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Ver. 1. “ There was a man of the Pharisees, whose name was Nicodemus, one of the rulers of the Jews. ”
The name Nicodemus, though of Greek origin, was not unusual among the Jews. The Talmud mentions several times a person of this name ( Nakedimon), called also Bounai, reckoned in the number of Jesus' disciples. He was one of the four richest inhabitants of the capital. His family fell into the greatest destitution. He must have been alive also at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. This last circumstance, connected with the great age of Nicodemus at the time of Jesus' ministry, renders the identity of the latter with the personage of whom the Talmud speaks, doubtful. Stier saw in the word ἄνθρωπος , a man, an allusion to John 2:25; John would remind us thereby that Nicodemus was an example of that human type which Jesus knew so well; this is far-fetched. Before naming him, John points out his quality as Pharisee. This characteristic signifies much more, indeed, than his name, for the understanding of the following conversation. The most narrow and exalted national particularism had created for itself an organ in the Pharisaic party. According to the ideas of that sect, every Jew possessing the legal virtues and qualities had a right of entrance into the Messianic kingdom. Universo Israeli est portio in mundo futuro, said the Rabbis. The Messiah Himself was only the perfect and all-powerful Jew, who, raised by His miracles to the summit of glory, was to destroy the Gentile power and place Israel at the head of humanity. This Messianic programme, which the imagination of the Pharisaic doctors had drawn out of the prophecies, was that which brought with it Nicodemus to the presence of Jesus. The title ἄρχων , ruler, denotes, undoubtedly, one of the lay members of the Sanhedrim ( Joh 7:50 ), in contrast to the ἀρχιερεῖς , chief priests (John 7:50; Luk 23:13 ).
ADDITIONAL NOTES BY THE AMERICAN EDITOR.
XII. CHAPTER III.
The first twenty-one verses of the third chapter contain the account of the interview between Jesus and Nicodemus. This interview occurred during the visit to Jerusalem at the Passover, and, when viewed in its close connection with John 2:13-25, it cannot be reasonably doubted that the story is inserted here as a part of the testimony to Jesus. It is the first testimony of the words, which play so important a part in what follows, as the Cana miracle was the first of the works. On this passage the following suggestions may be offered:
1. It is evident that Nicodemus was one of those whose attention was aroused by the “signs” alluded to in John 2:23. His mind must, therefore, have been in a susceptible state, beyond most of those around him, and he came to Jesus honestly to inquire after the truth. The course taken by him on the occasion referred to in Joh 7:45-52 makes it probable that he was established in his belief in consequence of, and as following upon this interview. His action at the time of John 7:45 ff., was both honorable and courageous. So was that which is related of him in John 19:38-42. The latter action showed love to Jesus of a most tender order. And yet the mere statement of the author of this Gospel that he made his first visit to Jesus by night has been, as it were, the only thing borne in mind respecting him, and has determined the estimate of his character. The author, however, does not say that this first coming was by night because of unworthy fear, much less that Nicodemus was marked in his whole career by this characteristic.
2. That he visited Jesus with a mind open to conviction, and with an honest desire to hear what He had to say, is evident from the second verse as most naturally explained. There is no reason to believe that his first words were spoken in any other than a straightforward and sincere way. We must believe that some conversation on the part of both parties took place between Joh 3:2 and John 3:3. It is probable that Nicodemus came to inquire as to what Jesus had to say about the Messianic Kingdom, and that, after introducing the whole conversation by the words of John 3:2, he soon raised the question which he had in mind as to that subject. Otherwise, the words of Jesus in Joh 3:3 have an abruptness which is almost inexplicable.
3. The idea of Nicodemus with regard to the kingdom was, of course, the ordinary one of the time, according to which it was to be a temporal kingdom for the Jews. The entrance into it was through a Jewish birth, so far as the chosen nation was concerned. Jesus strikes at the very foundation of this idea, and makes the entrance to be only through a birth of another sort a birth of the spirit. The difficulty which Nicodemus sets forth in the question of Joh 3:4 is connected with this marvelously new idea, and is to be interpreted accordingly, and not according to the literalism of its words. The state of Nicodemus' mind is that of John 3:9: “How can these things be?” that is, the new doctrine is incomprehensible. He stood, in this regard, where the Jewish opponents of Paul stood, when he taught the doctrine of justification, not through possession of the law and the being a Jew outwardly, but through a new and living principle, even faith in Jesus Christ.
4. The meaning of the word ἄνωθεν whether from above or anew must be regarded as doubtful. The arguments in favor of the former meaning are: ( a) The use of the word in the sense from above in the only other instances in John's Gospel which can be compared with this case. There are, however, only two such instances. In Joh 19:23 it is used of the tunic of Jesus, which is said to have been woven from the top throughout. ( b) One of these two instances is in this present chapter ( Joh 3:31 ). This fact although the word occurs in the report of the expressions of John the Baptist on another occasion would seem to indicate what the writer understood by it. ( c) The Johannean idea of the spiritual birth is that of being born of God, of the Spirit, that is, from above, and not of a new or second birth. Born of the Spirit is an expression found in this very conversation. ( d) For the idea of a second birth πάλιν or δεύτερον would have been more naturally selected. On the other hand, it is claimed ( a) that the understanding of Nicodemus was that it was a second birth (see Joh 3:4 ); ( b) that the word was so understood by the translators of the Peshito, Coptic, Old Latin and Vulgate versions; ( c) that in the passage from Artemidorus, which is referred to by Godet the only instance in the classics where ἄνωθεν γεννᾶσθαι is used, it has this meaning; so also the adverb in the two other passages cited by Godet in his note from Josephus and the Acta Pauli; ( d) that the use in Gal 4:9 justifies this meaning; ( e) that, if Jesus had here meant from above, He would have used the expression ἐκ θεοῦ , instead of this adverb. The tendency of the majority of commentators has been, on the whole, towards the latter view, or towards the position taken by R. V., which places anew in the text, and from above in the margin. If the second view is adopted, it must be observed as is now generally admitted that the word does not mean precisely again ( πάλιν ) or a second time ( δεύτερον ), but, as in Galatians 4:9, from the beginning, as indicating the idea of beginning over again, and thus of a completely new birth. The writer of this note would merely express his own view that from above is somewhat more probably the correct rendering of the word, because this meaning seems more in accordance with the general Johannean idea of the spiritual life that it comes, in every sense, from heaven and also because this is evidently the meaning of ανωθεν in John 3:31. That Nicodemus spoke of a second birth does not seem to be the measure for the determination of Jesus' thought. In the bewilderment of his mind as to the words of Jesus, any idea of birth must have seemed to him to suggest a second birth of some sort, and especially as his idea of the kingdom was, that it was to belong to Jews by reason of their birth. Nicodemus was evidently unable to grasp the thought of Jesus with a clear apprehension of it.
5. With reference to John 3:5, the following brief suggestions are offered: ( a) If we take the conversation as it stands recorded, we can hardly explain the words of this verse, unless they connect themselves with something which might easily have been before the mind of Nicodemus when the interview began. ( b) This thing must have been outside of his old, Pharisaic ideas, for the whole exposition of the entranceway and life of the kingdom is clearly intended to take him wholly away from those ideas to awaken him, as it were, by a startling contradiction of what he had previously had in mind, to a new world of thought. ( c) The only thing which can have suggested the words here used must, therefore, have been the teaching and work of John the Baptist. That this work and teaching had affected the mind of Nicodemus we may believe because of his coming to Jesus. His coming, in itself, showed that his attention had been easily turned to the great subject of the kingdom. A mind thus ready could not have overlooked the remarkable work of John, or have failed, if his attention was given to it, to consider the chief elements of John's doctrine. ( d) One of the striking expressions of John, in setting forth his office and his relation to Jesus, was that respecting baptism with water and with the Spirit. If Nicodemus had known of John's preaching, it would seem that he must have had his attention drawn to this expression. ( e) In explaining the matter of the entrance into the kingdom, therefore, it would not be unnatural for Jesus to turn the mind of Nicodemus away from his past ideas to the ideas belonging to the Christian system by uniting these two words water and spirit. The work for which the forerunner prepares the way, and which He himself introduces and sets on its course, is that by which men are drawn away from the outward and temporal view of the kingdom to individual spiritual life. ( f) If there is in the words this uniting of His work with John's, we may easily understand why the word water falls away at once and the further development is wholly in the use of the word spirit. ( g) The immediate and primary reference in ὕδατος is, accordingly, not to baptism as found in the Christian system, though, in the fullness of the idea of the sentence in the mind of Jesus, there may have been a secondary reference to it. But whatever may be said as to this point, there can be no doubt that the main thought of Jesus, which was intended to be conveyed to Nicodemus, was that of the spiritual birth as essential to membership in the kingdom.
6. The meaning of σάρξ , as used in John 3:6, is to be limited to the physical idea, and not to be regarded as including the moral. The object of this verse is to confirm, by the contrast here indicated, the necessity of the new birth. The natural birth, as into the Jewish people, can only result in what pertains to the physical or psychical sphere, but the kingdom of God is in a higher sphere. The aim of Jesus is, throughout, to show Nicodemus that his old views were utterly wrong.
7. The thought of Joh 3:8 is immediately connected with John 3:7. Nicodemus should not marvel at the idea of a new birth of the spirit, for the analogy of nature shows results coming from invisible sources. But it seems not improbable, also, that there is a suggestion here of the origin of membership in the kingdom as being widely different from what he had thought. It is an influence working in an unseen way, which may affect any one of any nation, and may leave any one unaffected which neither moves along the lines of ordinary birth nor is connected with it.
8. The suggestions already made serve to explain the words of Jesus in the tenth verse. The object of what precedes having been to set forth the spiritual nature of the kingdom, the expression of astonishment follows, that one whose office it was, as teacher of Israel, to comprehend the Old Testament in its deepest meaning, should be so unable to grasp the spiritual idea.
II. Jesus at Jerusalem: 2:23-3:21.
Jesus, not having been welcomed in the temple, does not force matters forward. The use of violence, even though by divine means, would have led Him to the career, not of a Christ, but of a Mahomet. In presence of the cold reserve which He meets, He retreats; and this retrograde movement characterizes, for a time, the course of His work. The palace has just shut its doors to Him; the capital remains open. Here He acts, yet no longer in the fullness of that Messianic sovereignty with which He had presented Himself in the temple. He confines Himself to teaching and miracles, the two prophetic agencies. Such is the admirable elasticity of the divine work in the midst of the world; it advances only as far as faith permits; in the face of resistance it yields; it retires even to its last entrenchment. Then, having reached this, it all at once resumes the offensive, and, engaging in the last struggle, succumbs externally, to conquer morally.
First Section: 2:12-3:36. Jesus in Judea.
Here again, as in the preceding story, the course of the narrative is steadily continuous and its historical development accurately graduated. Jesus first appears in the temple ( Joh 2:12-22 ); later He teaches in the capital ( Joh 2:23 to Joh 3:21 ), finally, He exercises His ministry in the country of Judea ( Joh 3:22-36 ).
Ver. 2. “ He came to him by night and said: Master, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these miracles which thou doest, except God be with him. ”
What was the purpose of this visit? These first words of Nicodemus are only a preamble; it would be idle to seek here the revelation of the purpose of his procedure. Koppe has supposed that he came to act as a spy on the Lord. But Jesus treats him as an honest person, and Nicodemus shows himself sincere during the course of the conversation, and also afterwards. Meyer has supposed that he came to inquire about the way to be saved. But as a good Jew and pious Pharisee, he by no means doubted as to his own salvation. We must, rather, suppose that he had discerned in Jesus an extraordinary being, and as he must have known the answer of the forerunner to the deputation of the Sanhedrim, he asked himself seriously whether Jesus might not be the Messiah announced by John as already present. In that case he would try to sound His plans respecting the decisive revolution which His coming was to involve. This supposition appears to me more natural than that of Weiss, who, because of the title of teacher with which Nicodemus salutes Jesus, thinks that he wished to question Him concerning what new teaching He had just given. But Nicodemus evidently could not salute Jesus by any other title than that of teacher, even if, as he must have had from the testimony of John the Baptist and in consequence of the expulsion of the traders, he had a presentiment that there was in Him something still greater. The plural οἴδαμεν , we know, proves that He did not take this step solely in his own name, but that a certain number of his colleagues entertained the same thoughts with himself. He comes by night.
This circumstance, noticed expressly in Joh 19:39 and perhaps also in John 7:50, is easily explained by the fear which he had of compromising himself before the other members of the Sanhedrim, and even before the people. Perhaps, also, he wished to avoid further increasing, through a step taken in broad daylight, the reputation of the young teacher. Nicodemus gives Him the title of ῥαββί , Master; this is saying very much on his part; since Jesus had not passed through the different degrees of rabbinical studies which gave a right to this title. Comp. John 7:15: “ The Jews were astonished, saying: How does this man know the Scriptures, not being a man who has studied? ” It is precisely this extraordinary course of the development of Jesus which Nicodemus characterizes by saying: a teacher come from God. ᾿Απὸ θεοῦ , from God, is placed at the beginning as the principal idea, opposed to that of a regular doctorate. The same contrast is found in Joh 7:16 in the mouth of Jesus Himself. This designation: from God, depends neither on the verb, come, nor on the word teacher, separately, but on the complex phrase; the sense is: “come as a teacher from God.” The argument is consonant with theocratic precedents (Exodus 4:0). Miracles prove divine assistance, and this proves the divine mission. But this formal demonstration, intended to prove to Jesus a truth which he does not doubt, is somewhat pedantic and must have shocked the ear of Him to whom it was addressed. So Jesus cuts short the discourse thus commenced by a sudden apostrophe, intended rather to answer the inmost thoughts of His interlocutor than his spoken words.
Ver. 3. “ Jesus answered and said unto him: Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. ”
The relation of this answer to the words of Nicodemus has been differently understood, for the very reason that He was not able to finish the expression of His thought. Meyer, in conformity with his supposition indicated above, interprets this answer thus: “Every particular work is unfitted to open the door of the kingdom of God; there must be a radical regeneration.” But we have seen that Nicodemus, the Pharisee, could not have come with the thought which Meyer supposes. Baumgarten-Crusius and Weiss, starting from the title of teacher which he had given Him, think that Jesus means to say: “It is not a new teaching only that you need, it is a new birth.”
According to our previous remarks, we think, rather, with Luthardt, that, on hearing the first words of Nicodemus, the whole Pharisaic programme with relation to the kingdom of God presented itself vividly to the mind of Jesus, and that He felt the need of directly opposing to it the true divine plan touching this capital subject. Nicodemus believes that he discerns in the appearance of Jesus the dawn of the Messianic kingdom, such as he conceived it; Jesus reveals to him an altogether spiritual conception of that kingdom, and, consequently, of all other moral conditions for entrance into it: “It is not a glorified earthly life; it is not a matter of expelling the Roman legions and of going to conquer the Capitol! The true kingdom of God is a state of the soul, the submission of the heart to the Divine will; to enter it, there must be wrought within the man a work at once spiritual and individual, which has nothing in common with the great political drama which thou hast in view.” It is, then, the full security in which Nicodemus is living with regard to his participation in the kingdom of the Messiah, that Jesus wishes to break up, by answering him in this way. We have in Luke 17:20-21, a parallel which offers the best commentary on our passage. “ When cometh the kingdom of God? ” a group of Pharisees ask of Jesus. “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” Jesus answers; “it is within you.” The coincidence could not be more complete. The formula amen, amen, implies a doubt in the hearer's mind (see Joh 1:51 ); the doubt implied here is that which naturally arises from the Pharisaic prejudices of Nicodemus. “The pious Jew, the honored Pharisee, the powerful ruler, Nicodemus is prostrated,” says Hengstenberg, “at the shock of this, verily. ” The solemn expression: “ I say unto thee,” or “I declare to thee,” recalls to Nicodemus that dignity of divine teacher which he has himself just attributed to Jesus. By the indeterminate formula: if any one, Jesus avoids the harshness which the direct application to such an old man would have involved. The word ἄνωθεν has, in the three other passages where John uses it (John 3:31; John 19:11; Joh 19:23 ) the local meaning: from above, that is to say, from heaven.
The passages, also, may be compared in which he makes use of the expression: to be born of God; for example, John 1:13, and in the 1st Epistle 1 John 2:29, 1 John 3:9, etc.; nine times in all. These parallel passages seem decisive and have determined a large number of interpreters ( Origen, Erasmus, Lucke, de Wette, Meyer, Baumlein, Reuss, etc.) to adopt this meaning here. But may we not also conclude from the last passages cited that if this were the idea which John wished to express, he would rather have employed the expression ἐκ θεοῦ , of God? The misunderstanding of Nicodemus ( Joh 3:4 ) is more easily explained, if Jesus said in Aramaic: anew, than from above, since even in this latter case, also, Nicodemus might have spoken of a second birth. At all events, it follows from the expressions: a second time ( δεύτερον ) and his mother's womb, that, if he thought of a birth coming from above, he understood this term in the sense in which it can be applied even to the natural birth, that is to say, that every child who is born comes from God, descends from heaven. However, if the word ἄνωθεν expressed here such a striking idea, the emphasis would be laid upon this word, and, in that case, it ought to be placed before the verb. Placed after the verb, ἄνωθεν only strengthens the idea of beginning connected with that of being born, which leads us to give to this adverb the temporal, rather than the local sense: from the beginning. We have three striking examples of this sense of ἄνωθεν . Josephus says ( Antiqq. 1.18, 3): φιλίαν ἄνωθεν ποιεῖται ; he contracts friendship with him, going back to the beginning, that is, as if they entered for the first time into mutual relations. Tholuck cites, the following passage of Artemidorus ( Oneirocriticon 1.14): A father dreaming that his wife gives birth to a child exactly like himself, says: “that he seems to himself ἄνωθεν γεννᾶσθαι , to be born from the beginning, to recommence his own existence.” In the Acta Pauli, Jesus says to Peter, who is flying from martyrdom and to whom He presents Himself: ἄνωθεν μέλλω σταυρωθῆναι , “I am going to begin anew my crucifixion.”
Compare also in the New Testament, Luke 1:3; Acts 26:5; and Galatians 4:9. In this last passage ἄνωθεν is completed by πάλιν : “entering from the beginning into a state of slavery which will be the second.” This sense of ἄνωθεν can scarcely be given in French. The expression tout a: neuf would best answer to it. The sense is: to place in the course of the earthly life a beginning as new as birth itself. There is nothing to oppose this sense, philologically, according to the examples cited. And it makes the answer of Nicodemus more easily understood. The word to see is perhaps connected with to be born; a new sight implies a new life. Sight is often the symbol of enjoyment, as well as of suffering ( Joh 8:51 ). In the old covenant, the kingdom of God was realized in a politico-religious form. From this temporary envelopment, Jesus freed the spiritual principle which forms the true foundation of that state of things, the submission of the human will to the divine will, in one word, holiness (comp. the Sermon on the Mount); and from this principle He derives a new order of things which is first realized in individuals, and which brings about thereby the renewal of society, and finally is to transform nature itself. For it is false to exclude, as Reuss does ( Hist. de la theol . chret . t. II., pp. 555f.), the social and final consequences of the notion of the kingdom of God in the sense of our Gospel. The eschatological hopes attached to this term in the Old and New Testaments are found again in full in John 5:28-29; John 6:39-40; John 6:44; John 6:54.
Meyer calls attention to the fact that the term kingdom of God does not again appear anywhere else in John, and rightly finds in this fact a proof of the truly historical character of the narrative which occupies our attention. If, as Renan thinks, Jesus had been only a young enthusiast, obedient to a mission which He had assumed for Himself, would He not have been flattered by seeing such considerable personages as Nicodemus and those whom he represented ( Joh 3:1 ) as well as the colleagues in whose name he spoke, ranked among the number of his adherents, and would not this feeling have borne Him on, at this moment, to entirely different language? The assured feeling of the divinity and holiness of His missson alone could, in the face of this success, keep Him from a false step.
Ver. 4. “ Nicodemus says to him: How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time, can he, into his mother's womb and be born? ”
This saying, to the view of several modern critics, is a master-piece of improbability. Reuss thinks that “it is indeed, wrong to try to give to this answer a meaning even in the smallest degree plausible or defensible.” Schleiermacher proposes to explain thus: “It is impossible, at my age, to recommence a new moral life.” Tholuck, Baumlein and Hengstenberg, nearly the same: “What thou askest of me is as impossible as that a man should enter again....” These explanations evidently weaken the meaning of the text.
Meyer thinks that the embarrassment into which the saying of Jesus throws Nicodemus, leads him to say something absurd. Lange finds rather a certain irritation in this answer: The Pharisee would attempt to engage in a rabbinical discussion in order to show Jesus the exaggeration of His demands. These suppositions have little probability. Would Jesus speak as He does in the sequel to a man so narrow-minded or so irritable? Lucke explains: “Thou canst not, by any means, mean that...?” This explanation is philologically accurate; it faithfully renders the meaning of the negative μή (comp. our translation).
As Weiss observes, Nicodemus does not answer thus as a man wanting in understanding; but he is offended at seeing Jesus propose to him such a condition; he refuses to enter into His thought, and, holding firmly to the literal sense, he limits himself to a setting forth of its absurdity. The manner in which he expresses this impression does not seem even to be entirely free from irony. It is because in truth, he cannot conceive how the beginning of another life can be placed in the womb of the natural existence. The kingdom of God has always appeared to him as the most glorious form of the earthly existence itself. To what purpose a new birth, in order to enter into it? The Old Testament spoke, no doubt, of the force from above, of the divine aid necessary to sanctify the man, but not of a new birth (see Luthardt).
The words: “ when he is old,” prove that Nicodemus did not fail to apply to himself the: “ If any one ” of Jesus. The word δεύτερον , a second time, undoubtedly reproduces only partially the meaning of ἄνωθεν , from the beginning, in the mouth of Jesus. This is because Nicodemus does not comprehend the difference between a beginning anew and a different beginning. A radical moral renewal seems to him impossible without a simultaneous physical renewal. Thus the explanation which Jesus gives him bears on the absolute difference between the natural birth and the new birth which He demands.
Ver. 5. “ Jesus answered: Verily, verily, I say unto thee that except a man is born of water and of spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. ”
The words, of water and spirit, substituted for ἄνωθεν ( from the beginning) indicate to Nicodemus the new factors, and consequently the totally different nature of this second birth. The first term: of water, agrees better with the idea of a new birth, than with that of a heavenly birth. Spiritualism, embarrassed by the material character of this first means, has often sought to unite it with the second. Thus Calvin paraphrases the expression of water and spirit by the term aquae spiritales; he finds support in the expression baptism of the Spirit and of fire ( Luk 3:16 ). But the spiritual sense of the word fire could not be questioned in that phrase.
It was otherwise with the word water in the saying with which we are occupied, especially at the time when Jesus was speaking thus. The baptism of John was producing at that time an immense sensation in Israel, so that the thought of Nicodemus, on hearing the words, birth by water, must have turned immediately to that ceremony; as it was celebrated in the form of a total or partial immersion, it quite naturally represented a birth. Jesus, moreover, at the moment when He thus expressed Himself, was in a sense coming out from the water of baptism; it was when completing this rite that He had Himself received the Holy Spirit. How, in such circumstances, could this expression: Born of water, have possibly designated on His lips anything else than baptism? Thus, also, is explained the negative and almost menacing form: Except a man...Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and we know that the Pharisees had refused to submit to John's baptism ( Luk 7:30 ); this saying contained, therefore, a very real admonition addressed to Nicodemus. Weiss, laying stress upon the absence of the article before the word water, rejects this special allusion to the rite of baptism. He sees in the water only an image of the purification of sin effected by the new spiritual birth. But the absence of the article simply makes prominent the quality of the means, and does not prevent us from thinking of the special practical use which was made of it by John at that time. Nicodemus must learn that the acceptance of the work of the forerunner was the first condition of entering into the new life.
This first term, therefore, contained a positive invitation to break with the line of conduct adopted by the Pharisaic party towards John the Baptist. But what is the relation between baptism and the new birth ( Joh 3:3 )? Lucke makes prominent in baptism the subjective element of repentance ( μετάνοια ). He thinks that Jesus meant to say: First of all, on the part of man, repentance (of which baptism is the emblem); afterwards, on the part of God, the Spirit. But the two defining words are parallel, depending on one and the same preposition; the one cannot represent something purely subjective and the other something purely objective. The water also contains something objective, divine; this divine element in baptism is expressed in the best way by Strauss. “If baptism is, on the part of man,” he says, “the declaration of the renunciation of sin, it is, on the part of God, the declaration of the pardon of sins.” The baptism of water, in so far as offered and administered on the part of God and in His name, contains the promise of pardon, of which it is the visible pledge, in favor of the sinner who accepts it.
In this sense, Peter says on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:38: “Be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of sins; and [following upon this pardon] you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And it must, indeed, be noticed that he says: “The pardon of sins,” and not of his sins. For it is the idea of baptism in itself, and not that of its individual efficacy, which Peter wishes to indicate. Baptism is, indeed, the crowning-point of the symbolic lustrations of the Old Testament; comp. Psalms 51:4, Psalms 51:9, “ Wash me from mine iniquity...Cleanse me from my sin with hyssop; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. ” Ezekiel 36:25, “ I will sprinkle upon you clean water, and you shall be clean. ” Zechariah 13:1, “ In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness. ” Water is, in all these passages, the emblem of the expiatory blood, the only real means of pardon. Comp. 1 John 5:6, where the water, the blood and the Spirit are placed in connection with one another; the water, on the one hand, as the symbol of the blood which reconciles and, on the other, as the pledge of the Spirit which regenerates. To accept the baptism of water administered by John was, therefore, while bearing witness of one's repentance, to place oneself under the benefit of the promise of the Messianic pardon. The condemnation being thus taken away, the baptized person found himself restored before God to his normal position, that of a man who had not sinned; and consequently he found himself fitted to receive from the Messiah Himself the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit: Here is the active, efficient principle of the new birth, of the renewal of the will and of the dispositions of the heart, and thereby even of the whole work of sanctification. Jesus sums up, therefore, in these two words: Of water and spirit, the essential principles of the Christian salvation, pardon and sanctification, those two conditions of entrance into the divine kingdom.
In the following verses, no further mention of water is made, precisely because it has in the new birth only a negative value; it removes the obstacle, the condemnation. The creative force proceeds from the Spirit. The absence of the article with the word spirit, is explained in the same way as with the word water. The question is of the nature or quality of the factors co-operating in this supernatural birth. The expression, εἰσελθεῖν ( to enter), is substituted here for the term ἰδεῖν ( to see), of John 3:3. The figure of entering into, is in more direct correspondence with that of being born. It is by coming forth from ( ἐκ ) the two elements indicated, in which the soul is plunged, that it enters into ( εἰς ), the kingdom. The reading of the Sinaitic MS.: “the kingdom of heaven,” is found also, according to Hippolytus, among the Docetae of the second century; it is found in a recently discovered fragment of Irenaeus, in the Apostolical Constitutions, and in Origen (transl.). These authorities are undoubtedly not sufficient to authorize us to substitute it for the received reading, as Tischendorf does. But this variant must be extremely ancient. At all events, it overthrows the objection raised against the reality of the quotation of our passage in Justin, Apol. 1.61. (See Introd., p. 152, 153.)
In speaking thus to Nicodemus, Jesus did not think of making salvation depend, either in general or in each particular case, on the material act of baptism. The example of the thief on the cross proves that pardon could be granted without the baptism of water. But, when the offer of this sign has been made and the sinner has rejected it, the position is different; and this was the case with Nicodemus. By the two following sentences, Jesus demonstrates the necessity (John 3:6 a), and the possibility (John 3:6 b), of the new birth, by leaving aside the water, to keep closely to the Spirit only.
Ver. 6. “ That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. ”
The logical transition from Joh 3:5 to Joh 3:6 is this understood idea: “The Kingdom of God can only be of a spiritual nature, as God is Himself.” In order to enter it, therefore, there must be, not flesh, as every man is by his first birth, but spirit, as he becomes by the new birth. The word flesh (see pp. 268-269), taken in itself, does not necessarily imply the notion of sin. But it certainly cannot be maintained, with Weiss, that the question here is simply of the insufficiency of the natural birth, even in the state of innocence, to render man fit for the divine kingdom. Nevertheless, we must not forget that the question here is of humanity in its present constitution, according to which sin is connected with the fact of birth more closely than with any other of the natural life ( Psa 51:7 ).
The expression: the flesh, seems to me, therefore, to denote here humanity in its present state, in which the flesh rules the spirit. This state is transmitted from generation to generation in such a way that, without renewal, no man can come out of that fatal circle. And hence the necessity of regeneration. How does this transmission of the carnal state accord with individual culpability? The last words of this conversation will throw some light on this difficult question. According to this saying, it is impossible to suppose that Jesus regarded Himself as born in the same way as other men (John 3:7, you). The substantive flesh, as a predicate ( is flesh), has a much more forcible meaning than that of the adjective ( carnal) would be. The state has, in some sort, become nature. Hence, it follows that it is not enough to cleanse or adorn outwardly the natural man; a new nature must be substituted for the old, by means of a regenerating power. We might also see in the second clause a proof of the necessity of the new birth; it would be necessary, in that case, to give it the exclusive sense: “ Nothing except what is born of the Spirit is spiritual (and can enjoy, in consequence, the Kingdom of the Spirit).” But the clause has rather a positive and affirmative sense: “That which is born of the Spirit is really spirit, and consequently cannot fail to enjoy the Kingdom of the Spirit.” The idea, therefore, is that of the reality of the new birth, and consequently, of its complete possibility.
This is the answer to the question: “How can a man?” Let the Spirit breathe, and the spiritual man exists! The word Spirit, as subject, denotes the Divine Spirit, and, as predicate, the new man. Here, again, the substantive ( spirit), is used instead of the adjective ( spiritual), to characterize the new essence. This word spirit, in the context here, includes not only the new principle of spiritual life, but also the soul and body, in subjection to the Spirit. The neuter, τὸ γεγεννημένον ( that which is born), is substituted in the two clauses for the masculine ( he who is born), for the purpose of designating the nature of the product, abstractedly from the individual; thus, the generality of the law is more clearly brought out. Hilgenfeld finds here the Gnostic distinction between two kinds of men, originally opposite.
Meyer well replies: “There is a distinction, not between two classes of men, but between two different phases in the life of the same individual.”
Jesus observes, that the astonishment of Nicodemus, instead of diminishing, goes on increasing. He penetrates the cause of this fact: Nicodemus has not yet given a place in his conception of divine things to the action of the Holy Spirit; this is the reason why he is always seeking to represent to himself the new birth as a fact apprehensible by the senses. Recognizing him, however, as a serious and sincere man, He wishes to remove from his path this stumbling-stone. Here is not a fact, He says to him, which one can picture to himself; it can be comprehended only as far as it is experienced.
Vv. 7, 8. “ Marvel not at that which I have said unto thee: ye must be born anew. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth. So is every one that is born of the Spirit.
By the expression: “ Ye must be born,” Jesus exempts Himself from this general condition. It was necessary for Him to grow spiritually, no doubt, (Luke 2:40; Luk 2:52 ); but He did not need to be born again. The gift of the Holy Spirit at His baptism was not a regeneration, but the crowning of a perfectly normal previous development under the constant influence of the Spirit.
Jesus directs the attention of Nicodemus to a fact which, like the new birth, escapes the observation of the senses, and which is proved only by its effects, the blowing of the wind.
The Greek word πνεῦμα has, as well as the Hebrew word רוּחַ , H8120, the twofold meaning of wind and spirit. As it appears from the following so that there is a comparison, this term is certainly taken here in the sense of wind. Tholuck (first edition) supposed that, at that very moment, the wind was heard blowing in the streets of Jerusalem. This supposition gives more of reality to the words: and thou hearest the sound thereof.
When he says: thou knowest not...Jesus does not speak of the explanation of the wind in general. He calls to mind only that, in each particular case, it is impossible to determine exactly the point where this breath is formed and the one where it ends. Perhaps there is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 11:5: “As thou knowest not the way of the wind...” While the development of all natural life connects itself with an organic visible germ and ends in a product which falls under the senses, the wind appears and subsides as if a free irruption of the infinite into the finite. There is, therefore, in nature no more striking example of the action of the Spirit. The operation of the regenerating principle is not bound to any rule appreciable by the senses; it is perceived only by its action on the human soul. But the man in whom this action works does not understand either from whence these new impressions which he feels proceed, nor whither they lead him. He is only conscious of a profound work which is wrought within him and which radically renews him. The adverb of rest ποῦ , with the verb of motion ὑπάγει , is a frequent construction in Greek. It is, as it were, the anticipation of the state of rest which will follow the motion when it has reached its end. The application of the comparison, in the second part of the verse, is not expressed altogether correctly. It would have been necessary to say: so it takes place in every man who is born...But it is not in the genius of the Greek language to make a comparison and its application correspond symmetrically; comp., in the New Testament, Matthew 13:19 f., Matthew 25:1, etc. The perfect participle γεγεννημένος denotes the completed fact: The eye has seen nothing, the ear has heard nothing. And yet there is a man born anew and one who has entered into the eternal kingdom? All is done, and nothing has been visible! What a contrast with the noisy and pompous appearance of the divine kingdom according to the Pharisaic programme!
Vv. 9, 10. “ Nicodemus answered and said unto him: How can these things be? 10. Jesus answered and said unto him: Thou art the teacher of Israel, and thou knowest not these things! ”
Nicodemus does not deny; but he acknowledges himself a stranger to all experience of the action of the Spirit. It is Jesus' turn to be astonished. He discovers with surprise such spiritual ignorance in one who, at this moment, represents before Him the teaching of the old covenant. Something of bitterness has been found in this reply; it expresses nothing but legitimate astonishment. Ought not such passages as Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26-28; Psalms 143:10-11, to have prepared Nicodemus to understand the power of the divine breath? But the Pharisees set their hearts only on the glory of the kingdom, rather than on its holiness.
The article ὁ before διδάσκαλος , “ the teacher” has been interpreted in the sense: “the well-known, illustrious teacher” ( Winer, Keil.) The irony would, thus, be very strong. This article, rather, designates Nicodemus as the representative of the Israelitish teaching office, as the official διδασκαλία personified. Comp. the ὁ ἐσθίων Mark 14:18.
The tenth verse forms the transition to the second part of the conversation. That which externally marks this part is the silence of Nicodemus. As Hengstenberg observes, he seems to say, like Job before Jehovah: “ I am too small; what shall I answer? I have spoken once; but I put my hand upon my mouth. ” On His part, Jesus treats him with a touching kindness and condescension; He has found him humble and docile, and He now opens Himself to him without reserve. Nicodemus came, as we have seen, to interrogate Him respecting His Messianic mission and the mode of the establishment of the divine kingdom so long expected. He did not by any means preoccupy his thoughts with the moral conditions on which he might himself enter into that state of things. A faithful Jew, a pious Pharisee, a holy Sanhedrist, he believed himself saved by the very fact that he was such. Jesus, as a consummate educator, began by reminding him of what he forgot, the practical question. He taught him that which he did not ask for, but that which it was more important for him to know. And now He reveals to him kindly all that which he desired to know: He declares to him what He is ( Joh 3:11-13 ); what He comes to do ( Joh 3:14-17 ); and what will result for humanity from His coming ( Joh 3:18-21 ).
The first part of the conversation is summed up thus: What will take place? Answer: Nothing, in the sense in which you understand it. The second means: And yet something really takes place, and even a thing most unheard of: The supreme revelator is present; redemption is about to be accomplished; the universal judgment is preparing. Such are the divine facts which are displayed before the eyes of Nicodemus in the second part of the conversation. The conduct of Jesus with this man is thus in complete contrast with that which had been mentioned in John 2:24. He trusts Himself to him; for He has recognized his perfect uprightness; comp. John 3:21.
The positive teaching does not, properly, begin until 3 John 1:11-12; 3 John 1:11-123 John 1:11-12, are prefatory to it.
This passage Joh 3:11-13 is clearly joined to John 3:2; Nicodemus had spoken in the name of several: “ We know...” ( Joh 3:1 ); Jesus addresses himself to these absent interlocutors: “ You receive not...; if I told you...” (John 3:11 b and 12a). Nicodemus had called Jesus a teacher “ come from God ” ( Joh 3:1 ). Jesus shows him that he has spoken more truly than he thought; He reveals Himself to him as the Son of man, descended from heaven to bear witness of heavenly things ( Joh 3:13 ). This relation between Joh 3:1 and Joh 3:11-13 proves that the whole of the beginning of the conversation, John 3:3-10, was called forth accidentally, and is in reality but an episode; and that now only do the revelations, which Nicodemus had come to seek, properly speaking, begin.
Ver. 11. “ Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know and bear testimony of that we have seen; and ye receive not our testimony. ”
The formula amen, amen (“ in truth ”), declares, as always, a truth which Jesus is about to draw from the depths of His consciousness, and which, presenting itself as a revelation to the mind of His interlocutor, must triumph over his prejudices or his doubts. The rabbinical teaching worked upon the letter of the Scriptures, but did not place itself in contact with the essential truth which it contained (v. 39). Jesus proclaims with an inward satisfaction the coming of a wholly different teaching of holy things, which will have the character of certainty: “ that which we know; ” because it will spring from immediate intuition: “ that which we have seen. ” The two subordinate verbs, we speak, and we testify, are in correspondence with the two principal verbs: one speaks (declares) that which one knows; one testifies of what one has seen. There is, moreover, evident progress between each verb and the corresponding verb of the following clause: Knowledge rises to the clearness of sight, and speaking assumes the solemn character of testimony. The contrast marked here by Jesus between the rabbinical teaching and His own struck even the people; comp. Matthew 7:28-29.
But of whom, then, does Jesus speak when He says “We”? What is this college of new teachers whom He contrasts with the caste of the scribes and sages of this age which passes away ( 1Co 1:20 )? These plurals “ we speak...we testify ” have been explained in a variety of ways. Beza and Tholuck understand by we: “I and the prophets.” Bengel: “I and the Holy Spirit.” Chrysostom and Euthymius: “I and God.” The impossibility of these explanations is manifest. De Wette and Lucke see in this we a plural of majesty; Meyer and Keil, the plural of category: “teachers such as I.” These explanations are less untenable. But this first person of the plural, used for the designation of Himself, is unexampled in the mouth of Jesus. And why return afterwards to the singular ( Joh 3:12-13 ): “ I tell thee...if I have told you...if I tell you.”
Just as the you is addressed to other persons besides Nicodemus (comp. John 3:2: we know), so the we must be applied not only to Jesus, but to a plurality of individuals which He opposes to that of which Nicodemus is the representative. We must, therefore, suppose that Jesus here announces to Nicodemus the existence of a certain number of men who al ready represent the new mode of teaching. According to Knapp, Hofmann, Luthardt, Weiss, etc., Jesus, when speaking thus, thinks only of Himself and John the Baptist. He alludes to that which John and He beheld in the scene of the baptism. But the idea of regeneration to which it is claimed that this seeing and knowing refer is totally foreign to the scene of the baptism, and even in our chapter, John 3:31-32, the forerunner expressly places himself outside of the limits of the new teaching inaugurated by Jesus. We believe, therefore, with Lange, Hengstenberg and Westcott, that Jesus is thinking of Himself and His disciples, of whom one or several were at that moment with Him; and who were beginning already to become the organs of this new teaching-office inaugurated by Him.
In the person of Jesus, then, through His acts and His words, heaven is constantly opened before their eyes ( Joh 1:51 ); already they truly see and know; their gaze pierces to the essence of things: “ He who hath seen me, hath seen the Father. ” On this foundation, they already testify. What vivacity, what freshness, in the declaration of John and Andrew, John 1:42, in that of Philip, John 1:47, in the exclamation of Nathanael, John 1:50, in the profession of Peter, Joh 6:68-69 ! There are here, no doubt in a weak measure, sight and testimony. Jesus feels Himself no more alone. Hence the feeling of profound joy which breathes in these plurals: we speak, we know, etc., and which betrays itself even in the form of His language. Indeed, Luthardt has observed, with reason, that we see appearing here that form of parallelism which constitutes the poetic rhythm of the Hebrew language. This feature of style betrays emotion and always marks a moment of peculiar exaltation (John 5:37; John 6:35; John 6:55-56; Joh 12:44-45 ).
The language resembles chant. Nicodemus must learn that things are more advanced than he thinks! This passage recalls the one in the Synoptics where Jesus declares the preference which God gives to little children, to His humble and ignorant disciples, over the intelligent and learned rabbis of Jerusalem (Matthew 11:25; Luk 11:21 ). While his colleagues and himself are still waiting for the solemn hour of the advent of the kingdom, that kingdom is already present without their knowledge, and others participate in it before them! Meyer, Astie and others refer the expression “ we have seen ” to the knowledge possessed by Christ in His pre-existent state. But Weiss himself rejects here this explanation which he thinks himself obliged to adopt in other analogous cases (see on Joh 3:13 ). It would be altogether incompatible with the interpretation which we have given to the word we.
Before unfolding to Nicodemus what He knows and what He sees of the things above, Jesus sadly reverts to the manner in which His testimony has been received by the leaders of the theocracy: “ And ye receive not our testimony. ” Καί , and, has the meaning here of and yet ( Joh 1:10 ). This copula brings out better than would the particle καίτοι , yet (which John never uses), the contradiction between two facts which should be exclusive of each other and which nevertheless move on together (hearing and rejecting the testimony). Jesus was conscious, as every living preacher is, of the inward resistance which His appearance and His teaching met in the hearts of the people and their rulers. A presentiment of this might have been had already at the time of the deputation of the Sanhedrim to John (John 1:19 ff.). The conduct of the people and the authorities, with regard to the solemn procedure of Jesus in the temple (John 2:12 ff.), had given Him the measure of that which awaited Him. The words of Nicodemus himself ( Joh 3:2 ), in which he had called Him teacher in consideration of His miracles, not of His teaching itself ( Joh 3:2 ), showed how little His word had found access to hearts. The want of spiritual receptivity, which the misunderstanding of Nicodemus had just betrayed, will, as Jesus perceives, render very difficult the acceptance of the heavenly revelations which he brings to the world:
Vv. 11-13. In opposition to the doctorate of the letter, devoid of all spiritual intuition, Jesus announces to him the coming of a teaching, which will rest on the immediate knowledge of the truth ( Joh 3:11 ). In order that Nicodemus may profit by this higher teaching, Jesus invites him to faith ( Joh 3:12 ). Finally He displays to him, in His own person, the perfect revealer ( Joh 3:13 ). Weiss and Keil think that Jesus wishes now to point out the way to attain regeneration, and, consequently, also to understand it. But the setting forth of salvation given in the sequel is far too considerable for it possibly to be caused by so special a relation to that which precedes.
ADDITIONAL NOTES BY THE AMERICAN EDITOR.
1. At John 3:11, Jesus makes a step in advance in the discourse, and now assumes in a more formal way the position of the teacher of this teacher. He declares to him, first of all, that He is qualified to make known to him the truth, because He has seen and knows; He has, what no human teacher has, the heavenly knowledge (John 3:11; Joh 3:13 ). But Nicodemus, through dwelling in the psychical rather than the spiritual region, is not ready to receive and believe that which is to be communicated.
2. This want of belief on the part of Nicodemus does not seem to be referred by Jesus directly to sin or the sinful will, as in the case of the Jews afterwards, but to the fact that his thoughts are wholly in the outward and visible, as indicated by his questions respecting the new birth. The conversation apparently is designed to be an educating one to the end of faith, and so there is no sharp rebuke, but only the effort to bring him to see the need of entering into a higher sphere.
3. The earthly things must refer to the new birth, because this is the only matter which had been spoken of ( εἶπον , Joh 3:12 ). The spiritual change, though having its origin and originating force in heaven ( ἅνωθεν , ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος ), is yet accomplished on earth. It is, indeed, the earthly work of the new kingdom. The ζωὴ αἰώνιος opens and begins here. This was the fundamental thing to be presented in answer to the question with which we may believe the conversation to have been commenced. If this could not be understood, what possibility could there be of understanding the things which were beyond this the heavenly things?
4. The heavenly things must, undoubtedly, be indicated in the words of this conversation otherwise there would be little significance in mentioning them. If, however, they are thus indicated, they must be found in what follows, and must, apparently, be centered in the mission and crucifixion of the Son of man to the end of the salvation of men. The fundamental fact and truth of the Gospel the divine provision for bringing men to eternal life through believing on the only-begotten Son cannot be understood by one who does not apprehend the necessity of the new birth, that is, by one who does not know that the kingdom of God is a kingdom in and over the soul, not to be entered by belonging to a particular nation. The necessity of the new birth may be realized on earth and the new birth is accomplished on earth, but the great divine plan, with its wide-reaching relations, which involves and is carried out by means of this spiritual regeneration, is a thing belonging to heaven, and one which must be revealed by the Son, who descends out of heaven and who is in heaven. Joh 3:13 holds, in the thought as well as in its position, the intermediate place between Joh 3:12 and John 3:14: John 3:12, the heavenly things are mentioned; John 3:13, the Son is the only one who can reveal them; John 3:14, what they are.
Ver. 12. “ If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? ”
When a teacher says to his pupil: “If you do not understand me on this point, how will you understand me on that?” we must suppose that the disciple expects to be instructed respecting this latter point. We must, therefore, conclude from this word of Jesus, that the heavenly things are to Jesus' view those which preoccupy Nicodemus, and with reference to which he had come to interrogate Him: the person of the Messiah, the nature of His kingdom, the way in which He will lay the foundation of, and complete this great work, both in Israel and in the Gentile world. And, indeed, these are precisely the questions which Jesus answers in the second part of the conversation, which is to follow.
The contrast between the past, “if I have told you” and the present “if I tell you” proves that Jesus had not yet set forth publicly what He calls the heavenly things. This conversation was the first communication of Jesus concerning the nature of the Messianic kingdom and the mode of salvation, outside of the innermost circle of His own friends. The public teaching of Jesus had, therefore, up to that time related to what He calls the earthly things. This expression cannot denote things which appertain to earthly interests: for Jesus did not occupy Himself with these things before this, any more than He did afterwards. If by the heavenly things we must of course understand the designs of God, inaccessible to the human mind, for the establishment of His kingdom, we must include in the domain of earthly things all that which appertains to the moral nature of man; outside of the region of redemption and regeneration; thus, everything which Jesus comes to declare respecting the carnal state of the natural man and the necessity of a radical transformation. Jesus is thinking, no doubt, of the contents of His first preachings, analogous to those of John the Baptist, and which Mark sums up ( Joh 1:15 ) in these words: “ Repent ye, and believe the Gospel: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; ” those preachings of which we possess the most remarkable example in the Sermon on the Mount. What a difference as compared with the revelations which Jesus makes to Nicodemus! The conversation with him is the first step in a region infinitely elevated above that elementary preaching. We understand now why it has been preserved to us by John; it had been of marked importance in the development of his own faith.
According to Lucke and Reuss the earthly things are the things easy to be understood, and the heavenly “the most elevated ideas of the Gospel, less accessible to an intelligence which was not yet enlightened by it.” This sense is true from the standpoint of consequences, but not from that of explanation strictly so-called. There is no example to prove that heavenly can signify difficult, and earthly, easy. Ewald makes of εἶπον a third person plural: “ If they (the prophets) have spoken to you of earthly things and you have not believed (the reading: ἐπιστεύσατε ).”
But a subject of this sort could not be understood, and an ἐγώ could not be omitted in the following clause ( Meyer, Baumlein). In this remarkable saying, Jesus contrasts the facts which pertain to the domain of the human consciousness, and which man can verify by observation of himself, with the divine decrees which cannot be known except by means of a revelation. This is the reasoning: “If, when I have declared to you the things whose reality you can, by consulting your own consciousness, discover, you have not believed, how will you believe when I shall reveal to you the secrets of heaven, which must be received solely on the foundation of a word?” There, the testimony of the inner sense facilitates faith; here, on the contrary, everything rests upon confidence in the testimony of the revealer. This testimony being rejected, the ladder, on which man may raise himself to the knowledge of heavenly things, is broken, and the access to the divine secrets remain, closed.
This saying of Jesus should teach apologetics to place the supporting point of faith in the declarations of the Gospel which are most immediately connected with the facts of consciousness and the moral needs of the soul. Its truth being once recognized in this domain where it can be verified by every one, it is already half-demonstrated in relation to those declarations which are connected with the purely divine domain. It will be completely so, as soon as it shall be established that these two parts, divine and human, of the Gospel, are adapted to one another as the two parts of one whole; that the moral needs of man which are proved by the one find their full satisfaction in the divine plans revealed in the other. The moral truth of the Gospel is the first guarantee of its religious truth.
Ver. 13. “ And no one hath ascended up to heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. ”
The question, “ how will you believe? ” ( Joh 3:12 ) implied, in the thought of Him who proposed it, the necessity of faith. Joh 3:13 justifies this necessity. The intermediate idea is the following: “Indeed, without faith in my testimony, there is no access for you to those heavenly things which thou desirest to know.” Καί : and yet. Olshausen, de Wette, Lucke, Luthardt and Meyer find in Joh 3:13 the proof, not of the necessity of faith in the revelation contained in the teaching of Jesus, but of that in revelation in general. But this thesis is too purely theoretical to find a place in such a conversation. Hengstenberg thinks that Jesus here wishes to reveal His divinity as the first among the heavenly things which Nicodemus has need to know. Meyer rightly answers that the negative form of the proposition is inconsistent with this intention. Besides, Jesus would have employed, in that case, the expression Son of God, rather than Son of man.
The general meaning of this saying is as follows: “You do not believe my word...And yet no one has ascended to heaven so as to behold the heavenly things and make them known to you, except He who has descended from it to live with you as a man, and who, even while living here below, abides there also; so that He alone knows them de visu, and so that, consequently, to believe in His teaching is for you the only means of knowing them.” But how can Jesus say of Himself that He ascended to heaven? Did He speak of His ascension by way of anticipation ( Augustine, Calvin, Bengel, Hengstenberg)? But His future ascension would not justify the necessity of faith in His earthly teaching. Lucke, Olshausen, Beyschlag, after the example of Erasmus, Beza, etc., think that heaven is here only the symbol of perfect communion with God a communion to which Jesus had morally risen, and by virtue of which He alone possessed the adequate knowledge of God and of the things above. This sense would be admissible if the word ascended had not as its antithesis the term descended, which refers to a positive fact, that of the incarnation; the corresponding term ascend must, therefore, refer to a fact no less positive, or rather since the verb is in the perfect and not the aorist to a state resulting from a fact quite as positive. Meyer and Weiss, following Jansen, think that the idea of ascending may be regarded as applying only to men in general and that an abstraction from it can be made with reference to Jesus. Ascending is here only as if the indispensable condition for all other men of dwelling in heaven: “No one...except he who (without having ascended thither) has descended from it, he who is there essentially ( Meyer), or who was there previously ( Weiss).” This is an attempt to escape the difficulty of the εἱ μή , except; the fact of being in heaven is reserved for Jesus, while suppressing, so far as He is concerned, that of ascending; comp. the use of εἰ μή in Matthew 12:4; Luke 4:26-27; Galatians 1:19. However, the case is not altogether the same in those passages. We might try to take the εἰ μή in the sense of but, like the Hebrew ki im; but in that case John must have written κατέβη instead of ὁ καταβάς : “No one has ascended, but the Son of man descended. ”
The Socinians, perfectly understanding the difficulty, have had recourse to the hypothesis of a carrying away of Jesus to heaven, which was granted to Him at some time or other of His life before His public ministry. As for ourselves, we have no occasion to have recourse to such an hypothesis; we know a positive fact which is sufficient to explain the has ascended when we apply it to Jesus Himself; it is that which occurred at His baptism. Heaven was then opened to Him; He penetrated it deeply by His gaze; He read the heart of God, and knew at that moment everything which He was to reveal to men of the divine plan, the heavenly things. In proportion as the consciousness of His eternal relation as Son to the Father was given to Him, there necessarily resulted from it the knowledge of the love of God towards mankind. Comp. Matthew 11:27. Heaven is a state, before being a place. As Gess says: “To be in the Father is to be in heaven.” Subsidiarily, no doubt, the word heaven takes also a local sense; for this spiritual state of things is realized most perfectly in whatever sphere of the universe is resplendent with all the glory of the manifestation of God. The moral sense of the word heaven prevails in the first and third clauses; the local sense must be added to it in the second. “No one has ascended...” signifies thus: “No one has entered into communion with God and possesses thereby an intuitive knowledge of divine things, in order to reveal them to others, except He to whom heaven was opened and who dwells there at this very moment.”
And by virtue of what was Jesus, and Jesus alone, admitted to such a privilege. Because heaven is His original home. He alone has ascended thither, because He only descended thence. The term descended implies in His case the consciousness of having personally lived in heaven ( Gess). This word denotes, therefore, more than a divine mission; it implies the abasement of the incarnation, and consequently involves the notion of pre-existence. It is an evident advance upon Nicodemus' profession of faith ( Joh 3:2 ). The filial intimacy to which Jesus is exalted rests on His essential Sonship, previous to His earthly life. If the word descended implies pre-existence, the term, Son of man, brings out the human side in this heavenly revealer. The love of mankind impelled Him to become one of us, in order that He might speak to us as a man, and might instruct us in heavenly things in a manner intelligible to us. The recollection of Pro 30:4 seems not to be foreign to the expression which Jesus makes use of: “Do I know the knowledge of the holy ones? Who ascendeth to heaven and descendeth from it?”
The last words: who is in heaven are preserved in the text by Tischendorf (8th ed.) and by Meyer, notwithstanding the Alexandrian authorities; Westcott rightly says: “They have against them the ancient MSS., and for them the ancient versions.” But according to this critic, the testimony of the versions is in this case remarkably weakened by the contrary testimony of the Sinaitic MS. which so often accords with them. The rejection may have been the result of an accidental omission or of the difficulty of reconciling this addition with the idea of the preceding clause; that of having descended. On the other hand, we can understand how these words may have been interpolated, in order to resolve the apparent contradiction between the idea of being in heaven in order to have ascended thither, and that of having descended. At all events, the idea which these words express, that of the actual presence of Christ in heaven, is already very positively contained in the perfect ἀναβέβηκεν , has ascended. This tense indeed does not signify: has accomplished at a given moment the act of ascending (this would be the sense of the aorist), but He is there, He lives there, as having ascended thither. Thus the preceding antithesis is resolved. Jesus lives in heaven, as a being who has re-ascended thither after having descended in order to become Son of man ( Joh 16:28 ). The Lord led two lives parallel to each other, an earthly life and a heavenly life. He lived in His Father, and, while living thus with the Father, He gave Himself unceasingly to men in His human life. The teaching in parables, in which the heavenly things take on His lips an earthly dress, is the true language answering to that existence which is formed of two simultaneous lives, the one penetrating the other.
Some interpreters ( Luthardt, Weiss), understand the participle ( ὁ ὤν ), in the sense of the imperfect who was (before the incarnation); this word, according to them, expresses the idea of pre-existence as a condition of the καταβαίνειν , of the act of descending. But this participle ( ὁ ὤν ), if it is authentic, is rather in relation with the principal verb: has ascended, than with the participle ( ὁ καταβάς ). “He lives in heaven, having re-ascended thither, inasmuch as He has descended thence.” To express, without ambiguity, the idea of the imperfect, the periphrasis ( ὃς ὴν ) would have been necessary; Lucke sees in ὁ ὤν a perpetual present. This idea may be applied to John 1:18, where the question is of the Son of God, but not to our passage, where the subject is the Son of man.
Meyer, Weiss and Keil maintain that Jesus explains here the knowledge which He has of divine things by His pre-existence. Such an idea can be found in these words only on condition of denying any application of the idea of ascending to Jesus, a thing which is impossible. The higher knowledge of Jesus is, much rather, presented here as the result of an initiation ( has ascended), which took place for Him during the course of His human existence, and through which He received at a certain time the immediate and constant, though truly human, intuition of divine things. And, in fact, this is the impression which every word of Jesus produces: that of a man who perceives the divine directly, but who perceives it with a human consciousness like our own. It is impossible for me to understand how Weiss can, on the one hand, make this higher knowledge proceed from a recollection of His anterior existence, and maintain, on the other, that such knowledge “does not go beyond the limits of a truly human consciousness.” The Son of man, living in heaven, so as to have re-ascended thither after having descended, is the sole revealer of divine things: this is the first of the ἐπουράνια , the heavenly secrets, which Jesus communicates to Nicodemus. The second is the salvation of men through the lifting up of this same Son of man, not on a throne, but on a cross, the supreme wonder of divine love to the world: John 3:14-16. This is the essential contents of the revelation which Jesus announced to him in John 3:13.
Vv. 14, 15. “ And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15, that whosoever believeth on him, may have eternal life. ”
The commentators give more or less forced explanations of καί ( and). Lucke : “I can reveal ( Joh 3:11-13 ), and I must do so” ( Joh 3:14-16 ). Olshausen: “I give not only my word, but my person. ” De Wette: “Jesus passes from the theoretical to the practical.” Meyer and Luthardt: “He has spoken of the necessity of faith; He speaks now of its sweetness. ” Weiss: “There is here a new motive to believe. The elevation of Jesus will give salvation only by means of faith. ” All this is too artificial. From our point of view, the connection is more simple: the καί and, and also, adds a second divine mystery to the first, the decree of redemption to that of revelation.
The central idea of this verse is that of the lifting up of the Messiah. Three principal explanations have been given of the word ὑψωθῆναι ( to be lifted up). It has been applied either to the spiritual glory which the moral perfection which He will display in His sufferings will procure for Jesus in the hearts of men ( Paulus), or to His elevation to heavenly glory which will take place as following upon His death ( Bleek), or finally, to the very fact of His suspension on the cross; this last interpretation is the one most generally received. And indeed, in the one or the other of the first meanings, Jesus would rather have used the term δοξασθῆναι ( to be glorified). For the third, the following points decide the case: 1. The comparison with the serpent raised to the top of the pole, which certainly had nothing glorious in it; 2. The naturally material sense of the word ὑψωθῆναι ( to be lifted up); finally, 3. The relation of this word to the corresponding Aramaic term zekaph, which is applied to the suspension of malefactors. Only we must take account of the allusion which Jesus, in using this term ( being lifted up), certainly made to the ideas of Nicodemus, according to which the Messiah was to ascend the throne of Solomon and rule the world. And the voluntary and ironical amphibology of this expression will be understood as in connection with the Messianic expectation of the Pharisees. To perceive this shade, we must strongly emphasize the οὕτως : ( it is thus) and not as you picture it to yourselves that the lifting up of the Son of man will take place.
This word ( will be lifted up), intimates indeed that by this strange elevation the Son of man will attain not only to the throne of David, but to that of God. Such is the full meaning of the word: to be lifted up. We must not, as Meyer does, refuse to follow the thought of Jesus in this rapid evolution, which instantaneously brings together the greatest contrasts, if we would understand all the depth and all the richness of His words. We find here again the same enigmatical character as in John 2:19. The fact related in Numbers 21:9, is one of the most astonishing in sacred history. Three peculiarities distinguish this mode of deliverance from all the other analogous miracles: 1. It is the plague itself, which, represented as overcome, becomes, by its ignominious exposure, the means of its own defeat; 2. This exposure takes place, not in a real serpent the suspension in that case would have proclaimed only the defeat of the individual exposed but in a typical copy, which represents the entire species;
3. This expedient becomes efficacious through the intervention of a moral act, the look of faith on the part of each injured person. If this is the type of salvation, it follows from this fact that this salvation will be wrought in the following way: 1. Sin will be exposed publicly as vanquished, and for the future powerless; 2. It will not be in the person of a real sinner which would proclaim only the particular defeat of that sinner but in the person of a holy man, capable of representing, as a living image, the condemnation and defeat of sin, as such; 3. This exhibition of sin as one who is vanquished, will save each sinner only by means of an act on his part, the look of faith upon his spiritual enemy condemned and vanquished. Here, Jesus declares, is the salvation on which the establishment of the Kingdom will be founded; here is the second heavenly decree revealed to men. What a reversal of the Messianic programme of Nicodemus! But, at the same time, what appropriateness in the choice of this Scriptural type, designed to rectify the ideas of the old doctor in Israel!
“ Must,” says Jesus; and first, for the fulfillment of the prophecies; then, for that of the divine decree, of which the prophecies were only an emanation ( Hengstenberg); let us add, finally; and for the satisfaction of certain moral necessities, known to God only. The designation, Son of man, is here, as at John 3:13, chosen with a marked design. It is on the complete homogeneousness of His nature with ours, that the mysterious substitution rests, which is proclaimed in this verse, precisely as it was on this same community of nature that the act of revelation rested, which was announced in the preceding verse.
Vv. 15 finishes the application of the type. To the look of the dying Israelite the faith of the sinner in the crucified one corresponds; to the life restored to the wounded one, the salvation granted to the believer. Πᾶς , whosoever extends to the whole of humanity the application of the Israelitish type, while emphatically individualizing the act of faith ( ὁ ). The reading of the T. R. εἰς αὐτόν , to or on Him, is the one which best suits the context (the look turned towards...); faith looks to its object. If we consider how little the Alexandrian authorities agree among themselves, the received reading will be acknowledged as, on the whole, the best supported one. Tischendorf (8th ed.) reads ἐν αὐτῷ , after the Vatican MS.; in that case, this limiting phrase may be connected with ἔχῃ , as Weiss and Keil connect it, rather than with πιστεύων . But, in this context, the connection with πιστεύων remains, nevertheless, the most natural relation. The Alexandrian authorities reject the words μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλά should not perish, but; they may certainly have been introduced here from John 3:16. Even in that case we are struck with the rhythmic relation between the last words of these two verses; it is the sign of the stirring of feeling and elevation of thought (Introd., p. 137). We comprehend, indeed, what an impression this first revelation of His future suffering of punishment must have produced on Jesus Himself; comp. John 12:27.
As for Nicodemus, we also account for what he experienced when on the Holy Friday he saw Jesus suspended on the cross. That spectacle, instead of being for him, as for others, a stumbling-block, a ground of unbelief and despair, causes his latent faith to break forth ( Joh 19:39 ). This fact is the answer to de Wette's question, who asks if this anticipatory revelation of the death of the Messiah was not contrary to the pedagogic wisdom of Jesus. Weiss, who is not willing to admit that Jesus so early foresaw and predicted His death, thinks that Jesus did not express Himself in so precise a way, but that he spoke vaguely of some lifting up which would be accorded to Him during His earthly life, to the end that He might be recognized as Messiah by the Jews. But, in that case, it is necessary to suppose: 1. That John positively falsified the account of the words of Jesus; 2. That Jesus spoke of something which was never realized, for we know not what that supposed lifting-up can be; 3. There no longer remains, in this case, any relation between the prophecy of Jesus and the matter of the brazen serpent. From the cross Jesus ascends to God, from whose love this decree emanates ( δεῖ must, Joh 3:14 ).
Ver. 16. “ For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but should have eternal life. ”
Here is the ἐπουράνιον , the heavenly mystery, par excellence; Jesus displays the source of the redemptive work, which He has just described; it is the love of God itself. The world, that fallen humanity of which God in the Old Testament had left the largest part outside of His theocratic government and revelation, and which the Pharisees devoted to wrath and judgment, Jesus presents to Nicodemus as the object of the most boundless love: “ God so loved the world...” The gift which God makes to it is the Son, not only the Son of man, as He was called Joh 3:13-14 in relation to His humanity, but His only-begotten Son. The intention, in fact, is no longer to make prominent the homogeneity of nature between this Redeemer and those whom He is to instruct and save, but the boundlessness of the love of the Father; now this love appears from what this messenger is for the Father Himself. It has been claimed that this term, only-begotten Son, was ascribed to Jesus by the evangelist. For what reason? Because, both in his Prologue ( Joh 1:14-18 ), and in his Epistle ( Joh 4:9 ) he himself makes use of it. But this term is, in the LXX., the translation of the Hebrew יָחִיד , H3495, (Psalms 25:16; Psalms 35:17; Pro 4:3 ).
Why should not Jesus have employed this word if He was, as we cannot doubt (Matthew 11:27; Mat 21:37 ), conscious of His unique relation to God? And how should the evangelist have been able to render it in Greek otherwise than the LXX. had rendered it? Man had once offered to God his only son; could God, in a matter of love, remain behind His creature?
The choice of the verb is equally significant; it is the word for giving, and not only for sending; to give, to surrender, and that, if necessary, even to the last limits of sacrifice. The last clause produces the effect of a musical refrain (comp. Joh 3:14 ). It is the homage rendered by the Son to the love of the Father from which everything proceeds. The universality of salvation ( whosoever), the easiness of the means ( believeth), the greatness of the evil prevented ( should not perish), the boundlessness, in excellence and in duration, of the good bestowed ( eternal life): all these heavenly ideas, new to Nicodemus, are crowded into this sentence, which closes the exposition of the true Messianic salvation. According to this passage, redemption is not extorted from the divine love; it is its thought, it is its work. It is the same with Paul: “ All things are of God, who reconciled us unto Himself by Jesus Christ ” ( 2Co 5:18 ).
This spontaneous love of the Father for the sinful world is not incompatible with the wrath and the threatenings of judgment; for here is not the love of communion, which unites the pardoned sinner to God; but a love of compassion, like that which we feel towards the unfortunate or enemies. The intensity of this love results from the very greatness of the unhappiness which awaits him who is its object. Thus are united in this very expression the two apparently incompatible ideas which are contained in the words: so loved and may not perish. Some theologians, beginning with Erasmus ( Neander, Tholuck, Olshausen, Baumlein) have supposed that the conversation of Jesus and Nicodemus closes with John 3:15, and that, from John 3:16, it is the evangelist who speaks, commenting with his own reflections on the words of his Master. This opinion finds its support in the past tenses, loved and were, John 3:19, which seem to designate a more advanced period than that at which Jesus conversed with Nicodemus; in the expression μονογενής , only-begotten Son, which belongs to John's language; finally, in the fact that, from this point, the dialogue-form wholly ceases. The for of John 3:16, is, on this view, designed to introduce John's explanations; and the repetition in the same verse of the words of Joh 3:15 are, as it were, the affirmation of the disciple answering to the Master's declaration. But, on the other hand, the for of Joh 3:16 is not a sufficient indication of the passing from the teaching of Jesus to the commentary of the disciple.
The author must have marked much more distinctly such an important transition. Then, how can we imagine that the emotion which bears on the discourse from Joh 3:13 is already exhausted in Joh 3:15 ? The increasing exaltation with which Jesus successively presents to Nicodemus the wonders of divine love, the incarnation ( Joh 3:13 ) and redemption ( Joh 3:14-15 ), cannot end thus abruptly; the thought can rest only when it has once reached the highest principle from which these unheard of gifts flow, the infinite love of the Father. To give glory to God, is the goal to which the heart of Jesus always tends. Finally, who could believe that He would have dryly sent Nicodemus away after the words of John 3:15, without having given him a glimpse of the effects of the salvation announced, and without having addressed to him for himself a word of encouragement? Would this be the affectionate sympathy of a truly human heart?
The part of Jesus, in that case, would be reduced to that of a cold catechist. The difficulties which have given occasion to this opinion do not seem to us very serious. The past tenses of Joh 3:19 are justified in the mouth of Jesus, like the reproach of John 3:11: “ You receive not our testimony,” by the attitude, which the population and authorities of the capital had already taken ( Joh 2:19 ). We have justified by the context the term only-begotten Son, and have seen that it would hardly be natural to refuse it to Jesus Himself. The terms new birth, birth of water and birth of the Spirit (John 3:3; Joh 3:5 ) are also not found in the rest of Jesus' discourses; must we, for this reason, doubt that they are His? In a kind of discoursing so original as His, does not the matter, at each moment, create an original form? When we remember that the ἅπαξ λεγόμενα (words employed only once) are counted by hundreds in the Epistles of St. Paul (two hundred and thirty in the first epistle to the Corinthians, one hundred and forty-three in the epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians taken together, one hundred and eighteen in the Ep. to the Hebrews), how can we conclude from the fact that a term is found only once in the discourses of Jesus which have been preserved to us, that it does not really belong to His language?
Finally, the cessation of the dialogue-form results simply from the increasing surprise and humble docility with which Nicodemus, from this point onwards, receives the revelation of the heavenly things. In reality, notwithstanding this silence, the dialogue none the less continues. For, in what follows, as in what precedes, Jesus does not express an idea, does not pronounce a word, which is not in direct relation to the thoughts and needs of His interlocutor, and that as far as John 3:21, where we find, at last, the word of encouragement which naturally closes the conversation, and softens the painful impression which must have been left in the heart of the old man by the abrupt and severe admonition with which it had begun. De Wette and Lucke, while maintaining that the author makes Jesus speak even to the end, nevertheless think that, without himself being conscious of it, he mingled more and more his own reflections with the words of his Master. Nearly the same is also the opinion of Weiss, who thinks that, in general, John has never given an account of the discourses of Jesus except by developing them in his own style. If, in what follows, we find any expression wanting in appropriateness, any thought unconnected with the given situation, it will indeed be necessary to accept such a judgment. If the contrary is the fact, we shall have the right to exclude this last supposition also.
One idea is inseparable from that of redemption, it is that of judgment. Every Pharisee divided man into the saved and the judged, that is to say, into circumcised and uncircumcised, into Jews and Gentiles. Jesus, who has just revealed the redeeming love towards the whole world, unfolds now to Nicodemus the nature of the true judgment. And this revelation also is a complete transformation of the received opinion. It will not be between Jews and Gentiles, it will be between believers and unbelievers, whatever may be their nationality, that the line of demarcation will pass.
ADDITIONAL NOTES BY THE AMERICAN EDITOR.
The passage from Joh 3:16 to Joh 3:21 is supposed by Westcott, and by Milligan and Moulton, among the most recent writers on this Gospel, as well as by the writers whom Godet mentions, to contain reflections of the evangelist on the words of Jesus already spoken. On the other hand, Alford, Keil and others hold that these are the words of Jesus. The grounds on which the former view is maintained are the three referred to by Godet, and one or two others which may be closely united with them. As for these three, it must be admitted that they are deserving of serious consideration.
The argument from the past tenses cannot be pressed, as it might be in some other writings, for the tendency towards the use of the aorist instead of the perfect is manifest in the New Testament, and, in this case, the reference in Joh 3:16-17 is apparently to the act of love already accomplished, and besides, the ἦν of Joh 3:19 may be intended to cover a time before the appearance of the light, as well as the time of or after that appearance. The argument derived from μονογενής , to which other peculiar expressions are added by Westcott, such as do the truth, is the only one of weight. It would seem not improbable that John may have taken this word from Jesus, but the use of it by Jesus in this early conversation with Nicodemus is a thing hardly to have been expected. Was it not too soon after His first coming forward as a teacher, and was it not unlikely that He would have employed this peculiar term for the first time in a conversation with such a man?
The argument derived from the fact that Nicodemus takes no longer any part in the conversation is of comparatively little force, because at Joh 3:14 Jesus passes from the earthly to the heavenly things, respecting which Nicodemus might naturally have been only a listener to what was told him. The connection of the 16th verse with what precedes by for is possible consistently with either view, but, considering the absence of any statement pointing to the writer as giving his own thought, it favors the assigning of the words to Jesus.
The natural and easy progress of the discourse, if they are thus understood, and the appropriate close which they form to all that is said, together with the antecedent probability that the evangelist would not so abruptly join his own words to those of Jesus, are the arguments which bear most strongly against those already mentioned. The only instance in which it may be regarded as clear that the evangelist in any such way weaves his own matter into the narrative, is in the latter part of ch. 12, and there he only gives a kind of summary, at the close of Jesus' public work, of His teachings and their results.
This, however, is quite a different thing from an immediate joining of his own words to those of Jesus as if they belonged to the same development of thought. It is claimed, indeed, that the writer connects his own reflections with the words of John the Baptist at the end of this chapter. But even if this is admitted, it will be observed ( a) that Joh 3:31 is not so closely connected with Joh 3:30 as Joh 3:16 is with John 3:15 ( Joh 3:16 opens with γάρ , while Joh 3:31 has an independent construction); ( b) that it is less difficult to suppose that Jesus used the words of John 3:16-21, than that John the Baptist used those of John 3:31 ff.; and ( c) that the writer may more easily be supposed to have been ready to supplement what John said with his own thoughts, than to add words of his own to what Jesus had said. It may be added ( d) that by thus closely joining his own reflections to the discourse of Jesus, he must have known that he was not unlikely to mislead the reader, and to make him suppose that Jesus had uttered those central words of the Gospel ( Joh 3:16 ), which He had not uttered. Is it probable that, in the first case where he presented Jesus' own testimony in words, he would have allowed himself to make such an impression? While it cannot be said, therefore, that Joh 3:16-21 are certainly not the words of John, there are strong grounds to believe that they are not, and the probability of the case must be regarded as favoring the assigning them to Jesus.
In the verses of this discourse with Nicodemus we meet, for the first time in this Gospel, the words ζωὴ αἰώνιος . The careful examination of the use of this phrase by this author will make the following points manifest:
a) The phrase ζωὴ αἰώνιος is used as substantially equivalent to ζωή . For example, when Jesus says John 5:24: He that believeth hath eternal life, and in John 5:40: that ye may have life, it cannot be doubted that the ζωή of the latter case is the ζωὴ αἰώνιος of the former.
( b) The ζωὴ αἰώνιος , according to John's idea, is possessed by the believer as soon as he believes; comp. Joh 3:36 , John 5:24, John 6:54. He that believeth hath eternal life; he that eateth my flesh hath eternal life. It is a thing of the present, therefore, and not merely of the future.
( c) That eternal life is thus present, is indicated by the explanation given by Jesus as to what it is, John 17:3: This is eternal life to know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. The knowledge of God is eternal life, and this knowledge the believer has in this world (comp. 1 John 2:13: because ye know the Father, John 5:20: we know him that is true).
( d) The eternal life also belongs to the future; comp. John 6:27, the meat which abideth unto eternal life; John 12:25, he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto eternal life; John 4:36, gathereth fruit unto eternal life; John 5:29, the resurrection of life.
( e) Eternal life, viewed with reference to the future, is connected in thought with expressions containing the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ; comp. John 6:51, If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever and the bread is my flesh; John 6:54, he that eateth my flesh hath eternal life; John 6:58, not as the fathers did eat and died, he that eateth this bread shall live forever. The conclusion which we may draw from these facts is, that, to the view of this author, eternal life is rather a permanent possession of the soul than a future reward; that it begins with the new birth, and continues ever afterwards, as well in this world as in the world to come; that it moves onward uninterruptedly, so that there is no sight or taste of death, John 8:51-52. In this sense, the adjective is qualitative, rather than quantitative eternal life is a peculiar kind of life. But when we ask why this particular qualitative word is used to describe the life, the suggestions of this Gospel lead us to believe that it is due to the fact that the life endures εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα that it never has any experience of death that it is endless. The qualitative word is thus also a quantitative one, and is used because it is quantitative. The endless life begins on earth.
The word judgment, in these verses, is possibly to be interpreted, with Meyer and others, in the sense of condemnation ( κατάκρισις ), and possibly, with Godet and others, in its own proper sense. It is not to be doubted that, though κρίσις means judgment, it sometimes has in the New Testament the idea of condemnatory judgment carried into it by the force of the context or of the subject under discussion. This is true of the word judgment in our language. That this is the meaning of κρίσις in these verses is indicated by the contrast with the word save; by the contrast between believers and unbelievers, so far as the general representation of the New Testament writers sets forth their fate; by the fact that Joh 3:19 naturally suggests the idea of condemnatory judgment; and by the references to the final judgment as including all men, which are found elsewhere. The other view is favored by the fact that neither here nor in ch. John 5:24 ff., is the word κατάκρισις used. This word is, however, found only twice in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 3:9; 2Co 7:3 ). Κατακρίνω does not occur in John's Gospel, except in the doubtful passage, John 8:1-11. It is to be observed, also, that the tendency of the Johannean thought is towards the inward sphere, rather than the outward; and as his conception of eternal life is not of the future reward or blessedness, so much as of the spiritual life in the soul, never seeing death, so it would seem natural that his idea of the relation of the believer to judgment should be that of having its issues already decided in the soul by the possession of faith, and thus of escaping judgment in its more outward form. While recognizing the force of the considerations in favor of giving to κρίσις the idea of judgment as distinguished from condemnation, the writer of this note believes that the other view is more probably the correct one. Viewed in relation to the decision as to destiny, the believer as truly as the unbeliever, it would seem, must be subject to this decision. In both cases alike, it is made, in the sense here intended, in the man himself. It is made already in each case, and no more in the one than in the other. But if the meaning is condemnation, it is true that the believer is not condemned, and that the unbeliever has been condemned already by and because of his unbelief. The 19th verse supports this meaning, for it represents the κρίσις as being that which is connected only with the rejection of the light, with the loving of darkness, and with the deeds which are evil and are to be reproved ( Joh 3:20 ). But the κρίσις which relates to such works and the men who do them is a condemnatory judgment.
Ver. 17. “ For God sent not his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. ”
For: the purpose of the mission of the Son, as it is indicated in this verse, proves that this mission is indeed a work of love ( Joh 3:16 ). The word, world, is repeated three times with emphasis. Nicodemus must hear in such a way as no more to forget that the divine benevolence embraces all humanity. The universalism of Paul, in its germ, is in these John 3:16-17. The first clause, by its negative form, is intended to exclude the Jewish idea, according to which the immediate purpose of the coming of the Messiah was to execute the judgment on the Gentile nations. Our versions translate, κρίνειν , in general, with the meaning condemn; Meyer himself still defends this meaning. It is explained thus: “Jesus did not come to execute a judgment of condemnation on the sinful world.” But why should not Jesus have said κατακρίνειν , to condemn, if He had this thought?
What He means to say is, that His coming into the world has for its purpose, not an act of judgment, but a work of salvation. Reuss concludes from this saying that “the idea of a future and universal judgment is repudiated” in our Gospel. But the future judgment is clearly taught in John 3:27-28. The idea which Jesus sets aside in this saying, is only that the present coming of the Messiah has for its purpose a great external judicial act, like that which the Pharisee Nicodemus was certainly expecting. If a judgment is to take place as a personal act of the Messiah, it does not appertain to this coming. However, although the purpose of His coming is to save, not to judge, a judgment, but an altogether different one from that of which the Jews were thinking, was about to be effected because of that coming: a judgment of a moral nature, in which it is not Jesus who will pronounce the sentence, but every man will himself decide his own salvation or perdition.
Ver. 18. “ He that believeth on him is not judged; but he that believeth not is judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only- begotten Son of God. ”
The idea of this verse is as follows: “I do not judge any one, for the reason that he who believes is not judged, and he who does not believe has already judged himself.” As has been well said: “Here is justification by faith, and condemnation by unbelief.” Jesus does not judge the believer, because he who accepts the salvation which He brings is no longer a subject of judgment. Meyer, Hengstenberg, etc., and our translators [A. V.] render the word κρίνειν here also by condemn. Weiss, Keil, Westcott acknowledge that this sense is arbitrary.
The passage in Joh 5:24 shows that it is contrary to the true thought of Jesus. To judge is, after a detailed investigation of the acts, to pronounce on their author a judicial sentence deciding as to his innocence or his guilt. Now the Lord declares that the believer, being already introduced into eternal life, will not be subjected to an investigation of this kind. He will appear before the tribunal, indeed, according to Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10, but to be recognized as saved and to receive his place in the kingdom (Matthew 25:0). If faith withdraws man from the judgment, there is in this nothing arbitrary. This follows precisely from the fact that, through the interior judgment of repentance which precedes and follows faith, the believer is introduced into the sphere of Christian sanctification which is a continual judgment of oneself, and consequently the free anticipation of the judgment ( 1Co 11:31 ).
The present οὐ κρίνεται , is not judged, is that of the idea. Jesus does not judge the unbeliever, because he who refuses to believe finds his judgment in this very refusal. The word ἤδη , already, and the substitution of the perfect ( κέκριται ) for the present ( κρίνεται ) show clearly that Jesus is thinking here of a judgment of a spiritual nature, which is exercised here below on him who rejects the salvation offered in Christ. Such a man has pronounced on himself, by his unbelief, and without any need on the part of Jesus of intervening judicially, his own sentence. It is self-evident that this sentence is a sentence of condemnation. But the word does not say this. The meaning is: The one is not to be judged; the other is judged already; consequently, the Son does not have to intervene personally in order to judge.
The use here of the subjective negative (the first μή ) belongs, according to Baumlein, to the decline of the language. According to Meyer, this form has, on the contrary, its regular sense: in not believing,” or “ because he does not believe.” The title of only-begotten Son sets forth the guilt of those who reject such a being and the work which He accomplishes. The more glorious the Saviour is, the more grave a matter it is to turn away from Him. The more holy He is, divine in His entire manifestation, the more does unbelief towards Him bear witness of a profane sentiment. His name: the revelation which He gives us of His essence (see Joh 1:12 ). The perfect μὴ πεπίστευκεν , has not believed, denotes not the act of not believing, but the state which results from it. “Because he is not in the favorable position of a man who has given his confidence to such a being.” The μή is used here as among the later Greeks (e.g., Lucian) to denote the cause in the thought of the speaker. The moral separation between men, described in John 3:18, constitutes the judgment in its essence; this is the idea developed in John 3:19-21. By the position which men take with regard to Jesus, they class themselves as reproved ( Joh 3:19-20 ) or saved ( Joh 3:21 ). Thus far, Jesus has proved that He does not judge, but He does this by contrasting with the outward judgment, which was expected, a moral judgment of which no one dreamed. This judgment it is which He now explains.
Ver. 19. “ Now this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. ”
In rejecting Jesus, man judges himself. The strictest inquiry into his whole life would not prove his disposition, as opposed to what is good, better than does his unbelief. The final judicial act will have nothing more to do than to ratify this sentence which he pronounces on himself ( Joh 3:28-29 ). In order to make the matter understood, the Lord here calls Himself the light, that is to say, the manifested good, the divine holiness realized before the human conscience.
It follows from this, that the attitude which the man takes in relation to Him, reveals infallibly his inmost moral tendency. To the view of Jesus, the experiment has been already made for the world which surrounds Him: “ Men loved rather...” There is in every servant of God, in proportion to his holiness, a spiritual tact which makes him discern immediately the moral sympathy or antipathy which his person and his message excite. The visit of Jesus to Jerusalem had been for Him a sufficient revelation of the moral state of the people and their rulers. They are the men of whom He speaks in this verse, but with the distinct feeling that they are in this point the representatives of fallen humanity. The expression loved rather is not designed, as Lucke thinks, to extenuate the guilt of unbelievers, by intimating that there is still in them an attraction, but a weaker one, towards the truth. As has been well said, the word μᾶλλον does not mean magis, more, but potius, rather. This word, therefore, aggravates the responsibility of the Jews, by bringing out the free preference with which, though placed in presence of the light, they have chosen the darkness (comp. Joh 3:11 ). What is, indeed, the ground of this guilty preference? It is that their works are evil. They are determined to persevere in the evil which they have hitherto committed; this is the reason why they flee from the light which condemns it. By displaying the true nature of their works, the light would force them to renounce them. The term τὸ σκότος , the darkness, includes with the love of evil the inward falsehood by which a man seeks to exculpate himself. The aorist ἠγάπησαν , loved, designates the preference as an act which has just been consummated recently, while the imperfect ἦν , were, presents the life of the world in evil as a fact existing long before the appearance of the light. The word ἔργα , works, denotes the whole moral activity, tendency and acts. In the following verse, Jesus explains, by means of a comparison, the psychological relation between immorality, gross or subtle, and unbelief.
Ver. 20. “ For, every one who practiseth evil hateth the light and doth not come to the light, that his works may not be condemned. ”
Night was reigning at the moment when Jesus was speaking thus. How many evil-doers were taking advantage of the darkness, to pursue their criminal designs! And it was not accidental that they had chosen this hour. Such is the image of that which takes place in the moral world. The appearance of Jesus is for the world like the rising of the sun; it manifests the true character of human actions; whence it follows, that when any one does evil and wishes to persevere in it, he turns his back upon Jesus and His holiness. If his conscience came to be enlightened by this brightness, it would oblige him to renounce that which he wishes to keep. He denies therefore, and this negation is for him the night in which he can continue to sin: such is the genesis of unbelief. The expression ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων , he who does evil, denotes not only the tendency to which the man has hitherto surrendered himself, but also that in which he desires to persevere. This is what the present participle πράσσων (instead of the past πράξας ) expresses. For the word πονηρά ( perverse things) is substituted the word φαῦλα ( things of nought) of John 3:19; the latter is taken from the estimate of Jesus himself, while the former referred to the intrinsic nature of the acts, to their fundamental depravity. We must also notice a difference between the two verbs πράττειν and ποιεῖν : the first indicates simply labor the question is of works of nought the second implies effective realization, in the good the product remains. But we need not believe that the term practise evil refers only to what we call immoral conduct. Jesus is certainly thinking, also, of a life externally honorable, but destitute of all serious moral reality, like that of the greater part of the rulers in Israel, and particularly of the Pharisees: the exaltation of the I and the pursuit of human glory, as well as gross immorality, belong to the φαῦλα πράττειν , “ practise things of nought ” in the sense in which Jesus understands it. Μισεῖ , he hates, expresses the instinctive, immediate antipathy; οὐκ ἔρχεται , he comes not, denotes the deliberate resolution. The verb ἐλέγχειν (perhaps from πρὸς ἕλην κρίνειν , to hold to the light in order to judge) signifies: to bring to light the erroneous or evil nature of an idea or a deed.
The reason of unbelief, therefore, is not intellectual, but moral. The proof which Jesus gives, in John 3:20, of this so grave fact is perfectly lucid. All that Pascal has written most profoundly on the relation between the will and the understanding, the heart and the belief, is already in advance contained in this verse and the one which follows. But that which is true of unbelief is equally true of faith. It also strikes its roots into the moral life; here is the other side of the judgment:
Ver. 21. “ But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest because they are wrought in God. ”
Sincere love of moral good predisposes to faith; for Jesus is the good personified. There are in humanity, even before the appearance of Christ, men who, although like others affected by inborn evil, react against their evil inclinations, and pursue with a noble ardor the realization of the moral ideal which shines before them. Jesus here calls them those who do the truth. St. Paul, also in accord with St. John on this point, describes them as those who by persevering in well-doing seek for glory, honor and incorruption ( Rom 2:7 ). This earnest aspiration after the good, which the theocratic discipline stimulates and protects in Israel, forms a contrast to the mummeries of the Pharisaic righteousness. It can be present in a penitent publican, no less than in an irreproachable Pharisee.
The same idea is found again in the expressions to be of God, to be of the truth (John 8:47, Joh 18:37 ). This disposition is the condition of all real faith in the Gospel. The adherence of the will to the preparatory revelation of God, whether in the law of conscience or in that of Moses, is the first condition of the adherence to the higher revelation of divine holiness in Jesus Christ. The expression to do the truth denotes the persevering effort to raise one's conduct to the height of one's moral consciousness, to realize the ideal of the good perceived by the conscience; comp. Romans 7:0. The soul which, it may be, in consequence of the bitter experience of sin, longs after holiness, recognizes in Jesus its realized ideal and that by which it will itself attain to the realization of it. The figurative expression to come to the light signifies to draw near to Jesus, to listen to Him with docility, to surrender oneself to Him; comp. Luke 15:1-2. Is there not, in the choice of this figure, a delicate allusion to the present course of Nicodemus? As truly as this night which reigns without is the figure of the unbelief in which the lovers of sin envelop themselves, so really is this light around which these few interlocutors meet, the emblem of the divine brightness which Nicodemus came to seek for. And so it will come to pass. It is the farewell of Jesus: Thou desirest the good; it is this which brings thee here. Take courage! Thou shalt find it!
If the upright hearts come to the light, it is because they do not, like those spoken of before, dread the manifestation of the true character of their conduct; on the contrary, they desire it: To the end, says Jesus, “ that their works may be manifested because they are done in God. ” I return thus to the ordinary translation of the close of this verse. I had previously preferred the following: That they may be manifested as being done in God; comp. for this Greek construction, John 4:35. But the first construction is more natural here. The truly righteous man seeks, as Nicodemus did, to come into contact with Christ, the living holiness, because he has within him nothing which impels him to withdraw himself from the light of God; on the contrary, the nature of his works is the cause of his being happy to find himself fully in that light.
The expression wrought in God seems very strong to characterize the works of the sincere man before he has found Christ. But let us not forget that, both in Israel and even beyond the theocratic sphere, it is from a divine impulse that everything good in human life proceeds. It is the Father who draws souls to the Son, and who gives them to Him (John 6:37; Joh 6:44 ). It is God who causes to resound in the sincere soul the signal for the strife, ineffectual though it be, against inborn evil (Romans 7:0). Wherever there is docility on the part of man towards this divine initiative, this expression works wrought in God is applicable, which comprehends as well the sighs of the humbled publican and the repentant believer as the noble aspirations of a John or a Nathanael. Such a man, conscious of his sincere desire for the good, does not fear to expose himself to the light and consequently to come to Christ. The more he acts in God, the more he desires to see clearly within himself, to the end of attaining a still more perfect obedience. In the previous editions, I had referred the in order that to the need of a holy approbation. Weiss sees in it the desire to show that the good works accomplished are those of God and not those of the man. I think that the question is rather of a need of progress. Luthardt seems to me to have completely perverted the meaning of this verse and to have lost the very profound teaching which it contains, by explaining: “He who practices the moral truth manifested in Christ soon attaches himself to Christ by the religious bond of faith.” But does not the practice of the holiness revealed in Christ necessarily imply faith in Him? The saying of Jesus in Joh 7:17 has a striking analogy to this.
“In humanity anterior to Christ,” says Lucke rightly, “two kinds of men are mingled together. With the appearance of Jesus, the separating begins;” αὕτη ἡ κρίσις . “Under the trees of the same forest,” observes Lange, “all sorts of birds find shelter together during the night. But in the morning, as soon as the sun sheds forth his rays, some close their eyes and seek the darkest retreat, while others clap their wings and salute the sun with their songs. Thus the appearing of Christ separates the lovers of the day from those of the night, mingled together until then in the mass of mankind.” We must not, however, understand this idea in the sense which the Tubingen school ascribes to the evangelist: That there are two kinds of men opposite in their nature. All the expressions used by John: “They loved rather,” “ to practise evil things,” “ to do the truth,” are, much rather, borrowed from the domain of free choice and deliberate action. (Comp. Introd., pp. 132f.).
It is with this word of hope that Jesus takes leave of Nicodemus. And we can easily understand why, in contrast with John the Baptist's course ( Joh 3:36 ), Jesus spoke, in the first place, of those who reject the light ( Joh 3:19-20 ), and, in the second place, of those who seek it ( Joh 3:21 ). He wished to terminate the conversation with a word of encouragement addressed to His interlocutor. He had recognized in him one of those righteous souls who will one day believe and whom faith will lead to the baptism of water, and thereby to the baptism of the Spirit. Henceforth Jesus waits for him. Reuss deems the silence of John respecting his departure surprising. “We have, indeed, seen him come; but we do not see him go away. We are wholly ignorant of the result of this interview.” Then this scholar boldly draws therefrom a proof against the historical reality of the personage of Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus. Is this objection serious? The evangelist should then have told us expressly, that Nicodemus, on leaving Jesus, returned to his own home and went to bed! Does not the effect produced upon him by the conversation appear plainly from the later history? Comp. John 7:50-51; John 19:39. John respects the mystery of the inner working which had just begun, and leaves the facts to speak. It is the revelation of Jesus to Nicodemus which is the subject of this narrative, and not the biography of this Pharisee. No more does Matthew mention the return of the Twelve after their first mission (chap. 10); does it follow from this that their mission is not historical? The narrative of our Gospels is wholly devoted to the religious end and does not entertain itself with empty details.
We are now in a condition to give a judgment respecting this interview. It seems to me that its historical character follows from the perfect appositeness, which we have established, in all the words of Jesus and in their exact appropriateness to the given situation. The statement of John 3:1, “A man of the Pharisees ” is found to be the key of the whole passage. Every word of Jesus is like a shot fired at close quarters with such an interlocutor. He begins by bringing home to this man who approaches Him, as well assured of his participation in the divine kingdom as of his very existence, a sense of all that which he lacks, and by saying, although in other terms:
“ Unless thy righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, thou shalt not enter the kingdom of heaven. ” After having thus made a void in this heart full of itself and its own righteousness, he endeavors to fill this void in the positive part of the conversation, in which He answers the questions which Nicodemus had proposed to present to Him. In this answer, He opposes, from the beginning to the end, programme to programme: first, Messiah to Messiah, then, salvation to salvation, finally, judgment to judgment, substituting with regard to each of these points the divine thought for the Pharisaic expectation. There is enough, as it seems to me, in this direct application, this constant fitness, and this unshaken steadiness of course in the conversation to guarantee its reality. An artificial composition of the second century would not have succeeded in adapting itself so perfectly to the given situation. In any case, the cohesion of all the parts of the conversation is too evident to allow of the distinction between the part belonging to Jesus and that belonging to the evangelist. Either the whole is a free composition of the latter, or the whole also must be regarded as the summary of a real conversation of Jesus. We say: the summary; for we certainly do not possess a complete report. The visit of Nicodemus, of course, continued longer than the few minutes necessary for reading the account of it. John has transmitted to us in a few salient words the quintessence of the communications of Jesus at this juncture. This is what the quite vague transitions by means of a simple and, καί , indicate. We have before us the principal mountain peaks, but not the whole of the chain (comp. Introd., p. 99).
Ver. 22. “ After this Jesus came with his disciples into the country of Judea; and he tarried there with them and baptized. ”
Μετὰ ταῦτα ( after this), connects this passage, in a general way, with John 2:23-25: “ Following upon this activity of Jesus at Jerusalem.” ᾿Ιουδαία γῆ ( the land of Judea), denotes the country, as opposed to the capital. The imperfect he was tarrying, and he was baptizing, indicate that this sojourn was of some duration. The expression, he was baptizing, is more exactly defined in John 4:2: “ Yet Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples. ” The moral act belonged to Jesus; the material operation was wrought by the disciples. If these two passages were found in two different Gospels, criticism would not fail immediately to see in them a contradiction, and would accuse of harmonistic bias the one who should seek to explain it. The intention of the narrator in our passage is only to place this baptism under the responsibility of Jesus Himself.
III. Jesus in the Country of Judea: 3:22-36.
The previous testimonies of John the Baptist were appeals to faith. That which is to follow assumes the character of a threatening protest against the generally hostile attitude and the rising unbelief of Israel. This discourse appertains, therefore, to the picture of the manifestation of Jesus and its general result in Israel.
After the feast of the Passover, Jesus did not immediately return to Galilee; the reason of this course of action will be pointed out in John 4:43-45. He repaired to the country region of Judea, where He set Himself to preach and baptize almost as John the Baptist was doing. John 3:25-26, lead us to suppose that the place where Jesus set Himself to the exercising of this ministry, was not far removed from that in which the forerunner was working.
How are we to explain this form, which the activity of Jesus assumes at this time? The temple was closed to Him and He had gone over the holy city, without meeting in it any other man of note disposed seriously to prefer the light to darkness, except Nicodemus; then he removes still further from the centre, and establishes Himself in the province. To this local retreat corresponds a modification in the character of His activity. He had presented Himself in the temple with full authority, as a sovereign who makes his entrance into his palace. That summons not having been accepted, Jesus cannot continue His Messianic activity; He restricts Himself to the work of prophetic preparation; He is obliged to become again, in some sort, His own forerunner, and by this retrogade step He finds Himself placed, for a moment, at the same point which John the Baptist had reached at the termination of his ministry. Hence the simultaneousness and the sort of competition which appeared between the two ministries and the two baptisms. After His return to Galilee, Jesus will Himself renounce this rite, and as the single element of Messianic organization He will only preserve the apostolate. He will no longer aim at anything except to awaken faith by the word. The foundation of the Church, with which the re-establishment of baptism is connected, will be deferred to the epoch when, by His death and resurrection, the bond between Him and the unbelieving people shall have been completely broken and the foundation of the new society prepared.
These changes in the mode of Jesus' activity have not escaped the notice of the rationalists; they have seen in them nothing else than the result of a growing miscalculation. Yet Jesus had announced all from the first day: “ Destroy this temple; ” and the final success of His work proves that there was something better here than the result of a deception. Faith, on the contrary, admires, in this so varied course, the elasticity of the divine plan in its relations to human freedom, and the perfect submissiveness with which the Son can yield to the daily instructions of the Father. Thereby the absence of plan becomes the wisest and most wonderful of plans; and the divine wisdom, accepting the free play of human freedom, can make even the obstacles which the resistance of men opposes to it, the means of realizing its designs. This glance at the situation explains the momentary juxtaposition of these two ministries, the one of which, as it seemed, must succeed the other.
The following passage contains: 1. The general picture of the situation ( Joh 3:22-26 ); 2. The discourse of John the Baptist ( Joh 3:27-36 ).
ADDITIONAL NOTES BY THE AMERICAN EDITOR.
On Joh 3:22-30 we may remark:
1. The object of the passage is, evidently, to introduce a final and impressive testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus. The insertion of this testimony indicates the importance which the writer gives, in his own mind, to John as a witness. It is most simply and easily explained, if we suppose that the writer was the unnamed disciple and had gained from John the first and strong impulse towards the life of faith. The emphasis laid upon this testimony and that in Joh 1:19-35 will partly, if not wholly, account for the prominence given to John in the Prologue. We may well believe that these words of their old master or friend, being brought to their knowledge, strengthened greatly the belief of the five or six original disciples.
2. The statement of the 24th verse may be intended to correct a wrong impression, which readers of the Synoptics might derive from them as to the relation in time between the imprisonment of John and the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. But, whether this be so or not, this statement shows that the portion of Jesus' life which is recorded in these first chapters antedates the Synoptic account of His public work.
3. The words of Joh 3:27 are best taken as conveying a general truth, which in the present instance finds its application to both of the persons compared. That they have a reference to John himself is indicated by the close connection with John 3:28, where he denies and affirms only with respect to his own office, and with John 3:26, in which his disciples call upon him, as it were, to claim superiority to the new prophet, or at least equality with him. His answer to the complaint and implied demand of these disciples is, that he is content with the position and work assigned to him by God. He takes joyfully what God has given him, though it even involves a decreasing and passing away before the higher glory of Christ. But the words also refer, in his use of them, to Jesus, for it was the application to Him which was calculated especially to bring his disciples to a state of contentment with the present and prospective condition of things. He must increase, because He is the Christ.
4. These verses respecting John, though representing an incident in the country region of Judea after the close of the Passover feast, are so nearly connected with the first visit to Jerusalem, that they may be regarded as belonging, in the author's arrangement of testimony, with what occurred at that time. If we view the matter in this light, we find that the disciples had now received the σημεῖον consisting in a wonderful miracle, the σημεῖον in the strict sense, and, in addition to this, the proofs or σημεῖα given by the remarkable act of the prophet, by the great prophetic declaration respecting the temple, which offered food for thought even until His resurrection made its meaning clear, and by the words addressed to Nicodemus, which spoke to them both of the earthly and the heavenly things connected with the kingdom of God, the knowledge of which on His part showed that He had descended from heaven. Following upon all this, they had heard a last word from John, which answered, as it were, to the first suggestion which had pointed them to Jesus. He had said to them at the beginning, that he was not the Christ but only the forerunner, and had bidden them go and see the greater one for whom he was preparing the way. In the words addressed to his own followers, he now says to these former followers also, that his joy as the friend of the bridegroom is full, and that, while his work is closing, the one to whom they have joined themselves is to increase and to establish the kingdom. The presentation on the part of the author of this testimony in these different lines and the selection of these narratives which contain them are manifestly in accordance with an intelligent plan. But the plan is of just that character which attaches itself to, and finds its foundation in, the remembered experience and development of the inner life.
With respect to the question whether Joh 3:31-36 are a portion of the discourse of John the Baptist to his disciples, or whether, on the other hand, they are added by the evangelist, two suggestions may be offered: 1. In a certain sense, these verses form the conclusion of one section of the book.
The testimonies which came to the disciples at the beginning of their course and in connection with the time of the first Passover, and which are apparently arranged with special care by the author, here come to their end. That at such a point the writer should allow himself to pass from the history into reflections of his own, would be less surprising than it would be elsewhere. The passage might be regarded in this respect, as having somewhat of the same position as the summary passage at the end of ch. 12. The case is different with Joh 3:16 to John 21:2. The difficulties in supposing John the Baptist to have used expressions such as we find in these verses are much greater than those which are alleged, in John 3:16 ff., as bearing against our understanding that the words there used were spoken by Jesus. It will not follow, therefore, even if we hold that the evangelist gives his own thoughts and words in John 3:31-36, that he does the same thing also in John 3:16-21.
The considerations which favor the view that John 3:31 ff. are the words of the evangelist are the following: ( a) The greater appropriateness of the thoughts to the time of the evangelist's writing, than to that of the Baptist's speaking. The thoughts, it is claimed, are beyond what the Baptist could have had. ( b) The phraseology is that of the writer of the Gospel, and not in accordance with what we know of John the Baptist. On the other hand, this view is opposed by the very close connection of these verses with those which precede, 27-30; and by the fact, as it is claimed, that there is a marked consecutiveness and coherence in the whole passage viewed as one discourse. Godet affirms that all the details of the discourse are in harmony with the character of John the Baptist. It can hardly be denied, however, that we seem to pass into a new form of expression, as we move from Joh 3:30 to John 3:31, and that in the latter verse we seem to be in the atmosphere of the evangelist's language. Moreover, John 3:32 a is strikingly like John 3:11, and Joh 3:34-36 bear the stamp of expressions of Jesus which were used at a later time. The words of John 3:32 b, on the other hand, are truer to the standpoint of John the Baptist, than to that of the writer near the end of the apostolic age. Perhaps the most correct view of the passage may be, that it is a report of what John the Baptist said, but that, under the influence of his own thoughts of Jesus' work and exaltation, and especially of what He had set forth in His conversation with Nicodemus in the earlier part of the chapter, he was led to express the Baptist's thought with an intermingling of his own language, or even with some intermingling of his own thought. The phenomena of the passage which point, in some measure, in the two opposite directions, would be satisfactorily met by such a supposition. But the entire separation of these verses from the historical occasion referred to in what precedes can scarcely be admitted, consistently with the probabilities of the case.
The words of John 3:32 b, whether used by the Baptist or the evangelist, must be understood in a comparative, not in an absolute sense this is proved even by John 3:33. There is no serious difficulty in any apparent opposition between this sentence and Joh 3:29 as compared with John 3:26. Indeed, the difficulty is much greater in case the words are supposed to be those of the evangelist, for the Gospel-message had had wide success before he wrote this book.
The word ἐσφράγισεν of Joh 3:33 seems to be used in connection with the general idea of the inner life which so peculiarly characterizes this chapter and this Gospel. The testimony of Christ to what He has seen and heard is the witness to the great spiritual truth the plan of God for salvation and the life of faith (see Joh 3:16 ). The man who receives this witness, and thus believes, gives the answering confirmation of his inward life to the truth of God in this which is witnessed. He sets the seal of his own soul's belief to the words of Christ as the words of God, and the union of the soul with God is thus accomplished in the full sense of the word. He who does not receive the witness, in like manner, puts himself thereby apart from God and His life. Comp. 1 John 5:10 ff.: “He that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he hath not believed in the witness that God hath borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life.”
The last clause of John 3:34, if the reading without ὁ θεός is adopted, is in a general form, and the precise application and meaning are somewhat uncertain. This form of the text is probably the correct one. We must observe, however, that the clause is introduced as a proof of the preceding, that is, a proof of the proposition that he whom God has sent speaks the words of God. The natural evidence of this would seem to be that the Spirit is given to Him without measure, rather than that the gift of the Spirit, when this great gift is made to the world or the souls of believers, is an unlimited one, or that the Son Himself gives the Spirit without limitation. The subject of the verb gives is, therefore, probably to be supplied from ὁ θεός of the preceding sentence, and not from the subject of λαλεῖ . For the same reason, the application of the general phrase is to the Son, although there is no αὐτῷ in the sentence. The connection with the following verse, also, serves to show that the thought is of the Father as giving to the Son.
If the words of Joh 3:31-36 are words of the evangelist himself, they are most naturally to be taken as his statement of the truth (as he saw it at the time of writing), which was involved in what John the Baptist had suggested by the comparison between himself and Jesus as the παρανύμφιος and the νύμφιος , and by the words, He must increase. They thus indicate what he himself thought, afterwards, that the testimony affirmed when fully apprehended in the wide reach of its meaning. If they are on the other hand, the words of John the Baptist, that prophet must have been granted a vision of the exaltation and work of Christ which was beyond that of his time a thing which, considering his peculiar office in relation to the Messiah, would not seem impossible. John was not only the greatest of the prophets of the older system, he was the last of the prophets. He was the one who handed over the truth of the Old Testament times, as it were, to the New Testament times; the one who pointed to Jesus the earliest disciples of the new system. Why may it not have been granted to him to see what Jesus was, to know that He possessed the Spirit without measure, and to understand that his own ministration of repentance was to be supplemented and perfected by the ministration of faith? If Abraham, with whom the covenant was originally made, rejoiced in the foreseeing of the day of Christ, and saw it with rejoicing, it would seem by no means strange that John the Baptist might have had a vision which opened to him more than others saw and that he might have expressed what it brought to his mind, either in the precise words which we find here, or, if not this, in words which could be filled out in their significance by the evangelist while yet moving in the sphere of his thought.
However we may view the words, they suggest an inquiry of much interest namely, how far may we believe that the faith of the disciples, of whom the author is particularly speaking, had advanced at this time? They had had before them manifestations of His power, His zeal, His outlook on the future, His claim to have descended from heaven, His insight into the nature of the kingdom of God, His view of eternal life as related to faith, and finally they had had a closing testimony of John the Baptist which was, apparently, more full and emphatic than any that he had given them at the beginning. They had thus seen all that they could hope to see, so far as the different kinds of evidence were concerned. But we cannot suppose that their belief as yet answered fully to the abundant measure of testimony which had been given them. What we are told in the Gospels of the slowness of their development in the new life, and in their comprehension of its teachings and mysteries, is altogether in accord with what we should expect from the circumstances in which they were. The strangeness of the doctrine of the spiritual kingdom and all that belonged to it, and the ever-deepening mystery in the character of Jesus, as He spoke to them of Himself and of the eternal life of the soul, must have made belief seem a hard thing oftentimes. They were opening in their life to a completely new world. Every day, every thought almost, brought them to new wonders. How could the inward life, long educated under the Jewish ideas, and with the controlling influence of the temporal and outward view of the kingdom, keep pace in its progress with the evidences which were set before them? The evidences might come rapidly they might come fully; but for faith to grow to its fullness, they must be repeated again and again, they must work their way into the mind gradually, they must find themselves partially understood at one moment, but partially also only at a later, and perhaps a much later, moment. One manifestation of power or insight may have made them believe as soon as it was given; another may have only suggested questioning, or left them in bewilderment, until the great fact of the resurrection enlightened all the way which led onward to it.
When, however, the testimony was to be recorded, years after the history was ended, it was necessary that it should be given in the words in which it was uttered, and of course, as thus given, it would convey to the reader, who had entered into a deeper understanding of the Christian truth, a proportionally deeper and clearer meaning. To be appreciated as a part of the development of the apostles' belief, it must be viewed from the standpoint of the time in their progress when the words were uttered. When it is claimed that there is no advance of thought in this Gospel, that we reach the end immediately from the beginning, etc., those who make the criticism may be called upon to consider the author's plan and its necessary limitations. He does not propose to prove his doctrine that is, the great truth that Jesus is the incarnate Logos by a doctrinal course of argument, as if in a treatise. In such a work, he might have arranged his matter altogether at his own will. But he proves by a biography, and in accordance with a plan which involves two ideas: testimony and answering belief. He must select and arrange, accordingly, within the limits thus imposed. The advance indicated in a book of this character must be found largely in the growth of the impression of the testimony, rather than in that of the testimony itself. And even with regard to the impression, the necessities of the biographical element may prevent the presentation of a steady progress. Life, whether external or internal, does not move as the critical mind is disposed to demand that this Gospel should move.
Moreover, as to the presentation of ideas, Jesus had before Him, on the occasion mentioned in the beginning of this third chapter, one of the leading men of the Jewish nation, a man, no doubt, of intelligence and learning “the teacher of Israel.” This man came to test and judge Him as a professed prophet, and to ask Him with reference to the kingdom of God. How can we suppose, in such a conversation, that there would have been no utterance of the deeper truths of the new teaching. That the occasion was near the beginning of the public ministry is a matter of no importance here; the presence of the particular man was the determining point. The man's condition of mind and spirit called for the setting forth of the earthly and heavenly things, and we may believe that it was because they were thus brought forward, that he was gained as a disciple, as he might not have been by another kind of discourse. Another listener, or body of listeners, on another day, might have called for a more elementary or plainer method of instruction. But that other day might as easily have been a year later than this one, as a year earlier. The teaching was determined by the opportunity, not the opportunity by the teaching.
We may also look at the matter in another light. If we conceive of the discourse with Nicodemus as intended to bear, in the way of testimony, upon the minds of the disciples, or even upon them as being present and hearing it, we may well believe that Jesus thought it fit to give expression to thoughts which they could not yet fully comprehend, but which might find a lodgment in their minds and become seed-thoughts for future growths. Suggestive and always asking for explanation, such words as these must have been, first, a witness for them to some deep life and power in Him who uttered them; then, matter for reflection and further inquiry; then, as something of a similar character was uttered afterwards, a help towards further knowledge; and so continually a means of opening the mind to more light and of strengthening the heart in faith with every increase of knowledge.
In the case of these disciples, who were to be the intimate companions of His life and afterwards the source of instruction and authority in the Church, it was especially important that such seed-thoughts should be given for their future meditation, and this, too, at an early time in their discipleship. We see, in this Gospel, how much higher a place in the sphere of testimony is given by Jesus Himself to the words than to the works. It would seem that it must have been so, because the system itself was truth. These chief ministers of the truth must, therefore, above all others, have been educated by the words; and, we may believe, by words which, even from the first, called them to higher things than they were able at the moment to attain. What such a process of education made of the Apostle John, we can see in his writings, and surely, if it moved forward by the repetition of the same truths oftentimes, it was no education without progress. The progress, however, must be found in the testimony and the faith as working together.
Ver. 23. “Now John also was baptizing in AEnon, near to Salim, because there was abundance of water there; and they came and were baptized.”
AEn, from which AEnon, denotes a fountain. We may also, with Meyer, make of the termination on an abridgment of the word jona, dove; this word would thus signify the fountain of the dove. This locality was in the vicinity of a town called Salim. The situation of these two places is uncertain. Eusebius and Jerome, in the Onomasticon, place AEnon eight thousand paces south of Bethsean or Scythopolis, in the valley of the Jordan, on the borders of Samaria and Galilee, and Salim, a little further to the west. And indeed there has recently been found in these localities a ruin bearing the name of Aynu=n ( Palestine Exploration Report, 1874).
From this, therefore, it would be necessary to conclude that these two localities were in Samaria. But this result is incompatible with the words of John 3:22: in the country of Judea (on the supposition, at least, that the two baptisms were near each other). And, above all, how should John have settled among the Samaritans? How could he have expected that the multitudes would follow him into the midst of this hostile people? Ewald, Wieseler, Hengstenberg, and Muhlau, because of these reasons, suppose an altogether different locality. In Jos 15:32 three towns are spoken of: Shilhim, Ain, and Rimmon, situated towards the southern frontier of the tribe of Judah, on the borders of Edom (comp. Joh 15:21 ). In Jos 19:7 and 1 Chronicles 4:32, Ain and Rimmon again appear together.
Finally, in Neh 11:29 these two names are blended in one: En-Rimmon. Might not AEnon be a still more complete contraction? This supposition would do away with the difficulty of the baptism in Samaria, and would give a very appropriate sense to the reason: because there was abundance of water there. Indeed, as applied to a region generally destitute of water and almost desert, like the southern extremity of Judah, this reason has greater force than if the question were of a country rich in water, like Samaria.
Jesus would thus have gone over all the territory of the tribe of Judah, seeing once in His life Bethlehem, His native town, Hebron, the city of Abraham and David, and all southern Judea even as far as Beersheba. This remark has excited the derisive humor of Reuss; we do not at all understand the reason of it. In the Synoptical Gospels, we see Jesus making a series of excursions as far as the northern limits of the Holy Land, once even to Caesarea Philippi, in the vicinity of the ancient Dan, at the foot of Hermon, at another time as far as into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. He would thus have visited all the countries of the theocratic domain from Dan to Beersheba. Is not this altogether natural? Hengstenberg has taken advantage of this sojourn of Jesus in the vicinity of the desert, to place the temptation at this time. This opinion is chronologically untenable.
Ver. 24. “ For John had not yet been cast into prison. ”
This remark of the evangelist is surprising, because there is nothing in what precedes which is adapted to occasion it. The fact of the incarceration of John the Baptist, as already accomplished, was not, in any way, implied in the preceding narrative. It is therefore elsewhere than in our Gospel that we must seek for the reason why the evangelist thinks that he must correct a misapprehension existing on this subject, as he evidently does by the remark of John 3:24. This reason is easily discovered in the narrative of our first two Synoptics: Matthew 4:12: “ Jesus, having heard that John was delivered up, withdrew into Galilee. ” Mark 1:14:
“ After that John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee. ” These words immediately follow the account of the baptism and temptation; they would necessarily produce on the reader the impression that the imprisonment of John the Baptist had followed very closely upon the baptism of Jesus, and preceded even occasioned His first return to Galilee; thus precisely the opinion which the remark of John sets aside. The account in Luk 3:19-20 is different; the imprisonment of the Baptist is there evidently mentioned only by way of anticipation. Hengstenberg thought that the narrative of Matthew and Mark might be explained by the fact that the first return of Jesus to Galilee the one which John relates in Joh 1:44 was simply omitted by them. But we have seen ( Joh 2:11 ) that the first visit of Jesus to Capernaum coincided with certain scenes of the very first period of the Galilean ministry related by the Synoptics.
It only remains, therefore, to acknowledge that frequently in the primitive oral tradition the first two returns from Judea to Galilee ( Joh 1:44 and Joh 4:1-3 ) were blended together. From this identification would, naturally, result the suppression of the entire interval which had separated them that is to say, of almost a whole year of Jesus' ministry. To recover this ground which had disappeared, John was thus obliged expressly to restore the distinction between the two returns. He was especially obliged to do this on reaching the fact which he is about to relate, a fact which falls precisely in this interval. Hilgenfeld himself, speaking of this passage, says: “Involuntarily the fourth evangelist bears witness here of his acquaintance with the Synoptical narrative.”
There is nothing to criticise in this remark except the word involuntarily. For the intentional character of this parenthesis, John 3:24, is obvious. We have already proved in John the evident intention of distinguishing these two returns to Galilee by the manner in which he spoke of the miracle of Cana, John 2:11; we shall have occasion to make a similar remark of the same character, with reference to John 4:54. As for the way in which this confusion arose in the tradition written out by the Synoptics, we may remember that it was only after the second return to Galilee that Jesus began that uninterrupted prophetic ministry which the first three Gospels portray for us very particularly and which was the beginning of the foundation of the Church. However important were the attempts made in Judea, up to this time, in the description of the development of Jewish unbelief which John traced, they could just as easily be omitted in the narrative of the actual establishment of the kingdom of God, and of the foundation of the Church which was the result of the Galilean ministry, related especially by the Synoptics.
We can draw from this twenty-fourth verse an important conclusion with respect to the position of the author of the fourth Gospel in the midst of the primitive Church. Who else but an apostle, but an apostle of the first rank, but an apostle recognized as such, could have taken in his writing a position so sovereign with regard to the tradition received in the Church, emanating from the Twelve, and recorded in the Gospels which were anterior to his own? By a stroke of the pen to introduce so considerable a modification in a narrative clothed with such authority, he must have been, and have felt himself to be, possessed of an authority which was altogether incontestable.
Ver. 25. “ There arose therefore a dispute on the part of John's disciples with a Jew, touching purification. ”
The occasion of the following discourse was a discussion provoked by the competition of the two neighboring baptisms. Οὖν , therefore, marks this relation. The expression on the part of the disciples, shows that John's disciples were the instigators. The reading of the greater part of the Mjj. ᾿Ιουδαίου , a Jew, instead of ᾿Ιουδαίων , some Jews, is now generally preferred. I accept it, without being able to convince myself altogether of its authenticity. Should not the substantive ᾿Ιουδαίου have been accompanied by the adjective τινός ? And would an altercation with a mere unknown individual have deserved to be so expressly marked? The three most ancient Versions agree in favor of the reading ᾿Ιουδαίων , Jews.
The Sinaitic MS. also reads in this way. The two substantives in ου , before and after this word, might have occasioned an error. The subject of the discussion was the true mode of purification. Of what purification? Evidently of that which should prepare the Jews for the kingdom of the Messiah. Meyer thinks that the Jew ascribed to the baptism of Jesus a greater efficacy than to that of John. Chrysostom, followed by some others, holds that the Jew had had himself baptized already by the disciples of Jesus. Hofmann and Luthardt suppose, on the contrary, because of the term Jew, that he belonged to the Pharisaic party, hostile both to Jesus and to John, and that he had maliciously recounted to the disciples of John the successes of Jesus. The use of this term scarcely allows us, indeed, to suppose in this man kindly feelings, either towards Jesus or towards John. Perhaps in response to the disciples of John who invited him to have himself baptized, reminding him of the promises of the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:25, etc.), he answered ironically that one knew not to whom to go: “Your master began; here is a second who succeeds better than he; which of the two says the truth?” The question was embarrassing. The disciples of John decide to submit it to their master. This historical situation is too well defined to have been invented.
Ver. 26. “ And they came to John and said to him: Master, he that was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold, he baptizeth, and all men come to him. ”
There is something of bitterness in these words. The words: “ to whom thou hast borne witness ” make prominent the generosity which John had shown towards Jesus: “See there, how thou hast acted, thou ( σύ ); and see here, how He is acting, He ( οὗτος ). ῎Ιδε , behold, sets forth the unexpected character of such a course: “He baptizes, quite like thyself; thus, not content with asserting Himself, He seeks to set thee aside.” Baptism was a special rite, introduced by John, and distinguishing his ministry from every other. By appropriating it to Himself, Jesus seemed to usurp the part peculiar to His predecessor and to desire to throw him altogether into the shade. And what is more poignant in this course of action is, that it succeeds: “ All men come to him. ” This exaggeration, all, is the result of spite. Mat 9:14 shows us John's disciples in Galilee, after the imprisonment of their master, animated by the same hostile disposition and combining more or less with the adversaries of Jesus.
Ver. 27. “ John answered and said: A man can receive nothing except that which hath been given him from heaven. ”
As far as John 3:30, which is the centre of this discourse, the dominant idea is that of the person and mission of the forerunner. Accordingly, it seems natural to apply the general sentence of Joh 3:27 specially to John the Baptist. He is urged to defend himself against Jesus who is despoiling him. “I cannot take,” he answers, “that which God has not given me” in other words, “I cannot assign to myself my part: make myself the bridegroom, when I am only the friend of the bridegroom.”
So Bengel, Lucke, Reuss, Hengstenberg, I myself (first ed.). I abandoned this application in the second edition, for that of Olshausen, de Wette, Meyer, Weiss, according to which this maxim refers to Jesus: “He would not be obtaining such success, if God Himself did not give it to Him.” With this meaning, this saying must be regarded as the summary of the two parts of the discourse ( I and He), and not only of the first part. Yet I ask myself whether it is not proper, as I did originally, to refer this maxim to the mission conferred, rather than the success obtained; comp. Hebrews 5:4. Then the asyndeton between Joh 3:26-27 is more consonant with the application to John only, since he announces the following verse as an energetic reaffirmation of the thought of John 3:26.
2. Joh 3:27-36 .
John does not solve the difficulty raised by the Jew or the Jews. He goes directly to the foundation of things. After having characterized the relation between the two personages of whom it is desired to make rivals, he shows that all opposition, even all comparison between them, is out of place. The solution of the pending question follows of itself from this general explanation. The discourse has two parts which are very distinct and the idea of which evidently answers to the given situation: “ I ” and “ He,” or, to use John's own expressions, the friend of the bridegroom ( Joh 3:27-30 ), and the bridegroom ( Joh 3:31-36 ). The first must be thrown into the shade and decrease; the second must increase. Each of the two, therefore, is in his place; that which grieves his disciples fills him with joy. It will be asked why the forerunner did not at that moment abandon his particular position, in order to go and join himself, with his disciples, to the retinue of Jesus. The answer to this question, often proposed, is not difficult. Summoned to prepare Israel for the kingdom of the Messiah, John was like the captain of a vessel, who must be the last to abandon the old ship, when all its company are already safely in the new one. His special part, officially marked out, continued so long as the end was not yet attained, that is, so long as the whole people were not yet given to Jesus.
Ver. 28. “ Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said: I am not the Christ, but I am sent before him. ”
John expressly applies to himself the maxim of John 3:26. He has informed his disciples, from the beginning, of the fact of which they are complaining. He has always said to them, that it was not given to him to be the Christ, that his mission went no further than to open the way for Him. He appeals, with respect to this point, to their own recollection and discharges Himself thus from all responsibility for their jealous humor towards Jesus. The words: “ Ye bear me witness,” seem to allude to their own expression, in John 3:26, where they had recalled the conduct of John with reference to Jesus. Then, he explains to them, by a comparison, the feeling which he experiences and which is so different from theirs.
Ver. 29. “ He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, and the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice; this, my joy, therefore, is now perfect. ”
His position is subordinate to that of Jesus, but it has also its privileges and its own joy, and that joy perfectly satisfies him. Νύμφη (the bride), is the Messianic community which John the Baptist was to form in Israel that he might lead it to Jesus; νύμφιος (the bridegroom), designates the Messiah, and, if we may so speak, the betrothed of this spiritual bride.
The name Jehovah signifies precisely: He who shall be or shall come. According to the Old Testament, indeed, the Lord would not confide this part of bridegroom to any other than Himself, and the coming of the Messiah is to be the highest manifestation of Jehovah Himself (p. 276); comp. Isaiah 54:5; Hosea 2:19; Matthew 9:15; Matthew 25:1 f.; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7, etc. The functions of the marriage friend were, first, to ask the hand of the young woman, then to serve as an intermediary between the betrothed couple during the time of betrothal, and finally, to preside at the marriage-feast; a touching image of the part of John the Baptist: ὁ ἑστηκώς he who standeth. This word expresses, as Hengstenberg says, “the happy passivity” of him who beholds, listens and enjoys.
While he fulfills his office in presence of the betrothed, the marriage-friend hears the noble and joyous accents of his friend, which transport him with joy. John speaks only of hearing, not of seeing. Why? Is it because he is himself removed from Jesus? But then, how can he even speak of hearing? If this term has a meaning apphcable to John the Baptist, it implies that certain words of Jesus had been reported to him, and had filled his heart with joy and admiration. And how, indeed, could it have been otherwise? Could Andrew, Simon Peter, John, these former disciples of the Baptist, be in his neighborhood without coming to him, to give an account of all which they heard and saw? This is the bridegroom's voice, which causes the heart of his friend to leap for joy. The phrase, χαρᾷ χαίρειν ( to rejoice with joy), corresponds to a Hebrew construction (the infinitive placed before the finite verb to strengthen the verbal idea); comp. שׂישׂאָ שׂוֹשׂ , Isaiah 61:10 (and the LXX); Luke 22:15. This expression describes the joy of John as a joy reaching to the full, and, consequently, as excluding every feeling of a different sort, such as that which the disciples were attempting to awaken in him. The words: this joy which is mine, contrast his joy as the marriage- friend to that of the bridegroom. John alludes to those words of the disciples: all go to him; in this spectacle is his joy as friend. Πεπλήρωται , not: has been accomplished ( Rilliet), the aorist would be necessary, but: is, at this very moment, raised to its highest point. He means: “that which calls forth vexation in you is precisely the thing which fulfills my joy.”
Ver. 30. “ He must increase, but I must decrease. ” Here is the expression which forms the connecting link between the two parts of the discourse, announcing the second and summing up the first. The friend of the bridegroom had, at the beginning of the relation, the principal part; it was he alone who appeared. But, in proportion as the relation develops itself, his part diminishes he must disappear and leave the bridegroom to become the sole person. This is the position of John the Baptist; he accepts it, and desires no other. No one could have invented this admirable saying, a permanent motto of every true servant of Christ.
At this point, Bengel, Tholuck, Olshausen and others, make the discourse of the Baptist end, and the reflections of the evangelist begin. They rest principally on the Johannean character of the style in what follows, and on the reproduction of certain thoughts of the conversation with Nicodemus (see, especially, Joh 3:31-32 ). To pronounce a decision, we must study the discourse even to the end. But, in itself, it would be scarcely natural that the words of John 3:30, he must increase, should not be developed in what follows, as the other words, and I must decrease, have been in what precedes.
Ver. 31. “ He that cometh from above is above all;he that is of the earth, is of the earth, and speaketh as being of the earth; he that cometh from heaven is above all. ” With his own earthly nature John contrasts the heavenly origin of Jesus.
῎Ανωθεν , from above, is applied here, not to the mission for that of John is also from above but to the origin of the person. The all denotes the divine agents in general. All, like John himself, are to be eclipsed by the Messiah. The words three times repeated: of the earth, forcibly express the sphere to which John belongs and beyond which he cannot go. The first time they refer to the origin ( ὤν ἐκ ): a mere man; the second, to the mode of existence ( ἐστί ): as being of the earth, he remains earthly in his whole manner of being, feeling and thinking (comp. the antithesis Joh 3:13 ); the third time, to the teaching ( λαλεῖ ): seeing the things of heaven only from beneath, from his earthly dwelling-place. This is true of John, even as a prophet. No doubt, in certain isolated moments and as if through partial openings, he catches a glimpse of the things from above; but even in his exstacies he speaks of God only as an earthly being. So, while inviting to repentance, he does not introduce into the kingdom.
This estimate of John by himself is in harmony with the judgment of Jesus, Matthew 11:11: “ The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. ” And the shaking of his faith, which followed so soon, was not long in demonstrating the justice of it. After having thus put in their proper place, as contrasted with Jesus, all the servants of heaven, John returns to the principal theme: He. If, with some of the Mjj., we reject the last words of this verse: is above all, the words he that cometh from heaven must be made the subject of the verb bears witness, John 3:32 (rejecting the καί ). But the fullest and richest reading is also the one most accordant with the spirit of the text. By the last words, John returns to the real subject of this part of his discourse, Jesus, from which he had turned aside, for a moment, in order to make more prominent His superiority by the contrast with himself.
Vv. 31-36. “He.”
The bridegroom, He must increase, while the friend decreases, for He is superior to him, first, through His origin ( Joh 3:31 ), then, through the perfection of His teaching ( Joh 3:32-34 ), finally, through His dignity as Son, and the absolute sovereignty which belongs to Him as such ( Joh 3:35 ). The discourse closes with a practical conclusion ( Joh 3:36 ).
Ver. 32. “ What he hath seen and heard, of that he beareth witness; and no man receiveth his witness. ”
The καί , and, is omitted by the Alexandrian authorities, and no doubt rightly; asyndeta are frequent in this discourse. From the heavenly origin of Jesus follows the perfection of His teaching. He is in filial communion with the Father. When He speaks of divine things, He speaks of them as an immediate witness. This saying is the echo of that of Jesus in John 3:11. In reproducing it, the forerunner declares that Jesus has affirmed nothing respecting Himself which is not the exact truth. But how could he know this? We think we have answered this question in the explanation of John 3:29.
By the last words, John confirms the severe judgment which Jesus had passed upon the conduct of the people and their rulers ( Joh 3:11 ). However, while declaring, as Jesus had done, the general unbelief of Israel, John does not deny individual exceptions; he brings them out expressly in John 3:33. What he means here by the word no one, is that these exceptions which seem so numerous to the view of his disciples that they make the whole (“ all ” Joh 3:26 ), are to his view only an imperceptible minority. To the exaggeration of envy, he opposes that of zeal: “Where you say: all, as for me, I say: no one.” He would not be satisfied unless he saw the Sanhedrim in a body, followed by the whole people, coming to render homage to the bridegroom of the Messianic community. Then, he could, himself also, abandon his office as friend of the bridegroom, and come to sit, as spouse, at the Messiah's feet. We should notice the verbs in the present tense, “ he testifies...no one receives,” which place us in the time of the ministry of Jesus, and do not permit us to put this part of the discourse in the evangelist's mouth.
Vv. 33, 34. “ He that hath received his testimony hath set his seal that God is true; 34, for he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God; for he giveth not the Spirit by measure. ”
There are, nevertheless, some believers, and what is the grandeur and beauty of the part which they act! Σφραγίζειν , to seal, to legalise an act by affixing one's seal to it. This is what the believer does in relation to the testimony which Christ gives; in ranging himself among those who accept it, he has the honor of associating, once for all, his personal responsibility with that of God who speaks by His messenger. Indeed, this certification of truth, adjudgod to Jesus by the believer, rises even to God Himself. This is what is explained by John 3:34 ( for). The utterances of Jesus are to such a degree those of God, that to certify the truth of the former is to attest the veracity of God Himself. Some think that the idea of the divine veracity refers to the fulfillment of the prophecies which faith proclaims. But this idea has no connection with the context. According to others, John means that to believe in Jesus is to attest the truth of the declaration which God gave on His behalf at the time of His baptism. This sense would be natural enough in itself, but it does not accord well with John 3:34.
The profound thought contained in this expression of John is the following: In receiving the utterances of Jesus with faith in their divine character, man boldly declares that what is divine cannot be false, and proclaims thus the incorruptible veracity of God. We must notice the aorist ἐσφράγισεν , set his seal: it is an accomplished act. And what an act! He affixes His private signature by his faith to the divine testimony, and becomes thus conjointly responsible for the veracity of God Himself. There is evidently somewhat of exaltation in this paradoxical form, by which John expresses the grandeur of the act of faith. The expression whom he hath sent (which recalls Joh 3:17 ), must be taken in the most absolute sense. The other divine messengers merit this name only in an inexact sense; they are, in reality, only raised up; to be sent, in the strict sense of the word, one must be from above ( Joh 3:31 ). The same absolute force should be given to the expression: the words of God: He alone possesses the complete, absolute divine revelation. This is what the article τά , the, indicates; all others, John the Baptist himself, have only fragments of it. And whence comes this complete character of His revelation? From the fact that the communication which is made to Him of the Spirit is without measure.
The T. R. reads, after δίδωσιν , ὁ θεός : “ God gives the Spirit...” The Alexandrian authorities unanimously reject this subject, God; and it is probable that it is a gloss, but a gloss which is just to the sense. It is derived from the first clause of the verse. No doubt the Spirit might be made the subject, as I myself tried to do formerly. The position of the word τὸ πνεῦμα , the Spirit, however, is not favorable to this sense. And it is more simple to understand the subject of the preceding clause. The present δίδωσιν gives, as well as the expression: “not by measure,” are explained by the recollection of the vision of the baptism: John saw the Spirit in the form of a dove, that is to say, in its living totality, descending and abiding upon Him. Meyer, offended by the ellipsis of the pronoun αὐτῷ , to him, makes a general maxim out of this saying, with the following sense: “God is not obliged always to give the Spirit, only in a definite measure, as He formerly did in the case of the prophets. He may, if He pleases, give it once without measure in its fullness,” from which this application is understood: “And this is what He has done with respect to the Son.” But thus precisely the thing would be understood which ought to be expressed, and expressed which might very well have been left to be understood. Perhaps, the ellipsis of the pronoun αὐτῷ , to Him, arises from the fact that the gift of the Spirit to Jesus is in reality of a universal bearing. God does not give it to Him for Himself only, but for all. It is a permanent, absolute gift.
Ver. 35. “ The Father loveth the Son and hath given all things into his hand. ”
The asyndeton between this verse and the preceding may be rendered by this emphatic form: “Because also the Father loveth...” This absolute communication of the Spirit results from the incomparable love which the Father has for the Son. These words are, as it were, the echo of that divine declaration which John had heard at the baptism: “ This is my beloved Son. ” The term ἀγαπᾷ , loves, is taken in the absolute sense, like the expressions: sent and the words. Jesus had used the term Son, when speaking with Nicodemus, John 3:16-18; the second Psalm already applied it to the Messiah in John 3:7; John 3:12 (where every other explanation seems to us untenable); Isaiah and Micah had expressed themselves in a similar way (Isaiah 9:5; Mic 5:2-3 ). John himself had heard it at the baptism. It is not surprising, therefore, that he uses it here. From this love of the Father flows the gift of all things. Some interpreters, starting from John 3:34, have applied this expression solely to spiritual gifts, to the powers of the Holy Spirit. But the expression into His hand does not accord with this sense. There is rather an advance upon the idea of John 3:34: “ Not only the Spirit, but all things. ” By the Spirit, the Son reigns in the heart of believers; this is not enough; the Father has, moreover, given Him universal sovereignty, that He may be able to make all things serve the good of His own. This is exactly the thought which Paul expresses in Eph 1:22 by that untranslatable phrase: αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ . The hand is the symbol of free disposal. Thereby John meant to say: “I complain of being despoiled by Him! But He has a right to everything and can take everything without encroachment.” And from this follows the striking application which he makes to his disciples, in closing, of the truth which he has just proclaimed:
Ver. 36. “ He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him. ”
This is the practical consequence to be drawn from the supreme greatness of the Son. These last words present a great similarity to the close of Psalms 2:0: “ Do reverence to the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish in the way when, in a little time, his wrath will be kindled; but blessed are they that put their trust in him. ” Only John, the reverse of the Psalmist and of Jesus Himself ( Joh 3:19-21 ), begins with believers, to end with unbelievers. It is because he would give a stern and last warning to his disciples and the entire nation John declares, as Jesus had said to Nicodemus, that all depends for every man on faith and unbelief, and that the absolute value of these two moral facts arises from the supreme dignity of Him who is the object of them: the Son. This name is sufficient to explain why faith gives life, why unbelief brings wrath. The phrase ὁ ἀπειθῶν , he who disobeys, brings out the voluntary side in unbelief, that of revolt.
The Son is the legitimate sovereign; unbelief is the refusal to submit. The words: the wrath abides, have often been understood in this sense: The natural condemnation abides, because the act which alone could have removed it, that of faith, has not taken place. But this sense seems to us weak and strained, and is only imperfectly connected with what precedes. The question is rather of the wrath called forth by the very refusal of obedience, and falling upon the unbeliever as such. Is it not just that God should be angry? If faith seals the veracity of God ( Joh 3:33 ), unbelief makes God a liar ( 1Jn 5:10 ). The future shall see is opposed to the present has. Not only does he not have life now, but when it shall be outwardly revealed in its perfect form that of glory he shall not behold it; it shall be for him as though it were not. Here is a word which shows clearly that the ordinary eschatology is by no means foreign to the fourth Gospel. The verb μενει , abides, in spite of its correlation with the future ὄψεται , shall see, is a present, and should be written μένει . The present abides expresses, much better than the future shall abide, the notion of permanence. All other wrath is revocable; that which befalls unbelief abides forever. Thus the epithet eternal of the first clause has its counterpart in the second.
Respecting the fact which we have just been studying, the following is Renan's judgment: “The twenty-second and following verses, as far as John 4:2, transport us into what is thoroughly historical....This is extremely remarkable.
The Synoptics have nothing like it” (p. 491). As to the discourse, it may be called: the last word of the Old Covenant. It recalls that threatening of Malachi which closes the Old Testament: “ Lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. ” It accords thus with the given situation: In view of the unbelief which was emphatically manifested even among his disciples, the forerunner completes his previous calls to faith by a menacing warning. All the details of the discourse are in harmony with the character of the person of the Baptist. There is not a word which cannot be fully explained in his mouth. John 3:27; Joh 3:29-30 have a seal of inimitable originality; no other than the forerunner, in his unique situation, would have been able to create them. Joh 3:35 is simply the echo of the divine declaration which he had himself heard at the moment of the baptism. In Joh 3:34 there is formulated no less simply the entire content of the vision which was beheld at that same moment. Joh 3:28 is the reproduction of his own testimony in the Synoptics (Matthew 3:0 and parallels). Joh 3:36 also recalls his former preachings on the wrath to come ( Mat 3:7 ) and that axe already laid unto the root of the trees ( Joh 3:10 ) with which he had threatened Israel. There remain only John 3:31-32. We believe we have indicated the very probable origin of these verses (see on Joh 3:32 ). Will any one find an objection in the Johannean coloring of the style? But we must recall to mind the fact that we have here the Greek reproduction by the evangelist's pen of a discourse given in Aramaic (see Introd. pp. 172-175). It is entirely impossible to imagine a writer of a later epoch carrying himself back thus into the midst of the facts, drawing all the words from the given situation, and, above all, adapting to it with so much precision the progress of the discourse (John and Jesus), and binding together the two parts of it by the admirable saying of John 3:30. Weizsacker himself cannot refrain from acknowledging (p. 268) “that there are in this discourse elements of detail which distinctly mark the Baptist's own point of view” (John 3:27; Joh 3:34-36 ).
We have already replied to the objection derived from the special and independent position which John the Baptist keeps, instead of going to rank himself among the disciples of Jesus. As long as the aim of his mission to lead Israel to Jesus, was so far from being attained, that preparatory mission continued, and the Baptist was not free to exchange it for the position of a disciple which would have been more satisfactory to him ( Joh 3:29 ). It is asked how, after such a discourse of their Master, John's disciples could have subsequently formed themselves into an anti-Christian sect? But a small number from among the innumerable multitude of those baptized by John were present at this scene, and it would, in truth, be much to expect of a discourse to suppose that it could have extirpated a feeling of jealousy which was so deep that we even find the traces of it again in the Synoptics ( Mat 9:14 and parallels). On the point in Matthew 11:2, also alleged in opposition to the authenticity of this discourse, see on John 1:34.
Weiss holds, like Reuss, that this discourse contains authentic elements, but worked over by the evangelist, and that he has fused them into one whole with his own ideas. Thus, he proves the authenticity of the saying of Joh 3:34 by this argument: The perfection of Jesus' teaching is here ascribed by the forerunner to the action of the Holy Spirit, while John the Evangelist ascribes it to the remembrance which He had of His knowledge of the Father in His pre-existent state. This difference between the idea of the evangelist and that of the Baptist must prove the historical character of the discourse, at least in this point. But we have seen hitherto and we shall continue to discover that this way of conceiving of the higher knowledge of Jesus, which Weiss attributes to the evangelist, is by no means in harmony with the text and with the thought of our fourth Gospel. This alleged difference between his conception and that of the Baptist does not exist.
Our Gospel does not give an account of the imprisonment of John the Baptist. But the saying of Jesus ( Joh 3:35 ) implies the disappearance of the forerunner. This took place, therefore, very shortly after this last testimony uttered by him in Judea (see at Joh 4:1 ). The fact of John's death was omitted here, like so many other facts with which the author knows that his readers are well acquainted, and the mention of which does not fall within his plan.
I cannot believe (see p. 258) that the account which occupies our attention was written without some allusion to the disciples of John, who were moving about in considerable numbers in Asia Minor; not, surely, that I would wish to claim, that the entire fourth Gospel owes its existence to this polemical design, but it has entered as a factor into its composition (comp. Introd., pp. 213, 214).
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Godet, Frédéric Louis. "Commentary on John 3". "Godet's Commentary on Selected Books". https://www.studylight.org/
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