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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
John 3

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-36


The New Birth. John's Testimony to Jesus

1-15. Conversation with Nicodemus. The ministry at Jerusalem, though disappointing, was not fruitless. Christ's miracles and teaching had made an impression, not only on Nicodemus, but as Nicodemus himself says (John 3:2, cp. John 12:42), on other members of the Sanhedrin. This interview took place by night, on account of the timidity of Nicodemus (cp. John 7:50), and probably in St. John's house at Jerusalem, the evangelist himself being present. Nicodemus may possibly be the Nicodemus, son of Gorion, mentioned in the Talmud.

1. A ruler] i.e. a member of the Sanhedrin.

2, 3. Nicodemus had asked no question, but Jesus knew what he wished to ask, viz. 'If Thou art the Messiah, as some of us are inclined to believe, tell us how we must enter that Kingdom of God, which Thou hast come to establish, and of which Thou hast said so much.' Our Lord answers that a new birth, i.e. a new heart and a new nature, are necessary, according to the testimony of the OT. prophets: 'I will put my Law in their inward parts and write it in their hearts' (see Jeremiah 31:31.; Ezekiel 37:26, etc.). As evidence of the 'new birth,' our Lord would require humility, humble trust in God for salvation through Christ, not a vainglorious boasting in descent from Abraham, or in the punctilious fulfilment of legal ceremonies; also repentance, i.e. sincere abhorrence of sin, and not merely of ceremonial defilement; and, lastly, love, and that not only of one's friends, but also of one's enemies; not only of the righteous, but of publicans and sinners; not only of the Jew, but of the Samaritan and the Gentile—a love, moreover, manifesting itself not in word only, but in works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and instructing the ignorant.

4. How can a man] Nicodemus is unwilling to believe that he, an orthodox and pious Jew, and withal a ruler and a Pharisee, must undergo so radical a change, before he can enter Christ's Kingdom. He therefore affects to misunderstand Christ's words: cp. John 6:52.

5. Of water and of the Spirit] Our Lord again insists that a new birth is necessary, and explains that it must be an inward and spiritual one. It must not be only of 'water,' i.e. the reception of the outward rite of baptism without proper appreciation of what membership of Christ's Kingdom involves, but also of 'the Spirit,' i.e. Nicodemus must approach Christ's baptism with such sincerity of repentance and faith, and such earnest resolution to live up to the ideals of the new Kingdom, that in his case the outward rite will be accompanied by an effusion of the Spirit, that will make his baptism a real 'new birth of water and of the Spirit.' Baptism is again spoken of as a 'new birth' by St. Paul—'according to his mercy he saved us by (RV 'through') the washing (RM 'laver,' i.e. bath) of regeneration (or 'new birth') and renewing of the Holy Ghost' (Titus 3:5). Christ's baptism is often distinguished from John's, as a baptism of the Spirit (Matthew 3:11; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; Acts 19:4, etc.). It confers (on those who receive it rightly) spiritual graces which could not be fully given until Jesus had been glorified (John 7:39). We learn from John 3:26 that already Jesus was admitting disciples into His Kingdom by the rite of baptism, and this explains the allusion to 'water' here.

Jewish and Christian Baptism

(1) The phrase 'new birth' or 'regeneration' here applied by our Lord to Christian baptism was not a new one. The rabbis were accustomed to admit proselytes to Judaism by three rites, all of which they regarded as essential—(a) baptism (always by complete immersion) in the presence of witnesses who answered to the Christian 'sponsors' or 'godparents'; (b) in the case of males, circumcision; (c) sacrifice. The rabbis frequently spoke of this proselyte baptism as a 'regeneration,' i.e. a new birth from heathenism, in which the proselytes had been under the dominion of Satan, into the family of God, in which they enjoyed the privileges of the covenant of Abraham. Our Lord, therefore, might fairly expect Nicodemus, a rabbi and a sanhedrist, to understand Him when He spoke of His own baptism as a new birth from the ceremonies and shadows of the Law to the spiritual reality and power of the New Dispensation.

(2) The context of this v., in which much more is said about 'spirit' than about 'water,' warns us not to rely unduly upon the saving efficacy of baptism regarded as a merely external ordinance. Baptism is not a charm like the purifications of the heathen, nor a mere symbol of purity like those of the Jewish Law, but a sacrament, i.e. a moral means of grace, the full efficacy and effect of which depend upon the response in the soul of the baptised person to the covenanted grace proffered in the ordinance.

(3) No argument against infant baptism can be drawn from the words 'Except a man,' etc. The Greek is quite indefinite, 'Except any one.' In the case of infants the conscious response of the soul to the proffered grace of the ordinance takes place when the age of reason is reached. On infant baptism, see on Matthew 19:13-15.

(4) On this passage, together with Matthew 28:19; (cp. Mark 16:16), is founded the prevailing opinion that baptism ('where it may be had') is indispensably necessary for admission into the Christian covenant.

6. The nature we inherit from our parents is corrupt; the new nature which comes with the new birth is holy and spiritual.

8. As none can trace the source or aim of the wind, yet all can hear and feel it, so is it with those who have experienced the new birth. There is something in the inner life not to be explained, but which reveals itself in its operations, and can be known only by experience.

10. 'You a teacher in Israel, and this, without which all religion is a dead thing, not known to you!'

11. We] Probably St. John and a few other disciples were present.

12. Earthly things] i.e. religious facts and experiences (e.g. repentance, faith, the new birth, etc.), which happen upon this earth, and which are, therefore, comparatively easy to apprehend. Heavenly things] i.e. the hidden and unfathomable counsels of God for human salvation, e.g. the Incarnation, and the Atonement (John 3:13-14, John 3:15).

13. Ascended] This word is not to be taken quite literally. Our Lord only means that He had been in heaven before His Incarnation, and hence could speak of heavenly things (i.e. the Father's most secret counsels) from personal experience. Which is in heaven] Some important authorities omit these words, which, if genuine, affirm that our Lord was at the same time on earth and in heaven, in a state of humiliation, and in a state of glory.

14. See Numbers 21:6-9. As the children of Israel, bitten by the fiery serpents, were cured by looking at the brazen serpent, so sinners may receive remission of sins and eternal life by looking with faith at Jesus, who was 'lifted up,' first upon the cross, and afterwards into heaven: cp. John 8:28; John 12:32, John 12:34.

15. RV 'that whosoever believeth may in Him have eternal life.'

Eternal life] This expression, though found in the other Gospels (Matthew 19:16, etc.) and in the Pauline Epistles (Romans 2:7, etc.), is specially characteristic of St. John. It is that state of blissful communion with God, which is enjoyed by the believer who is reconciled to God through faith in Christ. The NT. generally speaks of it as a future possession, but St. John often regards it as possessed already to some extent in this world. 'Eternal,' lit. 'æonian,' means not simply 'endless,' but 'belonging to the world to come,' and so 'supernatural,' 'spiritual,' 'heavenly.'

16-21. are probably words of Jesus, though some regard them as reflections of the evangelist. They state the broad saving truths of the gospel in direct opposition to the narrow Pharisaism in which Nicodemus had been reared. Whereas the Pharisees confined salvation to a single race, and believed that the Messiah would judge the Gentiles with extreme severity, our Lord declares that God has sent His Son to save the whole world, and not to judge or condemn any part of it. 'Whosoever will,' may believe and be saved.

17. Condemn] lit. 'judge' (RV), but the context shows that an unfavourable judgment is meant.

18. Is condemned (lit. 'hath been judged') already] God's judgment upon men's actions is a present fact; He judges men here and now. The publication of His judgment, however, will not take place until the Last Day.

18. The name] i.e. (practically) the Person.

19. This is the condemnation (RV 'judgment')] i.e. the condemnation is based upon this, that the Light is come into the world, etc. It is implied that men whose deeds are really good, are irresistibly attracted by Christ's words and works, so that they become believers.

21. To 'do the truth,' means to live the Christian life, for Christian truth is more than a belief, it is a way of life. The phrase is peculiar to St. John: cp. 1 John 1:6.

22-36. Jesus leaves Jerusalem and baptises in the country districts of Judæa, where He probably spent most of the time from the Passover, 27 a.d., to the late harvest (December) of the same year: see on John 4:35. His great success rouses the jealousy of John's disciples (John 3:26), but the Baptist, so far from regarding Christ's disciples as too many, laments that they are too few (John 3:32), and again testifies his belief in Christ's Messiahship.

22. Baptized] Our Lord baptised only through the ministry of His disciples (John 4:2). The synoptists represent Christian baptism as not ordained till after the Resurrection (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16); but here it is said to have been practised from the beginning of the ministry. The two accounts are not really inconsistent. What had been Christ's practice during His ministry was raised to the dignity of a perpetual ordinance after the Resurrection. Some regard this preliminary baptism of Christ as a mere baptism of repentance like John's, but it is apparently called a birth 'of water and the Spirit' (John 3:5), and consequently must have been specifically Christian baptism, although doubtless the fulness of the Spirit could not be given till after the Ascension (John 7:39). That the Spirit could be given in some measure before the Ascension, John 20:22 is evidence.

23. Ænon] lit. 'full of springs,' is generally located 8 m. S. of Scythopolis, near Salim (Salumias) and the Jordan.

24. This v. corrects the impression which the synoptic narrative produces, that John was imprisoned immediately after our Lord's baptism. As a matter of fact, the two ministries overlapped by several months, perhaps by a whole year.

25. The Jews] RV 'a Jew.' Perhaps the Jew was a disciple of Jesus, and the dispute was about the comparative cleansing power of John's baptism and Christ's.

27. 'Do not wonder at the success of Jesus. No man can usurp what heaven has not granted him.'

29. By Jewish custom 'the friend of the bridegroom' arranged the marriage contract between the bridegroom and the bride, and presided at the wedding feast. This John did for Jesus, by preparing the Jewish people (the bride) to receive our Lord's teaching.

31-36. Not, as some think, a reflection of the evangelist, but a continuation of the testimony of the Baptist. The Baptist places Christ (he that cometh from above) at an infinite elevation above himself (he that is of the earth) (John 3:31). He declares that Christ came down from heaven, and so can testify to what He has seen there (John 3:32). He alone can give the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). He is God's Son; to Him all power is committed; and through faith in Him eternal life is offered. To disobey Him is to incur God's wrath (John 3:35-36).

31. Christ's teaching is as superior to John's as the heavens are higher than the earth.

32. No man] a rhetorical overstatement. John deplores that the number of Christ's followers, though great, is as nothing compared with what it ought to be.

33. That God is true (lit. 'truthful')] To believe the Messiah is to believe God, for the Messiah is God's ambassador and interpreter (see the next v.).

34. For God (RV 'he') giveth] This may either mean 'for Christ giveth not the Spirit by measure (to believers),' or, 'for God giveth not the Spirit by measure (to Christ).'

36. Believeth not] RV 'obeyeth not.'

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on John 3:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/john-3.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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