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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
John 3



Other Authors
Verse 1

(1) The word πνεῦμα (pneuma) occurs some 370 times in the Greek New Testament, and of these, twenty-three times in this Gospel. It is nowhere rendered “wind” by our translators, except in this instance, and they have rendered the same word by “Spirit” in the same verse, and twice besides in the same context (John 3:5-6). There is another word for “wind” ( ἄνεμος), which occurs thirty-one times in the New Testament, and which John himself uses in John 6:18. It is not contended that πνεῦμα may not mean “wind,” “the breath of wind,” but that this is not its New Testament use, where the word is restricted to its special meaning. (It is plural in Hebrews 1:7; see Note there.) It is admitted also that the Hebrew or Chaldee word which πνεῦμα here translates has the two senses, but the sense in which it is here used is fixed by the translator.

Verse 2

(2) The word for “bloweth,” “breatheth,” is of the same root as πνεῦμα. It is used in the New Testament with “wind,” but naturally has the meaning of its cognate substantive. The Vulgate can exactly render it by “Spiritus ubi vult spirat,” but we have in English no verb cognate with “Spirit.”

Verse 3

(3) It is perfectly natural to ascribe the power of willing to the Spirit, but it is not consistent with the simplicity of our Lord’s teaching thus to personify “wind,” especially in teaching on a subject where the simplest words are hard to fathom. The common rendering makes Him use the same word, in the same verse, of the third person in the Trinity, and of a natural phenomenon.

Verse 4

(4) The proper meaning of the word rendered “sound” ( φωνή) is articulate “voice.” It is used in fifteen passages in this Gospel only, and everywhere translated “voice” except here. Let the reader substitute the one meaning for the other in any of these passages, e.g., John 1:23; John 3:29; John 5:25; John 5:28; John 10:3-5; John 10:16, and he will find that they are not interchangeable.

Verse 5

(5) It is believed that the rendering adopted agrees with the whole context, and gives a fuller sense to the words of the great Teacher.

Verse 6

(6) The sense suggested for the last clause, “In this manner is every one born who is of the Spirit,” removes the necessity of finding something with which the work of the Spirit may be compared, and it is in this necessity that the received versions of the first clause really find their root.

These reasons are, it is thought, not an insufficient basis for the interpretation here adopted. It is adopted not without the knowledge that a consensus of authorities may be pleaded against it. For its details it may be that no authority can be pleaded, but the rendering of πνεῦμα here by “spirit” is not without the support of width of learning and depth of power, critical acumen and spiritual insight, for it rests on the names of Origen and Augustine, of Albrecht Bengel and Frederick Maurice.

Verse 7

(7) Ye must be born again.—The laws of natural and spiritual generation have been stated as general truths, holding good for all mankind, “that which is born.” But there is a special application to the present case, “Marvel not that I said unto thee (teacher as thou art) that ye (children of Abraham as ye are) must be born again.” In so far as they were children of Abraham according to the flesh, they were children of Abraham’s physical and sinful nature. The law of that, as of all human nature, was that flesh ruled animal life, and animal life ruled spirit, and the whole man became carnal, bringing forth the fruits of the flesh. The law of the regenerate nature was that the spirit, born by the influence of the Divine Spirit, rose to a new life of communion with God, controlled the lower life, with its affections, feelings, and desires, and that these thus controlled became the motive power of the body; the whole man thus became spiritual, bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit. (Comp. Note on 1 Thessalonians 5:23.) For them, then, as for all, it was no matter of wonder, it was an absolute necessity of their true life, that they should be born anew.

Verse 8

(8) The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof.—Better (see Note below), the Spirit breatheth where He willeth, and thou hearest His voice. These words are an explanation of the spiritual birth, the necessity of which has been asserted in the previous verses. They must have come to Nicodemus, bringing in their sound echoes of the old familiar words, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). These words would bring to the mind thoughts of the human body, cold, lifeless, corpse-like; of the breath of life passing into it; of the beating pulse, the opening eye, the action of nerve, muscle, and limb, as, in obedience to God’s will, matter became the framework of spirit, and man became a living soul. There are parallel thoughts of the spirit existing in capacity for life and union with God, but crushed beneath the physical life with its imperative demands for support, and the sensible life with its engrossing pleasures and pains, and sorrows and joys; of the Spirit of God breathing upon it; and of the dormant power awakening into a new life of noblest thoughts and hopes and energies, when man is born of the Spirit.

And yet the new spiritual birth, like the physical, cannot be explained. We can observe the phenomena, we cannot trace the principle of life. He breatheth where He willeth, in the wide world of man, free as the wind of heaven, bound by no limits of country or of race. The voice is heard speaking to the man himself, and through him to others; there is the evidence of the new birth in the new life. We know not whence He comes, or whither He goes. We cannot fix the day or hour of the new birth with certainty. We know not what its final issues will be. It is the beginning of a life which is a constant growth, and the highest development here is but the germ of that which shall be hereafter (1 John 3:2).

So is every one that is born of the Spirit.—The sense is, In this manner is every one (born) who is born of the Spirit. The universality is again emphatically asserted. Individual spiritual life depends upon individual spiritual birth. The baptism of the Spirit is needed for all. Now, indeed, coming as a fire burning in men’s hearts, consuming the chaff of sin, while He purifies and stores up all that is true and good; now coming as in a moment, and arresting a man in a course of evil, revealing the iniquity of sin, and giving the power to reform; now coming as the gradual dawning of day upon the youthful soul who has never been wholly without it; here in a sermon or a prayer, there in the lessons of childhood; now by the example of a noble life or the lessons of history; again in the study of Scripture or the truths written on the page of nature—the Spirit breatheth where it willeth. We may not limit His action, but by His action must every one be born again. Comp. the instances of what men call gradual conversion and sudden conversion, placed side by side in the same chapter, in Acts 16:14; Acts 16:29 et seq.

The rendering of the first clause of this verse by the Spirit breatheth for “wind bloweth” of the Authorised version has met with so little support that it is right to state briefly the grounds on which it rests.

Verse 9

(9) How can these things be?—The answer to the previous question has spoken of a spiritual birth and a spiritual life and a spiritual kingdom, but all this is in a region of which the Rabbinic schools knew nothing. They were the authorised exponents of Law and Prophets; they knew the precise number of words, and the shape of letters; the form of a phylactery, and the width of a fringe; the tithing of garden herbs, and the manner of washing the hands: but spirit, life, a man’s soul born again!—“how can these things be?”

Verse 10

(10) Art thou a master of Israel?—Better, Art thou the teacher of Israel? The article is emphatic, and points to the position of Nicodemus as a teacher of repute—“the well-known teacher;” or possibly it is to be understood of the Sanhedrin as represented by him—“Is this the teaching of Israel?” There is something of just indignation here, as everywhere when the words of Jesus Christ are addressed to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. “You who teach others, have you need to learn the very first lessons of true religion? You who claim to loose and bind men, and place heavy burdens on them which they cannot bear, are you without the simplest real knowledge of what God is, or of what man is? Do teachers of Israel know not these things when they lie beneath every page of the Old Testament Scriptures?”

Verse 11

(11) Once again the “Verily, verily” of deeper truth. “We speak that we do know” is in sharp contrast to their formal teaching of matters external to the truth. The plural is not usual in the language of Christ, and the immediate passage to the singular forbids us to accept the usual grammatical explanation that it is the plural of majesty. He apparently joins others with Himself,—those who have spoken and known and testified, and whose testimony has been rejected by the Jews. We have to think of him whose life-work was to bear witness of the Light (John 1:8), and of the band of disciples who form a little school round their Master, and who in Jerusalem, as in Galilee, testified of Him; and it may even be that in the house and presence of one of that band this conversation took place (comp. John 3:2). They knew the power of the new life, and had been baptised of water and of spirit. In their measure and degree, as He in fulness, they spake what they knew, and testified what they had seen. (Comp. John 15:27.)

And ye receive not our witness—i.e., “ye Jews,” the teachers, of whom Nicodemus was one, the representatives of His own who received Him not (John 1:11). This attitude of the mind which refused to accept the evidence of witnesses as to things they had known and seen was of the essence of unbelief, and made further revelation impossible. When the will closed the faculty of faith, it left open no access for fuller spiritual truth.

Verse 12

(12) Earthly things—i.e., things upon earth, having the sphere of their action upon earth. These are not necessarily restricted to the subjects of this interview. The context includes previous witness borne by Him, and there must have been much which is unrecorded. (Comp. John 2:23.) But the new birth is not excluded from “earthly things,” because it is the entrance to a life which, while it is spiritual, is still a life upon earth.

Heavenly things, in the same way, are things which have the sphere of their action in heaven, the full development of the spiritual life, of which the birth only is on earth; the divine counsels of redemption; the Messianic mysteries, of which this ruler of Israel does not understand even the initiation. Comp. the question in the Wisdom of Solomon, “What man is he that can know the counsel of God? or who can think what the will of the Lord is? . . . And hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth, and with labour do we find the things that are before us: but the things that are in heaven who hath searched out?” (John 9:13; John 9:16).

The earthly things are the elements of spiritual knowledge, having their test in the moral sense and in their fitness to supply the spiritual wants of man. When these elements are learnt, the mind is then, and then only, fitted to receive heavenly things. The teaching can only proceed step by step from the known to the unknown; but if the will refuses or the intellect neglects to know the knowable, the man cuts himself off from the power to receive truth. The message from the spirit-world has come, and others read it; but he has not learnt the alphabet. (Comp. Note on John 16:12.)

Verse 13

(13) And no man hath ascended up.—There can be no other means of receiving heavenly truth. No man hath learnt it, and is able to teach it, except the Son of Man, who ever was, and is, in heaven. The thought has met us before (John 1:18). To Nicodemus it must have come as an answer to the words of Agur, which had passed into a proverb to express the vanity of human effort to know God. “Who hath ascended up into heaven or descended?. . . . What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?” (Proverbs 30:4). No man had so passed to heaven and returned again to earth; but there was One then speaking with him who had been in heaven with God, and could tell him its eternal truths. He had that knowledge which a man could obtain only by ascending to heaven, and He came down from heaven with it. From the human point of view He was as one who had already ascended and descended. (Comp. Note on John 1:51.) This is the evident meaning of the sentence, and the form is quite consistent with it. To explain the perfect tense of the future ascension, or to introduce the idea of the “hypostatic union,” by virtue of which the human nature may be said to have ascended into heaven with the divine, is, to give an explanation, not of the text, but of a misunderstanding of it. (But comp. John 6:62.)

Which is in heaven.—These words are omitted in some MSS., including the Sinaitic and the Vatican. The judgment of most modern editors (not including Westcott and Hort) retains them. It is an instance where it is hard to account for the insertion by a copyist, but where the omission is not unlikely, owing to their seeming difficulty. And yet the difficulty is one which vanishes before the true idea of heaven. If heaven is thought of as a place infinitely distant beyond clouds and sky, or as a time in the far future when this world’s life shall end, then it is indeed hard to understand what is here meant by “the Son of Man which is in heaven;” and a copyist may well have found in omission the easiest solution of the difficulty. But if heaven is something wholly different from this coldness of distance in space or time; if it is a state, a life, in which we are, which is in us—now in part, hereafter in its fulness—then may we understand and with glad hearts hold to the vital truth that the Son of Man, who came down from heaven, was ever in heaven; and that every son of man who is born of water and of the Spirit is “made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor (in the present, κληρονόμος) of the kingdom of heaven.”

Verse 14

(14) And as Moses lifted up.—This verse is closely connected by the conjunction “and” with what has gone before. Jesus has taught that in Himself heaven and earth meet; so that, while subject to the conditions of human life, He, the Son of Man, the representative of humanity, is in heaven. He goes on to show that what is true of the representative is, through Him, true of the whole race. Again the Old Testament Scriptures form the basis of the teaching to their expounder. The people in the wilderness bitten by the fiery serpents, the poison-virus spreading through their veins, and causing burning pain, torpor, and death—this was symbolical of the world lying in the misery, restlessness, and spiritual death, which came from the Serpent’s victory in Paradise. The serpent of brass lifted up by Moses, in which the sufferer saw the means of recovery determined by God, and was healed by faith in Him—this was symbolical of the means of salvation determined by God for the world. (Comp. the phrase “lifted up” in John 8:28; John 12:32; and, as an exact parallel with this passage, John 12:34) Nicodemus must have understood that the healing power of the serpent of brass was in the fact that it led men to trust in Jehovah, who had appointed it. This was the current Jewish interpretation. Comp. the Jerusalem Targum, “Their faces were to be fixed on their Father who is in heaven;” so the Targum of Jonathan ben-Uziel, “The heart was fixed on the name of the word of Jehovah;” so, again, the Wisdom of Solomon, “For he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by Thee, that art the Saviour of all” (Wisdom of Solomon 16:7; see the whole passage, Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-13). It was the sign of the Eternal in power and in love present to save, and the man who realised that presence lived with a new life. In the divine counsels it was willed, and must be, that the Son of Man should be the witness to the world of the Eternal Power and Love which saves every man who grasps it.

Verse 14-15

Look And Live

And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the standard: and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.—Numbers 21:8-9.

[And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.—John 3:14-15.]

1. While the children of Israel were roaming homeless through the wilderness, their heart, we read, failed them because of the way, and, as was their wont, they vented their vexation in angry thoughts and rebellious words against God. On this occasion God sent among them judgment in the form of fiery serpents. The bite of these serpents was deadly, so that when a man was once bitten by their venomous fangs his life was forfeited, and, although he did not drop down dead on the instant, in one sense he was a dead man already. What a moment of agony and terror it must have been as all around unfortunate victims were being attacked by these messengers of death! In this terrible emergency the people cried to God, and in doing so confessed, “We have sinned”; and in answer to their prayer Moses was instructed to make a fiery serpent of brass and set it on a pole, and it should come to pass that, if any were bitten by a fiery serpent, on looking at this they would live.

They did well, when they came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee.” So far as I know, it is the only real expression of true sorrow and willing confession which we find in the wilderness story. “We have sinned.” And if so, it is well worth while for us to notice, that this was the occasion for God’s giving to them the great sign of mercy to which Jesus Christ pointed as a sign of Himself. So it is that God gives grace to the humble, encourages the contrite, is found of those who seek.1 [Note: E. S. Talbot.]

2. Recalling this incident of Israel, Jesus found in it a type and prophecy of Himself. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

It is very instructive to notice the New Testament use of the Old Testament record of Moses. His history and its incidents are constantly referred to as illustrations and types of Christ. St. Paul again and again finds his illustrations in the life of Moses, and much more than illustrations. Not with any curious fancy is it that his sturdy logic finds the materials for two compact arguments in these chapters. The manna, the rock, the veil on the face of Moses, are all immediately connected with Jesus Christ. St. John, too, in the Book of Revelation, constantly finds here the imagery by which he sets forth the things which are to come. And the Church in all ages has found in Egypt and the wilderness journey to the goodly land a very Pilgrim’s Progress. No type is more familiar, no illustration more constant. The arrangements of Jewish worship are full of predictions of Christ—living pictures of our salvation. The Lord Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins—the Lamb of God which beareth away the sins of the world. He is the Mercy-seat, as the word propitiation is rendered in the marginal reference. He is the High Priest who ever liveth to make intercession for us, and who is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by Him.2 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

The old is always becoming the new. “As Moses … so the Son of man”; as the old, so the new; as the historical so the prophetical. All the pattern of the spiritual temple has been shown in the mountain, and has been frayed out in shapely and significant clouds which themselves were parables. “That the Scripture might be fulfilled.” History always has something more to do than it seems to have; it does not only record the event of the day, it redeems old subjects, old vows and oaths; it takes up what seems to be the exhausted past and turns it into the present and energetic action of the moment. As Moses, as Jonah, as Solomon, as the bold Esaias; it is always a going-back upon the sacred past and eating up the food that was there provided. Do not live too much in what we call the present; do not live upon the bubble of the hour; have some city of the mind, some far-away strong temple-sanctuary made noble by associations and memories of the tenderest kind. You could easily be dislodged from some sophism of yesterday. If you are living in the little programmes that were published but last night you have but a poor lodgment, and to-morrow you will be found naked, destitute, and hungry. Always go back to the “As Moses, as David, as Daniel, as Jeremiah,” and see in every culminating event a confirmation of this holy word—“that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” The plan was drawn before the building was commenced; the specification was all written out before the builder handled his hammer and his trowel; we do but work out old specifications—old, but not decayed; old with the venerableness of truth. See that you stand upon a broad rock, and do not try to launch your lifeship upon a bubble.1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]

We have here—

I. A Pressing Danger.

i. Death from the bite of a Serpent—“The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6).

ii. Perishing in Sin—“might not perish” (John 3:15 A.V.; “should not perish,” Numbers 3:16).

II. A Way of Escape.

i. A Brazen Serpent lifted up on a pole—“Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard” (Numbers 21:8).

ii. A Sin-bearer lifted up on the Cross—“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14).

III. How to use the Way of Escape.

i. Looking to the Serpent—“If a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

ii. Believing in the Sin-bearer—“that whosoever believeth in him,” R.V. “that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life” (John 3:15).

IV. The Good Effect.

i. Life—“When he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:9).

ii. Eternal Life—“that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life” (John 3:15).


A Pressing Danger

The danger is—(i.) Death from the bite of a serpent (Numbers 21:6); (ii.) “perishing” in sin (John 3:16).

i. The Serpent and Death

1. The district through which the Israelites were passing is infested at the present day with venomous reptiles of various kinds, and this seems to have been its character in the time of Moses. It is impossible clearly to identify these “fiery serpents” with any of the several species now known, or to say why they received the appellation “fiery.” The name may have been given them on account of their colour, or their ferocity, or, inasmuch as the word is rendered “deadly” in the Septuagint, and “burning” in some other versions, it may indicate the burning sensation produced by their bite, and its venomous and fatal character.

2. The bite was fatal. “Much people died.” It was no light affliction which was but for a moment, a passing inconvenience that wore away with time; no sickness was it from which prudence and care could recover them. Not as when Paul shook off his venomous beast into the crackling flames, and it perished there. He who was bitten died: old and young, strong man and frail woman. “Ah,” said some of those who are always ready to make light of any illness unless it is their own, “he will get over it; he is young, and he has youth on his side.” “See,” said another, “what a splendid constitution he has; he will mend.” “Come,” said another, “we must hope for the best.” But much people died.

In October, 1852, Gurling, one of the keepers of the reptiles in the Zoological Gardens, was about to part with a friend who was going to Australia, and according to custom he must needs drink with him. He drank considerable quantities of gin, and although he would probably have been in a great passion if any one had called him drunk, yet reason and common sense had evidently been overpowered. He went back to his post at the gardens in an excited state. He had some months before seen an exhibition of snake-charming, and this was on his poor muddled brain. He must emulate the Egyptians, and play with serpents. First he took out of its cage a Morocco venom-snake, put it round his neck, twisted it about, and whirled it round about him. Happily for him it did not rouse itself so as to bite. The assistant-keeper cried out, “For God’s sake, put back the snake,” but the foolish man replied, “I am inspired.” Putting back the venom-snake, he exclaimed, “Now for the cobra!” This deadly serpent was somewhat torpid with the cold of the previous night, and therefore the rash man placed it in his bosom till it revived, and glided downward till its head appeared below the back of his waistcoat. He took it by the body, about a foot from the head, and then seized it lower down by the other hand, intending to hold it by the tail and swing it round his head. He held it for an instant opposite to his face, and like a flash of lightning the serpent struck him between the eyes. The blood streamed down his face, and he called for help, but his companion fled in horror; and, as he told the jury, he did not know how long he was gone, for he was “in a maze.” When assistance arrived, Gurling was sitting on a chair, having restored the cobra to its place. He said, “I am a dead man.” They put him in a cab, and took him to the hospital. First his speech went, he could only point to his poor throat and moan; then his vision failed him, and lastly his hearing. His pulse gradually sank, and in one hour from the time at which he had been struck he was a corpse. There was only a little mark upon the bridge of his nose, but the poison spread over the body, and he was a dead Prayer of Manasseh 1:1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

ii. Sin and Perishing

1. The bite of these serpents was mortal. The Israelites could have no question about that, because in their own presence “much people of Israel died.” They saw their own friends die of the snake-bite, and they helped to bury them. They knew why they died, and were sure that it was because the venom of the fiery serpents was in their veins. They were left almost without an excuse for imagining that they could be bitten and yet live. Now, we know that many have perished as the result of sin. We are not in doubt as to what sin will do, for we are told by the infallible Word, that “the wages of sin is death,” and, yet again, “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”

Sin can have but one ending—death—death—death. The soul that sinneth it shall die, so rings the warning of God. How foolishly we talk of it! When it is the child, we say, “He is young, and will grow better.” When it is the youth, we say, “Let him sow his wild oats, and he will settle down.” Ah, what cruel folly! What a man soweth, that shall he also reap. When it is middle age, we say, “Yes, it is very sad, but he has a great many good points, you know.” And when he is an old man and dies, we say, “Well, we must hope for the best.” And in upon this Babel there comes the terrible note of doom: The wages of sin is death.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

2. Is it always immediate? Not always. May we not play with the serpent? We may not. Are there not moments when the cruel beast is not cruel? Not one. The sandwasp paralyses the beetle with his sting that he may, and that his progeny may profit, by the paralysis. The sandwasp does not kill the insect, but thrusts a sting into him, not fatally; the insect can still lay eggs for the advantage of the progeny of the sandwasp. It is so with many serpentine tricks; we are paralysed to be used, not to-day, but to be eaten in six months. We are so paralysed that we will do this or do that and have joy in it and have a banquet over it, ay, a foaming tankard of wine that froths out its own mocking laugh. It is the sting of the sandwasp; it has thrust in that venomous sting and hung us up for the next meeting, for the next occasion, just before the bankruptcy comes, and the devouring of our very soul by those whom we have wronged.

The worst consequences of sin are sin itself, more sin. Drink and lust mean stronger passion, more ungovernable desire. Anger and temper mean as their consequence a heart more bitter, more ready for more wrath. Selfish ways mean less power even to see when we are selfish or what selfishness is. Yes, and not only is there deepening of the same sin, but other sins are bred from it; cruelty, even murderous, out of lust and drink; cruelty, too, out of selfishness; lying and slander out of the hot heart and ungoverned life of anger. So it goes: sin breeding sin, sin deepening into more sin.2 [Note: E. S. Talbot.]

It is necessary to be ever vigilant, and, always looking on a trifling sin as one of magnitude, to flee far from it; because if the virtuous deeds exceed the sinful acts by even the point of one of the hairs of the eyelashes, the spirit goes to Paradise; but should the contrary be the case, it descends to hell.1 [Note: “The Dabistan” in Field’s Book of Eastern Wisdom, 121.]

3. What was the sin the Israelites were guilty of?

(1) The fiery serpents came among the people because they had despised God’s way. “The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” It was God’s way; He had chosen it for them, and He had chosen it in wisdom and mercy, but they murmured at it. As an old divine says, “It was lonesome and longsome”; but still it was God’s way, and therefore it ought not to have been loathsome. His pillar of fire and cloud went before them, and His servants Moses and Aaron led them like a flock, and they ought to have followed cheerfully. Every step of their previous journey had been rightly ordered, and they ought to have been quite sure that this compassing of the land of Edom was rightly ordered too. But, no; they quarrelled with God’s way, and wanted to have their own way. This is one of the great standing follies of men; they cannot be content to wait on the Lord and keep His way, but prefer a will and a way of their own.

(2) The people also quarrelled with God’s food. He gave them the best of the best, for “men did eat angels’ food”; but they called the manna by an opprobrious title, which in the Hebrew has a sound of ridicule about it, and even in our translation conveys the idea of contempt. They said, “Our soul loatheth this light bread,” as if they thought it unsubstantial, and only fitted to puff them out, because it was easy of digestion, and did not breed in them that heat of blood and tendency to disease which a heavier diet would have brought with it. Being discontented with their God they quarrelled with the bread which He set upon their table. This is another of man’s follies; his heart refuses to feed upon God’s Word or believe God’s truth. He craves the flesh-meat of carnal reason, the leeks and the garlic of superstitious tradition, and the cucumbers of speculation; he cannot bring his mind down to believe the Word of God, or to accept truth so simple, so fitted to the capacity of a child.


A Way of Escape

The way is—(i.) a brazen serpent lifted up on a pole; (ii.) a Sin-bearer lifted up on the cross.

i. The Brazen Serpent

1. The command to make a brazen or copper serpent, and set it on some conspicuous place, that to look on it might stay the effect of the poison, is remarkable, not only as sanctioning the forming of an image, but as associating healing power with a material object. Two questions must be considered separately—What did the method of cure say to the men who turned their bloodshot, languid eyes to it? and What does it mean for us, who see it by the light of our Lord’s great words about it? As to the former question, we have not to take into account the Old Testament symbolism which makes the serpent the emblem of Satan or of sin. Serpents had bitten the wounded. Here was one like them, but without poison, hanging harmless on the pole. Surely that would declare that God had rendered innocuous the else fatal creatures.

That to which they were to look was to be a serpent, but it was to be a serpent triumphed over, as it were, not triumphing, and held up to view and exhibited as a trophy. Around on every side the serpents are victorious, and the people are dying. Here the serpent is represented as conquered and, we may say, made a spectacle of, and the people who see it live. Strong were the serpents in their power of death, but stronger was God in His omnipotence of life, and the life triumphed.

The sight of the brazen serpent was as though God’s spear had pierced the plague, and held it aloft before their eyes, a vanquished, broken thing. It was not one of the serpents; it was an image of all and any of them; it was the whole serpent curse and plague in effigy.1 [Note: E. S. Talbot.]

2. How could a cure be wrought through merely looking at twisted brass? It seemed, indeed, to be almost a mockery to bid men look at the very thing which had caused their misery. Shall the bite of a serpent be cured by looking at a serpent? Shall that which brings death also bring life? But herein lay the excellency of the remedy, that it was of divine origin; for when God ordains a cure He is by that very fact bound to put potency into it. He will not devise a failure or prescribe a mockery. It should always be enough for us to know that God ordains a way of blessing us, for if He ordains, it must accomplish the promised result. We need not know how it will work, it is quite sufficient for us that God’s mighty grace is pledged to make it bring forth good to our souls.

ii. The Sin-bearer

1. It is strange that the same which hurt should also heal; that from a serpent should come the poison, and from a serpent the antidote of the poison; the same inflicting the wound, and being in God’s ordinance appointed for the healing of the wound. The history would sound a strange one, and would suggest some underlying mystery, even if it stood alone, with no after-word of Scripture claiming a special significance for it. But it is stranger and more mysterious still when we come to the Lord’s appropriation of it to Himself. The Son of Man, healer and helper of the lost race whose nature He took, compared to a serpent! Of what is the serpent the figure everywhere else in Scripture? Not of Christ, but of Christ’s chiefest enemy; of the author of death, not of the Prince of life. Disguised in a serpent’s form, he won his first success, and poisoned at the fountain-head the life of all our race. His name is “the Old Serpent”; while the wicked are a “serpent seed,” a “generation of vipers,” as being in a manner born of him. Strange therefore and most perplexing it is to find the whole symbolism of Scripture on this one occasion reversed, and Christ, not Satan, likened to the serpent.

There is only one explanation which really meets the difficulties of the case. In the words of St. Paul, to the effect that God sent “His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin,” we have the key to the whole mystery.

2. The “sign of salvation,” as it is called in the Book of Wisdom, which Moses was commanded of God to make, was at once most like the serpents which hurt the people, and also most unlike them; most like in appearance, most unlike in reality. In outward appearance it was most like, and doubtless was fashioned of copper or shining brass that it might resemble their fiery aspect the more closely; but in reality it was most unlike them, being, in the very necessities of its nature, harmless and without venom; while they were most harmful, filled with deadliest poison. And thus it came to pass that the thing which most resembled the serpents that had hurt them, the thing therefore which they, the Israelites, must have been disposed to look at with the most shuddering abhorrence, was yet appointed of God as the salve, remedy, medicine, and antidote of all their hurts: and approved itself as such; for “it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” Unlikely remedy, and yet most effectual! And exactly thus it befell in that great apparent paradox, that “foolishness of God,” the plan of our salvation. As a serpent hurt and a serpent healed, so in like manner, as by man came death, by man should come also the resurrection from the dead; as by “one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one should many be made righteous”; “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ,” the second Adam, “shall all be made alive.”

3. That serpent, so like in many points to those which hurt the people, so like in colour, in form, in outward show, was yet unlike in one, and that the most essential point of all—in this, namely, that it was not poisonous, as they were; that there was no harm or hurt in it, as there was in them. Exactly so the resemblance of Christ to His fellow-men, most real in many things, for He was “found in fashion as a man,” hungered, thirsted, was weary, was tempted, suffered, died like other men, was yet in one point, and that the most essential, only apparent. He only seemed to have that poison which they really had. Wearing the sinner’s likeness, for He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” bearing the sinner’s doom, “His face was more marred than any man’s,” He was yet “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners”; altogether clear from every spot, taint, and infection of our fallen nature. What was, and indeed could only be, negative in a dead thing, such as that brazen serpent, the poor type and weak figure of the true, namely, the absence of the venom, this was positive in Him, as the presence of the antidote. And thus out of this Man’s curse came every man’s blessing, out of this Man’s death came every other man’s life.

My predecessor, Dr. Gill, edited the works of Tobias Crisp, but Tobias Crisp went further than Dr. Gill or any of us can approve; for in one place Crisp calls Christ a sinner, though he does not mean that He ever sinned Himself. He actually calls Christ a transgressor, and justifies himself by that passage, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” Martin Luther is reputed to have broadly said that, although Jesus Christ was sinless, yet He was the greatest sinner that ever lived, because all the sins of His people lay upon Him. Now, such expressions I think to be unguarded, if not profane. Certainly Christian men should take care that they use not language which, by the ignorant and uninstructed, may be translated to mean what they never intended to teach.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon.]

There is a text (2 Corinthians 5:21) which tells us that He “knew no sin.” That is very beautiful and significant—“who knew no sin.” It does not merely say did none, but knew none. Sin was no acquaintance of His; He was acquainted with grief, but no acquaintance of sin. He had to walk in the midst of its most frequented haunts, but did not know it; not that He was ignorant of its nature, or did not know its penalty, but He did not know it; he was a stranger to it, He never gave it the wink or nod of familiar recognition. Of course He knew what sin was, for He was very God, but with sin He had no communion, no fellowship, no brotherhood. He was a perfect stranger in the presence of sin; He was a foreigner; He was not an inhabitant of that land where sin is acknowledged. He passed through the wilderness of suffering, but into the wilderness of sin He could never go. “He knew no sin”; mark that expression and treasure it up, and when you are thinking of your substitute, and see Him hang bleeding upon the Cross, think that you see written in those lines of blood traced along His blessed body, “He knew no sin.” Mingled with the redness of His blood (that Rose of Sharon), behold the purity of His nature (the Lily of the Valley)—“He knew no sin.”2 [Note: Ibid.]

4. The Serpent and the Sin-bearer were “lifted up.” The elevation of the serpent was simply intended to make it visible from afar; but it could not have been set so high as to be seen from all parts of the camp, and we must suppose that the wounded were in many cases carried from the distant parts of the wide-spreading encampment to places whence they could catch a glimpse of it glittering in the sunshine.

Of the meaning of this there cannot well be any mistake. It denotes the lifting up of our Lord on the Cross; as St. John, in another place, tells us, that when He said to the Pharisees, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me,” He spoke, ‘signifying by what death he should die.” He did not mean merely that His Name should be preached in all the world, and made thoroughly known as the only way of salvation; He meant that He should be really and bodily lifted up. He meant His nailing to the Cross, and then the setting of the Cross upright in the earth. By this He became, more especially, the “scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.”1 [Note: John Keble.]

It is the lifting up that is the chief point in the comparison The word is mentioned twice—“As Moses lifted up the serpent, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” To Jesus, and to John as taught by Him, the “lifting up” was doubly significant. It meant death upon the Cross, but it also suggested the beginning of His exaltation. As the serpent was lifted up so that it might be seen, we are compelled to adopt the same reason for the lifting up of the Son of Man. It is a marvellous thought, an amazing foresight. The death which was intended to consign Him and His teaching to oblivion was the means by which attention was directed to them. That which was to make Him “accursed” became the means by which He entered into His glory. His name was not obscured, but was exalted above all other names by the shame which men put upon it. The crucifixion was the first step of exaltation, the beginning of a higher stage of Revelation 2 [Note: John Reid.]

I feel a need divine

That meeteth need of mine;

No rigid fate I meet, no law austere.

I see my God, who turns

And o’er His creature yearns:

Upon the cross God gives and claims the tear.3 [Note: Dora Greenwell, Carmina Crucis.]


The Acceptance of the Offer of Escape

The offer of escape is accepted—(i.) by looking to the brazen serpent; (ii.) by believing in the Sin-bearer.

i. Looking to the Serpent

1. We are not told that trust in God was an essential part of the look, but that is taken for granted. Why else should a half-dead man lift his eyelids to look? Such a one knew that God had commanded the image to be made, and had promised healing for a look. His gaze was fixed on it, in obedience to the command involved in the promise, and was, in some measure, a manifestation of faith. No doubt the faith was very imperfect, and the desire was only for physical healing; but none the less it had in it the essence of faith. It would have been too hard a requirement for men through whose veins the swift poison was burning its way, and who, at the best, were so little capable of rising above sense, to have asked from them, as the condition of their cure, a trust which had no external symbol to help it. The singularity of the method adopted witnesses to the graciousness of God, who gave their feebleness a thing to look at, in order to aid them in grasping the unseen power which really effected the cure. “He that hath turned himself to it,” says the Book of Wisdom, “was not saved by the thing which he saw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all.”

They would try all their own remedies before they turned to the Lord. I can think that none would be so busy as the charmers. Amongst them would be some who knew the secrets of the Egyptian snake-charmers. In the “mixed multitude” may have been the professional charmer, boasting a descent which could not fail in its authority. And they come bringing assured remedies. There is the music that can charm the serpent, and destroy the poison. There is the mystic sign set around the place that made it sacred. There are mysterious magic amulets to be worn for safety; this on the neck, and this about the wrist. There is a ceremony that shall hold the serpent spellbound and powerless. But come hither. Lift up this curtain. See here one lies on the ground. “He sleeps.” Nay, indeed, he will never wake again. Why, it is the charmer. Here are the spells and the charms and the mystic signs all around him. And lo! there glides the serpent; the charmer himself is dead.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]

2. We can imagine that when that brazen serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, there were some bitten by those fiery serpents who refused to look at this exalted sign of salvation, and so perished after all.

We may imagine, for instance, a wounded Israelite saying, “I do not believe this hurt of mine to be deadly. If some have died of the same, yet this is no reason why all should die. Surely there are natural remedies, herbs, or salves which the desert itself will supply, by whose aid I can restore health to myself.”

We can imagine another Israelite running into an opposite extreme, not slighting his hurt, but saying on the contrary, “My wound is too deadly for any remedy to avail for its cure. Thousands who have been bitten have already died, their carcases strew the wilderness. I too must die. Some, indeed, may have been healed by looking at that serpent lifted up, but none who were so deeply hurt as I am, none into whose frame that poison had penetrated so far, had circulated so long;” and so he may have turned away his face, and despaired, and died; and as the other perished by thinking lightly of the hurt, this will have perished by thinking lightly of the remedy, as fatal, if not as frequent, an error.

Can we not imagine one of the Israelites demanding, in a moodier and more sullen discontent, “Why were these serpents sent at all? Why was I exposed to injury by them? Now, indeed, after I am hurt, a remedy is proposed; why was not the hurt itself hindered?” Translate these murmurings into the language of the modern world, and you will recognize in others, perhaps at times in yourself, the same displeasure against God’s plan of salvation. “Why should this redemption have been needful at all? Why was I framed so obvious to temptation, so liable to sin? I will not fall in with His plan for counterworking the evil which He has wrought. Let Him, who is its true author, answer for it.” We all know more or less of this temptation, this anger, not against ourselves, but against God, that we should be the sinners which we are, this discontent with the scheme of restoration which He has provided. But what is this after all but an angry putting of that question, older than this world of ours, “Why is there any evil, and whence?“—a mystery none have searched out or can search out here. This only is sure, that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all”; and of the evil in the world, that it is against His will; of the evil in us, that He is on our side in all our struggles to subdue and cast it out.

ii. Believing in the Sin-bearer

1. The brazen serpent was to be looked upon. The wounded persons were to turn their eyes towards it, and so to be healed. So Christ, lifted up on the Cross, is to be believed on, to be looked upon with the eyes of our heart. “The Son of man” is “lifted up, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “The Law could not save us, in that it was weak through the flesh”; through the corruption of our fallen nature, for which it provided no cure. It could but point to Him who is our cure, as Moses did to the brazen serpent. It could not justify us, it could only bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. Justification by faith is that which was betokened by the healing of the Israelites when they looked up to the serpent. It justifies, because it brings us to Him, with whom to be united is to be justified; that is, to be forgiven and saved from this evil world, to be clothed with heavenly righteousness.

2. Trust is no arbitrary condition. The Israelite was told to turn to the brazen serpent. There was no connexion between his look and his healing, except in so far as the symbol was a help to, and looking at it was a test of, his faith in the healing power of God. But it is no arbitrary appointment, as many people often think it is, which connects inseparably together the look of faith and the eternal life that Christ gives. For seeing that salvation is no mere external gift of shutting up some outward Hell and opening the door to some outward Heaven, but is a state of heart and mind, of relation to God, the only way by which that salvation can come into a man’s heart is that he, knowing his need of it, shall trust Christ, and through Him the new life will flow into his heart. Faith is trust, and trust is the stretching out of the hand to take the precious gift, the opening of the heart for the influx of the grace, the eating of the bread, the drinking of the water, of life.

Looking at Jesus—what does it mean practically? It means hearing about Him first, then actually appealing to Him, accepting His word as personal to one’s self, putting Him to the test in life, trusting His death to square up one’s sin score, trusting His power to clean the heart and sweeten the spirit and stiffen the will. It means holding the whole life up to His ideals. Ay, it means more yet; something on His side, an answering look from Him. There comes a consciousness within of His love and winsomeness. That answering look of His holds us for ever after His willing slaves, love’s slaves. Paul speaks of the eyes of the heart. It is with these eyes we look to Him, and receive His answering look.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 16.]

Faith is the keynote of the Gospel by John. The very purpose for which this Gospel was written was that men might believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing they might have life through His name (John 20:31). This purpose is everywhere its predominant feature. From the announcement that John the Baptist was sent “that all men through him might believe” (John 1:7), to the confident assurance with which the beloved disciple makes the declaration that he knows his testimony is true (John 21:24), the Gospel of John is one long argument, conceived with the evident intention of inducing men to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Saviour of all who trust in Him. The word “believe” occurs in this Gospel no fewer than ninety-eight times, and either that or some cognate word is to be found in every chapter.2 [Note: H. Thorne.]

A woman who was always looking within herself, and could not reach assurance and peace, was told she must look out and up. Yet light did not come. One night she dreamed that she was in a pit which was deep, dark, and dirty. There was no way of escape—no door, no ladder, no steps, no rope. Looking right overhead she saw a little bit of blue sky, and in it one star. While gazing at the star she began to rise inch by inch in the pit. Then she cried out, “Who is lifting me?” and she looked down to see. But the moment she looked down she was back again at the bottom of the pit. Again she looked up, saw the star, and began to rise. Again she looked down to see who or what was lifting her, and again she found herself at the bottom. Resolving not to look down again, she for the third time gazed at the star. Little by little she rose; tempted to look down, she resisted the desire; higher and higher she ascended, with her eyes on the star, till at last she was out of the pit altogether. Then she awoke, and said, “I see it all now. I am not to look down or within, but out and up to the Bright and Morning Star, the Lord Jesus Christ.”3 [Note: J. J. Mackay.]


The Good Effect

The effect is—(i.) life: “when he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived”; (ii.) eternal life: “that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.”

i. Life

It does not seem possible that so great a thing as life should depend upon so small a thing as a look. But life often depends on a look. A traveller was once walking over a mountain-road; it grew quite dark, and he lost his way. Then a thunderstorm came on, and he made all the haste he could to try to find some shelter. A flash of lightning showed just for a moment where he was going. He was on the very edge of a precipice. The one look that the lightning enabled him to take saved his life. A few weeks ago I was in a train after it was dark. The signal was put “all right,” and the train started. We had gone a few hundred yards, when I heard the whistle sound very sharply, and soon the train stopped. Some one had shown the engine-driver a red light, and warned him of danger. It turned out that one of the chains by which the carriages were coupled together had broken. If the man who saw the broken chain had not looked, and if the engine-driver had not looked and so seen the red light, most likely many lives would have been lost. Here, again, life depended upon a look.

The wounded Israelite was in one sense dead already, his life was forfeit as soon as he was bitten; it follows that the new life infused by a look at the brazen serpent was miraculous in its character. What have we here but a striking figure of death and resurrection? Not by any natural process of improvement or gradual restoration was the death-stricken Israelite rescued from his fate, but by the direct and supernatural intervention of Him who was even then, as He is still, the resurrection and the life, in whom whosoever believes lives though he were dead.1 [Note: W. H. M. H. Aitken.]

ii. Eternal Life

1. Our Lord said, “Ye must be born again,” and Nicodemus answered, “How can a man be born again when he is old?” Our Lord replied by telling him something more. A man needs to be born not only outwardly of water, but inwardly of the Spirit, and when he is so born he will be as free as the wind—from legal bondage—from the tyranny of sin. And to this Nicodemus replied by asking yet more impatiently, “How can these things be?” The answer that he receives is given through the speaking figure of death and resurrection, and if we desire a striking commentary on the figure, and a definite statement of the truth, we have only to turn to St. Paul’s Epistles. “You hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, and hath raised us up together.” “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” “Having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in his cross.” Surely nothing can be more striking than the parallelism between the words of this passage and the symbolism of the scene that we are contemplating.

Eternal life is the blessing of the Kingdom of God viewed as a personal possession. The description is peculiar to John’s Gospel, but it agrees with the “life” which is spoken of with such emphasis in the other Gospels. According to them, to enter into the Kingdom is to enter into “life” (Matthew 18:3; Matthew 18:8-9). It is not so much duration that is expressed by the word “eternal” as the peculiar quality of the life that arises out of the new relations with God which are brought about by Jesus Christ. It is deathless life, although the believer has still to die, “and go unterrified into the gulf of Death.” It may be described as a life which seeks to obey an eternal rule, the will of God; which is inspired by an eternal motive, the love of God; which lives for and is lightened by an eternal glory, the glory of God; and abides in an eternal blessedness, communion with God. It is both present and future. Here and now for the believer there are a new heaven and a new earth, and the glory of God doth lighten them, and the Lamb is the light thereof. No change which time or death can bring has power to affect the essential character of his life, though its glory as terrestrial is one, and its glory as celestial is another. Wherever after death the man may be who has believed in Jesus, the life that he lives will be the same in its inner spirit and relation. “To him all one, if on the earth or in the sun,” God’s will must be his law, God’s glory his light, God’s presence his blessedness, God’s love his inspiration and joy.1 [Note: John Reid.]

I distinguish between Life, which is our Being in God, and Eternal Life, which is the Light of the Life, that is, fellowship with the Author, Substance, and Former of our Being, the Alpha and Omega. It is the heart that needs re-creation; it is the heart that is desperately wicked, not the Being of man. I think a distinction is carefully maintained in Holy Scripture between the life in the heart and the Life of the Being: “Lighten thou my eyes that I sleep not in death.” It is the Light of Life we want, to purify or re-create or regenerate our hearts so that we may be the Children of Light.2 [Note: R. W. Corbet, Letters from a Mystic of the Present Day, 63.]

2. In the Revised Version there is a little change made here, partly by the exclusion of a clause and partly by changing the order of the words. The alteration is not only nearer the original text, but brings out a striking thought. It reads that “whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.” “May in him have eternal life”—union with Christ by faith, that profound incorporation into Him, which the New Testament sets forth in all sorts of aspects as the very foundation of the blessings of Christianity; that union is the condition of eternal life.

A soldier lay dying on the battlefield; the chaplain speaking to him read St. John 3. When he came to Numbers 21:14-15, he was asked to read them again; when they were read, the soldier, having repeated them, added, “That is enough for me; that is all I want.”3 [Note: L. N. Caley.]

There is a most impressive little story which tells how Sternberg, the great German artist, was led to paint his “Messiah,” which is his masterpiece. One day the artist met a little gypsy girl on the street, and was so struck by her peculiar beauty that he requested her to accompany him to his studio in order that he might paint her. This she consented to do, and while sitting for the great artist she noticed a half-finished painting of Christ on the cross. The gypsy girl, who was ignorant and uneducated, asked Sternberg what it was, and wondered if Christ must not have been an awfully bad man to be nailed to a cross. Sternberg replied that Christ was the best man that ever lived, and that He died on the cross that others might live. “Did He die for you?” asked the gypsy. This question so preyed upon the mind of Sternberg, who was not a Christian, that he was greatly disturbed by it. The more he pondered it, the more impressed he became that, though Christ had died for him, he had not accepted the sacrifice. It was this that led him at last to paint the “Messiah,” which became famous throughout the world. It is said that John Wesley got one of his greatest inspirations from this picture.


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), God’s Everlasting Yea, 117.

Banks (L. A.), On the Trail of Moses, 201.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year, Holy Week, 114, 480.

Mackay (J. J.), Recent Letters of Christ, 156.

Maclaren (A.), Christ’s Musts, 1.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, 362; St. John i.–viii., 162, 171.

Macpherson (W. M.), The Path of Life, 105.

Parker (J.), The City Temple Pulpit, iv. 12.

Pearse (M. G.), Moses, 253.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, ix. 169.

Reid (J.), Jesus and Nicodemus, 185.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxv. No. 1500.

Talbot (E. S.), Sermons in Leeds Parish Church. 147.

Thorne (H.), Foreshadowings of the Gospel, 57.

Thorne (H.), Notable Sayings of the Great Teacher, 25.

Trench (R. C), Sermons in Ireland, 228.

Christian World Pulpit, xx. 237 (Walters).

Churchman’s Pulpit (Second Sunday after Easter), viii. 15 (Caley).

Preacher’s Magazine, iv. (1893) 469.

Verse 15

(15) Not perish, but . . .—These words have been added here from the following verse. Omitting them, the sentence should be rendered, that every one who believeth may have in Him eternal life. This construction is borne out by a comparison of John 5:39; John 16:33; John 20:31. “To believe in Him” is not used by St. John. (See Note on John 1:12.) The thought of this verse is that as every Israelite, believing in God, had in the brazen serpent a message from God; so every man who believes in God ever has this message from God in the crucified Son of Man. The object of faith is not here expressed. The words speak only of the man who believeth, whose heart is open to spiritual truth. That man has, in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, a truth which goes to his inmost spirit, sending a new life through his whole being. To the non-believer this may be but the self-sacrifice of heroism. To the believer it is Light breaking upon the darkness of his soul; it is Life bursting the cold sepulchre of a deadened spirit; it is Love winning its way through the scales of a hardened heart; it is Mercy deeper and wider even than his sin; it is Hope bracing the man to a new life of holiness; it is the Word of God, and in Him he has eternal life. The reader will not forget that the lifting up the serpent of brass followed the confession of the people. “We have sinned . . . pray unto the Lord that He take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7).

Verse 16

(16) The last verse has spoken of “every one who believeth.” The thought went beyond the limits that Rabbis set to the kingdom of God. Its only limit is humanity. This thought is now repeated and strengthened by the “might not perish,” and the love of God is made the foundation on which it rests. Perhaps no verse in the Bible has been so much explained as this; perhaps no verse can be so little explained. Most young preachers have sermons upon it; older men learn that its meaning must be felt and thought rather than spoken. Still less can it be written; and this Note may not attempt to do more than indicate some lines of thought which may help to lead to others.

God so loved the world.—Familiar as the words are to us, they were uttered to Nicodemus for the first time. They are the revelation of the nature of God, and the ground of our love to God and man. (Comp. Notes on 1 John 4:7-11.)

His only begotten Son.—Here, once again, the Old Testament Scriptures suggest and explain the words used. Every Jew knew, and loved to think and tell of his forefather who was willing to sacrifice his own and only son in obedience to what he thought to be the will of God (Genesis 22). But Love gives, and does not require, sacrifice. God wills not that Abraham should give his son, but He gave His only begotten Son. The dread power that man has ever conceived—that is not God; the pursuing vengeance that sin has ever imagined—that is not God; the unsatisfied anger that sacrifice has ever suggested—that is not God. But all that human thought has ever gathered of tenderness, forgiveness, love, in the relation of father to only child—all this is, in the faintness of an earth-drawn picture, an approach to the true idea of God. Yes, the true idea is infinitely beyond all this; for the love for the world gives in sacrifice the love for the only begotten Son.

Believeth in.—Better, believeth upon. The preposition is not the same as in the last verse. (Comp. John 1:12.) There the thought was of the Son of Man lifted up, in whom every one who believes and can interpret spiritual truth, ever has eternal life. Here the thought is of the Son of God given for the world, and every one who believes upon, casts his whole being upon Him, and, like Abraham, in will rests all upon God, finds that God has provided Himself a lamb for a burnt-offering instead of human sacrifice or death.

Everlasting life.—Better, as the same Greek word is rendered in the previous verse, eternal life. For the meaning of this word see Note on Matthew 25:46. It is of frequent use in this Gospel (seventeen times), and always used in reference to life.

Verse 17

(17) To condemn the world gives to the English reader a stronger impression than that of the original Greek. The word ( κρίνω, krino, the Latin c(k)erno, and the English dis-cern) means originally to separate, and in the moral sense to separate good from evil. Passing from the act to the effect, it may mean to absolve; but as the usual effect of separation is to exclude the evil, the word has attached to itself more frequently the idea of condemnation. Our word judge, which has itself something of this double meaning, is probably the best rendering in this context.

Part of the current belief about the Messiah’s advent was, that he would destroy the Gentile world. The authorised expositions of many texts of the Old Testament asserted this, and Nicodemus must ofttimes have heard it and taught it. God’s love for, and gift to, the world has just been declared. This truth runs counter to their belief, and is now stated as an express denial of it. The purpose of the Messiah’s mission is not to judge, but to save. The latter clause of the verse changes the order of the thought. It would naturally be “but that He might save the world.” The inversion makes prominent the action of man in willing to be saved.

Verse 18

(18) He that believeth on him is not condemned.—Again, judged is better than “condemned.” There is, moreover, an important change of tense in this verse, which the Authorised version does not mark clearly. He that believeth on Him, is not judged: but he that believeth not hath been (and is) already judged.

Because he hath not believed.—The human spirit fulfils the end of its being, and finds its highest good, in communion with God. It cannot, then, fail to recognise and believe in a revelation of God. This revelation has been made in the only way in which it can be fully made (comp. John 1:18), in the person of the only begotten Son. The very fact that He is rejected is the judgment of the spirit which rejects. It has lost by neglect its power to perceive, or by will it hides itself from God. “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10).

Verse 19

(19) And this is the condemnation.—For “condemnation” read judgment; for “light” and “darkness,” the light and the darkness. The object is salvation, not judgment (John 3:17); but the separation of the good involves the judgment of the evil. The light makes the darkness visible. Both were before men. That they chose darkness was the act of their own will, and this act of the will was determined by the evil of their deeds. “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Comp. Note on John 1:5.)

The words are general, but they must have had, for him who then heard them, a special force. It was night. He had avoided the light of day, and like men who go forth to deeds of darkness under cover of darkness, he had come in secrecy to Jesus. His own conscience told him that he was in the presence of a Teacher sent from God (John 3:2); but he has checked the voice of conscience. He has shrunk from coming to this Teacher in the light of day, and has loved the darkness of the night.

Verse 20

(20) For every one that doeth evil hateth the light.—In this and the next verse we have the explanation of the choice of the darkness and rejection of the light. The fact itself is first stated more strongly. Not only does the man that doeth evil love darkness rather than light, but he hates the light. (Comp. Note on John 7:7.) Its presence makes manifest and reproves his works, which he would hide even from himself. It illumines the dark and secret chambers of the heart, and reveals thoughts and deeds which conscience, seeing in this light, trembles at, and turns away to darkness that it may hide itself from its own gaze.

It has been often noted that the word “doeth,” in this and the following verse, represent different words in the original. Perhaps we may distinguish them in English by rendering this verse: “Every one that practiseth evil.” It is not less important to note that the word for evil here differs from the word so rendered’ in the last clause of the previous verse. Strictly, and the change of word seems to demand a strict interpretation (comp. Note on John 5:29), it is not that which is positively, but that which is negatively, evil—that which is trivial, poor, worthless. The man who practiseth such things misses the aim of life, and turns from the light that would point it out to him. He does many things, but forgets that one thing is needful, and spends a life-time in trifles without any permanent result. We are familiar with the thought that immorality shuns the light and warps the will, and thus darkens knowledge and weakens faith; but we remember too seldom the deadening effect of an unreal and aimless existence which is not truly a life.

Should be reproved.—The margin will show that our translators felt a difficulty about this word (see Notes on Matthew 18:15), where it is rendered “tell him his fault,” and comp. the other instances in this Gospel, John 8:9; John 8:46 (“convince” in both), and especially John 16:8 (“reprove,” and margin “convince”). The moral idea is exactly illustrated by the action of light, which makes manifest the wrong, and leads the conscience to see it and repent of it. It is through this chastening that the man passes from darkness to light. It is because men shrink from this chastening that they hate the light. (Comp. Notes on the remarkable parallel in Ephesians 5:11 et seq.)

Verse 21

(21) He that doeth truth is opposed to “him that practiseth evil.” With fixed purpose he doeth not that which is evil or worthless, but that which, when every veil by which it is hidden from himself or others is removed, remains morally true. Regarding truth as the work of life, he cometh to the light, and though for him too it will be a revelation of sins and errors, and deeds of shame, he hates them the moment he knows them, cuts them from his life at whatever cost, and carries his whole being to the light that it may become really true, and that its true works may be made manifest. He will hate the darkness, for he can have nothing to conceal in it. He will love the light, for everything which it reproves he reproves too, and every ray he can gather from it becomes part of the truth which is his life-work. For the remarkable expression “to do the truth,” which, with its opposite “to do a lie” (John 8:44; Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15), is common in Rabbinic writers, comp. Job 13:4, and 1 John 1:6; and for “walking in truth,” comp. 2 John 1:4, and 3 John 1:3-4. In 1 Corinthians 13:6, “truth” is opposed to “iniquity.”

That they are wrought in God.—Perhaps better, because they are wrought in God. This is the reason of their being made manifest in the light revealed in the person of Christ. However full the light which had guided men’s steps had been, it was still part of the true Light which lighteth every man, and must lead to Him. Every work wrought in God had already bound them in union with Him, and prepared them to receive Him. That Light was in the world, in the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matthew 5:17), in the witness of things invisible ever borne by the things that are made (Romans 1:20), in the law written upon the hearts of men (Romans 2:14-15). As before (John 3:19), these words are general, but we may not exclude from them a special meaning. He who spoke them warrants our applying them to characters, like the true Nathanael, in whom there is no guile (John 1:47); like the rock-man Peter (John 1:42); like the witness John (Matthew 11:11). Some ground was good when the Sower went forth to sow.

Two thoughts are suggested to us at the close of this first discourse. One is, that the writer, with perfect naturalness, says nothing of the effect on Nicodemus, but leaves the after-glimpses to tell their own tale. (See John 7:50; John 19:39.) The other is, that we have come upon teaching distinct in style and matter from that of the earlier Gospels. On this see Excursus D: The Discourses in St. John’s Gospel.

Verse 22

(22) After these things.—Not implying that He left Jerusalem at once. The “land of Judæa” is the province as distinct from the capital. This verse points to a work in Judæa of which we know nothing more. It was probably not confined to one place. We have to think of Christ as continuing His teaching, of large numbers influenced by it (John 3:26), and of these as being baptised by the disciples (John 4:2). His converts were the country people, and it is the action of the Pharisees which caused Him to retire to Samaria.

Verse 23

(23) Ænon near to Salim.—The latter place was clearly well known at the time, and regarded as fixing the locality of the former. It has been usual to follow Jerome and Eusebius, who fix the place in the valley of the Jordan, eight miles south from Bethshan, or Scythopolis. (See quotation from the Onomasticon, in Caspari, Chron. and Geogr. Introd., Eng. Trans., p. 122.) The objection to this is, that the text seems to limit us to Judæa (comp. John 4:3-4), whereas this Salim is more than thirty miles from it. The word Ænon means “springs,” and probably belonged to more than one place where “there was much water.” The mention of this is opposed to the locality of the Jordan valley, where it would not be necessary to choose a place for this reason. Dr. Barclay (City of the Great Xing, 1858, pp. 558-570) found both names in a place answering the description, and certainly answering the narrative better than other identifications, at Wady Farah, about five miles from Jerusalem.

They came—i.e., the people.

Verse 24

(24) Was not yet cast into prison.—This Judæan ministry, then, preceded the Galilean ministry of the earlier Gospels. (See John 4:3, and Note on Matthew 4:12.)

Verse 25

(25) Then there arose a question.—For “the Jews,” the reading of the better MSS. is, a Jew. The question arose on the side of John’s disciples. What the exact nature of it was we do not know, and have no means of judging. It was one of the questions which in every age has arisen about external rites, and has too often been accompanied by a neglect of inner principles. This arose in some way from the fact of the disciples of Jesus baptising near to the place where John was baptising, and doubtless was closely connected with these baptisms. The fact is only preserved as an incidental introduction to the remarkable testimony of the Baptist which follows.

Verse 26

(26) Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan.—John’s disciples, with a natural attachment to their master, and without the knowledge of what that master’s work really was, are jealous of what seems to them the rival work of Jesus. He had been with John; the Baptist had borne witness to Him. Now He seems to usurp his work, and the throngs which had crowded to the Forerunner go to Him. (Comp. Notes on John 1:8; John 4:2.)

Barest witness.—Better, hast borne witness.

Verse 27

(27) A man can receive nothing . . .—Do these words apply to the Baptist himself, or to Christ? Do they mean “I cannot assume this higher position which you wish to give me, because it is not given me by heaven;” or, “His work, with its influence over men, ought to convince you that His mission is divine “? Expositors have given, now this, now that answer. The immediate connection with John 3:26 points to the latter view as the correct one (but see Alford’s Note on the other side). The power that had shown itself in word and work, teaching as none ever taught before, binding men—aye, some of their own brotherhood—to Himself, convincing men whose minds were open to the truth that He was the very Christ—all this could only have been received from heaven. Did they feel the movement around them? Let them recognise it as divine, and seek to be borne with it. (See Note on John 6:36.)

Verse 28

(28) Ye yourselves bear me witness.—They remembered (John 3:26) that John had borne witness to Jesus. Did they not remember too what he had said? He had from the first known his own work, and the greater work. Some of his disciples had known it also, and had gone from him to Jesus. This which they see was the necessary result of the truth he had ever declared.

Verse 29

(29) He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.—This is the only instance in this Gospel where the familiar imagery of an Eastern marriage meets us. (See Note on Matthew 9:15, where we have the same imagery in the answer of our Lord to these same disciples of John, then taking sides with the Pharisees, on the question of fasting.) The “friend of the bridegroom”—called by the Hebrews “Shôshbçn,” and by the Greeks “Paranymph”—was charged with the preliminaries of the marriage. He arranged the contract, acted for the bridegroom during the betrothal, and arranged for, and presided at, the festivities of the wedding-day itself. It was a position of honour, in proportion to the position of the bridegroom himself, and was given to his chief friend. That friend then joyed in his joy, and there was none brighter on that day than he. This in John’s thought is an illustration of his own position. The bridegroom is the Messiah; the bride is the Kingdom of God—the church, consisting of all who with pure hearts are willing to receive Him; the friend who has arranged the betrothal, who has prepared these hearts, is John himself. He now stands and hears the Bridegroom. Some of those who had been prepared by him for the Bridegroom would have come, it may be, and told him of his words. He is now near at hand. Throngs crowd to Him. The bride is approaching. Do they see in all this matter for envy? It is to him the consummation of all hopes. The life-work has not been in vain. The cup runs over. The joy is fulfilled.

Verse 30

(30) He must increase, but I must decrease.—The office of the paranymph ceases to exist when the marriage is accomplished. It must be so. So too in the interpretation. His own work was well-nigh done, but he is filled with the joy of having done his work, not with disappointment that it pales before the brightness of the work which is to follow. This is the text of the Forerunner’s life. Well will it be for those followers of Christ whose lives shall be sermons on it!

Verse 31

(31) He that cometh from above.—Comp. Note on John 3:13, and John 8:23. It is expressed in another form in the last clause of the verse.

Is above all—i.e., above all persons, and, as the context limits the sense, specially above all teachers.

He that is of the earth is earthly.—This is the right sense, but the force of the words is lessened by not preserving the three-fold “of the earth” which is in the Greek. “He who is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh.” The first marks out the Baptist’s origin, as opposed to Him that cometh from above; the second asserts that the nature is, in accord with this origin, human and limited in faculty, as opposed to that of Him who is above all; the third declares that his teaching is from the standpoint of human nature and limited faculty, embracing indeed divine subjects and receiving divine revelation (John 1:33), but having this treasure in earthen vessels, imperfectly realising it, and imperfectly teaching it (John 3:33). Then the contrast carries him away from this thought of self, in all its weakness, to dwell on the fulness of the teaching of the perfect Teacher, and he emphatically repeats, with the change of words suggested by “of the earth,” what he has before said of it, “He that cometh from heaven is above all.”

This repetition is the answer to the jealousy of his disciples, who wished to place him in a position of rivalry with Jesus. It is the answer to all self-assertion on the part of human teachers.

Verse 32

(32) And what he hath seen and heard.—This is the opposite of the third point, the speaking of the earth in the last verse. Divine in origin, divine in nature, He is divine in teaching. That teaching, too, is a witness of things seen and heard. (Comp. Notes on John 6:11-12.) It was a message from the Father’s home, brought by the Son Himself. His own message was but that of a servant who did not fully know its meaning.

No man receiveth his testimony.—These words are shown by those which immediately follow to go in their pathos beyond the strict limit of the facts present to his own mind. Yet he may well have said “no man.” Of the crowds that thronged to his own baptism, of those who were then thronging to the baptism of Jesus, how many were there who were receiving like testimony of the things seen and heard? (Comp. again John 3:11.) How great the first promise, how bitter the last disappointment, of the Baptist’s life! These words of intense feeling are not to be measured by the cold standard of a formal exactness. And still it may be that the sadness of his tone arises from the fact that of those to whom he speaks, and at the time when he speaks, there was literally no one receiving this testimony, but all were seeking to make the earthly teacher a rival of the divine. The tense is present; those in the next verse are past.

Verse 33

(33) He that hath received.—Better, he that received. “Hath set to his seal,” better, set his seal. It had been so. Earlier disciples, as Andrew and John (John 1:40), had passed from the Forerunner to the Great Teacher, and had heard in His words that which went to the divine in their own spirits, and had come from the short first meeting with the conviction, “We have found the Messias.” They received the witness, and, as they heard it, they too became witnesses. Just as a man sets his private seal—here, probably, the common Eastern stamp that affixed the name is thought of—and by it attests the truth of a document, so they attested, in the power which that witness had over their lives, their recognition of it as truth. It has always been so. The moral fitness of Christianity to meet the spiritual needs of men, and its moral power over the lives of men in all the varying circumstances of culture, race, and creed, has raised up in every age an holy army of witnesses, who have set their seal to its divine truth. (Comp. for the thought of sealing, John 6:27; Romans 4:11; Romans 15:28; 1 Corinthians 9:2; &c.)

Verse 34

(34) For he whom God hath sent.—Better, he whom God sent. The acceptance of the witness of things seen and heard is the attestation by the human spirit of the truthfulness of God, for Jesus is as one sent from God to declare Him. It is the divine image in man which recognises divinity. Every human faculty finds its true work, and true satisfaction, and the true object of its being, in Him; and therefore the whole man knows that His words are true, and recognises that He speaks the words of God. (Comp. 1 John 5:10.)

For God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.—The italics will show that the words “unto Him” are added in our version; and it is probable that the word “God,” which has been repeated from the first clause of the verse, should be also omitted here. We have then to read, “For He giveth not the Spirit by measure;” or, possibly, “For the Spirit giveth not by measure.” If, however, we remember that John the Baptist is the speaker, and that he had seen “the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and coming upon Him” (see Note on Matthew 3:16, and comp. such passages as Luke 11:13, and in this Gospel John 14:16; John 15:26), we shall still interpret the words in the sense which our version gives. The words “by measure,” in the sense of limitation, are frequent in the classical and rabbinical writings. The Rabbis seem to have applied the phrase to prophets and teachers, saying that the Spirit dwelt in the prophets only in a certain measure. Comp. 2 Kings 2:9, where Elisha prays for “a double portion,” or, more exactly, a portion of two—the portion of the first-born son (Deuteronomy 21:17)—of the spirit of Elijah. The same thought meets us in St. Paul (himself a pupil of Gamaliel), who speaks of “the self-same Spirit dividing to every man severally as He will” (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-12). The opposite of this thought, then, is before us here. God gives in this case not as in others. The Son who cometh from above is above all. There is no gift of prophet, or of teacher, which is not given to Him. He has the fulness of the spiritual gifts which in part are given to men, and He speaks the very words of God. It will be noted that John is still expounding to his disciples the meaning of his own declaration, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Verse 35

(35) The Father loveth the Son.—Comp. Note on Matthew 11:27, which is remarkable as an instance of what we call distinctly Johannine thought and diction in the earlier Gospels. We shall meet the words again in John 5:20.

Verse 36

(36) Here too we have, in the words of John, thoughts which we have found already (John 3:15-16), and shall find again (John 5:24), in the words of Christ Himself.

He that believeth not the Son.—Better, he that obeyeth not the Son. The word, which occurs only here in the Gospels, is not the same as that at the beginning of the verse, and shows that the faith there intended is the subjection of the will to the Son, to whom the Father hath given all things (John 3:35). (Comp. “obedience to the faith,” Romans 1:5.)

Shall not see life is contrasted with the present possession of the believer. He has life; the man who disobeys has not, and while he disobeys shall not see life, for he cannot be a subject of a kingdom to whose laws he refuses allegiance. But there is also a fearful positive contrast. There is for him a present possession, which shall also remain.

The wrath of God abideth on him.—Once only in the four Gospels does this term, so full of tremendous meaning, meet us, and that in the Gospel of fullest love, and in a context which speaks of the Father’s love to the Son, and of eternal life, which is the portion of all who believe on the Son. It must be so. This wrath (comp. Romans 2:8; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; Revelation 19:15) is not the fierceness of passion, nor is it the expression of fixed hatred. It is the necessary aspect of love and holiness toward those who reject love, and wilfully sin. It is not here spoken of as coming upon them, or as passing from them. It abideth, ever has and ever must; for the wrath of love must abide on hatred, the wrath of holiness must abide on sin. But none need hate, and none need live in wilful sin. “He that believeth”—how vast the love and bright the hope of the all-including words—“hath eternal life”! (Comp. Note on John 6:56.)


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on John 3:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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Sunday, November 29th, 2020
the First Week of Advent
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