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Ver. 1. “There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.”
That Nicodemus is mentioned as a representative of those who are spoken of in John 2:23-25, the striking; accordance of the address of Nicodemus to Christ with the declaration, “Many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did,” leaves no room for doubt. And it is no contradiction to this, that we afterwards find Nicodemus among the number of the genuine disciples of Christ. For the Lord ascribed real faith even to them; and even if He did not commit Himself to them, the reason for this was probably not their insincerity, but their indecision—their dualism, according to which their decision might result either for one side or the other. In Nicodemus the good side obtained the superiority. Only in consequence of the conversation with Christ did he come forward in the number of those to whom Christ could commit Himself.
The fact, that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, is of significance in this matter. It is the very characteristic of Pharisaism, that it knows no regeneration, but only a sanctity appropriated by fragments, in which the man has the primas partes, and God, in the main, only the regarding and the rewarding thereof. It was Pharisaism which had made the temple in a spiritual sense a house of merchandise, in which a profitable trade was carried on with God. Josephus says, that according to the doctrine of the Pharisees, it is for the most part (κατὰ? τὸ? πλεῖ στον ) in the power of man to do right or wrong; and they taught further, that it depends on mans will, to act virtuously or criminally. They enveloped themselves entirely in a self-made holiness.
His position also as a “ruler of the Jews,” must have hindered, rather than promoted, the connection of Nicodemus with Christ. “When a man,” says the Berleburger Bibel, “is in great estimation, and all eyes are directed towards him, he has very great difficulty in becoming little, and in subjecting himself to others.” But this is not the only thing. In eminent positions, there is danger of one’s anxiously striving to preserve himself in harmony with the disposition of the circle over which he is, from fear of otherwise losing “the praise of men,” John 12:43,—to enjoy which, soon becomes a need to those in high positions. Popularity easily becomes the idol of rulers. Since the pharisaic spirit then governed the masses of the people, it must have been very difficult for the rulers decidedly to confess Christ, who opposed this spirit from the beginning. Cf. John 12:42.—Ἄ?ρχοντες are, in general, those who exercise any authority. The word is used in this general sense of chief men; e.g., in John 12:42; Luke 14:1; Matthew 9:18, where the more particular intimation is given by Luke ( Luke 8:41), that he was a president of the synagogue. But here it is not merely ἄ?ρχων , but ἄ?ρχων τῶ?ν Ἰ?ουδαίων , which could be said only of a member of the Chief Council of the nation. So also the phrase, “master of Israel,” in ver. 10. Even the mere phrase, οἱ? ἄ?ρχοντες , stands repeatedly of the members of the Sanhedrim, but only where the connection, or the case itself, renders the more particular definition unnecessary. So in Luke 23:13, the ἄ?ρχοντες , according to their juxtaposition with the ἄ?ρχιερεῖ?ς , are the lay associates of the Chief Council. So also in Luke 24:20. In Acts 13:27, the ἄ?ρχοντες can only be the members of the Sanhedrim; for it was these who condemned Christ. In John 7:26, also, the ἄ?ρχοντες are the Synedrists. To the rulers of the Jews here, correspond the ἄ?ρχοντες τοῦ? λαοῦ? καὶ? πρεσβύτεροι , in Acts 4:8, and the rulers of those who dwell in Jerusalem, in Acts 13:27. Nicodemus first appears as a member of the Chief Council in John 7:50.
Ver. 2. “The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles which Thou doest, except God be with him.”
That John ascribes importance to the circumstance that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and perceives in this a characteristic memorial of the state of his heart at that time, is evident from the repeated reference to this circumstance in John 7:50; John 19:39. The reason of his coming by night we derive, with probability, from the parallel designation of Joseph of Arimathea, in that second passage—“being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” Any other reason can scarcely be thought of, if the coming by night was not a chance one. Cf. John 12:42 also; according to which, many of the rulers believed on Christ, “but because of the Pharisees they did not confess [their belief], lest they should be put out of the synagogue.” We perceive the root of this fear of man partly from John 2:23-25, partly from Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus itself. The fear of man can be overcome only where there is a living faith in Christ as the very Son of God, and Saviour of the world; and the foundation of such faith is a thorough knowledge of one’s own misery, which impels one to seek in Christ the healing of the deep wounds of conscience. The fear of man is often falsely condemned,—that being taken for ordinary cowardice and dread of suffering, which is only a result of the lower stage of faith. So long as this remains, reserve is quite in order. When Nicodemus had taken to heart the contents of this conversation, he came forward as a confessor.
But we must not rest content with supposing that, in mentioning the coming of Nicodemus by night, John wished to refer only to his fear of man. It is quite in accordance with the manner of John, to perceive in this a symbol of the darkness which still enveloped the mind of Nicodemus, and which made itself known in this very circumstance. The Lord Himself appears gently to hint at this in the close of the conversation, in ver. 19, where He speaks of darkness in the ethical sense. Night also occurs as the emblem of spiritual darkness in the word of the Lord in John 11:10; and when in John 13:30, John says of Judas the traitor, “He went out, and it was night,” he evidently recognised in the external night a symbol of the spiritual night, where the light of grace does not shine, and in which begins the power of darkness. In such spiritual interpretation of the night, the Apocalypse of John coincides with his Gospel. Cf. besides, Ephesians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5, where the condition of those who live out of Christ is represented as darkness and night, but the condition of believers as light and day. Anton well remarks, “He would not himself have known that there was still so much darkness in him, if he had not in this conference come to the light.”
That Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, does not necessarily imply that the disciples of Jesus, especially the three most intimate, were not with Him. It was not these, but the Jews, that Nicodemus had to fear. It seems probable that, at a strange place like this, the disciples would assemble around Jesus in the evening. On a later occasion, Jesus spent the night with the disciples at Bethany, Matthew 21:17 sq., Mark 11:11. Ver. 11 seems to intimate distinctly the presence of the disciples. By this remark is answered the question. From whence did John obtain so accurate a knowledge of the conversation? If we think of any one of the disciples as inseparable from Jesus, it is this one, especially in Jerusalem, where he had no business connected with his earthly calling.
Nicodemus says, We know. Light is thrown on this plural by chap. John 2:23-25. Nicodemus appears as the representative of those who had believed on Jesus because they saw the miracles which He did. We are led to a real plurality also by the parallel use of οἴ δαμεν in John 9:24-30. Anton renders the plural too ideally when he paraphrases it: “By right we ought to know it, and by right we might all know it; and thus then I will address the conscience of the others.” Yet there is in this an element of truth. Nicodemus certainly does not anxiously stop with those, of whom he knew by experience that they shared his point of view.
Behind the acknowledgment of Jesus as a teacher come from God, there is concealed the request to Jesus, that lie would manifest Himself to him as a teacher—that He would impart to him the precepts, by following which he might attain to the Messianic kingdom. Only when this is perceived does the answer of Christ seem appropriate. That which here is only intimated, appears in a more developed form in Matthew 19:16 ( Luke 18:18): “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” From the same analogous case, we perceive also what kind of teaching it was that Nicodemus expected from Jesus: the application of certain extraordinary performances, whereby he might increase the already existing treasure of his holiness, and thus render himself a worthy candidate for the kingdom of heaven.
It was a good beginning, when Nicodemus, on the ground of His miracles, acknowledged in Jesus a teacher come from God. He did this not in the sense of Rationalism, which exalted the teacher in order to set aside the king and the high priest, and in truth rejected not less the teacher. He recognised in the teacher one of absolute authority. The Messiah appears as the “Teacher of righteousness” in Joel 2:23;] and in Isaiah 4:4 it is said, “Behold, I have given Him for a witness to the people.” But when Nicodemus remained content with Christ as the teacher, especially the moral teacher, this was an unsatisfactory point of view, from which he could not solve the particular problem appointed for the members of the kingdom of God, viz., of regeneration.
That in Christ Nicodemus recognised the Messiah, cannot well be doubted. He was one of those who believed in the name of Christ, John 2:23; and John would hardly have attributed such a faith to those who had not yet found the right answer to the fundamental question. When he salutes Christ as the Teacher (concerning the address Rabbi, which elsewhere proceeds from those who were perfectly convinced of the Messiahship of Jesus, see the remarks on John 1:39), only that side of the nature of Christ is rendered prominent, in harmony with his personal need, which had relation to the hearts of the covenant-people. Viewed from without, he may be at the same time Judge, Ruler, Lawgiver, and He who wholly reverses the relation of Israel to the heathen world.
Ver. 3. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee. Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Why does Jesus commence directly with regeneration? Chiefly on this account, because opposition to the view of Nicodemus led to this: It is not, as thou supposest, a question of some new fruits, but of new roots, of life; not of a moral reformation, but of a fundamental renovation; not of the adoption and following of single prescriptions, but of a new sphere of existence. But also, because the doctrine of human depravity, and the consequent necessity of regeneration, forms the basis for all other doctrines, which Christ, as the teacher come from God, had to communicate. Not until the need of redemption has been called forth by this doctrine, is there the proper receptivity for the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, of His atonement, and of the signification of faith. The Lord, Himself refers to this, when in ver. 12 He designates earthly things as more accessible than heavenly. “The knowledge of the depravity of our nature,” says Quesnel, “and the necessity of being renewed by Jesus Christ, are the first elements of the Christian religion.”
The strong asseveration (cf. on ἀ?μὴ?ν , ἀ?μὴ?ν , at John 1:22) presupposes ignorance of this great truth, and resistance to its acknowledgment, as was intimated in the words of Nicodemus, and was fully discerned by Him who knew what was in man. It is a deeply humbling truth. On this account, the man resolves with difficulty on allowing its application. When it is accepted, all boasting is excluded. The entire edifice of imagined excellence falls into ruins. Everything loses its importance, which one believes himself to have worked out in a long life of rectitude. He is thrown back at once to the point at which he first entered into life. If we specially regard Nicodemus, this point was for him a truly tragical one; there was nothing left of him. The Jew, who as such already supposed himself to have a share in the kingdom of God (the Talmud, in the Tract Sanhedrin, adduces this very proposition: all Israel has a part in the future world)—the Pharisee, the separate, whose peculiar character consisted in regarding himself as better than other people—member of the Chief Council—the reputation of being a particularly virtuous man, and the zealous endeavour to be such,—all seemed to be suddenly consumed to a small heap of ashes. He must be born over again; it is as though he had not yet been born at all. Here the word of God verily proves itself to be sharper than any two-edged sword. The serious question arises, whether it were not better to renounce the kingdom of God, than to seek it at such a price. And one may indeed avoid, at an apparently easier price, such a vast requirement. Nicodemus certainly took serious counsel within himself, whether he should not retract his declaration: “Master, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God.”
In the form in which the requisition is made, there is yet a certain indulgence. Jesus pronounces the sentence generally; He does not say directly, Thou must be born again. The Lord uses the more direct personal address in ver. 7.
With respect to ἄ?νωθεν , there was a difference of interpretation even in the times of the Church Fathers. Chrysostom says, Some render ἄ?νωθεν by, from heaven; others, by from the beginning. Etymologically, both renderings are admissible. Ἄ?νωθεν , from above, Matthew 27:51, John 19:23, occurs in the sense of from heaven, in John 3:31; John 19:11, James 1:17; James 3:15; James 3:17; with the meaning of from the first, Luke 1:3, where it corresponds to the ἀ?πʼ? ἀ?ρχῆ?ς in ver. 2, Acts 26:5, Galatians 4:9, where πάλιν and ἄ?νωθεν occur in connection with each other, as also in Wis_19:6 . According to the latter rendering, ἄ?νωθεν calls attention to the fact, that an entirely new beginning must be made, in opposition to the opinion, that only a continued building on the ground of nature is needed. It favours this rendering, in the first place, that the δεύτερον in the answer of Nicodemus corresponds to the ἄ?νωθεν here,—a ground which cannot be set aside by such remarks as these: “Nicodemus understood only so much of the discourse of Jesus, that he comprehended that a second birth was meant;” or, “Nicodemus did not understand ἄ?νωθεν as δεύτερον , but not at all.” Moreover, the phrase, to come down, or come from above, certainly occurs; but it is doubtful whether it can be said: to be born from above;—from above must then mean, by an influence coming down from above. But it is of decisive significance, that all the parallel passages speak of a being born again,—none, of a being born from above. The Lord Himself speaks, in Matthew 19:28, of the regeneration of the earth, which presupposes the regeneration of the human race. Baptism is designated as the washing of regeneration in Titus 3:5. The ἀ?ναγεννήσας in 1 Peter 1:3, ἀ?ναγεγεννημένοι in 1 Peter 1:23, is of the more significance, since ἀ?νά in the verbs compounded with it, is akin to ἄ?νω , over again, denuo. Καινὴ? κτίσις also, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, corresponds to ἄ?νωθεν in the meaning of over again. Finally, the rendering of regeneration is the oldest: it is found in the ancient Syriac translation, and already in Justin Martyr, who wrote about half a century after the composition of this Gospel, and in his first Apology, § 61, thus quotes our text: ἄ?ν μὴ? ἀ?ναγεννηθῆ τε , οὐ? μὴ? εἰ σέλθητε εἰ?ς τὴ?ν βασιλείαν τῶ?ν οὐ ρανῶ?ν . From all this, there can be no doubt as to the meaning of ἄ?νωθεν . It contains the severest indictment of human nature, on whose soil no fruits of righteousness can flourish, and which needs an absolute transformation. Regeneration is distinguished from μετάνοια by this, that in it the requirement of a permutation into an entirely new being is laid down more rigorously, and addition to that which already exists is more distinctly excluded. Anton: “This way of proceeding is a heavy cross to man. He is not willingly in a school, where his nothingness is presented before him; for man wishes notwithstanding to be nonnihil, something.
Ver. 4. “Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”
Nicodemus has been charged with a foolish misapprehension, being said to have understood the words of Christ of a second natural birth. Such stupidity would render it inexplicable, that Christ should have entered more deeply on the subject with him. He rather gives the answer, which will always be given by one who has passed a long life in the element of mere nature, even under the sporadic influences of grace, when the requisition is first made to him of a radical renovation of life. An elderly man is on the whole, and for the most part, what he is. He meets such demands with the consciousness, I am this; and they seem to him not much otherwise than if one should demand of a forest-tree that it should become a fruit-tree. He can, indeed, in detail, by the exertion of all his powers, and with the aid of God and His Spirit, with which Nicodemus could not have been unacquainted, strive to improve and mend himself; but to “be born,” to enter into an entirely new sphere of existence, this, according to his conception, is impossible. In order to this, his existence must begin entirely over again; he must come into the world as another, even from his mother’s womb, since the most of that, which has been afterwards developed and consolidated, is based on that which the man brought with him into the world; and since this, as a matter of course, is impossible, the requirement of regeneration is a visionary one, and He who has made it must take it back again. (Heumann: “This is, indeed, an impossibility. Am I then on this account to be excluded from the kingdom of God?”) The requirement is an impossible thing, because it contends against nature. When this has once attained to consistency, when all has assumed a fixed form, a total change is no longer possible. Thus must Nicodemus have judged, so long as he had not yet heartily believed, and become by faith a partaker of the whole riches of Christ, and had learnt by experience His divinity, the power of His atonement, and the might of His Spirit. Nicodemus says this, however, not as a cold rationalist, one who will ward off the truth from him at any price; he says it with a quaking heart. He has come to Christ, presuming Him to be the teacher sent from God. And the word of Christ has, indeed, raised a doubt on the surface of his heart, but in its inmost depths has strengthened his conviction. It has pierced like a flash of lightning into the night of his soul; it has found an ally in his conscience, which loudly assures him that this seemingly impossible thing must yet be, if he will see the kingdom of God.
Ver. 5. “Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
The Lord repeats, against the contradiction of Nicodemus, what He had said before; but m such a manner that He more distinctly indicates the factors of the new life, which is the irremissible condition of a participation in the kingdom of heaven. There are decisive reasons for the supposition, that by the water, which is mentioned as one of these factors, is to be understood the water of baptism. Already, in ver. 22, we find the disciples of Jesus baptizing under His commission; and it is natural to suppose that the doctrinal basis is here given for this activity. In John 1:33, moreover, water and Spirit are likewise mentioned, and the water is that of baptism. The same is true also of Matthew 3:11, and of ver. 16: as Jesus went up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended upon Him. What there occurred to Christ, is emblematic for believers. In Acts 2:38, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost,”—in the same manner, water and Spirit, baptism and Spirit, are connected with each other. As here water appears as one of the factors, and as a fundamental condition of regeneration, so in a very similar relation appears baptism, in the passage closely connected with our text. Titus 3:5, where it is designated as λουτροῦ? παλιγγενεσίας καὶ? ἀ?νακαινώσεως πνεύματος ἁ?γίου . Now, if these reasons decidedly forbid that we should here separate water from baptism (cf. besides, Ephesians 5:26, καθαρίσας τῷ? λουτρῷ? τοῦ? ὕ?δατος ), there are again other reasons as distinctly in favour of the view, that the water here has a symbolical character, and typifies the forgiveness of sins. Water, as here used, is not to be distinguished from the water in a whole series of passages in the Psalms and prophets, in which it signifies the forgiveness of sins, which was already typified in the symbolism of the Mosaic law by material purification. David says, in Psalms 51:2, “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” The prayer is for the forgiveness of sins. The further unfolding of this prayer is given in vers. 9-11. In vers. 12-14 the impartation of the second thing is then prayed for, which necessarily follows from the granting of the first, the impartation of the sanctifying grace of God. As here, so also there, water and Spirit are in close connection with each other. If water there signifies the forgiveness of sins, then here also it has this meaning. In Isaiah 3:15, “So shall He sprinkle many nations,” the sprinkling evidently has the signification of absolution from sin. In Ezekiel 36:25 it is said, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols (filth), will I cleanse you.” We have in substance the meaning of this passage in Jeremiah 31:34, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” To this first benefit is added, in ver. 26, as the second, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” Here also water in the sense of forgiveness, and the impartation of the Spirit, go hand in hand. In Zechariah 13:1 it is said, “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.” It is evident that here also water signifies the forgiveness of sins.
How now are these two views, that water, according to the one series of reasons, must signify baptism, and according to the other, the forgiveness of sins, to be united? The answer is: Water is baptism, and at the same time the embodied forgiveness of sins. For the essence of baptism consists in this, that it brings with it the forgiveness of sins. The water of baptism signifies the forgiveness of sins, but not in such a manner that this exists independently of it; and is only typified by it (as Olshausen is of opinion, that the water does not refer to the sacrament, but to the idea of baptism, to the inward occurrence of repentance in the soul), but so that the forgiveness of sins is connected with the water. The water appears in like manner with the Spirit as a factor of the new life. When this seems, in ver. 6, to be derived from the Spirit alone, we must supplement to this from ver. 5, that the Spirit, which is the positive factor of the new life, presupposes the water, as already in the Old Testament the forgiveness of sins is represented as the really fundamental benefit. The water is the seal of access to the Spirit. When the Berleburger Bibel thus paraphrases the sense: “If one should rely solely on his baptism by water, if he should neglect the new birth, and should not allow the renewing of the Holy Spirit to take place within him, then he could not enter into the kingdom of God,” this is not to unfold, but to tenfold, in the spiritualistic interest. The water is not here to be depreciated, but to be recommended with respect to the baptism shortly to be accomplished, and to be designated as the vehicle of the forgiveness of sins, the necessary precondition and the sure guaranty of the impartation of the Spirit.
That the declaration of the Lord now before us, which was referred to baptism already with perfect confidence by Justin, Apol. i. 61, is opposed to the doctrine of the Reformed Church concerning baptism, is seen from the manifold attempts of. Reformed expositors, even of the best and most pious, to explain the water otherwise,—attempts on which the stamp of worthlessness is already impressed by the fact, that they have never been able to arrive at any agreement. According to Calvin, e.g., the water is the Holy Ghost Himself, who is thus named from His purifying and animating power; according to Lampe, it is the obedience of Christ, etc. Buddeus did not make use of too strong an expression when he called these expositions frivolas plane atque ahsonas.
The prominence of the water must have been a fatal blow to the Pharisee in Nicodemus. Nicodemus was to reflect, remarks Anton, “for what purpose natural water is used, namely, for washing; and thus further to recognise what that filth must be, which must be first washed away.”
Our declaration does not lose its practical importance, even for those who have already attained to regeneration of water and Spirit. “It is this new birth,” remarks Quesnel, “which gives us the right to turn unceasingly to the author of our new existence, and to the principle of our new life, and on every occasion to desire from Him His new Spirit.”
Ver. 6. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
The presupposition is, that only the spiritual can be true members of the kingdom of God, which is spirit. But such a position cannot be attained by the way of nature. Of that which is fleshly only the fleshly, of sinners only the sinner, can be born. (Berleburger Bibel: “Thou hast indeed the wretched bodily birth in thee, but thou canst not by it enter into the kingdom of heaven.”) Therefore, together with the bodily, there is needed a higher, spiritual birth. The doctrine which our Lord here lays down, is clearly presented also in the Old Testament. Adam begets a son after his image, and in his likeness. Genesis 5:3; therefore, after his fall, a sinner like him. David says, in Psalms 51:5, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me:” he confesses, that even at his birth, yea, even at his conception, he was tainted with sin. In Job 14:4 it is said, “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one.” Cf. Genesis 8:21; Psalms 58:3.
Philippi, in his Glaubenslehre 3, S. 200, says, “When it is said, that that which is born of flesh is flesh, by this is meant not merely the material human nature as the seat of the depraved human inclinations. This limitation is the less justified in the present connection of thought, since Nicodemus is the representative of Pharisaism, which, in opposition to Sadduceeism, did not seek after sensual pleasure, but after righteousness in good works; which legal striving must, therefore, likewise be comprehended under σὰ ρξ .” The σὰ ρξ , he continues, designates not only the sensuous human nature, but human nature in general, as comprising both sense and spirit, and indeed human nature in its present character; therefore, corrupt, spiritual-sensuous human nature. Hence in Galatians 5:19-20, sins of selfishness, as much as sins of sensuality, are adduced, as works of the flesh; and in Colossians 2:18, even the puffed-up mind of a hyper-spiritual ascetic, who is bent on annihilating his sensuality, is designated as a fleshly mind. From these reasons it is concluded, that “Σὰ ρξ signifies man as he is by nature, before regeneration by the Spirit;” or, as Wieseler says on Galatians 5:13, “σὰ ρξ is the sinful nature of man, both bodily and spiritual.” But when it is shown by such reasons that σὰ ρξ cannot possibly denote mere “sensuality,” that it comprehends the whole range of human corruption; yet thus, on the other hand, there is still wanting an answer to the question, why then the whole of the old man is thus, without further explanation, designated by the flesh,—a designation which, according to that rendering, cannot at all be justified as an a potiori one. Further, if every special reference to the bodily side of human existence is set aside in the use of σὰ ρξ , it is not explained, why, in Galatians 5:19-21, the series of the works of the flesh is opened and concluded by those very sins in which the reference to the bodily side is quite manifest; as fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, at the commencement,—drunkenness and revilings, at the end. That σὰ ρξ always has a special reference to the material nature, is evident also from this, that instead of flesh simply, the designation flesh and blood repeatedly occurs; cf. on John 1:13; and that body is repeatedly substituted for flesh, as in Romans 8:13: εἰ? δὲ? πνεύματι τὰ?ς πράξεις τοῦ? σώματος θανατοῦ τε , ζήσεσθε . According to Romans 8:10, the σῶ μα even of the regenerate still remains the abode of sin, which from thence continually incites the spirit. This is explicable only, when greater importance is attributed to corporeality with respect to sin, than is done by those who understand by flesh alone the “sinful nature of man.” The “body of death” also, in Romans 7:24, and the “law in the members,” in ver. 23, are hardly compatible with such a conception. What is then the correct solution of the problem? Sin has its starting-point not in the flesh, but in the spirit. The temptation of our first parents was directed to the spirit. So also the temptation of Christ. Regeneration also must proceed from the spirit. The Apostle, in Ephesians 4:23, requires the renewing of the inner man, or of the spirit of the mind, in proof that from thence sin has taken its origin, that there is its real source. But what renders sin so dangerous for man, as a being of both body and spirit, is, that the impulses proceeding from the spirit make an impression upon the flesh, the material nature; that sin gradually becomes fixed in this, and from thence incites the spirit, making it at last a wretched slave, sold under sin. This is true not merely of lust and drunkenness—when the Apostle says, in 1 Corinthians 6:18, φεύγετε τὴ?ν πορνείαν . πᾶ?ν ἁ?μάρτημα ὃ? ἐ?ὰ?ν ποιήσῃ? ἄ?νθρωπος ἐ?κτὸ?ς τοῦ? σώματός ἐ?στιν· ὁ? δὲ? πορνεύων εἰ?ς τὸ? ἴ?διον σῶ μα ἁ?μαρτάνει , this is only spoken by way of comparison; in fornication, the body has the most direct and immediate part—it is true also of anger, pride, avarice, envy, etc. All these sins are accompanied by corporeal excitement, and transfer themselves, as it were, to the body. This is the truth contained in the physiognomy of Lavater, in the phrenology of Gall, and similar theories. If it were otherwise, the connection of the body and spirit would be reduced to a purely external, mechanical one; and it would also appear strange, that Holy Scripture designates sin with so much preference, according to its bodily expression. Sinful impulses exist in the material nature, also, in consequence of original sin: how otherwise could there be family sins, which can yet be propagated only by physical generation? We may see from the very stubbornness of such sins, how dangerous a part the flesh plays in the sphere of sin.
Ver. 7. “Marvel not that I said unto thee. Ye must be born again.”
Such wonder Nicodemus had expressed in ver. 4. Jesus, as the searcher of hearts, perceived that it still remained. But probably also it was to be read in his looks. The word Ye refers back to we know in ver. 2. Nicodemus had come forward as the representative of his associates in sentiment, and supposed that Jesus would accept in glad surprise, and without examination, the homage which these offered to Him. Jesus intimates, to his and their confusion, that with them as they are. He can have nothing whatever to do.
Ver. 8. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” Luther: “As thou canst not by thy reason understand the wind, what it is; and although thou already distinctly hearest the roaring of it, yet canst not know or observe either its beginning or its ending—how far from thee it began, or how far beyond thee it ceaseth: so, much less canst thou comprehend by thy reason, how regeneration takes place.” That the point of comparison is singly and alone the incomprehensibility and that those are in error who assume a threefold point of comparison,—1. the free self-determination of the Holy Spirit; 2. the experience of His operation on the part of Man_1:3 . its “nevertheless incomprehensible character;” that it is improper to draw a parallel between the “voice” of the wind, and the fruits of the spirit, or good works, and that the thought is simply this: Do not allow thyself to take exception to the undeniable fact of regeneration, because thou canst not comprehend how it takes place;—all this is shown by the Old Testament passage, Ecclesiastes 11:5, “As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind [Eng. Vers. spirit], or of the bones in the womb of her that is with child; so thou knowest not the works of God, that maketh all.” The bones can only be regarded here according to their invisibility; and so also, in the case of the wind, the point of comparison can be only its unaccountable, incomprehensible, mysterious character.
It is not here intended to set a limit to scientific investigation with respect to the wind. If we should succeed in learning its general laws, this passage would still remain untouched. It is not the wind in general which is here spoken of, but this or that wind, and that which presents itself at first view, as is shown by the analogy of the second comparison in the Old Test. passage. Anton: “One may indeed know whether the wind comes from the east or from the west, and consequently whither it goeth; but no one can precisely determine where it first began, how far it shall at this time extend, or where it shall cease.
And yet thou hast no doubt in the matter; thou dost not say on this account, I imagine that there is a wind. So the regenerate knows that he is changed, but he knows not how the change took place.” It is not intended to awaken a sense for the spiritual miracle by the indication of a miracle in the visible world, but the aim is only to give to the thought an intuitively intelligible expression.—Πνεῦ μα occurs very seldom of the wind: in the LXX., Genesis 8:1; Ecclesiastes 11:5; in the New Testament, only Hebrews 1:7, and there not quite certainly. Here, however, the infrequent designation is chosen on account of the comparison with the Spirit, as whose symbol the wind occurs also in Ezekiel 37:9. Cf. Christology ii, S. 590. [Translation, iii. p. 54.] On the same symbolism rests, besides Acts 2:2, also John 20:22, where the Lord breathes upon His Apostles, and says, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.” The interpretation of the Spirit is wrecked even on the Old Test, passage, and then on the οὗ τως . Πνέω also stands only of the wind, John 6:18, Revelation 7:1. The words, “where it listeth,” indicate that the motion of the wind is free, various, and incalculable.
Ver. 9. “Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?”
Ver. 10. “Jesus answered and said unto him. Art thou the master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”
The teacher is more emphatic than where merely a teacher is spoken of. The article indicates, that in Nicodemus the ideal personage of the teacher of Israel has become concrete; the single member of this profession represents the whole of the profession. It is a similar instance, when, in 1 Samuel 17:58, to the question of Saul, “Whose son art thou?” David answers, “The son of thy servant Jesse,”—all the sons of Jesse being represented to Saul by David.
So, also, when in Haggai 1:13, Haggai is called the angel of the Lord; and when Jesus, in John 10:11, says, “I am the Good Shepherd,”—i.e., in My person the Good Shepherd is represented. The reproving address of our Lord requires that the doctrine of regeneration should be clearly presented in the Old Testament; and the severity of the rebuke leads to the conclusion, that it refers not merely to a chapter of the prophetic theology, but to what could and should have been experienced even under the Old Covenant. And in reality the doctrine of regeneration is clearly presented in the Old Testament; and the fact, that Nicodemus knew nothing of it, ought the less to perplex us, since neither Pelagius knew anything of it, nor did Kant, nor did Wegscheider. The necessity of regeneration is founded in the fundamental conceptions of the Old Testament. A religion which teaches with such absolute clearness and exactness, on the one hand, the deep and innate depravity of the human heart, and, on the other, the loftiest ideality of moral requirements, cannot do without regeneration. Circumcision of the heart is only another expression for regeneration; and this is laid down even in the books of Moses, Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6, as the necessary mark of all true members of God’s people. Of Saul it is said, in 1 Samuel 10:9, “And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart;” and of David, in 1 Samuel 16:13, “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.” After his grievous fall, David says, in Psalms 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” He perceives that nothing can be effected by a mere reformation,—that it needs the development of the same creative power, which God’s Spirit once displayed, when in the beginning He moved upon the face of the waters. Regeneration as a doctrine and a fact is as old as the ancient Covenant itself. We meet it, as it were, bodily in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If it seems to be pointed out first in several passages prophetic of the coming of the Messianic period, this is explained by the circumstance, that not until this period were the conditions of regeneration to come fully into life, or the powers operating in it to attain to their fullest development. The principal passages here are: Ezekiel 11:19, “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh,” in the place of the natural heart, which, with respect to God, is as hard as stone, insensible and unsusceptible; Ezekiel 18:31, Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 31:33. Whilst, therefore, in substance, the New Testament doctrine of regeneration is variously intimated in the Old Testament, with respect to the expression, regeneration, we find a pre-intimation of it only in two Old Testament passages: in Job 11:12, “For vain man would be wise, and the wild ass be born a man,” in the sense of, qui natus est onager, fiat homo per novani nativitatem; and in Psalms 87, the theme of which is, Zion in the future the birth-place of the nations; here they shall be born anew, as children of God and children of Abraham.
Ver. 11. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee. We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.”
The plural οἴ δαμεν , here, corresponds to the plural οἴ δαμεν in ver. 2, and stands in opposition to it; as can be the less mistaken, since the ὑ?μᾶ?ς of the Lord, in ver. 7, referred to this plural, and since the οὐ? λαμβάνετε , οὐ? πιστεύετε , immediately following, also have regard to it. Now, since the plural there designates a real plurality, this must be the case here also. It cannot be doubted who is here meant, besides Jesus. “The divine messengers of former times, especially John the Baptist,” would have been more particularly designated. The conclusion that they are meant, can be arrived at only by expedients of which there is no intimation in the Scripture. The most natural thought is of the disciples personally present. We perceive Jesus to be accompanied by these always from John 1:40 onwards; they being designated as His followers by the ἀ?κολούθει μοι in John 1:44, cf. John 2:2; John 2:11-12; John 2:17, John 3:22. We can scarcely doubt that they were here collected around Jesus. The supposition, that Christ here spoke in the plural of Himself alone, according to the manner of princes, is opposed even by the form of the expression. The declaration contains nothing which has reference to Christ’s prerogative, but only what applies also to the Apostles, and what John elsewhere attributes to himself. Cf. John 19:35, and the introduction to 1 John—ὃ? ἀ?κηκόαμεν , ὃ? ἑ?ωράκαμεν , ἀ?παγγέλλομεν ὑ?μῖ?ν ,—and in Revelation 1:2, ὃ?ς ἐ?μαρτύρησεν τὸ?ν λόγον τοῦ? θεοῦ? καὶ? τὴ?ν μαρτυρίαν Ἰ?ησοῦ? Χριστοῦ? ὅ?σα εἶ δε , on which the remark is made in my commentary, “John does not speak of himself, but only witnesses to the word of God, as it was certified to him by the testimony of Jesus Christ. By the words, that he saw, his own invention, or the intermingling of a luxuriant subjectivity, is entirely excluded.” In the main, that only is expressed which the whole true Church of Christ may declare together with her Lord, and which especially every upright teacher may repeat after Him.
The Lord expresses mainly a fact, a great privilege, which belongs to the Church, in opposition to the wisdom of the world with its lively speculations. The disciples could then already speak of regeneration from experience, and not as the blind of colour. The germ of regeneration had been already sunk deep in their hearts. That, in general, from the first commencement of their relation to Christ, they began to speak what they knew, and to testify what they had seen, is evident from John 1:42; John 1:46; so that the objection of Lampe to the conjoint reference of the declaration to the disciples, “sed illi nondum testabantur,” does not hold. To believe and confess, to know and to speak, to see and to testify, are closely and inseparably connected with each other. In the declaration, however, is implied a paraenesis. He who is tempted to bring forward his own fancies, must be terrified in view of these words of Christ.
Ver. 12. “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
A strikingly coincident parallel passage is Wis_9:16 , καὶ? μόλις εἰ κάζομεν τὰ? ἐ?πὶ? γῆ?ς , κιὰ? τὰ? ἐ?ν χερσὶ?ν εὑ ρίσκομεν μετὰ? πόνου· τὰ? δὲ? ἐ?ν οὐ ρανοῖ?ς τίς ἐ?ξιχνίασε . The difference, however, is this,—that in this passage the earthly things belong to the sphere of nature, while in our text a distinction is made even between the earthly and the heavenly in religious matters. We can be in no doubt as to what is here meant by heavenly things, since the triple mention of heaven in ver. 13, plainly shows that we have there a further disclosure concerning this point. We must accordingly suppose doctrines like that of the divinity of Christ. That by earthly things is chiefly meant regeneration, is evident from the fact, that the Lord had previously spoken of this, ἔ?πον ὑ?μῖ?ν . Regeneration pertains to earthly things, notwithstanding that its operating principle, the Holy Spirit, vers. 5, 6, is a supernatural one. Its basis is insight into the natural character of man—his deep depravity. This is an earthly fact. He who has first clearly perceived this, and in whom, in consequence, a longing after a higher stage of existence has been awakened, he has already made an important progress in the understanding of regeneration. (It may also be said that ἐ?πίγειον is the recognition of the necessity of regeneration. Cf. ver. 7, ὃ?ς δεῖ? ὑ?μᾶ?ς γεννηθῆ ναι ἄ?νωθεν .) Essentially otherwise is it with heavenly things,—the divinity of Christ, ver. 13; the plan of redemption by Him, vers. 14, 15. These can be accessible only when clearness has been attained with respect to the earthly things. Experience shows that belief in the divinity of Christ and His atonement disappeared from the Church directly when it failed in the recognition of human depravity.
The words, ye believe not, are not to be taken absolutely with respect to Nicodemus. For then the Lord would not have told him the heavenly things in what follows. This would be to preach to deaf ears. And then it must be taken into view, that from ver. 9 onwards, all remonstrance from Nicodemus ceases. He is dumb, because the truth has touched his heart. He by his silence says, with Job, “Behold, I am vile: what shall I answer Thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth. Once have I spoken, but I will not answer; yea, twice, but I will proceed no further.” With this declaration, which must have struck the more severely, since Nicodemus had begun with the confession, that Christ is a teacher come from God, and had therefore bound himself to accept without examination what He offered him, the Saviour gave the last blow to the dying unbelief of Nicodemus. In the subsequent history, he is represented as a believer in Christ. We cannot doubt that he became so by means of the present discourse. The point of decision, however, is designated by his silence, which is the more significant, since the Lord had severely attacked him in vers. 10-12. Especially ver. 10, spoken to a member of the Chief Council, must have brought about a decision either for the one side or the other. Anton: “These must have been real thorns in the heart of Nicodemus; now, however, he is submissive and perfectly quiet. But Christ must proceed still further with him.”
Ver. 13. “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (who will ascend to heaven).
That the Lord does not here attest the certainty of His knowledge in religious matters (Meyer: “And no other than I can reveal the heavenly things to you;” De Wette: “To be taken in a metaphorical sense, of knowing—the bringing down, as it were, of that which is in heaven”), but rather passes thus from the statement of earthly things to the statement of heavenly things, in which the earthly have their roots, is evident, besides from the inadmissibility, to be proved directly, of the figurative rendering of the ascending to heaven, from the manifest reference also in which the triple mention of heaven here stands to the heavenly things, the ἐ?πουράνια . Among the heavenly things, the true divinity of Christ takes the first place in the doctrine of salvation. For this is the foundation of the atonement instituted by Him. On this rests the forgiveness of sins which is sealed by baptism, and on this also the impartation of the Holy Spirit. The divinity of Christ is here taught, after the pride of Nicodemus has first been broken, and thus the way has been prepared for faith in the divinity of Christ, and the atonement founded upon it (vers. 14, 15).—“And no man hath ascended up to heaven.” The meaning of these words, which have been in various ways incorrectly rendered, is indicated by the Old Testament passage, Proverbs 30:4, “Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended?” Vers. 2-6 here form a commentary to the motto: “If God be with me, I am strong.” The object is, by reference to human limitation and baseness, to invite to unconditional subjection to the revealed word of God, with which he only is justified in dispensing, who can do as God does. No man can ascend up to heaven, the abode of Omnipotence and glory; none can raise himself to the Divine power and majesty: we are rather banished to the base and poor earth. “And descended,” to effect those things which are afterwards enumerated: to gather the wind in His fist, to bind the waters in a garment, to establish the ends of the earth,—a descent like that in Genesis 11, equipped with the might of heaven. The question demands a negative answer, and, in meaning, the words, “no man hath ascended,” of our text, correspond exactly to, “Who hath ascended?” in the Old Testament passage. Anton: “The world has stood long already, and there have always been heaven-ascenders, climbing spirits, and daring minds ( Genesis 11:4, ‘Let us build a tower, whose top may reach to heaven;’ Isaiah 14:13, ‘For thou saidst in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God’); but has any one ever once ascended? No one!” The questions are similar in Isaiah 40:12, “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?” etc.,—as much as to say, no man can do so; Job 38:12, “Hast thou commanded the morning?” vers. 29, 39; and so also many other declarations of God. From this passage we perceive,—1. That the Perfect has its usual signification; so that we cannot translate, with Luther, “No man ascendeth to heaven,” which would also be grammatically unallowable. 2. That the ascension is to be taken in its proper sense. In the original passage, something is evidently spoken of which is absolutely impossible to man. Who ever ascended into heaven, so that he no longer needed to pray: Om Father, who art in heaven? We are led to conclude a real ascension here, not more by this original passage, than by all the parallel passages. In the whole New Testament ascending up to heaven stands only of ascension in the proper sense. Cf. John 6:62, John 20:17; Revelation 11:12; Luke 24:51. In Ephesians 4:9-10, ἀ?ναβαίνειν , which stands in direct opposition to καταβαίνειν here, refers to the ascension. We are led to the proper sense also by the antithesis of the descending, and by the usage of the Old Testament, in which עלה occurs of the returning of God to heaven, when in a passing manner He had made Himself known, in prelude to His appearance on earth in the flesh. Genesis 17:22; Genesis 35:13; Psalms 47:5; Psalms 68:18. If now, after the proofs adduced, we can think only of a proper ascension, which in the case of Christ had not yet taken place, and must, moreover, render the words, even according to the original passage, as an absolute negation, admitting of no exception,
No man hitherto, or, no man ever; not, no one besides Me,—we must then supply at the close of the verse, “who will ascend to heaven.” The hypothesis of such an ellipse can be open to no objection, since the proposition, without such an hypothesis, would be contrary to the evidence, so that no ambiguity can arise from the breviloquence. We have then three periods: He was in heaven, for He came down from thence; He is in heaven; and He will be in heaven. That the declaration begins with a reference to the ascension, is on account of the original passage. Christ comprises together that which He here declares of Himself in ver. 16, in the designation of Himself as the only-begotten Son of God.
By designating Himself as He who has descended from heaven, the Lord attributes to Himself a residence in heaven before His advent in the flesh, in harmony with what, in John 17:5, He says of the glory which He had with the Father before the world was; and in harmony also with John the Baptist, who in John 3:31 designates Him as having come from above, ἄ?νωθεν , and from heaven, ἐ?κ τοῦ? οὐ ρανοῦ? , and as on this account absolutely exalted above all that is earthly. That the words presuppose the true divinity of Christ, so that we cannot think of such a descent as that of angels (such an one would not be compatible with His birth of Mary; only God and man form no irreconcilable antithesis), is shown by the unmistakeable reference to the passage of the Old Testament, in which a descent is attributed to God, when He transiently appears on the earth, or there makes known His glory, in prelude to His advent in the flesh. So, e.g., Exodus 3:8; Exodus 19:11, “The third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai.” Numbers 11:17; Numbers 12:5; Isaiah 31:4, “So shall the Lord of hosts come down to fight for Mount Zion.” That the expression, which Jesus makes use of also in John 6:33; John 6:38; John 6:50-51; John 6:58 (cf. Ephesians 4:9-10), refers to the superhuman nature of Christ, even the Jews recognised in John 6:42.
Why does Christ here call Himself the Son of man? Because His humanity was a veil, which concealed from short-sighted eyes the heavenly majesty which He claims for Himself; as much as if He said. Notwithstanding that I stand before you as a man; or,
Thou seest Me, indeed, as an humble man, but, etc. This expression, however, by which the Lord concedes what is before the eyes, is itself adapted to remove the offence. It refers back to Daniel—cf. on John 1:32—where One like the Son of man, therefore like a man only on one side of His nature, appears in the clouds of heaven.
That ὁ? ὤ?ν ἐ?ν τῷ? οὐ ρανῷ? can mean only, Who is in heaven, not, who was in heaven, is now again generally acknowledged. Winer (Gram. S. 305) says, “In the sense of, who was in heaven, it would nearly coincide with the sense of, who came down from heaven; but here something more special (and more emphatic) is to be declared (and the climax is not to be mistaken).” The words in brackets are to be struck out. There is no climax here. All three designations imply the same dignity. Each of itself leads to the conception of full divinity, which makes itself known in the past, the present, and the future of the Son of God. Not only the tautology is decisive against the interpretation, which was, but also the language. The participle Present, when unconnected with a Preterite or a temporal adverb, can stand only to designate the present, especially here, where the present evidently forms an antithesis to the past and the future. Heaven is here considered as the abode of God, as Aristotle says (in Tholuck, Sermon on the Mount, on Matthew 6:9), πάντες τὸ?ν ἀ?νωτάτῷ? τῷ? θείῳ? τόπον ἀ?ποδιδόασι . To be or to sit in heaven, is always represented in the Old Testament as the Divine prerogative, and as equivalent to His holiness, and His abstractedness from all creaturely essence. Thus in Psalms 2:4; Psalms 11:4; Psalms 115:3, “But our God is in the heavens; He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased.” Psalms 103:19, “The Lord hath prepared His throne in the heavens; and His kingdom ruleth over all.” Ecclesiastes 5:2, “For God is in heaven, and thou upon earth,”
He the rich, and we the poor; He the Almighty, and we the helpless. In 2 Chronicles 20:6, Jehoshaphat says, “Jehovah, God of our fathers, art Thou not God in heaven, and rulest not Thou over all the kingdoms of the heathen?” The Lord, by designating Himself here as He who as the Son of man also is in heaven, “intimates that He is conscious of the Divine glory which He enjoyed with the Father even when He walked the earth in the base form of a servant.” Coincident with our passage Isaiah 14:9, where Christ says, “He who seeth Me, seeth the Father.” In this duplex existence which Christ ascribes to Himself, His believing followers do to a certain degree participate. They are upon earth, and yet at the same time, through connection with their Head, in heaven.
Vers. 14, 15. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
The Lord here proceeds to lay before Nicodemus the “heavenly things,”—in the preceding verse, His divinity; here, the atonement to be made by Him on this foundation. Anton makes some excellent remarks on the course which Jesus takes in the conversation with Nicodemus. “Our lost condition must on our part be the primum cognitum, the first thing that is perceived. Of this lost condition, on account of which we must be born again, Nicodemus had heard, in ver. 6. And this had become for him λόγος ἔ?μφυτος , an implanted word. Therefore was he now become so meek, and could also attend with a gentle disposition to τὰ? ἐ?πουράνια , and not only bear them, but recognise that this is the medicine by which he must be healed; and that those who would be healed, and who would not perish, but instead of this, have eternal life, must adhere to this means.
Nicodemus required to be brought in an orderly manner from one point to another, until the article of Christ could be confided to him. From this we see, that the article of Christ stands as it were before the door of all men; but man cannot advance to it ex abrupto, and as by a leap, but he must first be subdued and bowed down by the recognition of his depravity. But when man has entered into the knowledge of his depravity, then Christ also enters in with him, so that He confides to him the article of the Redeemer. And it is here to be admired, that though Nicodemus was at first inclined to resist the preliminaries of regeneration, he after this became still; on which account Christ confided to him the highest points, even that of His Passion.”
The fundamental question which offers itself with respect to the present declaration of Christ is this: What is signified by the brazen serpent in the original passage, Numbers 21:1 In Wis_16:6 , it is designated as the token of salvation, σύμβολον σωτηρίας . But little is said by this; the question being, in how far it was so. According to the current hypothesis, the serpent is said to be the “symbol of Divine saving power.” It is remarked, “In the Egyptian theology, it was of old a symbol of healing (saving) power.
Among the Greeks and Romans, the serpent was the constant accompaniment or representative of the god of healing, and the most appropriate symbol of the healing art.” But such heathen conceptions are not without further indication to be transferred to biblical matters. Even if we should follow this hypothesis, it must at all events undergo a modification. The element of craft and wisdom in the serpent must be taken into view. That this characteristic element, which is rendered prominent already in Genesis 3:1, may also be applied in bonam partem, is shown by Matthew 10:16. Believers being called to the imitation of God, the fact, that the wisdom of serpents is required of them, implies that God also possesses this in the highest degree,—that He is specially ingenious with respect to the means of salvation for His people. But disregarding the objection, which the hypothesis of a symbolization of Divine power must call forth, that there is none such to be found in the entire Old Testament (the cherubim even were not such, but represented the earthly living creation), this hypothesis is wrecked on the circumstance, that in Numbers 21:8 it is said, “Make thee a Saraph, and set it on a pole.” There can be no doubt as to the meaning of Saraph. The serpent is not thus called “from the fiery red spots of its skin:” for שרף does not mean to burn, but to consume, and it is called the consuming because its poison is like the consuming fire, as for a similar reason certain serpents are called in the Greek, πρηστῆ ρες and καύσωνες . The Vulgate renders שרף correctly by serpens flatu adurens. Accordingly, it is the poison of the serpent which is especially to be regarded; but this is entirely left out of account, when in the serpent is perceived an emblem of the wisdom inventive of salvation, and superior to all noxious potencies. The Saraph can in a manner only obtain its rights—in correspondence with ver. 6, “And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people,”—by the hypothesis, that the brazen serpent, no less than the living ones, designates the noxious potency; the only difference being, that the brazen serpent is the noxious potency overcome by Divine power. It must be observed, that Moses does not take a living serpent, but a dead image thereof, for a sign of its conquest by the healing power of the Lord. From this point of view, the נחש נחשת in Numbers 21:9 (“And Moses made a serpent of brass “) is not an accidental alliteration; the fiery serpent is, as it were, hardened into dead brass. The setting up as a sign also is of significance. This was a δειγματίζειν , a θριαμβεύειν , Colossians 2:15. If the signification of the serpent in the original passage is determined, there can be no doubt also as to the point of comparison. It is manifest that remarks like this, “the serpent does not enter into the comparison, but only its erection,” owe their origin only to confusion. Christ is the antitype of the serpent, in so far as He has taken upon Him, and vicariously expiated, the most noxious of all noxious potencies—sin. That which was done to that lower inimical power, was a pledge that in the future an equally efficient aid should be afforded against this worst enemy; what was then done for the preservation of the earthly life, was a substantial intimation of that future working for the acquisition of eternal life. The conception, according to which Christ crucified represents conquered sin, occurs in a series of passages of the New Testament: Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21, τὸ?ν μὴ? γνόντα ἁ?μαρτίαν ὑ?πὲ?ρ ἡ?μῶ?ν ἁ?μαρτίαν ἐ?ποίησεν ; 1 Peter 2:24; and the germ of this conception is found clear and manifest even in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 53 Luther says: “This is to be lifted up, that He bore the colour of my poison on the cross, and yet in Him there was no poison.”
In ὑ?ψωθῆ ναι many commentators find a double sense: it is said to refer at the same time to the crucifixion of Christ, and to His glorification, for which the crucifixion prepared the way. But the reference to the crucifixion only is required by the preceding ὕ?ψωσε ; and in the Syriac, זקף stands in just the same manner of the crucifixion. The word ὑ?ψοῦ?ν always refers to the crucifixion in the discourses of Christ in John: cf. John 8:28; John 12:32; John 12:34 (otherwise in the Acts: τῇ? δεξιᾷ? οὖ?ν τοῦ? θεοῦ? ὑ?ψωθεί , Acts 2:33; Acts 5:31). A double sense is not, moreover, sufficiently indicated, and the parallelism between Christ and the serpent is injured thereby.
It is said, Even so must the Son of man be lifted up. That the δεῖ? refers chiefly to the prophecies of the Old Testament, among which is included the prophetic occurrence which the Lord here expressly adduces, is shown by comparison with the parallel passages. Cf. Matthew 16:21; Matthew 26:54; Luke 24:25-26; Luke 24:44; Luke 24:46; Acts 17:3. Indirectly, however, δεῖ? applies to the Divine counsel. For the prophecies are a result of this counsel, and they are here regarded only in so far as they reveal this counsel. On this alone is founded the necessity for the correspondence of the history of Christ with them.
The designation of Christ as the Son of man points to the human nature of the Redeemer, as the condition of His deepest humiliation and of His Passion; but at the same also to the glory lying concealed behind it. Cf. Christology, v. iii. p.89.
Eternal life forms the antithesis to the temporal life which was gained by looking to the brazen serpent. This eternal life is obtained by faith, not merely in expectation, but in real possession. This is intimated by the Present ἔ?χῃ? , in accordance with a series of intimations in other discourses of Christ in our Gospel. Cf. John 16:36, John 5:24, John 6:40; John 6:47; 1 John 5:12-13. Although the complete possession of eternal life belongs only to the future existence, yet the power of it reaches over to the present existence: cf. John 4:14; Hebrews 6:5. The practical result from the present declaration of Christ may be deduced in the words of Quesnel: “Ingrat, et ennemi de son propre bonheur, quiconque n’aime point à tourner les yeux pour vous pour y adorer sa vie crucifiée et y trouver la mort de ses passions.”
Ver. 16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
It is of significance that in the second part of this verse, the fifteenth verse is repeated letter for letter. This shows that the main emphasis rests on these words, which in the preceding verse occupy a more subordinate position, being thrown into the shade by the deep significance of the objective fact of salvation, the redemption to be made by Christ: they state the theme for the last part of the discourse of Christ to Nicodemus, which places in a clear light the vast importance of faith, and drives it home to the conscience of Nicodemus. In the first part of the verse, a resumè is given of the contents of vers. 13, 14, just as in ver. 15 the way is prepared for the section, vers. 16-21. The designation of Christ as the only-begotten Son of God, comprises what has been said in ver. 13 of the heavenly past, present, and future of Christ; and that which is here said of the loving gift of this only-begotten Son of God, resumes what is said in ver. 14. Thus is brought to light the inner connection of vers. 13 and 14, which seem to be merely in juxtaposition. They present the interdependence of the divinity of Christ and the atonement.
Many modern commentators have supposed, after the example of Erasmus, that Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus ceases at ver. 15, and that from thence onwards John continues the discourse independently. But there is no proof of this. When Olshausen remarks, “That they are no longer the words of Jesus, is evident from the fact that all reference to Nicodemus is lost,” he has in point of fact only this reason for doing so, that Nicodemus, whose heart was most deeply touched in this latter part, does not again open his mouth. But this is perfectly explained by the remark made already in the Berleburger Bibel after Anton: “An anxiety to have part in God had now entered the heart of Nicodemus. Therefore he now becomes quiet, and loses himself entirely, so that we do not know what has become of him. He had been quite cast down by the former matter, his heart had been thoroughly searched; he therefore listened attentively and submissively, and perceived how necessary this only-begotten Son was for him. And though he might have made objections to this most of all, if he had wished to follow his depraved reason, yet now there was no contradiction in his mouth, because he perceived the truth and necessity of the thing. The fear of being lost had been fully developed in him. For Christ meets him now with loving and sweet words, though before He had spoken sharply to him; not as though the disposition of Christ induced this, but the disposition of Nicodemus required such an order, because he needed first to be subdued and humbled.” But it is opposed to the supposition, that from ver. 16 onwards John speaks in his own person, not only that no single certain, or even probable, instance can be adduced of such a continuation of a discourse of Christ (the γὰ?ρ , which expressly connects the preceding words, must be regarded here), and that the credibility of the Gospel is seriously injured by it; but, still more, that the discourse of Christ has thus an incomplete character. It had commenced with an earnest appeal to the conscience, and we expect it to conclude in the same manner. The objective facts, the divinity of Christ and His atonement, are still in suspense, if they are not in the conclusion of the discourse stamped, as it were, into the mind. Faith generally, and especially in the discourses of Christ in John, occupies so important a position, that its significance is not satisfied by the brief intimation in ver. 15.—Κόσμος is properly the universe, the creation. Its limitation here to the human race, which, according to Genesis 1, forms the centre of the creation, is required even from the nature of the case. The limitation to the mundus electorum in the decisions of the Synod of Dort, and in the Swiss Formula Consensus, is opposed not only by the parallel passages, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, where “all men,” and “all” without exception, correspond to the world here, but it is also absolutely irreconcilable with our text. Even the word itself is decisive against it; and further, as Heumann remarks, “It was not perceived that the Lord divided the world of which He speaks into two classes of men, namely, into such as on account of their unbelief would be lost, and those who would be saved by their faith; and teaches, that God has loved them both, and desires as much that one part of mankind should believe and be saved, as the other.” But the words are to call attention not merely to the greatness of the love of God, but at the same time also to the depth of our misery. This point of view is rendered prominent by Luther when he says, “By this He wishes to show the world the misery and need in which it is involved; namely, that its condition is such that it is altogether lost, and must remain eternally lost where Christ does not interpose with this sermon.
Here is required another word and sermon than that which they had hitherto heard and learned from the law, and another power than that of men.”—“That He gave His only-begotten Son.” Luther: “His Son, who is as great as Himself, this is an eternally incomprehensible gift.” The assertion, that “μονογενής must have been put into the mouth of Jesus from the language of John,” is to be reversed. John, who alone uses this word (cf. what is said of it at John 1:14) of Christ, and alone also records that Christ used it of Himself, derived it without doubt from this discourse. It has an Old Testament basis, besides that in Zechariah 12:10 (cf. on John 1:14), in substance also in Genesis 22:2, where God says to Abraham, “Take thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest.” Coincident with this transfer of only-begotten from this passage, is the reference of ἠ?γάπησεν to the words, whom thou lovest. The typical significance of the occurrence is expressly taught, in harmony with the declaration of our text, in Hebrews 11:19: ὅ?θεν αὐ τὸ?ν (τὸ?ν μονογενῆ? , ver. 17) καὶ? ἐ?ν παραβολῇ? ἐ?κομίσατο , in a figure, i.e., as prefiguring Christ. So also the typical reference of the occurrence—which has its truth in this, that God does not require without giving; that when He requires the dearest, there is in this a pledge that He also will give His dearest,—lies at the foundation of Romans 8:32, where the Apostle verbally alludes to Genesis 22:16: “Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son.”
That ἔ?δωκε does not refer merely to the incarnation, but principally to the atonement, is evident from the reference to ver. 14, and also from the reference to the type, where the words, “hast not withheld,” correspond to “gave” here. In Romans 8:32, παρέδωκεν αὐ τόν corresponds to ἔ?δωκε , without being on this account exactly equivalent in meaning. The completion of the gift of God was the resignation even to death.
How is faith here related to regeneration in ver. 5? It is not identical with it, but its condition. Faith takes hold of the atoning death of the only-begotten Son of God. On this follow, in the case of those who are in circumstances like Nicodemus (how it is with children is another question), the forgiveness of sins and impartation of the Holy Spirit, which are embodied in baptism. Cf. Acts 8:12, ὅ?τε δὲ? ἐ?πίστευσαν—ἐ?βαπτίζοντο ; ver. 13, John 18:8; Mark 16:16; Ephesians 4:5. Acts 10:47, where the Holy Spirit is imparted before baptism, forms an exception, the reasons of which are obvious.
Ver. 17. “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world: but that the world through Him might be saved.”
The triple mention of the world here, is no more accidental than the triple mention of believing in ver. 18. The object is not to oppose the Jewish opinion, which regarded Christ by way of preference as the Judge of the Gentile world; for everything in this discourse has a personal reference, and is intended to win the heart of Nicodemus. So also here, the words are to turn the heart of Nicodemus to Christ; so that he may resign himself to Him who has come from heaven for the salvation of the world, and for his salvation. It is to make him feel that here there is no new law presented before him, but a gospel, a free message. “O wondrous grace and goodness! O deepest love and kindness!” etc. It is not denied that the judgment is a consequence, but that it is the object of the mission of Christ. It cannot be the object; for if God had purposed only to judge, He could have done it without giving up His Son, and the latter would not have appeared in the form of a servant. Luther: “For such a judgment and sentence has been already passed by the law on all men, because they are all born in sin; so that they are already adjudged to death, and to the executioner with the cord, and nothing now is wanting but that the sword be drawn.” But on this very account, because God sent His Son to be a Saviour, the judgment must be passed on those who despise so great a benefit, and thus fill up the measure of their sin. Cf. vers. 18, 19, John 9:39. Quesnel: “The first advent of the Son of God is the advent of salvation. Unhappy he who renders it in vain, and even changes it into a judgment by his unbelief.”
The passages in which Christ appears as the sent of God, occur in number only in the discourses of Christ and of John. As Christ’s designation of Himself as the Son of man always refers to Daniel, so does this expression invariably contain an allusion to the personal identity of Christ with the Old Testament Angel, or sent of the Lord. Cf. Christology 3, 2, S. 62, 63. The” Old Testament basis for the words, ἵ?να σωθῇ? ὁ? κόσμος διʼ? αὐ τοῦ? , is formed by Isaiah 52:10, “And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
Ver. 18. “He that believeth on Him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.”
As Nicodemus has been allured to belief in what precedes, he is now pointed to the mournful consequences of unbelief, in order that he may be filled with horror of such a grievous sin.—“He is condemned already,” in the very act of unbelief, which excludes him from the only source of life and salvation, and causes the wrath of God to abide upon him, John 3:36. This, of course, does not exclude the entrance of an external manifestation of the judgment at a determined epoch. Matthew 25:31 sq.; nor that the judgment in this and the future world brings with it different stages of punishment, Revelation 20:15. Anton: “Here the man murmurs, and says: I thought, indeed, there would again be a judgment and condemnation. But to show that it is not necessary, and how wrong he is in this, Christ here adds an ὅ?τι—because he does not believe, not because he is a sinner, but because he will remain a sinner and will not believe.
God has laboured to bring him to πιστεύειν , to faith; but because he will remain in unbelief, he is condemned.
This, then, is the chief sin, that man does not believe. On this account he is lost; not because he has sinned as other men, but because he keeps his sins, and will not by faith renounce them.” With respect to faith in the Name, cf. on John 1:12.
Ver. 19. “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
Quesnel: “Nothing discovers more the corruption of an age, and gives more reason to fear the wrath of God, than when we see opposition to the light increase in the same proportion in which God bountifully diffuses it.”
Love to our darkness is always concealed behind a false love of the light; and it is the great punishment of God on nations and individuals to give them over to this depraved sense, which takes light for darkness and darkness for light. “This is the condemnation;” it is the sin, and at the same time the condemnation, or the punishment. For that which is sin from one side, is from the other the punitive act of God, by which He adjudges to darkness those who love the darkness, and excludes from the light those who despise the light. They do not disappoint God, but rather, by their sins against them, fulfil the eternal laws of His being.
On light and darkness, cf. John 1:4-5. The light is salvation, as it has come into the world in the person of the Saviour; the darkness is the wickedness of sin, and the evil inseparable from it.
Men are represented principally by the Jews. Ἠ?γάπησεν refers to the experience which Jesus had already had, especially in Jerusalem. But the Aorist requires only, that the action be one that is already commenced. It is used not infrequently of general truths founded on empirical observations: Buttmann, Gram. S. 174, 5.
Lücke remarks, “It is said, Men loved darkness more than light. To love it absolutely would be devilish. So, according to John, there is in every one a spark, a feeling of need for the light.” But this remark is certainly not in the meaning of the Saviour. Of course a ratherness only is declared, but in the background there is a complete want of love to the light, and hatred towards it. The word μᾶ λλον stands likewise in John 12:43, “They loved the praise of men more than the praise of God;” and it is evident, that they did not love the praise of God at all. When, in Genesis 29:30, it is said that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, the very next verse, “And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated,” shows how this is to be understood: cf. Deuteronomy 21:15. Who, from Luke 18:14, κατέβη οὗ τος δεδικαιωμένος εἰ?ς τὸ?ν οἶ κον αὐ τοῦ? ἤ? γὰ?ρ ἐ?κεῖ νος , would conclude, that the Pharisee likewise shared in the justification, but in a less degree? or from 2 Timothy 3:4, φιλήδονοι μᾶ λλον ἢ? φιλόθεοι , that love to God is ascribed to these persons, but only in a less degree?
The reason for despising the light is stated in the words, “because their deeds were evil.” In a certain sense, the deeds of all men are evil—so certain as the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and as all men are evil, πονηροί , according to the declaration of the Saviour, Matthew 7:11. But the words cannot be intended to have this sense here: they can refer only to decided and stiff-necked wickedness. The Scripture, immediately after it has recorded the depth of the fall of sin, in which the whole human race is involved, teaches, that notwithstanding this, there is still always an opposition between the unrighteous and the righteous those who surrender themselves unconditionally to their innate sin, like Cain and his descendants, and those who, in adherence to God, and by walking with Him, contend against it, as Abel, Enoch, Genesis 5:22; Genesis 5:24, the sons of God in Genesis 6:2, and Noah, of whom it is said in Genesis 6:9, “Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations: Noah walked with God.” In the same sense in which evil deeds stand here, occurs the phrase, evil works, in 1 John 3:12, where the evil works of Cain are opposed to the righteous works of Abel. This difference was especially perceptible among the covenant-people, whom the Saviour has principally in view here. In the heathen world it was less prominent. Although such differences occurred even here, yet in the great whole they were altogether buried ἐ?ν τοῖ?ς ἔ?ργοις τοῖ?ς πονηροῖ?ς , Colossians 1:21.
Ver. 20. “For every one that doeth evil, hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.”
He that doeth evil is, according to Knapp, qui peccatis indulget, qui vitiis dat operam; or, as the Berleb. Bibel says, “whose practice it is to defend the old idle ways, and who will not leave that which is not worthy that a rational being should depend upon it.” Light here is not used exclusively of the personal light Christ, but of all which is adapted to ameliorate the godless condition of the natural man, viz., of God and His revelation, the Church and its ministry. That the works should appear in their true character, is intolerable to him who is resolved to walk in the ways of sin. Inseparable from sin are hypocrisy and deceit, which call the evil good, and the good evil; so that darkness is changed into light, and light into darkness, the bitter into sweet, and the sweet into bitter, Isaiah 5:20. Such perversions of the truth are the stronghold of sin. A man cannot maintain himself therein, when it presents itself in its true form; and on this account he carefully avoids more immediate contact with the truth from above, and its bearers. On this account he hates the truth, when it seeks to gain access to him: he knows that sin cannot consist with it, and that his condition must be an intolerable one, if by contact with the light his sin is brought to light, Ephesians 5:13. Anton: “A man not desiring the elenchum becomes an enemy of the light, μισεῖ? τὸ? φῶ?ς . This intimates that the light presses him hard, though it does not properly compel him. The light attacks the man, and the man attacks the light in return, and extinguishes it, becomes an enemy of light, an enemy of detection, an enemy of the elenchus; though at first he does not indeed think that he is an enemy. But when the time comes to proceed ad rem, then the enmity is revealed.” This is the great secret of the enmity of the world to the living God and His all-revealing word,—to Christ also, and His Church. Man can bear anything rather than the revelation of his true character, the consequence of which is, that he must hate and despise himself, when he has once resolved not to renounce his lusts and passions.
Ver. 21. “But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.”
To do truth is to do that which flows from the principle of truth,—q.d., to act in truth, Judges 9:16; Judges 9:19. Truth forms the antithesis to falsehood, pretence, and hypocrisy, with which wickedness is associated. To act rightly and to do truth are coincident: cf. Nehemiah 9:33, “Thou hast done right (truth), but we have done wickedly.” Here righteousness is designated as truthfulness in antithesis to ver. 20, according to which the wicked shun the light, in order that the true character of their works, which are covered over with falsehood and hypocrisy, may not be brought to light. For one to do truth, is above all things to acknowledge and confess his sin. In Psalms 32:2, he is declared blessed, in whose spirit, in this respect, there is no guile. Cf. the remarks on John 1:48. But we must not, with Augustine, stop here. The expression designates, generally, true moral earnestness,—a living in God, or in communion with Him; so that He is the efficient principle of all actions. The works being done in God presupposes that God is known. The Lord speaks to a member of the covenant-people, among whom God is present with His Spirit. In a member of this people, who is full of upright moral earnestness, there may be much weakness and much error; but the fundamental tendency of his heart is towards God, and therefore he may approach with humble confidence to the light, which, in the appearance of Christ, shone with previously unknown brightness, being conscious that he will not be put to shame by it, but will receive from it a good testimony. What is here said applies to the heathen only in so far as they had entered into connection with Israel,—an instance of which we have in Cornelius, Acts 10:2; Acts 10:4; Acts 10:35,—or, as by more immediate contact with the Church of Christ, they had been awakened and rendered capable of doing the truth. The φαῦ λα πράσσων and the ποιῶ?ν τὴ?ν ἀ?λήθειαν are, moreover, not in mere juxtaposition. There is in men often, indeed usually, the strangest duplicity. They feel themselves, on the one hand, repelled, in so far as sin is mighty within them; and, on the other, attracted, in so far as a more noble moral aspiration stirs within them. So must it have been also with Nicodemus. He was in a state of indecision. He was to make the great choice between the two opposing principles, which contended within him. Jesus would hardly have laid vers. 19 and 20 before him if they had not concerned him; for here it is no locus of dogmatics which is treated of, but everything has a personal reference. If ver. 21 only applied to him, why did he come to Jesus by night? What is afterwards related of Nicodemus shows, that, with regard to the choice here left to him, he decided to come to the light, and now for ever took leave of that evil principle, which cried to him. The further from the light the better.
Ver. 22. “After these things came Jesus and His disciples into the land of Judea; and there He tarried with them, and baptized.”
Since Jesus came from Jerusalem, by the land of Judea can be meant only the rest of the land excluding the capital. The limitation, however, is not implied in the expression itself, as though γῆ? might denote the country in distinction from the city, as χώρα , in John 11:55, Mark 1:5; but it is given only in the connection by which Jerusalem is excluded. The mere word Ἰ?ουδαίαν might have been used equally as well. Cf. the opposition of Jerusalem and Judah in Ezra 2:1; Ezra 7:14; 2 Chronicles 20:18. Similar is the opposition of Judah and (the rest of ) Israel. As in this case, Israel does not in itself designate the ten tribes, but only in their opposition to Judah, so also the “land of Judea “is in itself the whole of Judea, and the limitation is given only by the preceding mention of the stay in Jerusalem,
Jesus was sent to all the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and must therefore proclaim the Gospel of the kingdom in all parts of the land. At the very commencement of His ministry He made a sort of circuit through it. He commenced His activity in Bethabara beyond Jordan; then He turned to Galilee; then to Jerusalem, where His stay was not long, because there the most dangerous elements were in opposition, which were not to be stirred up before the time; and then to the land of Judea, excepting the capital. The expression leads us to conclude that He made more than a transient stay there. Cf. John 11:54. According to the apparently chance notice in John 4:35, He continued there a number of months—not less than seven or eight. And this we should expect from the fact, that Judea was the chief part of the whole. If Jesus had immediately withdrawn to a corner of Galilee, this would have given rise to suspicions against His ministry. Chap. John 4:45 shows, that even the successes in Galilee were conditioned by the preceding appearance in Judea. It is remarkable that John communicates so little from this long period,—nothing but the testimony of the Baptist, which for him had a special interest. This is explained only by the fact, that he presupposes the first Gospels, and particularly that of his fellow-Apostle, Matthew. That which took place in the land of Judea had essentially the same character as that of which the others had given an account as taking place in Galilee. Even the summary manner in which the Evangelist refers to Christ’s doings in Jerusalem,—θεωροῦ ντες αὐ τοῦ? τὰ? σημεῖ?α ἅ? ἐ?ποίει , John 2:23, cf. John 4:45,—requires to be supplemented from the first Gospels, and refers back to them. In this brevity of John is contained at the same time a justification of the total silence concerning Christ’s doings in Judea, in Matthew and the two disciples of the Apostles who followed him. On account of the similarity of the facts, Matthew could attain his object—to prove that Jesus is the Christ—by beginning his account only when Jesus had made Galilee the theatre of His continued activity. To this he was invited still more by the interest which, as a Galilean, he felt in Galilee, and the circumstance, that he was not, like John, an eyewitness of the earlier ministry, and that this very ministry of the Saviour in Galilee was rendered prominent in the prophecies of the Old Testament, the fulfilment of which it was his task to demonstrate. Matthew places the passage of Isaiah expressly at the head of his account in Matthew 4:14-16, and thus himself declares his purpose. The two apostolic disciples, who did not share his purpose, did not feel themselves called upon to open a new path, which was therefore left to the second Apostle among the Evangelists. Between the baptism and the commencement of the continued Galilean ministry of Jesus (he passes by the transient stay there, mentioned by John), Matthew records only a single fact—the temptation, which, on account of its high significance, and especially its Old Testament reference, could not be passed by. That this fact falls during the time of the stay in the land of Judea, we have already seen, and it will be brought out more distinctly in the remarks on ver. 23. John distinctly designates the point of incidence of his Gospel on that of Matthew. John 4:1-3 refers back to Matthew 4:12.
This passage and John 4:2 are the only places in the Gospels which mention the baptizing of Jesus and His disciples; from which this at least is evident, that during the earthly life of Jesus, baptism still occupied only a subordinate position. It is possible even, that it was afterwards entirely given up, or occurred only sporadically. It had more of a prophetic than a certifying significance, as Jesus, during His life on earth, loved to prefigure, in general, that which would take place in the future developments of the kingdom of God, as may be seen in the instance of awakenings from the dead. The institution of the second sacrament, the Lord’s Supper, had also a symbolic, prophetic significance; so that the essence of the sacrament did not, in it, immediately come to life. The being born of water and Spirit, John 3:5, could then take place only very imperfectly. That the Holy Spirit, in His property as the regenerating principle, did not till after the glorification of Christ attain His true nature and full energy, so that He did not previously, as it were, exist, is expressly stated in John 7:39. And as yet also, there was not the true water. According to John 19:34, it flowed first with the blood from the wound in Jesus side. The spiritual water of the forgiveness of sins, which is bestowed in, with, and under the water of baptism, rests on the fact of the atonement accomplished by Christ. According to 1 John 5:6, Jesus came with water and blood; not with water only, but with water and blood, and the blood is the ground of the water. But, although the baptism which Jesus then allowed to be imported had not yet the full significance of the later baptism, since the institution of the proper and true baptism was not made by Christ until after His resurrection, Matthew 28:19, yet there is no ground for concluding, that those who were baptized during the earthly life of Jesus were afterwards baptized over again; but we must rather suppose that the baptism of water which had already, taken place received its spiritual supplement afterwards, and that it had the significance of a pledge of the sprinkling with the true water, and of the impartation of the Holy Ghost therewith connected. The repetition was the less allowable, since the germ-like commencements of the impartation of forgiveness and of the Spirit were already, during the earthly life of Christ, connected with the baptism imparted.
If the signification of this baptism of Christ is correctly apprehended, the question is at once answered, why John did not immediately cease to baptize, after Jesus had been baptized by him, or at least after Jesus had commenced to baptize with His disciples. The baptism of John was not essentially different from the baptism of the disciples of Christ. The latter also partook of its essentially prophetic character. When John designates himself as him who baptizes with water, and Christ as Him who baptizes with the Holy Ghost, John 1:33, cf. Matthew 3:11, he has not in view the baptism which Jesus then already allowed to be performed, but rather the baptism which was to be established by Him after He had proved Himself to be the Lamb of God, which taketh upon Him the sins of the world. Even the juxtaposition of the spiritual baptism of Jesus and the fiery baptism of the judgment, Matthew 3:11 (ver. 12 forms the commentary to καὶ? πυρὶ? , by which the reference to the judgment is clearly corroborated—the πυρὶ? is resumed in πυρὶ? ἀ?σβέστῳ? ), and Luke 3:16, indicate that we are not to think of the baptism which was performed by Jesus during His appearance in the form of a servant. The Saviour, in Acts 1:5, says to the disciples before His ascension, ὅ?τι Ἰ?ωάννης μὲ?ν ἐ?βάπτισεν ὕ?δατι , ὑ?μεῖ?ς δὲ? ἐ?ν πνεύματι βαπτισθήσεσθε ἁ?γίῳ? οὐ? μετὰ? πολλὰ?ς ταύτας ἡ?μέρας . According to this, the specifically Christian baptism, the baptism of the Spirit, was then still in the future. Up to this time there was only a baptism of water; and this being mentioned in connection with John, implies that the baptism which the Apostles had hitherto performed, had essentially the same character as that of John. An appeal might be made in favour of the contrary view to the fact of the second baptism of the disciples of John, in Acts 19:1 sq.; while, on the other hand, it has been remarked, that those who were baptized by the Apostles before the atoning death of Christ were not subjected to a second baptism. But the case mentioned is only an exceptional one, and concerns those who had received the baptism of John without recognising its deeper significance: cf. Bengel in loc. Apollos was not baptized again, nor were the Apostles.
With the question, Why did John continue to baptize?—which is the less justified, since John had not himself to determine the limits of his ministry, but to wait quietly until they were fixed by God—is connected another, “Why did he not himself enter the circle of Jesus disciples, instead of remaining without, so that Jesus could say, in Matthew 11:11, that the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he? “This question is grounded on false assumptions. John did become a disciple of Jesus, as is plainly evinced by ver. 29. Matthew 11:11 does not declare the contrary. It is not the least who are there spoken of, but the relatively less; and the reason why John occupies only a low position within the kingdom of God is not, that he did not follow Christ, but that the redemption was not made till after his departure, and that the possession of the highest gifts was conditioned by the atoning death of Christ. Cf. John 7:39; Acts 1:4-5; Acts 1:8.
The declaration here, that Jesus baptized, is more exactly defined by John 4:2; according to which, Christ did not baptize personally, but only through the medium of His disciples. The question, why Jesus did not Himself baptize, has been variously answered. The Berleburger Bibel says, “Christ would not have been ashamed to do it Himself, but He did not, because the people would have made comparisons and boastings out of it: Such an one baptized me with his own hand! as at Corinth such factions arose in this way, that even Paul was glad that he had not baptized many.” If the baptism at this time had essentially a typical significance, it was the more appropriate that it should be performed by the same ministry commissioned by Christ which was afterwards to administer the baptism typified. It is, however, of importance to note, that the baptism, administered by the Apostles is traced immediately to Christ. “It is of great service,” says Quesnel, “to present this truth to the mind at the distribution and reception of the sacraments, in order that the faith and reverence may be brought to them which are due.”
The Section John 3:22-36 serves to show the general object of the Gospel, to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and to lead to faith in Him, and thus to the possession of life in His name, John 20:31. It communicates the glorious testimony which the Baptist gave at the close of his course, to the disadvantage of his own honour, and in opposition to his disciples, who thought themselves bound to maintain this honour. This testimony had a special significance, a pretium affectionis for John, who had separated from his former master in order to become a follower of Jesus; and such a testimony impressed the last seal on his proceeding.
Ver. 23. “And John also was baptizing in Ænon, near to Salim, because there was much water there; and they came and were baptized.”
The position of Ænon and Salim is a matter of controversy. The following facts furnish a test of the different hypotheses. 1. Ænon is to be looked for on the hither side of the Jordan. This is evident from ver. 26. 2. Ænon was in Judea. For Jesus was staying in Judea, and the whole narrative shows that John was baptizing near to Him. His disciples have to do with a Jew in ver. 25. 3. Ænon must have been situated in a district where water was scarce; for only if this were the case would the abundance of water at Ænon have furnished a reason for John’s choosing this place. The words, ὅ?τι ὕ?δατα πολλὰ? ἦ?ν ἐ?κεῖ? , would be incomprehensible in the neighbourhood of the Jordan or the Sea of Gennesaret. There, ten other places might have been chosen just as well. If we take these tokens into view, we shall immediately give up the current hypothesis (Von Raumer, Palästina, S. 159), according to which Ænon was situated 8 mil. passumn southwards from Scythopolis, in the plain of the Jordan. The authority of the Onomasticon does not by any means suffice to support such a confusing and impossible supposition. According to this, Ænon was situated in Samaria, where the Baptist had nothing to do, and in the vicinity of the Jordan, where the abundance of water would lose all its significance.
The key to the explanation of our text is furnished by Joshua 15:32. The section, vers. 21-32, enumerates the cities in the southern portion of Judea. It is said in ver. 21, “And the uttermost cities of the tribe of the children of Judah, toward the coast of Edom southward.” The conclusion of the list of these cities is formed by Shilhim, and Ain, and Rimmon, in ver. 32. That these cities were situated at the end of the southern district, on the borders of the desert, is shown, in harmony with their names, by Zechariah 14:10: “All the land shall be turned as a plain, from Geba to Rimmon, south of Jerusalem.” That Geba was on the northern boundary of Judea is evident from the circumstance, that in 2 Kings 23:8, the whole extent of the kingdom of Judah is designated by the expression, “from Geba to Beersheba.” Rimmon in Zechariah corresponds to Beersheba here, as the most southern point. And in this region Rimmon may still be discovered. Von Raumer remarks in his 4th Edition, under the word Rimmon:
According to Velde, Mem. S. 344, now Um er Rummamim, between Eleutheropolis and Beersheba. There are springs in the vicinity.” The LXX., according to the Codex Alex., render the three names by Σελεεὶ?μ καὶ? Ἀ?ὶ?ν καὶ? Ρεμμών (cum καὶ? Ἀ?ὶ?ν charact. minore; Holmes). The two latter must have been closely connected from the beginning, and have afterwards become one place, to which the manner of writing in the Cod. Alex, probably refers. Even in Joshua 19:7, cf. 1 Chronicles 4:32, the copula is wanting, by which they are separated from each other in 15:32, Ain = Rimmon; in Nehemiah 11:29, the blending has become complete, for here we have En-Rimmon. It seems that our Ænon represents a further progress, and that this name is contracted from En-Rimmon. Cf. on such “purely accidental and gradual abbreviations of proper names,” Ewald, § 275, S. 591. Αἰ νών affords the last stage. If we thus refer to Joshua 15:32, the words, “because there was much water there,” have suddenly a great light thrown on them. The southern district was an arid country. Of what importance springs were there, is shown by Joshua 15:19. This is evident also from the circumstance, that the places are named from the water. This applies not merely to Ain, but also to שלחים . The name is manifestly connected with Siloa, שִ ׁ לֹ חַ? , emissio aquas, fons v. aquaductus, John 9:7. In aridity, remarks Ritter, Erdkunde 16, 1, 23, 28, the southern district forms the continuation of the Arabian Desert.
How came the Baptist into this region? The general answer might be given, that his task was to go through the whole country, for he was the preacher of repentance to the whole people. But there is an intimation in Matthew 4:12 which will not allow us to be content with this general answer. According to this passage, the Baptist was delivered up, παρεδόθη—he was betrayed to his peculiar enemy, which in the Scriptures Herod everywhere appears to have been—by others. That the Pharisees were the betrayers, we learn from John 4:1. According to this, John was at the time of his capture in another territory than that of Herod. His being there delivered up, presupposes that he had already previously done something by which he had drawn upon him the enmity of Herod, We learn what this was from Matthew 14:4. John must have had time to follow the example of his predecessor Elijah, of whom we read in 1 Kings 19:3, “And when he saw that, he arose and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which is in Judah.” Like his predecessor, he retired to the borders of the Arabian Desert, probably in order under certain circumstances to penetrate, like him, into the desert itself. That he did not again return to the theatre of his former ministry, is clear, not only from the παρεδόθη of Matthew, but also from John 10:40, according to which John did not baptize at Bethabara after his stay at Ænon, but only before it. We also expect from the declaration of the Baptist here in ver. 30, and from the words, πάντες ἔ?ρχονται πρὸ?ς αὐ τον , of his own disciples in ver. 26, that he will soon retire from public life. Everything here gives the impression, that we are on the eve of an impending catastrophe.
The Baptist had probably come first into this region; and his presence occasioned Jesus to go there, in order to be near to John, to give him an opportunity of hearing the voice of the Bridegroom, ver. 29, and an occasion for his last testimony concerning Him.
If the situation of Ænon is correctly determined, light is thus cast at the same time on the scene of the temptation of Christ, which, as we have already proved, must fall into the period designated in ver. 22. The southern district borders on the great Arabian Desert,
Von Raumer says, S. 176, under Beersheba, “Here, according to Robinson, the southern desert ends, and Palestine begins,”—in which the children of Israel were tempted, and Elijah, according to 1 Kings 19, of which we are always first to think, where “the wilderness” is spoken of, and to which especially the words, ἦ?ν μετὰ? τῶ?ν θηρίων , of Mark refer, particularly when compared with Deuteronomy 8:15 and Isaiah 30:6.
Ver. 24. “For John was not yet cast into prison.”
This remark presupposes that there was occasion for thinking otherwise, though there is none such in our Gospel. And regarding this fact merely, the remark is a very striking one. If John, according to ver. 23, was baptizing at Ænon, it was a matter of course that he was not yet cast into prison. The solution of the riddle is given in Matthew 4:12. From this it might appear that the commencement of the ministry of Jesus was conditioned by the delivering up of John. Matthew had omitted the earlier ministry of Jesus. John hints at this, by remarking, after the account of a contemporaneous ministry of Jesus and of John, that John was not yet cast into prison. By this is meant, that the events recorded in vers. 22-36 are to be placed before Matthew 4:12. It is of significance that John does not afterwards record the imprisonment of John, which shows also the connection of his Gospel with that of Matthew. John 4:1-3 are supplemented by Matthew 4:12, and are clear only when this connection is recognised.
A “correction of the synoptic tradition” is not to be mentioned. The words, ἀ?νεχώρησεν εἰ?ς τὴ?ν Γαλιλαίαν , in Matthew 4:12, in complete harmony with John, intimate an earlier ministry; for only in this case could Jesus have been obliged to return to Galilee, John 2:14, when, in consequence of His ministry, enmity and danger had arisen in Judea, which He wished to avoid. John 4:1-2, gives only the commentary and completion to the ἀ?νεχώρησε . The words, Ἀ?πὸ? τότε ἤ?ρξατο , in Matthew 4:17, refer to the commencement of the ministry on the new theatre—the Galilean activity, which, according to John also, did not begin till that time; for the few days which Jesus had previously spent in Galilee after His baptism, do not come into consideration. There is no trace of any public preaching or κηρύσσειν during that transient residence in Galilee. In Judea, Jesus certainly developed such an activity, John 2:13 to the end of ch. 3; but Matthew contents himself with intimating that he is aware of it. He had not yet at that time become an associate of Jesus; and the Galilean activity of Jesus had for him, on account of the prophecy of Isaiah at the head of it, an especial interest.
Ver. 25. “Then there arose a question on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purifying.
The οὖ?ν indicates that the discussion was occasioned by the nearness of the two baptisms. It is of significance that the discussion was started by the disciples of John. They evidently call a Jew (Ἰ?ουδαίου is the best authenticated reading, not Ἰ?ουδαίων ) to account, who gave the baptism of Christ the preference over that of their master, and was either coming from or going to it. Cf. ver. 26, where the sentence, ἴ?δε οὗ τος βαπτίζει καὶ? πάντες ἔ?ρχονται πρὸ?ς αὐ τόν , is the general statement which has just been proved by this particular case. “On account of purification “( John 2:6): whether it were to be sought in the baptism of Christ, ver. 22, or in the baptism of John, ver. 23.
Ver. 26. “And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all come to Him.”
It is difficult for them to yield up the honour of their master, and with it their own. Yet their opposition is not an absolutely fixed one; for they lay it before their Master that it may be removed, and seek help from him against their old man. If he is quite sure of his point they will submit; and it could scarcely have been a matter of doubt to them how he would declare himself; for they could not conceal from themselves that he had previously borne testimony to Jesus. The words, “and all come to Him,” are less in contradiction to those in ver. 32, “and no man receiveth His testimony,” than it might seem. Πάντες , as limited by the case itself, are all those in general, who wished to be baptized, but who, when compared with the great mass of the indifferent and hostile, formed only a vanishing minority.
Ver. 27. “John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.”
It is disputed whether this proposition refers merely to Christ or to John, or to both at the same time. But we must be content with John; for it can scarcely be doubted that ἄ?νθρωπος here is emphatic, containing in itself the ground of the axiom, and corresponding to” ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς in ver. 31, to which it stands in all the closer relation, because the “man of the earth” occurs in the original passage, Psalms 10:18. The use of ἄ?νθρωπος and the reference contained in it to his inferiority of position, who must be content with whatever lot is assigned to him, is explained also by Ecclesiastes 6:10: “That which he is, he hath long been named, and it is known that he is man: neither may he contend with Him that is mightier than he.” And the words, “given from heaven,” apply more appropriately to John than to Jesus, who, according to the following verses, comes from above, is God’s Son and representative on earth, and possesses what He has, not as a free gift, but as the emanation of His whole personality. We must therefore suppose, that in ver. 28 we have the application of the general proposition, as if it were said, “Because I am a mere man, I cannot be,” etc. It is not to be objected, that the jealous question of his disciples had quite prepared the Baptist to give an apology for Jesus; for the words of the disciples were indirectly a requisition on the Baptist to maintain his dignity against Jesus, and to fix the limits of his independent sphere towards that of Christ. Δύναται , is not the mere moral possibility, but λαμβάνειν , corresponding to the being given, designates a real receiving. A man may make many pretensions, but in fact he receives only that which is given him from above; and to strive after more than this, is a criminal and destructive undertaking.
Ver. 28. “Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him.”
As in John 1:6; John 1:33, so also here, an allusion is made to Malachi 3:1; cf. Matthew 11:10. That which in the original passage is said of the Lord, the Baptist refers to Christ, in harmony with the prophecy itself, in which He who is first called Adonai, is afterwards called the Angel of the covenant. “Behold, I send My messenger, and he prepares the way before Me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple; and the Covenant-Angel, whom ye desire, behold. He comes, saith Jehovah Sabaoth.” According to this, God the Lord will appear in the person of His heavenly messenger; which was fulfilled in the advent of Christ, in whom the Angel of the Lord, the λόγος , became flesh. With respect to ἐ?κείνου , the remark of Buttmann applies, on the use of the pronoun ἐ?κεῖ νος in the Fourth Gospel (Studien und Kritiken, 1860, S. 510): “But it is not always the case, that the two demonstrative pronouns are united in such an antithesis in one sentence; but it does occur, that ἐ?κεῖ νος stands alone. Then it is necessary that some other conception, whether it be a pronoun, or the subject contained in the verb, or the speaker himself, take as it were the place of the οὗ τος , from which the ἐ?κεῖ νος only distinguishes the other.” Thus οὗ τος is here concealed under ἐ?γώ .
Ver. 29. “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegrooms voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled.”
The words, ὁ? ἑ?στηκὼ?ς καὶ? ἀ?κούων αὐ τοῦ? , refute the current representation, that John avoided a closer relation to Christ; and show that, as would be a matter of course after his declaration, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh upon Him the sin of the world,” he eagerly received the intelligence of Christ’s words and deeds. It certainly seems, that in order to preserve his isolated position as forerunner, he did not enter into any closer personal intercourse with Jesus. But he maintained communion with Him by the medium of other persons,—of whom we must suppose the Apostle John before all to have been one, who had been pointed to Christ by the Baptist himself, and of whom it was to be expected that he would not break off the relation with his former master, but would avail himself of the proximity of the scenes of their respective ministries, to communicate to the old master out of the abundance of that which he had gained from the new. Coincident with the words, ὁ? ἑ?στηκὼ?ς καὶ? ἀ?κούων αὐ τοῦ? , is the fact, that this speech of the Baptist contains unmistakeable points of contact with Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus; which has been very incorrectly explained, by supposing a mingling in of the subjectivity of the Evangelist, or that he lent his thoughts and words to the Baptist. Cf. with the words, ὃ? οἴ δαμεν λαλοῦ μεν καὶ? ὃ? ἑ?ωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦ μεν , καὶ? τὴ?ν μαρτυρίαν ἡ?μῶ?ν οὐ? λαμβάνετε , in ver. 11, ver. 32 here; with ὁ? ἐ?κ τοῦ? οὐ ρανοῦ? καταβάς , in ver. 13, ὁ? ἐ?κ τοῦ? οὐ ρανοῦ? ἐ?ρχόμενος in ver. 31; with ver. 36, ὁ? πιστεύων εἰ?ς τὸ?ν υἱ?ὸ?ν ἔ?χει ζωὴ?ν αἰ ώνιον , ver. 15, ἵ?να πᾶ?ς ὁ? πιστεύων ἐ?ν αὐ τῷ? ἔ?χῃ? ζωὴ?ν αἰ ώνιον , and with the second part of this verse compare ver. 18. In the ἀ?κούων αὐ τοῦ? of the Baptist, we have an express declaration in what way this coincidence is to be explained. If we suppose that the Evangelist has ascribed his own words to the Baptist, it is not explained why the points of connection are almost all with that conversation with Nicodemus, of which the mind of the Apostle was just at this time particularly full. The disciples of the Baptist may be divided into two classes. It was a Divine appointment, that his heart was prepared by intercourse with the better part, when this temptation met him. The standing designates the passivity of the friend, who has nothing to do, but to hear and to rejoice.
With χαρᾷ? χαίρει compared שוש אשיש in Isaiah 61:10. The infinitive prefixed in Hebrew renders the verbal conception emphatic, Ewald, § 312; and the LXX. usually render it by the dative of the abstract noun derived from the verb. Joy is designated by χαρᾷ? χαίρει as the single feeling of the Baptist, in opposition to others which were expected by his disciples—joy, and only joy. The joy is fulfilled when it has reached its highest point, John 15:11, John 16:24; 1 John 1:4; 2 John 1:12. There is not here a placing together of figure and thing signified, so that the application would be given in the words αὓ τη οὖ?ν , etc.; but the bride is from the first Zion, the bridegroom Christ, the friend of the bridegroom John. It is not said, Such joy, or an equal joy, is now granted me; but, This my joy is now fulfilled; and accordingly, even in what precedes, John must have been he who rejoices on account of the voice of the bridegroom. The words, from ὁ? ἔ?χων to νυμφίου , represent the relation in general; and the words, αὕ τη , etc., declare that that which respects the position of John towards Christ has now just attained its complete realization, and lead to the conclusion, that his knowledge of Christ had immediately before received an accession, namely, by the communications of the Apostle John, and from what he had otherwise learned of Christ, in consequence of the close contact of their respective circles of influence.
There can be no doubt that this declaration of John is based on the spiritual interpretation of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs, which Josephus reckons without hesitation among the prophetical writings, is, together with the connected forty-fifth Psalm (cf. my Comm. ii. p. 118), the only part of the Old Testament in which the relation of Christ to the Church is represented under the figure of the relation of the bridegroom to the bride: the bride, כלה , in Song of Solomon 4:8-12; Song of Solomon 5:1. We are led to the Song of Songs especially by the mention of the voice of the bridegroom: cf. Song of Solomon 2:8, “The voice of my beloved”—what the voice of the bridegroom says, is recorded in vers. 10-14, after his appearance has been more exactly described—and ver. 2, “It is the voice of my beloved that knocketh; Open to me, my friend.” According to this passage, the voice of the bridegroom is to be considered as addressed to the bride. The voice of the bridegroom here is not to be traced to Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 16:9; Jeremiah 25:10; Jeremiah 33:11. For there the voice of the bridegroom and the bride are inseparable, and both together designate the nuptial joy. From the Song of Songs also, John 5:1, was derived the friend of the bridegroom; for here the bridegroom addresses the friends, רעים . They are invited to participate in the loving intercourse between the bridegroom and the bride. This is a far more real reference than that to the Jewish Shoseben [= paranymph, companion], who had other things to do than to stand and hear the bridegroom’s voice. In Song of Solomon 5:1, the same passage on which Revelation 3:20 also is based, we have all together—the bride, the voice of the bridegroom, and the friend. Only the strongest prejudice will after these details be able to deny the reference to the Song of Songs, in which Matthew 9:15; Matthew 25:1 sq.; Revelation 21:2; Revelation 21:9; Revelation 22:17, coincide with our text.
Ver. 30. “He must increase, but I decrease.”
The more the glory of Christ was revealed, the more also the inferiority of John. This was not, however, to him, as to his disciples (Berleb. Bibel: “This becoming of less account oppressed them, foe they thought it might involve them also. Such lofty notions lodge in our minds”), a cause of sorrow, but of joy; for his Saviour’s honour was to him of much greater importance than his own. As to the expression, compare 2 Samuel 3:1, “But the house of David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.” The must is founded on the Divine counsel, as revealed in the prophecies of the Old Testament. Cf. remarks on John 3:14. The Baptist has especially Isaiah 52:13 in view: “Behold, My servant shall—be exalted and extolled, and be very high.”
Vers. 31, 32. “He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: He that cometh from heaven is above all. And what He hath seen and heard, that He testifieth; and no man receiveth His testimony.”
The words, Ὁ? ἄ?νωθεν ἐ?ρχόμενος , do not designate a mission received from above—this the Baptist also had—but the possession of Divine nature. Cf. ὁ? ἐ?κ τοῦ? οὐ ρανοῦ? καταβάς , ver. 13; ὁ? λόγος σὰ ρξ ἐ?γένετο , John 1:14; and ὁ? κύριος ἐ?ξ οὐ ρανοῦ? , 1 Corinthians 15:47. On the words, that is of the earth, the Berleb. Bibel says, “And not of heaven, but a natural child of Adam like me.” It has been incorrectly remarked, “ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς , the first time, designates the origin or derivation; the second and third times, it determines the manner of existence and of speaking.” The words, ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς , designate rather the immutability of the existence: he is and remains of the earth; and neither he himself, nor the wish of his followers, has power to alter the case. Entirely correspondent is ὁ? ἔ?χων τὴ?ν νύμφην , νυμφίος ἐ?στί , who is and remains the bridegroom. And Isaiah 7:8-9, “For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin
And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son,”—he is and remains so. There is here an opposition to vers. 5, 6, where the king of Syria and Ephraim had expressed the purpose of extending their dominion over Judah. The thoughts of men rise in vain against that existence which is ordained by the Lord. The expression, ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς , is from Psalms 10:18, “The man (cf. ver. 27, here) of the earth will no more oppress thee;” on which it was remarked in my commentary: אנוש has the subordinate ideas of feebleness and weakness, which is still more plainly noted by the addition, of the earth; q.d., he who is sprung from the earth, who belongs to it—the man of the earth as opposed to the God of heaven.”
The antithesis to Ὁ? ἄ?νωθεν ἐ?ρχόμενος ἐ?πάνω πάντων ἐ?στί is formed chiefly by ὁ? ὢ?ν ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς ἐ?στι . But the words which are added as an inference, καὶ? ἐ?κ τῆ?ς γῆ?ς λαλεῖ? , call forth another antithesis, in which the words ἐ?πάνω πάντων ἐ?στί receive their more exact definition from what follows; that is. He is above all in so far as He testifies what He has heard and seen.
The Baptist also spoke not merely of the earth, he had higher aspirations; but his was only a partial and fragmentary knowledge and prophecy, 1 Corinthians 13:9; and notwithstanding these flashes of light, he remained on the whole bound to the earth in what he spoke. That in the main he belonged to this in his being and speaking, explains the fact of his later momentary perplexity with reference to Christ, Matthew 11. John also testified in a certain sense what he had heard and seen; his testimony of Christ had not been revealed to him by flesh and blood, but by the Father in heaven; but in the highest and fullest sense, there is only One who testifies what He has heard and seen—only One in whom this testifying is a well whose waters do not deceive—only the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father. Cf. on John 1:18. Participation in the Godhead, and the coming from heaven, is the necessary basis of such, true seeing, and hearing, and testifying. Out of connection with Him, all human witnesses are blind and dumb, even if here and there they catch a glimpse or a word.
The words, “and no man receiveth His testimony,” form a strange and painful contrast to the preceding. The only true testimony, and no one receives it! All men from the first to the last, ought to throng towards it; and in view of this fact, the small number vanishes of those who do really receive it. There is here an antithesis to the words of the disciples of the Baptist, καὶ? πάντες ἔ?ρχονται πρὸ?ς αὐ τὸ?ν . That which seems so much to the disciples, is in truth an inconceivably small proportion; which can be explained only by the fact, that the thoughts and intents of the heart of man are evil from his youth up. The words have, however, a still more personal reference to the disciples, as the Berleburger Bibel says: “This is seen also in you. For, though you belong to the better class in comparison with others, yet think how you have allowed yourselves to be prejudiced.”
Several commentators, who were (unfortunately) preceded by Bengel, have assumed that from ver. 31 the Evangelist continues the discourse. Others have supposed that with the words of the Baptist are mingled, in a now no longer exactly distinguishable manner, the partly explanatory and partly amplifying reflections of the Evangelist. The ground, however, on which they support these hypotheses has been already removed in the remarks on ver. 29. Besides the authority of the Apostle, who ascribes all to the Baptist, and who represents him as speaking in the Present tense in vers. 32, 34, 35, it is positively against these views, that the discourse with which the Baptist retires from the stage and completes his testimony, makes an unsatisfactory impression without the necessary practical conclusion of an appeal to the consciences of his disciples, not less than the discourse of Christ to Nicodemus becomes a limbless trunk, if we suppose the Evangelist to speak from ver. 16. If we recognise that the Baptist had gone to school to his disciple, every ground is removed from such untenable assumptions.
Ver. 33. “He who receives His testimony, sets to his seal that God is true.”
That which the Baptist here says, is not spoken merely in general; but all is here, as in the conclusion of the conversation with Nicodemus, which is echoed here throughout, applied to the heart, and admonishes the disciples that they should relinquish the wrong position which they had assumed towards Christ. A thing is sealed in common life for two objects: either to render it inaccessible and to place it under seal, Matthew 27:66, or to confirm it. And thus there is in Scripture a double figurative and symbolical use of sealing. On the latter application of the seal, which alone can be regarded here, rest, e.g., the following passages: John 6:27; Revelation 7:2; Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 9:2; 2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:13.
In how far he who receives the testimony of Christ confirms that God is true, is declared in what follows, viz., because God is revealed in Christ, and speaks through Him. Bengel correctly says, “Cujus verbum est Messiae verbum,” John 12:44-45. According to this, he who makes Christ a liar makes God one also, who speaks through Him, 1 John 5:10. The disciples must be on their guard against such a great sin as this. Contrary to the connection with ver. 34, Olshausen says, “That God is true, performs all His promises, quiets all longing.”
Ver. 34. “For He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure.”— ἀ?πέστειλεν is to be considered as emphatic. It refers to the Old Testament passages concerning the מלאך יהוה . The words, from He whom to of God, do not offer a general proposition; for, thus rendered, they would not be suited to limit the sphere of Christ towards that of the Baptist, who was also sent from God; but they are equivalent to, This person whom God hath sent. Cf. ver. 17. If this is recognised, we are then justified in referring the words, οὐ? γὰ?ρ ἐ?κ μέτρου , κ .τ .λ ., likewise to the present case, without supposing an omission of the pronoun.
John proves that Christ speaks the words of God, or is His Revealer, by the fact, of which he had been personally assured by the appearance at the baptism: he had seen that at the baptism the Spirit descended and abode on Christ, John 1:33. As in John 1:34 he draws the conclusion from this fact, that Christ is the Son of God, so here, that He speaks the words of God. He does not, however, refer to that fact as in the past; but, on the ground of it, speaks rather of a continued relation—for God gives in the present case. ἐ?κ μέτρου is to be considered so that the measure forms the point of issue. All others receive the Spirit only by measure, Romans 12:3 sq. He who does not receive the Spirit by measure, is therefore raised above the grade of created beings; for to have the Spirit without measure is a Divine prerogative.
Ver. 35. “The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hand.”
Augustine: “The Father loveth the Son, but as a father loves a son, not as a master his servant—as the only begotten, not the adopted son. What is meant by all things? That the Son is as great as the Father.” On the words, “The Father loveth the Son,” the Berleb. Bibel remarks, “As I sufficiently learned from the voice at the Jordan”
Matthew 3:17, Οὗ τός ἐ?στιν ὁ? υἱ ός μου ὁ? ἀ?γαπητός . The love of the Father to the Son has for its immediate consequence the declarations: “Kiss the Son,” Psalms 2; and, “Woe to the people that despiseth Thee.” How must the disciples of John have been ashamed in view of the fact, that other affections had taken the place of love to Christ!
That all things is to be taken in the strictest sense, is shown by the parallel passages: John 13:3; Matthew 11:27; Matthew 28:18, Ἐ?δόθη μοι πᾶ σα ἐ?ξουσία ἐ?ν οὐ ρανῷ? καὶ? ἐ?πὶ? τῆ?ς γῆ?ς ; 1 Corinthians 15:27; Revelation 1:18; and even by ver. 36, where, included under all things, the highest of all powers—the decision concerning salvation and condemnation—is especially ascribed to Christ. A limitation is the less admissible, since the proposition, in its unrestricted sense, is a direct result of the Sonship of God—the coming of Jesus from above, ver. 31, from heaven, which is the same as participation in the Godhead. These words, “and hath given all things into His hand,” had an express reference to the disciples of John. How terrible is it to set ourselves in opposition to Him who has all things in His hand, who can deprive us of all good, and at last of eternal life, and can bring upon us all evil, and at last “enduring wrath”! Must he not be an enemy to his own welfare, who does not make it the chief end of his life to enter into, and abide in communion with Him?
Ver. 36. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that is not obedient to the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
This was the word with which the Baptist dismissed his disciples. We may hope that the result was the same as in the case of Nicodemus. Like the latter, they are silent, and lay their hand upon their mouth: “Once have I spoken, but I will not answer.”
The opposite to faith is unbelief; but the latter is here designated as criminal disobedience: cf. Acts 14:2; Romans 11:30. The Son of God, as such, cannot do otherwise than demand faith; and woe to him who is not obedient to such demand.—“The wrath of God abideth on him.” This flows directly from the declaration that the Father loves the Son; for the love of the Father to the Son must take the form of unquenchable wrath towards those who despise the Son. The Berleb. Bibel, with many other expositors, gives the incorrect explanation: “The wrath of God abides on him, since it is by nature already upon him: no new condemnation is needed, for the old is sufficient, into which he has fallen in and with Adam, and is therefore by nature under wrath.” The thought is not, that the wrath which has already rested upon him, remains; but, that the wrath which he draws upon himself by disobedience to the Son has an abiding character. We are therefore not to read the Future, μένει . The preceding ὄ?ψεται is quite sufficient to determine the time. The abiding wrath here corresponds to eternal life, and is the unquenchable fire in Matthew 3:12. The wrath, and the corresponding fire, pertain, according to the Baptist, in Matthew 3:1-12, to the future, the day of judgment; cf. especially ver. 7 ( 1 Thessalonians 1:10). Even in the Old Testament passage, Psalms 2:12, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry,” the wrath proceeds from the relation to the Son. To the abiding wrath here, corresponds ἡ? ὀ?ργὴ? εἰ?ς τέλος in 1 Thessalonians 2:16. We have the representation of such an abiding wrath in Isaiah 34:10: “It (the fire) shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever: from generation to generation the land shall lie waste.” A contrast to the wrath which, after it has once commenced, abides for ever. is formed by the transient anger in the Book of Wisdom, Wis_16:5 , where, with respect to the judgment of the serpents in the wilderness, it is said, οὐ? μέχρι τέλους ἔ?μεινεν ἡ? ὀ?ργή σου : cf. also ch. Wis_18:20 of the same book, where, with respect to the judgment averted by Phinehas, it is said, ἀ?λλʼ? οὐ?κ ἐ?πὶ? πολὺ? ἔ?μεινεν ἡ? ὀ?ργή . Contrary to the ὄ?ψεται and the parallel passages, De Wette remarks, “It is not a future, but an immediate punishment, beginning with the unbelief, and without doubt internal, consisting of the inward discord of the soul which is not at peace with God.” Olshausen was of opinion that the absolute permanence is expressed only conditionally, in case the disobedience did not cease. But it is not the sense of the Scripture that man can persevere in this disobedience as long as he pleases, and then suddenly bring it to a termination. There comes a decisive moment when the man has definitively fallen into disobedience, as is shown by the Scripture doctrine of the sin against the Holy Ghost. Since this may be at any moment, man is threatened at every instant by the danger of falling under the abiding wrath of God.
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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on John 3". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany