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And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: and both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage. And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it. And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece. Jesus saith unto them, Fill the waterpots with water. And they filled them up to the brim. And he saith unto them, Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast. And they bare it. When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and knew not whence it was: (but the servants which drew the water knew;) the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, and saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now. This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.
Throughout John’s gospel the word translated “miracles” means signs. There are only eight mentioned in this gospel. Each one is for a very specific purpose, as when, for instance, Jesus healed the palsied man by the pool of Bethesda. We see in Him the One who has almighty strength, able to impart power to those who have none of their own. And here in this first sign recorded in the gospel, the Lord Jesus is seen in a very definite character. He comes before us as the Creator of all things. John has already told us that doctrinally, when he said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (1:1-3). But now in this sign, we have a visible manifestation of this: the putting forth of His creatorial power so that He does in one moment of time what ordinarily is done in weeks and months.
Notice the occasion of the miracle. “The third day [after the calling of Nathanael] there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee;…and both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage” (2:1-2). In John 21:2 we read that Nathanael was of Cana of Galilee. So evidently, in the course of their journey up to Judea, they stopped at Nathanael’s hometown, where this wedding took place. Some have supposed that it was the marriage of Nathanael himself, but there is no proof of this. The names of the bride and groom are not given in the Word. The important thing is that we have the blessed Lord’s approval of that intimate relationship, which is so often dishonored today. It carries our minds back to the time when, at the dawn of history, God gave our first parents each to the other: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they [twain] shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). It was God who instituted the marriage relationship, and we have Christ blessing and sanctifying it.
Alas, that in our day marriage should often be so degraded through the willfulness and wickedness of men and women! How careful we as Christians should be to recognize its sanctity! Take the terrible evil of divorce, increasing on every hand these days. Surely it is something that a Christian ought to have a conscience about. Of course, there are cases where no self-respecting woman could continue to live with a certain type of man, but Scripture tells us that if people must be separated, they are not to be remarried to someone else, unless that divorce was because of infidelity on the part of the other party. In such a case our Lord Jesus Christ has said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, except it be for fornication, committeth adultery against her” (see Matthew 5:31-32; Matthew 19:9Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11). We recognize the exception that He has made, but outside of that we do not find any other ground for the remarriage of divorced people. Things are in such a confused state today, and oh, the terrible effect of divorce upon children!
So I take it here that the Lord Jesus was putting His approval upon marriage when He accepted the invitation to attend the wedding. The mother of Jesus was present. That would suggest that she was well acquainted with the family. In fact, she seems to have had a certain measure of responsibility. (Might I digress again to say that it is a delightful thing at any marriage if Jesus and His disciples are called to attend it. It is a pitiful thing if people cannot invite Jesus. How precious it is to have the fellowship of those who love Christ, as one enters upon this relationship!)
But now we consider the occasion of this miracle, and, first, we will notice the conversation between Jesus and His mother. We read, “When they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come. His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (vv. 3-5).
Wine is, in Scripture, where rightly and wisely used, the symbol of joy. We read of “wine, which cheereth God and man” (Judges 9:13). The fact that the wine was giving out at a marriage feast suggests that Israel had so far departed from God that her joy had disappeared in large measure. Nothing much remained but empty forms and ceremonies, as pictured by the empty water pots. But the Christ of God was there, and His mother felt instinctively that He could do something to remedy the situation. Naturally the bride’s mother would be put to confusion by the scant supply of refreshment, and the guests would wonder at the lack of proper preparation. Mary was, in all probability, an intimate acquaintance, if not actually a relative. She was a resourceful woman and, as such, felt that a word to her Son would be all that was necessary. How much maternal pride may have been mixed with this, we do not know. But she evidently longed to see Jesus give some manifestation of His power, and so cause others to realize something of His mysterious divine-human personality.
So, we are told she turned to her Son and said, “They have no wine.” She did not actually request Him to do something about it. She carried in her bosom a secret that other people never would have understood. She had been waiting for the time when this wonderful Being, whom she had carried beneath her heart as a babe, should manifest Himself as indeed the Son of God, and it is very likely that she saw here an opportunity for Him to do this. But Jesus turned to her and said, “Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.”
Some people have thought that the Lord spoke a little bit roughly, but we may be sure He never did that. We may be quite certain that He never said one thing to her that the most dutiful son might not have said. What He did say loses a little by our translation. We distinguish between “lady” and “woman.” Lady, at one time, was simply the wife of a lord or knight. The word woman in our day has come to seem a little less respectful than the word lady, and so we think of the Lord saying, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” as though He were reproaching His mother. The term He really used was one that any woman might glory in. He said to her, “My lady, what have I to do with thee?” or really, “What is there between thee and Me?” That is, “What is it that you would have of Me? What is the thing that you have in your heart?”
Then He adds, “Mine hour is not yet come.” All through this gospel He has before Him this “hour.” He had human brothers. One time His brothers wanted Him to go up to the feast, but Jesus said to them, “[Mine hour has] not yet come, but your time is always ready” (John 7:6). And we read in the eighth chapter of this gospel, “These words spake Jesus in the treasury, as he taught in the temple: and no man laid hands on him; for his hour was not yet come” (8:20). And again, “Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things” (8:28). They were going to lift Him up, but the hour had not yet come.
Then in John 12:0 when the Greeks came, saying, “We would see Jesus” (v. 21), He answered saying, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (v. 23). He recognized in their coming to Him the beginning of the hour when His glory was to be manifested following His crucifixion. In chapter 13 when He was about to wash His disciples’ feet, we read, “Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father” (v. 1). And in chapter 17 where He spoke to the Father, we read, “These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee” (v. 1). It was the hour when He was to go to the cross; when He was to bear the sin of the world; the hour when He was to be raised up upon the tree, and following that God was to raise Him from the dead and glorify Him openly.
This was not His hour, and when His own dear mother tried to press Him to act ahead of time, as it were, He says, “What is there between thee and me? mine hour is not yet come.” It is very evident that His mother, knowing His heart, was not in the least disturbed over His answer to her. She turns to the servants and says to them, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.” Here may I point out to those who pray to the blessed Virgin and ask her to intercede for them, that her own Son did not immediately answer the petition she asked of Him. Mary said to the servants, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.” In other words, the mother of Jesus turns us away from herself to her blessed Son, Jesus Christ.
We read, “And there were set there six waterpots of stone, after the manner of the purifying of the Jews, containing two or three firkins apiece” (2:6). That is, they held about a barrel of water each. They had to do with Jewish ceremonial cleansings. They were connected with outward purification. They were all empty, like the forms and ceremonies of the law. But the Lord Jesus turns to the servants and says, “Fill the waterpots with water.” In obedience to His word they fill them to the brim. We can see a picture here of the living water of the truth of the gospel poured into the typical ceremonies of old. Everything is changed when the water pots were filled with water. Jesus said unto them, “Draw out now, and bear unto the governor of the feast” (v. 8). And as they poured the water out, lo, and behold, in the very act of pouring out, it became wine! It was a wonderful miracle, and yet, after all, it was just a duplication of what our Lord Jesus Christ has been doing for millenniums on ten thousand hillsides, changing water into wine. When this wine was brought to the ruler of the feast, he tasted it and exclaimed, “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (v. 10). God always reserves the best for the end of the feast.
The only comment the Holy Spirit makes on this sign is in verse 11, “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.” That might well be linked up with 1:14. There we read that our Lord Jesus Himself “was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The word dwelt is really “tabernacled” among us, “And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” That verse gives us the key to all the wonderful symbolism of the tabernacle in the wilderness. It was a house of curtains, and inside, in the holiest of all between the cherubim, a glorious Light was shining, which was the visible manifest presence of God. The people could not see the glory. But if you can imagine, for a moment, the curtains parting and the brilliant light revealed between those golden boards, it would be the glory shining out. Well, that is what we have here in the miracles of Jesus. It was like drawing back the curtains of the earthly tabernacle to expose the Shechinah, for “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
So this first miracle shows Him as the Creator, the One who upholds all things through His power, the One who provides for us everything that we need. The wonderful thing is this, that this great Creator became our Savior. He was always God from eternity. He, by whom all things came into existence, came down into this world to suffer for our sins that we might be saved and have everlasting life.
One word could have filled those water pots if it had been His will. It took more than a word to save our souls. It took the work of the cross. But because of that work, one word “believe” brings life and peace. “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart” (Psalms 95:7-8). “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9).
After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples: and they continued there not many days. And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: and when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; and said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise. And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up. Then answered the Jews and said unto him, What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.
Following the baptism of our Lord, He went out into the wilderness where, as we learn from the other Gospels, He was tempted of the Devil. Then He returned to Judea and began a slow progress toward Galilee. We have already followed Him in the calling of His earliest disciples and considered His presence and His action at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. Now the Lord went on from Cana to Capernaum. Capernaum is called elsewhere “his own city.” It was not His own birthplace, we know. Neither was it the city in which He had lived as a child and young man, but it was the city that He chose as a residence as He began His ministry. Of course, He was not there very much, and He could say, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He was seldom at home, but if He had a home at all, it was Capernaum. Capernaum, therefore, was one of the most privileged of the Galilean cities. There He often appeared in the synagogue.
I cannot express the emotion that overwhelmed several of us as we stood in the recently excavated synagogue in Capernaum and realized we were standing, in all probability, on the very stones where His feet once stood. As we looked down from that raised platform, we could imagine the healing of the withered arm and the deliverance of the poor woman who had been so crippled that her body was bent together for so many years. We remembered that it was there that He delivered His great discourse-“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). We could look down to the seashore and we knew that there Matthew once had his office as collector of customs, and we noticed the road going by and thought of the Lord Jesus as He raised the daughter of Jairus, after healing the woman who pressed her way through the crowd, crying in faith, “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole” (Matthew 9:20-21).
Capernaum, blessed above all places on earth, for Jesus chose it as His home. There He taught and did His works of power, but, alas, it was of this very city that later on He said, “Thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell” (Matthew 11:23)- the city so privileged! Do you know, that very city was blotted out of existence? For centuries no one knew where it stood, until in recent years it was excavated from under a mound of sand. Surely Capernaum’s fate should be a solemn warning for us today. The greater our privileges, the greater our responsibility. If God has, in loving-kindness, permitted us to live in a country where Bibles are found on every hand, and yet we turn a deaf ear to His proclamation and despise His Word, how dreadful it will be, some day, to face Him in the judgment whom we have rejected while on earth. God grant that the lesson of Capernaum may sink deeply into the heart!
He went down to Capernaum and with His mother and brethren and disciples continued there a short time, and then He started south again to manifest Himself at Jerusalem. The Jews’ Passover was at hand. In the Old Testament the Passover is called the Passover of the Lord, but wherever you turn in the New Testament you find it called the Jews’ Passover, as we also read of the Jews’ feast of the tabernacles. Why the change? Why are they not called “feasts of the Lord”? Why are they designated “feasts of the Jews”? Because the Jews had turned away from the Lord, and the keeping of these feasts had become mere formality, so that the Lord no longer owns them as His. Let us be warned by this of the danger to which we are all exposed of putting outward observances in the place of spiritual realities.
The Jews’ feast of the Passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. When He reached the temple He was shocked to see business going on in its courts as though it were a worldly market or counting-house. What had, perhaps, begun innocently enough as an accommodation to supply lambs for visiting Passover guests and the exchanging of money for those from distant lands, had degenerated into a feverish effort to make merchandise of what was needed in order to observe the sacrificial service connected with the Passover. Covetous-ness and overreaching prevailed to such an extent that God was dishonored and the temple scandalized. There was the bleating of sheep and the cooing of doves disturbing the worship of the Lord, and these who offered them for sale thought only of enriching themselves. They were commercializing the things of God, and that is always repugnant in His sight. So Jesus asserted Himself as the Lord of the temple. We read in Malachi, “And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1) and shall purify it.
He appeared suddenly before the people with a whip of small cords and began to drive out the sheep and the oxen. He said, “Make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise” (v. 16). Since then, how much there has been of the commercializing of the things of the church of God. Whatever the Lord gives, He gives freely, and what His servants have to offer in the way of ministry to needy souls should be offered just as freely. We bring our gifts out of the appreciation and gratitude of our hearts. What we do for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ should be done because we want to do it.
It must have seemed strange to see Jesus with this whip of cords, crying aloud, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Notice the tone of authority. It is, “my Father’s house,” and “my house.” He was the Lord of the temple, because He was Lord over all. The disciples remembered that it was written, “The zeal of thine house hath [consumed] me” (v. 17; see also Psalms 69:9). How well that applied to Him!
The Jews began to object, and asked, “What sign showest thou?” (v. 18). They challenged Him to work some miracle in order to attest His authority, to do something marvelous in order to accredit Himself. But He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). It was as though He said, “You want a sign that I am the Son of God, that I am the One promised of the Father-you shall have a sign. In God’s due time, destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They did not understand and turned angrily upon Him, saying, “This temple was forty-and-six years in building, and would you raise it up in three days after it was destroyed!” He meant the temple of His body. But He did not explain. It was of no use to do so. Men get into such a state that there is no use trying to make clear spiritual realities to them.
So our Lord had nothing to say to them. They had chosen their own way, and He did not attempt to explain the mystery of His words. But when He had risen from the dead, His disciples believed Him. We may consider those words today, and we can see the meaning. “Destroy this temple.” What was the temple? It was the building, as originally constructed, in which Jehovah manifested His presence. There in the holiest of all was that uncreated light, the Shechinah glory. That was the visible manifested presence of God on earth. The temple simply hid that glory from the eyes of the multitude outside. The high priest entered the holiest of all once every year. And so the Lord Jesus Christ’s body, when He came into this scene, was the real temple of God. His body answers to the outer court, His soul to the holy place, and His spirit to the holy of holies. God was manifest in Christ. God Himself dwelt in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, for He was God and Man in one person. He spoke of the temple of His body, for God and Man were there in one person. So He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Notice, “I will raise it up.” In other words, He was to die, but He died in perfect confidence that He would rise. Have you noticed how the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is attributed to each person of the blessed Trinity? In another place He says, “No man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (19:18). He laid down His life, and He took His life again. He raised up the temple. But elsewhere we read that He was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, and then we are told that the Holy Spirit raised up Jesus, our Lord, from the dead. Each person of the Godhead had His part in the resurrection of Jesus. And now He has been declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead. Apart from this we should have no gospel to preach to a lost world.
But Christ is risen, and we are told that, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10).
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 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 that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 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? 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. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. 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 present section begins properly with the last three verses of chapter 2. We read, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (v. 23). A faith that rests upon miracles is not a saving faith. A faith that rests upon signs and wonders does not bring salvation to anyone. That is why it is not worth while for us to debate with unbelievers about their objections to the inspiration of the Bible. Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). We are told, “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). God gives miracles to authenticate the Word, but faith must rest on something far better than miracles.
Here were people waiting for the Messiah to come, and they said, “Well, now, if Messiah came, could He do any more miracles than Jesus did? He must be the One of whom the prophets have spoken.” In that sense they believed that He was Messiah, but they did not confess that they were guilty souls needing salvation and they did not see in Jesus the Savior whom they needed. They believed in His name when they saw the miracles, but the rest of the verse says that Jesus did not commit Himself to them. The words commit and believe are really just the same in the original. We might read it, “Many believed in His name, but Jesus did not believe in them.” He did not trust His interests to them, because He knew they were not genuine. He knew what was in man and needed not that any should testify of man. He knew the wickedness and unreliability of the human heart.
You and I like to make out a good case for ourselves. Scripture shows how little we have to boast of, if we would be honest with God. When we think of the eyes of His Son looking down into our hearts, what corruption, lusts, perversity, dishonesty He finds there! “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Because Jesus was God manifest in the flesh, He knew what was in man. He is as truly omniscient as the Father. He knows what is in you and me, and yet, knowing it all, He loved us and gave Himself for us. But He does not trust us or rely upon these wicked hearts of ours. He knows that we cannot be depended upon. We are lost and ruined and undone. What we need, therefore, is a new life. We need to be born again, and that is the new life He gives us.
There is a little Greek word that has been dropped out in our English translation here. It sometimes is translated “and,” though more generally, “but.” It is the same word used in the beginning of verse 24 of chapter 2. So, if we put it in its right place at the beginning of verse 1 of chapter 3, we read, “[But] there was a man of the Pharisees.” The Spirit of God thus puts this man in contrast with the people of verses 23-25. Here is a man whom Jesus recognizes as sterlingly honest in seeking after truth. Whenever our Lord finds a man who is really in earnest, He will see that that man will get the truth. You ask, “Well, what about the heathen who have never heard? Will God condemn them to everlasting judgment for not believing in a Savior of whom they have never heard?” No, of course not. But what He will do is this: He will condemn the heathen for all the sins of which they have not repented, but He will see that every repentant soul gets light enough to be saved. He will not let a man be lost if he is seeking for the truth.
So here is Nicodemus, an honest seeker, and Jesus treats him as such. “There was a man of the Pharisees [the most religious group in Jerusalem], named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” But this man, now face to face with the Christ of God, finds out he has a tremendous lack. A great many people are like Nicodemus. They are good folk, they reverence spiritual things, and yet there are many who have not confessed their sins before God and know not the second birth. Have you not often said, in the words of Tennyson. “Oh, for a man to arise in me, that the man that I am might cease to be?” You are dissatisfied with yourself, yet you have never turned to Christ that you may be born again. Let us follow our Lord Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Let us listen as though we had never heard it before.
Here is Nicodemus. “The same came to Jesus by night” (v. 2a). I am not going to scold him for that. Some preachers do. I see no evidence of cowardice there. He does not act like a coward. I think Jesus was busy all day long, and Nicodemus says, “I would like to have a close-up talk with that man, and I cannot do it in a crowd. Perhaps if I ask Peter or James or John where He lives, I can have a private interview.” And so he arranges to see and talk with Him at night after the Lord has withdrawn from the throngs. All honor to Nicodemus that he was interested enough to go. I am not going to find fault with him because he went by night.
Nicodemus began by saying, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him-” (v. 2b). This was not the end of the sentence. The Savior interrupted him, and declared, “Verily, verily [truly, truly; amen, amen], I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3). “Born again,” or “born from above”? After all, I think the emphasis is on the newness of it. That which made the impression on Nicodemus was not so much “born from above,” but being born for the second time, “born again. “Jesus was saying, as it were, “It does not help to say nice things, Nicodemus. You need more than a teacher, you need a Savior-One who can give you a new life. You need a second birth!” “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
There is a widespread notion today that men may be educated into Christianity. Religious Education is one of the greatest abominations of the present day. The idea is that you can take a child and instruct him along the lines of the Christian philosophy and thus educate him into salvation. I do not object to the term Christian Education. I believe that is a right and proper thing. It is right and proper to instruct the Christian along Christian lines. But Religious Education that simply tries to make people Christians by educating them into it will, I believe, be the means of making tens of thousands of hypocrites instead of making them Christians. “Ye must be born again.” There must be the communication of a new life.
Nicodemus said, “But I don’t understand it. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he go through the whole process of nature again? Why, that seems absurd. Just imagine! Can I go back and be born of my mother again?” And Jesus says to him, “Nicodemus, listen to Me. It would not make any difference if you could. You would be no better off the next time than you were before. The natural birth does not count. It must be a spiritual birth.” “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again” (vv. 5-7). What weighty words are these! First the Savior says, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” What did He mean?
I know that there are those who tell us that to be born of water means to be born of baptism. But no one ever received the new life by water baptism. You can search your Bible in vain for anything like that. It is not there. It is not in the Word of God. Nowhere is baptism in Scripture likened to birth. It rather speaks of death. We are buried with Him by baptism into death. Water baptism is the picture of the burial of the old man, not a picture of a second birth.
Well, then, what is the water by which we are born again? Go through the Word of God. Nowhere do we find people being born of literal water. Trace “water” through John’s writings. You will find that it is the recognized symbol for the Word of God. David asked the question in Psalms 119:9, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.” And in the fourth chapter of John, Jesus, speaking to the woman of Samaria, said, “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (4:14). What is the water that Jesus gives? It is the water of the Word. It is the testimony of the gospel. “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country” (Proverbs 25:25). “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).
What is the water of life? It is the gospel message. We read in Ephesians 5:25-27, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” And Jesus says to His disciples, “Now ye are clean through the word” (John 15:3). So we are to be born again by the Word of God, brought home to our hearts and consciences by the Holy Spirit.
Here are two men sitting side by side as a preacher, proclaiming the gospel of God, perhaps quotes some such verse of Scripture as, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). One man pays no attention. The other man looks up and says, “What! He came to save sinners! I am a sinner. I will trust Him.” What led him to do that? The Holy Spirit using the Word as the means of his second birth. “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” The Lord makes it very clear that there is a great distinction between the flesh and Spirit. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” You can do anything you like with the flesh, but it does not turn it into spirit. If you baptize it, it is baptized flesh. If you make it religious, it is religious flesh. Flesh remains flesh to the very end. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
Nicodemus said, “How can these things be?” (v. 9). The Lord explains that there are mysteries in nature that we cannot understand. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). You cannot see the wind, but you recognize its power. You cannot see the Holy Spirit, but you recognize His power. He is invisible, but He makes His presence felt in a mighty way as He convicts and regenerates sinful men. He changes men completely. You recognize the power, although you do not see it actually working. You see a vain worldly woman, and suddenly she becomes a quiet woman of prayer. You see a wicked, godless man changed into a saint. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. You do not see the Spirit, but you see the power manifest in the life.
Nicodemus is still perplexed and says, “How can these things be?” Jesus says, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (v. 10). He should have known about the new birth. He had the Bible. In Isaiah 44:3 we find these words: “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring.” What is this? Why, God is saying, “By the water of My Word and by the power of My Spirit I am going to work the miracle of the new birth.”
In Ezekiel 36:25 we have the same thing: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols will I cleanse you.” There you have it again, “Born of water and of the Spirit.” “Why,” He says, “Nicodemus, you are a master in Israel and you are surprised when I speak of being born of water and the Spirit! You should have known this.” “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:12). What does He mean by this? Well, these earthly things were spoken of in the Old Testament. It was always necessary to be born again in order to come into God’s kingdom. This kingdom was heaven’s rule on earth. But Jesus knew that that earthly kingdom was, for the time being, set aside. He said, “I have other secrets, but you will not understand them. You do not even understand earthly things.” I think the Lord meant that Nicodemus was not ready for a revelation of the heavenly kingdom because he had not apprehended the truth of the earthly things.
“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (v. 13). Let me say here, and I frankly say so, I do not know whether Jesus said that, or whether John the apostle wrote it as inspired of the Holy Spirit. If the text were written as ordinary literature, we might have a quotation mark at the end of verse 12, and then verse 13 might come in as a parenthesis. I do not know whether that is so or not. It may be that Jesus said this, or it may be that John put it in to explain a mystery. What is the mystery? No one has ever ascended to heaven of his volition. Enoch was caught up; Elijah went up in a whirlwind. If these words were spoken by the Lord Jesus, He was looking into the future when He should ascend. If they were written by John, then he had in mind the ascension. But the wonder of it is this, that He who came down from heaven and had the power to ascend into heaven was at all times the Son of Man in heaven, for He was omnipresent.
In verse 14 we have our Lord’s answer to Nicodemus’s questions. He refers him to an incident that occurred long years before in the wilderness, and He says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” That is your answer, Nicodemus. It is as though Jesus said, “I am going to the cross, and there on that cross I will become the antitype of that brass serpent. There I will be made sin in order that sinners may become the righteousness of God through faith in Me.” In the wilderness it was the serpents that afflicted the people. The poison of these dreadful creatures was in the blood of the dying Israelites. The remedy was a serpent of brass uplifted, and all who looked to it were healed. It was sin that caused the trouble for humanity. The serpent was a type of Satan and sin. But what took place on the cross? The sinless One was made sin for us. He is the antitype of that brazen serpent. That serpent lifted up on the pole had no poison in it. It had never done anybody any harm. It was a picture of the great sin offering. When they looked to it, they were healed. The Lord Jesus Christ had no sin in Him, but in grace He took the sinner’s place. When people look to Him in faith they are born again-they have eternal life. Have you looked to Him? Have we all looked to Him? All who believe in Him shall never die but have life eternal.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on John 2". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34