NICODEMUS, AND NEW BIRTH
Among the many who believed because of the miracles, there was however one individual who was more seriously affected. Nicodemus comes to the Lord by night, evidently apprehensive of the displeasure of his fellow Pharisees if they knew of his serious interest in the Lord Jesus. He confesses what was common knowledge (though the Pharisees were not willing to confess it), that Christ was a teacher come from God. The miracles had proven it, and since this was so, Nicodemus at least is impelled to hear what the Lord says.
The Lord's answer was no doubt to Nicodemus both abrupt and startling. Solemnly, earnestly, he is told in effect that man needs more than teaching: he needs to be born from above in order to see the kingdom of God. No doubt the Lord speaks of the kingdom to be established in the millennial earth, for which Israel was looking. It is a religious, orthodox Pharisee who is virtually told that his whole life is valueless in God's eyes: he needs a new life, one that is not corrupted by sin from its conception.
Nicodemus, as the Lord intended, feels his way totally blocked. "How can a man be born when he is old?" (v.4). To him it is incomprehensible, for he knows himself that his question is ridiculous, as to one having a second birth from his natural mother. In fact, that corrupted source could only give the same corrupted life anyway.
The Lord answers this in a way that was still far from clear to Nicodemus, but intended to stir his soul to realize that this was something altogether beyond man's ability to accomplish, no matter how religious he might be. He must be born of water and of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God (v.5).
Natural birth is "of blood," not "water:" "the life of the flesh is in the blood." But as well as being by the Spirit of God, the new birth is "of water." Certainly this is not mere natural water, but explained in Ephesians 5:26, where water symbolizes the word of God. Therefore we may say that the life of the Spirit is in the word (Compare John 5:24; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). The word of God and the Spirit of God work in perfect concord in this marvelous miracle of new birth: it is absolutely a divine work, for no-one's will or work has anything to do with his birth: it is of God.
One descended from Adam can only receive from his parents the same nature: he is flesh. But this new nature is "spirit" because born of the Spirit of God. Only this is suitable for God, therefore it should be no marvel to Nicodemus that one "must be born again" (v.7).
The Lord uses the wind as an illustration of this (v.8). In fact, wind and spirit are the same Greek word, both invisible and powerful. Man does not control it: it blows as it will; its sound is heard, but where it originates and where it ends man does not know. The same mystery is attached to the working of the Spirit of God in new birth.
Nicodemus has no argument, but is puzzled, and questions, "How can these things be?" (v.9). But if he believes God, should he not expect that there must be things higher than man's observation? More than this, he was a teacher of Israel, therefore, as the Lord implies, he ought to have known something of such things, for they were in the word of God. Ezekiel 36:24-28, referring to Israel being blessed in the coming kingdom, speaks of God's sovereign working in cleansing them with clean water, and giving them a new heart, putting His Spirit within them. Every teacher of Israel should have known this.
For the third time, in speaking to Nicodemus, the Lord Jesus uses the double affirmative, "Verily, verily," or "most assuredly" (v.11). How vital and crucial are His words therefore. He claims absolute knowledge of what He speaks, His testimony being of that which He "has seen." But notice His using the plural "we" rather than "I". The unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is involved in what He speaks, for the Trinity is united in this testimony (Compare ch.12:50; 14:10; 16:13). How sad it is that man's heart is so darkened that he does not receive such witness.
The Lord speaks of having told Nicodemus "earthly things." New birth was a matter necessary for the earthly kingdom in the millennium, as Old Testament prophecy itself witnessed. If Christ was not believed as to this, then how would He be believed if He told them heavenly things, for which there could be no other competent witness but Himself? Yet He had come to reveal heavenly things, things that are characteristic of the dispensation of the grace of God, in which saints are introduced into blessings that are eternal in the heavens, rather than connected with earth, even in its future renewed and prosperous state.
Verse 13 stresses the fact that there is no other competent witness to heavenly things. Though Enoch and Elijah had ascended to heaven, they were not available as witnesses: they had not come down from heaven, as had the Lord Jesus, the Son of Man. Shining through here also is the proof of the uniting of Godhead and Manhood in His blessed person, for even then, He was in heaven, fully acquainted with all that heaven held. (As to this verse there is another possible interpretation, that is, that it may be a parenthesis, not actually spoken by the Lord at the time, but inserted by the evangelist, who of course wrote long after Christ had ascended back to heaven.)
Verse 14 however was certainly spoken by the Lord, and evidently all that succeeds to the end of verse 21. He is not yet speaking of heavenly things (for Nicodemus was in no condition to receive these), but laying a basis from the Old Testament, which should speak to his heart. Moses lifted up the brazen serpent on a pole, in order that all Israelites who had been bitten by a serpent, when they simply looked, were given life rather than death (Numbers 21:9). So the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross would be the vital basis of eternal life being given to previously judged sinners who believed in Him. The Lord had already spoken of new birth: now He shows that the only basis of this is His own death: and that life given by new birth is eternal in contrast to natural, temporal life. Eternal life is just as applicable for the earthly, millennial kingdom as for heaven (Matthew 25:46). But in either case, man was a ruined, guilty sinner, and only the blessed death of the Son of Man on Calvary could remove this guilt, and therefore justify God in His giving eternal life. One would either perish or would have eternal life.
Nor does this apply only to Israel. "For God so loved the world." This love is so marvelous that the beloved, only begotten Son of the Father was given by Him as a sacrifice for the sake of the whole world. Yet its value cannot be known by anyone who does not believe in Him: this applies only to "whoever believes on Him." No-one (Jew or Gentile) is excluded except by his own unbelief. This is true as regards the kingdom of God: either one will be blessed in it by having eternal life, or he will perish in the tribulation, and for eternity. Of course it is also true as regards those who now have opportunity to receive Christ. Either they believe Him and have eternal life, or they shall perish eternally.
In these verses we see that as Son of God He was given: as Son of Man He was lifted up to die. God sent Him with the object of saving the world, not judging it, as He will when coming later in power and glory. Meanwhile, by virtue of His blessed sacrifice, salvation remains available for all the world.
If it is not received, the refuser is to blame for this, for the believer is not judged, while those who believe not are judged already. They are not on probation, as was Israel under law, for the coming of Christ has changed this. Law had proven man guilty: Christ has taken the place of the guilty under judgment at the cross. If one therefore receives Christ, he is saved: if he refuses Christ, he refuses salvation, and chooses to be himself left under the judgment he deserves. To refuse to believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God is both dreadful folly and grossly insulting to God.
The judgment (pure and righteous) is this, that light has come in the person of the Son of God, therefore unmistakable as clear, shining light, but people loved darkness, to which they were accustomed, and under which they preferred to hide their evil deeds.
One who loves darkness hates the light: he cannot endure simple, candid truth, for this would expose the evil of his works, just as one's eyes can hardly endure bright light after being long in darkness.
But if one has nothing to hide, then he does not fear the light. No doubt Nathanael illustrates this in chapter 1:47-48. Having "no guile," no deceitful covering up of evil, he could come with confidence to the Lord Jesus. Certainly in coming to Him, one finds himself manifested as he really is, and honesty does not object to this: the person's deeds are wrought in God, that is, as subject to God.
This ends the Lord's words to Nicodemus, who no doubt found these things worked more and more into his soul before we read of him again in chapter 7:50.
THE OVERLAPPING OF JOHN'S BAPTISM AND THAT OF CHRIST
Between verses 21 and 22 some time has evidently elapsed, during which the Lord and His disciples had left Judea. Now returning there, they remain some time, baptizing, though it was not He, but His disciples, who did the baptizing (ch.4:2). This baptism must have been of the same character as that of John, that is, "unto repentance," for it could not be our present Christian baptism, which is unto Christ's death (Romans 6:3). This is the only record of the disciples baptizing before Pentecost, though it is said in chapter 4:1 that more were baptized by them than by John. At this time John was still baptizing, though his ministry was short-lived before his being imprisoned.
It is interesting that the question raised in verse 25 between disciples of John and the Jews, concerning, purifying, is not directly answered. No doubt the Jews connected baptism with purifying, for cleansing is certainly implied in it. But this outward cleansing is only symbolical of the need of a deeper, spiritual cleansing. There is no doubt that John knew this. But instead of speaking to him directly about this, they inform him that the Lord Jesus had been baptizing, with many coming to Him. No doubt John's answer does take care of the purifying question too, for it points to the One who alone could accomplish purification in vital reality for people's souls. John's ministry was designed by God to be unfinished, for John consistently turned attention away from himself to the only One who could possibly accomplish the ends that mankind deeply needed. John was simply a witness to Him, and his lowly steadfastness in maintaining this is a salutary example for us.
The Jews in coming to John apparently expected their report to incite some jealous rivalry in the prophet. But John faithfully tells them that "a man" (whether John or anyone else) "can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven." God had sent John for a purpose: all he needed was to fulfill that purpose, not to be envious of another because of the other's work, which was clearly given by God. This was specially so in regard to Him who is the eternal Son of God. Had not John told them plainly that he himself was not the Christ, but was sent before Him? Is he to be envious of the One to whom he bears witness, whose glory is so great? No indeed: Christ is the true Bridegroom of Israel. Not that she was His bride as yet, nor is she even now; but John's words are prophetic of the bride (Israel) as restored to God in the coming millennial age. Christ has title to her complete allegiance, not John. But John was the friend of the Bridegroom, glad to attentively stand and hear Him, John was not to be of the bride, for we know he was martyred, and has a place in heaven: he is neither of the heavenly bride, the church, nor of Israel, the earthly bride, but of a distinct company. However, only the sound of the Bridegroom's voice rejoiced his heart, so that his joy was complete. He is certainly not envious of his Lord, nor of the bride either: the contemplation of Christ and the sound of His voice is to him fullest satisfaction.
But more: "He must increase." The Lord Jesus had come in lowliest circumstances: therefore His greatness must be more and more manifested. Now also His voluntary sacrifice has been a marvelous basis for the increase of His glory even today, His name known in every nation; and yet to be known in fullness of glory when all shall bow at His feet. In view of this, John is glad to decrease.
Christ had come from above: He was above all. John, and all the children of Adam, were of earth, and could only bear witness from that viewpoint. Christ, from above all, witnessed of what He had seen and heard; and though crowds may have flocked to Him, His testimony was generally not received (cf.ch.6:66). But one who did receive His testimony was thereby affixing his seal to the fact that God is true: he had committed himself to this stand of confidence in Him.
For it was the words of God that Christ had spoken. Faith alone recognized Him as sent from God, for the Spirit of God dwelt in fullness within Him. It was no longer a limited measure of the Spirit's operation, as seen in the Old Testament partial revelations of God's glory, but God fully revealed in His Son, in the full demonstration of the power of the Spirit. More than this, the fullness of the Father's love for the Son is seen in His giving all things into His hand. The Son can be trusted with the disposition of all creation. The unity of the Father and Son is absolute and infinite, so that the Son is the perfect representation of the Father.
One must therefore believe on the Son: there is no knowing the Father apart from this, and in believing he has eternal life. This is a vital, personal belief in the Son personally. On the other hand, one who is not subject to the Son shall not see life. Therefore, one has either eternal life, or no life at all. The awful alternative to life is the wrath of God abiding on the unbeliever. This certainly shows us what God thinks of His Son, and on the other hand, what are His thoughts toward those who refuse His Son.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on John 3". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany