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THE conversation between Christ and Nicodemus, which begins with these verses, is one of the most important passages in the whole Bible. Nowhere else do we find stronger statements about those two mighty subjects, the new birth, and salvation by faith in the Son of God. The servant of Christ will do well to make himself thoroughly acquainted with this chapter. A man may be ignorant of many things in religion, and yet be saved. But to be ignorant of the matters handled in this chapter, is to be in the broad way which leadeth to destruction.
We should notice, firstly, in these verses, what a weak and feeble beginning a man may make in religion, and yet finally prove a strong Christian. We are told of a certain Pharisee, named Nicodemus, who feeling concerned about his soul, "came to Jesus by night."
There can be little doubt that Nicodemus acted as he did on this occasion from the fear of man. He was afraid of what man would think, or say, or do, if his visit to Jesus was known. He came "by night," because he had not faith and courage enough to come by day. And yet there was a time afterwards when this very Nicodemus took our Lord’s part in open day in the council of the Jews. "Doth our law judge any man," he said, "before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" (John 7:51.)—Nor was this all. There came a time when this very Nicodemus was one of the only two men who did honor to our Lord’s dead body. He helped Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus, when even the apostles had forsaken their Master and fled. His last things were more than his first. Though he began ill, he ended well.
The history of Nicodemus is meant to teach us that we should never "despise the day of small things" in religion. (Zechariah 4:10.) We must not set down a man as having no grace, because his first steps towards God are timid and wavering, and the first movements of his soul are uncertain, hesitating, and stamped with much imperfection. We must remember our Lord’s reception of Nicodemus. He did not "break the bruised reed, or quench the smoking flax," which He saw before Him. (Matthew 12:20.) Like Him, let us take inquirers by the hand, and deal with them gently and lovingly. In everything there must be a beginning. It is not those who make the most flaming profession of religion at first, who endure the longest and prove the most steadfast. Judas Iscariot was an apostle when Nicodemus was just groping his way slowly into full light, Yet afterwards, when Nicodemus was boldly helping to bury his crucified Savior, Judas Iscariot had betrayed Him, and hanged himself! This is a fact which ought not to be forgotten.
We should notice, secondly, in these verses, what a mighty change our Lord declares to be needful to salvation, and what a remarkable expression He uses in describing it. He speaks of a new birth. He says to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." He announces the same truth in other words, in order to make it more plain to his hearer’s mind: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." By this expression He meant Nicodemus to understand that "no one could become His disciple, unless his inward man was as thoroughly cleansed and renewed by the Spirit, as the outward man is cleansed by water." To possess the privileges of Judaism a man only needed to be born of the seed of Abraham after the flesh. To possess the privileges of Christ’s kingdom, a man must be born again of the Holy Ghost.
The change which our Lord here declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears. All this, and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares that we all need a "new birth."
This change of heart is rendered absolutely necessary to salvation by the corrupt condition in which we are all, without exception, born. "That which is born of the flesh, is flesh." Our nature is thoroughly fallen. The carnal mind is enmity against God. (Romans 8:7.) We come into the world without faith, or love, or fear toward God. We have no natural inclination to serve Him or obey Him, and no natural pleasure in doing His will. Left to himself, no child of Adam would ever turn to God. The truest description of the change which we all need in order to make us real Christians, is the expression, "new birth."
This mighty change, it must never be forgotten, we cannot give to ourselves. The very name which our Lord gives to it is a convincing proof of this. He calls it "a birth." No man is the author of his own existence, and no man can quicken his own soul. We might as well expect a dead man to give himself life, as expect a natural man to make himself spiritual. A power from above must be put in exercise, even that same power which created the world. (2 Corinthians 4:6.) Man can do many things; but he cannot give life either to himself or to others. To give life is the peculiar prerogative of God. Well may our Lord declare that we need to be "born again"!
This mighty change, we must, above all, remember, is a thing without which we cannot go to heaven, and could not enjoy heaven if we went there. Our Lord’s words on this point are distinct and express. "Except a man be born again, he can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God." Heaven may be reached without money, or rank, or learning. But it is clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that nobody can enter heaven without a "new birth."
We should notice, lastly, in these verses, the instructive comparison which our Lord uses in explaining the new birth. He saw Nicodemus perplexed and astonished by the things he had just heard. He graciously helped his wondering mind by an illustration drawn from "the wind." A more beautiful and fitting illustration of the work of the Spirit it is impossible to conceive.
There is much about the wind that is mysterious and inexplicable. "Thou canst not tell," says our Lord, "whence it cometh and whither it goeth." We cannot handle it with our hands, or see it with our eyes. When the wind blows, we cannot point out the exact spot where its breath first began to be felt, and the exact distance to which its influence shall extend. But we do not on that account deny its presence.—It is just the same with the operations of the Spirit, in the new birth of man. They may be mysterious, sovereign, and incomprehensible to us in many ways. But it is foolish to stumble at them because there is much about them that we cannot explain.
But whatever mystery there may be about the wind, its presence may always be known by its sound and effects. "Thou hearest the sound thereof," says our Lord. When our ears hear it whistling in the windows, and our eyes see the clouds driving before it, we do not hesitate to say, "There is wind."—It is just the same with the operations of the Holy Spirit in the new birth of man. Marvelous and incomprehensible as His work may be, it is work that can always be seen and known. The new birth is a thing that "cannot be hid." There will always be visible "fruits of the Spirit" in every one that is born of the Spirit.
Would we know what the marks of the new birth are?—We shall find them already written for our learning in the First Epistle of John. The man born of God "believes that Jesus is the Christ,"—"doth not commit sin,"—"doeth righteousness,"—"loves the brethren,"—"overcomes the world,"—"keepeth himself from the wicked one."—This is the man born of the Spirit! Where these fruits are to be seen, there is the new birth of which our Lord is speaking. He that lacks these marks, is yet dead in trespasses and sins. (1 John 5:1; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:14; 1 John 5:4; 1 John 5:18.)
And now let us solemnly ask ourselves whether we know anything of the mighty change of which we have been reading? Have we been born again? Can any marks of the new birth be seen in us? Can the sound of the Spirit be heard in our daily conversation? Is the image and superscription of the Spirit to be discerned in our lives?—Happy is the man who can give satisfactory answers to these questions! A day will come when those who are not born again will wish that they had never been born at all.
v1.—[There was a man, &c.] The close connection of the conversation between Christ and Nicodemus with the end of the preceding chapter ought to be carefully noted. In fact the original Greek contains a connecting particle, which our translators have omitted to express in our version. The chapter should begin, "And there was a man," or "Now there was a man."—The conversation took place when our Lord "was in Jerusalem," at the time of the Passover. Nicodemus was one of those who "saw the miracles which Jesus did," and was so much struck by what he saw, that he sought out our Lord in order to converse with Him.
[Of the Pharisees.] The striking variety of character in those who were brought to believe on Christ while He was on earth, ought not to be overlooked. His disciples were not drawn exclusively from any one class. As a general rule, none were more bitterly opposed to Him and His doctrines than the Pharisees. Yet here we see that nothing is impossible with grace. Even a Pharisee became an inquirer, and ultimately a disciple! Nicodemus and Paul are standing proofs that no heart is too hard to be converted. The third chapter shows us Jesus teaching a proud, moral Pharisee. The fourth will show him teaching an ignorant, immoral Samaritan woman. None are too bad to be taught by Christ.
[A ruler of the Jews.] The civil government of the Jews at this time, we must remember, was in the hands of the Romans. When Nicodemus is called "a ruler," it means that he was a chief person among the Jews, probably in high ecclesiastical position, and certainly a famous religious teacher. See John 3:10.
v2.—[The same came by night.] The fact here recorded appears to me to show that Nicodemus was influenced by the fear of man, and was afraid or ashamed to visit Jesus by day.—The view maintained by some, that we ought not to blame him for coming by night, because it was the quietest time for conversation, and the time when an interview was least liable to be interrupted, or because the Jewish teachers were in the habit of receiving inquirers by night, appears to me undeserving of attention. I am confirmed in this opinion by the fact, that on the only other occasions where Nicodemus is mentioned, he is specially described as the man who "came to Jesus by night." This repeated expression appears to me to imply blame. (John 7:50; John 19:39.)
How any one can waste time, as some famous commentators do, in speculating how the conversation between Christ and Nicodemus was reported, is to my mind perfectly astonishing. To hint, as one has done, that Jesus must have told John about the conversation afterwards, or that John must have been present, appears to me to strike a blow at the very root of inspiration. Both here and elsewhere, frequently, John describes things which he only knew by the direct inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
[Rabbi.] This expression was a name of dignity among the Hebrews, signifying Doctor or Master. Cruden says that the name came originally from the Chaldees, and that it was not used before the time of captivity, except in describing the officers of the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Thus we find the names of Rab-saris and Rab-shakeh. (2 Kings 18:17.) The use of the word here by Nicodemus, was intended to mark his respect for our Lord.
[We know.] Different reasons have been assigned for Nicodemus’ use of the plural number in this place. Whom did he mean when he said "we"? Some say that he meant himself and many of his brethren among the Pharisees.—Some say that he meant himself and the secret believers of all classes mentioned at the end of the last chapter.—Some say, as Lightfoot, that he meant no one in particular, but used the plural for the singular, according to an idiom common in all languages. He only meant, "It is commonly known."—I venture the suggestion, that Nicodemus probably used the plural number intentionally, on account of its vagueness, and avoided the singular number from motives of caution, that he might not commit himself too much. Even at the present day people will talk of "we" in religion, long before they will talk of "I."—Weak faith strives to be hid in a crowd.
[Thou art a teacher come from God.] This cautious sentence is an instructive indication of the state of Nicodemus’ mind. He was naturally a timid, hesitating, slow-moving man. That Jesus was somebody remarkable, he was convinced by His miracles. That He might possibly be the Messiah, had probably crossed his mind, and the more so because he doubtless knew of the ministry of John the Baptist, and had heard that John spake of one greater than himself who was yet to come. But until he can make out more about Jesus, by private conversation, he declines to commit himself to any stronger statement than that before us. The Greek words would be more literally rendered, "From God thou hast come a teacher."
Lightfoot thinks that Nicodemus here refers to the long cessation of prophecy, which had now lasted for four hundred years. During this long period no one had appeared from God to teach the once-favoured Jewish nation, as the prophets did of old. But now, he seems to say, "Thou hast appeared as the prophets did in former times, to teach us."
[No man can do these miracles....with him.] This sentence has been justly called an illustration of one great purpose of our Lord’s miracles. They arrested men’s attention. They were evidences of a divine mission. They showed that He who wrought them was no ordinary Person, and ought to be listened to.
I am aware that some have thought that Nicodemus attached too much weight to our Lord’s miracles, and have boldly asserted that miracles are no necessary proof of a divine mission, seeing that Anti-christ will appear with signs and lying wonders. (2 Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 13:14.) In reply it might be sufficient to remark that our Lord Himself declared that "His works bore witness that the Father had sent Him." (John 5:36; John 10:25; John 15:24.) But I also think that sufficient stress is not laid on the expression, "These miracles that thou doest." The character and quality of our Lord’s miracles were such as to prove His divine commission. False teachers and Anti-christs may be permitted to work some miracles, like the magicians who withstood Moses. But there is a point beyond which Anti-christ and his servants cannot go. Such miracles as our Lord worked could only be wrought by the finger of God. I therefore think that Nicodemus’ argument was just and correct.—It is moreover worthy of note, that the expression he uses is precisely the same as that used by Peter when describing our Lord’s ministry and miracles. He says, "God was with him." (Acts 10:38.)
The expression, "God being with a man," is a common phrase in the Scriptures, denoting the possession of certain special gifts or graces from God, beyond those ordinarily given to men. Thus 1 Samuel 16:18; 1 Samuel 3:19; and 1 Samuel 18:12-14.
v3.—[Jesus answered.] The question has often been asked, "To what did our Lord answer?" No question was put to him. What is the connecting link between the words of Nicodemus, and the solemn statement contained in the first words which our Lord addressed to him?
I believe the true reply to these questions is, that our Lord, as on many other occasions, made answer according to what He saw going on in Nicodemus’ heart. He knew that the inquirer before Him, like all the Jews, was expecting the appearance of Messiah, and was even suspecting that he had found Him. He therefore begins, by telling him at once what was absolutely needful if he would belong to Messiah’s kingdom. It was not a temporal kingdom, as he vainly supposed, but a spiritual one. It was not a kingdom, in which all persons born of the seed of Abraham, would, as a matter of course, have a place because of their birth. It was a kingdom in which grace, not blood, was the indispensable condition of admission. The first thing needful in order to belong to Messiah’s kingdom, was to be "born again." Men must renounce all idea of privileges by reason of their natural birth. All men, whether Jews or Gentiles, must be born again, born anew, born from above by a spiritual birth.—"Nicodemus," our Lord seems to say, "if you want to know how a man is to become a member of Messiah’s kingdom, understand this day, that the first step is to be born again. Think not because Abraham is your father, that Messiah will acknowledge you as one of his subjects. I tell you at once, that the first thing you and all other men need is a new birth."
I am quite aware that several other explanations have been given of the link between Nicodemus’ remark and our Lord’s opening assertion. I will only say, that the one I have given, appears to me by far the simplest and most satisfactory.
[Verily, verily, I say unto thee.] This expression, which is peculiar to John’s Gospel, has been already commented on. (John 1:51.) But it is useful to remark, in considering the verse before us, that the phrase is never used except in connection with some statement of great importance and solemnity.
[Except a man.] The Greek word which our version has rendered "a man," would be more literally translated, "any one," or "any person." The change called the "new birth," our Lord would have us know, is of universal necessity. Nobody can be saved without it.
[Born again.] The Greek word here rendered "again," might be translated with equal correctness, "from above," i.e. from heaven, or from God. It is so translated in this chapter, (John 3:31,) and in four other places in the New Testament. (John 19:11; James 1:17; James 3:15; James 3:17.) In one other place, (Galatians 4:9,) it is "again." Many commentators in every age, as Origen, Cyril, Theophylact, Bullinger, Lightfoot, Erasmus, Bengel, have maintained strongly, that "born from above," and not "born again," is the true and better translation of the phrase. Cranmer’s version renders it "born from above," and our own translators have allowed it in a marginal reading. My own impression agrees with that of most commentators, that "born again" is the right translation.—For one thing, it seems most probable that Nicodemus understood our Lord to mean "born again," or else he would hardly have asked the question, "Can a man enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?"—For another thing, the Greek words used in four other places where regeneration is spoken of in the New Testament, admit of no other meaning than being "born again," and could not possibly be rendered "born from above." See 1 Peter 1:3, 1 Peter 1:23; Matthew 19:28; Titus 3:5.
The point is happily not one of importance, and men may agree to differ about it, if they cannot convince one another. Every true Christian is undoubtedly "born from above" by the quickening power of God in heaven,—as well as "born again" by a second spiritual birth.
The meaning of our Lord when He said, "except a man be born again," is unhappily a subject on which there is a wide difference of opinion in the Church of Christ.—The expression at any rate cannot be said to stand alone. It is used six times in the Gospel of John, once in the first Epistle of Peter, and six times in the first Epistle of John. (John 1:13; John 3:3, John 3:5-8; 1 Peter 1:23; 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:4, 1 John 5:18.) Common sense and fair interpretation of language, point out that "born again, born of the Spirit, and born of God," are expressions so intimately connected with one another, that they mean one and the same thing. The only question is, "What do they mean?"
Some think that to be "born again," means nothing more than "an outward reformation, or such outward conformity as a proselyte might yield to a new set of rules of life."—This is an almost obsolete and utterly unsatisfactory interpretation. It makes our Lord tell Nicodemus nothing more than he might have learned from heathen philosophers,—such as Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle; or than he might have heard from any Rabbi about the duties of a proselyte from heathenism to Judaism.
Some think that to be "born again," means to be admitted into the Church of Christ by baptism, and to receive a spiritual change of heart inseparably connected with baptism.—This again is an unsatisfactory interpretation. For one thing, it seems improbable, that the first truth which our Lord would propound to an inquiring Pharisee, would be the necessity of baptism. He certainly never did so on any other occasion.—For another thing, if our Lord only meant baptism, it is difficult to account for the astonishment and perplexity which Nicodemus expressed on hearing our Lord’s words. Baptism was not a thing with which a Pharisee was unacquainted. In the Jewish Church proselytes were baptized.—Last, but not least, it is clear from John’s first Epistle, that to be "born again, born of the Spirit, or born of God," means something much greater than baptism. The picture which the apostle there gives of the man who is "born of God," could certainly not be given of the man who is baptized.
The true view of the expression I believe to be this. Being "born again," means that complete change of heart and character which is produced in a man by the Holy Ghost, when he repents, believes on Christ, and becomes a true Christian. It is a change which is frequently spoken of in the Bible. In Ezekiel it is called "taking away the stony heart and giving a heart of flesh,"—"giving a new heart, and putting within a new spirit." (Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26.) In Acts it is called "repentance and conversion." (Acts 3:19.) In Romans it is called "being alive from the dead." (Romans 6:13.) In Corinthians it is called "being a new creature." (2 Corinthians 5:17.) In Ephesians it is called "being quickened." (Ephesians 2:1.) In Colossians it is called "putting off the old man and putting on the new." (Colossians 3:9-10.) In Titus it is called the "washing of regeneration." (Titus 3:5.) In Peter it is called "being called out of darkness into light," and being "made partaker of the divine nature." (1 Peter 2:9; 2 Peter 1:4.) In John it is called "passing from death to life." (1 John 3:14.) I believe that all these expressions come to the same thing in the end. They are all the same truth, only viewed from different sides. They all mean that mighty inward change of heart, which our Lord here calls a "new birth," and which John the Baptist foretold would specially characterize Messiah’s kingdom. He was to baptize not with water, but with the Holy Ghost. Our Lord begins His address to Nicodemus by taking up His forerunner’s prediction:—He tells him that he must be "born again" or baptized with the Spirit.—Human nature is so entirely corrupt, diseased, and ruined by the fall, that all who would be saved must be born again. No lesser change will suffice. They need nothing less than a new birth.
[He cannot see.] This expression has received two interpretations. Some think that it means, "he cannot understand or comprehend." Others think that it means, "he cannot enter, enjoy, partake of, or possess." The last I believe to be the true meaning of the expression. The first is truth, but not the truth of the text. The second is confirmed by the language used in the fifth verse, and is a common form of speech of which there are many instances in the Bible. Thus we find, to "see life,’’ (John 3:36,)—to "see corruption," (Psalms 16:10,)—to "see death," (John 8:51,)—to "see evil," (Psalms 90:15,)—to "see sorrow." (Revelation 18:7.)
[The kingdom of God.] This expression means that spiritual kingdom which Messiah came into the world to set up, and of which all believers are the subjects,—the kingdom which is now small, and weak, and despised, but which shall be great and glorious at the second advent. Our Lord declares that no man can belong to that kingdom and be one of its subjects, without a new birth. To belong to the covenant of Israel with all its temporal privileges, a man need only be born of Jewish parents. To belong to Messiah’s kingdom, a man must be "born again" of the Spirit, and have a new heart.
Luther’s remark on this verse, quoted by Stier, is worth reading. He supposes our Lord to say, "My doctrine is not of doing, and of leaving undone, but of being and becoming; so that it is not a new work to be done, but the being new created;—not the living otherwise but the being new born."
The unvarying suitableness of our Lord’s teaching to the special state of mind of those whom He taught, deserves observation. To the young ruler fond of his money, He says, "Sell all and give to the poor."—To the multitude craving food, He says, "Labour not for the meat that perisheth."—To the Samaritan woman coming to draw water, He commends "living water."—To the Pharisee proud of his birth, as a son of Abraham, He says, "Ye must be born again." (Luke 18:22; John 6:27; John 4:10.)
v4.—[Nicodemus saith....how.] The question of Nicodemus is precisely one of those which the natural ignorance of man in spiritual things prompts a person to ask. Just as the Samaritan woman, in the 4th chapter, put a carnal meaning on our Lord’s words about "living water," and the Jews, in the 6th chapter, put a carnal meaning on the "bread of God," so Nicodemus puts a carnal meaning on the expression "born again."—There is nothing which the heart of man in every part and every age of the world is so slow to understand as the work of the Holy Ghost. Our minds are so gross and sensuous, that we cannot take in the idea of an inward and spiritual operation. Unless we can see things and touch things in religion we are slow to believe them.
[When he is old.] This expression seems to indicate that Nicodemus himself was an old man when this conversation took place. If this be so, it is only fair, in judging his case, to make some allowance for the slowness with which old age receives new opinions, and specially in the things of religion. At the same time it supplies an encouraging proof that no man is too old to be converted. One of our Lord’s first converts was an old man!
v6.—[Except....born of water and of the Spirit.] This famous text has unhappily given rise to widely different interpretations. On one thing only respecting it, nearly all commentators are agreed. It is the same truth that is laid down in the third verse, only laid down with greater fulness in compassion to Nicodemus’ weakness of understanding. But what does it mean? The expression "born of water" is peculiar to this place, and occurs nowhere else in the Bible. It cannot be literally interpreted. No one can be literally "born of water." What then does the phrase signify? When can it be said of any one, that he was "born of water and of the Spirit"?
The first and commonest interpretation is to refer the text entirely to baptism, and to draw from it the inseparable connection of baptism and spiritual regeneration.—According to this view of the text, our Lord tells Nicodemus that baptism is absolutely necessary to salvation, and is the appointed means of giving new birth to the heart of man. "If you wish to belong to my kingdom, you must be born again, as I have already said; and if you wish to be born again, the only way to obtain this mighty blessing is to be baptized. Except a man be regenerated or born again by baptism, he cannot enter my kingdom." This is the view of the text which is maintained by the fathers, by the Roman Catholic writers, by the Lutheran commentators, and by many English divines down to the present day. It is a view which is supported by much learning, and by many strange and far-fetched arguments, such as Genesis 1:2. It is, however, a view which to my own mind is utterly unsatisfactory.
The second, and less common interpretation, is to refer the text partly to baptism and partly to that real regeneration of heart, which a man may receive, like the penitent thief, without having been baptized.—According to this view, our Lord tells Nicodemus that a new birth is absolutely necessary to salvation, and that to be baptized, or "born of water," is one of the appointed ways by which regeneration is effected. Those who hold this view deny as stoutly as any that there is any inseparable connection between baptism and regeneration. They hold that multitudes are "born of water" who are never born of the Spirit. But they maintain that the word "water" must be intended to point us to baptism, and that by the use of the expression, "born of water," our Lord meant to defend both John’s baptism and His own, and to show their value. This is the view of the text which is maintained by some few of the best Roman Catholic writers, such as Rupertus and Ferus,—by almost all the English Reformers, and by many excellent commentators down to the present day. It is a view, which to my own mind seems not much more satisfactory than the former one already described, on account of the strange consequences which it involves.
The third, and much the least common interpretation, is to refer the text entirely to the regeneration of man’s heart, and to exclude baptism altogether from any place in it.—According to this view, our Lord explains to Nicodemus, by the use of a figure, what He had meant when he spoke of being "born again." He would have Nicodemus know that a man must have his heart as thoroughly cleansed and renewed by the Spirit as the body is cleansed and purified by water. He must be born of the Spirit working on his inward nature, as water works on the material body. In short, he must have a "clean heart" created in him if he would belong to Messiah’s kingdom. Most of those who take this view, consider that baptism was certainly meant to point to the change of heart described in the text, but that this text was meant to point out something distinct from baptism, and even more important than baptism. This is the view which I believe to be the true one, and to which I unhesitatingly adhere.
Those who hold that baptism is not referred to in this text, are undoubtedly a small minority among theologians, but their names are weighty. Among them will be found Calvin, Zwingle, Bullinger, Gualter, Archbishop Whitgift, Bishop Prideaux, Whitaker, Fulke, Poole, Hutcheson, Charnock, Gill, Cartwright, Grotius, Cocceius, Gomarus, Piscator, Rivetus, Chamier, Witsius, Mastricht, Turretin, Lampe, Burkitt, A. Clarke, and, according to Lampe, Wycliffe, Daillé and Parsæus.—I do not assert this on second-hand information. I have verified the assertion by examining with my own eyes the works of all the authors above named, excepting the three referred to by Lampe. On the precise meaning of the word "water" they are not agreed. But they all hold that our Lord did not mean baptism when He spoke of being "born of water and the Spirit."—Dean Alford, I observe, says that the expression "refers to the token, or outward sign of baptism, on any honest interpretation." How far it is justifiable to use such language about an opinion supported by so many great names, I leave to the reader to decide! Those who wish to see the view of the text which I advocate more fully defended, will find what they want in Lampe’s Dissertations and Chamier’s Panstratia.
In adhering to a view of this text which is adopted by so few commentators, I feel a natural desire to give the reasons of my opinion at full length, and I think that the importance of the subject in the present day justifies me in doing so. In giving these reasons I must decline entering into questions which are not directly before me. The value of the sacrament of baptism,—the right of infants to baptism,—the true meaning of the Church of England Baptismal Service, are matters which I shall not touch. The meaning of our Lord’s words, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit," is the only point to which I shall confine myself. I believe that in using these words our Lord did not refer to baptism, and I think so for the following reasons.
(a.) Firstly, there is nothing in the words of the text which necessarily requires to be referred to baptism. "Water,"—"washing,"—and "cleansing" are figurative expressions, frequently used in Scripture, in order to denote a spiritual operation on man’s heart. (See Psalms 51:7-10; Isaiah 44:3; Jeremiah 4:14; Ezekiel 36:25; John 4:10; John 7:38-39.) The expression, "Born of water and of the Spirit," is doubtless very peculiar. But it is not more peculiar than the parallel expression, "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (Matthew 3:11.) To explain this last text by the tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost, is an utterly unsatisfactory interpretation, and confines the fulfilment of a mighty general promise to one single act and one single day. I believe that in each case an element is mentioned in connection with the Spirit, in order to show the nature of the Spirit’s operation. Men must be "baptized with the Holy Ghost," purifying their hearts from corruption, as fire purifies metal, and must be "born of the Spirit," cleansing their hearts as water cleanses the body. The use of fire and water as the great instruments of purification, was well known to the Jews. See Numbers 31:23, where both are mentioned together. Chrysostom well remarks that "Scripture sometimes connects the grace of the Spirit with fire, and sometimes with water."
(b.) Secondly, the assertion that "water" must mean baptism, because baptism is the ordinary means of regeneration, is an assertion utterly destitute of Scriptural proof. It is no doubt written of professing saints and believers, that "they have been buried with Christ in baptism," and that "as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Romans 6:4; Galatians 3:27.) But there is not a single text which declares that baptism is the only way by which people are born again. On the contrary, we find two plain texts in which regeneration is distinctly ascribed, not to baptism, but to the word, (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18.) Moreover the case of Simon Magus clearly proves, that in apostolic times all persons did not receive grace when they were baptized. Peter tells him a very few days after his baptism: "Thou art in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity,—thy heart is not right in the sight of God,—thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter." (Acts 8:21-23.) The assertion, therefore, that "water" must mean baptism, is a mere gratuitous assumption, and must fall to the ground.
(c.) Thirdly, if "water" in the text before us means baptism, it follows as a logical consequence that baptism is absolutely necessary to salvation, and that all who have died unbaptized since these words were spoken, have been lost! The penitent thief was lost on this theory, for he was never baptized! All infants who have died unbaptized have been lost! The whole body of the Quakers, who die in their own communion, are lost! There is no evading this conclusion, unless we adopt the absurd and untenable hypothesis that the kingdom of God in this solemn passage means nothing more than the visible church. Where our Lord, in declaring a great general truth, makes no exceptions, we have no right to make them. If words mean anything, to refer "water" to baptism excludes unbaptized persons from heaven! And yet there is not another instance in Scripture of an outward ordinance being made absolutely necessary to salvation, and specially an ordinance which a man cannot confer on himself. A new, regenerate heart is undoubtedly necessary to the salvation of every one, without exception, and it is of this only, I believe, that the text before us speaks.
(d.) Fourthly, if we accept the theory that baptism is the ordinary means of conveying the grace of regeneration, that all baptized persons are necessarily regenerated, and that all who are "born of water" are at the same time born of the Spirit, we are irresistibly involved in the most dangerous and pernicious consequences.—We pour contempt on the whole work of the Spirit, and on the blessed doctrine of regeneration. We bring into the Church a new and unscriptural kind of new birth, a new birth that cannot be seen by its fruits. We make out that people are "born of God" when they have not one of the marks of regeneration laid down by John.—We encourage the rankest antinomianism. We lead people to suppose that they have grace in their hearts while they are servants of sin, and that they have the Holy Spirit within them while they are obeying the lusts of the flesh.—Last, but not least, we pour contempt on the holy sacrament of baptism. We turn it into a mere form, in which faith and prayer have no place at all. We lead people to suppose that it matters nothing in what spirit they bring their children to baptism, and that if water is sprinkled, and certain words are used, an infant is, as a matter of course, born again. Worst of all, we induce people secretly to despise baptism, because we teach them that it always conveys a mighty spiritual blessing, while their own eyes tell them, that, in a multitude of cases, it does no good at all.—I see no possibility of avoiding these consequences, however little some persons who hold the inseparability of baptism and regeneration may intend them. Happily I have the comfort of thinking that there is an utter want of logic in some hearts which have much grace.
(e.) Fifthly, if "born of water and of the Spirit" was meant to teach Nicodemus that baptism is the ordinary means of conveying spiritual regeneration, it is very difficult to understand why our Lord rebuked him for not knowing it. "Knowest thou not these things?" How could he know them? That there was such a thing as baptism, he knew as a Pharisee. But that baptism was the appointed means of conveying "new birth," he could not know. It was a doctrine nowhere taught in the Old Testament. It is a doctrine, on the showing of its own advocates, peculiar to Christianity. And yet Nicodemus is rebuked for not knowing it! To my mind this is inexplicable. The necessity of a thorough change of heart, on the contrary, Nicodemus might have known from the Old Testament Scriptures. And it was for ignorance of this, not for ignorance of baptismal regeneration, that he was rebuked.
(f.) Sixthly and lastly, if it be true that "to be born of water" means baptism, and that baptism is the ordinary means of conveying the grace of regeneration, it is most extraordinary that there is so little about baptism in the Epistles of the New Testament. In Romans it is only twice mentioned,—and in 1st Corinthians, seven times.—In Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and 1st Peter we find it named once in each Epistle. In thirteen of the remaining Epistles it is neither named nor referred to. In the two Pastoral Epistles to Timothy, where we might expect something about baptism, if anywhere, there is not a word about it! In the Epistle to Titus the only text that can possibly be applied to baptism is by no means clearly applicable. (Titus 3:5.) Nor is this all. In the one Epistle which mentions baptism seven times, we find the writer saying that "Christ sent him not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel," and actually "thanking God," that he had "baptized none of the Corinthians, save Crispus and Gaius." (1 Corinthians 1:14, 1 Corinthians 1:17.) He would surely never have said this, if all whom he baptized were at once born again. Imagine Paul saying, "I thank God I regenerated none of you"! Moreover, it is a startling fact, that this very same Apostle, in the very same Epistle, says to these same Corinthians, "I have begotten you through the Gospel." (1 Corinthians 4:15.) My deliberate conviction is, that Paul would never have written these sentences, if he had believed that the only way to be born of the Spirit was to be baptized.
I give these reasons with a sorrowful feeling that to many they are given in vain. But I have felt it due to myself, in maintaining an opinion about a most important text which is not commonly held, to state fully my reasons, and to show that my opinion is not lightly maintained.
Before leaving this subject, I think it right, in self-defense, to say something about the fact, that the view I maintain is not held by the great majority of commentators. This fact undoubtedly calls for some explanation.
With regard to the Fathers, no one can read their writings without seeing that they were fallible men. On no point does their weakness appear so strongly, as in their language about the sacraments. The man who intends to abide by all the opinions of the Fathers about the sacraments, will have to swallow a great deal. After all, the very earliest Father, whose commentary on John’s Gospel is extant, is Origen, who died in 253, A.D. The true view of the text before us, might easily be lost in the period of at least 150 years between Origen’s day and the days of John. Tertullian incidentally applies the text before us to baptism, in one of his writings. But even he was not born till 160, A.D., at least two generations after John’s time.
With regard to the Lutheran writers, their avowed opinions upon the sacraments make their interpretations of the text before us of little weight. They have a peculiar sacramental theory to maintain when they expound Scripture, and to that theory they steadfastly adhere. Yet even Brentius on this text confesses, that the baptism here signified by "water," means something much more than the sacrament of baptism, and includes the whole doctrine of the Gospel.—The Roman Catholic commentators are, of course, even more fettered in their views of the sacraments than the Lutherans, and hardly call for any remark. Their constant endeavour in expounding Scripture, is to maintain the sacramental system of their own church, and a text like that before us is unhesitatingly applied to baptism.
With regard to our own English reformers and their immediate successors, their opinions about a text like this are perhaps less valuable than upon any subject. They always display an excessive anxiety to agree with the Fathers. They were anxious in every way to conciliate opponents, and to support their own Protestantism by appeals to primitive antiquity. When, therefore, they saw that the Fathers referred the text before us to baptism, and that at best the point was doubtful, we cannot wonder that they held, that to be "born of water" was to be baptized. Yet even they seem not unanimous on the point; and Latimer’s well-known assertion, that "to be christened with water is not regeneration," must not be forgotten.—The famous remarks of Hooker, which are so frequently thrown in the teeth of those who take the view of "water and the Spirit," which I do, are a curious instance of the coolness with which a great man can sometimes draw an illogical conclusion in his own favour, from some broad general premise. He lays down the general principle "that when a literal construction of a text will stand, that furthest from the letter is commonly the worst." He then proceeds to take it for granted, that to interpret "born of water" of baptism, is the literal construction of the text now before us. Unfortunately this is precisely the point that I for one do not concede; and his conclusion is consequently, to my mind, worthless. Moreover when we talk of a "literal" sense, there must evidently be some limit to it. If not, we cannot answer the Roman Catholic, when he proves transubstantiation from the words, "this is my body."
I believe that for a true and sound exposition of the text before us, we must look to the Puritans and Dutch divines of the seventeenth century. It was necessary for men to be a generation further off from Romanism, before they were able to give a dispassionate opinion about such a text as this. The early Protestants did not see the consequences of the language they sometimes used about baptism with sufficient clearness. Otherwise, I believe they would not have written about it as they did. To any one who asks for a specimen of the 17th century divinity, I would say, that one of the simplest and best statements of the true meaning of the text before us, will be found in Poole’s Annotations.
In leaving the whole subject, there is one fact which I think deserves very serious consideration. Those Churches of Christendom at the present day, which distinctly maintain that all baptized persons are born of the Spirit, are as a general rule, the most corrupt churches in the world. Those bodies of Christians on the other hand, which deny the inseparable connection of baptism and the new birth, are precisely those bodies which are most pure in faith and practice, and do most for the extension of the Gospel in the world. This is a great fact which ought not to be forgotten.
v6.—[That which is born...flesh...spirit.] In this verse, our Lord gives Nicodemus the reason why the change of heart called "new birth," is a thing of such absolute necessity, and why no slight moral change will suffice. Nicodemus had spoken of "entering a second time into his mother’s womb." Our Lord tells him, that even if such a thing was possible, it would not make him fit for the kingdom of God. The child of human parents would always be like the parents from which it sprung, if it was born a hundred times over. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." All men and women are by nature corrupt, sinful, fleshly, and alienated from God. "They that are in the flesh cannot please God." (Romans 8:8.) Their children will always be born with a nature like that of their parents. To bring a clean thing out of an unclean, is proverbially impossible. A bramble will never bear grapes, however much it may be cultivated, and a natural man will never be a godly man without the Spirit. In order to be really spiritual and fit for the kingdom of God, a new power from without must enter into a man’s nature. "That which is born of the spirit is spirit."
The sentence is undoubtedly very elliptical, and expressed in abstract terms. It is like Paul’s words, "The carnal mind is enmity against God." (Romans 8:7.) But the general meaning is unmistakable. Human nature is so utterly fallen, corrupt, and carnal, that nothing can come from it by natural generation, but a fallen, corrupt, and carnal offspring. There is no self-curative power in man. He will always go on reproducing himself. To become spiritual and fit for communion with God, nothing less is required than the entrance of the Spirit of God into our hearts. In one word, we must have that new birth of the Spirit which our Lord twice described to Nicodemus.
The word "flesh," I am inclined to think, with Poole and Dyke, is taken in two senses in this verse. In the first case, it means the natural body of man, as in John 1:14. In the second case, it means the corrupt carnal nature of man, as in Galatians 5:17.—The same remark applies to the word Spirit. In the first instance, it means the Holy Spirit, and in the second, the spiritual nature which the Spirit produces. The offspring of all children of Adam is fleshly. The offspring of the Spirit is spiritual. Neither the grace, nor rank, nor money, nor learning of parents will prevent a child having a corrupt heart, if it is naturally born of the flesh. Nothing will make any one spiritual but being born again of the spirit.
It must be carefully remembered, in considering this verse, that it cannot be applied to the human nature of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He had a true body like our own, He was not "born of the flesh" as we are, by natural generation, but conceived by the miraculous operation of the Holy Ghost.
v7.—[Marvel not...must be born again.] In reading this verse, the stress ought to be laid on the two last words, "born again." It is evident that the thing which stumbled Nicodemus was the idea of any "new birth" at all being necessary. He felt unable to understand what this "new birth" was. Our Lord forbids him to marvel, and proceeds to explain the new birth by a familiar illustration.
It is a noteworthy and striking fact, that no doctrine has excited such surprise in every age of the Church, and has called forth so much opposition from the great and learned, as this very doctrine of the new birth. The men of the present day who sneer at conversions and revivals, as fanaticism and enthusiasm, are nowise better than Nicodemus. Like him, they expose their own ignorance of the work of the Holy Ghost.
v8.—[The wind bloweth, &c.] The object of this verse appears to be to explain the work of the Holy Ghost in the regeneration of man, by a familiar illustration drawn from the wind. Mysterious as the Spirit’s work was, Nicodemus must allow that there was much of mystery about the wind. "The wind bloweth where it listeth." We cannot account for the direction in which it blows, or for the beginning or extent of its influence. But when we hear the sound of the wind, we do not for a moment question that it is blowing. Our Lord tells Nicodemus that it is just the same with the operations of the Spirit. There is doubtless much about them that is mysterious and incomprehensible. But when we see fruit brought forth, in a manifest change of heart and life, we have no right to question the reality of the Spirit’s operations.
The last clause of the verse is undeniably somewhat difficult,—"So is every one that is born of the Spirit." We should rather have expected, "So does the Spirit operate on every one that is born again." And this was, no doubt, our Lord’s meaning. Yet the form of speech which our Lord uses is not altogether without parallel in the New Testament. For instance, we read, "The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed." (Matthew 13:24.) The likeness in this case is clearly not between the man and the kingdom. The meaning is that the whole story is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven. So also we read that "the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchantman seeking goodly pearls," and might make a similar remark. (Matthew 13:45.)
The Greek word translated "wind," at the beginning of this verse, might be rendered with equal correctness, "the Spirit." Many think, as Origen, Augustine, Rupertus, Bengel, Schottgen, Ambrose, Jansenius, Wycliffe’s Version, Bucer, and Bede, that it ought to be so rendered. They deny that our Lord brought in the idea of "the wind" at all. They object to it being said of the wind that "it listeth," and say that the expression cannot be applied to any but a person.
This notion seems to me, as it does to the great majority of commentators, entirely untenable. For one thing, it creates great awkwardness to make a comparison between the Spirit and the work of the Spirit, which we must do if this theory is correct. "The Spirit bloweth,—and so is every one born of the Spirit"!—For another thing, it seems to me very strange to speak of the Holy Ghost as "blowing," and to speak of the "sound" of the Holy Ghost, or of that "sound’’ being heard by Nicodemus.
I can see no difficulty Whatever in the expression, "The wind bloweth where it listeth." It is common in the Bible to personify unintelligent things, and to speak of them as having mind and will. Thus our Lord speaks of the "stones crying out." (Luke 19:40.) And the Psalmist says, "The sun knoweth his going down." (Psalms 104:19.) See also Job 38:8, Job 38:35.—In addition to this, I see a peculiar beauty in the selection of the wind as an illustration of the work of the Spirit. Not only is the illustration most apt and striking, but it is one which is used in other places in Scripture. See for instance, in the vision of the dry bones, how Ezekiel cries to the "wind" to breathe on the slain. (Ezekiel 37:9.) See also Song of Song of Solomon 4:16, and Acts 2:2.—Last, but not least, it seems to me, that Nicodemus’ state of perplexity makes it highly probable that our Lord would graciously help his ignorance by the use of a familiar illustration, like that of the wind. If no illustration at all was used in this verse, it is not quite easy to see how its language would help Nicodemus to understand the doctrine of the new birth.—But if the verse contains a familiar illustration, the whole purpose of our Lord in saying what He did becomes clear and plain.
WE have in these verses the second part of the conversation between our Lord Jesus Christ and Nicodemus. A lesson about regeneration is closely followed by a lesson about justification! The whole passage ought always to be read with affectionate reverence. It contains words which have brought eternal life to myriads of souls.
These verses show us, firstly, what gross spiritual ignorance there may be in the mind of a great and learned man. We see a "master of Israel" unacquainted with the first elements of saving religion. Nicodemus is told about the new birth, and at once exclaims, "How can these things be?" When such was the darkness of a Jewish teacher, what must have been the state of the Jewish people? It was indeed due time for Christ to appear! The pastors of Israel had ceased to feed the people with knowledge. The blind were leading the blind, and both were falling into the ditch. (Matthew 15:14.)
Ignorance like that of Nicodemus is unhappily far too common in the Church of Christ. We must never be surprised if we find it in quarters where we might reasonably expect knowledge. Learning, and rank, and high ecclesiastical office are no proof that a minister is taught by the Spirit. The successors of Nicodemus, in every age, are far more numerous than the successors of Peter. On no point is religious ignorance so common as on the work of the Holy Ghost. That old stumbling-block, at which Nicodemus stumbled, is as much an offence to thousands in the present day as it was in the days of Christ. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God." (1 Corinthians 2:14.) Happy is he who has been taught to prove all things by Scripture, and to call no man master upon earth. (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Matthew 23:9.)
These verses show us, secondly, the original source from which man’s salvation springs. That source is the love of God the Father. Our Lord says to Nicodemus, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
This wonderful verse has been justly called by Luther, "The Bible in miniature." No part of it, perhaps, is so deeply important as the first five words, "God so loved the world." The love here spoken of is not that special love with which the Father regards His own elect, but that mighty pity and compassion with which He regards the whole race of mankind. Its object is not merely the little flock which He has given to Christ from all eternity, but the whole "world" of sinners, without any exception. There is a deep sense in which God loves that world. All whom He has created He regards with pity and compassion. Their sins He cannot love;—but He loves their souls. "His tender mercies are over all His works." (Psalms 145:9.) Christ is God’s gracious gift to the whole world.
Let us take heed that our views of the love of God are Scriptural and well-defined. The subject is one on which error abounds on either side.—On the one hand we must beware of vague and exaggerated opinions. We must maintain firmly that God hates wickedness, and that the end of all who persist in wickedness will be destruction. It is not true that God’s love is "lower than hell." It is not true that God so loved the world that all mankind will be finally saved, but that He so loved the world that He gave His Son to be the Savior of all who believe. His love is offered to all men freely, fully, honestly, and unreservedly, but it is only through the one channel of Christ’s redemption. He that rejects Christ cuts himself off from God’s love, and will perish everlastingly.—On the other hand, we must beware of narrow and contracted opinions. We must not hesitate to tell any sinner that God loves him. It is not true that God cares for none but His own elect, or that Christ is not offered to any but those who are ordained to eternal life. There is a "kindness and love" in God towards all mankind. It was in consequence of that love that Christ came into the world, and died upon the cross. Let us not be wise above that which is written, or more systematic in our statements than Scripture itself. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God is not willing that any should perish. God would have all men to be saved. God loves the world. (John 6:32; Titus 3:4; 1 John 4:10; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4; Ezekiel 33:11.)
These verses show us, thirdly, the peculiar plan by which the love of God has provided salvation for sinners. That plan is the atoning death of Christ on the cross. Our Lord says to Nicodemus, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
By being "lifted up," our Lord meant nothing less than His own death upon the cross. That death, He would have us know, was appointed by God to be "the life of the world." (John 6:51.) It was ordained from all eternity to be the great propitiation and satisfaction for man’s sin. It was the payment, by an Almighty Substitute and Representative, of man’s enormous debt to God. When Christ died upon the cross, our many sins were laid upon Him. He was made "sin" for us. He was made "a curse" for us. (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13.) By His death He purchased pardon and complete redemption for sinners. The brazen serpent, lifted up in the camp of Israel, brought health and cure within the reach of all who were bitten by serpents. Christ crucified, in like manner, brought eternal life within reach of lost mankind. Christ has been lifted up on the cross, and man looking to Him by faith may be saved.
The truth before us is the very foundation-stone of the Christian religion. Christ’s death is the Christian’s life. Christ’s cross is the Christian’s title to heaven. Christ "lifted up" and put to shame on Calvary is the ladder by which Christians "enter into the holiest," and are at length landed in glory. It is true that we are sinners;—but Christ has suffered for us. It is true that we deserve death;—but Christ has died for us. It is true that we are guilty debtors;—but Christ has paid our debts with His own blood. This is the real Gospel! This is the good news! On this let us lean while we live. To this let us cling when we die. Christ has been "lifted up" on the cross, and has thrown open the gates of heaven to all believers.
These verses show us, fourthly, the way in which the benefits of Christ’s death are made our own. That way is simply to put faith and trust in Christ. Faith is the same thing as believing. Three times our Lord repeats this glorious truth to Nicodemus. Twice He proclaims that "whosoever believeth shall not perish." Once He says, "He that believeth on the Son of God is not condemned."
Faith in the Lord Jesus is the very key of salvation. He that has it has life, and he that has it not has not life. Nothing whatever beside this faith is necessary to our complete justification; but nothing whatever, except this faith, will give us an interest in Christ. We may fast and mourn for sin, and do many things that are right, and use religious ordinances, and give all our goods to feed the poor, and yet remain unpardoned, and lose our souls.—But if we will only come to Christ as guilty sinners, and believe on Him, our sins shall at once be forgiven, and our iniquities shall be entirely put away. Without faith there is no salvation; but through faith in Jesus, the vilest sinner may be saved.
If we would have a peaceful conscience in our religion, let us see that our views of saving faith are distinct and clear. Let us beware of supposing that justifying faith is anything more than a sinner’s simple trust in a Savior, the grasp of a drowning man on the hand held out for his relief.—Let us beware of mingling anything else with faith in the matter of justification. Here we must always remember faith stands entirely alone. A justified man, no doubt, will always be a holy man. True believing will always be accompanied by godly living. But that which gives a man an interest in Christ, is not his living, but his faith. If we would know whether our faith is genuine, we do well to ask ourselves how we are living. But if we would know whether we are justified by Christ, there is but one question to be asked. That question is, "Do we believe?"
These verses show us, lastly, the true cause of the loss of man’s soul. Our Lord says to Nicodemus, "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."
The words before us form a suitable conclusion to the glorious tidings which we have just been considering. They completely clear God of injustice in the condemnation of sinners. They show in simple and unmistakable terms, that although man’s salvation is entirely of God, his ruin, if he is lost, will be entirely from himself. He will reap the fruit of his own sowing.
The doctrine here laid down ought to be carefully remembered. It supplies an answer to a common cavil of the enemies of God’s truth. There is no decreed reprobation, excluding any one from heaven. "God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." There is no unwillingness on God’s part to receive any sinner, however great his sins. God has sent "light" into the world, and if man will not come to the light, the fault is entirely on man’s side. His blood will be on his own head, if he makes shipwreck of his soul. The blame will be at his own door, if he misses heaven. His eternal misery will be the result of his own choice. His destruction will be the work of his own hand. God loved him, and was willing to save him; but he "loved darkness," and therefore darkness must be his everlasting portion. He would not come to Christ, and therefore he could not have life. (John 5:40.)
The truths we have been considering are peculiarly weighty and solemn. Do we live as if we believed them?—Salvation by Christ’s death is close to us to-day. Have we embraced it by faith, and made it our own?—Let us never rest till we know Christ as our own Savior. Let us look to Him without delay for pardon and peace, if we have never looked before. Let us go on believing on Him, if we have already believed. "Whosoever," is His own gracious word,—"whosoever believeth on Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life."
v9.—[Nicodemus answered...how...these things be?] This is the third and last time that Nicodemus speaks during his visit to Christ, so far as it is reported to us. His question here is a striking and instructive instance of the deep spiritual ignorance which may be found in the mind of a learned man. In four different ways our Lord had brought before him one and the same lesson. First, He had laid down the great principle that every man must be "born again."—Secondly, He had repeated the same thing in fuller words, and brought in the idea of "water," to illustrate the work of the Spirit.—Thirdly, he had shown the necessity of the new birth, from the natural corruption of man.—Fourthly, He had illustrated the work of the Spirit a second time by the instance of the "wind." And yet now, after all that our Lord has said, this learned Pharisee seems utterly in the dark, and asks the pitiable question, "How can these things be?" We have no right to be surprised at the vast ignorance of saving religion which we see on all sides, when we consider the history of Nicodemus. We should make up our minds to expect to find spiritual darkness the rule, and spiritual light the exception. Few things in the long run give so much trouble to ministers, missionaries, teachers, and district-visitors, as beginning work with extravagant and unscriptural expectations.
v10.—[Jesus answered and said.] It will be observed, that our Lord does not answer the question of Nicodemus directly, but rebukes him sharply for his ignorance. Yet it ought to be carefully noted, as Melancthon remarks, that before He concludes what He now begins to say, He supplies a complete answer to His inquirer. He shows him the true root and spring of regeneration, namely, faith in Himself. He answers his groping inquiry, "How can these things be?" by showing him the first step in saving religion, viz., to believe in the Son of God. Let Nicodemus begin like a little child, by simply believing on Him who was to be lifted up on the cross, and he would soon understand "how" a man could be born again, even in his old age.
[Art thou a master of Israel.] The English version of this question hardly gives the full force of the original. It should be literally rendered, "Art thou the master of Israel?" i.e., "Art thou the famous teacher and instructor of the Jews?" "Dost thou profess to be a light of them that sit in darkness, and an instructor of others?"—The expression certainly seems to indicate that Nicodemus was a man of established reputation as a teacher among the Pharisees. When the teachers were so ignorant, what must have been the state of the taught?
[Knowest not these things.] These words unquestionably imply rebuke. The things which our Lord had just mentioned, Nicodemus ought to have known and understood. He professed to be a religious teacher. He professed to know the Old Testament Scriptures. The doctrine, therefore, of the necessity of a new birth ought not to have appeared strange to him. "A clean heart,—circumcision of the heart,—a new heart,—a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone," were expressions and ideas which he must have read in the prophets, and which all pointed towards the new birth. (Psalms 51:10; Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 18:31; Ezekiel 36:26.) His ignorance consequently was deserving of blame.
The verse before us appears to me to supply a strong argument against the idea that the expression, "born of water and the Spirit" means baptism. I do not see how Nicodemus could possibly have known this doctrine, as it is nowhere revealed in the Old Testament, and even its own advocates confine it to New Testament times. To blame a man for not knowing "things" which he could not possibly know, would be obviously most unjust, and entirely at variance with the general tenor of our Lord’s dealings.
v11.—[We speak that we do know, &c.] Whom does our Lord mean here when He says "we"? The answers to this question are various.
(a.) Some think, as Luther, Brentius, Bucer, Gualter, Aretius, Hutcheson, Musculus, Gomarus, Piscator, and Cartwright, that "we" means, "I and John the Baptist."
(b.) Some think, as Calvin, Beza, and Scott, that it means, "I and the Old Testament prophets."
(c.) Some think, as Alcuin, (according to Maldonatus,) and Wesley, that it means, "I and all who are born of the Spirit."
(d.) Some think, as Chrysostom, Cyril, Rupertus, Calovius, Glassius, Chemnitius, Lampe, Leigh, Nifanius, Cornelius á Lapide, Cocceius, Stier and Bengel, that it means either, "I and the Father,"—or "I and the Holy Ghost,"—or "I and both the Father and the Spirit."
(e.) Some think, as Theophylact, Zwingle, Poole, and Doddridge, that our Lord only means Himself when He says "we," and that He uses the plural number in order to give weight and dignity to what He says, as kings do. So also He says, "Whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God? or with what comparison shall we compare it?" (Mark 4:30.) "We," in that text, evidently stands for "I."—In John’s First Epistle, the first person plural is used instead of the singular repeatedly in the first five verses of the first chapter.
The last of these five opinions appears to me by far the most probable and satisfactory.—The three first seem to me to be entirely overthrown by John the Baptist’s words in this chapter, (John 3:32,) where he mentions it as a peculiar mark of our Lord’s superiority to all other teachers, that "He testifieth what He hath seen and heard."—The fourth opinion appears to me untenable. The fear of Socinianism must not make us wrest texts in ordor to apply them to the Trinity. There is a fitness in our Lord’s saying, during His earthly ministry, after His incarnation, "I speak and testify what I have known and seen from all eternity with my Father." But there is no apparent fitness in saying that He and the two other Persons in the Trinity "speak what they have seen."
The meaning of the sentence appears to be this, "I declare with authority, and bear witness to truths, which from all eternity I have known and seen, as God in union with the Father and the Holy Ghost. I do not speak (as all merely human ministers must) what I have been taught by others. I do not testify things which I have received as God’s servant, as ordinary prophets have, and which I should not have known without God’s inspiration. I testify what I have seen with my Father, and knew before the world began." It is like the expression, "I speak that which I have seen with my Father." (John 8:38.)
Melancthon thinks that our Lord, in this verse, contrasts the uncertain traditions and human inventions which the Pharisees taught, with the sure, certain, and irrefragable truths of God, which he came to preach.
Bucer remarks that the verse contains a practical lesson for all religious teachers. No man has a right to teach, unless he is thoroughly persuaded of the truth of what he teaches.
[Ye receive not our witness.] This sentence corresponds so exactly with John the Baptist’s words, at John 3:32, that it confirms me in the opinion that our Lord, in this verse, only speaks of Himself. The words before us, as well as those of John the Baptist, must be taken with some qualification: "The greater part of you receive not our testimony."—The object of the verse is to rebuke the unbelief of Nicodemus and all who were like-minded with him among the Jews. The use of the plural number "ye," makes it probable that our Lord in this verse refers not merely to what He had just been saying to Nicodemus, but to all His public teaching at Jerusalem, from the time of His casting out the buyers and sellers in the temple. If we do not adopt this theory, we must suppose Him to mean, "What I have spoken and testified to you about regeneration, is what I continually say to all who come, like you, to inquire of me; and yet neither you nor they believe what I say. You all alike stumble at this stumbling-stone, the new birth."
Calvin remarks on this expression, that we ought never to be surprised at unbelief. If men would not receive Christ’s testimony, it is no wonder if they will not receive ours.
v12.—[If I have told...earthly...heavenly things?] To see the full force of this verse, we should paraphrase it thus. "If ye do not believe what I say when I tell you, as I have done, things that are earthly, how will you believe if I go on, as I shall do, to tell you of things that are heavenly? If you will not believe when ye hear my first lesson, what will ye do when ye hear my second? If ye are stumbled at the very alphabet of my Gospel, what will ye do when I proceed to show you higher and deeper truths?"
The difficulty of the verse lies in the two expressions, "earthly things" and "heavenly things." Our Lord does not explain them, and we are therefore left to conjecture their true meaning.—I offer the following explanation with some diffidence, as the most satisfactory one.
By "earthly things " I believe our Lord means the doctrine of the "new birth," which He had just been expounding to Nicodemus. By "heavenly things" I believe He means the great and solemn truths which he was immediately about to declare, and which he does declare in rapid succession from this verse down to the end of the conversation.—These truths were His own divinity,—the plan of redemption by His own death on the cross,—the love of God to the whole world, and His consequent provision of salvation,—faith in the Son of God as the only way to escape hell,—and man’s wilful rejection of light, the only cause of man’s condemnation.
But why does our Lord call the new birth an "earthly thing"? I reply that He does so, because it is an "earthly" thing compared with His own divinity and atonement. Regeneration is a thing that takes place in man, here upon earth. The atonement is a transaction that was done for man, and of which the special effect is on man’s position before God in heaven. In regeneration God comes down to man, and dwells in him Upon earth. In the atonement Christ takes up man’s nature as man’s representative, and as man’s forerunner goes up into heaven.—Regeneration is a change of which even the men of this world have some faint inkling, and which can be illustrated by such earthly figures as water and wind. Almost every one allows, as Bucer remarks, that he is not so good as he should be, and that he needs some change to fit him for heaven. Christ’s divinity, and the incarnation, and the atonement, and justification by faith, are such high and heavenly things that man has no natural conception of them.—Regeneration is so far an "earthly" idea that even irreligious men borrow the word, and talk of regenerating nations, and society. Salvation by faith in Christ’s blood is so entirely a "heavenly thing," that it is constantly misunderstood, hated, and sneered at by unconverted men.—When therefore our Lord calls the new birth an "earthly thing," we must understand that he does so comparatively. In itself the new birth is a high, holy, and "heavenly thing." But compared with the doctrine of the incarnation and the atonement, it is an "earthly thing."
v13.—[And no man hath ascended, &c.] This verse, according to my view, contains the first "heavenly thing" which our Lord displays to Nicodemus. But the sentence is undeniably a difficult one, and commentators differ widely as to its meaning.
Some think, as Calvin. Musculus, Bullinger, Hutcheson, Poole, Quesnel, Schottgen, Dyke, Lightfoot, Leigh, Doddridge, A. Clarke, and Stier, that our Lord here shows to Nicodemus, in highly figurative language, the necessity of divine teaching, in order to understand spiritual truth.—"No child of Adam has ever reached the lofty mysteries of heaven, and made himself acquainted with its high and holy truths, by his own natural understanding. Such knowledge is only possessed by the incarnate Saviour, the Son of man, who has come down from heaven. If you would know spiritual truth, you must sit at His feet, and learn of Him." This view of the text is supported by Proverbs 30:3-4. According to this view, the verse must be taken in close connection with the preceding one, where the ignorance of Nicodemus is exposed.
Some think, as Zwingle, Melancthon, Brentius, Aretius, Flacius, and Ferus, that our Lord here shows to Nicodemus, (and again in highly figurative language,) the impossibility of human merit, and the utter inability of man justifying himself, and obtaining an entrance into heaven by his own righteousness.—"No one can possibly ascend into God’s presence in heaven, and stand perfect and complete before Him, except the incarnate Saviour, who has come down from heaven to fulfil all righteousness. I am the way to heaven. If you would enter heaven, you must believe on the Son of man, and become a member of His body by faith."—This view of the text appeals for support to Romans 10:6-9. According to this view, the verse must be taken in close connection with the following verse, in which the way of justification is explained.
The true view of the text, I venture to think, is as follows. The words of the text are to be taken literally. Our Lord begins His list of "heavenly things" by declaring to Nicodemus His own divine nature and dignity, He reminds him that no one has ever ascended literally into that heaven where God dwells. Enoch, and Elijah, and David, for instance, were doubtless in a place of bliss, when they left this world, but they had not "ascended into heaven." (Acts 2:34.) But that which no man, not even the holiest saint, had attained, was the right and prerogative of Him in whose company Nicodemus was. The Son of man had dwelt from all eternity in heaven, had come down from heaven, would one day ascend again into heaven, and in His divine nature was actually in heaven, one with God the Father, at that very moment.—"Know who it is to whom you are speaking. I am not merely a teacher come from God, as you say. I am the Messiah, the Son of man, foretold by Daniel. I have come down from heaven, according to promise, to save sinners. I shall one day ascend again into heaven, as the victorious forerunner of a saved people. Above all, I am as God in heaven at this moment. I am He who fills heaven and earth."—I prefer this view of the verse to any other, for two reasons. For one thing, it gives a literal meaning to every word in the text. For another, it seems a fitting answer to the first idea which Nicodemus had put forward in the conversation, viz., that our Lord was only "a teacher come from God." It is the view which is in the main held by Rollock, Calovius, and Gomarus, and expounded by them with much ability.
The Greek word which we render "but," I am inclined to think, ought to be taken in an adversative rather than in an exceptive sense. Instances of this usage will be found in Matthew 12:4; Mark 13:32; Luke 4:26-27; John 17:12; Revelation 9:4; Revelation 21:27. The thought appears to be, "Man has not, and cannot ascend into heaven. But that which man cannot do, I the Son of man can do."
"Heaven," throughout this verse, must be taken in the sense of that immediate and peculiar presence of God, which we can conceive of and express in no other form than by the word "heaven."
The expression "which is in heaven," deserves particular notice. It is one of those many expressions in the New Testament which can be explained in no other way than by the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. It would be utterly absurd and untrue to say of any mere man, that at the very time he was speaking to another on earth he was in heaven! But it can be said of Christ with perfect truth and propriety. He never ceased to be very God, when He became incarnate. He was "with God and was God." As God He was in heaven while He was speaking to Nicodemus.
The expression is one which no Socinian can explain away. If Christ was only a very holy man and nothing more, He could not have used these words. The Socinian explanation of the former part of the verse, viz., that Christ was caught up into heaven after His baptism, and there instructed about the Gospel He was to teach, would be of itself utterly absurd, and a mere theory invented to get over a difficulty. But the conclusion of the verse is a blow at the very root of the Socinian system. It is written not only that Christ "came down from heaven," but that "he is in heaven."
It admits of a question whether the Greek words which we translate "which is," do not, both here and in John 1:18, point to that peculiar name of Jehovah, which was doubtless familiar to Nicodemus, "The ever existing One; the living One." It is the same phrase which forms part of Christ’s name in Revelation, "Him which is." (Revelation 1:4.)
Much of the difficulty of the verse is removed by remembering that the past tense, "hath ascended," admits of being rendered with equal grammatical correctness, "does ascend, can ascend, or will ascend." Pearce takes this view, and quotes in support of it John 1:26; John 3:18; John 5:24; John 6:69; John 11:27; John 20:29.
Whitby thinks that throughout this verse our Lord has in view a Rabbinical tradition, that Moses had been into heaven to receive the law,—and that He declares the falsehood of this tradition by saying, "no man, not even Moses, has ascended into heaven."
v14.—[As Moses lifted...serpent...so must, &c., &c.] In this verse our Lord proceeds to show Nicodemus another "heavenly thing," viz., the necessity of His own crucifixion. Nicodemus probably thought, like most Jews, that when Messiah appeared, He would come with power and glory, to be exalted and honoured by men. Jesus tells him that so far from this being the case, Messiah must be "cut off" at His first advent, and put to an open shame by being hanged on a tree. He illustrates this by a well-known event in the history of Israel’s wanderings, the story of the brazen serpent. (Numbers 21:9.) "Are you expecting me to take to myself power and to restore the kingdom of Israel? Cast away such a vain expectation. I have come to do very different work. I have come to suffer, and to offer up myself as a sacrifice for sin."
The mention of Moses, of whom the Pharisees thought so much, was eminently calculated to arrest the attention of Nicodemus. "Even Moses, in whom ye trust, has supplied a most vivid type of my great work on earth—the crucifixion."
[The Son of Man must be lifted up.] The expression "Son of Man" was doubtless intended to remind Nicodemus of Daniel’s prophecy of the Messiah.—The Greek word rendered "must," signifies ’’it behooveth that," "it is necessary that." It is necessary in order that God’s promises of a Redeemer may be fulfilled,—the types of the Old Testament sacrifices be accomplished,—the law of God be satisfied,—and a way for God’s mercy be provided. In order to all this Messiah must suffer in our stead. The phrase "lifted up," appears to me most decidedly to mean "lifted up on the cross." For one thing we find it so explained in this Gospel. (John 12:32-33.) For another the illustration of the brazen serpent makes it absolutely necessary to explain it so. To apply the phrase, as Calvin and others do, to the "necessity of lifting up and exalting Christ’s atonement in Christian teaching," seems to me a mistake. It is needlessly dragging in an idea which the words were not intended to convey. It is truth no doubt, and truth abundantly taught in Scripture, but not the truth of this text.
The main points of resemblance in the comparison,—"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,"—form a subject which requires careful handling. The lifting up of the serpent of brass for the relief of Israel when bitten by serpents, is evidently selected by our Lord as an apt illustration of His own crucifixion for sinners. But how far may we press this illustration? Where are we to stop? What are the exact points at which the type and antitype meet? These questions require consideration.
Some see a meaning in the "brass" of which the serpent was made, as a shining metal, a strong metal, &c., &c. I cannot see it. Our Lord does not even mention the brass.
Some see in the "serpent" hanging on the pole, a type of the devil, the old serpent, bruised by Christ’s death on the cross, and openly triumphed over on it. (Colossians 2:15.) I cannot see this at all. It appears to me to confound and mingle up two Scriptural truths, which ought to be kept distinct. Moreover, there is something revolting in the idea, that in order to be healed, the Israelite had to look at a figure of the devil.
Some see in "Moses" lifting up the serpent, a type of the law of God requiring payment of its demands, and becoming the cause of Christ dying on the cross. On this I will content myself with saying that I am not satisfied that this idea was in Christ’s mind.
The points of resemblance appear to me to be these,—
(a.) As the Israelites were in sore distress, and dying from the bites of poisonous serpents, so is man in great spiritual danger, and dying from the poisonous effects of sin.
(b.) As the serpent of brass was lifted up on a pole in the sight of the camp of Israel, so Christ was to be lifted up on the cross publicly, and in the sight of the whole nation, at the Passover.
(c.) As the serpent, lifted up on the pole, was an image of the very thing which had poisoned the Israelites, even so Christ had in Himself no sin, and yet was made and crucified ’’in the likeness of sinful flesh," and counted sin. (Romans 8:3.) The brazen serpent was a serpent without poison, and Christ, was a man without sin. The thing which we should specially see in Christ crucified, is our sin laid upon Him, and Him counted as a sinner, and treated as a sinner, and punished as a sinner, for our redemption. In fact we see on the cross our sins punished, crucified, borne, and carried by our Redeemer.
(d.) Finally, as the one way by which Israelites obtained relief from the brazen serpent, was by looking at it, so the one way to get benefit from Christ, is to look at him by faith. The feeblest look brought cure to an Israelite, and the weakest faith, if true and sincere, brings salvation to sinners.
It should be carefully noted, that it seems impossible to reconcile this verse with that modern divinity which can see nothing in Christ’s death but a great act of self-sacrifice, and which denies Christ’s substitution for us on the cross, and the imputation of our sins to Him. Such divinity withers up such a verse as this entirely, and cuts out the life, heart, and marrow of its meaning. Unless words are most violently wrested from their ordinary signification, the illustration before us points directly towards two great truths of the Gospel. One of them is that Christ’s death upon the cross was meant to have a medicinal, health-conferring effect upon our souls, and that there was something in it far above a mere martyr’s example. The other truth is, that when Christ died upon the cross, He was dealt with as our Substitute and Representative, and punished, through the imputation of our sins, in our place. The thing that Israel saw on the pole, and from which they got health, was an image of the very serpent that bit them. The object that Christians should see on the cross, is a Divine Person, made sin and a curse for them, and allowing that very sin that has poisoned the world to be imputed to Him, and laid upon His head.—It is easy work to sneer at the words "vicarious sacrifice," and "imputed merit," as nowhere to be found in Scripture. But it is not so easy to disprove the fact that the "ideas" are constantly to be met with in the Bible.
The use of the brazen serpent in this verse, as an illustration of Christ’s death and its purpose, must not be abused, and made an excuse for turning every incident of the history of Israel in the wilderness into an allegory. It is very important not to attach an allegorical meaning to Bible facts without authority. Such things as the manna, the smitten rock, and the brazen serpent, are allegorized for us by the Holy Ghost. But where the Holy Ghost has not pointed out any allegory, we ought to be very cautious in our assertions that allegory exists. Bucer’s remarks on this subject deserve reading.
v15.—[That whosoever believeth...not perish...life.] In this verse our Lord declares to Nicodemus the great end and purpose for which the Son of man was to be "lifted up" on the cross, and the way in which the benefits of His crucifixion become our own. In interpreting the verse, we should carefully remember that the comparison of the serpent lifted up in the wilderness must be carried through to the end of the sentence. The Son of man must be lifted up on the cross, that whosoever believeth on Him, or looks to Him by faith, as the Israelites looked to the brazen serpent, should not perish in hell.
The expression "whosoever," deserves special notice. It might have been equally well translated "every one." It is intended to show us the width and breadth of Christ’s offers of salvation. They are for "every one," without exception, that "believeth."
The expression "believeth in Him," is deeply important. It describes that one act of man’s soul which is needful to give him an interest in Jesus Christ. It is not a mere belief of the head that there is such a Person as Jesus Christ, and that He is a Saviour. It is a belief of the heart and will. When a person, feeling his desperate need by reason of sin, flees to Jesus Christ, and trusts in Him, leans on Him, and commits his soul entirely to Him as his Saviour and Redeemer, he is said, in the language of the text, to "believe on Him."—The simpler our views of faith are, the better. The more steadily we keep in view the Israelites looking at the brazen serpent, the more we shall understand the words before us. "Believing" is neither more nor less than heart-looking. Whosoever looked at the brazen serpent was made well, however ill he was, and however feeble his look. Just so, whosoever looks to Jesus by faith, is pardoned, however great his sins may have been, and however feeble his faith.—Did the Israelite look? That was the only question in the matter of being healed from the serpent’s bite.—Does the sinner believe? That is the only question in the matter of being justified and pardoned.—Looking to Moses, or looking to the tabernacle, or looking even to the pole on which the serpent hung, or looking to anything except the brazen serpent, the bitten Israelite would not have been cured. Just so, looking to anything but Christ crucified, however holy the object looked at may be, the sinner cannot be saved.
The expression, "should not perish, but have eternal life," is peculiarly strong. As the Israelite who looked to the brazen serpent not only did not die of his wounds, but recovered complete health, so the sinner who looks to Jesus not only escapes hell and condemnation, but has a seed of eternal life at once put in his heart, receives a complete title to an eternal life of glory and blessedness in heaven, and enters into that life after death.—The salvation of the Gospel is exceedingly full. It is not merely being pardoned. It is being counted completely righteous, and made a citizen of heaven. It is not merely an escape from hell, but the reception of a title to heaven. It has been well remarked, that the Old Testament generally promised only "length of days," but the Gospel promises "everlasting life."
v16.—[For God so loved the world, &c.] Our Lord, in this verse, shows Nicodemus another "heavenly thing."—Nicodemus probably thought, like many Jews, that God’s purposes of mercy were entirely confined to His chosen people Israel, and that when Messiah appeared, He would appear only for the special benefit of the Jewish nation. Our Lord here declares to him that God loves all the world without any exception, that the Messiah, the only begotten Son of God, is the Father’s gift to the whole family of Adam, and that every one, whether Jew or Gentile, who believes on Him for salvation, may have eternal life.—A more startling declaration to the ears of a rigid Pharisee it is impossible to conceive! A more wonderful verse is not to be found in the Bible! That God should love such a wicked world as this and not hate it,—that He should love it so as to provide salvation—that in order to provide salvation He should give, not an angel, or any created being, but such a priceless gift as His only begotten Son,—that this great salvation should be freely offered to every one that believeth,—all, all this is wonderful indeed! This was indeed a "heavenly thing."
The words, "God loved the world," have received two very different interpretations. The importance of the subject in the present day makes it desirable to state both views fully.
Some think, as Hutcheson, Lampe, and Gill, that the "world" here means God’s elect out of every nation, whether Jews or Gentiles, and that the "love" with which God is said to love them is that eternal love with which the elect were loved before creation began, and by which their calling, justification, preservation and final salvation are completely secured.—This view, though supported by many and great divines, does not appear to me to be our Lord’s meaning. For one thing, it seems to me a violent straining of language to confine the word "world" to the elect. "The world" is undoubtedly a name sometimes given to the "wicked" exclusively. But I cannot see that it is a name ever given to the saints.—For another thing, to interpret the word "world" of the elect only is to ignore the distinction which, to my eyes, is plainly drawn in the text between the whole of mankind and those out of mankind who "believe." If the "world" means only the believing portion of mankind, it would have been quite enough to say, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that the world should not perish." But our Lord does not say so. He says, "that whosoever believeth, i. e., that whosoever out of the world believeth."—Lastly, to confine God’s love to the elect, is taking a harsh and narrow view of God’s character, and fairly lays Christianity open to the modern charges brought against it as cruel and unjust to the ungodly. If God takes no thought for any but his elect, and cares for none beside, how shall God judge the world?—I believe in the electing love of God the Father as strongly as any one. I regard the special love with which God loves the sheep whom He has given to Christ from all eternity, as a most blessed and comfortable truth, and one most cheering and profitable to believers. I only say, that it is not the truth of this text.
The true view of the words, "God loved the world," I believe to be this. The "world" means the whole race of mankind, both saints and sinners, without any exception. The word, in my opinion, is so used in John 1:10, John 1:29; John 6:33, John 6:51; John 8:12; Romans 3:19; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14. The "love" spoken of is that love of pity and compassion with which God regards all His creatures, and specially regards mankind. It is the same feeling of "love" which appears in Psalms 145:9; Ezekiel 33:11; John 6:32; Titus 3:4; 1 John 4:10; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4. It is a love unquestionably distinct and separate from the special love with which God regards His saints. It is a love of pity and not of approbation or complaisance. But it is not the less a real love. It is a love which clears God of injustice in judging the world.
I am quite familiar with the objections commonly brought against the theory I have just propounded. I find no weight in them, and am not careful to answer them. Those who confine God’s love exclusively to the elect appear to me to take a narrow and contracted view of God’s character and attributes. They refuse to God that attribute of compassion with which even an earthly father can regard a profligate son, and can offer to him pardon, even though his compassion is despised and his offers refused. I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by idolatrous veneration of a system. The following quotation from one whom for convenience sake I must call a thorough Calvinist, I mean Bishop Davenant, will show that the view I advocate is not new.
"The general love of God toward mankind is so clearly testified in Holy Scripture, and so demonstrated by the manifold effects of God’s goodness and mercy extended to every particular man in this world, that to doubt thereof were infidelity, and to deny it plain blasphemy."—Davenant’s Answer to Hoard, p. 1.
"God hateth nothing which Himself created. And yet it is most true that He hateth sin in any creature, and hateth the creature infected with sin, in such manner as hatred may be attributed to God. But for all this He so generally loved mankind, fallen in Adam, that He hath given His only begotten Son, that what sinner soever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. And this everlasting life is so provided for man by God, that no decrees of His can bring any man thither without faith and repentance; and no decrees of His can keep any man out who repenteth and believeth. As for the measure of God’s love exhibited in the external effect unto man, it must not be denied that God poureth out His grace more abundantly on some men than on others, and worketh more powerfully and effectually in the hearts of some men than of others, and that out of His alone will and pleasure. But yet, when this more special love is not extended, His less special love is not restrained to outward and temporal mercies, but reacheth to internal and spiritual blessings, even such as will bring men to an eternal blessedness, if their voluntary wickedness hinders not."—Davenant’s Answer to Hoard, p. 469.
"No divine of the Reformed Church, of sound judgment, will deny a general intention or appointment concerning the salvation of all men individually by the death of Christ, on the condition if they should believe. For the intention or appointment of God is general, and is plainly revealed in holy Scripture, although the absolute and not to be frustrated intention of God concerning the gift of faith and eternal life to some persons, is special, and limited to the elect alone. So I have maintained and do maintain."—Davenant’s Opinion on the Gallican Controversy.
Calvin observes on this text, "Christ brought life, because the heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish." Again he says, "Christ employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite indiscriminately all to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such also is the import of the term world. Though there is nothing in the world that is worthy of God’s favour, yet He shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ."
The same view of God’s "love" and the "world," in this text, is taken by Brentius, Bucer, Calovius, Glassius, Chemnitius, Musculus; Bullinger, Bengel, Nifanius, Dyke, Scott, Henry, and Manton.
The little word "so," in this verse, has called forth many remarks, on account of its depth of meaning. It doubtless signifies "so greatly, so much, so dearly." Bishop Sanderson, quoted by Ford, observes, "How much that ’so’ containeth, no tongue or wit of man can reach: nothing expresseth it better to the life, than the work itself doth."
[That he gave his only begotten Son.] The gift of Christ, be it here noted, is the result of God’s love to the world, and not the cause. To say that God loves us because Christ died for us, is wretched theology indeed. But to say that Christ came into the world in consequence of the love of God, is scriptural truth.
The expression "he gave," is a remarkable one. Christ is God the Father’s gift to a lost and sinful world. He was given generally to be the Saviour, the Redeemer, the Friend of sinners,—to make an atonement sufficient for all,—and to provide a redemption large enough for all. To effect this, the Father freely gave Him up to be despised, rejected, mocked, crucified, and counted guilty and accursed for our sakes. It is written that He was "delivered for our offences," and that "God spared Him not, but delivered him up for us all." (Romans 4:25; Romans 8:32.) Christ is the "gift of God," spoken of to the Samaritan woman, (John 4:10,) and the "unspeakable gift" spoken of by Paul. (2 Corinthians 9:15.) He Himself says to the wicked Jews, "My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven." (John 6:32.) This last text, be it noted, was one with which Erskine silenced the General Assembly in Scotland, when he was accused of offering Christ too freely to sinners.
It should be observed that our Lord calls Himself "the only begotten Son of God" in this verse. In the verse but one before this, He called Himself "the Son of man." Both the names were used in order to impress upon the mind of Nicodemus the two natures of Messiah. He was not only the Son of man but the Son of God. But it is striking to remark that precisely the same words are used in both places about faith in Christ. If we would be saved, we must believe in Him both as the Son of man and the Son of God.
[That whosoever believeth, &c....life.] These words are exactly the same as those in the preceding verse. Why our translators should have rendered the same Greek word by "everlasting" in one place, and "eternal" in the other, it is hard to say. In Matthew 25:46, they did just the same.
The repetition of this glorious saying, "whosoever believeth," is very instructive. For one thing it serves to show that mighty and broad as is the love of God, it will prove useless to every one who does not believe in Christ. God loves all the world, but God will save none in the world who refuse to believe in His only begotten Son.—For another thing it shows us the great point to which every Christian should direct his attention. He must see to it that he believes on Christ. It is mere waste of time to be constantly asking ourselves whether God loves us and whether Christ died for us; and it argues gross ignorance of Scripture to trouble ourselves with such questions. The Bible never tells men to look at these questions, but commands them to believe. Salvation, it always teaches, does not turn on the point, "did Christ die for me?" but on the point, "do I believe on Christ?" If men do not "have eternal life," it is never because God did not love them, or because Christ was not given for them, but because they do not believe on Christ.
In leaving this verse, I may remark, that the idea maintained by Erasmus, Olshausen, Wetstein, Rosenmuller, and others, that it does not contain our Lord’s words, and that from this verse down to the 21st we have John’s comments or observations, appears to me utterly destitute of foundation, and unsupported by a single argument worth noticing. That our Lord would not have used the third person in speaking of Himself is no argument. We find Him frequently speaking of Himself in the third person. See, for instance, John 5:19-27. There is literally nothing to be gained by adopting the theory, while it contradicts the common belief of nearly all believers in every age of the world.
Flacius observes that this verse and the two preceding ones comprise all the causes of justification: 1. The remote and efficient cause, God’s love. 2. The approximate efficient cause, the gift of God’s Song of Solomon 3:1-11. The material cause, Christ’s exaltation on the cross. 4. The instrumental cause, faith. 5. The final cause, eternal life.
v17.—[God sent not....condemn....world.] In this verse our Lord shows Nicodemus another "heavenly thing." He shows him the main object of Messiah coming into the world. It was not to judge men, but to die for them; not to condemn, but to save.
I have a strong impression that when our Lord spoke these words, He had in view the prophecy of David about Messiah bruising the nations with a rod of iron, and Daniel’s prophecy about the judgment, where he speaks of the thrones being cast down, and the Ancient of days judging the world. (Psalms 2:6-9; Daniel 7:9-22.) I think that Nicodemus, like most Jews, was filled with the expectation that when Messiah came He would come with power and great glory, and judge all men. Our Lord corrects this notion in this verse. He declares that Messiah’s first advent was not to judge but to save people from their sins. He says in another place, "I came not to judge the world, but to save the world." (John 12:47.) The Greek word for judging and condemning, it must be remembered, is one and the same. Judgment and the condemnation of the ungodly, our Lord would have us know, are not the work of the first advent, but of the second. The special work of the first advent was to seek and save that which was lost.
[That....world....through Him....saved.] This sentence must clearly be interpreted with some qualification. It would contradict other plain texts of Scripture, if we took it to mean, "God sent His Son into the world, that all the world might finally be saved through Him, and none be lost." In fact, our Lord Himself declares in the very next verse, "that he that believeth not is condemned already."
The meaning of the sentence evidently is, that "all the world might have a door of salvation opened through Christ,—that salvation might be provided for all the world,—and that so any one in the world believing on Christ, might be saved." In this view it is like the expression of John, "The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world." (1 John 4:14.)
The expression, "God hath sent," in this verse, ought not to be overlooked. It is very frequently applied, in John’s Gospel, to our Lord. At least thirty-eight times we find Him speaking of Himself as Him "whom God hath sent." It is probably from this expression that Paul derives the peculiar name which he gives to our Lord, "The apostle of our profession." (Hebrews 3:1.) The apostle means simply, "The sent one."
The readiness of natural man everywhere to regard Christ as a Judge much more than as a Saviour, is a curious fact. The whole system of the Roman Catholic Church is full of the idea. People are taught to be afraid of Christ, and to flee to Mary! Ignorant Protestants are not much better. They often regard Christ as a kind of Judge, whose demands they will have to satisfy at the last day, much more than as a present personal Saviour and Friend. Our Lord seems to foresee this error, and to correct it in the words of this text.
Calvin observes on this verse, "Whenever our sins press us,—whenever Satan would drive us to despair,—we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because He has appointed His Son to be the salvation of the world."
v18.—[He that believeth on Him....is not condemned.] In this verse our Lord shows Nicodemus another "heavenly thing." He declares the privileges of believing, and the peril of not believing in the Son of God. Nicodemus had addressed Him as a "teacher come from God." He would have Nicodemus know that He was that high and holy One, whom to believe on was life eternal, and whom not to believe on was everlasting destruction. Life or death was before men. If they believed and received Him as the Messiah, they would be saved. If they believed not, they would die in their sins.
The expression, "He that believeth," deserves special notice. It is the third time that our Lord speaks of "believing" on Himself, and the consequence of believing, within four verses. It shows the immense importance of faith in the sinner’s justification. It is that one thing, without which eternal life cannot be had.—It shows the amazing graciousness of the Gospel, and its admirable suitableness to the wants of human nature.—A man may have been the worst of sinners, but if he will only "believe," he is at once pardoned. Last, but not least, it shows the need of clear, distinct views of the nature of saving faith, and the importance of keeping it entirely distinct from works of any kind, in the matter of justification. Faith, and faith only, gives an interest in Christ. The old sentence of Luther’s days is perfectly true,—paradoxical and startling as it may sound, "The faith which justifies is not the faith which includes charity, but the faith which lays hold on Christ."
The expression, "is not condemned," is equivalent to saying, "he is pardoned, acquitted, justified, cleared from all guilt, delivered from the curse of a broken law, no longer counted a sinner, but reckoned perfectly righteous in the sight of God." The presentness of the phrase, if one may coin a word, should be specially noticed. It is not said, that the believer "shall not be condemned at the last day," but that "he is not condemned." The very moment a sinner believes on Christ, his iniquities are taken away, and he is counted righteous. "All that believe are justified from all things." (Acts 13:39.)
[He....believeth not....condemned already.] This sentence means that the man who refuses to believe on Christ is in a state of condemnation before God, even while he lives. The curse of a broken law, which we all deserve, is upon him. His sins are upon his head. He is reckoned guilty and dead before God, and there is but a step between him and hell. Faith takes all a man’s sins away. Unbelief keeps them all on him. Through faith a man is made an heir of heaven, though kept outside till he dies. Through unbelief a man is already a subject of the devil, though not yet entirely in his power, and within hell. The moment a man believes, all charges are completely wiped away from his name. So long as a man does not believe, his sins cover him over, and make him abominable before God, and the just wrath of God abides upon him.
Melancthon remarks that the sentence of God’s condemnation, which was passed at the beginning, "Thou shalt surely die," remains in full force and unrepealed, against every one who does not believe on Christ. No new condemnation is needful. Every man or woman who does not believe, is under the curse, and condemned already.
[Because....not believed....name....Son of God.] This sentence is justly thought to prove that no sin is so great, and so damning and ruinous to the soul as unbelief. In one sense it is the only unpardonable sin. All other sins may be forgiven, however many and great, and a man may stand complete before God. But if a man will not believe on Christ, there is no hope for him; and if he persists in his unbelief he cannot be saved. Nothing is so provoking and offensive to God as to refuse the glorious salvation He has provided at so mighty a cost, by the death of His only begotten Son. Nothing is so suicidal on the part of man as to turn away from the only remedy which can heal his soul. Other sins may be scarlet, filthy, and abominable. But not to believe on Christ is to bar the door in our own way, and to cut off ourselves entirely from heaven. It Has been truly remarked that it was a greater sin in Judas Iscariot not to believe on Christ for pardon, after he had betrayed Him, than to betray Him into the hands of his enemies. To betray Him no doubt was an act of enormous covetousness, wickedness, and ingratitude. But not to seek Him afterwards by faith for pardon, was to disbelieve His mercy, love, and power to save.
The expression "the name," as the object of faith, is explained in John 1:12. Here, as frequently, it stands for the attributes, character, and office of the Son of God.
Luther, quoted by Brown, remarks, "Henceforward, he who is condemned must not complain of Adam, and his inborn sin. The seed of the woman, promised by God to bruise the head of the serpent, is now come and has atoned for sin, and taken away condemnation. But he must cry out against himself for not having accepted and believed in the Christ, the devil’s head-bruiser and sin-strangler. If I do not believe the same, sin and condemnation must continue."
v19.—[This is the condemnation, &c.] In this verse our Lord shows Nicodemus one more "heavenly thing." He unfolds to him the true cause of the ruin of those who are lost. Primarily, I think, our Lord had in view the unbelieving Jews of His own day, and the real reason of their rejection of Himself. It was not that there was any want of evidence of His Messiahship. They had evidence enough and to spare. The real reason was that they had no mind to give up their sins.—Secondarily, I think, our Lord had in view the future history of all Christians, and the true cause of the ruin of all who are not saved in every age. It is not because there is any want of light to guide men to heaven. It is not because God is wanting in love and unwilling to save. The real reason is that men in every age love their own sins, and will not come to Christ that they may be delivered from them.
The expression "this is the condemnation," is evidently very elliptical, and the full meaning must be supplied. It is probably equivalent to saying "this is the cause of the condemnation, this is the true account of it." The following elliptical expressions are somewhat similar, and all found in John’s 1st Epistle. "This is the promise," "this is the love of God," "this is the victory," "this is the confidence." (1 John 2:25; 1 John 5:4; 1 John 5:14.)
[That light is come into the world.] It is a question in this sentence whether "light" means Christ Himself, or the light of Christ’s Gospel. I am inclined to think that our Lord meant to include both ideas. He has come as a light into the world, and the Gospel that He has brought with Him, is, like its Author, a strong contrast to the ignorance and wickedness of the earth.
[Men loved darkness rather than light.] The darkness in this sentence means moral darkness and mental darkness, sin, ignorance, superstition, and irreligion. Men cannot come to Christ and receive His Gospel without parting with all this, and they love it too well to part with it.
[Because their deeds were evil.] This sentence means that their habits of life were wicked, and any doctrine which necessitated a change of these habits they naturally hated.
Throughout this verse I am inclined to think that the past tense "loved," ought to be taken in a present sense, (proleptically, to use a grammarian’s phrase,) as is frequently the case in the New Testament. See John 15:8, and Romans 8:30. The meaning will then be, "men have loved, do love, and always will love darkness, in consequence of the corruption of human nature, as long as the world stands." The sentence then becomes a solemn description of a state of things which was not only to be seen among the Jews, while our Lord was on earth, but would be seen everywhere to the end of time.
The verse is one which deserves special notice, because of the deep mystery it unfolds. It tells us the true reason why men miss heaven and are lost in hell. The origin of evil we are not told. The reason why evil men are lost, we are told plainly. There is not a word about any decree of God predestinating men to destruction. There is not a syllable about anything deficient or wanting either in God’s love, or in Christ’s atonement. On the contrary our Lord tells us that "light has come into the world," that God has revealed enough of the way of salvation to make men inexcusable if they are not saved. But the real account of the matter is that men have naturally no will or inclination to use the light. They love their own dark and corrupt ways more than the ways which God proposes to them. They therefore reap the fruit of their own ways, and will have at last what they loved. They loved darkness and they will be cast into outer darkness. They did not like the light and so they will be shut out from light eternally. In short, lost souls will be what they willed to be, and will have what they loved.
The words, "because their deeds were evil," are very instructive. They teach us that where men have no love to Christ and His Gospel and will not receive them, their lives and their works will prove at last to have been evil. Their habits of life may not be gross and immoral. They may be even comparatively decent and pure. But the last day will prove them to have been in reality "evil." Pride of intellect, or selfishness, or love of man’s applause, or dislike to submission of will, or self-righteousness, or some other false principle will be found to have run through all their conduct. In one way or another, when men refuse to come to Christ, their deeds will always prove to be "evil." Rejection of the Gospel will always be found to be connected with some moral obliquity. When Christ is refused we may be quite sure that there is something or other in life, or heart, which is not right. If a man does not love light his "deeds are evil." Human eyes may not detect the flaw; but the eyes of an all-seeing God do.
The whole verse is a deeply humbling one. It shows the folly of all excuses for not receiving the Gospel, drawn from intellectual difficulties, from God’s predestination, from our own inability to change ourselves, or to see things with the eyes of others. All such excuses are scattered to the winds by this solemn verse. People do not come to Christ, and do continue unconverted, just because they do not wish and want to come to Christ. They love something else better than the light. The elect of God prove themselves to be elect by "choosing" the things which are according to God’s mind. The wicked prove themselves to be only fit for destruction, by "choosing, loving, and following" the things which must lead to destruction.
Quesnel says on this verse, "The greatest misfortune of men does not consist in their being subject to sin, corruption, and blindness; but in their rejecting the Deliverer, the Physician, and the Light itself."
v20.—[Every one that doeth evil, &c., &c.] This verse and the following one form a practical application of all that our Lord has been saying to Nicodemus, and are also a logical consequence of the preceding verse. Like the preceding verse, these two verses apply primarily to the Jews in our Lord’s day, and secondarily to every nation to which the light of the Gospel comes. They are a most remarkable appeal to an inquirer’s conscience, and supply a most searching test of the sincerity of a man in Nicodemus’ state of mind.
The words "every one that doeth evil," mean every unconverted person, every one whose heart is not right and honest in God’s sight, and whose actions are consequently evil and ungodly. Every such person "hateth the light, neither cometh to the light." He cannot really love Christ and the Gospel, and will not honestly, and with his whole heart, seek Christ by faith and embrace His Gospel, until he is renewed. The reason of this is, that every unconverted person shrinks from having his ungodliness exposed. He does not wish his wicked ways to be discovered, and his utter want of true righteousness and true preparedness for death, judgment, and eternity to be put to shame. He does not "like his deeds to be reproved," and therefore he shrinks from the light, and keeps away from Christ.
The application of this verse must doubtless be made with caution. In the case of many unconverted persons, its truth is plain as noon-day. They love sin and hate true religion, and get away from the Gospel, the Bible, and religious people as much as they possibly can. In the case of others, its truth is not so apparent at first sight. There are many unconverted persons who profess to like the Gospel, and seem to have no prejudice against it, and to hear it with pleasure, and yet remain unconverted. Yet even in the case of those persons the text would be found perfectly true if their hearts were really known. With all their seeming love to the light they do not really love it with all their heart. There is something or other which they love better, and which keeps them back from Christ. There is something or other which they do not want to give up, and do not like to be discovered and reproved. Man’s eyes may not detect it; but the eyes of God can. The general principle of the text will be found true at last of every hearer of the Gospel who dies unconverted. He did not thoroughly love the light. He did not really want to be changed. He did not truly and honestly seek salvation. All this was true of the Jews in the time of Nicodemus, and it is no less true of all mankind to whom the Gospel comes in the present day. Right hearts will always come to Christ. If a man keeps away from the light, his heart is wrong. He is one who "doeth evil."
There is a curious difference between the Greek word translated "doeth" in this verse and the one translated "doeth" in the next verse. Stier and Alford think the difference instructive and meaning. They say that the Greek word used for "doeth evil," means the habit of action without fruit or result. On the contrary, the Greek word for "doing truth," signifies the true doing of good, good fruit, good that remains.
v21.—[He that doeth truth, &c.] This verse, it is needless to say, is closely connected with the preceding one. The preceding verse describes the unconverted man. The verse before us describes the converted man.
The expression, "He that doeth truth," signifies, the person whose heart is honest, the man who is truly converted, however weak and ignorant, and whose heart and actions are consequently true and right in the sight of God. The phrase is frequently found in John’s writings. (See John 18:37; 1 John 1:6-8; 1 John 2:4; 1 John 3:19; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:3-4.) Every such person will always come to Christ and embrace His Gospel when it is brought near him. He will have an honest desire that "his deeds may be made manifest," and that his real character may be discovered to himself and others. He will have an honest wish to know whether his habits of life are really godly, or "wrought in God."
The principle here laid down is of great importance, and experience shows that the assertion of the text is always confirmed by facts. I believe there was not a truly good man among the Jews in our Lord’s day, who did not at once receive Christ, and welcome Christ’s Gospel, as soon as it was brought before him. Nathanael was an example. He was a man "who did truth" under the obscure light of the law of Moses, as ministered by Scribes and Pharisees. But the moment the Messiah was brought before him, he received Him and believed.—So also, I believe, when the Gospel comes into a church, a parish, or a congregation, it is always gladly received and embraced by any whose hearts are true. To be a truly godly man, and yet to refuse to come to Christ, is an impossibility. He that hears of Christ and does not come to Him, and believe on Him as God’s appointed way of salvation, has something fatally wrong about him. He is not really "doing truth." He is not a converted man. Gospel light is a mighty magnet. If there is any one that has true religion within its sphere, it will attract to itself that person. To be truly religious and not to gravitate towards Him who is the great center of all light and truth, is impossible. If a man refuses Christ, he cannot be a godly man.
The application of the two last verses to the case of Nicodemus and those Jews who were in the same state of mind as Nicodemus, is plain and obvious. Our Lord leaves on the Pharisee’s mind a solemn and heart-searching conclusion. ’’Think not that you can stay away from me after hearing this discourse and be saved. If you are a really earnest inquirer after truth, and your heart is honest and sincere, you must go on, you must come to the light and embrace the light, and you will do so, however great your present ignorance. If on the other hand you are not really desirous to serve God, you will prove it by keeping away from my Gospel, and by not confessing me as the Messiah." It is a pleasant reflection, that after events proved that Nicodemus was one who "did truth." He used the light our Lord graciously imparted to him. He came forward and spoke for Christ in the council. And at last, when he boldly helped to bury Christ, he made it manifest to all Israel that "his deeds were wrought in God."
Let it be noted, that the two verses which conclude our Lord’s address to Nicodemus are a most instructive test of the sincerity and reality of persons who appear anxious inquirers in religion. If they are honest and true they will go on, and come to the full light of Christ. If they are not honest and sincere, but only influenced by temporary excitement, they will probably go back from the light, and will certainly not close with Christ and become his disciples. This should be pressed by ministers on all inquirers. "If you are true you will come to the light. If you are not true, you will go back, or stand still; you will not draw near and close with Christ." The test will never be found to fail. Those who wish to see how exceedingly weak the beginnings of grace may be in a heart, and yet be true, as it proved in the case of Nicodemus, will find the matter most skilfully treated in a small work of Perkins, little known, called "A Grain of Mustard Seed." A man may have the beginning of regeneration in his heart, and yet be so ignorant as not to know what regeneration is.
In concluding these long notes, for the length of which the immense importance of the passage must be my apology, I think we should remark that we never hear a word about Nicodemus being baptized! This fact is a strong incidental evidence to my mind, that the baptism of water was not the subject which our Lord had in view when he told Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit.
One other thing ought to be remarked, in leaving this subject of our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. That thing is the singular fulness of matter by which the whole of our Lord’s address is characterized. Within the space of twenty verses we read of the work of all Three Persons in the Trinity,—the Father’s love, the Son’s death on the cross, and the Spirit’s operation in the new birth of man,—the corruption of man’s nature, the nature of regeneration, and the efficacy of faith in Christ,—the way to escape perishing in hell, the true cause of man’s condemnation if he is lost, and the true marks of sincerity in an inquirer. A fuller sermon was never delivered than that which was here preached to Nicodemus in one evening! There is hardly a single important point in divinity which is left untouched!
ON one account, this passage deserves the special attention of all devout readers of the Bible. It contains the last testimony of John the Baptist concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. That faithful man of God was the same at the end of his ministry that he was at the beginning—the same in his views of self,—the same in his views of Christ. Happy is that church whose ministers are as steady, bold, and constant to one thing, as John the Baptist!
We have, firstly, in these verses, a humbling example of the petty jealousies and party-spirit which may exist among professors of religion. We are told, that the disciples of John the Baptist were offended, because the ministry of Jesus began to attract more attention than that of their master. "They came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with you beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold the same baptizeth, and all men come to him."
The spirit exhibited in this complaint, is unhappily too common in the Churches of Christ. The succession of these complainers has never failed. There are never wanting religious professors who care far more for the increase of their own party, than for the increase of true Christianity; and who cannot rejoice in the spread of religion, if it spreads anywhere except within their own pale. There is a generation which can see no good doing except in the ranks of its own congregations; and which seems ready to shut men out of heaven, if they will not enter therein under its banner.
The true Christian must watch and pray against the spirit here manifested by John’s disciples. It is very insidious, very contagious, and very injurious to the cause of religion. Nothing so defiles Christianity and gives the enemies of truth such occasion to blaspheme, as jealousy and party-spirit among Christians. Wherever there is real grace, we should be ready and willing to acknowledge it, even though it may be outside our own pale. We should strive to say with the apostle, "If Christ be preached, I rejoice, yea, and will rejoice." (Philippians 1:18.) If good is done, we ought to be thankful, though it even may not be done in what we think the best way. If souls are saved, we ought to be glad, whatever be the means that God may think fit to employ.
We have, secondly, in these verses, a splendid pattern of true and godly humility. We see in John the Baptist a very different spirit from that displayed by his disciples. He begins by laying down the great principle, that acceptance with man is a special gift of God; and that we must therefore not presume to find fault, when others have more acceptance than ourselves. "A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven." He goes on to remind his followers of his repeated declaration, that one greater than himself was coming;—"I said, I am not the Christ." He tells them that his office compared to that of Christ, is that of the bridegroom’s friend, compared to the bridegroom. And finally, he solemnly affirms, that Christ must and will become greater and greater, and that he himself must become less and less important, until, like a star eclipsed by the rising sun, he has completely disappeared.
A frame of mind like this, is the highest degree of grace to which mortal man can attain. The greatest saint in the sight of God, is the man who is most thoroughly "clothed with humility." (1 Peter 5:5.) Would we know the prime secret of being men of the stamp of Abraham, and Moses, and Job, and David, and Daniel, and Paul, and John the Baptist? They were all eminently humble men. Living at different ages, and enjoying very different degrees of light, in this matter at least they were all agreed. In themselves they saw nothing but sin and weakness. To God they gave all the praise of what they were. Let us walk in their steps. Let us covet earnestly the best gifts; but above all, let us covet humility. The way to true honor is to be humble. No man ever was so praised by Christ, as the very man who says here, "I must decrease," the humble John the Baptist.
We have, thirdly, in these verses, an instructive declaration of Christ’s honor and dignity. John the Baptist teaches his disciples once more, the true greatness of the Person whose growing popularity offended them. Once more, and perhaps for the last time, he proclaims Him as one worthy of all honor and praise. He uses one striking expression after another, to convey a correct idea of the majesty of Christ. He speaks of Him as "the bridegroom" of the Church,—as "him that cometh from above,"—as "him whom God has sent,"—as "him to whom the Spirit is given without measure,"—as Him "whom the Father loves," and into "whose hands all things are given,"—whom to believe in is life everlasting, and whom to reject is eternal ruin. Each of these phrases is full of deep meaning, and would supply matter for a long sermon. All show the depth and height of John’s spiritual attainments. More honorable things are nowhere written concerning Jesus, than these verses recorded as spoken by John the Baptist.
Let us endeavor in life and death, to hold the same views of the Lord Jesus, to which John here gives expression. We can never make too much of Christ. Our thoughts about the Church, the ministry, and the sacraments, may easily become too high and extravagant. We can never have too high thoughts about Christ, can never love Him too much, trust Him too implicitly, lay too much weight upon Him, and speak too highly in His praise. He is worthy of all the honor that we can give Him. He will be all in heaven. Let us see to it, that He is all in our hearts on earth.
We have, lastly, in these verses, a broad assertion of the nearness and presentness of the salvation of true Christians. John the Baptist declares, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life." He is not intended to look forward with a sick heart to a far distant privilege. He "hath" everlasting life as soon as he believes. Pardon, peace, and a complete title to Heaven, are an immediate possession. They become a believer’s own, from the very moment he puts faith in Christ. They will not be more completely his own, if he lives to the age of Methuselah.
The truth before us, is one of the most glorious privileges of the Gospel. There are no works to be done, no conditions to be fulfilled, no price to be paid, no wearing years of probation to be passed, before a sinner can be accepted with God. Let him only believe on Christ, and he is at once forgiven. Salvation is close to the chief of sinners. Let him only repent and believe, and this day it is his own. By Christ all that believe are at once justified from all things.
Let us leave the whole passage with one grave and heart-searching thought. If faith in Christ brings with it present and immediate privileges, to remain unbelieving is to be in a state of tremendous peril. If heaven is very near to the believer, hell must be very near to the unbeliever. The greater the mercy that the Lord Jesus offers, the greater will be the guilt of those who neglect and reject it. "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."
v22.—[Came Jesus...into...land of Judæa.] Some have thought, from this expression, that the conversation between Christ and Nicodemus did not take place in Jerusalem or Judæa, but in Galilee. Others have thought that a long interval must be supposed to have elapsed between the conversation and the events which are here narrated.—I can agree with neither view.—I believe the true explanation is, that "the land" here spoken of means the rural part or territory of Judæa, in contradistinction to the capital town of the territory, Jerusalem. The meaning will then be, that Jesus left the city and went into the country districts. The expression, "Thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judæa," is similar. (Matthew 2:6.)
[He tarried.] The Greek word so rendered signifies a lengthened stay. It is translated in other places "continued" or "abode." It is note-worthy that many of the events of our Lord’s ministry in Jerusalem and the surrounding district, are evidently not recorded in any of the Gospels.
[And baptized.] That our Lord did not baptize with His own hands, but left the ordinance to be administered by His disciples, as work inferior to that of preaching, we may learn from the next chapter. (John 4:2.)
Lightfoot observes that "The administration of Christ’s ordinances by his ministers, according to His institution, is as His own work. The disciples’ baptizing is called His baptizing."
The questions have often been raised, "In what name was this baptism administered?" "Was it a baptism that needed to be repeated after the day of Pentecost?"—The most probable answer to the first question is, that it was a baptism in the name of Jesus, upon profession of belief that he was the Messiah. The most probable answer to the second question is, that it was certainly not a baptism that required repetition. To suppose that a baptism, administered by our Lord’s disciples, under our Lord’s own eye, and by our Lord’s own command, was not as effectual and profitable an ordinance as any baptism that was ever afterwards administered, is a most improbable supposition.
It may be remarked here, that there is no ground for the common idea, that it is absolutely necessary that baptism should be administered in the name of the Trinity, in order to be a valid and Christian baptism. In three cases recorded in the Acts we are expressly told that baptism was administered in the name of Jesus Christ, and no mention is made of all three Persons in the Trinity. (See Acts 2:38; Acts 8:37; Acts 10:48.) In all these cases, however, it will be remembered, baptism in the name of Christ was practically baptism in the name of the Trinity. It was confession of faith in Him whom the Father sent, and who was the giver of the Holy Ghost.
As a general rule in the Church of Christ, no doubt, baptism ought to be in the name of the Trinity. (Matthew 28:19.) But that our Lord’s disciples, in the place now before us, did not baptize in the name of the Trinity is pretty certain, and that baptism in the name of Jesus is valid Christian baptism seems clear from the places referred to in Acts.
Hutcheson remarks, that "Christ’s own bodily presence, filled with the Spirit without measure, did not take away the use of external ordinances," such as baptism. The Quaker’s opinion, that we need no external ordinances under the Gospel, is hard to reconcile with such a text as this.
v23.—[John also was baptizing.] We can hardly doubt that John baptized all who came to him, at this period of his ministry, in the name of Jesus, upon confession of faith that Jesus was the Messiah. It seems most improbable that after publicly pointing out Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God, and the promised Saviour, he would be content to baptize with the baptism of repentance, which he had administered before Christ appeared. In short, John’s baptism at this period, and the baptism administered by Christ’s disciples, must have been precisely the same.
I may remark here, that the opinion maintained by Roman Catholics, and those who agree with them, that there was an essential difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism, seems to me entirely destitute of foundation. I agree with Brentius, Lightfoot, and most of the Protestant commentators, that John’s baptism and Christian baptism differed only in circumstantials, but were the same in substance, and that a person baptized by John the Baptist had no need to be re-baptized after the day of Pentecost.—Unless we take this view, I cannot see any evidence that Peter, and Andrew, and James, and John ever received Christian baptism at all. There is not a single word in the Gospel to show that they were ever baptized again after leaving John the Baptist’s company, and becoming Christ’s disciples. Moreover, we are expressly told that "Jesus himself baptized not." (John 4:2.) The only baptism that the first apostles received appears to have been John the Baptist’s baptism. This fact seems to me to prove irresistibly, that John’s baptism was essentially of equal value with Christian baptism, and that a person baptized by John had no need to be baptized again.
The well-known passage in Acts, (Acts 19:1-6,) which is always quoted in opposition to the view I maintain, does not appear to me at all conclusive and decisive upon the question now before us.—For one thing, the persons described in that passage as having only been baptized with John’s baptism, seem to have been ignorant of the first principles of Christianity. They said, "we have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost." That expression shows pretty clearly that they had not been hearers of John the Baptist, who frequently spoke of the Holy Ghost, (Matthew 3:11,) and had not been baptized by John himself.—It is most probable that they were inhabitants of Ephesus, who had only heard Apollos preaching, and knew even less than their teacher. Whether Paul might not think it needful to administer baptism to such ignorant disciples as these, who could give no intelligent account of Christianity, is a question I would not undertake to decide.—But beside this, it is by no means certain that these disciples were really baptized again with water at all. Brentius holds that the words, "they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus," mean the baptism of the Spirit. Streso maintains that the words are the concluding sentence of Paul’s address to these ignorant men. I cannot say that either of these last views is altogether satisfactory. All I say is, that I would infinitely rather adopt either of them, than hold such a monstrous opinion as the Romish one, that John’s baptism was not Christian baptism at all, and needed to be repeated. The difficulties in the way of this last view appear to me far greater than the difficulties in the way of the one which I support. To say that the first five apostles never received any Christian baptism at all is really preposterous. To assert that Christ Himself baptized them is to assert what the Bible never even hints at. There is not a shadow of proof that Jesus ever baptized a single person. I see no escape from the conclusion that Andrew, John, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael either received John’s baptism or no baptism at all.
Whatever men may think about John’s baptism before the time when our Lord appeared, they will never prove that the baptism he administered in the text before us was not Christian baptism. To suppose that John would go on administering an ordinance which he knew was imperfect, while Christian baptism was being administered by Christ’s disciples a few miles off, is simply absurd.
[Ænon near to Salim.] It is not certainly known where this place was. The probability is that it was somewhere in Judæa. In the list of the cities given to the tribe of Juda, we find together "Shilhim and Ain." (Joshua 15:32.) It is very possible that these two may be the "Ænon and Salim" now before us. The changes which proper names undergo in passing from one language to another, every one knows, are very great.
[Because there was much water.] It is frequently assumed from this expression, that John’s baptism was immersion and not sprinkling, and that on this account a great supply of water was absolutely needful. It may perhaps have been so. The point is one of no importance. That immersion, however, is necessary to the validity of baptism, and that sprinkling alone is not sufficient, are points that can never be demonstrated from Scripture. So long as water is used, it seems to be left a matter of indifference whether the person baptized is dipped or sprinkled. I should find it very hard to believe that the three thousand baptized on the day of Pentecost, or the jailer and his family, baptized at midnight in the Philippian prison, were all immersed. The Church of England wisely allows either mode of applying water to be used. To suppose that dipping is forbidden to English Churchmen is mere ignorance.
[They came...baptized.] This is an elliptical sentence. We are not told who are meant by "they." It is like "men," in Matthew 5:15, and means generally "people."
v24.—[John...not yet...prison.] John’s diligence in his Master’s work is here pointed out. He doubtless knew that his ministry was fulfilled when Christ appeared, and that the time of his own departure, and violent death under Herod’s hands, was at hand. Yet he worked on to the very last. "Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when he cometh shall find so doing." (Matthew 24:46.)
Theophylact thinks that John’s early death was permitted in God’s providence, in order to prevent any distraction in people’s minds between him and Christ.
v25.—[There arose...question...disciples...Jews...purifying.] The nature and particulars of this dispute must be left to conjecture. We can only form an idea of it from the context. It seems probable that it was a dispute between the unbelieving Jews and the disciples of John the Baptist, about the comparative value of the two baptisms which were being administered in Judea, viz., John’s baptism and Christ’s.—Which was the most purifying? Which was the most efficacious? Which was the most valuable of the two?—The Jews probably taunted John’s disciples with the decline of their master’s popularity. John’s disciples, in ignorant zeal and heat for their master, probably contended that no new teacher’s baptism could possibly be more purifying and valuable than their own master’s.
Wordsworth remarks upon the word "purifying," that John never uses the word "baptism," and never calls John the Baptist by his common surname "the Baptist." He says "John was no longer the Baptist, when John wrote. His baptism had passed away."
Musculus, on this verse, observes the excessive readiness of men in every age to raise questions, controversies, and persecutions about ceremonies of merely human institution, while about faith, and hope, and love, and humility, and patience, and mortification of the flesh, and renewal of the Spirit, they exhibit no zeal at all.
Controversies about baptism certainly appear to be among the oldest and most mischievous by which the Church has been plagued.
v26.—[They came unto John, &c.] The language of the whole verse seems intended to show that John’s disciples were jealous for their master’s ministry, and that its declining popularity, in consequence of our Lord’s appearance in Judæa as a public teacher, was a cause of annoyance to them. The verse is an instructive instance of that littleness and party spirit which are so painfully common among Christians when one minister’s popularity is interfered with by the appearance of another.
[He....with thee....thou barest witness.] This expression shows the publicity and notoriety of John’s testimony to our Lord as the Messiah and the Lamb of God. It was testimony not borne privately in a corner, but in the hearing and full knowledge of all John’s disciples. It would seem to have had very little effect on their minds. The words fell on their ears, but went no further.
[Behold the same baptizeth.] This expression implies partly surprise and partly complaint. In any case it shows how little the bulk of John’s disciples understood that Jesus was really the Messiah promised in the prophecies. If they had understood it, they would surely neither have been surprised nor annoyed at Him for baptizing and becoming popular. They would rather have expected it and rejoiced at it. It is one among many proofs that ministers may be loved by their hearers, and may tell them the truth faithfully, and yet be utterly unable to make their hearers understand or believe. Few are like Andrew, and "follow Jesus," when their minister says, "Behold the Lamb." The most are as though they did not hear at all.
[All men come to him.] These words must doubtless be taken with qualification. The expression, "all men," only means, "many persons." We know as a fact that not all men came to Christ. Moreover, we must remember, that out of those who did come to Christ, very few believed. John says in his reply to his disciples, "No man receiveth his testimony."—Allowance must be made for the irritation under which John’s disciples spoke. When men are vexed in spirit, by seeing their own party diminishing, they are often tempted to use exaggerated and incorrect expressions.
Hutcheson remarks on this verse, that "Carnal emulation is an old and great sin in the Church, and even among professors; it being the foul fruit of a carnal temper to look on the success of one man’s gifts as the debasing of another’s who is faithful, and to count the thriving of God’s work in one minister’s hand the disgracing of another who is not so much flocked to."
Cyril remarks on this verse, how admirably God can bring good out of apparent evil. Here, as in many cases, a carnal and unkind saying of John’s disciples gives occasion to John’s admirable testimony about Christ.
v27.—[John answered....a man can receive nothing, &c.] This sentence is the statement of a general truth in religion. Success, promotion, and growth of influence are gifts which God keeps entirely in His own hands. If one faithful minister’s popularity wanes, while another’s popularity and influence over men’s hearts increase, the thing is of God, and we must submit to His appointment. (Psalms 75:6-7.)
The application of the sentence is not to Christ, as Chrysostom thought, but to John the Baptist himself, as Augustine thought. They are meant to imply, "I cannot command continued success in my ministry. I can only receive what God gives me. If He thinks fit to give any one more acceptance with men than myself, I cannot prevent it, and have no right to complain. All success is of God. All that I have had, at any period of my ministry, has been received, and none deserved."—To apply the sentence to our Lord, seems to me an unsatisfactory interpretation, and derogatory to the dignity of Christ’s ministry. Those who take this view, would probably prefer the marginal reading of the word "receive," and would render it, "No man can take to Himself anything." The sentence would then be like Paul’s words to the Hebrews, "No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron." (Hebrews 5:4.) But the translation, "receive," and the application to John the Baptist, appear to me more agreeable to the context, and the general spirit of John’s reply. And although the word, a "man," ought not to have much stress laid upon it, I cannot help thinking that John uses it intentionally, in order to point to himself. "A mere man like me can receive nothing but what is given him from heaven."
Lightfoot thinks that the Greek word rendered "receive" means "perceive," or "apprehend," and that John meant, "I see by this instance of yourselves, that no man can learn or understand anything, unless it be given him from heaven." He regards the sentence as John’s rebuke to his disciples for incredulity and stupidity. I doubt myself whether the Greek word will bear the sense Lightfoot would put on it.
The expression "from heaven," is equivalent to saying "from God." See Daniel 4:26; Luke 15:21.
The whole verse is a most useful antidote to that jealousy which sometimes springs up in a minister’s mind, when he sees a brother’s ministry prospering more than his own.
v28.—[Ye yourselves bear me witness....I said, &c.] John here reminds his disciples that he had repeatedly told them that he was not the Christ, and that he was only a forerunner sent before Him. They ought to have remembered this. If they had done so, they would not have been surprised at the rise and progress of Christ’s ministry, but would rather have expected Him to outshine and surpass their master, as a matter of course.
The verse is an instructive illustration of the forgetfulness of hearers. John’s testimony to the dignity of Christ and His superiority to himself had been constantly repeated. But it had been all thrown away on his disciples, and when Christ began to receive greater honours than their master, and their own party began to grow smaller than that of Christ’s disciples, they were offended. People soon forget what they do not like.
v29.—[He that hath....bride....bridegroom, &c.] In this verse John the Baptist explains the relative positions occupied by himself and Christ by a familiar illustration. In tracing it out, it is of great importance not to press the points of resemblance too far. The illustration is one which specially requires to be handled with reverence, decency, and discretion.
The "bride," in the verse, signifies the whole company of believers, the Lamb’s wife. (Revelation 21:9.) The "bridegroom" is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The "friend of the bridegroom’’ means John the Baptist, and all other faithful ministers of Christ. According to the marriage-customs of the Jews, there were certain persons called the bridegroom’s friends, who were the means of communication between him and the bride before the marriage. Their duty was simply to set forward and promote the bridegroom’s interests, and to remove all obstacles, as far as possible, to a speedy union of the parties. To accomplish this end and promote a thoroughly good understanding between the bride and bridegroom was their sole office. If they saw the bridegroom’s suit prospering, and at last saw him received favourably and gladly by the bride, their end was accomplished and their work was done. To all this John the Baptist makes allusion in the verse now before us. He tells his disciples that his sole work was to set forward and promote a good understanding between Christ and men. If he saw that work prospering he was thankful and would rejoice, even though the result was that his own personal importance was diminished. He would have his disciples know that the growing popularity of Christ which offended them, was the very thing which he longed to see. He had no greater joy than to hear of the voice of Christ, the bridegroom, being listened to by believers, the bride. It was the very thing for which he had been preaching and ministering, His "joy was fulfilled."
The word "hath" means "possesses as his own." Possession of the bride, as "bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh," is the peculiar prerogative of the bridegroom. (Genesis 2:23.) With this his friends have nothing to do.
The expression "standeth," must probably not be pressed too far. Some think that it is taken from the position occupied by the bridegroom’s friends on the day when the bridegroom was first formally introduced to the bride. They stood at a respectful distance and looked on. The expression certainly implies inferiority. Paul says that the Jewish priests "stand" daily ministering, but Christ ’’sat down" on the right hand of God. (Hebrews 10:12.)
The expression "heareth the bridegroom’s voice," like the last, is one that must not be pressed too far. It is a part of the drapery of the illustration. When report was brought to John the Baptist, that Jesus Christ’s ministry was accepted by some, and that He found favour with many disciples, then was fulfilled what is here meant. John "heard the bridegroom’s voice," and saw the successful progress of his mission, and seeing and hearing this "rejoiced."
The whole verse is a most instructive picture of a true minister’s work and character. He is a friend of Christ, and is ordained in order to promote a union between Christ and souls. (2 Corinthians 11:2.) He must rigidly adhere to that office, and must never take to himself that which does not belong to him. The minister who allows honour to be given to himself which only belongs to Jesus, and exalts his own office into that of a mediator and priest, is treacherously usurping a position which is not his but his Master’s. The professing Christian who treats ministers as if they were priests and mediators, is dishonouring Jesus Christ, and basely giving that honour to the Bridegroom’s friends which belongs exclusively to the Bridegroom Himself.
The expression "this my joy is fulfilled," is a very instructive one for ministers. It shows that the truest happiness of a minister should consist in Christ’s voice being heard by souls. "Now we live," says Paul, "if ye stand fast in the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 3:8,) &c.
It deserves notice that when our Lord at another period of His ministry expressly speaks of Himself as "the bridegroom," in His reply to the disciples of John the Baptist (Matthew 9:15), He seems purposely to remind them of their master’s words.
Musculus, on this verse, observes, "The day of the Lord will declare what kind of zeal that is in our Popish bishops, who profess to be influenced by zeal for the love of the church, which is Christ’s bride, against Christ’s enemies. The day will declare whether a zeal which makes them shed innocent blood and persecute the members of Christ, is the zeal of true friends of the Bridegroom, or of treacherous suitors of the bride."
v30.—[He must increase...I...decrease.] In this sentence John the Baptist tells his complaining disciples that it is right and proper and necessary that Christ should grow in dignity, and that he himself should be less thought of. He was only the servant; Christ was the Master. He was only the forerunner and ambassador, Christ was the King. He was only the morning star; Christ was the Sun. The idea implied appears to be that of the stars gradually fading away, as the sun rises, after the break of day. The stars do not really perish or really become less, but they pale and become invisible before the superior brightness of the great center of light. The sun does not really become larger, or really increase in brightness, but it becomes more fully visible, and occupies a position in which it more completely fills our vision. So was it with John the Baptist and Christ.—Every faithful minister ought to be like-minded with John. He must be content to be less thought of by his believing hearers, in proportion as they grow in knowledge and faith, and see Christ Himself more clearly. As churches decay and fall away, they think less of Christ and more of their ministers. As churches revive and receive spiritual life, they think less of ministers and more of Christ. To a decaying church the sun is going down, and the stars are beginning to appear. To a reviving church the stars are waning, and the sun appearing.
v31.—[He...cometh...above...above all.] In this sentence John the Baptist asserts the infinite superiority of Christ over himself or any other child of Adam, whatever office he may fill. Christ is "from above." He is not merely man, but God. He came from heaven when He took our nature on Him, and was born. As God, He is as far above all His ministers and servants as the Creator is above the creature. He is "far above all principality, and power, and every name that can be named." He is "Head over all things to the church," and richly deserves all the honour, and dignity, and respect, and reverence that man can give. (Ephesians 1:21-22.)
[He that is of the earth...earthly...speaketh...earth.] In this sentence John the Baptist expresses in strong language the comparative inferiority to Christ of himself or of any other minister. "All who like me," He seems to say, "are only men, mere dust and clay, descended from a father who was made out of the dust of the ground, are comparatively earthly. The weakness and feebleness of our origin pervade all our doings. By nature earthly, our works are earthly, and our speaking and preaching earthly."—In short, there will be a savour of humanity about the ministry of every one who is naturally engendered of the seed of Adam.
The difficulty that some see in John the Baptist calling his own ministry "earthly," is quite needlessly raised. It is evident that he calls it so "comparatively." Compared to the teaching of Scribes and Pharisees it was not earthly but heavenly. Compared to the teaching of Him who came from heaven it was earthly. A candle compared to darkness is light. But the same candle compared to the sun is a poor dim spark.
[He that cometh...heaven...above all.] This sentence is only a repetition of the beginning of the verse. It is a second assertion of Christ’s greatness and superiority over any mere man, in order to impress the matter more deeply on those who heard it. "Mark what I tell you," John the Baptist seems to say to his disciples, "I repeat emphatically that Christ having come from heaven, and being by nature God as well as man, is far above me and all other ministers, who are only men and nothing more."
Some think, as Erasmus, Bengel, Wetstein, Olshausen, and Tholuck, that John the Baptist’s words end with the verse preceding the one now before us, and that the words "He that cometh from above" begin the comment of John the Evangelist. I cannot for a moment admit this idea to be correct. I see no necessity for it. The whole passage runs on naturally, as the language of John the Baptist, to the end of the chapter. I see nothing unsuitable to John the Baptist in the concluding verses. They contain no truth which he was not likely to know. I see nothing gained by this idea. It throws no new light on the passage, and is an awkward break which would never occur to a simple reader of the Bible.
v32.—[What...seen...heard...testifieth.] In this sentence John the Baptist shows the divinity of Christ, and His consequent superiority over himself in another point of view. He says that Christ bears witness to truths which he has "seen and heard." He is not like mere human ministers who only declare what they have been taught by the Holy Spirit, and inspired to communicate to others. As God, He declares with authority truths which He had seen, and heard, and known from all eternity with the Father. (John 5:19, John 5:30; John 8:38.)
Some draw a distinction between what our Lord has seen and what He has heard. They think that what Christ has "seen," means what He has seen as one with God the Father in essence, and what Christ has "heard," means what He has heard as a distinct person in the Trinity.—Or else they think that what Christ has "seen," means what He has seen with the Father as God, and what He has "heard," what He has heard from the Father as man.—I doubt the correctness of either view. I think it more probable that the expression "seen and heard," is only a proverbial way of signifying perfect knowledge, such as a person has intuitively or at first hand.
Euthymius thinks, that the expression "seen and heard," was purposely used, because of the weakness of John’s hearers; and that such expressions were necessary, in order to give such hearers any adequate idea of Christ’s divine nature.
The word "testifieth" deserves notice, as an expression peculiarly characteristic of Christ’s ministry. He told Pilate, "I came into the world that I should bear witness unto the truth." (John 18:37.)
[And no man receiveth his testimony.] The expression "no man" in this sentence, must evidently, from the following verses, be taken with qualification. It must mean "very few." Andrew, Peter, Philip, and others, had received Christ’s testimony. The sentence seems intended to rebuke the complaint uttered by John’s disciples, "All men come unto him." John seems to say, "However many persons come to hear Jesus, you will yet see that very few believe on him. Great as he is, and deserving of far more reverence than myself, you have yet to learn, that even he is really believed on by few. The crowds who follow him are, unhappily, not true believers. The temporary popularity which attends his ministry, is as worthless as that which attended my own."
Pearce thinks, that the Greek word rendered "and," would have been better translated, "and yet," as in John 7:19, and John 9:30.
The notion of Augustine’s, that "no man," in this sentence means, "none of the wicked," seems very untenable and unsatisfactory.
v33.—[He hath received, &c.] In this verse John shows the great importance of receiving Christ’s testimony. So far from being offended by the crowd which attended Christ’s ministry, John’s disciples should be thankful that so many heard Him, and that some few received His teaching into their hearts.
[Hath set to his seal.] This expression is peculiar, and found nowhere else in the New Testament, in the same sense. Of course it does not mean any literal sealing. It only means, "hath formally declared his belief,—hath publicly professed his conviction,"—just as a man puts his seal to a document, as a testimony that he consents to its contents. In ancient days, when few comparatively could write, to affix a seal to a paper, was a more common mode of expressing assent to it, than to sign a name.—The sentence is equivalent to saying, "He that receives Christ’s testimony, has set down his name as one who believes that God is true."
[That God is true.] These words may be taken two ways. According to some they mean, "He that receives Christ, declares his belief, that it is the true God who has sent Christ; and that Christ is no impostor, but the Messiah, whom the true God of the Old Testament prophets promised to send."—According to others they mean, "He that receives Christ, declares his belief, that God is true to his word, and has kept the promise that he made to Adam, Abraham, and David." That the Greek word rendered "true," will bear this last meaning, seems proved by the expression, "Let God be true, but every man a liar." (Romans 3:4.) Either view makes good sense and good divinity; but on the whole, I prefer the second one. It seems to me strongly confirmed by the expression in John’s 1st Epistle: "He that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son." (1 John 5:10.)
Some have thought that the sentence may mean, "He that receives Christ, declares his belief, that Christ is the true God," and that it is parallel to 1 John 5:20, "This is the true God.’’—But I do not think the Greek words will admit of the interpretation. If they would, the Greek fathers would never have overlooked this text in writing against the Arians. Maldonatus seems to favour this opinion, and says that Cyril holds it. But it certainly does not clearly appear in Cyril’s commentary on the place.
v34.—[He whom God hath sent.] In this verse John the Baptist shows the dignity of Christ, and His superiority over all other teachers, by another striking declaration about Him. He begins by giving Him the well-known epithet which was peculiarly applied to Messiah, "He whom God hath sent, the sent One,—the One whom God has sent into the world according to promise."
[Speaketh the words of God.] This sentence means that Christ’s words were not the words of a mere man, like John himself or one of the prophets. They were nothing less than the words of God. He who heard them heard nothing less than God speaking. The unity of the Father and the Son is so close that he who hears the teaching of the Son hears the teaching of the Father also. (Compare John 7:16; John 5:19; John 14:10-11; John 8:28; John 12:49.) When John the Baptist spoke, he spoke merely human words, however true, and good, and scriptural. But when Christ spoke, He spoke divine words, even the words of God Himself. As Quesnel says, "He spoke by the Holy Ghost, who is His own Spirit, who inseparably dwelleth in Him, and by the possession of whose fulness He receives His unction and consecration."
Theophylact remarks on this sentence and others like it in John’s Gospel, that we must not suppose that Christ needed to be taught by God the Father what to speak, because whatever the Father knows the Son also knows, as consubstantial with Him. So also when we read of the Son being "sent," we must think of Him as a ray sent from the sun, which is not in reality separate from the sun, but a part of the sun itself.
Some think that the expression, "speaketh the words of God," in this place, has special reference to the promise given to Moses about Messiah, "I will put my words in His mouth." (Deuteronomy 18:18.)
[For God giveth not...Spirit by measure...Him.] The expression "by measure," in this sentence, means "partially,—scantily,—stintedly,—in small degree." It is the opposite to "fully,—completely,—in unmeasured abundance." Thus we read in Ezekiel’s description of a time of scarcity at Jerusalem, "They shall drink water by measure." (Ezekiel 4:16.)
The whole sentence is peculiar, and requires careful interpretation. The object of John the Baptist is to show once more the infinite superiority of the Lord Jesus over himself or any other man. To all others, even to the most eminent prophets and apostles, God gives the Holy Spirit "by measure." Their gifts and graces are both imperfect. As Paul says, they "know in part and prophesy in part." (1 Corinthians 13:9.) But with Him whom God hath sent, it is very different. To Him the Holy Ghost is given without measure, in infinite fulness and completeness. In His human nature the gifts and graces of the Spirit are present without the slightest shadow of imperfection. As man, Jesus of Nazareth was anointed with the Holy Ghost, and fitted for His office as our Priest, and Prophet, and King, in a way and degree never granted to any other man. (Acts 10:38.)
All this is undoubtedly true, but it is not, in my opinion, the whole truth of the sentence. I believe that John the Baptist points not only to our Lord’s human nature but to His divinity. I believe his meaning to be, "He whom God hath sent, is One far above prophets and ministers, to whom the Spirit is only given by measure. He is One who is Himself very God. In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. He is One who, as a Person in the Trinity, is eternally and ineffably united with God the Holy Spirit. From Him the Holy Spirit proceeds as well as from the Father, and is the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of the Son. As God, it is impossible that He can be separated from the Holy Spirit. To Him therefore the Spirit is not given by measure, as if He were only a man. He is God as well as man, and as such He needeth not that the Spirit should be given to Him. He has the Spirit without measure, because in the divine essence, He, and the Spirit, and the Father, are One, and undivided."
I am inclined to hold the view just stated, because of the verse which follows. The object of John the Baptist, in this last testimony to Christ, appears to be to lead his disciples step by step to the highest view of Messiah’s dignity. He would have them recognize in Him One who was very God as well as very man. The view of the sentence before us which is commonly adopted, appears to me of an unsafe tendency. That the Spirit was given to our Lord as man, and given without measure, is doubtless true. But we must be very careful that we never forget a truth of no less importance. That truth is, that our Lord Jesus Christ never ceased to be God as well as man, and that as God He was never separate from the Spirit. As Henry says, "The Spirit dwelt in Him, not as in a vessel, but as in a fountain, as in a bottomless ocean."
It deserves remark, that the concluding words of the verse, "unto Him," are not found in the original Greek. This has led some to maintain that the second clause of the verse is only a general statement, "God is not a God who gives the Spirit by measure." But all the best commentators, from Augustine downwards, hold the view of our translators, that it is Christ who is signified, and that "unto Him" ought to be supplied in any translation.
Chemnitius thinks that this verse specially refers to Isaiah 11:2, where it is predicted that the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit shall rest on Messiah.
v35.—[The Father loveth...Son...given all...hand.] There is something, at first sight, abrupt and elliptical in this verse. The full meaning of it, I believe to be as follows. "He whom God hath sent is One far above me or any other prophet. He is the eternal Son of God, whom the Father loved from all eternity, and into whose hands all things concerning man’s salvation have been given and committed by an everlasting covenant. He is no mere man, as you, my disciples, ignorantly suppose. He is the Son, of whom it is written, ’Kiss the Son lest He be angry, and so ye perish from the way.’ He is the Son to whom the Father has said, ’I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.’ (Psalms 2:7-9.) Instead of being jealous of his present popularity, you should serve Him with fear, and rejoice before Him with trembling."
The "love of the Father toward the Son," here spoken of, is a subject far too deep for man to fathom. It is an expression graciously accommodated to man’s feeble understanding, and intended to signify that most intimate and ineffable union which exists between the First and Second Persons in the blessed Trinity, and the entire approbation and complacency with which the Father regards the work of redemption undertaken by the Son. It is that love to which our Lord refers in the words, "Thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world," (John 17:24,) and which the Father expressly asserted at the beginning of the Son’s earthly ministry, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17.)
When it says that "the Father hath given all things into the Son’s hand," we must understand that mediatorial kingdom which in the eternal counsels of the Trinity has been appointed to Christ. By the terms of the everlasting covenant, the Father has given to the Son power over all flesh, to quicken whom He will—to justify, to sanctify, to keep, and to glorify His people,—to judge, and finally punish the wicked and unbelieving,—and at last to take to Himself a kingdom over all the world, and put down every enemy under His feet. These are the "all things," of which John speaks. Christ, he would have us know, has the keys of death and hell in His hand, and to Him alone men must go, if they want anything for their souls.
Calvin observes on this verse, "The love here spoken of is that peculiar love of God, which beginning with the Son flows from Him to all the creatures. For that love, with which, embracing His Son, He embraces us also in Him, leads Him to communicate all His benefits to us by His hand."
Quesnel remarks, "God loved the prophets as His servants, but He loves Christ as His only Son, and communicates Himself to Him in proportion to His love."—"The prophets had only particular commissions, limited to a certain time and certain purposes; but Christ has full power given Him as the general disposer of all His Father’s works, the executor of His designs, the head of His Church, the universal High Priest of good things to come, the steward and disposer of all His graces."
Chemnitius, on this verse, remarks the infinite wisdom and love of God in giving the management of our soul’s affairs into Christ’s hand. We are all naturally so weak and feeble, that if anything was left in our hands we should never be saved. We should lose all, even sooner than Adam did in Paradise. But Christ will take care of all committed to His charge, and our wisdom is to commit all things to Him, as Paul did. (2 Timothy 1:12.)
v36.—[He that believeth...Son...hath...life.] In this verse John the Baptist concludes his testimony to Christ, by a solemn declaration of the unspeakable importance of believing on Him. Whether his disciples would receive it or not, he tells them that life or death, heaven or hell, all turned on believing in this Jesus who had "been with him beyond Jordan."
The excellence of faith should be noted here. Like his divine Master, John teaches that "believing on the Son," is the principal thing in saving religion. Believing is the way to heaven, and not believing the way to hell.
The "presentness" of the salvation which is in Christ should be here noted. Again, like his divine Master, John teaches that; a believer "hath" everlasting life. Pardon, peace, and a title to heaven are at once and immediately a man’s possession, the very moment that he lays his sins on Jesus, and puts his trust in Him.
[He that believeth not...not see life.] The Greek word here rendered "believeth not," is quite different from the one translated "believeth" at the beginning of the verse. It means something much stronger than "not trusting." It would be more literally rendered "He that does not obey, or is disobedient to." It is the same word so rendered in Romans 2:8; Romans 10:21; 1 Peter 2:8; 1 Peter 3:1; 1 Peter 3:20.
The expression, "shall not see life," must of course mean, "shall not see life, if he continues impenitent and unbelieving, and dies in that state." The phrase "to see life," most probably means "to taste, enter, enjoy, possess life," and must not be literally interpreted as seeing either with bodily or mental eyes.
[The wrath of God abideth on him.] This concluding sentence of John the Baptist’s testimony, is again very like his Master’s teaching, "He that believeth not is condemned already." The meaning of the sentence is, "That so long as a man is not a believer in Christ, the just wrath of God hangs over him, and he is under the curse of God’s broken law. We are all by nature born in sin, and children of wrath; and our sins are all upon us, unpardoned, unforgiven, and untaken away, until that day when we believe on the Son of God and are made children of grace.
The sentence is a very instructive one, and especially so in the present day. I see in it an unanswerable reply to some grievous errors which are very prevalent in some quarters.
(a.) It condemns the notion, upheld by some, that under the Gospel there is no more anger in God, and that he is only love, mercy, and compassion, and nothing else. Here we are plainly told of "the wrath of God." It is clear that God hates sin. There is a hell. God can be angry. Sinners ought to be afraid.
(b.) It condemns the notion, maintained by some, that the elect are justified from all eternity, or justified before they believe. Here we are plainly told that if a man believe not on the Son, God’s wrath abideth on him. We know nothing of any one’s justification until he believes. Those whom God predestinates, God calls and justifies in due season. But there is no justification until there is faith.
(c.) It condemns the modern idea, that Christ by His death, justified all mankind, and removed God’s wrath from the whole seed of Adam; and that all men and women are justified in reality, though they do not know it, and will all finally be saved. This idea sounds very amiable, but is flatly contrary to the text before us. Here we are plainly told, that until a man ’’ believeth on the Son of God, the wrath of God abideth on him."
(d.) Finally, it condemns the weak and false charity of those who say, that preachers of the Gospel should never speak of God’s wrath, and should never mention hell. Here we find that the last words of one of Christ’s best servants consist of a solemn declaration of the danger of unbelief. "The wrath of God" is John’s last thought. To warn men of God’s wrath, and of their danger of hell, is not harshness, but true charity. Many will go to hell, because their ministers never told them about hell.
In leaving the passage, the variety of expressions used by John the Baptist concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, is very worthy of notice. He calls Him the Christ,—the bridegroom,—Him that cometh from above,—Him that testifieth what He hath seen and heard,—Him whom God hath sent,—Him who has the Spirit without measure,—Him whom the Father loves,—Him into whose hands all things are given,—Him in whom to believe is everlasting life. To talk of John the Baptist’s knowledge of divine things as meager and scanty, in the face of such a passage as this, is, to say the least, not wise, and argues a very slight acquaintance with Scripture. To suppose, as some do, that the man who had such clear views of our Lord’s nature and office, could afterwards doubt whether Jesus was the Christ, is to suppose what is grossly improbable. The message that John sent to Jesus when he was in prison, was for the sake of his disciples, and not for his own satisfaction. (Matthew 11:3-14.)
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Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on John 3". "Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent