to explain what is the real point, and what Nicodemus has not asked, the meaning of ἄνωθεν: ‘of water and (the) Spirit.’ The outward sign and inward grace of Christian baptism are here clearly given, and an unbiassed mind can scarcely avoid seeing this plain fact. This becomes still more clear when we compare John 1:26; John 1:33, where the Baptist declares ‘I baptize with water;’ the Messiah ‘baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.’ The Fathers, both Greek and Latin, thus interpret the passage with singular unanimity. Thus once more S. John assumes without stating the primary elements of Christianity. Baptism is assumed here as well known to his readers, as the Eucharist is assumed in chap. 6. To a well-instructed Christian there was no need to explain what was meant by being born of water and the Spirit. The words therefore had a threefold meaning, past, present, and future. In the past they looked back to the time when the Spirit moved upon the water, causing the new birth from above of Order and Beauty out of Chaos. In the present they pointed to the divinely ordained (John 1:33) baptism of John: and through it in the future to that higher rite, to which John himself bore testimony. Thus Nicodemus would see that he and the Pharisees were wrong in rejecting John’s baptism (Luke 7:30). Of the two elements, water signifies the purifying power, spirit the life-giving power: the one removes hindrances, making the baptized ready to receive the other (Acts 2:38; Titus 3:5). Note that ἐκ is not repeated before πνεύματος, so that the two factors are treated as inseparable: moreover, neither has the article; it is the kind of factors rather than a definite instance that is indicated.

The Sinaiticus and some other authorities here read τῶν οὐρανῶν for τοῦ Θεοῦ. This reading renders Justin’s reference to the passage still more certain (see on John 3:3).

Verse 6

6. The meaning of γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν is still further explained by an analogy. What man inherits from his parents is a body with animal life and passions; what he receives from above is a spiritual nature with heavenly capabilities and aspirations: what is born of sinful human nature is human and sinful; what is born of the Holy Spirit is spiritual and divine.

There is an interesting interpolation here. The old Latin and old Syriac Versions insert quia Deus spiritus est et de Deo natus est. No Greek MS. contains the words, which are obviously a gloss. But S. Ambrose (De Spir. III. 59) charges the Arians with effacing quia Deus spiritus est from their MSS. see on John 1:13.

Verse 7

7. εἶπ. σοι. Δεῖ ὑμᾶς. Note the change of number and comp. John 1:51. The declaration is pressed home: τις in John 3:3; John 3:5 is no vague generality; excepting Him who says ‘ye,’ it is of universal application. ‘Ye, the chosen people, ye, the Pharisees, ye, the rulers, who know so much (John 3:2), must all be born of water and spirit.’

Verse 8

8. τὸ πνεῦμα κ.τ.λ. This verse is sometimes rendered thus: the Spirit breatheth where He willeth, and thou hearest His voice, but canst not tell whence He cometh and whither He goeth: so is every one (born) who is born of the Spirit. It is urged in favour of this rendering [1] that it gives to πνεῦμα the meaning which it almost invariably has in more than 350 places in N.T., of which more than 20 are in this Gospel: πνεῦμα may mean ‘breath of the wind,’ yet its almost invariable use in N.T. is ‘spirit’ or ‘the spirit,’ ἄνεμος being used (e.g. John 6:18) for ‘wind’: [2] that it gives a better meaning to θέλει, a word more appropriate to a person than to anything inanimate: that it gives to φωνή the meaning which it has in 14 other passages in this Gospel, viz. ‘articulate voice,’ and not ‘inarticulate sound.’ But on the other hand [1] it gives to πνεῖ the meaning ‘breathes,’ which it nowhere has in Scripture: in John 6:18 and elsewhere it is invariably used of the blowing of the wind: [2] it involves the expression ‘the voice of the Spirit,’ also unknown to Scripture: [3] it requires the insertion of ‘born’ in the last clause, in order to make sense. The close of the verse, οὕτως ἐστὶ κ.τ.λ., shews that there is a comparison, and this is almost conclusive for ‘wind’ as the meaning of πνεῦμα. Comp. Ecclesiastes 11:5. The Aramaic word probably used by our Lord has both meanings, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit,’ to translate which S. John could not use ἄνεμος, which has only the meaning of ‘wind;’ so that the first rather imposing argument for the rendering ‘spirit’ crumbles away. “At the pauses in the conversation, we may conjecture, they heard the wind without, as it moaned along the narrow streets of Jerusalem; and our Lord, as was His wont, took His creature into His service—the service of spiritual truth. The wind was a figure of the Spirit. Our Lord would have used the same word for both” (Liddon). Socrates uses the same simile; ἄνεμοι αὐτοὶ οὐχ ὁρῶνται, ἂ δὲ ποιοῦσι φανερὰ ἡμῖν ἐστι, καὶ προσιόντων αὐτῶν αἰσθανόμεθα (Xen. Mem. IV. iii. 14). In the Ignatian Epistles (Philad. VII.) we read τὸ πνεῦμα οὐ πλανᾶται, ἀπὸ Θεοῦ ὄν· οἶδεν γὰρ πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει, καὶ τὰ κρυπτὰ ἐλέγχει, which is evidence of this Gospel being known A.D. 150, and probably A.D. 115. see on John 4:10, John 6:33, John 10:9.

ὁ γεγεννημένος. That jumps hath been born; perf. pass. It is all over, this spiritual birth, ‘he knoweth not how.’ He feels that the heavenly influence has done its work; but he finds it incomprehensible in its origin, which is divine, and in its end, which is eternal life. The Sinaiticus, supported by the old Latin and old Syriac, inserts τοῦ ὕδατος καὶ after ἐκ; another proof of the antiquity of corruptions. see on John 1:13, and comp. John 3:6; John 3:13; John 3:15.

Verse 9

9. γενέσθαι. Come to pass (see on John 1:6). He is bewildered; but there is no attempt at a rejoinder, as in John 3:4. Comp. Job 40:4-5.

Verse 10

10. σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκ. Art thou the teacher, a representative of the highest knowledge and supreme authority in the Church? Jesus is astonished at the ignorance of Rabbis, just as He marvelled at the unbelief of His countrymen (Mark 6:6). Ἰσραήλ, frequent in Matt., Luke, and Acts, occurs only 4 times in S. John (John 1:31; John 1:50, John 13:13, and here): ‘the chosen people’ is the idea conveyed. Οὐ γινώσκεις. Perceivest not: this was knowledge which he might have acquired, had he made the effort. Winer, p. 143.

Verse 11

11. οἴδαμεν. The plurals between singulars are to be noted. They may be rhetorical, giving the saying the tone of a proverb; but the next verse seems to shew that they are literal. Jesus and His disciples tell of earthly things, Jesus alone of heavenly. Note the order and the pairing of the verbs; That which we know, we speak; and of that which we have seen, we bear witness. see on John 1:18. For καὶοὐ λαμβ. The tragic tone once more; see on John 1:5.

Verse 12

12. τὰ ἐπίγεια. Terrena, things which take place on earth, even though originating in heaven, e.g. the ‘new birth,’ which though ‘of God,’ must take place in this world. See on 1 Corinthians 15:40, and James 3:15. Prophets and other teachers can make known ἐγίγεια. τὰ ἐπουράνια. The mysteries which are not of this world, the nature of the Son, God’s counsels respecting man’s salvation.

Verse 13

13. οὐδεὶς ἀναβ. No one has been in heaven, so as to see and know these ἐπουράνια, excepting the Son of Man (see on John 1:51). There is probably no direct reference to the Ascension. Ἐκ τ. οὐρ. Out of heaven, at the Incarnation, when from being ἐπουράνιος He became the Son of Man.

ὁ ὢν ἐν τ. οὐρ. These words are wanting in the best MSS. and other authorities. It is much easier to account for their insertion than for their omission. It is, therefore, safest to regard them as a very early expansion of the Greek in ancient Versions. see on John 1:13. They mean, ‘Whose proper home is heaven,’ or, taking ὤν as imperf. (John 6:62, John 9:25, John 17:5), ‘Which was in heaven’ before the Incarnation, Winer, p. 429.

Verse 14

14. τὸν ὄφιν. We here have some evidence of the date of the Gospel. The Ophitic is the earliest Gnostic system of which we have full information. The serpent is the centre of the system, at once its good and evil principle. Had this form of Gnosticism been prevalent before this Gospel was written, this verse would scarcely have stood thus. An orthodox writer would have guarded his readers from error: an Ophitic writer would have made more of the serpent.

οὕτως. Christ here testifies to the prophetic and typical character of the O.T. Both Jewish and Christian writers vary much in their explanations of the Brazen Serpent. It is safest in interpreting types and parables to hold fast to the main features and not insist on the details. Here the main points are the lifting up of a source of life to become effectual through the faith of the sufferer. All these points are expressed in John 3:14-15. Nicodemus lived to see the fulfilment of the prophecy (John 19:39).

ὑψωθῆναι. On the Cross, as in John 8:28. The exaltation of Christ to glory by means of the Cross (crux scala coeli) is probably not included: for this δοξασθῆναι would be the more natural term. In John 12:32 the Ascension is possibly included by ἐκ τῆς γῆς and in Acts 2:33; Acts 5:31 by τῇ δεξιᾷ τ. Θεοῦ: here and in John 8:28 there is no such addition. Moreover, to include the Ascension spoils the comparison with the Brazen Serpent.

δεῖ. It is so ordered in the counsels of God (Hebrews 2:9-10). Comp. John 3:30, John 9:4, John 10:16, John 12:34, John 20:9; Matthew 16:21; Matthew 26:54; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Luke 17:25; Luke 22:37; Luke 24:7; Luke 24:26; Luke 24:44.

Verse 15

15. ἵνα. see on John 1:8. The eternal life of all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, is the purpose of the Divine δεῖ. The lifting up on the Cross was the turning-point in the faith of Nicodemus (John 19:39).

ἐν αὐτῷ. This goes with ἔχῃ rather than πιστεύων; that every one (John 11:25, John 12:46) that believeth may in Him have eternal life. Authorities are much divided between ἐν and ἐπ, αὐτῷ, εἰς and ἐπ' αὐτόν. The confusion partly arose from the insertion of μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' from John 3:16 before ἔχῃ, causing the preposition and pronoun to be taken with πιστεύων.

ζωὴν αἰώνιον. This is one of S. John’s favourite phrases. It occurs 17 times in the Gospel (8 in the Synoptics) and 6 in the First Epistle. In neither Gospel nor Epistle does he apply αἰώνιος to anything but ζωή. The phrase ἔχειν ζωὴν αἰώνιον is also one of S. John’s phrases, John 3:36, John 5:24, John 6:40; John 6:47; John 6:54; 1 John 3:15; 1 John 5:12.

Verse 16

16. γάρ. Explaining how God wills life to every believer. Τὸν κόσμον = the whole human race (see on John 1:10). This would be a revelation to the exclusive Pharisee, brought up to believe that God loved only the Chosen People. Ἀγαπᾶν very frequent in the Gospel and First Epistle, and may be considered characteristic of S. John: see on John 5:20. ΄ονογενῆ; see on John 1:14. This shews the greatness of God’s love: it would remind Nicodemus of the offering of Isaac. Comp. 1 John 4:9; Hebrews 11:17; Romans 8:32. Ἔδωκεν is stronger than ‘sent:’ it was a free gift to the world. Winer, p. 377.

πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. The only limitation: eternal life is open to all. Ἀπόληται. Subj. after a past tense; see on John 1:7. The translation of ζωὴ αἰώνιος should be uniform; A.V. wavers between ‘eternal life’ (John 3:15, John 5:39, John 6:54; John 6:68, &c.), ‘life eternal’ (John 4:36, John 12:25), ‘everlasting life’ (here, John 3:36, John 4:14, John 5:24, &c.), and ‘life everlasting’ (John 12:50): ‘eternal life’ is best.

Verses 16-21

16–21. It is much disputed whether what follows is a continuation of Christ’s discourse, or S. John’s comment upon it. That expressions characteristic of S. John’s diction appear (μονογενής, πιστεύειν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα, ποιεῖν τὴν ἀλήθειαν, τὸ φῶς), cannot settle the question; the substance may still be Christ’s though the wording is S. John’s. And have we sufficient knowledge of our Lord’s phraseology to distinguish S. John’s wording from His? In any case we have what was probably a conversation of long duration condensed into one of five minutes. Nor does the cessation of the conversational form prove anything. The more Nicodemus became impressed the less he would be likely to interrupt, like the disciples in the last discourses. It seems unlikely that S. John would give us no indication of the change from the Lord’s words to his own, if the discourse with Nicodemus really ended at John 3:15. See on John 3:31-36.

The subject of these six verses is as follows; God’s purpose in sending His Son (16, 17); the opposite results (18, 19); the moral cause of these opposite results (20, 21).

Verse 17

17. τὸν κόσμον. Thrice for emphasis; characteristic of S. John’s style (comp. John 3:31, John 1:10, John 12:36, John 15:19, John 17:14).

οὐἵνα κρίνῃ. Not in order to judge (comp. Luke 9:56). This does not contradict John 9:39. Since there are sinners in the world, Christ’s coming involves a separation (κρίσις) of them from the good, a judgment, a sentence: but this is not the purpose of His coming; the purpose is salvation (John 12:47). The Jews expected both judgment and salvation from the Messiah, judgment for the Gentiles, salvation for themselves. Jesus affirms that the result of the κρίσις depends on the faith, not on the race of each. Κρίνειν and κρίσις are among S. John’s characteristic words.

Verse 18

18. οὐ κρίνεταικέκριται. Change of tense: is not judged … hath been judged. The Messiah has no need to sentence unbelievers; their unbelief in the self-revelation (ὄνομα) of the Messiah is of itself a sentence. They are self-condemned; comp. John 3:36. Note the change from fact to supposition marked by οὐ followed by μή: Winer, pp. 594, 602.

Verse 19

19. αὕτη δέ ἐς. ἡ κρ. But the judgment is this; this is what it consists in. We have precisely the same construction 1 John 1:5; 1 John 5:11; 1 John 5:14; and almost the same (ἵνα for ὅτι) John 15:12, John 17:3.

τὸ φῶς. This is not only S. John’s term (John 1:4-9) but Christ’s (John 8:12, John 9:5, John 12:46). On ἐλήλ. εἰς τ. κ. see on John 11:27.

καὶ ἠγαπ. The tragic tone again (see on John 1:5). Men loved the darkness rather than the Light. Litotes or meiosis (John 6:37, John 8:40); they hated the Light. Gravis malae conscientiae lux, Seneca, Ep. 122. No allusion to Nicodemus coming by night: he chose darkness to conceal not an evil work but a good one.

Verse 20

20. φαῦλα. Whereas πονηρός (John 3:19) expresses the malignity of evil, its power to cause suffering (πόνος), φαῦλος (perhaps akin to paulus) expresses the worthlessness of it. The one is positive, the other negative. Satan is ὁ πονηρός, the great author of mischief (John 17:15; 1 John 2:13-14; 1 John 3:12; 1 John 5:18-19): πνεύματα πονηρά (Luke 7:21), ὀφθαλμὸς πον. (Mark 7:22), γενεὰ πον. (Matthew 12:39), are mischief-working spirits, eye and generation. Φαῦλος is the exact opposite of σπουδαῖος: the one is ‘frivolous, good-for-nothing, naughty;’ the other is ‘serious, earnest, good.’

πράσσων. Is there any difference between πράσσειν and ποῖειν in these two verses? John 3:29 inclines one to think so, and the distinction drawn is that πράσσειν (agere) expresses mere activity, while ποιεῖν (facere) implies a permanent result. But in Romans 7:15-20; Romans 13:4 the two words are interchanged indifferently, each being used both of doing good and of doing evil. He that practiseth worthless things (the aimless trifler) hateth the light, which would shew the true value of the inanities which fill his existence. 1 Kings 22:8.

οὐκ. ἔρχ. The hatred is instinctive, the not coming is deliberate.

ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ. In order that his works may not be convicted of worthlessness, proved to be what they really are. The A.V. translates ἐλέγχειν here and John 16:8 ‘reprove,’ John 8:9 ‘convict,’ John 8:46, ‘convince;’ and here the margin has ‘discovered.’ see on John 16:8; Matthew 18:15.

Verse 21

21. ποιῶν τ. ἀλήθ. To do the truth (1 John 1:6) is the opposite of ‘doing’ or ‘making a lie,’ ποιεῖν ψεῦδος (Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15). It is moral rather than intellectual truth that is meant, moral good recognised by the conscience (John 18:37). To ‘do the truth’ is to do that which has true moral worth, the opposite of ‘practising worthless things.’ In 1 Corinthians 13:6 we have a similar antithesis: ‘rejoicing with the truth’ is opposed to ‘rejoicing in iniquity.’ see on John 1:9.

αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα. Αὐτοῦ is emphatic; ‘his works’ as opposed to those of ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων. Φανερωθῇ (see on John 1:31) balances ἐλεγχθῇ: the one fears to be convicted; the other seeks the light, not for self-glorification, but as being drawn to that to which he feels that his works are akin. Ὅτι is better rendered ‘that’ than ‘because.’

ἐν θεῷ. Note the order and the tense; that it is in God that they have been wrought and still abide: the permanent result of a past act. ‘In God’ means in the presence and in the power of God.

These three verses (19–21) shew that before the Incarnation there were two classes of men in the world; a majority of evil-doers, whose antecedents led them to shun the Messiah; and a small minority of righteous, whose antecedents led them to welcome the Messiah. They had been given to Him by the Father (John 6:37, John 17:6); they recognised His teaching as of God, because they desired to do God’s will (John 7:17). Such would be Simeon, Anna (Luke 2:25; Luke 2:36), Nathanael, the disciples, &c.

We have no means of knowing how Nicodemus was affected by this interview, beyond the incidental notices of him John 7:50-51, John 19:39, which being so incidental shew that he is no fiction. The discourse exactly harmonizes with his case, teaching that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is powerless to gain admission into the kingdom of heaven. One by one his Pharisaic ideas of the kingdom, the Messiah, salvation and judgment, are challenged: from mere wonder at miracles and interest in the Worker of them he is made to look within and consider his own moral sympathies and spiritual convictions. Again we ask could a writer of the second century throw himself back to this?

Verse 22

22. μετὰ ταῦτα. Quite vague; a less close connexion than is indicated by μετὰ τοῦτο. Contrast John 5:1; John 5:14, John 6:1, John 19:38, John 21:1 with John 2:12, John 11:7; John 11:11, John 19:28. Εἰς τ. Ἰουδαίαν γῆν. Occurs here only; comp. ἡ Ἰ. χώρα, Mark 1:5; Acts 26:20. Both phrases indicate the country as distinct from the capital. The sphere of Christ’s ministry widens; first the Temple (John 2:14), then Jerusalem (John 2:23), now Judaea, finally Galilee (John 4:45, John 6:1).

διέτριβενἐβάπτιζεν. Imperfects, implying that this went on for some time. He was baptizing through His disciples (John 4:2): not yet in the Name of the Trinity (John 7:39), as ordered to the Apostles (Matthew 28:19), but as a continuation of John’s Baptism, accompanied by the operation of the Spirit (John 3:5). We have abundant evidence that John baptized before Christ’s ministry began, and that the Apostles baptized after His ministry closed; yet “this is the one passage in which it is positively stated that our Lord authorised baptism during His lifetime” (Sanday). But how probable that the one baptism should be the offspring of the other!

Verse 22-23

22, 23. A mark of authenticity similar to John 2:12. It is impossible to suppose that these verses were written in the interests of dogma. S. John records these events, not for any theological purpose, but because he was present, and remembers them.

Verses 22-36


Verse 23

23. ἦνβαπτίζων. Not as rival to the Messiah but still in preparation for Him, as Samuel continued to be Judge after the King was appointed. John knew that the Messiah had come; but He had not taken the public position which John expected Him to take, and hence John was not led to suppose that his own office in preaching repentance was at an end. John still went on; Jesus, owing to His rejection in Jerusalem, seems to go back, “becoming in a way His own fore-runner” (Godet). Thus they appear for a moment baptizing side by side. But the Baptist has reached his zenith; whereas the Messiah’s career has scarcely begun.

Αἰνών. ‘Springs.’ The identifications of Aenon and Salim remain uncertain. The Wâdy Fâr’ah, an open vale full of springs, running from Ebal to Jordan, is a tempting conjecture. There is a Salim three miles south, and the name Aenon survives in ’Ainûn, four miles north of the waters.

ὕδατα πολλά. For immersion: the expression points to springs or streams rather than a single river like the Jordan.

Verse 24

24. The Evangelist has not said a word that could imply that the Baptist was in prison. This remark refers to the Synoptists, and guards us against the inference easily drawn from them (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14) that John’s imprisonment followed close on the Temptation and preceded the beginning of Christ’s ministry. The whole of John 1-3 precedes Matthew 4:12. In this magisterial interpretation of earlier Gospels we trace the hand of an Apostle writing with sure knowledge and conscious authority.

Verse 25

25. ἐγένετο οὖν. There arose therefore; in consequence of Jesus and John baptizing so near together. The Evangelist’s favourite particle to mark a sequence in fact: see Introduction, Chap. John 3:6 (c).

ζήτησις ἐκ κ.τ.λ. Questioning on the part of the disciples of John with a Jew. The common reading Ἰουδαίων is respectably supported, but seems quite out of place; with Ἰουδαίου, which has far the strongest support, one expects τινος. The questioning may have been as to the efficacy of John’s baptism compared with Christ’s, or with the ordinary ceremonial purifications. Ἐκ implies that John’s disciples started the discussion, and it ends in their going at once to their master for his opinion about Jesus and His success.

Verse 26

26. ᾧ σὺ μεμ. To whom thou hast borne witness. This was what seemed so monstrous; that One who appeared to owe His position to John’s testimony should be competing with him and surpassing him: σύ and οὗτος are in emphatic opposition.

ἴδε οὗτος. Lo (see on John 1:29) this fellow, expressing astonishment and chagrin, and perhaps contempt: they regard baptizing as John’s prerogative. In Matthew 9:14 we find them cavilling again.

πάντες. An exaggeration very natural in their excitement: the picture is thoroughly true to life. Comp. the excited statement of the Samaritan woman, John 4:29; of the Pharisees, John 12:19; contrast John 3:32, and see on John 6:15.

Verse 27

27. οὐ δύναται. Comp. John 19:11. The meaning is disputed; either [1] ‘Jesus could not succeed thus without help from Heaven, and this should satisfy you that He is sent by God;’ or [2] ‘I cannot accept the supremacy which you would thrust on me, because I have not received it from Heaven.’ The former is better, as being a more direct answer to ‘all men come to Him.’ Possibly both meanings are intended.

Verse 28

28. αὐτοὶ ὑμεῖς. ‘Ye yourselves, though you are so indignant on my behalf.’ They had appealed to his testimony (John 3:26); he turns it against them. He is not responsible for their error.

ἔμπ. ἐκ. John speaks more plainly in John 1:26; John 1:30 : now that Jesus has manifested Himself he feels free to declare Him to be the Christ.

Verse 29

29. John explains by a figure his subordination to the Messiah.

τὴν νύμφην. Here only in this Gospel does this well-known symbol occur. It is frequent both in O.T. and N.T. Isaiah 54:5; Hosea 2:19-20; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7; Revelation 21:2; Revelation 21:9. Comp. Matthew 9:15; Matthew 25:1. In O.T. it symbolizes the relationship between Jehovah and His chosen people, in N.T. that between Christ and His Church. By ‘the friend of the bridegroom’ is meant the special friend, appointed to arrange the preliminaries of the wedding, to manage and preside at the marriage-feast. Somewhat analogous to our ‘best man,’ but his duties were very much more considerable. A much closer analogy may be found among the lower orders in the Tyrol at the present day. Here the Messiah is the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride; John is His friend who has prepared the heart of the Bride and arranged the espousal. He rejoices to see the consummation of his labours.

ἑστηκὼς καὶ ἀκούων. In the attitude of a devoted attendant.

χαρᾷ χαίρει. A Hebraism: comp. Luke 22:15; Acts 4:17; Acts 5:28; Acts 23:14; James 5:17; Matthew 13:14; Matthew 15:4 (from LXX., where the idiom is common). Winer, p. 584. It is in the marriage festivities that the Bridegroom’s voice is heard.

πεπλήρωται. Has been fulfilled and still remains complete: comp. John 3:18; John 3:21; John 3:26, John 1:34; John 1:51, &c. To speak of joy being fulfilled is an expression peculiar to S. John (John 15:11, John 16:24, John 17:13; 1 John 1:4; 2 John 1:12): the active occurs Philippians 2:2.

Verse 30

30. δεῖ. See on John 3:14. This joy of the Bridegroom’s friend, in full view of the certain wane of his own influence and dignity, is in marked contrast to the jealousy of his disciples. With this triumphant self-effacement he ceases to speak of himself, and the second half of his discourse begins: 1. the Christ and the Baptist (27–30); 2. the Christ and the world (31–36).

Verse 31

31. ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχ. Christ: John 3:13, John 8:23 : ἄνωθεν here must mean ‘from above’; see on John 3:3. He is above all, John included, little as John’s disciples may like the fact. Comp. Matthew 11:11.

ὁ ὢν ἐκ τ. γῆς. Εἶναι ἐκ, expressing a moral relation, is characteristic of S. John 7:17; John 8:23; John 8:44; John 8:47; John 15:19; John 17:14; John 17:16; John 18:36-37; 1 John 2:16; 1 John 2:19; 1 John 2:21; 1 John 3:8; 1 John 3:10; 1 John 3:12; 1 John 3:19; 1 John 4:1-7; 1 John 5:16, 3 John 1:11; elsewhere in N.T. not common. Comp. γεγενῆσθαι ἐκ, John 3:5-6; John 3:8, John 1:13, John 8:41; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:4; 1 John 5:18. Note the emphatic repetition of ἐκ τ. γῆς, as of κόσμος in John 3:17. Comp. John 12:36, John 15:19. He that is of the earthy of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh. This was John’s case: he spoke of ‘earthly things’ (John 3:12). Divine Truth as manifested in the world, and as revealed to him. He could not, like Christ, speak from immediate knowledge of ‘heavenly things.’ Ἐκτ. γῆς λαλεῖν is very different from ἐκ τ. κόσμου λαλεῖν (1 John 4:5); the one is to speak of God’s work on earth; the other of what is not God’s work but opposes it.

ὁ ἐκ τ. οὐρ. ἐρχ. Repeating and defining ὀ ἄνωθεν ἐρχ., thoroughly in S. John’s style. In what follows we have another (see John 3:13; John 3:15) interesting question of reading. T. R. has ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστί, καὶ. The καί must be omitted on overwhelming evidence (אBDL against A): asyndeton is the rule throughout this passage. The evidence as to ἐπάνω π. ἐστί is very divided, the balance being against the words. Omitting them, we translate: He that cometh from heaven beareth witness to that which He hath seen and heard.

Verses 31-36

31–36. A question is raised with regard to this section similar to that raised about John 3:16-21. Some regard what follows not as a continuation of the Baptist’s speech, but as the Evangelist’s comment upon it. But, as in the former case, seeing that the Evangelist gives us no intimation that he is taking the place of the speaker, and that there is nothing in what follows to compel us to suppose that there is such a transition, it is best to regard the Baptist as still speaking. It is, however, quite possible that this latter part of the discourse is more strongly coloured with the Evangelist’s own style and phraseology, while the substance still remains the Baptist’s. Indeed a change of style may be noticed. The sentences becomes less abrupt and more connected; the stream of thought is continuous.

“The Baptist, with the growing inspiration of the prophet, unveils before his narrowing circle of disciples the full majesty of Jesus; and then, as with a swan-like song, completes his testimony before vanishing from history” (Meyer).

There is no contradiction between this passage and Matthew 11:2-6, whatever construction we put on the latter (see notes there). John was ‘of the earth,’ and therefore there is nothing improbable in his here impressing on his disciples the peril of not believing on the Messiah, and yet in prison feeling impatience, or despondency, or even doubt about the position and career of Jesus.

Verse 32

32. ὃ ἑώρακεν κ. ἤκ. In His pre-existence with God; John 3:11, John 1:18. He has immediate knowledge of τὰ ἐπουράνια. Τοῦτο, precisely this is the substance of His witness: comp. John 14:13. This use of a retrospective pronoun for emphasis is frequent in S. John 5:38; John 6:46; John 7:18; John 8:26; John 10:25; John 15:5.

καὶοὐδεὶς λαμβ. The tragic tone again; see on John 1:5, and comp. John 3:11. ‘No man’ is an exaggeration resulting from deep feeling: comparatively speaking none, so few were those who accepted the Messiah. Comp. the similar exaggeration on the other side, John 3:26, ‘all men come to Him.’ These extreme contradictory statements, placed in such close proximity, confirm our trust in the Evangelist as faithfully reporting what was actually said. He does not soften it down to make it look plausible.

Verse 33

33. The Baptist at once shews that οὐδείς is hyperbolical: some did receive the witness; ‘but what are they among so many?’

ἐσφράγισεν. Of sealing a document to express one’s trust in it and adherence to it (John 6:27; 1 Corinthians 9:2): but in this figurative sense the middle is more usual (Romans 15:28; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13; Ephesians 4:30); the active in the literal sense (Matthew 27:66). Αὐτοῦ is emphatic, balancing ὁ Θεός: ‘he that receiveth Christ’s witness, set his seal that God is true.’ To believe the Messiah is to believe God, for the Messiah is God’s ambassador and interpreter (John 1:18). Ἀληθής not ἀληθινός; see on John 1:9.

Verse 34

34. τὰ ῥήματα. S. John uses this word only in the plural (John 5:47, John 6:63; John 6:68, John 8:47, John 12:47, John 15:7); it means the separate utterances, as distinct from ὁ λόγος (John 6:60, John 8:43; John 8:51, John 12:48, John 15:3), which is the communication as a whole.

οὐ γὰρ ἐκ μ. Ὁ Θεός is a gloss of interpretation. Omitting it, we translate, He giveth not the Spirit by measure; or, the Spirit giveth not by measure. The former is better, and ‘He’ is probably God. ‘Unto Him’ should not be supplied, though there is a direct reference to Jesus. ‘Not by measure’ (first for emphasis) ‘giveth He the Spirit,’ least of all to Jesus, ‘for it pleased (the Father) that in Him the whole plenitude (of Divinity) should have its permanent abode’ (Colossians 1:19). Some make Christ the nominative, as giving the Spirit fully to His disciples; but this does not agree with John 3:35.

Verse 35

35. ἀγαπᾷ. See on John 3:16 and comp. John 5:10. The words seem to be an echo of the voice from heaven which John had so lately heard; οὖτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός. The love explains the giving all into His hand, so that He becomes πάντων κύριος (Acts 10:36), and κεφαλὴ ὑπὲρ πάντα (Ephesians 1:22).

δέδωκεν. In S. John statements respecting the Father’s gifts to the Son are specially frequent. He has given Him all things (John 13:3); to have life in Himself (John 3:26); all judgment (John 3:22; John 3:27); His name and glory (John 17:11; John 17:24); authority over all flesh (John 17:2); faithful disciples (John 6:39); commandment what to say (John 12:49) and do (John 14:31, John 17:4). Here the hand signifies power to dispose of and control. Note the pregnant construction; ‘has given into, so that they remain in His hand;’ in John 1:18; John 1:32-33, we have the converse, a verb of rest with a preposition of motion.

Verse 36

36. ἔχει ζ. αἰώνιον. See on John 3:16. Present; ‘hath,’ not ‘shall have.’ Believers already have eternal life. We often think of it as something to be won; but it has already been given. The struggle is not to gain, but to retain: John 5:24, John 6:47; John 6:54, John 17:3. Winer, p. 332.

ὁ ἀπειθῶν. He that disobeyeth, rather than ‘he that believeth not.’ Unbelief may be the result of ignorance; disobedience must be voluntary. A similar correction of A.V. seems to be needed Acts 14:2; Acts 19:9; Romans 11:30 (margin). Comp. Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:11; 1 Peter 4:1.

οὐκ ὄψεται. Has not seen and has no prospect of seeing.

ἡ ὀργὴ τ. θεοῦ. This phrase occurs nowhere else in the Gospels, and its unique character is against this passage (31–36) being the comment of the Evangelist and not the Baptist’s speech. The wrath of God is the necessary complement of the love of God. If there is love for those who believe, there must be wrath for those who refuse. Comp. Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7; Romans 1:18; Romans 9:22; Romans 12:19; 1 John 3:14.

μένει, not μενεῖ; abideth, not ‘will abide.’ He is under a ban until he believes, and he refuses; therefore his ban remains (comp. 1 John 5:12). He, like the believer, not only will have, but has his portion. It rests with him also, whether the portion continues his. He has to struggle, not to avert a sentence, but to be freed from it. Thus the last-spoken words of O.T. prophecy resemble its last-written words. We have here the last utterance of the Baptist. Its sternness recalls and enforces the last solemn warning of Malachi:—‘lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.’


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Bibliography Information
"Commentary on John 3:4". "Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges". 1896.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 26th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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