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JOHN CHAPTER 3
John 3:1-13 Christ, in a conference with Nicodemus, teacheth him
the necessity of regeneration,
John 3:14,John 3:15 the efficacy of faith in his death.
John 3:16,John 3:17 God’s great love to mankind in sending his Son for
John 3:18-21 and the condemnation for unbelief.
John 3:22 Jesus baptizeth in Judea,
John 3:23,John 3:24 as doth John in Aenon.
John 3:25-36 John’s doctrine concerning Christ.
The particle there being put in only to fit our idiom to the Greek, where is nothing but the verb, signifies nothing to prove that what we read in this chapter was done at Jerusalem. It is a dispute amongst some interpreters, whether he was there or no. It should seem by John 7:50, that Nicodemus’s chief residence was there. He was one of the Pharisees, who were a sect (as we have showed before) which had their name either from a Hebrew word, which signifieth to explain, (because they were expounders of the law), or from another word, which signifieth to divide, because they were separate from others: the opinions have both learned patrons. This man’s name in Greek signifies, The victory of the people. He was either the head of a family among the Jews, or a ruler of the synagogue, or one of the sanhedrim: it seemeth most probable he is here called a ruler upon the last account, if we consider John 7:50.
He came by night to Christ, not, as some (too charitably) possibly may think, that he might have the freer and less interrupted communion and discourse with him; but either through fear, or possibly shame, being a master in Israel, to be looked upon as a scholar going to learn of another. He saluteth him by the name they usually gave to their teachers, (as we showed, John 1:49), and saith,
we know, by which he hints to us, that not only he, but others of the Pharisees also, knew that he was a teacher sent from God in a more extraordinary manner; and he giveth the reason of this their knowledge, because of those miraculous operations which he had wrought. God hath his number among all orders and sorts of men; and those that are his shall come unto Christ. There was a weakness in the faith and love of this Nicodemus; (his station amongst the Jews was a great temptation to him); but yet there was a truth of both in him, which further discovered itself, John 7:50, and more upon Christ’s death, John 19:39. But here ariseth a greater question, viz. How Nicodemus could conclude that Christ was a teacher sent from God, by his miracles.
Answer. It is to be observed, that he doth not say, in the general, that no man does signs or wonders of any kind, unless the power and favour of God be with him. But he speaks particularly and eminently of those things which Jesus did; they were so great in their nature, so real and solid in their proof, so Divine in the manner of performing them by the empire of his will; so holy in their end, to confirm a doctrine most becoming the wisdom and other glorious attributes of God, and that were the verification of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, whose coming it was foretold should be with miraculous healing benefits; that there was the greatest assurance, that none without the omnipotent hand of God could do them; for it is clear by the light of reason and Scripture, that God will not assist by his almighty power the ministers of Satan, to induce those who sincerely search for truth to believe a lie. The magicians indeed performed divers wonders in Egypt, but they were outdone by Moses, to convince the spectators that he was sent from a power infinitely superior to that of evil spirits. Real miracles, that are contrary to the order and exceed the power of nature, can only be produced by creating power, and are wrought to give credit to those who are sent from God. And when God permits false miracles to be done by seducers, that would thereby obtain authority and credit amongst men, the deception is not invincible; for it is foretold expressly to give us warning, that the man of sin shall come with lying wonders, by the working of Satan, 2 Thessalonians 2:9; and the heavenly doctrine of the gospel has been confirmed by real miracles, incomparably greater than all the strange things done to give credit to doctrines opposite to it.
We observed before, that the term answered doth not always in the New Testament signify a reply to a question before propounded; but sometimes no more than a reply, or the beginning of another speech: whether it doth so here or no, some question. Some think Christ here gives a strict answer to a question which Nicodemus had propounded to him, about the way to enter into the kingdom of God; which question the evangelist sets not down, but leaves to the reader to gather from the answer. Others think that our Saviour knew what he would say, and answered the thoughts of his heart. Others, that he only began a discourse to him about what was highly necessary for him, that was a master in Israel, to understand and know. He begins his discourse with
Verily, verily, the import of which we considered, John 1:51. The word translated again, is ανωθεν, which often signifieth from above; so it signifieth, John 3:31; James 1:17; James 3:15-17. It also signifieth again: Galatians 4:9, How turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements? That it must be so translated here, and John 3:7, appeareth from Nicodemus’s answer in the next verse. But the expression of the second or new birth by this word, which also signifies from above, may possibly reach us, that the new birth must be wrought in the soul from above by the power of God, which is what was said before, John 1:12,John 1:13, the necessity of which our Saviour presseth from the impossibility otherwise of his seeing the
kingdom of God; by which some understand the kingdom of his glory (as the phrase is used, Luke 18:24,Luke 18:25); others understand it of the manifestation of Christ under the gospel state, or the vigour, power, and effect of the gospel, and the grace thereof. By seeing of it, is meant enjoying, and being made partakers of it, as the term is used, Psalms 16:10; John 16:10; Revelation 18:7. The Jews promised their whole nation a place in the kingdom of the Messiah, as they were born of Abraham, Matthew 3:9; and the Pharisees promised themselves much from their observation of the law, &c. Christ lets them know neither of these would do, but unless they were wholly changed in their hearts and principles (for so much being born again signifieth; not some partial change as to some things, and in some parts) they could never have any true share, either in the kingdom of grace in this life, or in the kingdom of glory in that life which is to come. It is usual by the civil laws of countries, that none enters into the possession of an earthly kingdom but by the right of birth; and for the obtaining the kingdom of heaven, there must be a new birth, a heavenly renovation of the whole man, soul, body, and spirit, to give him a title, by the wise and unchangeable constitution of God in the gospel, and to qualify him for the enjoyment of it.
By the answer of Nicodemus, it should seem that he was an old man; which is also probable, because he was one of the rulers: he puts the case as to himself; I am, saith he, an old man, how should I be born? Can a man
enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? How true is that of the apostle, 1 Corinthians 2:14, The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God! What a gross conception doth Nicodemus (though doubtless a learned as well as a great man) discover of regeneration, as if it could not be without a man’s mother travailing in birth with him a second time! Nicodemus’s question discovers a great deal of ignorance and weakness, but yet a great deal of simplicity and plainness in him; that he did not come, as the Pharisees generally were wont to come to Christ, to catch him by captious questions, but brought discendi pietatem, a pious desire to learn from him, and to be instructed by him. The Pharisees had been used to study the traditions of the elders, and spent their time about unprofitable niceties, as to the meaning of the law; so were not at all versed in the great things which concerned the kingdom of God. The like instance hath been in later ages, the popish divines spending their time generally about nice school questions, showing themselves much ignorant of spiritual things, and the great mysteries of the kingdom of God.
To excite his spirit and attention, our Saviour again expresses the authority of his person,
I say; and twice repeats the solemn asseveration,
Verily, verily, to show the infallible certainty and importance of what he propounds, that it is a truth worthy of his most serious consideration, and to be embraced with a stedfast belief. After this preface, he declares, If any one be not born of water and the Spirit, to rectify the carnal conceit of Nicodemus about regeneration. In John 3:3 our Saviour compared the spiritual birth with the natural, and with respect to that a reviewed man is born a second time. But in this verse he expresses the cause and quality of the new birth, that distinguishes it from the natural birth, and resolves the vain, carnal objection of Nicodemus. He speaks not of the terrestrial, animal birth, but of the celestial and Divine; that is suitable to that principle from whence it proceeds, the Holy Spirit of God. There is a great difference among interpreters about the meaning of being
born of water. The Romanists, and rigid Lutherans, understand the water in a proper sense, for the element of baptism, and from hence infer the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation; but the exposition and conclusion are both evidently contrary to the truth. Indeed the new birth is signified, represented, and sealed by baptism, it is the soul, and substance of that sacred ceremony; and if our Saviour had only said, that whoever is born of water and the Spirit shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, it might have been congruously understood of baptism; because it is an undoubted truth, that all who are truly regenerated in baptism shall be saved. But our Saviour says, He that is not born of water and the Spirit cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven: the exclusion of the unsanctified is peremptory and universal. And our Saviour shows a manifest difference between an affirmative and negative proposition; when having declared, that whoever believeth and is baptized shall be saved; and coming to the negative, he only adds, but he that believeth not shall be damned, Mark 16:16. The reason why he does not say, Whoever is not baptized shall be condemned, is evident; for without faith it is impossible to be saved; but without baptism, even as the Romanists themselves grant, many have been saved. For if we consider the time when our Saviour spake these words, they acknowledge that believers were not then, obliged to receive the baptism of Christ for salvation; for our Saviour had this conference with him some years before his death; and they hold, that before the death of Christ baptism was not necessary, neither by virtue of Divine command, nor as a means to obtain salvation; therefore the believers that lived then might enter into heaven without baptism. They also declare, that martyrdom supplies the want of baptism; and that persons instructed in the doctrine of the gospel, and sincerely believing it, if prevented by death without being baptized, their faith and earnest desire is sufficient to qualify them for partaking of the heavenly kingdom. But if by water here be meant the elementary water of baptism, the words of our Saviour are directly contrary to what they assert; for neither the blood of martyrs, nor the desire and vow of receiving baptism, are the water of baptism, which they pretend is properly and literally named by our Saviour. And certainly, if as the apostle Peter instructs us, it is not the cleansing of the flesh in the water of baptism that says, 1 Peter 3:21, it is not the mere want of it, without contempt and wilful neglect, that condemneth. By
water then we are to understand the grace of the Holy Spirit in purifying the soul, which is fitly represented by the efficacy of water. And this purifying, refreshing virtue of the Spirit is promised in the prophecies that concern the times of the Messiah, under the mystical expression of water. Thus it is twofold by Isaiah, I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground, Isaiah 44:3. And this is immediately explained, I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed; and the Divine birth follows, they shall spring up as among the grass. In the same manner the effects of the Holy Spirit are expressed by Ezekiel: I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; and presently after, I will put my Spirit within you, Ezekiel 36:25,Ezekiel 36:27. Our Saviour instructing a Pharisee, to whom the prophetical writings were known, expressly uses these two words, and in the same order as they are all set down there, first water, and then the Spirit, that the latter might interpret the former; for water and the Spirit, by a usual figure when two words are employed to signify the same thing, signify spiritual water, that is, his Divine grace in renewing the soul; as when the apostle says, in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, to signify the powerful Spirit. Thus John the Baptist foretold of Christ, that he should baptize with the Holy Ghost and fire, that is, with the Spirit, that has the force and efficacy of fire to refine us from our dross and corruptions. Thus our Saviour plainly instructs Nicodemus of the absolute necessity of an inward spiritual change and renovation, thereby showing the inefficacy of all the legal washings and sprinklings, that could not purify and make white one soul, which were of high valuation among the Jews. Entering into the kingdom of God, is of the same import and sense with the seeing the kingdom of God, in John 3:3; that is, without regeneration no man can truly be joined with the society of the church of God, nor partake of the celestial privileges and benefits belonging to it, here and hereafter.
That which is born of the flesh: that which is born of natural flesh; for flesh sometimes signifies the man. So the prophet saith, All flesh is grass, Isaiah 40:6. So Genesis 6:12, All flesh, that is, all men, had corrupted their way. Or, that which is born of corruption, from vitiated and corrupted nature; so flesh is oft taken in Scripture, Romans 8:4,Romans 8:5,Romans 8:8, &c.
Is flesh; that is, it bringeth forth effects proportionable to the cause; a man purely natural brings forth natural operations. Man, as man, moveth, and eateth, and drinketh, and sleepeth. Corrupted man brings forth vicious and corrupt fruit, which often are called the works of the flesh, Galatians 5:19.
Flesh here signifieth the whole man, whether considered abstractly from the adventitious corruption of his nature, or as fallen in Adam, vitiated and debauched through lust.
And that which is born of the Spirit is spirit: but that man or woman who is regenerated by the Spirit of grace is spiritual; he is after the Spirit, Romans 8:5; he is one spirit with God, 1 Corinthians 6:17; he is made partaker of the Divine nature, 2 Peter 1:4; he doth not commit sin, 1 John 3:9. Nothing in operation exceedeth the virtue of that cause which influences it; so as no man from a mere natural principle can perform a truly spiritual operation; and from hence it is absolutely necessary that man must be born of the Spirit, that he may be qualified for the kingdom of heaven.
There is a twofold admiration, that which is joined with infidelity, and that which is the effect of faith. Our Saviour forbids Nicodemus to marvel at the doctrine of regeneration, as strange and incredible, upon an imaginary impossibility supposed by him of the thing itself. But he that believes will judge that supernatural work of the Spirit, whereby a sinful man is made a partaker of the Divine nature, worthy of the highest admiration. And what our Saviour had said in the general before, that a man must be born again, he now particularly applies to Nicodemus, with those of his order,
Ye must be born again. For Nicodemus would easily consent that the pagans, and possibly the vulgar Jews, had need of regeneration, to partake of the kingdom of God; but that the doctors of the law, (of which number himself was), esteemed the lights of the world, should be under the same necessity, was astonishing to him. Therefore our Saviour, to undeceive and humble him, saith,
Ye must be born again, for that all are defiled with the corruption that is universal to mankind.
The word which is translated wind, being the same which both here and ordinarily in Scripture is translated spirit, hath given interpreters a great liberty to abound in their several senses. Some thinking that it should be translated, The spirit, that is, the spirit of a man, breatheth where it listeth; and that our Saviour’s sense was, Nicodemus, thou needest not to wonder that thou canst not with thy senses perceive the spiritual new birth, for thou canst not understand the natural birth. Others think it should be translated, The Spirit, that is, the Spirit of God, bloweth where it listeth; but that seemeth not probable, because of these words,
so is every one that is born of the Spirit; which will hardly be sense if we understand the first part of the verse concerning the same Spirit; and our Saviour saith, John 3:12, If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not: they seem therefore best to understand it, who interpret it of a terrene spirit, particularly the wind, which is of a spiritual nature: and thus, by their translation, it is apparent that our interpreters understood it. So as, though our Saviour speaketh of the motions of the blessed Spirit, yet he speaketh of them by way of comparison, comparing them to the motion of the wind, of which he said, that it bloweth where it listeth; not that it is its own mover, and under no government of the First Cause; for the Psalmist tells us, Psalms 148:8, that the stormy winds fulfil God’s word; nor is any such thing compatible to any creature; but the original of its motion is to us imperceptible.
But canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: we can speak something philosophically to the cause of it, and can tell whither it bloweth, from the east, west, north, or south; but we cannot tell the particular place, where or from whence it riseth.
So is every one that is born of the Spirit: so every one, who is regenerated from the working of the Holy Spirit of God, is changed and renewed, so as we can give ourselves or others no account of it in all points, as to the inward operation, though in the effects it be discernible.
Nicodemus had before spoken as if he thought it a thing impossible, understanding our Saviour of a carnal generation, which he knew could not be repeated: perceiving that he spake of a spiritual birth, he is now posed at the mystery of it; it being a thing the doctrine of which he had not been acquainted with. His carnal stupidity hindered his understanding the first lesson of Christianity, though explained by the Sun of righteousness; and his pride hindered him from confessing his ignorance; he rather judges the doctrine to be absurd and impossible. The like darkness is in every unrenewed mind; regeneration being like that new name, which none understand but those that have it.
Our Saviour doth not so much wonder at as upbraid the ignorance of Nicodemus, and all of his sect, who went for masters, or teachers, and that in Israel; who had the law and the prophets, and yet were ignorant of those things which were necessary to be known to every ordinary person’s salvation. Will any say, But where was there any thing spoken in the books of the law and the prophets about regeneration, or a being born again?
Answer. What other things could be meant by the circumcision of the heart, commanded by Moses, Deuteronomy 10:16, promised in Deuteronomy 30:6; by the new heart, and the new spirit, promised Ezekiel 36:26; by the clean heart prayed for by David, Psalms 51:10? A teacher in Israel should from hence have understood the necessity of a new and of a clean heart; but the whole sect of the Pharisees were so taken up with the trifles of the rites and traditions, and the works of the law, that as to these spiritual things of nearer and much higher concernment to people’s souls, they knew and spake little of them.
Christ speaketh only of himself, though he speaketh in the plural number, for in the next verse he saith only, If I have told you earthly things; he lets Nicodemus know that he spake nothing but he was certain of. This he expresses by two words, know and have seen, which are terms expressive of the greatest certainty of a thing imaginable; for the terms express a certainty of the mind, arising both from the rational deduction and sensible demonstration: and herein our Saviour lets his ministers know what is their duty to teach unto people, viz. what they know and have seen. Those that think that the doctrine of the gospel would have no certainty but for the authority of the church, stand highly concerned to reflect upon this text.
Ye receive not our witness; ye ought to believe what I tell you upon the authority of my revelation; but such is the hardness of your heart, such your stubbornness and unbelief, that you receive not my testimony.
If I have spoken to you plain things, and in a plain style, humbling my phrase to your apprehensions, and illustrating sublime, spiritual mysteries, which in their own nature are more remote from your apprehensions, by plain and obvious similitudes and parables, and speaking thus, you understand and believe not; what would you do if I should discourse to you sublime and spiritual things, without these advantages for your understandings?
No man hath so ascended up to heaven, as to know the secret will and counsels of God, for of such an ascending it must be meant; otherwise, Elijah ascended up to heaven before our Saviour ascended. Thus the phrase is supposed to be used, Proverbs 30:4. None but Christ (who as to his Divine nature came down from heaven) hath ever so ascended thither;
even the Son of man, who was in heaven; we translate it is, but the participle ων is of the preter imperfect tense, as well as the present tense: or, who is in heaven, by virtue of the personal union of the two natures in the Redeemer; as we read. Acts 20:28, the church, which he hath purchased with his own blood. By reason of the personal union of the two natures in Christ, though the properties of each nature remain distinct, yet the properties of each nature are sometimes attributed to the whole person. The Lutherans have another notion, ascribing an omnipresence even to the human nature of Christ, because of its personal union with the Divine nature; and so affirm that Christ’s human nature, while it was on earth, was also substantially in heaven; as, on the other side, they are as stiff in maintaining that, although Christ’s human nature be now in heaven, yet it is also on earth, really and essentially present wherever the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is administered; but this is to ascribe a body unto Christ which is indeed no body, according to any notion we have of a body.
The history of the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness we have, Numbers 21:8,Numbers 21:9. The people being stung with fiery serpents, as a righteous judgment of God for their sins, as a merciful remedy God commanded Moses, Numbers 21:8, Make thee a fiery serpent, ( that is, the image or representation of one of those fiery serpents), and put it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. This brazen serpent in the wilderness was a lively type of Jesus Christ. Our Saviour having before spoken of the new birth as necessary to those who shall be saved, here comes to show it in the causes, and instances first in the meritorious, then in the instrumental, cause. The meritorious cause was his death; he saith, As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, so he, who was the Son of man, must be lifted up; that is, die upon the cross: the phrase is used twice more in this Gospel, John 8:28; John 12:32,John 12:34, in allusion, doubtless, to this type. Yet Mr. Calvin thinks the
lifted up here more properly interpreted of the doctrine of the gospel, and by the preaching of it; and others apply it to Christ’s ascension into heaven. And this he tells Nicodemus must be, for the fulfilling the Scripture, and the counsels of his Father.
Here our Lord openeth the instrumental cause of justification and salvation, that is, believing εις αυτον,
in him. It is one thing to believe in him as a teacher, another thing to believe in him as a Saviour. The object of the first is a proposition; we believe a person when we assent and give credit to what he saith, because he saith it. The object of the latter is the person and merits of the Mediator. As the looking up to the brazen serpent healed the person, not by any physical operation, but from the goodness of God, as it was an act of obedience to the Divine institution for that end; so neither doth faith in the Mediator justify and obtain pardon for any soul from any meritorious virtue in that act, but from God’s gracious ordination, that so it shall be; he hath so ordained, that whosoever shall rest upon Christ, and receive him by faith as his Mediator and Saviour, should not perish, but live for ever. There are other things besides faith necessary to salvation, such are repentance, love, and new obedience; nor is faith only mentioned because they are ingredients into it, but because faith is the root of all those, and that from which they must necessarily flow; for it is as impossible that any should truly hope, and trust in, and rest upon Christ for that life which he hath only promised to those that obey him, as it is impossible that any should indeed trust in and rest upon a man who hath promised a reward upon a condition for that reward, without any care to fulfil that condition. But by this and other places, where faith alone in Christ is mentioned as necessary to salvation. Nicodemus was taught, that no obedience to the works of the law without this faith in the Mediator would bring the soul to eternal life and salvation.
For God the Father, who is the Lord of all, debtor to none, sufficient to himself,
so loved the world, that is, Gentiles as well as Jews. There is a great contest about the signification of the term, between those who contend for or against the point of universal redemption; but certain it is, that from this term no more can be solidly concluded, than from the terms all and every, which in multitudes of places are taken in a restrained sense for many, or all of such a nation or kind. As this term sometimes signifies all persons, so, in 1 John 2:21, the Gentiles in opposition to the Jews. Nor, admitting that
the world should signify here every living soul in the place called the world, will any thing follow from it. It is proper enough to say, A man loved such a family to such a degree that he gave his estate to it, though he never intended such a thing to every child or branch of it. So as what is truth in that so vexed a question cannot be determined from any of these universal terms; which must, when all is said that can be said, be expounded by what follows them, and by their reconcilableness to other doctrines of faith.
God so loved the world that he gave his Son to die for a sacrifice for their sins, to die in their stead, and give a satisfaction for them to his justice. And this Son was not any of his sons by adoption, but his only begotten Son; not so called (as Socinians would have it) because of his singular generation of the virgin without help of man, but from his eternal generation, in whom the Gentiles should trust, Psalms 2:12, which none ought to do, but in God alone, Deuteronomy 6:13; Jeremiah 17:5.
That whosoever, &c.: the term all is spoken to above; these words restrain the universal term world, and all, to let us know that Christ only died for some in the world, viz. such as should believe in him. Some judge, not improbably, that Christ useth the term world in this verse in the same sense as in 1 John 2:2. Our evangelist useth to take down the pride of the Jews, who dreamed that the Messiah came only for the benefit of the seed of Abraham, not for the nations of the world, he only came to destroy them; which notion also very well fitteth what we have in the next verse.
The word we translate condemn, krinh, signifies to judge, as well as to condemn. The Jews were mistaken in their proud conceit, that Christ came to judge and destroy all those that were not of their nation; thus, John 7:47, he saith, he came not to judge, but to save the world. Nor is this contrary to what he saith, John 9:39, For judgment I am come into this world; for that is ex accidenti, from the corruption of men, shutting their eyes against the light, and hardening their hearts against the offers and tenders of Divine grace. Christ will come in his second coming to condemn the world of unbelievers; but the tendency of his coming was not for condemnation, but to offer the grace of the gospel, and eternal life and salvation, to men in the world.
Whose firmly and steadily assenting to the propositions of the gospel, revealing Jesus Christ as the only and all sufficient Saviour, commits the care of his soul unto him trusting and hoping in him alone for eternal salvation, which no man can indeed do without doing what in him lieth to fulfil the condition upon which Christ hath promised life and salvation, that is, keeping the commandments of God, is exempted from condemnation by the law of grace. But he that believes not the doctrine of Christ, and does not upon the terms of the gospel receive him for his Saviour, is already condemned for his obstinate infidelity, which is the certain cause of damnation: as we say of one mortally wounded, that he is a dead man, though he breathes for a while; and we speak in the same manner of a malefactor, convicted and attainted of a capital crime, though the sentence be not executed; because their death is inevitable. The not believing in the only Son of God, who is able to save to the utmost all that regularly trust in him, is such a contempt of the merciful, all sufficient, and sole means of salvation, that it is absolutely necessary, and most just, that all those who refuse to be saved by him, should perish by themselves. From this scripture arise two questions: the first concerning the heathens, who never heard of Christ. The second concerning infants, who die before they come to years of knowledge. As to the former, the apostle hath determined, Romans 2:12, As many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law. There is the same reason for those who sin without the gospel; they shall not perish for not believing on him of whom they have not heard, Romans 10:14, but for not obeying such revelation of the Divine will as they had. The case of infants is excluded from this text (speaking only of adult persons). It is certain, that so many of them as belong to the election of grace shall he saved, and that by virtue of the blood of Christ; but which way God brings them to heaven is a secret to us. Some from this text have concluded, that unbelief is the only damning sin; which is no further true, than that no sin will damn that soul which shall truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the reason, the evidence and great cause of condemnation,
that light is come into the world. Christ is the Light, foretold by the prophet, Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6. He is styled, in the beginning of this Gospel the true Light, John 1:4; that is, he hath in perfection all the excellent qualities of light; the power to enlighten the minds of men in the knowledge of saving truth, to warm the affections with the love of it, to revive the disconsolate, and to make the heavenly seed of the word to flourish and fructify in their lives. This Light is come into the world; that signifies not only his incarnation, but his revealing the merciful counsel of God for our salvation, which the clearest spirits could never have discovered; he has opened the way that leads to eternal life.
men loved darkness rather than light; they preferred, chose, and adhered to their ignorance and errors, before the light of life, the saving knowledge of the gospel. Their ignorance is affected and voluntary, and no colour of excuse can be alleged for it; nay, it is very culpable and guilty, by neglecting to receive instruction from the Son of God.
Because their deeds were evil; the vices and lusts of men are the works of darkness, the fruits of their ignorance and errors; and they are so pleasant to the carnal corrupt nature, that to enjoy them securely, they obstinately reject the light of the gospel; this aggravates their sin and sentence.
He that makes a trade of sin, and doth evil presumptuously, loving and delighting in it, doth not love the light, nor, if he can avoid it, will come near it; for the light is that which makes things visible, and discovereth them. As it is of the nature of natural light to show things to others as they are; and therefore thieves, and adulterers, and drunkards, care not for the light, but choose the darkness for their deeds of darkness, and come as little abroad in the light as they can when they do them: so it is of the nature of Christ and his gospel to discover men’s errors, both as to the obtaining of justification and eternal salvation, and the errors also of men’s lives; and therefore men and women possessed of errors in their judgments, or delighting in a filthy conversation, hate Christ and his gospel; because that a discovering the right ways of God discovereth the crookedness of their ways, opposite to the truths and ways of God.
Truth here is put for true things. He who purposeth, designeth, and acteth nothing but what is just, and holy, and good, and what is consonant to the will of God; he is not afraid to bring his notions and actions to the test of the Divine rule, published by him who is the true Light. For he desires that what he doth may be made manifest, both to himself and others, that they are wrought in, with, or according to, by, or through God (for the particle εν, here used, is used in all these senses, 1 Corinthians 7:39; Revelation 14:13). Those works are said to be wrought in, with, by, or through God, which tend to the honour and glory of God as their end, and flow from him as their cause, which are done with his strength and assistance, and for his honour and glory.
Soon after our Saviour had had the forementioned conference with Nicodemus, which it is believed he had at Jerusalem, not (as some think) in Galilee, for then Nicodemus would hardly have come to him by night, he came into the land of Judea. He had before been in the province of Judea, and in the metropolis, or great city, of Judea, which was Jerusalem; but now he goeth into the country of Judea. Judah and Jerusalem are often mentioned distinctly. The chief city of a country is oft distinguished from the country, though within the same province and tribe; see Joshua 8:1, the king of Ai, his city, and his land; and in particular as to Jerusalem, 2 Chronicles 11:14; 2 Chronicles 20:17; 2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 2:1; Luke 5:17; Luke 6:17, Christ and his disciples went into the country part of Judea;
and there he tarried with them, and baptized, by his disciples, for himself personally baptized none; but as in our common speech, so in the language of Scripture, there is nothing more ordinary than for persons to be said themselves to do what they do by others, 1 Samuel 26:11,1 Samuel 26:12; 2 Kings 22:16; 2 Chronicles 34:24; Acts 7:52.
Aenon is here said to be
near Salim: it was the name of a city, as some think; others say, a river or brook near that city: neither the river nor the city are elsewhere mentioned in Scripture; but topographers place it on the eastern part of the lot of Manasseh, not far from Bethshan or Scythopolis. There John was baptizing; because this Aenon was a brook or river that had much water, which in Judea was rare. There is no water more holy than the other. John baptized in Jordan, and in Bethabara, and in Aenon. The ordinance sanctified the water, but did not require consecrated water for the due administration of it. It is from this apparent that both Christ and John baptized by dipping the body in the water, else they need not have sought places where had been a great plenty of water; yet it is probable that they did not constantly dip, from what we read of the apostles baptizing in houses, Acts 9:17,Acts 9:18; Acts 10:47,Acts 10:48. The people came to John and were baptized, that is, great numbers of them did so.
For John was yet in the exercise of his public ministry, not cast into prison, as he was soon after.
The Jews had so many purifyings, some legal, instituted by God, ordained by Moses as God’s minister; some traditional, brought in by the Pharisees, as their washings before meat, Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23; that seemeth a hard thing to determine what the question was between John’s disciples and the Jews, about what purifying; and the boldest determiners in this case are no better than guessers. Some would have baptism to be meant here by
purifying. It would much conduce to the resolution of the question if we knew what these Jews were with whom John’s disciples argued. If they were of the Pharisees, it is probable the question was about John’s baptism, considering the frequent washings and purifyings that they had in use amongst them. If they were other Jews, the question might be about the virtue and efficacy of the ceremonial washings, ordained by the law of God, whether they were mere types, and now to cease? Whether in themselves they conduced any thing to the washing and cleansing of a soul? If these Jews were (as some think, but I know not how it can be proved) disciples of Christ, the question might be about John’s and Christ’s baptism. This notion seemeth to be favoured by what went before; where the evangelist had been speaking of baptism, as administered by Christ’s disciples, and by John; as also from what followeth, viz. John’s disciples coming to him and complaining, that Christ by his disciples baptized more than their master. But there seemeth to be this great prejudice against the notion of those learned men that have embraced that notion, viz. That the question is said to have risen between John’s disciples and the Jews; now we want an instance in Scripture, where the disciples of John are put in opposition to the disciples of Christ, and under notion of the Jews; the term Jews generally signifying that part of the people who adhered to the Judaical rites and religion; especially where (as here) it is used in opposition either to the disciples of John or of Christ. It is most probable therefore the question was, either about the washings ordained by the law of Moses, or about the traditional washings observed by the Pharisees.
The disciples of John coming unto him, give him the usual title, under which in that age they were wont to speak to those whom they owned as their teachers, which was Rabbi. Their business was to complain, that Christ, whom they do not think fit to name, nor to give him any title, but mention him as one much inferior to their master, one that came to him to Bethabara, and to whom he there gave testimony, John 1:7,John 1:34, as if Christ had from him derived all his credit and reputation. Their master did not go to Christ, but he came to their master; he was not baptized of Christ, but Christ was baptized of him; he did not give testimony to their master, but their master gave testimony to him: now, say they, he baptizeth by his disciples, and multitudes, many of all sorts of people, (for the universal particle all men can here signify no more), come to him. Love is jealous; they were afraid that their master’s reputation would by this means flag and be diminished. Such a passage we find, Numbers 11:28. And thus John, our Saviour’s disciple, was jealous for Christ his Master, Luke 9:49. They all sinned, as appears by the answer given by Moses to Joshua, Numbers 11:29, and Christ’s answer to John, Luke 9:50, and by the following reply of John to these disciples, envying for his sake.
The ministry, and the success of the ministry, must both be given a man from heaven: doth he baptize? It is a sign he is sent of God. Do all men come to him? That also is from God. An excellent corrective of ambition, envy, and jealousy: no man hath in the church of God authority, but he to whom it is given from heaven; no authority over his Son.
I appeal to you that are my disciples, Did not I always plainly tell yea that I was not the Christ? It belongeth unto Christ alone, who is the Head of the church, to send out such as shall labour in it, and to restrain those that labour in it; would you have me silence or suspend him? I told you, that I was but one of his ministers,
sent before him to prepare his way, John 1:20,John 1:23.
Christ, whose the church is by a right of redemption, and by its having given up itself to him, 2 Corinthians 8:5, he is the Bridegroom of it, Matthew 22:2; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:23,Ephesians 5:25,Ephesians 5:29; as his Father was the Husband of the Jewish church; it belongeth to him to give laws to it, and to order matters and affairs in it. I am but as one who is
the friend of the bridegroom, one of the children of the bride chamber, Matthew 9:15, and have by my preaching prepared the people of the Jews for him; and instead of being troubled to hear that he is come, I rejoice greatly to hear his voice. So far am I from repining to hear that multitudes go to him, that
my joy is fulfilled; that is, I have no greater satisfaction than to hear it.
He must increase, in honour, and dignity, and reputation in the world; he is the rising sun, (to give you notice of which I was but as the morning star), he must shine every day more and more.
But I must decrease; God hath indeed used me as a prophet, yea, more than a prophet, not to foretell Christ alone, but to point him to you. I have had my time, and finished my course, and God hath given me a reputation proportioned to the work he gave me to do, and to the time in which I was to work; but I must every day decay, and grow less and less, as Christ increaseth and groweth more and more.
He that cometh from heaven, (for it appeareth by the latter part of the verse, that is the sense of from above), as Christ did, not only in respect of his Divine nature, but being (as to his whole person) clothed with majesty and authority from above, infinitely excelleth any one who is a mere creature: he that is of an earthly original,
speaketh of the earth. Such as is a man’s original, such is his nature, such is his discourse. Though I be sent of God, as John 16:27, and my baptism be from heaven, (so our Saviour himself testifieth, Matthew 21:25), yet my original is of the earth, and my relations and expressions are suitable to a mere man: but he that is from heaven excels all, as in the dignity of his person, so in the sublimity of his knowledge.
Another great difference which the Baptist teacheth his disciples to put between his testimony and Christ’s, is, that he, and so all other ministers of the gospel, testify by revelation; Christ testifieth not by revelation, but from his own personal knowledge, what himself hath seen and heard from his Father. See John 3:11, where our Saviour had spoken to Nicodemus much the same. So John 1:18; John 8:26; John 15:15. By these two terms is signified the most certain and infallible knowledge of those things which he testified, which made them worthy of all acceptation: but yet very few received his testimony, so as to believe in it: see John 1:11; John 3:11.
He who hath so believed the testimony of Christ, as to accept him, and to believe in him as his Saviour, hath, by that his believing, set to his seal that God, in all his promises of the Messiah under the Old Testament, is true; that a word hath not failed of whatsoever God hath there spoken of that nature. According to this is that 1 John 5:10, He that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. This saying doth notably commend faith, and defame unbelief. Faith in Christ as the only true Mediator and Saviour, giveth testimony to the truth of God, and sealeth it. Unbelief defames God, and doth in effect say that God is a liar.
He whom God hath sent out of heaven, out of his bosom, not merely authorizing him as a minister, as the prophets and as John were sent, speaketh nothing but the words of God. The prophets and the apostles were sent of God in a sense, but not as Christ was sent; they sometimes spake the words of God, when the Spirit of God came upon them; but they sometimes spake their own words, as Nathan did to David, when he encouraged his thoughts to build a house to the Lord; and Paul, when he said, To the rest speak I, not the Lord; but whatsoever Christ spake was the words of God: for God did not give out the Spirit to him sparingly, (as out of a measure), as he doth to his ministers or saints, who have but their proportion of revelations and graces, as was requisite for their offices to which they were called, and the several periods of time that were gradually illuminated. But in him the fulness of the Godhead dwelt bodily; he was anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows; he had the spring of all in himself, not the streams only.
The eternal Father loved the world, John 3:16, but he loved the Son with a more singular and peculiar love; so that all things were by the Father delivered to him, Matthew 11:27, all power in heaven and earth, Matthew 28:18; to give eternal life to as many as the Father had given him, John 17:2; the keys of hell and of death, Revelation 1:18. So as every man hath reason to receive and embrace Christ and his testimony, and to believe in him.
He that, hearing the proposition of the gospel, so agreeth to it, as with his heart he receiveth him as his Saviour, and trusteth and hopeth in him, hath everlasting life; that is, a certain and just title to it, nay, in the first fruits; being actually delivered from condemnation, Romans 8:1, to which, without faith, he is exposed: he already liveth a spiritual life, Galatians 2:20; and having Christ in him, hath the hope of glory, into the possession of which he shall most certainly come. But he that receiveth not the gospel published by him who is the Son of God, and doth not embrace him as his Saviour, and yield obedience to him, shall not be saved. The word here translated believeth not, is απειθων, which often signifieth, one that is not obedient. But this is the command of God, That men should believe on his Son, 1 John 3:23. The commandment doth not only respect love, but faith in the first place; for faith worketh by love; so as there is an απειθεια, a disobedience in the understanding, as well as in the conversation; and he that so believeth not, as to obey, shall never come into heaven, which felicity is here expressed by seeing life; as not seeing death is not dying, so not seeing life is dying. And as he was by nature a child of wrath, Ephesians 2:3, subject and exposed to the wrath of God, so that wrath abideth on him: being justified by faith, he hath peace with God, Romans 5:1.
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Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on John 3". Matthew Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28