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John 3:1. And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. That this verse does not begin a new section is clearly shown by the first word ‘And,’ which links it with the last chapter; another indication of the same kind is seen when the true reading is restored in John 3:2 (‘to Him ‘for’ to Jesus’). A closer examination will show that the connection thus suggested is really very close and important. In chap. John 2:24-25, a very marked emphasis is laid on ‘man;’ the same word and thought are taken up in this verse. John 3:2 of this chapter brings before us a belief agreeing in nature and ground with that spoken of in chap. John 2:23-24. The last thought of chap. 2 is powerfully illustrated by the answers which Jesus returns to the thoughts of Nicodemus. Clearly, then, John means us to understand that out of the many who ‘believed in the name’ of Jesus was one deserving of special attention, not merely as representing a higher class and special culture, but chiefly because, brought by the signs to a degree of faith, he was desirous of knowing more; and our Lord’s dealings with Nicodemus show how He sought to lead all who were so prepared to a deeper knowledge and higher faith. The name Nicodemus is found in the Talmud, as a Hebrew surname borne by a Jew, a disciple of Jesus, whose true name was Bonai. There is nothing to show that the persons are identical, and on the whole it is more probable that they are not. It is most natural to regard the name Nicodemus as Greek, not Hebrew; compare ‘Philip’ (chap. John 1:43). Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee (see notes on chaps, John 1:24, John 7:32), and as ‘a ruler of the Jews,’ i.e., a member of the Sanhedrin (comp. chap. John 7:50), the great council of seventy-one which held supreme power over the whole nation. In other passages John uses ‘ruler’ in this sense (see John 7:26; John 7:48, John 12:42); here only does he join with it the words ‘of the Jews.’ The added words (see chap. John 1:19) show that Nicodemus stood connected with that body which was ever present to John’s thought as the assemblage of those who represented the self-seeking and formalism which Jesus came to subvert. The elements of hostility already existed, though the open conflict had not yet begun (see chap. John 2:18). It is not easy always to define the relation between ‘the Pharisees ‘and’ the Jews,’ as the two terms are used by John; for under the latter designation the leaders of the Pharisees would certainly be included. The former perhaps usually brings into prominence teaching and principles; the latter points rather to external action. The Pharisees took alarm at the new doctrine, the Jews resented the new authority. Nicodemus is not free from the externalism and prejudices of his class, but his candour and his faith stand out in wonderful contrast to the general spirit evinced by the Pharisees and the Jews.
It is of much importance to keep the closing verses of chap. 2 in close connection with the opening verses of chap. 3 (see the commentary on John 3:1). Rejected by the theocracy of Israel Jesus turns to individuals, but these are not confined to Israel. The woman of Samaria and the king’s officer of Galilee are beyond the theocratic pale. Nicodemus, however, who is first introduced to us, does belong to the chosen people; and the conversation of Jesus with him, as it leads him from an imperfect to a perfect faith, illustrates the power which Jesus, though rejected by Israel and doomed to die, shall exercise over the hearts of men. The subordinate parts of this section are ( 1 ) John 2:23-25; ( 2 ) John 3:1-15; ( 3 ) John 3:16-21.
John 3:2. The same came to him by night. Chap. John 19:38-39, seems clearly to show that the motive of Nicodemus in thus coming by night was the same as the cause of Joseph’s secret discipleship the ‘fear of the Jews.’ That he himself was one of ‘the Jews’ only makes this explanation more probable. We cannot doubt that he came alone; whether Jesus also was alone, or whether John or other disciples were present at the interview, we cannot tell.
And said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art come from God, a teacher. Every word here is of importance. On Rabbi see the note, chap. John 1:38. We may be sure that a member of the sect that carefully scrutinised the Baptist’s credentials (chap. John 1:19-24) would not lightly address Jesus by this title of honour, or acknowledge him as Teacher. But the words ‘Thou art come from God’ will appear even more significant, if we keep in mind that the most familiar designation of the Messiah was ‘the coming One,’ He that should come. The appearing of the Baptist quickened in the minds of ‘all men’(Luke 3:15) the recollection of God’s great promise; and the signs lately wrought by Jesus in Jerusalem may well have excited in the mind of this Pharisee hopes which find a hesitating expression in his words. No ordinary prophet would have been thus acknowledged as one ‘come from God.’ At the very least, the confession assigns to Jesus a supreme authority as Teacher. The confession of Nicodemus was made in the name of others besides himself. ‘We know;’ others amongst the Pharisees, perhaps already others amongst the rulers (chap. John 12:42), had reached the same point. No doubt the number was but small, too small to make confession easy, or to banish the very natural fear of the Jews which brought Nicodemus to Jesus by night.
For no one can do these signs that thou doest except God be with him. Nicodemus acknowledges the works to be ‘signs’(not so the Jews, chap. John 2:18), and he shows that in him the signs had precisely answered the designed end. The faith indeed which rested on these alone was imperfect, but it was faith; more could be gained; the faith could be educated, raised higher, and made more complete. How truly this faith has been educated will be shown when (chap. John 19:39) it shall come forth in honour of that crucified Redeemer who is here to be proclaimed (John 3:14). Such education, however, can be effected only by the word of Jesus, leading to fellowship with Himself. For this word Nicodemus now comes. In reading the following verses we must bear in mind that, as Jesus would train and strengthen the faith of Nicodemus, it is the weak side of this faith that is kept in view; but the Saviour’s acceptance of the faith as real is plainly to be seen in the openness and unreservedness of the teaching He vouchsafes. Many have pointed out the contrast between this discourse and those related in the other Gospels; but had there been no difference between discourses delivered to the half-instructed excitable multitudes of Galilee and those intended for a ‘teacher of Israel,’ the apparent agreement would have been a discord which no argument could explain away (see Introduction).
John 3:3. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one have been born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Jesus answers his thoughts rather than his words, but the connection between the address and the answer is not hard to find. John the Baptist had familiarised all with the thought that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the reign of the Messiah, so long expected, would soon begin. Whatever meaning may be assigned to the words of John 3:2, we may certainly say that every thoughtful Jew who believed what Nicodemus believed was ‘waiting for the kingdom of God.’ But the Pharisee’s conception of the Messianic promise was false. In great measure, at least, his ‘kingdom of God’ was outward and carnal, not inward and spiritual, a privilege of birth, belonging of right to Israel. This false conception Jesus would at once correct, and the gravity of the error is reflected in the solemnity of the language, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee.’ ‘Any one.’ This more literal rendering is necessary here because of the next verse. Our Lord says simply any one. Nicodemus brings in the word ‘man,’ to give more expressiveness to his reply.
‘Have been born anew.’ It has been, and still is, a much controverted question whether the Greek word here used should be rendered again, or anew, or from above. ‘Again’ is certainly inadequate; for, though the word may denote beginning over again, commencing the action afresh, it cannot express mere repetition. Much may be said in favour of the third rendering, ‘from above.’ This is the undoubted meaning of the same word as used below (John 3:31); and a similar idea is expressed in the passages of the Gospel (chap. John 1:13) and First Epistle of John (chap. 1Jn 2:29 , 1 John 5:1, etc.) which speak of those who are begotten of God. It may also be urged that, as Christ is ‘He that cometh from above’ (John 3:31), those who through faith are one with Christ must derive their being from the same source, and may well be spoken of as ‘born from above.’ Notwithstanding these arguments, it is probable that anew is the true rendering. Had the other thought been intended, we might surely have expected ‘of God’ instead of ‘from above.’ The correspondence between the two members of the sentence would then have been complete; only those who have been born of God can see the kingdom of God. Further, born (or begotten) of God is a very easy and natural expression, but this can hardly be said of born (or begotten) from above: ‘ coming from above’ is perfectly clear; ‘born from above’ is not so. The chief argument, however, is afforded by the next verse, which clearly shows that Nicodemus understood a second birth to be intended. But the words ‘except any one have been born from above’ would not necessarily imply a second birth. The Jews maintained that they were born of God (see chap. John 8:41), and would have had no difficulty whatever in believing that those only who received their being from above could inherit the blessings of Messiah’s kingdom. Our Lord’s words, then, teach the fundamental truth, that not natural birth, descent from the stock of Israel, but a second birth, the being begotten anew, a complete spiritual change (see John 3:5), admits into the kingdom of God.
On the general expectation of a king and a kingdom, see chap. John 1:49. It is remarkable that the kingdom of God is expressly mentioned by John in this chapter only (compare, however, chap. John 18:36).-‘Cannot’ is by no means the same as ‘shall not.’ It expresses an impossibility in the very nature of things. To a state of outward earthly privilege rights of natural birth might give admittance. In declaring that without a complete inward change none can possibly see (have a true perception of) ‘the kingdom of God,’ Jesus declares the spiritual character of His kingdom. In it none but the spiritual can have any part.
John 3:4. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? These are the words of a man amazed beyond measure. Jesus has read his thoughts, and the answer to his unspoken question has come with the suddenness and surprise of a thunderbolt. The solemn emphasis laid on the words ‘born anew’ forbids his thinking of a mere figure of speech, and apparently banishes from his mind the Old Testament expressions which approach the same truth (see John 3:5). The privilege which he attached to natural birth within the bounds of Israel is tom away by a word; the’ any one ‘of our Lord’s answer, makes all men equal; and the prize which seemed almost within his grasp is given to every one who has been born anew. In his bewilderment he sees no meaning in the words of Jesus, except they be understood physically of a second natural birth; and the evident impossibility of this he expresses in the very strongest terms.
John 3:5. Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one have been born of water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. The answer is a stronger affirmation of the same truth, with some changes of expression which made the words no easier of acceptance, save as the new terms might awaken echoes of Old Testament language, and lead the hearer from the external to an inward and spiritual interpretation.
The first words have given rise to warm and continued controversy. Many have held that the birth ‘of water and spirit; can only refer to Christian baptism; others have denied that Christian baptism is alluded to at all. The subject is very important and very difficult. Our only safety lies in making the Evangelist his own interpreter. We shall repeatedly find, when a difficulty occurs, that some word of his own in the context or in some parallel passage brings us light. ( 1 ) First, then, as to the very peculiar expression,’ of water and spirit.’ We cannot doubt that this is the true rendering; no direct reference is made as yet to the personal Holy Spirit. The words ‘water and spirit’ are most closely joined, and placed under the government of the same preposition. A little earlier in the Gospel (chap. John 1:33) we find the same words not, indeed, joined together as here, but yet placed in exact parallelism, each word, too, receiving emphasis from the context. Three times between chap. John 1:19 and chap. John 1:33. John speaks of his baptism with water; twice there is a reference to the Spirit (John 1:32-33); and in John 3:33. John’s baptizing with water and our Lord’s baptizing with ‘holy spirit’ (see the note) stand explicitly contrasted. It is very possible that this testimony was well known to others besides John’s disciples, to all indeed in Judea who were roused to inquiry respecting the Baptist and his relation to Jesus. ( 2 ) It is possible that the Jews of that age may have been familiar with the figure of a new birth in connection with baptism. It is confessedly difficult accurately to ascertain Jewish usages and modes of thought in the time of our Lord. The Talmud indeed contains copious stores of information, but it is not easy to distinguish between what belongs to an earlier and what to a later age. We know that converts to the Jewish religion were admitted by baptism to fellowship with the sacred people. The whole tenor of the law would suggest such a washing when the uncleanness of heathenism was put off, and hence no rite could be more natural. Yet we have no certain knowledge that this was practised so early as the time of our Lord. There is no doubt that, at a later date, the proselyte thus washed or baptized was spoken of as born again. Here again, therefore, we have some confirmation of the view that in the words before us there is in some sort a reference to baptism, at all events, to the baptism of John. ( 3 ) But what was John’s baptism? We see from chap. John 1:25 how peculiar his action appeared to the rulers of the people. Even if proselytes were in that age baptized, a baptism that invited all, publican and Pharisee alike, would but seem the more strange. John’s action was new and startling; and from chap. John 1:21-25 it appears that the leaders of Jewish thought beheld in it an immediate reference to the time of Messiah. It seems very probable that John’s baptism was directly symbolic, a translation into visible symbol of such promises as Ezekiel 36:25, which looked forward to the new spiritual order of which he was the herald. To the sprinkling with clean water, the cleansing from all filthiness, of which Ezekiel speaks, answers closely John’s ‘baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (compare also Ezekiel 36:31). To the promise which follows, ‘A new spirit will I put within you. ... I will put my spirit within you,’ answers just as closely John’s testimony to Jesus, ‘He it is that baptizeth with holy spirit.’ ( 4 ) The two contrasted elements in the baptisms of chap. John 1:33 are (a) the covering and removal of past sin; and (b) the inbreathing of a new life. In that verse ‘holy spirit’ is the gift and not the Giver. The Giver is the Holy Spirit; but the gift, that which is the essential element in the new baptism, is the bestowal of ‘holy spirit,’ the seed and the principle of a holy spiritual life. ( 5 ) These two elements were conjoined in the Christian baptism instituted afterwards: the cleansing of forgiveness through Christ’s death and the holiness of the new life in Christ are alike symbolized in it. Here, therefore, our Lord says that no man can enter into the kingdom of God unless he have been born anew, the elements of the new birth being the removal by cleansing of the old sinful life, and the impartation by the Holy Spirit of a new holy principle of life. If this view of the words is correct, there is error in both extremes of which mention has been made. There is no direct reference here to Christian baptism; but the reference to the truths which that baptism expresses is distinct and clear.
John 3:6. That which hath been born of the flesh is flesh, and that which hath been born of the Spirit is spirit. In the last verse was implied the law that like is produced from like, since the pure and spiritual members of God’s kingdom must be born of water and spirit. Here this law is expressly stated. Flesh produces flesh. Spirit produces spirit. Thus the necessity of a new birth is enforced, and the ‘cannot’ of John 3:3 explained. It is not easy to say whether ‘flesh,’ as here used, definitely indicates the sinful principles of human nature, or only that which is outward, material, not spiritual but merely natural. The latter seems more likely, both from the context (where the contrast is between the natural and the spiritual birth) and from John’s usage elsewhere. Though the word occurs as many as thirteen times in this Gospel (chap. John 1:13-14, John 6:51-52, etc., John 8:15, John 17:2), in no passage does it express the thought of sinfulness, as it does in Paul’s Epistles and in 1 John 2:16. Another difficulty meets us in the second clause. Are we to read ‘born of the Spirit’ or ‘of the spirit’? Is the reference to the Holy Spirit Himself, who imparts the principle of the new life, or to the principle which He imparts,-the principle just spoken of in John 3:5, ‘of water and spirit ’ It is hard to say, and the difference in meaning is extremely small; but when we consider the analogy of the two clauses, the latter seems more likely. There is no reference here to ‘water;’ but, as we have seen, the water has reference to the past alone,-the state which gives place to the new life. To speak of this would be beside the point of the verse now before us, which teaches that the spiritual life of the kingdom of God can only come from the new spiritual principle.
John 3:7. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. Nicodemus had no doubt shown by look or exclamation his astonishment at hearing such words, containing so strange a view of the kingdom of God and the conditions on which it could be entered. The use of ‘marvel’ in other passages would seem to show that in this Gospel the word indicates much more than amazement. It is certainly not the astonishment of admiration, but incredulous and sometimes angry surprise. Our Lord’s teaching had set at nought the accepted teaching of Israel, thoughts and hopes to which Nicodemus had long and firmly clung, and his heart rebels. Our Lord, according to His wont, does but the more emphatically affirm the truth at which Nicodemus stumbled. ‘Ye must be born again’ the necessity is absolute. Before, He had spoken of ‘any one,’ leaving the application to His hearer; now, as Nicodemus had said ‘We know,’ Jesus says ‘Ye must,’ even ye who possess the treasures of Israel’s learning, and whom the signs are guiding to the King of Israel, ‘ye must be born again:’ ‘Marvel not at this.’
John 3:8. The words of this verse point out to Nicodemus why he must not thus ‘marvel’ at the new teaching, must not cast it away with incredulous surprise. Nature itself may teach him. In nature there is an agent whose working is experienced and acknowledged by all, while at the same time it is full of mystery; yet the mystery makes no man doubt the reality of the working.
The wind breatheth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. From the beginning the wind seems to have been the divinely-intended witness and emblem in the natural world of the Spirit of God. Ever present, it bore a constant witness. A commentator (Tholuck) has conjectured that, whilst Jesus spoke, there was heard the sound of the wind as it swept through the narrow street of the city, thus furnishing an occasion for the comparison here. It may well have been so; every reader of the Gospels may see how willingly our Lord drew lessons from natural objects around Him. Such a conjecture might help to explain the abruptness with which the meaning of the word is changed, the very same word which in John 3:5-6 was rendered spirit being now used in the sense of wind. Nothing but the abruptness of this transition needs any explanation. The appointed emblem teaches the lesson for which it was appointed. The choice of terms ( breatheth, listeth, voice) shows that the wind is personified. It is perhaps of the gentle breeze rather than of the violent blast that the words speak (for the word pneuma is used with much more latitude in the Greek Bible than in classical Greek); in the breath of wind there is even more mystery than in the blast. Thou hearest its voice, it is present though invisible; thou feelest its power, for thou art in its course; but where the course begins, what produces the breath, whither the course is tending, what is the object of the breath,-thou knowest not. Nicodemus, unable to question this, would remember Old Testament words which spoke of man’s not knowing ‘the way of the wind’ as illustrating man’s ignorance of the Creator’s works (Ecclesiastes 11:5).
So is every one that hath been born of the Spirit. As in the natural, so is it in the spiritual world. The wind breatheth where it listeth; the Spirit breatheth where He will. Thou hearest the sound of the wind, but canst not fix the limits of this course, experiencing only that thou thyself art in that course: every one that hath been born of the Spirit knows that His influence is real, experiencing that influence in himself, but can trace His working no farther, knows not the beginning or the end of His course. Our Lord does not speak of the birth itself, but of the resulting state. The birth itself belongs to a region beyond the outward and the sensible, just as none can tell whence the breath of wind has come.
It ought perhaps to be noted before leaving this verse, that many take the first part of the verse as having reference to the Spirit, not the wind: ‘The Spirit breatheth where He will, and thou hearest His voice, but knowest not whence He cometh and whither He goeth; so is every one that hath been born of the Spirit.’ The chief arguments in favour of this translation are the following: ( 1 ) It does not involve a sudden transition from one meaning to another of the same Greek word. ( 2 ) On the ordinary view there is some confusion in the comparison: the words are not, ‘The wind breatheth where ... so is the Spirit;’ but, ‘The wind breatheth where . . . so is every one that hath been born of the Spirit. ’ These two arguments have substantially been dealt with above. As to the first point the sudden transition from the thought of spirit to that of its emblem in nature-perhaps no more need be said. The second argument has not much real weight. The language is condensed, it is true, and the words corresponding to the first clause ( The wind bloweth where it listeth’) are not directly expressed, but have to be supplied in thought. The chief comparison, however, is between the ‘thou’ of the first member and the ‘every one’ of the second, as we have already seen. On the other hand, the difficulties presented by the new translation are serious, but we cannot here follow them in detail.
John 3:9. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things come to pass? The tone of this answer is very different from that of John 3:4. Here, as there, the question is, How can …? But there the added words show that the meaning is, ‘It is impossible’(comp. Luke 1:18); whereas in this verse the chief stress lies on the first word ‘How’(comp. Luke 1:34). The offended astonishment of Nicodemus (John 3:7) has yielded to the words of Jesus. He now understands that Jesus really means that there is such a thing as a new spiritual birth, in contrast with that natural birth which had ever seemed to him the only necessary condition of entrance into the kingdom of Messiah. Still, as John 3:12 shows, the victory over unbelief is not yet complete.
John 3:10. Jesus answered and said unto him, Thou art the teacher of Israel; and perceivest thou not these things? The question which expressed the bewilderment of Nicodemus is answered by another question. He has assumed the office of teacher, teacher of God’s people Israel, and yet he does not recognise these truths. ‘Israel’ is a word used only four times in this Gospel, and never without special meaning. We have seen its significance in John 1:31 and John 1:49; and chap. John 12:13 is similar. The only remaining passage is that before us. No word so clearly brings into view the nation of God’s special choice. The name carries us back from a time of degeneracy and decadence to past days of hope and promise. It was to Israel that God showed His statutes and His judgments (Psalms 147:19), and this thought is very prominent here. Of Israel thus possessed of the very truths to which Jesus had made reference (see above, on John 3:5) Nicodemus is ‘the teacher.’ It is not simply ‘a teacher,’ though it is not very easy to say what the presence of the article denotes. It is possible that Nicodemus occupied a superior position, or was held in especial honour amongst the doctors of the law; or the words may merely imply that he magnified his office and was proud to be teacher of God’s people. Surely from him might have been expected such knowledge of the Scriptures and insight into their meaning that the truth of the words just spoken by Jesus would at once be recognised. For our Lord does not say ‘and knowest not;’ Nicodemus is not blamed for any want of previous knowledge of these things, but because he does not perceive the truth of the teaching when presented to him, and presented, moreover, by One whose right to teach with authority he had himself confessed. It will be observed that Jesus does not answer the ‘How’ of the preceding question; that had been answered by anticipation. In John 3:8 Jesus had declared that the manner must be a mystery to man, whereas the fact was beyond all doubt. The fact was known to every one that had been born of the Spirit, but to such only. Hence in the following verse we have a renewed and more emphatic affirmation of the truth and certainty of what has been said. If Nicodemus would really know the fact, it must be by the knowledge of experience. He appears no further in this narrative. The last words have reduced him to silence,-thoughtful silence, we cannot doubt,-but have not brought him to complete belief.
John 3:11. Verily, verily, I say unto thee. These words form the solemn introduction to a new division, a higher stage, of the discourse. The connecting link between John 3:10-11 is reproof. The last verse laid stress on the knowledge which should have prepared the teacher of Israel for the reception of the word of Jesus; in this the emphasis lies on the dignity of the Teacher whose word he had been so slow to receive.
We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen. The sudden transition to the plural ‘we know’ is remarkable. We cannot suppose that our Lord here joins with Himself the prophets of the Old Covenant, or John the Baptist, or that He is speaking of the testimony of the Father and the Holy Spirit. The key to the plural is found in John 3:8. Every one who dwells in the spiritual world of which Jesus has been speaking is a witness to its reality and its wonders. Here then Jesus associates with Himself in this emphatic testimony all who have been born of the Spirit. It is further to be observed that the change of expression is peculiarly appropriate, since he is about to pass away from the direct address to Nicodemus himself, and to speak through him to the class to which he belonged. Nicodemus had at first said ‘we know’ (John 3:2), as representative of others like-minded with himself, who by the signs had been led to faith in the name of Jesus, but were ignorant of His spiritual work. Jesus now contrasts with these another class, consisting of all who from their own experience could join Him in His testimony to the reality of the spiritual kingdom. The words of Jesus in chap. John 9:4 are equally remarkable in their association of His people with Himself.-The two parallel members of this verse bring the truth expressed into bold relief. The words closely correspond ( knowing to speaking; seeing to bearing witness), while there is at the same time an advance in the thought, since bearing witness rises above speaking, and we have seen is more expressive than w e know. In John 3:8, where the wind was taken as the emblem of the Spirit, the sense which bore witness was that of hearing. This verse speaks of something more convincing still, the sense of sight.
And ye receive not our witness. To such sayings of his Master we may trace the mournful reflections which are again and again made by the Evangelist (see John 1:11, John 3:32, John 12:37). Though the reference is to a class (‘ye receive’), yet the words seem to imply that some unbelief still lingered in the heart of Nicodemus himself.
John 3:12. If I told you the earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you the heavenly things? Here our Lord returns to the singular, ‘I told;’ for He is not now speaking of the witness of experience, but of instruction which He Himself had personally given. It seems hardly possible, however, that our Lord simply refers to words just spoken. In saying ‘If I told you the earthly things, and ye believe not,’ He plainly refers to unbelief after instruction,-unbelief which instruction failed to remove. But if Nicodemus came alone (and there is no doubt that he did), he alone had received this last instruction. Others might be described as unbelievers, but not as remaining in unbelief after having heard the teaching concerning the new birth. We are compelled, therefore, to suppose that our Lord spoke generally of previous discourses to the Jews, and not specifically of these His latest words. But what are the earthly and the heavenly things? Many answers have been given which are Tittle more than arbitrary conjectures. Again the Evangelist must be his own interpreter. As in the next verse ‘heaven’ is not used figuratively, it cannot be maintained that heavenly is figurative here. The words ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ must have their simple meaning, ‘what is upon earth,’ ‘what is in heaven.’ The things that are in heaven can only be made known by Him who has been in heaven; this is suggested by the connection between this verse and the next. When we come to the last section of the chapter, we shall find that it contains (in some degree) a comment upon these verses. Now there (in John 3:32) we read of Him ‘that cometh out of heaven, who’ bears witness of what He has seen and heard, who being sent from God ‘speaketh the words of God’ (John 3:34). But this same comment takes note of the converse also. Contrasted with Him who comes from heaven is he that is out of the earth ‘and’ speaketh out of the earth (John 3:31). Combining these explanatory words, we may surely say that ‘the heavenly things’ are those truths which He who cometh from heaven, and He alone, can reveal, which are the words of God revealing His counsels by the Divine Son now come. The things on earth, in like manner, are the truths whose home is earth, so to speak, which were known before God revealed Himself by Him who is in the bosom of the Father (chap. John 1:18). They are ‘earthly,’ not as belonging to the world of sin or the world of sense, but as being things which the prophet or teacher who has never ascended into heaven, but whose origin and home are the earth, can reach, though not necessarily by his own unaided powers. In His former discourses to the Jews, Jesus would seem not to have gone beyond the circle of truth already revealed. Even in His words to Nicodemus He mainly dwells on that which the Scriptures of the Old Testament had taught; and He reproves the teacher of Israel who did not at once recognise His words, thus founded on the Old Testament, as truth. The kingdom of God, the necessity of repentance and faith, the new heart, the holy life, the need at once of cleansing and of quickening-these and other truths, once indeed inhabitants of heaven, had long been naturalised on earth. Having been revealed, they belonged to men, whereas the secret things belong unto the Lord (Deuteronomy 29:29). Those of whom our Lord spoke had yielded a partial belief, but the ‘believing’ of which He here speaks is a perfect faith. Nicodemus was a believer, and yet not a believer. If some of the truths hitherto declared had been so imperfectly received, though those who were mighty in the Scriptures ought to have recognised them as already taught, almost as part of the law that was given through Moses (chap. John 1:17), how would it be when He spoke of the things hitherto secret, coming directly out of the heaven which He opens (comp. John 1:51), and for the first time revealed in Him,-part of the ‘truth’ that ‘came through Jesus Christ’? (chap. John 1:17).
It will be seen, then, that the truth of John 3:5 would seem to be placed by Jesus rather amongst the ‘earthly’ than amongst the ‘heavenly’ things. Of some of the heavenly things He proceeds to speak (John 3:14-15).
John 3:13. And no one hath ascended up into heaven, but he that came down out of heaven, the Son of man. The connection is this: ‘How will ye believe if I tell you the heavenly things? And it is from me alone that ye .can learn them. No one can tell the heavenly things unless he has been in heaven, and no one has been in heaven and come down to earth save myself.’ Repeatedly does our Lord in this Gospel speak of His coming down out of heaven (John 6:33; John 6:38, etc.), using the very word that we meet with here; and hence it is impossible to give the phrase a merely figurative sense. He came forth from the Father, and came into the world (John 16:28), that He might declare the Father (chap. John 1:18) and speak unto the world what He had heard from Him (chap. John 8:26). But this requires that we take the other verb ‘hath ascended up’ in its literal sense, and then the words seem to imply that Jesus had already ascended into heaven. ‘ Hath ascended up ’ cannot refer to His future ascension; and there is no foundation for the view held by some, that within the limits of His ministry on earth He was ever literally taken up into heaven. What, then, is the meaning? There are several passages in which the words ‘save’ or ‘except’ present the same difficulty. One of the most familiar is Luke 4:27, where it seems at first strange to read, ‘Many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed saving Naaman the Syrian,’ no leper of Israel cleansed except a leper who was not of Israel! The mind is so fixed on the lepers and their cleansing, that the other words ‘of them’ are not carried on in thought to the last clause: ‘none of them was cleansed, indeed, no leper was cleansed save Naaman the Syrian.’ So also in the preceding verse (Luke 4:26). In other passages (such as Galatians 2:16; Revelation 21:27) the same peculiarity exists, but it is not apparent in the Authorised Version. The verse before us is exactly similar. The special thought is not the having gone up into heaven, but the having been in heaven. This was the qualification for revealing the truths which are here spoken of as heavenly things. But none (none, that is, of the sons of men; for this is a general maxim, the exception is not brought in till afterwards) could be in heaven without ascending from earth to heaven. No one has gone up into heaven, and by thus being in heaven obtained the knowledge of heavenly things; and, indeed, no one has been in heaven save He that came down out of heaven, the Son of man. Observe how insensibly our Lord has passed into the revelation of the heavenly things themselves. He could not speak of His power to reveal without speaking of that which is first and chief of all the heavenly things, viz. that He Himself came down out of heaven to be the Son of man (on the name ‘Son of man’ see chap. John 1:51). The reference to our Lord’s humanity is here strikingly in place. He came down from heaven and became the Son of man to reveal these heavenly truths and (John 3:14-15) to give the heavenly blessings unto man.
The weight of evidence compels us to believe that the concluding words of this verse, as it stands in the Authorised Version, were not written by John. We can only suppose that they were a very early comment on, or addition to, the text, first written in the margin, then by mistake joined to the text. Were they genuine, they would probably refer to the abiding presence of the Son with the Father; but in such a sense it is very improbable that ‘Son of man’ would have been the name chosen. At all events, we have no other example of the same kind.
John 3:14-15. And as Moses lifted on high the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted on high, that every one that believeth may in him have eternal life. These verses continue the revelation of the heavenly things. The first truth is, that He who was in heaven came down to earth to be the Son of man. The next is, that the Son of man must be exalted, but in no such manner as the eager hopes of Nicodemus imagined. The secret counsel of heaven was, that He who was with God should as Son of man be lifted on high, as the serpent was lifted on high by Moses in the wilderness. Thus, indeed, it must be, that He may become the Giver of eternal life. The word rendered ‘lifted on high’ occurs fifteen times in other parts of the New Testament, sometimes in such proverbial sayings as Matthew 23:12, sometimes in reference to the exaltation of our Lord (Acts 2:33; Acts 5:31). In this Gospel we find it in three verses besides the present. The general usage of the word in the New Testament and the Old is sufficient to show that it cannot here signify merely raising or lifting up. And yet John’s own explanation forbids us to exclude this thought. All the passages in his Gospel which connect the word with the Son of man must clearly be taken together; and chap. John 12:33 (see note there) declares that the word contains a reference to the mode of the Saviour’s death the elevation on the cross. Nicodemus looked for the exaltation of the King in the coming kingdom of God. Exalted He shall be, not like me monarch sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, amid pomp and splendour, but receiving His true power and glory at the time when He hangs upon a tree an object of shame. The brazen serpent, made in the likeness of the destroyer, placed on a standard and held up to the gaze of all, might seem fitted only to call forth execration from those who were reminded of their peril, scorn and contempt from those who saw but a powerless symbol; but the dying Israelite looked thereon and lived. The looking was a type of faith nay, it was itself an act of faith in the promise of God. The serpent was raised on high that all might look on it; the exaltation of the Son of man, which begins with the shame of the cross, has for its object the giving of life to all (compare chap. John 12:32, and also Hebrews 2:9).
‘That every one that believeth.’ At first our Lord closely follows the words spoken in John 3:12. As there we read, ‘Ye believe not,’ so here, He that believeth as yet no qualifying word is added to deepen the significance of the ‘belief.’ What is before us is the general thought of receiving the word of Jesus. In that all is in truth included; for he that truly receives His word finds that its first and chief requirement is faith in Jesus Himself. So here, the trust is first general, but the thought of fellowship and union, so characteristic of this Gospel, comes in immediately, ‘that every one that believeth may in Him have eternal life.’ These verses which reveal the heavenly truths contain the very first mention of ‘eternal life,’ the blessing of which John, echoing his Master’s words, is ever speaking. ‘Eternal life’ is a present possession for the believer (comp. John 3:36); its essence is union with God in Christ. See especially chap. John 17:3; 1Jn 1:2 ; 1 John 5:11.
The result of the interview with Nicodemus is not recorded, but the subsequent mention of him in the Gospel can leave no doubt upon our mind that, whether at this moment or not, he eventually embraced the truth. It would seem that, as the humiliation of Jesus deepened, he yielded the more to that truth against which at the beginning of this conversation he would most have rebelled. It is the persecution of Jesus that draws him forward in His defence (John 7:51); it is when Jesus has been lifted up on the cross that he comes to pay Him honour (John 19:39). He is thus a trophy, not of the power of signs alone, but of the power of the heavenly things taught by Jesus.
At this point an important question arises. Are the next five verses a continuation of the preceding discourse? Are they words of Jesus or a reflection by the Evangelist himself upon his Master’s words? Most commentators have taken the former view. The latter was first suggested by Erasmus, and has found favour with many thoughtful writers on this Gospel. And with reason. The first suggestion of a sudden break in the discourse may be startling, but a close examination of the verses will show that they present distinct traces of belonging to John: ( 1 ) Their general style and character remind us of the Prologue. ( 2 ) The past tenses ‘loved’ and ‘were’ in John 3:19 at once recall chap. John 1:10-11; and are generally more in harmony with the tone of the Evangelist’s later reflections than with that of the Redeemer’s discourse. ( 3 ) In John 3:11 Jesus says, ‘ye receive not our testimony:’ in John 3:19 the impression produced is not that of a present refusal, but rather of a past and continued rejection. ( 4 ) In no other place is the appellation’ only begotten used by Jesus Himself in regard to the Son, though it is used by the Evangelist in chap. John 1:14, John 1:18, and 1 John 4:9. It cannot be fairly said that there is anything really strange in the introduction of these reflections. It is altogether in the manner of this writer to comment on what he has related (see especially John 12:37-41); and in at least one instance he passes suddenly, without any mark of transition, from the words of another to his own, for very few will Suppose chap. John 1:16 to be a continuation of the Baptist’s testimony (John 3:15). The view now advocated will receive strong confirmation if we convince the reader that there is a similar break after John 3:30 in this chapter, the last six verses belonging to the author of the Gospel and not to the Baptist.
John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that every one that believeth in him may not perish, but have eternal life. In the preceding verses is recorded the first announcement of the Gospel by our Lord, the revelation of the mystery made manifest by Him who came out of heaven. John pauses to set his Master’s words in the light in which he himself had afterwards beheld them. Jesus had said ‘must be lifted on high,’ but had given no reason. His disciple, whose message to the church was ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16), refers back the necessity to this truth. Whatever remains still hidden, so much as this is certain, that the humiliation and exaltation of Him who came down out of heaven were the expression of God’s love to the whole world. The Son of man is the Son of God, the only begotten Son; the one term expresses His fitness for the work, the other points to His dignity and to the greatness of the Father’s love. In this love the Father gave the Son: to what He surrendered Him is not here said; our Lord’s own words (John 3:14) fill up the meaning. The universality of the blessing is marked with twofold emphasis; designed, not for Israel only, but for the whole world, it is the actual possession of every believer. The words relating to faith are more definite than in John 3:14; for (see chap. John 2:11) to ‘believe in Him’ points to a trust which casts itself on Him and presses into union with Him. The Divine purpose is presented under two aspects, not one only (as in John 3:15); it is that the believer may be saved from perdition, and may now possess eternal life.-This verse contains most of the leading terms of John’s theology. One only of these requires further comment, on account of the various senses in which it is employed by the Evangelist. The ‘world’ does not in this verse designate those who had received and rejected the offer of salvation. It is thought of as at an earlier stage of its history; the light is not yet presented by the acceptance or rejection of which the final state of the world shall be determined.
John 3:17. For God sent not the Son into the world that he may judge the world; but that the world through him may be saved. The thought of the last verse is expanded. There it was the gift of God’s love that was brought before us; now it is the mission of the Son. To ‘may perish (John 3:16) here corresponds’ may judge the world, to ‘have eternal life’ answers ‘may be saved.’ This alone is sufficient to show that the word ‘judge,’ though not in itself equivalent to ‘condemn,’ has reference to a judgment which tends to condemnation. The Jews believed that Messiah would come to glorify Israel, but to judge the Gentiles; the solemn and emphatic repetition of ‘the world’ rebukes all such limitations, as effectually as the words of John 3:3 set aside the distinctions which were present to the thought of Nicodemus. It may seem hard to reconcile the first part of this verse with John 5:22; John 5:27, John 9:39, John 12:48. We must, however, recognise a twofold purpose in Christ’s coming. He came to save, not to judge the world. He came to judge the world in so far as it will not allow itself to be saved; and this judgment is one that takes place even now (because even now there is wilful unbelief), though it will only be consummated hereafter.
John 3:18. He that believeth in him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. The two preceding verses express the Divine purpose in itself, and that purpose passing into accomplishment; this verse speaks of the actual result. Two of the terms of these verses, the believing in Jesus of John 3:16 and the judging of John 3:17, are here brought together. He that abides in faith in Christ abides in a state to which judging belongs not; whilst the faith remains, the idea of judgment is excluded, for the believer is one with the Lord in whom he has placed his trust. Not so with the unbeliever; on him the sentence of judgment is already pronounced. As long as the unbelief is persisted in, so long does the sentence which the rejection of Jesus brings with it remain in force against him. The great idea of the Gospel, the division of all men into two classes severed from each other, is very clearly presented here; but no unchangeable division is thought of. The separation is the result of deliberate choice; and whilst the choice is adhered to, the severance abides. As the faith of the believer is faith ‘in Him,’ faith that brings personal union, the unbelief is the rejection of His Person revealed in all its dignity, the only begotten Son of God.
John 3:19. And this is the judgment, the judgment is of this kind, takes place thus, because the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were wicked. These words bring out clearly that the ‘not believing’ spoken of in the last verse signifies an active rejection, and not the mere absence of belief a rejection of the true light which in the person of Jesus came into the world, and henceforth ever is in the world. Men loved the darkness, for their works not single deeds, but the whole expression and manifestation of their life-were wicked. The word used (‘wicked’) is that which elsewhere expresses the character of the arch-enemy as ‘the wicked one’ (John 17:15; 1 John 3:12). It denotes active evil, positive and pronounced wickedness.
John 3:20. For every one that committeth evil hateth the light, and he cometh not to the light lest his works should be convicted. This verse explains the last, and refers the action there described to a general principle. The universal law is, that he who committeth evil hateth the light. Not ‘he that hath committed,’ for what is spoken of is the bent and the spirit of the man’s life. The word ‘evil’ here is not the same as that rendered ‘wicked’ in John 3:19, but is more, general. The one word means evil in active manifestation; the other what is worthless, good for nothing. No doubt the second word is used in this verse partly for the sake of vivid contrast with the real and abiding ‘truth’ of John 3:21, partly because what is worthless and unsubstantial will not stand the test of coming to that very light which shows in all its reality whatever is substantial and true. Every one whose life is thus evil knows that in the presence of the light he must stand self-condemned. The experience is painful, and he endeavours to avoid it by turning from the light, till, as conscience still asserts its power, he seeks defence against himself by hating the light (compare 1 Kings 22:8). We must not forget the application that is in John’s mind. The light that is come is Jesus Himself. He is come; but men also must come to Him. If they came not, the cause was a moral one. Before He came, some light had been in the world (John 1:5); those who, living a life of evil (whether open wickedness or a worthless self-righteousness), hated this light, were thus prepared to reject the Light Himself. The last word of the verse is remarkable, as it is more naturally applied to the doer than to his deed. Not only will the works be shown by the light be exposed in their true character: the works are looked on as of themselves the criminals they will be self-convicted, self-condemned. The thought of self-conviction has in this Gospel an importance that can hardly be over-estimated.
John 3:21. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they have been wrought in God. In contrast with those who commit evil is another class those who do the truth. The words expressing action in John 3:20-21, are different: that in John 3:20 (‘committeth’) refers directly to the particular acts, that which is used here (which properly denotes to make, to produce) brings into view rather the result. The man here spoken of is (so to speak) at work in raising the abiding structure of ‘the truth.’ So far as the truth has been revealed to him, his life is faithful to it; his works are an expression of the truth that is in his heart. As Jesus says (chap. John 18:37), ‘Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice; ‘so here we read, ’He that doeth the truth cometh to the light.’ There is a natural affinity between truth and light; he who is faithful to truth received is, through the very nature of the truth within him, impelled towards Him who is the Truth. He does not come to the light that his works may be made known to others: there is no self-seeking, perhaps even it is not the conscious purpose of the man himself that is spoken of, but rather the instinctive aim of the truth within him, and thus in reality the purpose of God, that all the works of God be made manifest. The works of this doer of truth have been wrought in God. The discipline by which he is led to the Son is of the Father (see chap. 6 especially). For this cause he comes, and must needs come, at the bidding of the truth, that the works of God in him may be brought out of all concealment and made manifest. His coming to Christ is itself a manifestation of the preceding work of God in him.
John 3:22. Alter these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. The introductory words ‘After these things’ may possibly include a considerable period. Apparently several months intervened between the Passover of chap. 3 and the visit to Samaria (chap. 4 ); but only two events belonging to this period are related. The words of this verse, however (tarried and bap-timed), show that after leaving Jerusalem Jesus remained for some length of time in the country parts of Judea. In no other passage than this is there any mention of the Saviour’s baptizing, and chap. John 4:2 explains that this baptism was only indirectly His. Still, however, it is clear that the baptism was by the authority of Jesus, the disciples acting only as His ministers. Yet they did not baptize with Christian baptism in the full sense of the term. They were engaged in preparatory work like that of the Baptist, just as the Twelve were sent forth by Jesus to declare the very message which John had preached (Matthew 10:7). The baptism of the Spirit was still future (chap. John 7:39). The next verse shows the main design of this section. When Jesus baptized in Judea, He came into direct and necessary comparison with John.
This section affords us our last view of the great Forerunner when, at the moment of his disappearance, he utters his highest testimony to Jesus as the true Bridegroom of the Church, alone to be welcomed by all waiting hearts. Hence it immediately precedes Christ’s proclamation of His truth beyond Judea. The subordinate parts are ( 1 ) John 3:22-30; ( 2 ) John 3:31-36.
John 3:23. And John also was baptizing in AEnon near to Salim, because there were many waters there: and they came and were baptised. Where Ænon and Salim were situated it is not easy to determine. The position assigned them by Eusebius and Jerome, near the northern boundary of Samaria, does not agree well with John 3:22. It is more probable that Salim is the Shilhim (translated Salem in the LXX.) of Joshua 15:32, a town not far from the southern limit of Judea. In this verse of Joshua (in the Hebrew) Shilhim is directly followed by Ain, from which AEnon differs only in being an intensive form Ain denoting a spring, and A Enon, springs. The objection to this identification is that, as John was clearly in the neighbourhood of Jesus, it takes the latter from the route leading to Samaria and Galilee. But the history of the events of the period is so brief and fragmentary that this objection has not much weight. John no doubt alludes to the meaning of AEnon when he adds that there were ‘many waters’ there.
John 3:24. For John was not yet east into prison. Words in which the Evangelist vindicates the accuracy of his narrative, and corrects a mistake apparently prevailing in the Church when he wrote. The earlier Gospels, dealing mainly with the Galilean work of Jesus, do not mention His entering upon His public ministry until after the Baptist had been delivered up. This seems to have led to an impression that the Baptist was imprisoned before our Lord entered on His public work. The false inference is here corrected.
John 3:25. There arose therefore a questioning on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purifying. In the circumstances just described, discussion would inevitably arise as to the relative position and value of the two baptisms. A ‘Jew’ (see note on chap. John 1:19) had placed the baptism of Jesus above that of John in regard to its purifying power. Although the Jews in general were hostile to Jesus, this man may have shared the convictions of Nicodemus (John 3:1-2). The disciples of John refused to regard their master’s baptism as less efficacious than that of another, who had been himself baptized by him. Unable either to set the question at rest, or to ignore the opposition of the Jew, they brought the matter of contention before John. On the symbolic character of John’s baptism, see the note on John 3:5; on ‘purification,’ see ii 6 , John 13:10, John 15:3, and 1 John 1:7; 1 John 1:9.
John 3:26. And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. Their description of Jesus (whom they do not name) shows their feelings. This man came to thee beyond Jordan, it has been thy great object to magnify his fame; and yet he is now thy rival, he baptizes, and all are flocking to him rather than to thee. Their last words are in their lips but a natural exaggeration; to the Evangelist, however, they are an unconscious prophecy (see an exactly similar instance in John 12:19-20). This is the last trial of the Baptist’s fidelity to his mission, and nobly is it sustained.
John 3:27. John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it have been given him out of heaven. Not for a moment does he enter into their jealous advocacy of his claims. Understanding the true force of their hasty words, ‘All men come to him,’ he tells them that such honour, such position, Jesus cannot receive unless it have been given Him from heaven. He says this in words so general that they seem certainly intended to point to himself also. ‘Each of us, in accomplishing God’s work, will receive the place appointed to him from heaven.’
John 3:28. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but, I am sent before him. The acceptance of the lower place was no new thing to John. ‘Ye remind me that have borne witness to Him; ye yourselves bear witness to me, that my testimony to Him contained in it all that now offends you.’ Of the two sayings here quoted, one (‘I am not the Christ’) is to be found in John 1:20: the other is not given in this Gospel in the very words, but is implied in John 1:30-31, and no doubt had been expressly uttered by John to his disciples.
John 3:29. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore hath been fulfilled. He that hath the bride,’ he and no other, ‘is the bridegroom. The Lord is taking home His bride-His people. To the name of bridegroom I have no claim, nor can I have the bridegroom’s joy. But in his joy his friends must needs share. The friend of the bridegroom that standeth and heareth his voice, catching the first sound as he draws near, listening to the words and tones in which his joy breaks forth throughout the marriage feast, he too has his joy, a reflection of the rejoicing of the bridegroom: this joy is mine, and it is now filled to the full.’ In these exquisitely tender and beautiful words does the Baptist at once reprove the natural but petty jealousies of his disciples and set forth his own relation to Jesus. The image employed is common in the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:0; Jeremiah 3 : 31 ; Hosea 2:0; Ezekiel 16:23), even if nothing be said of the Song of Solomon, and is taken up in the New (Matthew 9:15; Matthew 9:25; 2 Corinthians 11:0; Ephesians 5:0; Revelation 19:21). By the ‘friend’ John does not mean the particular friend who presided over the marriage ceremonies (the Shoshben), for the words ‘standeth and heareth’ are unsuitable to a functionary whose duties were those of action. But these words exactly correspond to the position of the Baptist as one who stood apart and listened. Once only does the Forerunner seem to have met with Jesus: afterwards he watched His course and rejoiced, and pointed his disciples to his Lord.
John 3:30. He must increase, but I must decrease. What the disciples now see is but the beginning of a process that must continue. The necessity spoken of here is another statement of the heavenly gift of John 3:27. John must become less and less, whilst the glory of his Lord will increase without limit or end; and thus his ‘decreasing’ is not the failure but the accomplishment of his work.
It is quite impossible to read carefully the following verses without perceiving that they bear a remarkable resemblance to the early part of the chapter, and that the general style and language are those of the Evangelist himself. In John 3:31 we read of Him ‘that cometh out of heaven;’ in John 3:13 of Him ‘that came down out of heaven.’ That He who is from heaven beareth witness of what He hath seen, and that His witness is not received, we read both in John 3:32 and in 1 Thessalonians 3:0 5 th verse might perhaps seem to contain Christ’s own words, but not such as the Baptist would be likely to employ. So also in John 3:36 all the terms used, ‘he that believeth in,’ ‘the Son’ (standing absolutely), ‘eternal life,’ ‘hath eternal life,’ remind us of the language of the Evangelist himself and of Christ’s discourses as related in this Gospel, especially in this chapter (John 3:15-17), but it is hardly possible to suppose them used by John the Baptist. Those writers who cannot admit that there is a break after John 3:30 are constrained to confess that the Baptist’s subsequent words are expressed in the Evangelist’s own language and style. It is a far simpler and more probable theory that the Evangelist (as in John 1:16 and John 3:16 see notes there) passes from his narrative into a meditation which it suggests, gathering together the main thoughts of the two sections which precede.
John 3:31. He that cometh from above is above all: he that is out of the earth is out of the earth, and out of the earth he speaketh. The claim of the Baptist’s disciples that to their master should be accorded a higher place than to Jesus, and John’s emphatic testimony to his own lower station, lead the Evangelist to reflect upon the words of Jesus to Nicodemus as decisive of all such questions. ‘He that cometh from above’ and ‘He that cometh out of heaven’ are clearly the same as ‘He that came down out of heaven’ (John 3:13), and all three expressions are designations of Jesus. There is but One who thus ‘cometh from above’ (though many others have received their mission from above), and He therefore is above all. In comparison with Him, every other prophet or teacher has his origin out of the earth; and as is his origin, so is his nature, so is his utterance.
John 3:32. He that cometh out of heaven beareth witness of what he hath seen and heard; and no man receiveth his witness. In John 3:12 we have seen that heaven is spoken of as the place of immediate divine knowledge and light. Jesus alone belongs to this sphere: all the prophets before His coming, though divinely commissioned, had ‘the earth’ as the starting-point of their utterances, spoke of what they had received on earth, spoke truly but not perfectly. The Divine light was reflected from the prophets to the world around. In Jesus the heavenly light itself came into the world. Jesus alone, then, beareth witness to that which He hath seen and which He heard, and (here again is the mournful cadence of this Gospel) no one receiveth His witness. So few receive, that they seem as nothing in comparison with those who reject. That the rejection is not in strictness universal the next verse declares.
John 3:33. He that received his witness set his seal to this, that God is true. Every man who accepts His witness and thus declares that Jesus is true, in that very act attests, sets his seal to, the declaration that God is true. (For the opposite, see 1 John 5:10. A mere prophet might be unfaithful or might err. Jesus ‘comes out of heaven,’ declares ‘what He has seen,’ and ‘what He heard’ from God: to disbelieve Him is to disbelieve God, to declare Him true is to declare God true. This is further explained and confirmed by the next verse.
John 3:34. For he whom God sent speaketh the words of God. The last verse rests on the thought that the words of Jesus are the words of God. Here it is shown that this is involved in the very proposition that Jesus is the Sent of God. Strictly, there have been many whom God has sent,-for example, John the Baptist (chap. John 1:6): his words were true, and were words of God. But where one is thus isolated as sent by God (and this is repeatedly done in this Gospel), he is the Sent in a peculiar and pre-eminent sense He speaketh not ‘words of God’ only, but ‘the words of God,’ giving all the revelation that God gives. The enabling power thus to speak is the gift of the Spirit. Every one whom God sends is enabled to speak God’s words words that, for the portion of the revelation he is commissioned to give, are truly God’s words.
For not by measure giveth he the Spirit. He gives the Spirit not partially, but completely, for the purpose of enabling him who is sent to speak words of God. Rising from the partial and incomplete to that which is full and perfect, we find but One who has thus been sent by God, and but One who receives the Spirit in unmeasured fulness, enabling not for the complete declaration of a part only, but for the perfect revelation of the whole of the words of God.
John 3:35. The Father loveth the Son. There is a continual heightening of the thought and expression. We read of Him ‘that cometh from above,’ Him ‘that cometh out of heaven,’ Him ‘whom God sent,’ ‘the Son,’ whom ‘the Father loveth.’ In John 3:17 we read that the Father sent the Son to save the world, because He ‘so loved the world’ (John 3:16): here we read of the love of the Father towards the Son who thus gave Himself for the accomplishment of the purpose of the Father. From chap. John 10:17 it seems probable that it is of this love that we must understand the verse of a love, therefore, referring to the work of redemption, not to the essential relation of the Son to the Father (comp. note on John 5:20).
And hath given all things into his hand. From perfect love follows perfect communication not of ‘the words of God only (John 3:34), but of all things possessed. The Father has given all things into the Son’s hand. Whatsoever the Son speaks or gives or does, is spoken, given, done, by the Father.
John 3:36. He that believeth in the son hath eternal life. As all things are in the Son’s hand by the gift of the Father, the destiny of all men depends on their relation to the Son. He that believeth in the Son has in Him the highest of all blessings, life eternal; has this in present possession-involved in the communion of faith in which he lives.
But he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. Over against the believer is here set, not the man who does not believe, but he that disobeys. The change from believing to obedience results from the thought of the last verse: supreme power is given to the Son; therefore he that receives Him not by faith is guilty of disobeying His authority; not faith only, but the obedience of faith, is His due. From the eyes of all such life is hidden whilst the unbelief and disobedience shall last. The rejection of the Son brings with it the wrath of God, by whom all things were given into the Son’s hand: this is the present and the abiding heritage of him that obeyeth not the Son.
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Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on John 3". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30