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Friday, September 29th, 2023
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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John 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 13-36

C. Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem 2:13-3:36

John is the only evangelist who recorded this trip to Jerusalem and the things that happened then.

"In distinction from the Synoptics, John’s record focuses mostly on events in Jesus’ life that took place in Jerusalem, and especially at the Passover feasts." [Note: Bailey, p. 164.]

Josephus indicated that as many as three million Jews occupied Jerusalem during the Passover feasts. [Note: Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 6:9:3; cf. 2:14:3.]

Verse 1

John introduced Nicodemus (lit. conqueror of or victor over the people) as a Pharisee who was a ruler of the Jews, namely, a member of the Sanhedrin (cf. John 7:50-51). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus had respect for the Jewish Scriptures and was nationalistic politically. He would have stressed the careful observance of Israel’s laws and the traditions of the elders. This was the way of salvation for Pharisees.

"In its own way this chapter does away with ’works of the law’ every bit as thoroughly as anything in Paul.

"The Pharisees had no vested interest in the Temple (which was rather the domain of the Sadducees). A Pharisee would, accordingly, not have been unduly perturbed by the action of Jesus in cleansing the Temple courts. Indeed, he may possibly have approved it, partly on the general principle that anything that put the Sadducees down a peg or two was laudable and partly in the interests of true religion." [Note: Morris, p. 186.]

The Sadducees, in contrast, were more liberal in their theology and were more politically accommodating. In one sense the Sadducees were more liberal, in that they denied the existence of angels and the resurrection. But in another sense they were more conservative, in that they accepted as authoritative only the Old Testament and rejected much of the tradition that the Pharisees regarded as more authoritative than the Old Testament. Later Jesus mentioned that Nicodemus was a prominent teacher in Israel (John 3:10). John also recorded that he was fair-minded (John 7:50-51).

Verses 1-21

3. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus 3:1-21

John now presented evidence that Jesus knew people as no others did and that many believed in His name (John 2:23). This constitutes further witness that He is the Son of God. John summarized several conversations that Jesus had with various individuals in the next few chapters. They were remarkably different types of people, yet they all responded positively to Jesus. The first man was a representative of Pharisaic Judaism.

Verse 2

John probably would not have mentioned that Nicodemus called on Jesus at night if that fact was insignificant. Probably the prominent Pharisee made his call at night to keep his visit private and uninterrupted (cf. John 19:39). The Pharisees generally were antagonistic toward Jesus, and he apparently wanted to avoid unnecessary conflict with his brethren. Nighttime probably promised a greater chance for uninterrupted conversation as well. Whenever else John referred to night in his Gospel the word has moral and spiritual connotations of darkness (cf. John 9:4; John 11:10; John 13:30). Nicodemus was in spiritual and intellectual darkness as well as natural darkness when he came to Jesus (cf. John 3:10). [Note: E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Gospel of John , 1:157-58; R. H. Lightfoot, St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary, p. 116.]

Nicodemus addressed Jesus as "Rabbi," a respectful title that recognized Him as a teacher. One rabbi was coming to another for discussion. However, this title also indicated the extent of this man’s faith. He did not address Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God or his Lord. Moreover he expressed belief that Jesus had come from God, in contrast to Satan (cf. John 8:48; John 8:52), in view of the miracles that He was performing (cf. John 2:23; John 20:30; John 21:24-25). This suggests that Nicodemus may have wanted to determine if Jesus was a prophet as well as a teacher. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, no unusual teaching would have been acceptable without the evidence of miracles. [Note: Edersheim, 1:380.]

"We" could be a way of saying himself (cf. John 3:11). Alternatively Nicodemus could have been representing others on the Sanhedrin beside himself such as Joseph of Arimathea (cf. John 19:38). Note Nicodemus’ courtesy and lack of hostility. These qualities mark him as a non-typical Pharisee.

Verse 3

Jesus’ abrupt dogmatic statement cut to the heart of the matter. He affirmed strongly that one cannot see the kingdom of God without a second birth from above (Gr. anothen, cf. John 3:31). Anothen means both "again" (John 3:4; cf. Galatians 4:9) and "from above" (John 3:31; John 19:11; John 19:23).

"Although Nicodemus understood it to mean ’again,’ leading him to conclude that Jesus was speaking of a second physical birth, Jesus’ reply in John 3:6-8 shows that He referred to the need for a spiritual birth, a birth ’from above.’" [Note: Harris, p. 220.]

The term "kingdom of God" as Jesus used it consistently refers to the earthly messianic kingdom that will be the earthly phase of God’s eternal heavenly kingdom. To enter the kingdom of God means to obtain eternal life (cf. Mark 9:43; Mark 9:45; Mark 9:47). John used "kingdom" language rarely (John 3:3; John 3:5; John 18:36). This is the only passage in John that mentions the kingdom of God, though Jesus spoke of "my kingdom" in John 18:36. He used "life" language instead (cf. John 1:12-13). This is understandable since he evidently wrote late in the first century when it was clear that God had postponed the kingdom. His readers needed to prepare for the future immediately by obtaining eternal life.

The implication of Jesus’ illustration of new birth is that life with God in the future will require completely new equipment. Nicodemus had claimed to see something of who Jesus was by His signs. Jesus replied that no one can see God’s kingdom, the end in view, without new birth.

"If the kingdom does not dawn until the end of the age [and it will], then of course one cannot enter it before it comes. Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness (e.g., Mishnah Sanhedrin John 10:1). But here was Jesus telling Nicodemus, a respected and conscientious member not only of Israel but of the Sanhedrin, that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again. . . . The coming of the kingdom at the end can be described as the ’regeneration’ of the world (Matthew 19:28, NIV ’renewal’), but here what is required is the regeneration of the individual before the end of the world and in order to enter the kingdom." [Note: Carson, pp. 188-89.]

"By the term born again He means not the amendment of a part but the renewal of the whole nature. Hence it follows that there is nothing in us that is not defective." [Note: John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Gospel According to St. John , 1:63.]

Verse 4

Nicodemus asked Jesus to clarify what He meant by being born again. His question implied that he was an older man. He was quite sure that Jesus was not referring to reincarnation or a second physical birth. His crassly literal question may reflect some disdain for Jesus’ affirmation, or Nicodemus may have been speaking wistfully.

"The situation is no different today. When you talk with people about being born again, they often begin to discuss their family’s religious heritage, their church membership, religious ceremonies, and so on." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:295.]

Verse 5

Again Jesus prefaced a further affirmation with the statement that guaranteed its certainty. Entering the kingdom and seeing the kingdom (John 3:3) seem to be synonymous terms, though the former may be a bit clearer. There are several views of the meaning of being born of water and the Spirit. The verse and its context contribute much to our understanding of this difficult phrase.

Whatever its meaning, "born of water and the Spirit" must equal being born "again" or "from above" (John 3:3) since Jesus used this phrase to clarify the new birth for Nicodemus. Second, the definite article translated "the" before "Spirit" is absent in the Greek text. The English translators have inserted it to clarify their interpretation of "spirit" (Gr. pneuma) as the Holy Spirit. A more literal translation would be simply "born of water and spirit." Third, the construction of the phrase in the Greek text indicates that the preposition "of" governs both "water" and "Spirit." This means that Jesus was clarifying regeneration by using two terms that both describe the new birth. He was not saying that two separate things have to be present for regeneration to happen. It has but one source. Fourth, Jesus’ criticism of Nicodemus for not understanding these things (John 3:10) indicates that what He taught about the source of regeneration was clear in the Old Testament.

The only view that seems to be consistent with all four of these criteria is as follows. The Old Testament often used water metaphorically to symbolize spiritual cleansing and renewal (Numbers 19:17-19; Isaiah 55:1-3; cf. Psalms 51:10; Jeremiah 2:13; Jeremiah 17:13; Zechariah 14:8). God’s spirit (or Spirit) in the Old Testament represents God’s life (Genesis 1:2; Genesis 2:7; Genesis 6:3; Job 34:14). God promised that He would pour out His spirit on people as water (Isaiah 32:15-16; Joel 2:28-29). The result of that outpouring would be a new heart for those on whom the spirit came (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Thus the revelation that God would bring cleansing and renewal as water by His Spirit was clear in the Old Testament. Jesus evidently meant that unless a person has experienced spiritual cleansing and renewal from God’s spirit (or Spirit) he or she cannot enter the kingdom. This is what He meant by being born from above or again (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:11). [Note: Carson, pp. 191-96; cf. Hugo Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, p. 50; ad Morris, pp. 191-93.]

Another view proposed by many scholars is that "water" is an allusion to the amniotic fluid in which a fetus develops in its mother’s womb. Other scholars see it as a euphemistic reference to the semen without which natural birth is impossible. In either case "water" refers to physical or natural birth while "spirit" refers to spiritual or supernatural birth. [Note: E.g., Wiersbe, 1:295.] They claim that Jesus was saying that natural birth is not enough. One must also experience supernatural birth to enter the kingdom. However this use of "water" is unique in Scripture. Moreover it assumes that two births are in view whereas the construction of the Greek phrase favors one birth rather than two. If two were in view, there would normally be a repetition of the preposition before the second noun.

Another popular view is that "water" refers to the written Word of God and "spirit" refers to the Holy Spirit. This figurative use of "water" does exist in the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 5:26), but it is uncommon in the Old Testament. It is unlikely that Nicodemus would have associated water with the Word of God, and it would have been unfair for Jesus to rebuke him for not having done so. This view, as the former one, also specifies two separate entities whereas the Greek text implies only one as the source of regeneration.

Some commentators take the "water" as an allusion to water baptism and the "spirit" as referring to the Holy Spirit. [Note: E.g., R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation and Notes, 2:139-141.] According to this view spiritual birth happens only when a person undergoes water baptism and experiences regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Some advocates of this view see support for it in the previous reference to water baptism (John 1:26; John 1:33). However, Scripture is very clear that water baptism is a testimony to salvation, not a prerequisite for it (cf. John 3:16; John 3:36; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). In addition, this meaning would have had no significance for Nicodemus. He knew nothing of Christian baptism. Furthermore Jesus never mentioned water baptism again in clarifying the new birth to Nicodemus.

Others have suggested that the "water" could be a reference to the repentance present in those who underwent John’s water baptism and the "spirit" an allusion to the Holy Spirit. [Note: F. Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of John, with a Critical Introduction, 2:49-52; Marcus Dods, The Gospel of St. John , 1:713; Westcott, 1:108-9; Blum, p. 281; Tenney, "John," p. 47.] In this case, repentance as a change of mind is necessary as a prerequisite for salvation. According to advocates of this view Jesus was urging Nicodemus to submit to John’s baptism as a sign of his repentance, or at least to repent. The weakness of this view is that the connection between water and repentance is distant enough to cause misunderstanding. Nicodemus’ response (John 3:9) expressed lack of understanding. If the connection between water and John’s baptism were that clear, he would not have responded this way. It would have been simpler for Jesus just to say "repentance" if that is what He meant. Repentance in the sense of the fruit of a mental change is not necessary for salvation since by that definition repentance is a meritorious work.

Some scholars believe that "water" refers to the ritual washings of Judaism and "spirit" to the Holy Spirit. They think Jesus was saying that Spirit birth rather than just water purification was necessary for regeneration. However, Jesus was not contrasting water and spirit but linking them.

Finally at least one writer understood that when Jesus said "spirit" He meant it in the sense of wind (Gr. pneuma) and used it as a symbol of God’s life-giving work. [Note: Zane C. Hodges, "Water and Spirit-John 3:5," Bibliotheca Sacra 135:539 (July-September 1978):206-20.] This view holds that the wind is parallel to the water that also symbolizes God’s supernatural work of regeneration. However this is an unusual though legitimate meaning of pneuma. In the immediate context (John 3:6) pneuma seems to mean spirit rather than wind. This fact has led almost all translators to render pneuma as "spirit" rather than as "wind" in John 3:5, even though it means "wind" in John 3:8.

Verse 6

Here, not in John 3:5, Jesus clarified that there are two types of birth, one physical and one spiritual. "Flesh" again refers to human nature (cf. John 1:14). The Holy Spirit gives people spiritual life. We are spiritually dead in sin until the Spirit gives us spiritual life. Jesus had been speaking of a spiritual birth, not a physical one. Nicodemus should not have marveled at the idea that there is a spiritual birth as well as a physical birth since the Old Testament spoke of it (cf. Psalms 87:5-6; Ezekiel 36:25-28). It revealed that entrance into the kingdom is a spiritual matter, not a matter of physical descent or merit. This was a revelation that most of the Jews in Jesus’ day, including Nicodemus, missed.

Verse 7

Nicodemus needed spiritual life. He needed to experience the new birth. He had evidently viewed acceptance by God as so many of his Jewish contemporaries did. He thought that his heritage (ancestry, position, works, all that made him what he was) was adequate to get him into the kingdom and make him acceptable to God. He had to realize that he needed spiritual cleansing and renewal that only God could provide by His Spirit. Likewise today most people are relying on themselves, who they are and what they have done, for acceptance with God. They, too, need to know that they need spiritual cleansing and life that only God can provide. They must be born again or there is no hope of their entering God’s kingdom.

"There is no evolution from flesh to Spirit." [Note: E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel, p. 204.]

The second "you" in John 3:7 is plural in the Greek text. It continues the general reference to "anyone" in John 3:3; John 3:5.

"The fact that Nicodemus used the plural pronoun ’we,’ [John 3:2] and Jesus responded with the plural ’ye’ . . . may indicate that Nicodemus was representing the religious leaders." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:295.]

Verse 8

Jesus used the wind to illustrate how the Spirit regenerates. He used wordplay to present an even closer comparison. The Greek word pneuma can mean either "spirit" or "wind," though it usually means "spirit." Jesus said the pneuma (Spirit) operates as the pneuma (wind).

There are three similarities. First, both the Spirit and the wind operate sovereignly. Man does not and cannot control either one. Second, we perceive the presence of both by their effects. Third, we cannot explain their actions since they arise from unseen and partially unknowable factors.

The person born of the Spirit is similar to both the Spirit and the wind in that it is impossible for unregenerate people to understand or control him or her. They do not understand his or her origin or final destiny. Nicodemus should have understood this too since the Old Testament revealed the Spirit’s sovereign and incomprehensible working (e.g., Ezekiel 37).

Verses 9-10

Nicodemus betrayed his ignorance of Old Testament revelation with his question (cf. 1 Samuel 10:6; Isaiah 32:15; Ezekiel 36:25-28; Jeremiah 31:33; Joel 2:28-29). Jesus’ answer shows that Nicodemus’ question implied that he did not believe what Jesus had said (cf. John 3:11-12). He had undoubtedly taught many Jews about getting right with God, but what Jesus now suggested was something new to him. Jesus responded with a question that expressed dismay that Nicodemus did not understand this biblical revelation. His deficiency was the more serious because Nicodemus was the leading teacher in Israel. At least that was his reputation. His study of the Scriptures should have made him aware that no one can come to God in his or her own strength or righteousness without the necessity of God’s spiritual cleansing.

Verse 11

For the third time in this conversation Jesus affirmed a solemn truth (cf. John 3:3; John 3:5). Nicodemus had begun the conversation by humbly referring to himself as one of many authoritative figures who believed that Jesus had come from God (John 3:2): "we know." Now Jesus described Himself as one of several authoritative figures who was speaking the truth: "we know." Evidently He was referring to the Godhead. Another possibility is that both men were speaking editorially. Nicodemus probably thought He was referring to Himself humbly or possibly to Himself as one of several teachers.

Jesus claimed to be speaking the truth as an eyewitness, but Nicodemus was rejecting that witness. The Apostle John later made a similar claim. He said he wrote his first epistle that his readers might enter into the joy of fellowship with God that the apostles, who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, enjoyed (1 John 1:1-4). John’s purpose in this Gospel was also that readers would accept his witness that Jesus was the Christ (John 20:30-31). Nicodemus had rejected the witness, and Jesus saw him as representing many others who also did (plural "you"). Nicodemus had failed to understand (John 3:9), but his more serious error was his failure to believe Jesus’ testimony about the new birth. It reflected failure to acknowledge who Jesus really was, which His signs and insight into Scripture indicated.

Verse 12

The "earthly things" that Jesus had told Nicodemus involved the new birth. The new birth is earthly in that it occurs on the earth. This teaching had been elementary. However, Nicodemus had not believed it. Therefore he could not begin to believe things that Jesus might have told him about "heavenly things." These things might have included such revelations as life beyond the grave, life in the kingdom, and the new heavens and new earth (Isaiah 65:17).

If Jesus responded to everyone as He did to Nicodemus, it would mean that when a person rejects revelation he or she thereby limits the revelation that comes to that one from then on. This is really what usually happens.

Verse 13

Jesus explained why He could speak authoritatively about heavenly things. No teacher had ascended into heaven and returned to teach about heavenly things. Evidently Jesus was referring to being personally present in heaven since, obviously, many prophets had received visions of heaven (e.g., Isaiah 6; cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4; Revelation 1:10-20). However the Son of Man descended from heaven so He could teach about heavenly things. The NIV translation implies that Jesus had already ascended into heaven, but that is not what the Greek text says. The Greek words ei me, translated "but" or "except," contrast a human who might have ascended into heaven and the God-man who really did descend from heaven. Jesus here claimed to be the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13-14) who had come from heaven to reveal God to humankind (cf. John 1:51).

"Throughout this Gospel John insists on Jesus’ heavenly origin. This is one way in which he brings out his point that Jesus is the Christ. Here his heavenly origin marks Jesus off from the rest of humanity." [Note: Morris, p. 197.]

Verse 14

In another sense Jesus would rise up to heaven. The Ascension is not in view here. Jesus’ enemies lifting Him up toward heaven as Moses lifted the serpent on the pole toward heaven is in view (cf. Numbers 21:4-9). In the wilderness God promised the Israelites that whoever looked on the bronze serpent would receive physical life and not die.

This is Jesus’ earliest recorded prediction of His death. It is an allusion to death by crucifixion (cf. John 8:28; John 12:32; John 12:34). Wherever the Greek word hypsoo ("lifted up") occurs in John’s Gospel, and it only occurs in these four verses, it combines the ideas of crucifixion and exaltation (cf. Isaiah 52:13 to Isaiah 53:12). [Note: Carson, p. 201.] The Synoptic evangelists viewed Jesus’ exaltation as separate from His crucifixion, but John thought of the crucifixion as the beginning of His exaltation.

God had graciously provided continuing physical life to the persistently sinning Israelites. It should not, therefore, have been hard for Nicodemus to believe that He would graciously provide new spiritual life for sinful humanity.

John 3:13 pictures Jesus as the revealer of God who came down from heaven. John 3:14 pictures Him as the suffering exalted Savior. It was in His suffering that Jesus revealed God most clearly. These themes cluster around the title "Son of Man" in the fourth Gospel.

Verse 15

The purpose of Jesus’ uplifting, as was the purpose of the uplifting of the bronze serpent in the wilderness, was the salvation (deliverance) of those who believed. By comparing Himself to that serpent Jesus was teaching that whoever trusted in Him and His death would receive eternal life.

This is the first reference to eternal life in this Gospel. Eternal life refers to the life of the age to come, namely, the kingdom age and forever after. It is life that one experiences normally after resurrection that fits him or her for the kingdom. However, John presented that life as something that people can experience in measure before the kingdom begins. The eternal life that people receive at new birth is the life of the eternal Word (John 1:4). It comes to them by believing in the person and saving work of Jesus.

"The life Christians possess is not in any sense independent of Christ. It is a life that is ’hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3). . . . The Jews divided time into the present age and the age to come, but the adjective [eternal] was used of life in the coming age, not that of the present age. ’Eternal life’ thus means ’the life proper to the age to come.’ It is an eschatological concept (cf. John 6:40; John 6:54). But as the age to come is thought of as never coming to an end the adjective came to mean ’everlasting,’ ’eternal.’ The notion of time is there. Eternal life will never cease. But there is something else there, too, and something more significant. The important thing about eternal life is not its quantity but its quality. . . . Eternal life is life in Christ, that life which removes a person from the merely earthly." [Note: Morris, p. 201.]

Some authorities believe that John 3:16-21 are the Apostle John’s comments, his aside, rather than a continuation of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. [Note: E.g., Tenney, "John," pp. 49-50; Carson, p. 203; Everett F. Harrison, "The Gospel According to John," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1079; Morris, p. 202; Westcott, p. 54; and Beasley-Murray, p. 51.] Others believe Jesus’ words continue through John 3:21. [Note: E.g., Barrett, p. 169; Tasker, p. 66; J. P. Lange, ed., A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, 12 vols., vol. 9: The Gospel According to John, by J. P. Lange, p. 134; Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, p. 258; Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John , 1:120; G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John, pp. 59-60; William Barclay, The Gospel of John , 1:128; Wiersbe, 1:298; and John G. Mitchell, An Everlasting Love: A Devotional Study of the Gospel of John, p. 57.] I prefer the second opinion on this issue. Unfortunately the Greek text does not contain quotation marks, or any punctuation for that matter, so it does not identify quotations for the reader. This section of the text is the heart of John’s record of Jesus’ early ministry (chs. 2-4).

Verse 16

This best-known verse in the whole Bible expresses the gospel message more clearly and winsomely than any other. Almost every word in it is significant.

Jesus’ mission in the Incarnation (John 3:13; John 3:17) and the Cross (John 3:14-15) resulted from God’s love for human beings. The construction of the Greek sentence stresses the intensity of God’s love. He gave His best, His unique and loved Son. The Jews believed that God loved the children of Israel, but John affirmed that God loved all people regardless of race. According to one commentator, no Jewish writer specifically asserted that God loved His world. [Note: Odeberg, p. 116.] There is nothing in this verse or in the context that would limit "the world" to the world of the elect. This love of God is amazing not so much because the world is so big as because it is so bad (cf. John 1:9). The Father loves the world with the selfless love that provided the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. Galatians 2:20 reveals that the Cross shows the Son’s love.

"The Greek construction puts some emphasis on the actuality of the gift: it is not ’God loved enough to give,’ but ’God loved so that he gave.’ His love is not a vague, sentimental feeling, but a love that costs. God gave what was most dear to him." [Note: Morris, pp. 203-4.]

Christians should not love the world with the selfish love that seeks to profit from it personally (1 John 2:15-17).

The world stands under the threat of divine judgment because of the Fall and sin (John 3:36; Romans 1:18). God in His gracious love has reached out and chosen some people from out of the world for salvation (John 15:19; Romans 6:23). He does not take pleasure in pouring His wrath out on the lost, but He rejoices when people turn from their wicked ways to Him (Ezekiel 18:23). The fact that God allows sinners to perish does not contradict His love. He has provided a way by which they need not perish because He loves mankind. His ultimate purpose is the salvation of those who believe in His Son.

The consequences of belief are new birth (John 3:3; John 3:5), eternal life (John 3:15-16), and salvation (John 3:17). The alternative is perishing (John 3:16; cf. John 10:28), losing one’s life (John 12:25), and destruction (John 17:12). To perish (Gr. apoletai) does not mean to experience annihilation but ruin, failure to realize God’s purpose, and exclusion from His fellowship. The only alternatives are life or perishing; there is no other final state.

Cessation of belief does not result in the loss of salvation.

"We might say, ’Whoever believes that Rockefeller is a philanthropist will receive a million dollars.’ At the point in time a person believes this, He is a millionaire. However, if he ceases to believe this ten years later, he is still in possession of the million dollars. Similarly, if a man has believed in Christ, he is regenerate and in possession of eternal life, even if he ceases to believe in God in the future." [Note: Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings, p. 200.]

Verse 17

John further clarified God’s purpose in sending His Son by explaining what it was not. It was not to judge or condemn (Gr. krino) humankind. Judging as John spoke of it here is the opposite of saving (cf. John 3:18; John 5:24). God could have condemned human beings without the Incarnation. Jesus will judge everyone, but that was not God’s purpose in the Incarnation. Rather it was to provide salvation for everyone through His death on the cross.

How can we reconcile this verse with John 9:39 where Jesus said that He came into the world for judgment (cf. John 5:27)? Judging was a secondary duty involved in saving, which was Jesus’ primary purpose (cf. Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus came into an already condemned world to save some. He did not enter a neutral world to save some and condemn others. Anyone who brings light casts a shadow, but the bringing of shadow is only an attendant circumstance that is inevitable when one brings light.

Verse 18

The person who believes in Jesus escapes condemnation (cf. John 5:24; Romans 8:1). However the person who does not believe in Jesus stands condemned already with no way of escape (cf. John 3:36). The reason for his or her condemnation then becomes his or her failure to believe on the One whom God lovingly and graciously has provided for salvation. Faith is the instrumental means by which we obtain salvation. Failure to exercise faith in Jesus will result in spiritual death just as failure to believe in the brazen serpent resulted in physical death for the Israelites (Numbers 21:4-9). The difference between belief and unbelief is clear from here on in this Gospel. [Note: See Michael A. Rydelnik, "The Jewish People and Salvation," Bibliotheca Sacra 165:660 (October-December 2008):447-62, for defense of the particularist view that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are lost.]

Verse 19

John explained the process of mankind’s judgment (Gr. krisis, separating or distinguishing, not krima, the sentence of judgment). Even though light entered the world, people chose darkness over light. The light in view is the revelation that Jesus as the Light of the World brought from the Father, particularly the light of the gospel. The reason people choose darkness over light is their deeds are evil. They prefer their darkness to God’s light because of what the darkness hides, namely, their sin.

Verse 20

Not only do evildoers love darkness (John 3:19), they also hate the light. The Greek word translated "evil" is phaula, meaning "worthless." Evildoers avoid the light that Jesus brings, and Jesus Himself (cf. John 1:9-11), because it exposes the vanity of their lives. It shows that they have no meaning, worthy goal, or hope for the future. They know that coming to the light would convict them. Immorality lies behind much unbelief.

Verse 21

People who adhere to the truth, on the other hand, come to the light and its source, Jesus. They do not try to cover up worthless deeds, but they are willing to expose them to the searching light of God’s revelation (cf. 1 John 1:8-9). They also humbly acknowledge that the good works that they do are really God’s production. They do all this, of course, because God draws them to Himself. One fundamental difference between believers and unbelievers is their attitude toward the light. It is not their guilt before God. Both are guilty before Him. A minority interpretation is that Jesus was distinguishing believers who acknowledged Christ openly, like John the Baptist, and secret believers, such as Nicodemus, rather than believers and unbelievers. [Note: Zane C. Hodges, "Coming to the Light-John 3:20-21," Bibliotheca Sacra 135:540 (October-December 1978):314-22.]

John 3:19-21 point out the ultimate danger that each reader of this Gospel faces. If one tends to do as Nicodemus did and reject Jesus, it is because he or she does not want to come to the light for moral reasons. People essentially turn from Jesus because the light that He brings exposes things about themselves that they want to remain hidden. Openness to the light is very important. God’s gracious love encourages guilty sinners to open up to the light.

"This [John 3:19-21] is one of the most important sections in the gospel of John for understanding the light/darkness polarization in Johannine theology and also for understanding John’s gospel itself." [Note: Harris, pp. 203-4.]

Much of contemporary man’s problem with the gospel is anthropological. It arises from a faulty view of himself. Fallen man generally views human beings as neutral if not good. Therefore the fact that God sent Jesus and Jesus came to save sinners seems only interesting at best. If man is good and not in need of salvation, we can applaud God’s love as admirable. If man is neutral, we can take salvation or leave it. If we leave it, God appears unfair for condemning us. However man is not good or neutral but bad. He already stands condemned and destined to experience God’s wrath. Therefore faith in Jesus becomes a necessary way of escape from that dreadful destiny. The Incarnation is a manifestation of divine grace, not just divine love.

Verse 22

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus evidently happened in Jerusalem (John 2:23). Jerusalem was within Judea. After that conversation, Jesus went out into the Judean countryside. Jesus had not yet commissioned the Twelve. That commissioning happened after John the Baptist’s imprisonment (Mark 1:14). The disciples who accompanied Jesus may not have been the Twelve, but they were His followers and they could have included all or some of the Twelve. This is the only record in the Gospels that Jesus engaged in a baptizing ministry similar to John the Baptist’s. It was undoubtedly baptism expressing repentance rather than "Christian baptism." The writer later explained that Jesus did not do the baptizing Himself, but His disciples did (John 4:2). Jesus was also spending time with these disciples undoubtedly to help them understand and appreciate who He really was.

Verses 22-30

4. John the Baptist’s reaction to Jesus’ ministry 3:22-30

The writer next noted the parallel ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus in Judea. John the Baptist readily confessed Jesus’ superiority to him even though they were both doing the same things. This was further testimony to Jesus’ identity. This section constitutes the very core of the Apostle John’s testimony to Jesus’ identity in Jesus’ early ministry (chs. 2-4).

Verse 23

The exact location of Aenon (lit. springs) near Salim is unknown today. The best evidence seems to point to a site just south of Scythopolis (Old Testament Beth-shan). [Note: See Tenney, "John," p. 52, and the map "Palestine in the Time of Jesus" at the end of these notes.] The other possible site was a few miles east of Sychar (near Old Testament Shechem). The first site is about 15 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. The second is approximately midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Both are only a few miles west of the Jordan River. [Note: See Edersheim, 2:767-69, for further discussion of the location of Sychar.] John evidently chose the site for its abundant water that came from nearby springs. Many people were coming to him to express their repentance by undergoing water baptism.

". . . the importance of the note is to show that John moved from the south to the north, leaving Jesus to baptize in the area not distant from Jerusalem." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 52.]

Verse 24

Obviously John continued preaching and baptizing after Jesus began ministering, and he did so until Herod Antipas imprisoned him. The Synoptic writers began their narratives of Jesus’ public ministry with His ministry in Galilee. They viewed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as starting with John the Baptist’s imprisonment (Mark 1:14). The Apostle John began his narrative of Jesus’ ministry with His earlier Judean ministry. From him alone we learn that between Jesus’ temptation and John the Baptist’s arrest John and Jesus baptized at the same time. His reference to John the Baptist’s imprisonment is important because it helps the reader see that John’s account does not contradict the Synoptics. Yet his primary concern was John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus.

Verse 25

Evidently the discussion in view centered on the relation of John’s baptism to other ceremonial washings that various other Jewish authorities espoused. These other washings probably included the practices prescribed in the Old Testament and more modern rites of purification that some Jewish leaders advocated. This verse provides the background from which John’s disciples approached him in the next verse.

Verse 26

One of the contemporary baptisms was the one Jesus and His disciples were conducting. John’s disciples mentioned it to John implying that they wanted him to comment on it. They had particular concern that so many people were going to Jesus for baptism. John’s reply (John 3:27-30) suggests that they felt jealous of Jesus’ popularity. They had failed to grasp the purpose of John’s ministry.

"It is interesting to note that four of the greatest men in the Bible faced this problem of comparison and competition: Moses (Numbers 11:26-30), John the Baptist (John 3:26-30), Jesus (Luke 9:46-50), and Paul (Philippians 1:15-18). A leader often suffers more from his zealous disciples than from his critics!" [Note: Wiersbe, 1:297.]

Verse 27

John replied to the implied question with an aphorism, a general maxim. He meant that no one can receive anything unless God in His sovereignty permits it (cf. John 6:65; John 19:11; 1 Corinthians 4:7). Regarding Jesus this statement expressed belief that God had permitted Jesus to enjoy the popularity that He was experiencing. It also expressed John’s satisfaction with that state of affairs. John demonstrated an exemplary attitude. He recognized that God had assigned different ministries to Jesus and himself and that it was wrong for him and his disciples to wish things were otherwise (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; 1 Corinthians 4:1-7; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Verse 28

John proceeded to remind his disciples that he never claimed to be the Messiah but only Messiah’s forerunner (John 1:15; John 1:20; John 1:23; John 1:26-34).

Verse 29

John’s illustration showed that his attitude and behavior were consistent with normal conduct. In the illustration Jesus is the bridegroom and John is the bridegroom’s friend.

"The assistant acted on behalf of the bridegroom and made the preliminary arrangements for the ceremony." [Note: Blum, p. 283.]

The bride is probably a reference to Israel (cf. Isaiah 54:5; Isaiah 62:4-5; Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8; Hosea 2:16-20). John was therefore implying that he played a supporting role in Messiah’s union with Israel. This was a testimony to Jesus’ identity as Messiah whom John said he rejoiced to hear.

When John the Baptist spoke these words the church was an unknown entity in God’s plan, so it is unlikely that it was in his mind. However the original readers of this Gospel were probably familiar with the Apostle Paul’s revelations concerning the church being the bride of Christ (e.g., 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27; Ephesians 5:32). Israel had spurned her bridegroom when He came for her, and consequently He had taken a different bride for Himself. John’s joy was complete or full (Gr. pleroun) because he knew that he was fulfilling his role faithfully. Jesus’ increasing popularity filled John’s disciples with resentment, but it filled John with joy.

Verse 30

This classic expression of humility arose out of John’s perception of and acceptance of His God-given role as Messiah’s forerunner. Far from discouraging people from following Jesus, as his disciples implied he should, John would continue to promote Him. He viewed this as God’s will and therefore said it "must" be so. Would that all of us who are God’s servants would view Jesus’ position and our own similarly. Submission to God’s will and the exaltation of Jesus, not prominence in His service, should bring joy to His servants.

Unfortunately some of John’s disciples continued to follow him rather than taking their rabbi’s advice to follow Jesus (cf. Acts 18:24-26; Acts 19:1-7).

Verses 31-32

The incarnate Son of God has come to earth from above (cf. John 3:13). John sought to fulfill his purpose of proving that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:31) partially by stressing that Jesus’ origin was "from above." Birth from above (John 3:3), the new birth, can only come by faith in Him who is from above. His place of origin illustrates His superiority over all earthly people that humanity binds to the "earth" (Gr. ge, this planet) including John the Baptist. Finite humans can only reveal things that they experience on the earth, but Jesus could reveal things about heaven. John could call people to repentance, but he could not reveal divine counsels, as Jesus could, nor could he provide new life from above. Jesus had previously said that people do not typically receive His witness (John 3:11), and the writer repeated that fact here. The Greek word martyria, "witness" or "testimony," appears some 47 times in this Gospel.

Verses 31-36

5. The explanation of Jesus’ preeminence 3:31-36

This pericope explains why Jesus must become greater. It also unites several themes that appear through chapter 3. John the Apostle or John the Baptist may be the speaker. This is not entirely clear.

Verses 33-34

However some people do receive His witness. Those who do thereby assert their belief that the Father, not just the Son, is truthful. Seals indicated a personal guarantee as well as denoting ownership (cf. John 6:27). They also made secure (Matthew 27:66) and concealed (Revelation 22:10). Jesus so exactly revealed God’s words that to believe Jesus is to believe God, and to disbelieve Jesus is to disbelieve God (cf. 1 John 5:10).

All of God’s former messengers received a limited measure of God’s Spirit. The Spirit came on the Old Testament prophets only for limited times and purposes. However, God gave His Spirit to Jesus without limit. This guaranteed the truth of Jesus’ words. The Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism and remained on Him (John 1:32-33; cf. Isaiah 11:2; Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 61:1). God gave His Spirit without measure only to Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

"Thirty-nine times the Gospel of John refers to Jesus being sent from God (John 3:17; John 3:34; John 4:34; John 5:23-24; John 5:30; John 5:36-38; John 6:29; John 6:38-39; John 6:44; John 6:57; John 7:16; John 7:28-29; John 8:16; John 8:18; John 8:26; John 8:29; John 8:42; John 9:4; John 10:36; John 11:42; John 12:44-45; John 12:49; John 13:16; John 13:20; John 14:24; John 15:21; John 16:5; John 17:3; John 17:18; John 17:21; John 17:23; John 17:25; John 20:21). This affirms Jesus’ deity and heavenly origin, as well as God’s sovereignty and love in initiating the Son’s Incarnation (cf. Galatians 4:4; 1 John 4:9-10; 1 John 4:14)." [Note: Ibid.]

Verse 35

God not only gave Jesus His Spirit without measure, but He has placed everything in His hands. The Father has been gracious to the Son because He loves Him even as He has been gracious to human beings in providing salvation because He loves us. Everything that the Father has done, revealing and redeeming, flows from His love for people through the Son. This statement also points out the dependence of the human Jesus on the Father, one of John’s major themes.

Verse 36

In conclusion, John placed the alternatives side by side. Belief in the Son of God results in eternal life (John 1:12; John 3:3; John 3:5; John 3:15-16), life fitted for eternity with God and enjoyed to a limited extent now. Unbelief results in God’s wrath remaining on the unbeliever and his or her not obtaining eternal life. John spoke of unbelief as disobedience (rejection, NIV), because when God offers salvation unbelief becomes disobedience. [Note: See Brad McCoy, "Obedience Is Necessary to Receive Eternal Life," Grace Evangelical Society News 9:5 (September-October 1994):1, 3.]

God’s wrath is His personal response to unbelief, not some impersonal principle of retribution.

"It is the divine allergy to moral evil, the reaction of righteousness to unrighteousness. God is neither easily angered nor vindictive. But by his very nature he is unalterably committed to opposing and judging all disobedience." [Note: Tenney, "John," pp. 52-53.]

Unbelievers will experience God’s wrath primarily in the future (cf. John 5:28-29). This is the only reference to God’s wrath in John’s Gospel or his epistles, though it appears six times in the Book of Revelation (cf. Romans 1:18 to Romans 3:26).

"’The wrath of God’ is a concept that is uncongenial to many modern students, and various devices are adopted to soften the expression or explain it away. This cannot be done, however, without doing great violence to many passages of Scripture and without detracting from God’s moral character. Concerning the first of these points, . . . there are literally hundreds of passages in the Bible referring to God’s wrath, and the rejection of them all leaves us with a badly mutilated Bible. And with reference to the second, if we abandon the idea of the wrath of God we are left with a God who is not ready to act against moral evil. . . . We should not expect it [God’s wrath] to fade away with the passage of time. Anyone who continues in unbelief and disobedience can look for nothing other than the persisting wrath of God. That is basic to our understanding of the gospel. Unless we are saved from real peril there is no meaning in salvation" [Note: Morris, p. 220.]

This verse brings the whole third chapter to a climax and emphasizes the significance of the Son for salvation and judgment.

In this pericope the Apostle John explained that Jesus came from heaven with greater authority than any former prophet. What He revealed came from His own observations in heaven. His words accurately and fully represented God. Moreover He came because the Father fully endowed Him with divine authority and assistance out of love. Furthermore He is to be the object of people’s faith. Therefore He was superior to John the Baptist as well as every other divine representative.

The events in John’s narrative of Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem (John 2:13 to John 3:36) set the tone for Jesus’ ministry, particularly His later occasions of ministry in Jerusalem (ch. 5; John 7:10 to John 10:42; John 12:12-50). The conflict between belief and unbelief begins to surface here.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on John 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/john-3.html. 2012.
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