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PART II. (C.)
III. THE MANIFESTATION OF THE GLORY OF THE WORD IN HIS PUBLIC MINISTRY (CONTINUED)
1. To Nicodemus.—The revelation of the divine, heavenly, and true nature of the kingdom of God, and the conditions of admission into it (John 3:1-12); of the foundations of that kingdom (John 3:13-17); the danger of lack of faith in the One Foundation (John 3:18-21).
2. In rural Judœa.—
(1) All men flock to the ministry and baptism of Jesus, a circumstance which leads the disciples of John, who was baptising in Ænon, to ask him the meaning and bearing of this fact (John 3:22-26);
(2) the closing testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus in this Gospel (John 3:27-36).
First Year of our Lord’s Ministry
1. Chap. John 3:1-21.—See Chap. 2.
2. Chap. John 3:22-36.—Summer of A.U.C. 781, A.D. 28.
EXPLANATORY AND CRITICAL NOTES
John 3:1. In John 2:23-24, we read of many who believed in Jesus because of the miracles He wrought. But their belief was so imperfect that Jesus had “no faith” in it. Here, however, we have a man of a different stamp. He was, it is true, influenced to some extent by Jesus’ miracles, but he came to the Lord as a genuine inquirer and seeker after truth. Nicodemus.—A Greek name, but known among the Jews. “The Talmud mentions again and again a person of this name (Nakedimon), called also Bounaï, reckoned to the number of Jesus’ disciples” (Godet). The word a man (ἄνθρωπος) connects this with John 2:25. He was one of those whom Jesus knew; but he was an exception to the general crowd. The Pharisees.—That sect which, although losing themselves in the quicksands of minute legal observance, yet perhaps included many men possessing a high moral standard. But they did not fully realise the nature of sin and the holiness of God. Therefore, as Hengstenberg remarks, “they knew of no new birth, but of a holiness attained to piece by piece, in which man has the primas partes; God, however, principally the part of spectator and rewarder.” Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews (ἄρχων), i.e. probably a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7:50).
John 3:2. He came to Jesus.—This suggests a division in the Pharisaic camp. Some were chafing in their bonds and desired spiritual freedom. Nicodemus recognised in Jesus a more than ordinary appearance. The report of the deputation sent to John the Baptist no doubt also raised his interest in Jesus higher; and all this probably coincided with the longing after Messiah and His kingdom which filled the hearts of the best of the race at that time. By night.—Not because he feared, but rather because both Jesus and himself were occupied during the daytime (but see p. 89). He called Jesus Master (ῥαββί), although it seems as if Jesus had not gone through the educational course required ere a Jew could assume this title (John 7:15). But Nicodemus recognised Jesus as a teacher sent from God. The miracles of Christ led him dimly to realise this. We know, etc., shows that a number of the Jewish rulers shared the opinion of Nicodemus.
John 3:3. Verily, verily, etc., expresses the truth and unchanging validity of what was about to be spoken: “Except a man be born again,” etc. (ἄνωθεν means “from above,” “from the beginning”: born again, anew, or reborn is evidently the sense in which Nicodemus understood the phrase). Nicodemus came with a dim perception that these miracles, etc., of Jesus might be evidences of Messiah’s presence. But Jesus showed him that Messiah’s kingdom is inward and spiritual. Cannot see the kingdom of God.—I.e. cannot arrive at an individual participation in God’s kingdom, nor at the attainment of its blessedness. The kingdom of God is that kingdom which the Messiah was expected to establish; and its nature is clearly set forth, e.g., in Luke 17:20-21.
John 3:4. Nicodemus did not misunderstand our Lord. He knew that Christ referred to a spiritual, inward change. But he did not see that such a change was needed in his own case. He was already in the kingdom; and to ask that he should begin anew his moral and religious life, like proselytes who must become as children ere they could become subjects in God’s kingdom—as well expect one who had grown old to be reborn naturally.
John 3:5. Vide separate note, p. 98.
John 3:6. That which is born of the flesh is flesh.—Flesh (σάρξ), means our human nature considered in itself and apart from controlling spiritual power. It is our fallen humanity as it exists with its passions, feelings, etc., not governed by the divine law, and uncontrolled even by our own higher reason and conscience. It lies in sin; and it is thus transmitted from generation to generation. Our Lord when He became incarnate, therefore, was not born by “ordinary generation.” The substantive flesh as a predicate (is flesh) has a much more forcible meaning than the adjective carnal. “The state has in a manner become a nature” (Godet). Hence the need of a new nature. That which is born of the Spirit, etc.—This answers the question, “How can a man be born?” etc., of John 3:4. Spirit contains some reference to that higher spiritual part of us by which we are related to God, and which in our fallen nature is stifled and repressed. Through the quickening power of God’s Spirit that which is dead through sin is quickened and raised up again, and reinstalled in its true position (Ephesians 2:1). And it is the whole man that is thus born of the Spirit. All his nature is affected by this radical change. And only on this condition can he become a subject in the spiritual kingdom.
John 3:7-8. Marvel not, etc.—No doubt Nicodemus did marvel as this wonderful discourse proceeded. Who does not marvel at this exhibition of the manifold wisdom of God? (Romans 11:33-36.) Nicodemus rested on his privileges (birth, etc.) as fitting him for entrance into Messiah’s kingdom, and is naturally confounded at the new ideas presented to him, especially when they are pressed home personally: Ye must be born again, etc.
John 3:8. Wind, etc.—The Greek πνεῦμα and the Hebrew דרּחַ mean both wind and spirit; and some translators and expositors have urged that here the true rendering is “spirit” in both cases. “The Spirit breathes where it listeth.” But the evident sense of the passage is that of the Authorised Version; and it is that accepted by the majority of scholars. Indeed the use of the word φωνή, the “sound” of the wind, etc., shows that here our Lord was using one of His parabolic figures. οὔτως (so) also suggests that we have here an analogy. So is every one, etc.—The origin and rise of the new birth are unseen, and known only to those who experience it; and even they cannot trace the movements and activity of the spirit. By the way of experience alone can men realise it.
John 3:9-10. How can, etc.—Nicodemus confesses his ignorance of all this; and no wonder, for Pharisaism in its devotion to petty ritual-details had become spiritually short-sighted and oblivious of those higher spiritual realities. There is on the part of Nicodemus, however, a hopeful trait—he is willing to be taught. Art thou the teacher of Israel?—The article is not to be taken in an emphatic sense, as specifying Nicodemus as the most widely noted teacher of the time. It rather gives the noun an abstract meaning, as representing a class like ὁ σπείρων (the sower): Matthew 13:0; 2 Corinthians 12:12. See Wordsworth’s Greek Testament.
John 3:11. We speak what we do know, etc.—Is the “we” merely an example of the pluralis majestaticus? It appears hardly likely when we remember that “I” is used in the foregoing verses. The clearest explanation is that given by Hengstenberg and others, viz. that our Lord here refers to some who already represented the new doctrine (John the Baptist and the disciples already called), and sets them over against the rabbinical school represented by Nicodemus (1 John 1:1-4). Ye receive not, etc. (John 1:5; John 1:19; John 2:19-25).
John 3:12. Earthly things (τὰ ἐπίγεια).—These earthly things refer indeed to the spiritual life, but to those facts in it which take place on earth, e.g. what Jesus had said to Nicodemus regarding the condition of men, the necessity of the new birth, etc., and “His general teaching up to the present time” (Godet). Heavenly things (τὰ ἐπουράνια) have reference to the higher mysteries of redemption, such as the relation of Christ to the Godhead, the counsel of God in reference to the salvation of man, the manner in which the world’s redemption was to be effected, etc. Such great facts are not arrived at by human experience and investigation; they must be divinely revealed.
John 3:13. And no man hath ascended, etc.—καὶ = and yet, and may be connected with John 3:12, i.e. “My testimony is not received, and yet I alone can testify of those heavenly things so indispensable to humanity.” No one from among men has ascended into heaven, and thus is in a position to declare to men those heavenly truths: He alone can do so who, living in unity with the Father, has seen and known them—the Son of man who came down, etc., who now stood before Nicodemus “in the form of a servant.” Son of man.—“He that came down from heaven, even He who being incarnate is the Son of man without ceasing to be what He was before” (Westcott). Which is in heaven.—Omitted by א, B, L, etc. The evidence of A, in which the words occur, is doubtful, as they are written over an erasure. But it is contended that the surface difficulty of the words may have led copyists to omit them. How could Christ while on earth be yet in heaven? But if it be remembered that heaven is a state more than a place, such difficulties vanish, and the words are seen to describe fitly Christ’s close and intimate fellowship with the Father (vide Watkins, etc.).
John 3:14-15. And, etc. (καί).—Jesus not only revealed the way of salvation, He made it. Such is the force of the copula. Lifted up (John 8:28; John 12:32-34).—In reference to the Passion, but also (Acts 2:33) in reference to the Ascension. It was necessary for man’s salvation (δεῖ) that Christ should rise through the cross to the “right hand of power.” That whosoever believeth in Him might have eternal life.—The words should not perish but are omitted in several of the most important MSS.—א, B, L—although found in A.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—John 3:1-15
Our Lord’s interview with Nicodemus.—This conversation is undoubtedly one of the most important ever recorded. It is one of the most detailed expositions that we have of our Lord’s teaching on one of the most indispensable concerns of the kingdom of God. As we learn from John 2:23, Jesus was at the passover at Jerusalem, and “many believed on His name, beholding the miracles which He did.” One of the number evidently was Nicodemus. He had seen the miracles, had witnessed the cleansing of the temple, when without official power, etc., but simply by the calmness and earnestness of His demeanour and the righteousness of His cause, Jesus had for the time remedied what was to all pious Israelites a crying abuse. Nicodemus was a “man of the Pharisees,” therefore one of those who thought themselves the élite of Israel, who being as they imagined perfect in legal righteousness, were quite prepared to be members of Messiah’s kingdom when He appeared. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, and thus occupied a conspicuous position among his countrymen. Probably, however, like many good and honest men of his party, he was not only longing for the advent of Messiah’s kingdom, but unsatisfied with his own position spiritually. Therefore the advent of this new, wonderful teacher excited within him those feelings of dissatisfaction and hope; hence—
I. He became an inquirer.—
1. That he was a personal inquirer seems to be evident. In no sense was he like the members of the deputation sent to the Baptist. They were sent officially, in order to furnish an official report. Nicodemus came to Jesus for his own personal satisfaction—to seek for light on some of the questions clamouring for solution in his own mind.
2. Too much, perhaps, is made of the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night as a proof of his timidity and fear of compromising himself with his fellows. No doubt there might be a feeling in his mind that he must not too rashly compromise his position by openly seeking an interview with this Galilean teacher. But the reason for his choosing the evening hours for his visit may be found also, in part, in the fact that both he and our Lord were occupied during the day. No doubt a man in the position of Nicodemus was busily occupied at this busy time in Jerusalem. What hope would there be therefore of uninterrupted converse on the most momentous of all themes in the press and hurry of the day? And indeed, with the full moon of the passover week shining in all its brightness on the crowded streets, the night would be almost as public as the day.
II. The spirit in which Nicodemus began his inquiry.—
1. Jesus did not refuse to receive this man in those hours devoted to rest and refreshment. It was ever His meat to do His Father’s will. And the Saviour received him willingly. Besides, as we are told at the end of chap. 2 (John 3:24-25), Jesus “knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man,” etc. He saw behind the wrappings of Pharisaic formalism and prejudice of birth and training into the inner being of Nicodemus (as of Nathanael), and recognised there good soil where the good seed might bring forth manifold increase.
2. The opening words of Nicodemus, however, showed that the prejudices of class and training were still strong. He came confident in his own position. He was a leader in the Church of God, and from that very fact, he and all his compeers inferred, a subject of God’s spiritual kingdom. He came to find out indeed the standing of Jesus. Jesus, he felt assured, was “a teacher come from God.” But on what special mission, for what divine purpose, was He sent? It never occurred to Nicodemus that there could be any inquiry or doubt as to his own position.
III. The unexpected answer of Jesus to his inquiry.—In His answer our Lord shook to its foundations the self-confidence of Nicodemus: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
1. Our Lord at once reverses the current Jewish ideas concerning Messiah and His kingdom; He here lays the foundation of His teaching as to His kingdom—its spiritual nature and heavenly origin are plainly asserted. Not of human origin, no merely external rule or law, no earthly pomp, were to characterise it and its advent among men. Men do not become subjects of it by right of birth, office, position. They must be new born into it, with a new spirit not subject to evil, but inspired to overcome it.
2. Those who are “born again” (or from above) are those who become what they were not before, in whom an entirely new spiritual life has been implanted, and in whom this change has been brought about, not by the fulfilment of certain ritual or devotional duties, not even by repentance alone, but by the impartation of spiritual power from above. They alone shall “see the kingdom of God”; they alone can know this kingdom and understand it truly. As the eye is fitted for seeing the natural world, so must the inner eye of the soul, the moral being, be fitted by regeneration to see spiritual things. Nicodemus might have found teaching in this direction in the Old Testament revelation (Ezekiel 36:26; Ezekiel 18:31; Ezekiel 11:19; Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 32:39; Jeremiah 4:4).
3. Thus the ideas expressed in our Lord’s words would not be altogether strange to Nicodemus. Indeed, he felt their truth; but he could not imagine they could be applicable to himself. Was he not already in the kingdom of God? A descendant of Abraham, and from that very circumstance, as a faithful Israelite, the inheritor of the promises, what need for him to go through any new process to fit himself for that kingdom? Would it not be as possible for one grown to manhood to be born again as a little child? Any spiritual renewing for one like him would require to be preceded by a rebirth of the physical being as well.
4. Our Lord in His reply to this question, which reveals the astonishment and perplexity of the inquirer, explains more nearly the meaning of His answer, which Nicodemus had rightly appropriated personally. “Verily, verily, … except a man be born of water,” etc. There cannot here be any reference to Christian baptism, which was not then instituted. The reference was to John’s baptism, which at that time was creating much stir among the people, and which the Pharisees had rejected. Now our Lord here insists on that preparation of the heart of which baptism is the symbol, and which John preached, as an indispensable necessity for entrance into His kingdom (Luke 1:16-17). Repentance and pardon, of which baptism is the sign and seal, must go before, are the first steps in that new birth, which is effected by the Spirit of all grace. “The pardon which is symbolised by water-baptism is only the negative condition, the sine quâ non of the new birth. The positive principle of this inner fact is the Spirit, whom God gives to the soul which has been washed from its sin. As really then as salvation comprehends the two facts, pardon and regeneration, so really did Jesus sum up in the two words water and Spirit the whole of salvation, and consequently man’s entrance into the kingdom of God” (Godet). The baptism of the Spirit is what is essential (Matthew 3:11); but it must be preceded by that repentance and that faith which looks to Christ as the source of pardon, of which baptism is the sign and seal. This last will not be omitted by those who are loyal to Christ’s commands (Matthew 28:19-20) and apostolic usage.
5. “That which is born of the flesh,” etc. (John 3:6). In this truth is seen the possibility of the new birth. Where the Spirit comes with regenerating power, “old things pass away; behold, they are become new.” It is the true answer to “Can a man,” etc., of Nicodemus.
IV. The new birth is mysterious, yet comprehensible.—
1. Perhaps there was here a pause in the conversation, during which the evening breeze of the Syrian spring made its presence felt, as it gently whispered at ‘the chamber window, and entered with refreshing coolness. And then on the ear of Nicodemus fell the words, “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind,” etc. (John 3:7-8). The presence and power of the wind are evident. Even in these days, when meteorologists predict the direction, etc., of storm winds, still it is true we cannot tell at what spot it actually rises, etc. Especially is this so with the gentle spring and summer breezes.
2. So is it with the Spirit in the new birth. “Who can trace the weaving of the new life from its first threads which have been woven together by grace divine?” Who can tell when the earliest promptings of divine love began, trace the earliest workings of the Spirit, unfold in all its grandeur the process of the new birth in the soul? But the broad results and facts we can see and know. Just as the ordinary results of the working of the wind are evident, so is it with the working of the Spirit.
3. The time is coming when its full effects will be revealed (Colossians 3:3-4; 1 John 3:2). “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.” Yet even here and now proofs of the Spirit’s presence and activity abound. The fruits of the Spirit are manifest in the lives of God’s people (Galatians 5:22-26). There is a visible growth in grace—a visible change. The spiritually lame walk, dumb speak, etc.
V. The possibility and necessity of the new birth.—
1. “How can such things be?” (John 3:9). It was difficult for the Jew, who relied on his relation to Abraham, his being one of the chosen people of God, and his conformity to the law, to realise the necessity for spiritual regeneration. It was easier for the Gentile to understand this. Yet even among the Jews the necessity for some such change was seen (Psalms 51:12; Isaiah 44:3, etc.). But the scribes and Pharisees darkened the light of such truth by tradition. Thus even the “masters of Israel” (John 3:10) were often ignorant of those truths.
2. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak what we do know,” etc. (John 3:11). The Saviour in regard to such great truths placed Himself high above all earthly teachers, who often have to guess at truth. He spake what He knew, etc. It is fashionable in some quarters to speak of the nescience of Christ, of His having limited the sphere of His knowledge at His incarnation. Here Christ claims full knowledge of the highest truth. “If I have told you earthly things,” etc. (John 3:12), i.e. things already revealed to the Church on earth, such as this very truth of the new birth, “how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?” i.e. of the deeper truths of the Spirit’s working—the whence and whither of spiritual life in the soul—the mysteries of Redemption, the Atonement, and the Incarnation?
3. Christ is the revealer, through His Spirit, of these deep truths. He alone is competent to reveal them. “No man hath ascended,” etc. (John 3:13). This is no mere rhetorical expression, but the expression of a deep truth. “He came down from heaven”—as the angel of the covenant—to prepare the way by His Spirit in Revelation, and last in His incarnation. And He is “in heaven”—in His spiritual intimate communion with the Father, and in the sinlessness of His humanity. “I and My Father are one.” Heaven is a state, not a place.
4. The new birth cannot be brought about by our own power. Those dead in trespasses and sins must be quickened; their guilt must be cancelled, they must be reconciled. The atoning work of Christ is the only foundation for the new life. Faith within and His finished work are the means of union with Him; and in that union the new life is assured.
John 3:1-15. The new birth of men.—We assert:—
I. Its necessity on account of the divine Father’s righteousness.—
1. Man by nature is unregenerate. That which is born of the flesh is flesh.
2. The righteousness of the Father cannot, however, receive the unregenerate and unholy into its fellowship, because it requires men to be holy, and holiness is not characteristic of the natural man. If men desire, therefore, to enter into the heavenly kingdom, they must be born anew.
II. It is possible through the “lifting up” of the Son.—
1. Men have sinned, and therefore must some representative of humanity make satisfaction to the divine righteousness, and bear the punishment of sin. This Christ did in that He permitted Himself to be “lifted up” on the cross; in that He, being without sin, died upon the cross.
2. Those who look to the Crucified in faith are made partakers of the fruits of Christ’s death, are reconciled to the Father, and received by Him as children and heirs. For Christ is not lifted up on the cross only, but is also raised to the right hand of the Father, where He intercedes for His own with blessed results, and whence He works among His people through “water and the Spirit.”
III. It is efficacious through the working of the Holy Spirit.—
1. The Holy Ghost fills us with the power of a new life (of which baptism is the symbol), so that we can thereby attain to the renewal of our whole existence.
2. And whilst sin still retains some hold over us, and we may often fall into sin, the Holy Spirit ever aids us to rise again; and when we repent and turn to Christ in faith He imputes to us the work of Christ, assures us of forgiveness and sonship, maintains us in the faith, strengthens us to walk in righteousness and holiness, and finally intercedes for us “with groanings which cannot be uttered.”—From J. L. Sommer.
John 3:3-5. Spiritual regeneration, or the new birth.—The manifestations and operations of the Holy Spirit are manifold, from the time when He “brooded over” the chaotic elements and creation issued in harmony and order. So He works in the disordered moral nature of man. All along the course of history He has been striving “with men.” Through prophets and holy men He inspired God’s people with the hope of deliverance. But especially since, in accordance with Christ’s promise, He descended on the Church at Pentecost, has His working been manifest. We live in the dispensation of the Spirit—the teacher, counsellor, and Paraclete of Christ’s true followers. He dissipates their darkness, strengthens them in weakness, sanctifies their nature. No aspect of His work is more important than that set forth here—the mighty work of regeneration. Day by day is this miracle wrought. He comes into the human spirit in gentle visitings, so that what was before spiritual darkness and disorder becomes filled with light and attuned to order. We do not now intend to state minutely the great doctrine here implied; rather we shall see how the fact appeals to all, the fact of regeneration or conversion—regeneration from the divine, and conversion from the human, point of view.
I. The necessity for the new birth.—“Except ye be born again,” etc. No more important or momentous words could sound in men’s ears or tremble on their lips. If the Bible is God-given, if Jesus is the eternal Word, then there can be nothing passing this in importance. It is the point of junction of two roads,—one leading through many a lowly vale of humiliation, over many a hill of difficulty, but ending in everlasting glory; the other beginning in self-will and ending in despair. Without this vital change there can be for men no true spiritual heavenly life, or constraining love, etc. But what is the attitude of many, even subjects of the outward and visible divine kingdom, here? Do not many look on the subject with ill-disguised contempt? Do not many, when the change passes on others, consider them deluded—almost mad? Are not those under the influence of this change sometimes recommended to throw themselves into the gaieties of the world to drive away the cloud of spiritual care? Fatal folly! How terrible, how irrevocable sometimes are the results! Such men are blind leaders of the blind who regard the workings of the Spirit as signs of fanaticism, requiring to be corrected by their worldly wisdom. But this is the result of either unbelief or ignorance. Nothing is more plainly taught in God’s word than the necessity for this change. And it is not necessary in the case of the grossly wicked merely. They, of course, must be changed, regenerated, ere they can see the kingdom of God. But even men of good repute among their fellows may at heart be destitute of true love to God and man. This they must have if they would be God’s children. And no man can effect it of himself. The Spirit alone can do so, with His quickening and sanctifying power. And it is not a mere outward reformation that He effects. The inner alienation of the heart from God must be removed, and replaced by a totally different feeling. And that no man can do this of himself is simply a fact. The holiest will confess that it is so. True, much latent criminality may be kept in check by what might be called “artificial” means—the laws of social order, etc. But such restraint from sin has no affinity with regeneration. Even the most rigid restraints and the most strenuous self-endeavour cannot attain to it. A man may be benevolent, may give of his goods to feed the poor, may give his body to be burned, yet regeneration might still be afar. And men feel they need this vital change, and that no effort of theirs can effect it (Micah 6:6-7). This true and right state of heart can be attained to only by regeneration, not by any study of the divine character or the example of Jesus. The natural man cannot understand the things of God. It would be as easy to produce a flower by willing it. An artificial flower may be made by laborious work to look very beautiful, and almost to vie with a real flower. But a closer inspection and a test under the microscope will show how wide asunder the two are. God reads our hearts and knows our needs. And the Spirit of God alone can make us new creatures, filling our hearts with love divine. “Every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (1 John 4:7).
II. The manner in which the Spirit accomplishes this great work.—It is a mysterious process, as might have been expected. We cannot say when and how the Spirit may work. We can see the effects, as with the wind. The reason is that the spiritual working is conjoined with our human activity (Philippians 2:12), and we cannot always know where the one begins and the other ends in any particular case. [Is there not a tendency to take perhaps too “mechanical” views of the Spirit’s working sometimes in evangelistic work?] The change is not first external, but internal. It does not alter the nature or banish the natural feelings, emotions, etc., of the heart. It does consist, however, of a change in the dispositions that regulate these. In regeneration by the Spirit the will is regulated; the attitude of rebellion is changed; it becomes a will to do good. This change is not altogether disconnected from human agency and the use of means, e.g. the presentation of the Word, etc. But these are not sufficient of themselves; either men will not listen to them, or will not see their force when they do. He who is not born again cannot see the kingdom, etc. As well discourse to the blind of beauty, or to the deaf of harmony, etc. But open the eyes, unstop the ears, and then both will share in the same joy. So is it in the spiritual life; those from whose spiritual vision, etc., the film, etc., has been removed see and hear wondrous things in God’s law. And notice also how human activity is conjoined with the divine working. When the man’s eyes are opened he is to look, etc.
III. The manifestations of this change.—They vary as men vary. Sometimes it is almost imperceptible, when, e.g., the subject of it has been reared in a Christian home, and is of amiable, gentle character, like a Timothy. Yet an imperceptible something will show to those nearest that there is a difference—greater earnestness, more prayerfulness, etc. And it will certainly be known to the man himself, and that most surely by one supreme test—the love of the brethren (1 John 3:14). Yet again, as the wind not only comes in gentle breezes, rippling the lake, sighing through the forest, whispering at the chamber window, but sometimes rushes with hurricane fury, lashing the waters into storm, etc., so with some of strong nature or former great wickedness when they are born of the Spirit. But in every case the change will be evident—as the waving grain on harvest field is evidence that the seed sown germinated, etc. Has this change taken place in us? Nothing can be more important to us. Eternal issues depend upon it. Give no sleep to your eyes, nor slumber to your eyelids, until, if you have not yet experienced it, you pray with earnest desire that you may be “born again.”
A holy hour with Jesus in the silent night.—Let us seek to realise for ourselves this hour—
I. With its great inquiry (John 3:1-4);
II. With its wonderful instruction (John 3:5-12);
III. With its special reference to the Son of man, our Saviour (John 3:13-15).—M. Herold.
John 3:8. Spiritual life a divine inspiration.—Christian men have lost the belief of the apostles that God is speaking in us, witnessing in us; that we have an anointing of the Holy One. They speak instead of impressions and motives and influences, as if God were not to come into close contact with us, but were acting through these. Religious life has become a matter of self-searching into experiences, as things to be produced by exciting impressions. We no longer act as from the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; we no longer live as looking into the spiritual world. The Christian life has therefore lost much of its ancient might. But God’s Spirit is equally close, His voice equally near, though in a different way. Regeneration is impossible, apart from the direct touch and actual inspiration of God.
I. Spiritual life is a direct inspiration from God.—It is difficult to realise the fact. It is a truth out of the common range of everyday thought. This is so because we occupy ourselves so much with the outward aspects of life, and seldom enter the secret chambers of the Spirit. We feel ourselves so cold, etc., that we scarcely dare say, “I am actually touched, moved, inspired by the Almighty.” We think, too, of God as in the heavens. We forget that His presence in the heart alone begets that faith through which He reveals His glory. These words suggest two thoughts:—
1. Spiritual life is impossible apart from this inspiration.—To be born of the Spirit is to have a divine love created within, overthrowing the tyranny of the present, the sensual, the sinful, filling with heavenly hopes and aspirations, raising life above the downward, natural tendency to a life whose whole world is God and God’s heaven. Spiritual life is an elevation above the natural will, the natural inclination and tendency. And this can be produced only by the direct inspiration of the Spirit of God. For man cannot, by mere effort of his own, raise himself above the natural life. Look at Jacob, Saul of Tarsus, John the son of thunder.
2. That inspiration enters man in mystery.—We may trace the early signs of the Spirit’s power in the heart. We cannot penetrate the mystery which shrouds its origin. Man knows not when it begins, though he may know when its energy came forth in actual development. What commenced the change? Not man himself; for he knew it not till its power was felt within. So, too, sudden flashings of new meaning into old truths. What brought this about? Not man himself. Not of himself did he set out on the pilgrim path. A hand touched him, a voice called him.
II. Some of the results of realising this truth.—It would ever work a mighty change. God is brought near, prayer becomes inspired, we are freed from the spell of the material. Did we feel that this communion were ours, this inspiration, it would strengthen spiritual manhood.—Some think this doctrine enervates. They try to rouse themselves. But it rather inspires self-reverence, self-control, resistance of temptations. There is reverence for the soul in which God abides—we must watch its altar flame to keep it pure. It inspires us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in us. It imparts nobility to character.—The man who feels the divine Spirit working within him will not waste power in multiplied professions, or in doing things to be seen of men. It gives power to our Christian hope.—All angelic possibilities lie in the fact that we have within us the Spirit of God; for to be inspired by Him, to be thus open to communion with His love, is to have the “power of an endless life.”—E. L. Hull, B.A.
John 3:9. The manner of the new birth.—“How can these things be?”
I. Divine grace gives the new life from above.—
1. Except a man be born from above. This indicates the source of the new life.
2. Water and the Spirit, etc.—In this our Lord reveals the nature and manner of the new birth. The symbolism points back to creation (Genesis 1:2). The new creation follows an order as well as the old. The water is the symbol of spiritual cleansing; the Spirit is the element of a new spiritual life, not the spirit of human wisdom, etc., but the Spirit of God.
3. And it is only through the Son of man that this new Spirit of life comes to us (John 3:13), freeing us from servitude to sin, healing us, through His cross, from the poison of sin (John 3:14).
4. And the original height from which all this blessing flows down to men is the high summit of eternal love (John 3:16).
II. Faith lays hold of this divine gift.—
1. Scripture tells us that Christ has been lifted up, etc. But this does not make salvation my possession, etc.
2. But, brethren, how have you sought to make this gift yours? By your own head, heart, exertions? There is but one way: “We have believed and have known that Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” “If any man will do His will,” etc. (John 7:17); “Whosoever believeth,” etc. (John 3:15). Faith in the Son of God opens the door of eternal life.
3. This laying hold by faith is most natural. Suppose you seek to enter the service of some one on earth, how will you find out whether it will be a pleasant service? You can ask those who are already in it, and you can try it yourself. Ask those who have entered Christ’s service, and what is their testimony? Our Lord asked the disciples: “When I sent you without purse, etc., lacked ye any thing?” (Luke 22:35). Think of the history of the faithful—of even those who suffered for Christ’s sake, e.g. a Polycarp, etc. These old servants of Christ, grown grey in His service, testified to the blessedness of His service. And there are millions of witnesses to the same effect.
4. All have not a desire to believe. Humble yourself under the law, and you will see your need of faith, and be led to cry for it. And the cry, “Help Thou mine unbelief,” will speedily be answered.
III. The walk and conversation will bear witness to the new life.—
1. A web has two sets of threads—the warp and woof. A life has two sides: what God does for you, and what you do toward Him.
2. How does God deal with His believing ones? “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn,” etc. (John 3:17-18). As life begins here, so also does eternal death. God’s judgments are ever set. The stream roars loudest when it enters the sea and meets the billows; but it roars also along its course. And thus the stream of God’s judgments is ever flowing. For the unrepentant and unbelieving every calamity is a judgment, every whisper of conscience, and even the grace of God itself. It is dark in the heart when the will-o’-the-wisps of the world’s joy go out, and this darkness closes in the night of the grave, and darker night still.
3. But they who believe are not condemned. Grace and life meet them everywhere—become all their joy. They shall learn to love the Saviour more deeply—to cut away more earnestly the wild branches of the natural man. Grace is to them a cross—God’s pruning-knife. But the heart is light—it rejoices in the blessed light which streams from the throne of God; for those who believe are not condemned. This is how God deals with His redeemed children.
4. The attitude of the life toward God will also be manifest. The new-born spirit lives in Christ, and the walk and conversation are in Him, because Christ lives in them. Then there must be love to God. And their works “come to the light because they are done in God.” No cloak is thrown over the heart. The Lord is openly confessed. “He that doeth truth cometh to the light.” They must not seek to hide themselves. Thus we see how the new life is effected, how it is laid hold of, and how it manifests itself.—Dr. Fried. Ahlfeld.
John 3:14-15. The cross of Christ the source of life eternal.—These verses refer to a most interesting passage in the history of God’s ancient people. The narrative in which it occurs is not as Dean Stanley says, “the obscure record of a dark, confused time,” but rather the definite record of a definite event which left a deep impression on the minds of the people. Nothing could be more absurd than the conclusions stated by modern “higher critics” in reference to this incident. It is trifling with our intelligence to say that it proves that the Israelites were idolaters at the time of its occurrence, and worshipped the serpent—a cult that continued to Hezekiah’s time! (2 Kings 18:4). Did the critics never hear of the holy coat at Treves, and the relic’s adoration in the Romish Church? At the time of the incident, Israel, after being refused a way through the territory of Edom, had to struggle through the barren and rock-strewn valley of the Arabah. It was a terrible march—water was scant and bad, and the people contemned the daily provided manna. They became discouraged “because of the way” (Numbers 21:4). And forgetting former deliverances, they murmured and rebelled. In order to teach these rebellious Israelites their dependence on God, the poisonous spotted snakes common to the region were permitted to inflict on many the burning fiery bite which gave them their name (נְחָשִׁים שְׂרָפִים), so that a number of the people died. The punishment had the intended effect. It led to reflection and repentance. Moses was ordered to erect on a pole, in full sight of the people, an image of a serpent in brass or copper; and the promise was given that when those who were bitten looked on the brazen serpent they should live. Those who did look, believing the divine promise, were made whole.
I. Our Lord in His conversation with Nicodemus took this historical incident in Israel’s history as a type of His own atoning work. The serpent has usually been taken as a symbol of sin, or the power of evil. Even in this view the type will stand; for God made Christ “to be sin for us who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). But here rather the effect of the serpent’s bite signifies the results of sin. The sin of the Israelites was their unbelief and base ingratitude—this dread visitation their punishment. They were to learn that just as the reptile’s bite was deadly, so moral evil leads to spiritual death. Sin has introduced an element of confusion into human nature, which has turned it away from its true centre and life. In essence it is the setting up of ourselves and our own wills in opposition to the law and will of God; it leads to contemning the provision God has made for our spiritual life, and to seeking happiness in ways not His. The poison enters our veins. In place of the healthy flow of spiritual life, the elements of corruption begin their deadly work. It is a poison so subtle that it penetrates into all the powers of the soul, infects all the actions, etc. It strengthens as time passes. “Nothing grows weak with age but what will at length die with age” (South). Not so sin. Unless conquered and overcome, it daily grows and increases—a warning to those who linger on the brink of forsaking it. And if men are to be saved from spiritual death, this corrupting influence must be expelled, and a new life transfused in the nature. Men are unable of themselves to effect a cure, as Scripture and human experience tell us. Laws, education, moral teaching—all have failed—not to speak of crude attempts through sacrifice or asceticism. “None can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him” (Psalms 49:7).
II. There is a divine way of escape from sin.—“As Moses lifted up,” etc. In John 3:13 Jesus had said: “No man hath ascended,” etc. And in John 3:14-15, the reason of the descent of the Son of man is given.
1. Notice the divine necessity of the incarnation and offering up of Christ: “So must the Son of man be lifted up.” If men are to be saved from the power and effects of sin GOD must interpose. As at the command of God Moses set up the serpent of brass on the pole—symbol of the people’s salvation—like, yet so unlike, the source of their danger, the channel by which through faith came healing—so “God sending His Son,” etc. (Romans 8:3). He took on Him the form of our humanity, which had become corrupt and moribund; and in it as the representative of all men He triumphed over the powers of evil, bearing the penalty of sin, though Himself holy, harmless, etc.
2. The immediate means, as in the case of the Israelites, is faith. Faith forms the link between us and the source of all our hopes as we look on this representative of humanity lifted up upon the cross. The divine life and spirit in Him, source of His triumph, flow to us through faith as through an appointed channel, touching our sin-stricken souls. A new life, a new spirit from above, then interfuses and possesses us—the poison is neutralised. We become as new-born, with a nature freed from the deadly plague and quickened unto life eternal. This is God’s way of life. In view of it we may well cry with the apostle, “Oh the depth of the riches,” etc. (Romans 11:33).
III. The consideration of this truth should impress upon us two great outstanding facts.—
1. The terrible nature of sin.—The positions men occupy toward sin are very varied. Some are revelling in its pleasures, but have not yet felt its sting severely. Others have become enslaved by its power, and are filled with its misery. Others again are beginning to loathe the terrible bondage, and long for freedom. But no living man can realise all its awfulness and horror until he has viewed it in the light of the cross. When we come to understand who it was that was “lifted up” on Calvary, and for what end, then we see how eternally hateful and abhorrent sin must be to God. The Holy One was permitted, nay, was sent, to expiate it. And thus when temptation comes the redeemed man will say: “Can I do this great wickedness,” etc. Can I indulge in that to save me from the power of which the Saviour died?
2. And then there is the fact that we owe this great Redemption to the abounding love and mercy of God.—God did not forsake entirely His ancient people when they sinned. He led them to repentance. He did not forsake the whole human race, though they had wandered far from Him. Viewing their misery in the infinite depth of His pitying love, He was, in all the ages, preparing the way for the manifestation of His love in sending His Son. How could many, in view of such glorious declarations, speak in terms which implied that it was the Son’s interposition that turned aside divine wrath from sinful men! True there is divine wrath against sin, for sin cannot dwell with God; but there is also infinite love toward the sinner (John 3:16). “God commendeth His love toward us,” etc. (Romans 5:8).
3. Who that have thought on this mighty exhibition of divine love for their salvation can resist the power of that love, and still continue in their rebellion and alienation? With the story of that great love sounding in our ears—love mighty to save—let us turn away through God’s grace resolutely from sin, looking in living faith to Him who can save us from its guilt and power.
3. Born again.—The new life is called:
1. Being born again, in contradistinction to the natural birth;
2. It is called being born from above, or, born of God, because God and not man effects it;
3. It is called being born of water and the Spirit, in reference to the means through which it is brought about. The Romans observed a festival called Fontinalia—feast of fountains. They decorated the fountains with flowers and wreaths to express their thankfulness for the gift of water. By the light of nature they recognised the greatness of the blessing—that God sendeth the springs into the valleys, etc. (Psalms 104:10-14). The Romans, therefore, held their springs and fountains as sacred, and believed that each was guarded by a goddess. So many Christians hold a sacred festival around the holy spiritual springs opened up in the gospel.—J. J. Weigel.
John 3:3. The gifts of God to the spiritually new born.—Men are not born again in order that they may sin with greater impunity, but in order to live by the power of God, and to let the spirit of His grace work within them for their renewing. The Trinity brings those gifts.
I. God the Father gives His grace and the blessedness of sonship, the assurance of His fatherly care.
II. God the Son gives His love, the fellowship of His sufferings, the merits of His work, the assurance of His true and loving brotherhood, and the participation in His heavenly inheritance.
III. God the Holy Ghost gives His blessed comfort, and the assurance of His gracious indwelling, and mighty controlling power all through life until the end.—Idem.
John 3:4-5. How may we know that we are “fit for the kingdom of God”?—
1. By our confession of the Person of Jesus Christ;
2. By our longing for the regeneration of our inner nature;
3. By our experience of the working within us of the Holy Spirit;
4. By our faith in regard to the testimony of Jesus;
5. By the peace and consolation we experience beneath the cross of Jesus.—J. L. Sommer.
John 3:5. Water and the Spirit.—“Born of water and of the Spirit,” etc. Men must be born of water and of the Spirit. This is the weighty and unchangeable condition of entrance into the kingdom of God, as our Lord shows by the repeated verily (ἀμήν). A number of expositors think the ἐξ ὕδατος has a reference to Christian baptism; and seek to set aside the objection that Nicodemus could have then no knowledge of Christian baptism, with the remark that this was designed to prepare him for the clearer knowledge of it in the near future, when the actual disclosure could not be postponed. We take our place, however, on the side of those who refer the expression ἐξ ὕδατος immediately to John’s baptism. This alone was known to Nicodemus; to it the Saviour could turn the discourse in His teaching. The baptism of John was a baptism with water (John 1:26; John 1:31); and it was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Luke 3:3; Mark 1:4; Matthew 3:6). This baptism had made a deep excitement among the people, which the Pharisees rather resented (John 1:24). It was completed also by immersion; hence the expression ἐξ ὕδατος was most appropriate for this action. It was at this baptism also that John bore witness to Christ (John 1:33), as He who should baptise with the Holy Ghost. By the expression Πνεύματος we are to think of the Holy Spirit. To those who in baptism have their sins taken away and forgiven, which also occurred to those who repented in the case of John’s baptism (although there is a special promise for Christian baptism), God gives the Holy Spirit, which exercises a creative energy on men, because He fills them with the divine powers of life. So Hofmann understands the passage when he says: “Water and Spirit attest the beginning of the new life: water, as the Baptist administered it, and Spirit, as he himself promised it should be given by Him who came after him. He who was obedient to the word of God as it came through John, submitted to the water of his baptism, and held himself ready to receive the baptism with the Spirit from that Jesus to whom John bare witness.” Water and the Spirit—these are the means of the new birth. Through the pardon of sin and the communication of divine powers of spiritual life the new birth comes to pass. In the following verse the water is no more spoken of, but the Spirit, because the water in the transaction of being born again (or the new birth) only removes the hindrances. The creative power comes from the Spirit. Spiritual regeneration is indispensably necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God. For the nature of that kingdom is spiritual, and man by nature is of the flesh.—J. L. Sommer.
He connects the water and the Spirit, because under that visible symbol He attests and seals that newness of life which God alone produces in us by His Spirit.—John Calvin.
John 3:6. Flesh and Spirit.—
1. The rose bush has thorns, and so, too, has the thorn hedge The former, however, bears lovely roses, whilst the latter only pricks and tears with its thorns. How may man be likened to these plants?
(1) Repentant children of God have their faults, and falter in their holy purpose sometimes; yet they will always be found to have heartfelt sorrow, true repentance, prayer, faith and amendment of life.
(2) Hardened and godless men, on the other hand, have only the appearance of godliness in their lives, and then only for a time. But their lives are always filled with sins and transgressions.
(3) Men are not renewed, like a piece of old worm-eaten wood, by being painted over, and made to assume as fair an appearance as possible. They are renewed through grace; the blood of Christ penetrates with its power to the innermost recesses of the soul; and each man, thus born again, receives a new name, a new life, a new power, a new mind and heart.
(4) As from a bitter fountain we cannot draw one drop that is not bitter, and as in leavened dough no part is left unleavened, thus from sinful men nothing can come that is not influenced by their sinful nature.—J. J. Weigel.
John 3:6-7. Three questions answered in our Gospel.—
1. What are we?
2. What ought we to become?
3. How can we attain to what we should be?—V. Stählin.
John 3:8. The Wind and the Spirit.—Whatever be the difficulties that lie in the way of interpreting πνεῦμα as “Spirit,” they are not to be named or numbered with the thicket of difficulties and absurdities which beset its translation and interpretation as “wind.” Even supposing we discard the context, and treat John 3:8 as a saying unrelated to aught that goes before it, can we for a moment imagine that so wise a teacher as our Lord would ever confuse the mind of an enquirer by using an important word like πνεῦμα in two widely different senses within the compass of a single sentence? If that is inconceivable, I ask those who say we are to read “the wind blows,” what did our Lord mean by the words, “So is every one that hath been born of the wind”? This is a specimen of the difficulties which the old translation presents.… The interpretation of John 3:8 must be read in the light of John 3:6 : “That which has been born of the Spirit is Spirit.” It contains an amplification and illustration of that statement of the ruling principle of spiritual life. The particle of comparison, οὕτως “so,” limits the likeness to manner of action. The action of spiritual life in the spirit-born resembles the action of the life of the Holy Spirit. It is free; it manifests itself in ways that appeal to the mind and conscience; it is hidden or mysterious. There is no hint here, or in any other part of the record, of an intention to show that the subject was beyond the comprehension or apprehension of Nicodemus. A rabbi, in his distinctive position, … should have had sufficient acquaintance with the revelation of the Holy Spirit, and the record of spiritual life in the Old Testament, to enable him, in some measure, to apprehend such teaching.… The dictum of Meyer, that the Spirit never “blows,” is not so destructive as it looks to the proposal to translate τνέω by “breathe.” It suggests what is, after all, only a minor difficulty of the interpretation which I advocate. In Wilke and Grimm’s Clavis Novi Testamenti, we find under πνέω, “from Homer downwards to breathe, to blow.” In classical authors (see Liddell and Scott) πνέω is sometimes used of flowers giving forth their fragrance.… This suggests a wider meaning and application of the word than is suggested by the few instances in which it is found in the New Testament. It occurs, I believe, six times, πνοή, “breath” (Acts 17:25), “wind” (Acts 2:2). See also Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; Acts 5:5-10. If the absence of any other instances of such a modification of πνέω in the New Testament is still put forth as an objection to the translation “the Spirit breathes,” I would then say the objectors take a more unwarrantable liberty with πνεῦμα in translating it as “wind.” More reasonable is it, on one occasion, to slightly and legitimately modify the New Testament use of πνέω, which only occurs six times, than to change entirely the meaning of πνεῦμα, which occurs as “spirit” or “breath” three hundred and seventy times. Apart from John 3:8, there is only One instance where πνεῦμα may mean “wind” (Hebrews 1:7), and the interpretation of the quotation from the Old Testament in which it occurs is still in dispute. In this passage πνεῦμα, not πνέω, is the dominant word.—Rev. John Reid in “Expository Times.” [But may not our Lord, led by the circumstances, have made a play on the word, especially when we remember that it was an Aramaic word He would use? Such use of a word in a double meaning was not unknown in the Schools.]
John 3:8.—“The wind bloweth,” etc.—If we do not understand what comes under the cognisance of our senses, how can we understand fully and excogitate what is far beyond all human understanding? A modest acknowledgment of our ignorance is better here than a presumptuous inquisitiveness.
1. The wind blows in the air; the Holy Spirit breathes in the hearts of those who have been born again.
2. The wind awakes those who are slumbering; the Holy Spirit awakens the slumbering soul.
3. The wind drives before it the refreshing rains; the Holy Spirit brings the rain of penitent tears.
4. The wind blows the fire into a flame; the Holy Spirit quickens the spark of faith.
5. The wind purifies the air; the Holy Spirit sanctifies the hearts of believers.—From J. J. Weigel.
John 3:13.—Ascending with Christ.—
1. “No one hath ascended into heaven but the Son of Man”—“and,” said Maximilianus, when this was repeated to him when he was dying, “all who believe on Him.”
2. “If thou wilt ascend into heaven, become a member of Christ” (Augustine).
Nicodemus.—As the noblest mystics proceeded from the monks of the Roman Catholic Church, from the Dominicans especially, and the great Reformer Luther from the Augustinians, so two great witnesses of the most living Christian faith, Paul and Nicodemus, were supplied to the kingdom of God by the Pharisees, a party noted for their sanctimoniousness and bondage to the letter. In the person of Nicodemus, Christ at the very outset of His ministry conquered not only a Pharisee, but a ruler of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrin. It has been a common hypothesis in schools of theology, but without any foundation, to regard him as a spy, who at first came to Jesus with a sinister design. The sincerity of his inclinations toward Jesus is, from the first, decided; a genuine germ of faith already begins to combat his own pretensions and prejudices; otherwise he, an old man, could not resort to a young man, and, though a distinguished member of the Council, ask questions of the Galilean Rabbi as a scholar, thus putting his whole reputation in peril. We also see how this germ gradually increased in power, till perfected in the ripe fruit of faith, after passing in its development through distinct stages. But that the germ in its first form was feeble, Nicodemus plainly indicates, not only by his coming to Jesus by night, to which, no doubt, considerations of fear determined him, but also by the tenor of his language.—Lange, “Life of Chris.”
John 3:3. The childlike nature is of the kingdom of God.—You have the child’s character in these four things—humility, faith, charity, and cheerfulness. That’s what you’ve got to be converted to. “Except ye be converted and become as little children.” You hear much of conversion nowadays; but people always seem to think they have got to be made wretched by conversion—to be converted to long faces. No, you have got to be converted to short ones; you have to repent into childhood, to repent into delight and delightsomeness. You can’t go into a conventicle but you’ll hear plenty of talk of backsliding. Backsliding, indeed! I can tell you, on the ways most of us go the faster we slide back the better, slide back into the cradle, if going forward is into the grave—back, I tell you—back, out of your long faces, and into your long clothes. It is among children, and as children only, that you will find medicine for your healing, and true wisdom for your teaching. There is poison in the counsels of the men of this world; the words they speak are all bitterness, “the poison of asps is under their lips,” but the “sucking child shall play by the hole of the asp.” There is death in the looks of men, “their eyes are privily set against the poor;” they are as the uncharmable serpent, the cockatrice which slew by seeing. But “the weaned child shall lay his hand on the cockatrice’ den.” There is death in the steps of men; their feet are swift to shed blood; they have compassed us in our steps like the lion that is greedy of his prey, and the young lion lurking in secret places, “but in that kingdom, the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the fatling with the lion, and a little child shall lead them.” There is death in the thoughts of men; the world is one wide riddle to them, darker and darker as it draws to a close; but the secret of it is known to the child, and the Lord of heaven and earth is most to be thanked in that “He has hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them unto babes.” Yes, and there is death—infinitude of death—in the principalities and powers of men. “As far as the east is from the west,” so far our sins are—not set from us, but multiplied around us: the sun himself, think you how he “rejoices” to run his course, when he plunges westward to the horizon, so widely red, not with clouds, but blood? And it will be red more widely yet. Whatever drought of the early and latter rain may be, there will be none of that red rain; you fortify yourselves, you arm yourselves against it, in vain; the enemy and avenger will be upon you also, unless you learn that it is not out of the mouths of the knitted gun, or the smoothed rifle, but “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” that the strength is ordained which shall “still the enemy and avenger.”—Ruskin.
John 3:5. Our twofold nature and baptism by water and the Spirit.—We have a twofold nature—the nature of the animal and the nature of God; and in the order of God’s providence we begin with the animal. “Howbeit,” says St. Paul, “that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural.” Now the moment when these natures are exchanged is the moment of spiritual regeneration. A man is to be born of water, but far rather of the Spirit. Of this expression there are several interpretations: first, the fanatical one. Men of enthusiastic temperaments, chiefly men whose lives have been irregular, whose religion has come to them suddenly, interpreting all cases by their own experiences, have said that the exercise of God’s Spirit is ever sudden and supernatural, and it has seemed to them that to try and bring up a child for God in the way of education is to bid defiance to that Spirit which is like the wind, blowing “where it listeth”; and if a man cannot tell the day or hour when he was converted, to those persons he does not seem to be a Christian at all. He may be holy, humble, loving; but unless there is that visible manifestation of how and when he was changed, he must be still ranked as unregenerate. Another class of persons, of cold, calm temperament, to whom fanaticism is a crime and enthusiasm a thing to be avoided, are perpetually rationalising with Scripture, and explaining away in some low and commonplace way the highest manifestation of the Spirit of God. Thus, Paley tells us that this passage belongs to the Jews, who had forgotten the Messiah’s kingdom; but to speak of a spiritual, regenerative change as necessary for a man brought up in the Church of England is to open the door to all fanaticism. There is a third class, who confound the regeneration of baptism with that of the Spirit, who identify, in point of time, the being born of water and of the Spirit. And it seems to them that regeneration after that is a word without meaning. Of this class there are two divisions: those who hold it openly in the Church of Rome, and those who do not go to the full extent of the Romish doctrine on this subject. These will not say that a miracle has taken place, but they say that a seed of grace has thus been planted. Whichever of these views be taken, for all practical purposes the result must be the same. If this inward spiritual change has taken place at baptism, then to talk of regeneration after that must be an impertinence. But, brethren, looking at this passage, we cannot be persuaded that it belongs to the Jew alone, nor can we believe that the strength of that expression is mere baptism by water. Here is recorded that which is true not for the Jew or heathen only, but for all the human race, without exception. “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”—F. W. Robertson.
John 3:14-15. The crowning attribute of God.—The cross tells us that the attribute by which God fights against sin is His love. The very fact that Jesus Christ appeared in the flesh showed that God had made common cause with us; and the fact that Jesus died upon the cross is the declaration that upon God’s part all hindrance is removed, and that His will—yea, His yearning desire—is that men should be reconciled to Him. It is by the sunshine of His love that He melts our hard hearts. Force is no remedy. Force may break in pieces the ice, and yet every fragment remains hard: “sunshine makes it flow down in sweet water that mirrors the light that loosed its bonds of cold” The thunder of threatening may appal us, the power of God may humble us and crush us, but it is the love of God that brings back the lost, and wins the wayward heart, and quenches the fire of lust, and makes us His true children. The cross tells us that the crowning attribute of God is love. Love, as it were, is throned and sceptred, and uses all the other attributes of God as her tools and instruments. They all are but the “ministers of love, and feed her sacred flame.” God is love. This is the message, above all others, that has gone to the heart of the world.—Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll.
EXPLANATORY AND CRITICAL NOTES
John 3:16-21. These verses are confidently held by many to contain the reflections of the Evangelist, and not to be a continuation of our Lord’s discourse. But
(1) there is not the slightest indication of a transition from Christ’s words to a disciple’s comments on them; and
(2) we cannot think that our Lord would have let Nicodemus depart without a distinct assertion that the Son of man was none other than the Son of God, as the Baptist declared Him to be; and without further instruction in the mystery of redemption. Nicodemus was, we may believe, now a humble learner, and that now our Lord’s discourse flowed on uninterruptedly. The discourse is not, we may affirm, reported in full. The Evangelist, directed by the Spirit, recorded what was of universal interest and importance; and perhaps also we have at the close a condensation of our Lord’s utterance. St. John did not profess to have recorded every word spoken by the Saviour, any more than all His actions (John 20:30; John 21:25; Acts 20:35). God so loved, etc.—The love, and not the wrath of God, is the source of redemption for mankind. Gave His only begotten Son (2 Corinthians 9:15).—It was during this conversation most likely that John first heard this striking title (1 John 4:9). Believeth upon (εἰς).—Implying the idea of assured trust in the Son as the all-merciful and almighty.
John 3:17. Condemn.—Better judge (κρίνειν). “It means originally to separate, and in the moral sense to separate good from evil. Passing from the act to the effect, it may mean to absolve; but as the usual effect of separation is to exclude the evil, the word has attached to itself frequently the idea of condemnation” (Watkins). Judgment is not the end of Christ’s coming, but salvation. That the world, etc.—How condemnatory of sectarian limitations of the power of Christ’s saving work!
John 3:18-19. But though Christ did not come to judge, the effect of His coming is judgment. And this judgment is not an arbitrary act. It is the result of men’s own choice. Those who remain in the bondage of sin shall taste the penalty of sin (Romans 6:23). This is their judgment. This judgment is made imperative by the entrance of light into the world. It was then evident that men loved darkness rather than light—darkness absolutely (σκότος) in contradistinction to light.
John 3:20-21. Here the explanation of this awful choice made by unrenewed humanity is given. He that doeth evil, etc.—Doeth (πράσσων), or practiseth, evil (φαῦλα), or bad actions. To see such actions for a moment in the light of eternal truth is to condemn them. Those who find pleasure in them therefore avoid the light. But he that doeth (ποιῶν) truth, etc.—ποιῶν “implies effective realisation—in good-doing the product remains” (Godet). “Right action is true thought realised” (Westcott). “Among mankind before Christ there mingle two kinds of men. With the appearance of Jesus their separation begins” (Lücke). And with this word of hope to Nicodemus—hope that he was of the number of those doing truth—the interview with him ends.
John 3:22. After, etc.—I.e. after the occurrences related from John 3:13 in the previous chapter. The land of Judæa means the country districts of Judæa. No further record of this work, in which our Lord must have increased the number of His followers, is given, as Jesus did not baptise personally, but through His disciples (John 4:2).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—John 3:16-21
The blessedness to which the Spirit leads us through regeneration.—Faith in Christ, as St. John points out, is the means through which men attain to the new life (John 3:15). We must surrender ourselves and trust in Him for all. But faith also is “the gift of God.” Of ourselves alone we cannot attain it; for sin has darkened our spiritual vision and weakened our spiritual power. But faith is given by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:9). He transforms our nature—through Him it is born anew. The darkness is cleared away from our spiritual vision, and spiritual strength is given to those who have no might. And thus the spiritually renewed are led to rejoice in—
I. The unchanging divine love, which is revealed as the eternal spring of redemption.—
1. It was not from an unwilling God that mercy was won for perishing men. God Himself is fons et origo of all the mercy and goodness and love which have been showered on men, sinful as they were, through the long course of history.
2. Nay, more: when no man could “redeem his brother, or bring to God a ransom for him,” God sent His only-begotten Son, gave Him up to live and die for man’s salvation.
3. And the reception of and participation in this heavenly gift is assured to those who believe. And those who thus receive Christ and His salvation are led ever more joyfully to understand the mystery of the divine love—to realise “that God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).
II. Those who are spiritually renewed rejoice in having escaped from the terrible judgment of unbelievers.—“He that believeth not is condemned already,” etc. (John 3:18-20)
1. Those who turn away in unbelief from God’s dear Son bring judgment upon themselves, and shut themselves out from the divine mercy in Christ. They reject Christ’s expiation of the offended divine law, and the means by which the new spiritual life is alone begotten in men; thus the final judgment will simply be a declaration of their self-condemnation. They will stand self-condemned before the Judge (Revelation 6:16).
2. And, as a result of this rejection of Christ, the light of men, the unbelieving sink into ever deeper darkness, the heart becomes hardened, the dominion of evil is ever more firmly established. Evil becomes their good—they devour iniquity (Proverbs 19:28), wickedness is sweet in their mouths (Job 20:12). And because of this they hate the light, for it intrudes on their peace, and threatens to snatch their pleasure from them. But the end is certain; it is condemnation—eternal loss. Thus the Spirit brings before believers this terrible result of unbelief as a warning; and they are led thereby more fully and even tremblingly to rejoice in their salvation.
III. And, last, the blessedness of the new life is a cause of rejoicing.—
1. It is free from the fear of judgment; for over the believer the Eternal Judge Himself has cast the shield of His grace. “There is no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus,” etc. (Romans 8:1). The eternal judgment will be but the open manifestation of God’s love to His people; and in the judgments and trials that overtake them here they realise “not tokens of wrath, but of gracious chastisement.”
2. And in the life of faith men ever seek the light—desire ever more fully to know themselves, their weaknesses, their follies, their sinfulness; and to know Christ and the gospel of His grace, that those evils may, through the grace of His indwelling Spirit, be ever more eliminated. By the truth enlightened, they order their way and work to the honour of God, in all things seeking to adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour, and to demonstrate that the life they now live in the flesh they live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved them and gave Himself for them; they work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing and acknowledging that it is God who works in them, etc. (Philippians 2:13), so that their “deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God.”
John 3:16-21. The office of the Holy Ghost.—This office has two sides: the Holy Ghost gathers together and separates—unites and divides.
I. He reveals the love of God.—
1. The object of this love: God loved the world.
2. The manner and kind of this love: God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Song of Song of Solomon 3:0. The condition of this love: whosoever believeth in Him.
4. The purpose of this love: God gives His Son that we may not perish, but that we may have eternal life. Not that He might judge the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.
II. He executes judgment.—
1. Through His continued pentecostal activity, in that He reveals the love of God in Christ to us poor sinful men, and to a lost world, and in that He shows the mighty so (οὕτω) of this love. He not only gathers the Church, but in so doing carries out a solemn judgment. It is a momentous fact that those who believe are not judged, whilst the unbelieving are judged already.
2. How is this judgment, this separation, effected? Attend first to the effect which the heart experiences in which the Holy Spirit witnesses to the love of God. Christ is the light which penetrates into the heart of man, and reveals the existing darkness. The man is dismayed, but he fears the struggle. He resolves to remain as he is. Thus arises the opposition to this apprehension by the Spirit. But because the Holy Spirit does not leave hold of the man who has been convicted, the opposition may gradually become hatred of the light that shines in on his darkness. The man then enters on the way of darkness, in which his deeds are evil, and does not come to the light, so that his works may not be detected, and lose their delight, etc.—Appuhn in J. L. Sommer’s “Evang. Per.”
John 3:16-21. The double office of the Holy Spirit.—He is:
I. A guide to the way of salvation, John 3:16-18; John 3:21.—
1. He holds up to our view the love of God in Christ.
2. He leads us to regard the Saviour as dear and beloved.
3. He enkindles faith in us.
4. He gives us assurance of life eternal.
5. He sanctifies and renews us.
He is further—
II. A judge of those who contemn the great salvation.—
1. He condemns the darkness of unbelief and those who love it.
2. He separates the unbelieving and carnally minded from the community of the faithful.
3. He represents to them their unbelief as the sole cause of their condemnation.—Dr. v. Biarowsky.
John 3:16. The love of God.—John is veritably the apostle of love. He alone of all the apostolic band seems to have been chosen to understand somewhat the deeps of this divine love, so that he might tell it to men. The spirit of inspiration chooses fitting instruments; and we must assume that by nature and grace St. John was best fitted to make known the gospel of eternal love. Here, for the first time, he opens for us in his Gospel this eternal spring. Its presence had been implied before, when the revelation of Christ was spoken of; but now it is clearly made known. Notice:—
I. The eternal spring of love.—
1. It is God Himself. He is the fountain of love. Many glorious things are spoken of God. His eternity, “the same yesterday,” etc.; His almighty power, so that He speaks and it is done, etc.; His omniscience, His wisdom, are all brought before us, and evoke our adoration and praise.
2. But this feature of His nature is pre-eminent. It is said God is the righteous One, holy One, etc. But it is not said, He is righteousness, etc. It is said He is love. This is the attribute that runs through and dominates all the others.
3. How comforting is this revelation of the divine love. How it has altered men’s ideas of God, and changed to them the face of the universe! How dark and terrible were men’s thoughts of the heavenly Father in times of old, when they offered children in sacrifice, etc.
4. Now how changed is the face of the universe! Jesus has told us of the Father’s care and love for the fowls of the air, the lilies of the field. And nature now is to the Christian everywhere vocal of love divine. History we read with new light in view of this glorious revelation. And especially in the history of His dealings with men it shines conspicuous; throwing its golden light over all. But further—
II. God first loved the world.—
1. It would have been long ere the world would have come to love Him. But “He first loved us,” and our love would never have blossomed in response to His had He not loved us.
2. And first, what does this imply in its fulness? It implies an eternity of love. In the Son whom He loved from eternity He loved His people. Thus all through the course of the world’s history, even when He seemed to be coming only in wrath, God has been coming in love to men.
3. And we live in times when the most amazing proof of that love has been bestowed. “He gave His only begotten Son,” etc. And in all the Church and history of the Church that divine love speaks in convincing tones—in that word of salvation preached, in those ordinances, the observance of which tends to the soul’s spiritual health, in those gifts of the Spirit given freely to them who believe, in those promises that draw us near to the throne of grace,—in all these the love of God is proclaimed to our wondering eyes.
4. How has that love cared for us and watched over us from infancy until now—not turned aside through waywardness, etc.! God first loved us!
III. Walk in the belief of His love and thus taste its joy.—I. Believe on Him who is the gift and revealer of God’s love. Then love will cast out fear.
2. Love will also strengthen to labour. When the sun rises man goes forth to his work, and when the sun of love in Christ shines on a man he becomes diligent for God. Fear for eternity has vanished, and he labours joyously in time.
3. He who believes in God’s love fears not the storms of temptation or trial. Are they not in God’s hands? Shall they not work together for good?
4. Those who abide in love abide in God and God in them. Thus they can “never perish.” Abiding in God’s love through Christ they are eternally safe—safe amid all the turmoil of time until the rest of the Father’s house is reached. This is heaven on earth, and therefore no condemnation.
John 3:17. No condemnation.—How great the truth revealed in those simple words—God sent His Son. Jesus Christ His Son came to earth sent by the Father in love to men. The end of His mission was salvation to our perishing race. This great truth is brought before us in two aspects.
I. No condemnation.—
1. His Son was sent not to condemn. Nay, His very name was a sign and symbol of safety, He was called Jesus—a Saviour.
2. The world lay justly under condemnation. It would have sufficiently vindicated the divine justice to have carried out a sentence of condemnation. And the history of all races and religions shows how conscious men were of being under condemnation,—how they feared that it would be carried into effect.
3. But God’s ways are not man’s ways. His love and pity for men found a way by which this condemnation might be averted.
4. “His tender mercies are over all His works.” This has been shown all down the history of the past. It is seen in His providential dealings with man. He has so ordered the course of nature that “seedtime and harvest, summer and winter,” etc. (Genesis 8:22), have visited the earth, made it fruitful. He has sent men rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, etc. (Acts 14:17). All this showed His loving care, and might have led men to expect that some further loving purpose lay behind.
5. This gracious purpose is seen in redemption, in His sending the Son—not to condemn the world. But there is a further side of this purpose of God, and that is—
1. No condemnation might still have left us far from God. There was an actual purpose of blessing beyond and above this, in God sending His Son. It was, “that the world through Him might be saved.” God could have destroyed, condemned the world without sending the Son. But it was necessary in order to the world’s salvation that He should come.
2. He came to save His people from their sins. It was sin that lay at the basis of alienation and condemnation; and Jesus came not in wrath but in love, to save men from it, by taking away, in His own sufferings and death, the sins of the world.
3. How great was this salvation which He brought. Moses was privileged to lead Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and Joshua to lead the ransomed people into the Land of Promise. But the Son was sent to deliver the world from the bondage of sin, and bring unto all believers the promise of a heavenly inheritance.
4. God sent the Son for this great end. “He is the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9).
5. And He alone could undertake this office; for He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is God with men—in all the fulness of the divine power. The Creator, the Preserver, etc., who took upon Him the form of a servant, but whose glory was manifest in the flesh. He is God for men. He was sent and came to stand in man’s room. He has authority and power to do so. Men died in Him unto sin. Through faith in Him they live. And He is God in men—in those who believe. “Christ in us the hope of glory.” Here is salvation. With Him in us and we in Him, how can we perish? Nay, a world shall be saved! The last shall not outnumber the saved. The purpose of God towards the world shall not fail (Acts 3:20-21).
1. Consider the greatness of God’s love in Christ! He might have destroyed the world, as at the flood, etc. But He chose the way of love, which meant the way of self-sacrifice and humiliation for the Song of Song of Solomon 2:0. How shall they escape who neglect so great salvation? (Hebrews 2:3).
3. Let the divine love constrain us to faith and willing submission. Thus shall we best glorify His name by believing in Jesus.
John 3:20. Love not the darkness.—Sin is darkness. It leads to men turning away from the light, i.e. from God, as Adam and Eve hid themselves from God when they had fallen.
I. Sin in its nature is darkness.—
1. It is a denial of man’s dependence on God, and an attempt to cut the life loose from Him—“to be as gods.”
2. This ends in disobedience to the divine law, which is man’s light; and in turning away from the source of that light.
3. All ways that lead from God lead to darkness and death.
II. The results of sin lead to ever-increasing alienation and darkness.—
1. How terribly this has been brought out in the world’s history! “Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the people.” And men became so accustomed to this state that they loved darkness rather than light.
2. Indeed the entrance of light became a pain. There were still ways in which it could make itself felt, through conscience, through the shame which men often felt at sin; for God’s image, though broken, was not entirely destroyed. But this entrance of the light brought pain. It brought restriction to the lower nature, which had now gained the ascendency, and it showed how far men had fallen, to what height they must attain.
3. Thus they came to love darkness rather than light, and this was their condemnation. Not that they were sinful and in darkness, but because they clung to it even after the light had come. And thus Christ, who came to save, becomes in the nature of things their Judge (John 15:22-24).
III. The way of escape from the darkness of sin.—
1. “Awake, thou that sleepest,” etc. (Ephesians 5:14). The light has come.
2. Christ brings the true knowledge of God, of ourselves, and of the way of salvation.
3. The sun of righteousness has arisen, and with that rising the hope and promise of escape from the darkness of self and sin, to those who believe.
John 3:22-24. Our Lord’s ministry in rural Judea.—In Jerusalem our Lord came unto His own—the very centre of the Theocracy—and His own received Him not. He therefore turned His face again toward Galilee. But on the way He lingered in the rural parts of Judea with His disciples, attracting men to Him, and baptising, not personally, but through His disciples, those who believed on Him (John 4:1). Who those disciples were we cannot well determine. Peter was not there, it would seem; for although a disciple, he had in the meantime returned to his avocation (Mark 1:16-18). John the Evangelist was with Him, and perhaps one or two of the others already called. Probably, also, some who attached themselves to Him on this ministry. We notice:
I. The initiation of Christian baptism.—
1. By the command, in Matthew 28:19, baptism was ordained as an universal possession for all people—a means of grace designed for all ages.
2. In reply to the question why Christ Himself did not baptise but through His disciples, the answer which seems most conclusive is that He desired that all His people should have the assurance that baptism by the hands of His disciples is to be accounted as His baptism.
II. The earnest activity of the Saviour.—
1. “Work while it is called to-day” was a prominent characteristic of His activity;
2. And in every place, at all times, He must needs be about His Father’s business—a happy example for all His true disciples never to neglect opportunities of proclaiming the truth of God.
III. The result of this activity.—
1. It seems to have been phenomenal—“the same baptiseth, and all men come to Him” (John 3:26). Disciples were gathered.
2. Here again to the babes—simple countryfolk—were revealed the things which were hid from the wise and prudent in Jerusalem.
John 3:16. The greatness of the divine love.—A well-known proverb is, Like draws to like. But here there is an immense dissimilarity.
1. Who is God? The Being of beings, the Almighty, the Light of lights.
2. What are you?—a shadow, a vapour. The greatness of faith.—
1. In faith God has chosen His people to blessedness from the beginning (2 Thessalonians 2:13);
2. Through faith they can come by Christ’s blood to a throne of grace (Romans 3:25);
3. Through faith they come to God (Hebrews 11:7);
4. Through faith they have peace with God (Romans 5:1);
5. Through faith they receive forgiveness of sin (Acts 10:43);
6. Through faith they are accounted righteous (Romans 4:5);
7. Through faith they overcome the world (1 John 5:4);
8. The end of faith is the salvation of the soul (1 Peter 1:9). Happy and blest are they who have believed. The greatness of this word.—Frederick of Denmark chose this verse as his “sleeping cup.” Receiving this great saying in faith he fell asleep in the Lord gently and blessedly. Monica, the mother of Augustine, used it as a heavenly pinion. Hearing it in the course of a sermon, she was so entranced that she began to cry out, “Avolemus, Avolemus!” (Let us soar upward). Abraham Buchholzer, a noted chronologist, held it before him as a shield against the temptations of the enemy. When, on a bed of sickness, he was oppressed with temptation he cried out without ceasing, Not lost, not lost! referring to this verse, “Whosoever believeth shall not perish.” Luther called this verse parva biblia (little Bible), because it contained in it the kernel of the whole of Scripture. And when it was repeated to him on his death-bed he said: “It is my favourite cordial.” Luther also wrote of this verse as follows: “This is one of the best and most glorious of evangels, and were well worth being written in golden letters, not on paper, but where it may be, on the heart; and well would it be if it were the subject of daily meditation in every Christian’s prayer, to strengthen faith, to awake the heart to supplication; for these are words that can turn sorrow into joy, and make the (spiritually) dead alive, if only the heart would steadfastly believe them.” We behold here the contents of evangelical doctrine and the paragon of consolation. If this saying alone is laid hold of truly by faith, it will enable a man in utmost peril to withstand all fiery darts, to be victorious in all temptations, and lay hold of life eternal. Do not shut yourself out; God does not desire that you should be shut out.—From J. J. Weigel.
John 3:16. The eternal love of God.—God has not waited for us to love Him; before all time, before we were endowed with life, He thought of us, and thought of doing us good. What He meditated in eternity He has performed in time. His beneficent hand has bestowed every variety of blessings upon us; neither our unfaithfulness nor our ingratitude has dried up the fountain of His goodness to us, or arrested the stream of His bounty. O thou eternal Love, that hast loved me when I could neither know nor acknowledge Thee! immeasurable love! that has made me what I am, that has given me all I possess, and that has yet promised me infinitely more! O love without interruption, without change, that all the bitter waters of my iniquities could not extinguish! Have I any heart, O my God, if I am not penetrated with gratitude and love for Thee?—Fenelon.
John 3:16. Shall not the love of God constrain us to love Him?—Are there yet amongst us those who have never felt the love of God as shown in the gift of His Son? Are there hearts which can warm to every benefactor but the greatest, throb kindly towards every friend but that One who died in man’s stead, and give their quick sensibilities to every tale of heroism and philanthropy but that which describes how “the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost”? Indeed we must fear that there are yet many whose affections are in full play towards all but God; many who, in the domestic circle and the intercourse of life, show themselves possessed of fervent affections and acute sensibilities, but who are yet utterly indifferent in regard to the things done “for us men and for our salvation.” What shall we say to such? You have not, but surely you must wish to have, a lively sense of the love shown towards you in redemption. Then, when you go hence, read, in one of the Gospels, the account of Jesus Christ’s sufferings and death; read it with prayer that God would take away the heart of stone and give the heart of flesh; and we shall still hope for you that you will know the gushings of a thankful spirit, and feel a thrill of gratitude at the announcement that God so loved you as to give His own Son to die in your stead.—Henry Melvill.
John 3:17. The victory of eternal love.—The result of all this is, that the suffering is efficacious—“He taketh away the sin of the world.” The blood of bulls and of goats could never take away sin, but this Man has offered up one sacrifice for sins for ever. “He taketh away;” it is not merely, “He bears the sin of the world.” He takes it away by taking it upon Him. Many an unconscious victim had shed its blood for the sin of the world, and yet the sin remained. Many a great heart had borne the sin of the world, and had broken under the weight, and still the sin remained. There had been many that palliated the sin of the world, and yet it remained. It is possible to disguise the sin of the world, to drive it under the surface, to cover it with a fair exterior, to make excuse for it, but that is not to take it away. It is possible to fight with separate sins of the world, and in some measure to master them, but as long as any sin remains the sin of the world has not been taken away. But Jesus came not to deal with the sins of the world, but with the sin of the world. In human nature strictness in one direction often compensates itself by laxity in another, and men dream that they have overcome sin when they have gained a victory in some isolated fragment of the world of moral duty. But to exchange one sin for another, as Samson the Nazarite did, is not redemption. Nor is the mere escaping from the penalty of sin redemption. Redemption means the removal of sin, not merely of the punishment of sin; and He who dealt with sin effectually by taking it away was Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. The sin of the world, not the sins. The victory of Christ was over sin as a unity, the whole corruption of human nature which finds expression in separate sins. The sin of the world is regarded as heaped up in one tremendous pile, and that pile laid upon the head of Christ. That was the load which He staggered under. Think of the sin of one life—the sin with which it is born, the sins of childhood, youth, manhood, age; the sins of broken vows, broken oaths, unfulfilled duties; and then multiply that one life by the numbers of all the world, and consider what a foe it was Christ came to reckon with, what a foe it was that He overcame in the body of His flesh through death.—Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll.
EXPLANATORY AND CRITICAL NOTES
John 3:23. Ænon near to Salim (Αἰνών, from עַין, Arab. عين, a spring).—Salim was long supposed to have been situated about eight miles from Beth-Shean, i.e. in the north of Samaria. But this would discord with John 3:22. Recent research has, however, discovered a site more in consonance with the narrative. “Dr, Barclay (City of the Great King) found both names in a place answering the description … at Wady Farah, about five miles from Jerusalem” (Watkins).
John 3:24. For John had not yet been, etc.—I.e. the events here related are prior to those of Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14. Thus the Synoptists Matthew and Mark omit all mention of the Galilean ministry recorded in John 1:43 to John 2:13.
John 3:25-26. There arose therefore a questioning on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew, etc.—The reading Ιουδαίου, = a Jew, rests on all the best MSS. (א excepted). The proximity of Jesus, whose disciples also baptised, to John, gave an appearance of rivalry The question about purification apparently had reference to that needed for entrance into the Messianic kingdom. John’s disciples evidently claimed pre-eminence for their master’s baptism; but this Jew would probably point to the fact that John himself had pointed out the higher position of Jesus, to whom now crowds of disciples were flocking. John’s disciples therefore came to him for enlightenment on the subject.
John 3:27-36. John answered, etc.—The Baptist in his reply to his disciples points out Christ’s relation to Himself, and then (John 3:31-36) the true position of Christ as “above all.”
John 3:27-28.—He gives the statement of a general principle which applies both to himself and to Christ in His mediatorial capacity. He then proceeds to apply this principle first to his own relation to Christ, showing that it is one of subordination. I am not the Christ, etc.—The disciples themselves remembered that this was so (John 3:26 : comp. John 1:7; John 1:26; John 1:34).
John 3:29. He that hath the bride, etc.—This comparison of the Church to a bride, and the typical use of the marriage tie as emblematic of the relation of Jehovah to His people, is taken over from the Old Testament (comp. Isaiah 54:5; Hosea 2:19). The imagery continued to be used by the writers of the New Testament as peculiarly suitable to describe the relation between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7; Revelation 21:2; Revelation 21:9; Matthew 9:15; Matthew 21:1; Matthew 25:1, etc.). Friend of the bridegroom, etc.—The παρανύμφιος of the Greeks, the שׁוֹשְׁבֶן of the Jews, who arranged for all the preliminaries of the marriage, and presided at the betrothal and the wedding feast; in fact, whose special duties as “friend of the bridegroom” did not cease until bridegroom and bride were brought together. And this, the culmination of his special duty, was the cause of his greatest joy. The representatives and the firstfruits of the New Testament Church were now flocking to Christ.
John 3:30. He must increase, etc.—“The office of the Paranymph ceases to exist when the marriage is accomplished” (Watkins).
John 3:31-36.—Here the Baptist sets forth the true position of Christ as “above all,” and His relation to the world. This paragraph is held by many to represent the reflections of the Evangelist (Bengel, De Wette, Westcott, etc.). The chief argument is that the style is more Johannine than that of the preceding verses (27–30). But as Godet points out (vol. ii., 90), our Lord and the Baptist spoke the same Aramaic tongue. This of itself would produce a general likeness in the translation. But more than that, these concluding verses contain part of the answer of the Baptist to his disciples, which would otherwise be incomplete. It therefore seems better to hold with Hengsten berg, Godet, Alford, etc., that these are the Baptist’s words.
John 3:31-32. From above, etc. (comp. John 3:13; John 1:15-18; John 1:34).—He that is of the earth is of the earth, etc. (ἐκ τῆς γῆς). “The earthly teacher, and such were all who came before Christ, is contrasted with the One Teacher from heaven:
(1) in origin (of the earth, from above, of heaven);
(2) in being (of the earth, above all);
(3) in teaching (of the earth, what He hath seen and heard in the kingdom of truth)” (Westcott). No man receiveth, etc.—“Over against the exaggeration of envy he sets that of zeal: ‘Where ye say all, I for my part say no man.’ He would not be satisfied unless he saw the Sanhedrin as a body, followed by the whole people, coming to pay homage to the bridegroom of the Messianic community” (Godet). But perhaps John’s meaning is: “None of those people now crowding to Him receive Him as the Son of God, the Messiah, come from heaven to save men from their sins” (John 1:29; John 1:36).
John 3:33-34. Set to his seal (ἐσφράγισεν).—Attested by this very fact his belief in the words of Christ as the truth of God. For God giveth not the Spirit by measure, etc—Even if Θεὸς is omitted, with א B, etc., God will still be understood and supplied (John 1:32-33). If, however, (Messiah) giveth not the Spirit by measure be maintained as the reading, then the meaning will be, “He shows His origin by giving the gifts of the Spirit to His people” (John 1:33).
John 3:36. The wrath of God abideth.—It is not specially meted out; it is there already, and simply remains for all who remain in their sins (Ephesians 2:3).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—John 3:23-36
The Prince appears, the herald, withdraws.—When the Lord comes, the servant withdraws; when the sun arises the twilight vanishes, and the stars fade and disappear. So necessarily must John the Baptist lay down his office when Jesus began His ministry. The baptism of repentance must give place to the baptism with the Holy Ghost and with fire. John could not now be the leader; he must be content to be led; in place of now drawing disciples to himself, he must direct his own disciples and all others to Jesus. Recognising, therefore, the limits of his mission and work, John stepped aside, so that there might be but one centre—Christ. Therefore:—
I. The herald withdraws.—
1. The circumstance which led to this ‘final testimony of the Baptist to the greatness of Jesus and His work was a “dispute between some of his own disciples and the Jews (or a Jew) about purifying” (John 3:25). John was baptising at Ænon, near to Salim, not having been cast in prison as yet by Herod. The dispute was concerning some ritual observance, a subject fruitful of dissensions in every age of the Church; and it was evolved in some manner from the fact that Jesus and His disciples were also baptising near the same place—with the result that many were drawn to the Saviour.
2. What the actual point in dispute was is not mentioned. Indeed, the incident is recorded only for the purpose of introducing the conversation between the Baptist and his disciples, during which John declared to them the relationship in which he stood to Jesus. His disciples were naturally jealous of their master’s honour. Was the work of Jesus antagonistic to that of John? What was the meaning of this seeming rivalry?
3. The reply of John reveals the true greatness of his character. There was nothing small or petty about this man, than whom greater hath not been born of woman. He realised and rejoiced in the greatness of his work and the nobility of his office as forerunner of the Messiah. But was there not a lofty place for him in the kingdom now to be established? Was he not to shine in the reflected glory of that kingdom in the presence and service of its King? We may believe, indeed, that John was to no little extent influenced by the popular ideas regarding the Messiah, as the Lord’s disciples were until the descent of the Spirit. And it was probably in part disappointed hope in the non-realisation of his idea that led to the question he sent his disciples from the prison to put to Jesus: “Art thou He that should come?” etc. He understood fully, however, that his work must now cease. He had prepared the way; he had preached righteousness, but he could not give man power to become righteous. The Prince whose way he had prepared, the Lord Our Righteousness, alone could do this; and therefore John humbly recognises that now he must step aside and let the Prince be all in all. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John had, moreover, laid hold of a principle which banishes all jealousy and self-seeking from the human heart, and leads men in humility to accept God’s gifts with thankfulness in whatever station in life they may be placed. “A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven.” This is the fixed rule and order of the heavenly kingdom. And all that had been seen of Jesus—His beautiful, holy character, His wonderful works, the direct testimony of heaven, and the divine wisdom of His teaching—pointed to this, that He was thus bountifully endowed from heaven (John 3:34). Therefore did the Baptist realise that his star must fade before the rising Sun; and, faithful to his trust, pointed the thronging disciples to the supreme Master as he said, “He must increase,” etc. The herald withdraws, because—
II. The Prince appears.—
1. John recognised that now the activity of Jesus in His kingdom had begun. The heavenly Bridegroom had appeared to claim His bride, the Church of the Messiah; and the “friend of the bridegroom,” who had made all the preparations for the union, now saw his work accomplished. He lays down his office with joy, as he hears the Bridegroom’s voice. Messiah has come, and His kingdom which cannot be moved; and therefore “He must increase.”
2. In what follows the Baptist gives his reasons for the supremacy of Christ in a full and pregnant testimony as to our Lord’s divine origin. “He that is of the earth is earthly.” The Baptist had his origin on earth, and his activity had reference to what might be called the lower ranges of the spiritual life—the call to repentance and amendment, to the preparation of heart and life for the reception of the coming spiritual King. But of the higher realities of the kingdom he knew but dimly and imperfectly; he saw them from below, not from above. His origin, activity, and teaching were bounded and limited by the earth. Indeed in reference to higher knowledge, etc., “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). On the other hand, “He that cometh from heaven is above all.” In His divine origin “He is the Son of the Eternal,” and is therefore “above all”; not alone above me, but above all teachers that have gone before. Heaven is his seat, and He has but for a time come to earth to make known God’s will. “What He has seen and heard, that He testifies” from immediate knowledge. And therefore when He speaks it is God’s words that are spoken, “for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto Him.”
3. And all this flows from the eternal love of the Father towards the Son, into whose hand all things have been given. All things! Yes (Hebrews 2:8). And does not His wonderful life declare this to be true? His teaching, the words of heavenly wisdom, His miracles, evidences of His creative power; His spotless, flawless life, image of divine perfection; the working of His Spirit and the power of His grace as evidenced in the history of His Church—all this testifies to the Father’s love to Him, etc.
4. And the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus as the Messiah fitly closes with words of mingled promise and warning. “No man receives His testimony.” You, my disciples, say, “All men come to Him.” Yes: but do they receive Him, obey Him? Do not the rulers and people as a whole refuse to receive Him? (John 3:11). But some have received Him, and thus have become witnesses to the truth of God as revealed in His Son. And this rejection and reception carry with them momentous consequences. Those who receive the testimony of Jesus become witnesses to the truth of God and possessors of eternal life, whilst those who withstand and reject it inherit the wrath of God, the reverse of the divine love. “If any man serve Me, him will My Father honour” (John 12:26; Matthew 10:32-33, etc.). “He must increase.”
John 3:22-36. The setting star and rising Sun.—The old and the new are frequently in conflict. Many hold by the old, as if it should remain eternally. Others range themselves with the new, as if never before had there been anything good in the world. Our Saviour did not despise what was before Him. He came not to destroy but to fulfil the law and the prophets. He at all times referred His disciples to the Word, and this Word was the Old Testament. But when the Master comes the servant must stand aside. Only One can enlighten the heart. In One name only are the promises realised. This was Christ, whom John proclaimed to be the “Lamb of God,” etc.
Consider then prayerfully—
I. The setting star and the rising Sun.—
1. In our Gospel we behold a star that is nigh its setting. It had for a time shone with a great, beautiful radiance. But its time was come to pale and vanish. “For he was not that light,” etc. (John 1:8). He was not the Christ, but the bridegroom’s friend (John 3:29). He knew his duty and his power. He had awakened Israel and prepared men for Christ. In this preparation work he shone as a star in the eternal morning.
2. The law was a heavenly light in the midst of the darkness of a fallen and sinful world. None can destroy it. It is not only written on tables of stone, but in the hearts of men. It shows us God’s will and way (Psalms 19:7). And as the law is a light from heaven, so is a preacher of repentance like a bright star—a man of God. The more earnestly He deals with us, the more we recognise our own littleness. And we should be thankful to such as awaken in us the sense of sin and lead us to repentance.
3. But John is nevertheless a setting star. When in your heart this light shines, when you realise your sinfulness, the light of this star will not suffice. It does not bring full day. At one time you were in darkness—seeing neither heaven, the world, nor your own self. Then God permitted this light to shine in the darkness—revealed His law, called to remembrance His commands, His word, etc. Then you found all was other than it ought to be. God’s commands you had not fully obeyed, nor believed His promises, etc. You had prayed, but were cold and languid. When you made inquisition you found your life failed to attain to God’s righteousness. Still it was well to have been brought to this hour of self-realisation, when your heart was laid bare before the Omniscient.
4. But can you remain in this state? Is the sick man contented when he knows merely what ails him? This is like John’s light. We cannot be satisfied with “possessing nothing” merely; but only when, though we have nothing, yet we possess all things (2 Corinthians 6:10). To cast away our own righteousness is a great step; but we must also have another righteousness in place of it. Therefore is the star of John a setting star. After it is said, “I count all things but loss,” there must follow “to win Christ,” etc. (Philippians 3:8). With John there is no abiding—with Christ an eternal abiding.
II. Christ is the rising Sun.—
1. This truth John expresses with the most beautiful of figures—that of the bridegroom and the bride. Christ is the bridegroom; His people, His Church—the bride. John did not desire that Israel should follow him. He desired them to lean on Christ. He desired simply that they should follow Jesus. “There John must decrease,” etc. The Christian world moves around Christ, not round John or any servant. The question is not one of honour, piety, virtue, so much as of love to Christ. That is chief. We cannot sufficiently proclaim His name. In Him is peace and rest—in Him we attain to righteousness and the heavenly walk—to forsaking of sin, renunciation of the world, and victory over the flesh.
2. In the Gospel Christ is the rising Sun.—Now He has arisen. Then He was at the dawning—now He shines in meridian splendour. He it is, without doubt, who brings the light of heavenly day into the souls of men, and all who are not enlightened by Him are still in darkness. For the Father has given all things into His land; so that they who do not believe on Him do not believe in God; and they that do not believe in God and Christ are children of death.
3. The world will not acquiesce in the testimony of the Baptist. One section has cast away all belief; another desires to have a Christianity without Christ—without a Saviour. But there is no choice in the matter. Just as day cannot exist without the sun, so Christianity cannot be, or life, or righteousness, or peace, without Jesus. He is “the light of the world,” of those who trust Him.
4. Let Him enlighten you—let Him be your heart’s true sun, and rise upon you every day. Every day, with its failures and falls, threatens night for the soul, and the sun of your life must disperse the darkness. Let Jesus go forth to you as a bridegroom who comes out of his chamber, and let Him rejoice as a strong man to run a race—through your heart from one end to the other, and to enlighten you entirely. Then the wrath of God passes away afar, and you need not wait for life eternal, for it is yours already in Christ the Saviour (1 John 5:13).—After Karl Lecher.
John 3:32-33. The import of the testimony of Jesus.—It ever was so, and will ever remain so. The gospel and the world do not agree together. So long as the world is in the height of its pride the gospel will be despised. When the world comes to be despised then the gospel appears in honour, and Jesus is borne witness to. This has been only fulfilled in part. The time will come when that which is in part shall be done away, when that which is perfect is come.
The import of the testimony of Jesus in the world.
I. The rejection of His testimony.—
1. How small was the following of Jesus! “No man receiveth His testimony.” But this does not detract from Jesus. It was the blind who did not regard Him. If the world did not love Him the Father did, and gave all things into His hand; so that according to the faith or unbelief of men in regard to Jesus will they be judged.
2. But the sad thing is that it should have been the case that so few received His testimony. The world will believe readily enough if what you ask it to believe is clad in a suitable garb. If someone comes and tells of new gold reefs, of new methods by which great interest on capital may be gained, then men believe and rush eagerly to take advantage of the boon. When a master in science rises and declares that he can tell how the world was evolved, etc., what a string of followers he draws after him. If one preaches there will be no more war, or famine, etc., how many will hang eagerly on his words! How will they crowd to a discerner of times, a fortune-teller, quacks, and the like!
3. But the witness of the Son of God many will not receive—that He is over all; that through Him we have eternal life; and on those not in Him the wrath of God abides. Many think not to thank Him for this life, and have given up all thought, as their lives seem to show, of an eternal life. That He is the Bridegroom of humanity—has purchased us with His blood; that He gives costly and precious raiment to those who come to the marriage supper of the Lamb—all this the world mocks at. Oh the blindness of men! with many nothing is of less import to-day than the Word of the Lord.
II. Therefore be not as the world,—“be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Receive the testimony of Jesus.—
1. Set to your seal that God’s Word is true. The wrath of God is not all at once felt, for men’s hearts are hard, they do not at once realise the sentence which has gone forth in heaven. The careless sinner is like one who lies down to sleep in a thick wood, unmindful of the nearing thunderstorm, until he awakes with the crash and sees death streaming around as he flies in terror. Happy those who have been awakened from this numbing sleep, by the Spirit, in time to realise their danger. Happy he who believes that Jesus is the world’s Saviour—that He has come to earth to seek and save.
2. He who has never tasted the power of the gospel knows nothing of it. He can speak of it only as a blind man can speak of colour. But he who has tasted it, i.e. has felt the power of conscience, and has been led to turn to Christ, he can say that Jesus alone can heal a wounded conscience.
3. Or has he felt the power of temptation and been driven into the arms of the Good Shepherd? Then he can say, In Christ is my refuge. Or has one lain in fear of death for himself, or those dear to him, and has sought and found comfort at Jesus’ cross and grave? Then he can testify that men may be more than conquerors in Jesus.
4. Let the world laugh, mock, criticise, doubt, chide, curse, or rage in regard to what a Christian believes and confesses—still the believer will remain firm and say: I know whom I have believed. What I have seen and known cannot be contradicted. What I daily experience admits of no doubt; and from Him in whom I live I will not be separated.—Karl Lecher.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on John 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent