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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Greek Testament

John 3



A specimen is given of the kind of belief produced in the Jews of Jerusalem and of the manner in which Jesus dealt with it . ἦν δὲ ἄνθρωπος , the Syriac adds “there,” i.e. , at Jerusalem. ἄνθρωπος is simply equivalent to τις , and does not point back to the ἄνθρωπος of the preceding verse. He is described as ἐκ τῶν φαρισαίων that we may the better understand what follows. He belonged to that party which with all its bigotry contained a salt of true patriotism and could rear such cultured and high-toned men as Gamaliel and Paul. It is a mistake to suppose that all who belong to a mischievous party in a Church are themselves mischievous: it is also a mistake to ascribe without inquiry the goodness of individuals to the influence of their party. Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ . Many Jews had now Greek names. Lightfoot quotes from the Talmud passages which show that a certain Bonai surnamed Nicodemus was a disciple of Jesus, and that he lived through the destruction of Jerusalem, but lost in it all his wealth. He is, however, very doubtful whether this is the Nicodemus of this passage. He is further described as ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων , a member of the Sanhedrim. See John 7:50 , where he appears in the Sanhedrim. Luke 14:1 speaks of one τῶν ἀρχόντων τῶν φαρισαίων . See also Luke 18:18 ; Luke 8:41 ; Matthew 9:18 .

Verse 2

John 3:2 . οὗτος ἦλθε πρὸς αὐτὸν . The pronoun instead of the name Jesus, as Holtzmann remarks, shows the close connection with the closing verses of the last chapter. Nicodemus came to the fountain head, dissatisfied with the way in which his colleagues were dealing with Jesus, and resolved to judge for himself. Nothing could be more hopeful than such a state of mind. When a man says, I will see for myself what Jesus is, not influenced by what other men say; before I sleep I will settle this matter, the result is fairly certain to be good. See chap. John 7:50 , John 19:39 . He came νυκτὸς , certainly with the purpose of secrecy, and yet for a man in his position to come at all was much. No timidity is shown in John 7:50 . In John 19:39 John still identifies him as “he that came to Jesus by night,” but adds “at the first” in contrast to the courage he afterwards showed. Similarly, as Grotius tells us, Euclid of Megara visited Socrates by night when Athens was closed by edict against the Megarians. Modestly and as if not presuming to speak as an individual but as representing a party however small (John 3:2 ), he says, Ῥαββεί οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος , “Rabbi, we know that Thou art come from God as a teacher”. We need not see in the words anything either patronising or flattering, but merely the natural first utterance of a man wishing to show the state of his mind. He was convinced that Jesus was a divinely commissioned teacher. He came to hear what He had to teach. His teaching, in the judgment of Nicodemus, was divinely authenticated by the miracles; but to Nicodemus at any rate the teaching was that for which the miracles existed. They were σημεῖα , and though not recorded, they must have been of a kind to strike a thoughtful mind ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖασὺ ποιεῖς , the emphatic pronoun, as if other miracles might not have been so convincing. At the same time the reply of Jesus shows that behind this cautious designation of “teacher” there lay in the mind of Nicodemus a suspicion that this might be the Messiah. Nicodemus may have taken to heart the Baptist’s proclamation. Grotius supposes the conversation is abridged, and that Nicodemus had intimated that he wished to learn something about the kingdom which formed the subject of our Lord’s teaching. “Responsio tacite innuit, quod adjectum a Nicodemo fuerat, nempe, velle se scire, quandoquidem Jesus Regni coelestis inter docendum mentionem saepe faceret, quae ratio esset eo perveniendi.” But with the introduction to this incident (John 2:23-25 ) in our mind, it seems gratuitous to suppose that part of the conversation is here omitted. Jesus speaks to the intention and mental attitude of His interlocutor rather than to his words. He saw that Nicodemus was conceiving it as a possible thing that these miracles might be the signs of the kingdom; and in this visit of Nicodemus He sees what may be construed into an overture from the Pharisaic party. And so He cuts Nicodemus remorselessly short. As when the Pharisees (Luke 17:20 ) demand of Him when the Kingdom of God should come, He replied: The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation , not with signs which the natural man can measure, it comes within you; so here in strikingly similar language He says, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν , οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ . This allusion to the kingdom, which is not a favourite idea of John’s, is one of the incidental marks of his historical trustworthiness. ἄνωθεν is sometimes local = ἐξ οὐρανοῦ , from above; sometimes temporal = ἐξ ἀρχῆς , de novo . The former meaning is advocated here by Baur, Lücke, Meyer, and others. But the use of παλιγγενεσία and the difficulty stated by Nicodemus in John 3:4 rather indicate that the Syriac and Vulgate [nisi quis renatus fuerit], Augustine, Calvin, and among many others Weiss are right in adopting the temporal meaning and rendering with R.V [38] “anew”. [Wetstein, in proof of this meaning, quotes from Artemidorus, who tells of a father who dreamt that there was born to him a child exactly like himself; “he seemed,” he says, “to be born a second time,” ἄνωθεν . And in the touching story which gave rise to the Domine quo vadis Church at Rome where Peter met Christ, the words of the Lord, as given in the Acta Pauli, are ἄνωθεν μέλλω σταυρωθῆναι .] The answer of Nicodemus might seem to indicate that he had understood ἄνωθεν as equivalent to his own δεύτερον . But it is impossible to determine with certainty which is the correct meaning. A man must be born again, says our Lord, because otherwise οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ . Is ἰδεῖν here to be taken in the sense of “seeing” or of “enjoying,” “partaking”? Meyer and Weiss, resting on such expressions as ἰδεῖν θάνατον (Luke 2:26 , Hebrews 11:5 ), διαφθοράν (Acts 2:27 ), ἡμέρας ἀγαθάς (1 Peter 3:10 ), understand that “participation” is meant. So Calvin, “ videre regnum Dei idem valet ac ingredi in regnum Dei,” and Grotius, “participem fieri”. Confirmation of this view is at first sight given by the εἰσελθεῖν of John 3:5 . But it is of “signs” Nicodemus has been speaking, of observing the kingdom coming; and Christ says: To see the kingdom you must be spiritual, born anew, for the signs are spiritual. In this language there should have been nothing to stumble Nicodemus. All Jerusalem was ringing with the echoes of the Baptist’s preaching, the essence of which was “ye must be born again”. To be children of Abraham is nothing. There is nothing moral, nothing spiritual, nothing of the will, nothing related to the Kingdom of God in being children of Abraham. As regards your fleshly birth you are as passive as stones and as truly outside the kingdom. In fact John had excommunicated the whole nation, and expressly told them that they must submit to baptism, like Gentile proselytes, if they were to be prepared for the Messiah’s reign. The language may not have puzzled Nicodemus. Had our Lord said: “Every Gentile must be born again,” he would have understood. It is the idea that staggers him. His bewilderment he utters in the words:

[38] Revised Version.

Verse 4

John 3:4 . πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν ; μὴ δύναται , etc. In this reply there is no attempt to fence with Jesus, but merely an expression of the bewilderment created by His statement. The emphasis is on πῶς , which asks for further explanation. The μὴ of the second clause shows that Nicodemus understood that Jesus could not mean a second physical birth (see Lücke). On γέρων ὤν Grotius remarks: “Exemplum in se ponit, qui senex jam erat”. That our Lord understood Nicodemus’ words as a request for further explanation appears from His at once proceeding to give it.

Verse 5

John 3:5 . Ἀμὴν , ἀμὴν λέγω σοι , ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῆ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος , οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν β . To remove as far as possible the difficulty of Nicodemus as to the πῶς of the second birth our Lord declares that the two great factors in it are “water” and “spirit”. Calvin thinks this is a ἐν διὰ δυοῖν , and that the two names cover one reality. “Spiritum et aquam pro eodem posuit.” “ Aqua nihil aliud est quam interior Spiritus sancti purgatio et vegetatio.” And he defends this by a reference to the Baptist’s announcement that the Messiah would baptise with the spirit and fire. Grotius takes the same line, but cautiously adds: “Si quis tamen malit ista decernere, ut aqua significet mali fugam, spiritus vero impetum ad optima quaeque agenda, inveniet quo hanc sententiam fulciet”. Lk. (Luke 7:30 ) tells us that the Pharisees, to whom belonged Nicodemus, were not baptised of John; their reason being that to submit to the same rite as Gentiles and acknowledge the insufficiency of their Jewish birth was a humiliation they could not suffer. To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own their need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needrul as new life for the future. To be born of the Spirit involves a dying to the past, and therefore it is only the Spirit that is spoken of in the subsequent verses; but it is essential that our past be recognised as needing cleansing and forgiveness. These two factors, water and spirit, are not strictly co-ordinate. Water is not an actual spiritual agency in the second birth; it is only a symbol. But in every true second birth there is a negative as well as a positive side, a renunciation of the past as well as a new life created. The same idea is found in Titus 3:3-5 , “We were [of the flesh] but He saved us by the bath of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Ghost”. The same combination is found in Ezekiel 36:25-27 , “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” The water, then, is considered as that which cleanses from sin: the Spirit as the principle of the new life.

Verse 6

John 3:6 . The necessity of the new birth is further exhibited by a comparison of the first and second birth: τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τὴς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστι · καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ Πνεύματος , πνεῦμά ἐστι . The neuter is used because the speaker “wishes to make His statement altogether general” (Winer, 27, 5), whatever is born. The law is laid down in Aristotle (Eth. Maj., i., 10), “Every nature generates its own substance,” flesh, flesh; spirit, spirit.

Verse 7

John 3:7 . Therefore it was no cause for wonder that a new birth was required for entrance into the spiritual kingdom. The argument implies that natural birth produces only σάρξ , not spirit. By his natural birth man is an animal, with a nature fitting him to live in the material world in which he finds himself and with capacities for spiritual life in a spiritual world. These capacities may or may not be developed. If they are developed, the Spirit of God is the Agent, and the change wrought by their development may fitly be called a new birth, because it gives a man entrance into a new world and imparts new life to live in it. ( Cf. the second birth and second life of many insects.)

Verse 8

John 3:8 . τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ . Two renderings of these words are possible: “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” as in A.V [39] ; “The Spirit breatheth where He will,” as in margin of R.V [40] By the one rendering a comparison is instituted between the unseen but powerful operation of the Spirit in regeneration and the invisible but mighty power of the wind. You hear the voice of the wind but cannot see where it comes from nor where it goes to. So in the new birth the Spirit moves and works unseen. Similarly Socrates (Xen., Mem. , iv., 3) says: The thunder as it comes and goes is not seen: the winds also are invisible though their effects are manifest; the soul of man is itself unseen, therefore despise not the unseen but honour God. In favour of the other rendering it may be urged that there is nothing to warn us that we are now to understand that by the word πνεῦμα “wind” is meant. It occurs about 370 times in the N.T., and never means “wind” except once in a quotation from the O.T. The Vulgate renders “Spiritus ubi vult spirat,” and if we could not only say “expire,” “inspire,” but also “spire,” the best translation might be “the Spirit spires”. As this cannot be, we may render: “The Spirit breathes where He will,” that is to say, there is no limitation of His power to certain individuals, classes, races. Cf. John 5:21 , ὁ υἱὸς οὓς θέλει ζωοποιεῖ . The thought here is similar: there need be no despair regarding the second birth: the Spirit breathes where He will. So Bengel, “ Spiritus , proprie, nam huic, non vento voluntas et vox est”. καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις , the Spirit makes Himself audible in articulate and intelligible sounds. The breathing of the Spirit is like man’s breath, not mere air, but articulated and significant voice. The Spirit works intelligible results. He does not roar like the wind and toss men in unavailing contortions as the wind tosses the trees. It is a voice and the result is full of reason, in harmony with human nature and vivifying it to higher life. But for all this, οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει , you cannot observe and regulate the Spirit’s approach and departure. οὕτως ἐστὶ πᾶςγεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος , thus it is in the case of every one who is born of the Spirit. You cannot see the process of regeneration; the process is secret and invisible, the results are apparent.

[39] Authorised Version.

[40] Revised Version.

Verse 9

John 3:9 . This explanation did not satisfy Nicodemus. He falls back upon his bewilderment, πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι ; This question stirs Jesus to a fuller explanation, which is reported in John 3:10-15 .

Verse 10

John 3:10 . He opens with an exclamation of surprise, Σὺ εἶδιδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραήλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις ; perhaps there is more of sadness than either of indignation or irony in the words. Is this the state of matters I have to confront? If the teacher is so obtuse what must the taught be? The presence of the article is usually taken as indicating that Nicodemus was recognised as a great teacher, perhaps held the official position of Chakam in the Sanhedrim. But Westcott is right: “the definite article marks the official relation of Nicodemus to the people generally”. It is used to bring out sharply, not the relation he held to other teachers, but the relation he held to the people. “Art thou the teacher of Israel and knowest not these things?” Bad enough for an Israelite to be blind to such things, but how much worse for one who teaches! But should a teacher of Israel have known these things? Westcott overleaps the difficulty by saying that γινώσκεις refers to the knowledge of perception, and that Jesus is surprised that Nicodemus should not have been able during this conversation to apprehend what was said.

Verse 11

John 3:11 . ἀμὴν , ἀμὴνοὐ λαμβάνετε . From this point dialogue ceases, and we have now an unbroken utterance of Jesus. It starts with a certification of the truth of what Nicodemus had professed himself unable to understand. ὃ οἴδαμεν λαλοῦμεν . Why plural? Were the disciples present and are they included? Or does it mean Jesus and the prophets, or Jesus and the Baptist, or Jesus and the Father, or is it the rhetorical “we”? Possibly it is merely an unconscious transition to the plural, as in this same verse the σοι of the first clause becomes a plural in λαμβάνετε in the last clause. Or there may be an indefinite identification of Himself with all who had apprehended the nature of the new birth the Baptist and the best of his disciples. Jesus does not wish to represent Himself as alone able to testify of such matters. Weiss’ view is peculiar. He thinks that the contents of the μαρτυροῦμεν consist of what John and Jesus saw at the Baptism, when the Spirit’s descent indicated Jesus as the Baptiser with the Spirit.

Verse 12

John 3:12 . εἰ τὰ ἐπίγειαπιστεύσετε ; The reference of τὰ ἐπίγεια is fixed by the εἶπον ὑμῖν . They are such things as Jesus had been speaking of: things verified in human, earthly experience, the necessity of a spiritual birth and the results of it. Regeneration was a change made in this earthly life. The kingdom of regenerate men was to be established on earth, as apprehensible in certain of its aspects as the kingdom Nicodemus was proposing to found. The ἐπουράνια are matters not open to human observation, matters wholly in the unseen, the nature and purposes of God. Cf. the remarkable parallel in Wis 9:16 .

Verse 13

John 3:13 . καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκενκαταβάς . The connection is: You have not believed earthly things, much less will you believe those which are heavenly; for not only are they in their own nature more difficult to understand, but there is none to testify of them save only that One who came down out of heaven. The sentence may be paraphrased thus: No one has gone up to heaven and by dwelling there gained a knowledge of the heavenly things: One only has dwelt there and is able to communicate that knowledge He, viz. , who has come down from heaven. “Presence in heaven” is considered to be the ground and qualification for communicating trustworthy information regarding “heavenly things”. Direct knowledge and personal experience of heavenly things alone justify authoritative declarations about them; as in earthly things one may expect to be believed if he can say, “we speak that we do know and testify that we have seen”. But this “presence in heaven” Jesus declares to be the qualification exclusively of one person. This person He describes as “He that came down out of heaven,” adding as a further description “the Son of Man” [who is in heaven]. This description identifies this person as Jesus Himself. He claims therefore to have a unique qualification for the declaration of truth about heavenly things, and this qualification consists in this, that He and He alone has had direct perception of heavenly things. He has been in heaven. By “heaven” it is not a locality that is indicated, but that condition which is described in the prologue as πρὸς τὸν θεόν . And when He speaks of coming down out of heaven He can only mean manifesting Himself to those who are on that lower level from which they had not been able to ascend to the knowledge of heavenly things. In short, we have here the basis in Christ’s own words of the statement in the prologue that the Word was in the beginning with God, and became flesh to be a light to men. Why is ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου introduced? It identifies the person spoken of, and it suggests that He who alone had the knowledge of heavenly things now wore human nature, was accessible, and was there for the purpose of communicating this knowledge. The words added in the T.R., ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ , affirm that although He had come out of heaven He was still in it, and they show that a condition of being, not a locality, was meant by “heaven”.

Verse 14

John 3:14 . If the Son of Man alone has this knowledge, how is it to be disseminated and become a light to all men? This is answered in the words, καὶ καθὼς Μωσῆςτοῦ ἀνθρώπου [modern editors read Μωυσῆς ; so also in LXX]. The emphatic word is ὕψωσε . When Moses made the brazen serpent, he did not secrete it in his tent and admit a few selected persons to view it, but ὕψωσε τὸν ὄφιν , gave it an elevation at which all might see it. So must the Son of Man, the bearer of heavenly light and healing, ὑψωθῆναι , that all may see Him. The “lifting up” of the Son of Man is interpreted in John 12:33 to mean His lifting up on the cross. It was this which drew human observation and human homage. The cross is the throne of Christ. In the phrase δεῖ ὑψωθῆναι the aorist is used in accordance with Greek usage by which an aorist infinitive is employed to express the action of the verb even though future after verbs signifying to hope, to expect, to promise, and such like. Thus Iph. in Aul. , 462, οἶμαι γάρ νιν ἱκετεύσαι , where Markland needlessly changes the aorist into the future. Nicodemus could not see the significance with which these words were filled by the crucifixion. What would be suggested to him by the comparison of the Messiah with the brazen serpent might be something like this: The Son of Man is to be lifted up. Yes, but not on a throne in Herod’s palace. He was to be conspicuous, but as the brazen serpent had been conspicuous, hanging on a pole for the healing of the people. His elevation was certain, but it was an elevation by no mere official appointment, or popular recognition, or hereditary right, but by plumbing the depths of human degradation in truest self-sacrifice. There is no royal road to human excellence, and Jesus reached the height He attained by no blare of heralds’ trumpets or flaunting of banners or popular acclaim, but by being subjected to the keenest tests by which character can be searched, by passing through the ordeal of human life in this world, and by being found the best, the one only perfectly faithful servant of God and man.

Verse 15

John 3:15 . The words μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ of the T.R. are omitted by Tisch [41] , W.H [42] , and R.V [43] Further, the same editors replace the words εἰς αὐτὸν by ἐν αὐτῷ , and the R.V [44] translates “that whosoever believeth may in Him have eternal life,” in accordance with Johannine usage, which does not support the rendering “believeth in Him”. This is the object to be accomplished by the “elevation” of the Son of Man, viz. , that whoever, Jew or Gentile, believes that there is life in Him that is thus exalted, may have life eternal.

[41] Tischendorf.

[42] Westcott and Hort.

[43] Revised Version.

[44] Revised Version.

Verse 16

John 3:16 . Several conservative theologians, Neander, Tholuck, Westcott, are of opinion that the words of Jesus end with John 3:15 , and that from John 3:16-21 we have an addition by the evangelist. There is much to be said in favour of this idea. The thoughts of these verses are explanatory rather than progressive. John 3:16-17 repeat the object of Christ’s mission, which has already been stated. John 3:18-19 declare the historic results in faith and unbelief, results which at the date of the conversation were not conspicuous. John 3:20-21 exhibit the causes of faith and unbelief. The tenses also forbid us to refer the passage directly to Jesus. In His lips the present would have been more natural. To John looking back on the finished story aorists and perfects are natural. Also, the designation “only begotten son” is not one of the names by which Jesus designates Himself, but it is used by the evangelist, John 1:18 and 1 John 4:9 . οὕτω γὰρ ἠγάπησενζωὴν αἰώνιον . The love of God for the world of men is the source of Christ’s mission with all its blessings. It was this which prompted Him to “give,” that is, to give not solely to the death of the cross alluded to in John 3:14 , but to all that the world required for salvation, His only begotten Son. “The change from the aorist ( ἀπόληται ) to the present ( ἔχῃ ) is to be noted, the utter ruin being spoken of as an act, the possession of life eternal as an enduring experience” (Meyer, Weiss, Holtzmann).

Verse 17

John 3:17 . οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλενδιʼ αὐτοῦ . For whatever the result of Christ’s coming has been, in revealing a love of sin and bringing heavier judgment on men, this was not God’s purpose in sending His Son. The Jewish idea was that the Messiah would come “to judge,” i.e. , to condemn the world. κρίνω and κατακρίνω , though originally distinct, are in the N.T. sometimes identical in meaning, the result of judgment so commonly being Condemnation; cf. crime . But although the result is judgment, the bringing to fight a distinction among men and the resulting condemnation of many, yet the object was ἵνα σωθῇκόσμος . John repeats his favourite word κόσμος three times in this verse that there may be no possibility of missing his point, that so far as God’s purpose was concerned, it was one of unmixed love, that all men might be saved. The emphasis was probably due to the ordinary Messianic expectation which limited and misrepresented the love of God. Westcott remarks on this verse: “The sad realities of present experience cannot change the truth thus made known, however little we may be able to understand in what way it will be accomplished”. It might on similar grounds be argued that because God wills that all men be holy in this life, all men are holy.

Verse 18

John 3:18 . ὁ πιστεύωντοῦ θεοῦ . Expansion of previous verse. God sent His Son not to judge but to save; and whoso accepts the son and His revelation is not judged. It is no longer “every Jew,” nor “every one chosen by God,” but every one that believeth. All here is spiritual. Although judgment was not the object it is the necessary result of Christ’s presence in the world. But it is a judgment very different from that which the Jews expected. It is determined by the attitude towards Christ, and this again, as afterwards shown, is determined by the moral condition of the individual. ὁ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται , “he that believeth not is already judged”: not only is left under the curse of his own evil actions; but, as the next clause shows, lies under the condemnation of not believing. ἤδη κέκριται , he is already judged: it is not some future assize he doubtfully awaits and which may or may not convict. He is judged, and on a ground which to John seems to indicate monstrous depravity, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεντοῦ θεοῦ . Not to perceive the glory of this august Being whom John so adored, not to receive the revelation made by the Only Begotten, is proof not merely of human infirmity and passion, but of wickedness chosen and preferred in presence of revealed goodness.

Verse 19

John 3:19 . This is further explained in the following, αὕτητὸ φῶς . The ground of the condemnation lies precisely in this, that since the coming of Christ and His exhibition of human life in the light of the holiness and love of the Father, human sin is no longer the result of ignorance, but of deliberate choice and preference. Nothing can be done for a man who says, “Evil, be thou my good”. The reason of this preference of darkness and rejection of Christ is that the life is evil, ἦν γὰρ κ . τ . λ .

Verse 20

John 3:20 . The principle is explained in this verse. Underlying the action of men towards Christ during His historical manifestation was a general law: a law which operates wherever men are similarly invited to walk in the light. The law which governs the acceptance or refusal of light is given in the words πᾶς γὰρφαῦλαἔργα αὐτοῦ . φαῦλος , originally “poor,” “paltry,” “ugly”; οἱ φαῦλοι , “the vulgar,” “the common sort”. In Polybius, φαῦλα πλοία , πολιτεία φαῦλα , badly constructed; φαῦλος ἡγεμών , a foolish general, and in xvii. 15, 15 it is opposed to deliberate wickedness. Dull, senseless viciousness seems to be denoted. Here and in John 3:29 πράσσειν is used with φαῦλα , and ποιεῖν in the next verse with ἀλήθειαν , on which Bengel remarks: “Malitia est irrequieta; est quiddam operosius quam veritas. Hinc verbis diversis notantur”. Where a distinction is intended, πράσσειν expresses the reiterative putting forth of activities to bring something to pass, ποιεῖν the actual production of what is aimed at. Hence there is a slight hint of the busy fruitlessness of vice. Paul, as well as John, uses πράσσειν , in certain passages, of evil actions. The person thus defined μισεῖ τὸ φῶς , “hates the light,” instead of delighting in it, καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς , and does not bring himself within its radiance, does not seek to use it for his own enlightenment; ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ , “lest his works be convicted” and so put to shame. According to John there is moral obliquity at the root of all refusal of Christ. Obviously there is, if Christ be considered simply as “light”. To refuse the ideal he presents is to prefer darkness.

Verse 21

John 3:21 . ὁ δὲ ποιῶν … “On the other hand, he who does the truth” … This is one of John’s comprehensive phrases which perhaps lose by definition. “To do the truth” is at any rate to live up to what one knows; to live an honest, conscientious life. John implies that men of this type are to be found where the light of Christ has not dawned: but when it dawns they hail it with joy. He that doeth the truth comes to the light that his deeds may be manifested, ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα . Is ὅτι expressive of a fact or declarative of a reason? Must we translate “manifested, that they are,” etc., or “manifested, because they are,” etc.? The R.V [45] has “that” in the text, and “because” in the margin. Godet and Westcott prefer the former; Lücke, Meyer, Weiss and Weizsäcker the latter. It is not easy to decide between the two. On the whole, the latter interpretation is to be preferred. This clause gives the reason of the willingness shown by the man to have his deeds made manifest: and thus it balances the clause ἦν γὰρ πονηρὰ αὐτῶν τὰ ἔργα , which gives the reason for evil doers shunning the light. He who does the truth is not afraid of the light, but rather seeks increased light because his deeds have been done ἐν θεῷ ; that is, he has not been separated from God by them, but has done what he has done because he conceived that to be the will of God. Where such light as exists has been conscientiously used, more is sought, and welcomed when it comes. “Plato was like a man shut into a vault, running hither and thither, with his poor flickering Taper, agonizing to get forthe, and holding himself in readinesse to make a spring forward the moment a door should open. But it never did. ‘Not manie wise are called.’ He had clomb a Hill in the Darke, and stood calling to his companions below, ‘Come on, come on, this way lies the East: I am avised we shall see the sun rise anon’. But they never did. What a Christian he would have made. Ah! he is one now. He and Socrates, the veil long removed from their eyes, are sitting at Jesus’ feet. Sancte Socrates, ora pro nobis” (Erasmus to More in Sir T. More’s Household ). Holtzmann quotes from Hausrath: “As a magnet attracts the metal while the dead stone lies unmoved: so are the children of God drawn by the Logos and come to the Light”. Cf. chap. John 18:37 .

[45] Revised Version.

Verse 22

John 3:22 . μετὰ ταῦτα , subsequent to the ministry in Jerusalem Jesus and His disciples came εἰς τὴν Ἰουδαίαν γῆν , “into the Judaean country,” the rural parts in contradistinction to the metropolis. “Nam quum ex Judaeae metropoli exiret Jesus, non poterat simpliciter dici proficisci in Judaeam; … maluimus ergo territorium convertere quam terram,” Beza. So in Joshua 8:1 (Codex Ambrosianus), “I have given into thy hand the King of Gai καὶ τὴν πόλιν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὴν γῆν αὐτοῦ ”. Cf. also John 11:54 . καὶ εῖἐκ διέτριβεν , “and there He spent some time with them”; whether weeks or months depends on the interpretation of John 4:35 . καὶ ἐβάπτιζεν , that is, His disciples baptised, John 4:2 .

Verses 22-36

John 3:22-36 . The ministry of Jesus in Judaea after He left Jerusalem . This falls into three parts: (1) a brief account of the movements and success of Jesus and the Baptist which provoked a comparison between them, 22 26; (2) the Baptist’s acceptance of the contrast and final testimony to Jesus, 27 30; (3) the expansion by the evangelist of the Baptist’s words, 31 36.

Verse 23

John 3:23 . ἦν δὲ καὶἐκεῖ . And John also was baptising, although he had said that he was sent to baptise in order that the Messiah might be identified; which had already been done. But John saw that men might still be prepared for the reception of the Messiah by his preaching and baptism. Hence, however, the questioning which arose, John 3:25 . The locality is described as Αἰνὼν ἐγγὺς τοῦ Σαλείμ . “The Salim of this place is no doubt the Shalem of Genesis 33:18 , and some seven miles north is ’Ainûn [= Springs], at the head of the Wâdy Fâr’ah, which is the great highway up from the Damieh ford for those coming from the east by the way of Peniel and Succoth” (Henderson’s Palestine , p. 154). The reason for choosing this locality was ὅτι ὕδατα πολλὰ ἦν ἐκεῖ , “because many waters were there,’ or much water; and therefore even in summer baptism by immersion could be continued. It is not “the people’s refreshment” that is in view. Why mention this any more than where they got their food? καὶ παρεγίνοντο , the indefinite third plural, as frequently in N.T. and regularly in English, “they continued coming”.

Verse 24

John 3:24 . οὔπω γὰρ … ὁ Ἰωάννης , “for not yet had John been cast into prison”: a clause inserted for the sake of those who might have gathered from the synoptic narrative that John was cast into prison immediately after the temptation of Jesus, Mark 1:14 , Matthew 4:12 . John having been present with Jesus through all this period can give the sequence of the events with chronological precision.

Verse 25

John 3:25 . ἐγένετο οὖν ζήτησις … There arose therefore that is, in consequence of the proximity of these two baptisms on the part of John’s disciples [ ἐκ , cf. Herod. John 3:21 and Dionys. Hal. viii. p. 556] a questioning, or discussion, with a Jew about purifying, that is, generally, including the relation of those two baptisms to one another, and to the Jewish washings, and the significance of each. The trend of the discussion may be gathered from the complaint to the Baptist, John 3:26 . As the discussion was begun by the disciples of John, it would seem as if they had challenged the Jew for seeking baptism from Jesus. For their complaint is (John 3:26 ) Ῥαββίπρὸς αὐτόν . That Jesus should baptise as well as John they could not understand. Really, the difficulty is that Jesus should have allowed John to go on baptising, and that John should not himself have professed discipleship of Jesus. But so long as John saw that men were led by his preaching to accept the Messiah he might well believe that he served Christ better thus than by following in His train.

Verse 27

John 3:27 . His answer sufficiently shows that it was not rivalry that prompted him to continue his baptism. οὐ δύναταιοὐρανοῦ . The general sense is obvious ( cf. Psalms 75:6-7 ; Psalms 127:1 ; James 1:17 ; 1 Corinthians 3:7 ), but did John mean to apply the principle directly to himself or to Jesus? Wetstein prefers the former: “non possum mihi arrogare et rapere, quae Deus non dedit”. So Calvin, Beza [“quid conamini meae conditioni aliquid adjicere?”], Bengel [“quomodo audeam ego, inquit, homines ad me adstringere?”], and Lücke. But, as Weiss points out, it is a justification of Jesus which the question of the disciples demands, and this is given in John’s statement that His popularity is God’s gift. But John avails himself of the opportunity to explain the relation he himself holds to Jesus.

Verse 28

John 3:28 . αὐτοὶ ὑμεῖςἐκείνου . John’s disciples should have been prepared for what they now see happening. He had emphatically declared that he was not the Christ, but only His forerunner (John 1:19-27 ; John 1:30 ).

Verse 29

John 3:29 . ὁ ἔχων τὴν νύμφην … The bride is the familiar O.T. figure expressive of the people in their close relation to God (Isaiah 54:5 , Hosea 2:18 , Psalms 45:0 ). This figure passes into N.T. Cf. Matthew 22:2 , Ephesians 5:32 , James 4:4 . ὁ ἔχων , he that has and holds as a wife . Cf. Mark 6:18 , Isaiah 54:1 ; Isaiah 62:5 . νυμφίος ἐστίν , it is the bridegroom, and no one else, who marries the bride and to whom she belongs. There is only one in whom the people of God can find their permanent joy and rest; one who is the perennial spring of their happiness and life. ὁ δὲ φίλος τοῦ νυμφίου , the friend, par excellence , the groomsman, παρανύμφιος , νυμφάγωγος , or in Hebrew Shoshben, who was employed to ask the hand of the bride and to arrange the marriage. For the standing and duties of the Shadchan and Shoshben see Abraham’s Jewish Life in the Middle Ages , pp. 170, 180. The similar function of the Hindu go-between or ghatak is fully described in The City of Sunshine . The peculiar and intense gratification [ χαρᾷ χαίρει , intensely rejoices, see especially Lücke, who renders “durch und durch”; Weizsäcker, “freut sich hoch”; R.V [46] , “rejoiceth greatly”] of this functionary was to see that his delicate task was crowned with success; and of this he was assured when he stood and heard the bridegroom directly welcoming his bride [“voice of bridegroom” as symbol of joy, Jeremiah 7:34 ; Jeremiah 16:9 ]. αὕτη οὖνχαρὰἐμὴ πεπλήρωται . This is the joy which John claims for himself, the joy of the bridegroom’s friend, who arranges the marriage, and this joy is attained in Christ’s welcoming to Himself the people whom John has prepared for Him and directed to Him. Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:2 , where Paul uses similar language. It is not John’s regret that men are attracted to Jesus: rather it is the fulfilment of his work and hope. This was the God-appointed order.

[46] Revised Version.

Verse 30

John 3:30 . ἐκεῖνον δεῖ αὐξάνειν , ἐμὲ δὲ ἐλαττοῦσθαι . Paley translates, “it is for Him to go on growing and for me to be ever getting less,” and adds, “the language seems to be solar”. In the Church Calendar, no doubt, John the Baptist’s day is Midsummer Day, while our Lord’s “natalitia” is midwinter, but scarcely founded on solar considerations of the day’s increase after Christmas and decrease after 24th June. Rather John is the morning star “fidelis Lucifer” whose light is eclipsed in that of the rising sun ( cf. Bernard’s “Lucet ergo Johannes, tanto verius quanto minus appetit lucere,” and Euthyrnius, ἐλαττοῦσθαι ὡς ἡλίου ἀνατείλαντος ἑωσφόρον ). If the style of the following verses is any clue to their authorship we must ascribe them to the evangelist. Besides, some of the expressions are out of place in the Baptist’s lips: e.g. , τὴν μαρτυρίαν αὐτοῦ οὐδεὶς λαμβάνει could scarcely have been said at the very time when crowds were flocking to Him. The precise point in the Baptist’s language to which the evangelist attaches this commentary or expansion [“theils erklärende, theils erweiternde Reflexion,” Lücke] is his affirmation of the Messiah’s superiority to himself. To this John adds (John 3:31 ): He is superior not only to the Baptist but to all, ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν , the reason being that He comes from above, ἄνωθεν ; which is the equivalent of ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ in the latter part of the verse. These expressions are contrasted with ἐκ τῆς γῆς , the ordinary earthly origin of men, and they refer Christ’s origin to a higher and unique source: unique because the result of this origin is that He is supreme over all , ἐπάνω πάντων . His origin is superior to that of all, therefore His supremacy is universal ( cf. John 3:13 ). The results of origin, whether earthly or heavenly, are traced out in a twofold direction: in the kind of life lived and in the words spoken. On the one hand ὁ ἐκ τῆς γῆςἐστι . The first ἐκ expresses origin: the second moral connection, as in John 18:37 , John 15:19 : he whose origin is earthly is an earthly person, his life rises no higher than its source, his interests and associations are of earth. Another result is given in the words ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ , from the earth his ideas and his utterance of them spring. A man’s talk and teaching cannot rise above their source. So far as experimental knowledge goes he is circumscribed by his origin. In contrast to persons of earthly origin stands ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ; ἐρχ . is added that not only his origin but his transition to his present condition may be indicated. His origin in like manner determines both his moral relationships and his teaching. The one is given in ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστί . He lives in a higher region than all others and is not limited by earthly conditions.

Verse 32

John 3:32 . The result is ὁ ἑώρακεμαρτυρεῖ . Seeing and hearing are equivalent to having direct knowledge. The man who is of earth may be trusted when he speaks of earth: he who is from heaven testifies to that of which he has had experimental knowledge ( cf. John 3:13 ), and might therefore expect to be listened to, but τὴν μαρτυρίαν αὐτοῦ οὐδεὶς λαμβάνει . The καὶ which connects the clauses implies the meaning “and yet”. This statement could not have been made when crowds were thronging to Jesus’ baptism. They are the reflection of the evangelist, who sees how sporadically the testimony of Christ has been received. Yet it has not been universally rejected: ὁ λαβὼνἀληθής ἐστιν . He who received His testimony sealed that God is true. σφραγ . means to stamp with approval, to endorse, to give confirmation. Wetstein quotes from Aristides, Platonic. , i., p. 18: Αἰσχίνης μαρτυρεῖ Πλάτωνικαὶ τὴν τοῦδε μαρτυρίαν ὥσπερ ἐπισφραγίζεται . But he who believes Christ not only confirms or approves Christ’s truthfulness, but God’s. ὃν γὰρ ἀπέστειλενλαλεῖ . For Christ is God’s ambassador and speaks God’s words. This is a thought which pervades this Gospel, see John 8:26 ; John 8:28 ; John 15:5 , etc. “He that sent me,” or “the Father that sent me,” is a phrase occurring over twenty times in the Gospel and is characteristic of the aspect of Christ presented in it, as revealing the Father.

Verse 34

John 3:34 . The reason assigned for the truth and trustworthiness of Christ’s words is scarcely the reason we expect: οὐ γὰρΠνεῦμα . John has told us that Christ is to be believed because He testifies of what He hath seen and heard: now, because the Spirit is given without measure to Him. The meaning of the clause is contested. The omission of ὁ θεός does not materially affect the sense, for ὁ θεός would naturally be supplied as the nominative to δίδωσι from τοῦ θεοῦ of the preceding clause. There are four interpretations. (1) Augustine, Calvin, Lücke, Alford, suppose the clause means that God, instead of giving occasional and limited supplies of the Spirit as had been given to the prophets, gives to Christ the fulness of the Spirit. (2) Meyer thinks that the primary reference is not to Christ but that the statement is general, that God gives the Spirit freely and abundantly, and does thus dispense it to Christ. (3) Westcott, following Cyril, makes Christ the subject and understands the clause as meaning that He proves His Messiahship by giving the Spirit without measure. (4) Godet makes τὸ πνεῦμα the subject, not the object, and supposes the meaning to be that the Spirit gives to Christ the words of God without measure. The words of John 3:35 seem to weigh in favour of the rendering of A.V [47] : “God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him”. The R.V [48] is ambiguous. ἐκ μέτρου , out of a measure, or, by measure, that is, sparingly. So ἐν μέτρῳ in Ezekiel 4:11 . Wetstein quotes: “R. Achan dixit: etiam Spiritus S. non habitavit super Prophetas nisi mensura quadam: quidam enim librum unum, quidam duos vaticiniorum ediderunt”. The Spirit was given to Jesus not in the restricted and occasional manner in which it had been given to the O.T. prophets, but wholly, fully, constantly. It was by this Spirit His human nature was enlightened and guided to speak things divine; and this Spirit, interposed as it were between the Logos and the human nature of Christ, was as little cumbrous in its operation or perceptible in consciousness as our breath which is interposed between the thinking mind and the words which utter it.

[47] Authorised Version.

[48] Revised Version.

Verse 35

John 3:35 . ὁ πατὴραὐτοῦ . These absolute expressions, “the Father,” “the Son,” are more naturally referred to the evangelist than to the Baptist. This absolute use of “the Son” as a designation of Christ certainly suggests, if it does not prove, the proper Divinity of Christ. It is the favourite designation in this Gospel. The love of the Father for the Son is the reason for His giving to Him the Spirit: nay, it accounts for His committing all things to His hand; πάντα δέδωκεν ἐν τῇ χειρὶ αὐτοῦ , that is, to possess and to rule. “Facit hic amor, quo Filium amplexus nos quoque in eo amplectitur, ut per illius manum nobis bona sua omnia communicet” Calvin. But Calvin does not make the mistake of supposing that the words signify “by means of His hand”; cf. Beza. God has made Christ His plenipotentiary for this world and has done so because of His love. It was a boon then to Christ to come into this world and win it to Himself. There is no history, movement, or life of God so glorious as the history of God incarnate.

Verse 36

John 3:36 . ὁ πιστεύωνἐπʼ αὐτόν . Christ has been represented as Sovereign, commissioned with supreme powers, especially for the purpose of saving men and restoring them to God. Hence “he that believeth on the Son hath eternal life”. He who through the Son finds and accepts the Father has life in this very vision and fellowship of the Supreme; cf. John 17:3 . But “he that refuses to be persuaded,” lit. “he that disobeyeth”. Beza points out that in N.T. there is a twofold ἀπείθεια , one of the intellect, dissenting from truth presented, as here and in Acts 14:2 ; the other of the will and life, see Romans 11:30 . But will enters into the former as well as the latter. ἡ ὀργὴ τοῦ θεοῦ , the wrath of God denotes “the fixed and necessary hostility of the Divine nature to sin”; what appears in a righteous man as indignation; and also the manifestation of that hostility in acts of retributive justice. This is the only place in the Gospel where it occurs; but in Revelation 6:16 , we have “the wrath of the Lamb”; also John 16:19 , “the wine of the fury of His wrath”; also John 14:10 , John 11:18 , John 19:15 . In Paul “the coming wrath” is frequently alluded to; as also “the day of wrath,” “the children” or “vessels” of wrath. On the refuser of Christ the wrath of God, instead of removing from him, abides, μένει ; not, as Theophylact reads, μενεῖ , “will abide”.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicol, W. Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on John 3". The Expositor's Greek Testament. 1897-1910.