Christ teacheth Nicodemus the necessity of regeneration: of faith in his death. The great love of God towards the world. Condemnation for unbelief. The baptism, witness and doctrine of John concerning Christ.
Anno Domini 30.
John 3:1. There was a man of the Pharisees, &c.— Nicodemus was a member of the great council, and, as some suppose, a ruler of a synagogue; for αρχων, the title here given him, is often used in this sense by the evangelists: compare Matthew 18:23 with Luke 8:41. Accordingly, John 3:10 on this very occasion, Jesus calls him a master, or teacher of Israel. He might possess both dignities, many of the members of the council being rulers of synagogues. It is however certain, that he was one of the council; for we are told so expressly, ch. John 7:50. This doctor had heard our Lord's miracles often mentioned, perhaps had seen some of them; and, like many of his countrymen, conceived some notions, that he whoperformed such things must be the Messiah: on the other hand, the meanness of our Lord's appearance occasioned scruples which he could not remove. In this state of doubtfulness he resolved to wait on Jesus, that by conversing with him personally, he might find out the truth. See the next note.
John 3:2. The same came to Jesus by night,— Lest any offence should be taken at his conversing openly with Jesus, by his brethren of the council, who from the very beginning were Christ's enemies, he came secretly, by night, in order to have a private conference with him at his own lodgings; and with the greatest reverence and respect said to him, in his own name, as well as in the name of several of his brethren, Rabbi,—a very remarkable appellation from a person of so great dignity, to one, who, in regard to his education and rank in secular life, made so low an appearance as our blessed Lord: We know, &c. Christ's miracles left Nicodemus no room to doubt of his mission from God; yet they did not fully prove him to be the Messiah, because he had not as yet called himself by that name, at least in the hearing of Nicodemus. Wherefore, when he told Jesus that he believed him to be a teacher come from God; he insinuated, that at present he did not believe in him as the Messiah; but that he would believe, if he assumed that character; and by these insinuations modestly requested Jesus to explain himself with regard to his pretensions. We may just observe, upon the foundation of that strong assertion which Nicodemus makes, No man can do these miracles, &c. that the miracles ascribed to Christ and his apostles recommend themselves to us, on the following account, exclusive of theirbeing always esteemed among the Jews as credentials and proofs of the divine mission of those who claimed to themselves the authority ofprophets and teachers: they were wrought by persons who solemnly appealed to God; they were wrought in a public manner, before enemies and unbelievers; in a learned age and civilized country; not with any air of pride, vanity, and ostentation; not for the sake of lucre, or for worldly advantage; in confirmation of doctrines good and useful for mankind; at a time when men wanted neither power nor inclination to expose them, if they were impostures, and were in no danger of being called atheists and heretics, of being insulted by the populace, and persecuted by the civil magistrate, if they ridiculed and exposed them: theywere various and numerous; of a permanent nature, and might be reviewed and re-examined; had nothing fantastical and cruel in them, but were acts of kindness and beneficence: they ceased for a long time before Christ appeared, and therefore would raise the attention of men. They were the means of converting multitudes to the faith; were attested by proper witnesses; foretold by prophets; were such as the Jews expected from the Messiah, and were acknowledged even by adversaries. Nicodemus, therefore, had great reason to be swayed by them, and to acknowledge their force.
John 3:3. Jesus answered and said— It is remarkable, that the evangelist introduces this passage of the history, with observing that Jesus knew the thoughts of all men: probably he meant to signify, that in the course of the conversation, Jesus prevented Nicodemus by forming his discourse to him in such a manner, as to obviate all the objections which his thoughts had suggested, without giving him timeto propose them. This remark seems to shew the force and propriety of the things which our Lord said to Nicodemus; and accounts for this ruler's being so speedily and thoroughly convinced, though Jesus did not assume either the name or character of the Messiah. It seems, his reasonings, besides their own intrinsic light, had an additional evidence arising from their being exactly adapted to Nicodemus's most secret thoughts; so that theydemonstrated the extent of our Lord's knowledge with great advantage. We see this in all the branches of the conversation; wherein our Lord touches on the following grand points, of the utmost importance to Nicodemus and his brethren, and indeed to all mankind; namely, that no external profession, nor any ceremonial observances or privileges of birth, could entitle any man to the blessings of the Messiah's kingdom; that an entire change of heart and life was necessary to that purpose; that this must be accomplished by a divine influence on the mind; that mankind are by nature in a state of condemnation and misery; that the free mercy of God had given his Son, to deliver them from it, and to raise them to a blessed immortality, which was the great design and purpose of his coming; that all mankind, that is, Gentiles as well as Jews, were to share in the benefits of his undertaking; that they were to be procured by his being lifted upon the cross, and to be received by faith in him; but that if they rejected him, there was no other remedy; and their eternal aggravated condemnation would be the certain consequence of it. Our Lord might enlarge more copiously on these heads, which it might be the more proper to do, as some of them were directly contrary to the notions commonly entertained by the Jews concerning the Messiah's kingd
Conversion has, in all ages, been a great and surprising effect of the divine power upon the human soul, producing a change, the full extent of which cannot be better expressed than by the terms regeneration, begetting-again, new-birth, which import the communication of a new nature; and upon the diversity of men's dispositions before and after that change, are founded the names of old and new man, by which the apostle denominates the unconverted and converted state. This, however, must not be so understood, as if the new nature was raised to its perfection immediately upon its being conveyed to us in regeneration; for as by the natural generation we are not born with the perfectly matured powers of men, but with the faculties for obtaining these full powers and perfections; so in the spiritual generationthe habits of grace and holiness are not all at once raised to their maturity. We have the seeds of them conveyed to us, which must be gradually nourished to their full measure by the Spirit of God through the means of prayer, habit, experience and practice; and, above all, by strong faith in the merits and intercession of our blessed Redeemer. In speaking to Jews there was a peculiar propriety in expressing this change by the term of regeneration, as it shews them that Abraham's begetting them, however much they might glory in it, was not sufficient to make them the people and children of God; but that, laying aside the glory of their descent, it was necessary that they should be begotten anew bya greater Father, even the Spirit of God, who would communicate a better nature to them than that which they had derived from Abraham. The phrase, he cannot see the kingdom of God, signifies, he cannot enter into it; just as to see death, Luke 2:26 is to die.
John 3:4. Nicodemus saith unto him, &c.— Nicodemus, hearing Jesus affirm that the posterityof Abraham needed a second generation and birth to fit them for becoming the people of God, could not take his words in the sense which he, with the other doctors, commonly affixed to them, when speaking of proselytes, because so applied theysignified conversion to Judaism; a thing not applicable to the Jews: not doubting, therefore, that Jesus spoke of a second natural generation and birth, he was exceedingly surprised, and his answer evidently proves, that the translation which some give of the word ανωθεν, in the former verse, from above, is wrong; for it is plain he thought that without entering a second time into his mother's womb, there was no being born in the manner Christ spoke of, ανωθεν, that is, again. What is added at John 3:5 explains what is left undetermined, John 3:3 as to the original of this birth. See 1 Peter 1:3 and 1 John 5:18.
John 3:5. Jesus answered, Verily, verily, &c.— Jesus replied, that he was not speaking of a natural, but of a spiritual regeneration; Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a "man be born of water, that is, be baptized, the only appointed means of admission into the visible church; and of the Spirit, that is, have a new nature given him by the Spirit, and shew forth in his life the fruits of that new nature; he cannot be a subject of God's kingdom here, nor have a share in his glory hereafter." Our Lord did not mean that baptism is, in all cases, absolutely necessary to salvation; for in the apostles' commission, Mark 16:16 notwithstanding faith and baptism are equally enjoined upon all nations: not the want of baptism, but of faith, is declared to be damning. Besides, it should be considered that this is a mere ceremony, which in itself has no efficacy to change men's natures, or to fit them for heaven; and that in some circumstances it may be absolutely impracticable; nevertheless, as the washing with water in baptism fitly represents the purification of the soul necessary to its happiness, this ceremony is very properly made the rite by which we publicly take upon ourselves the profession of the Christian religion, the dispensation preparatory to heaven. Wherefore, the receiving of this rite is highly necessary in all cases where it can be had. If so, persons who undervalue water baptism, on pretence of exalting the baptism of the Spirit, do greatly err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the commandment of Christ.
John 3:6. That which is born of the flesh is flesh;— That Nicodemus might see the absurdityof his notion, Jesus told him, that whatsoever is begotten, must necessarily partake of the nature of that which begets it; and therefore, that a man's being begotten and born a second time by his natural parents, were that possible, would not make him holy, or qualify him for the kingdom of God. After such a second generation, his nature would be the same sinful and corrupt thingas before, because he would still be endued with all the properties and sinful inclinations of human nature; and consequently would be as far from a happy immortality as ever:—That which is born of the flesh is flesh:—But that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit: spiritual, heavenly, divine, like its author.
John 3:7. Ye must be born again.— "Even you, though the descendants of Abraham; even you, scribes, Pharisees, and doctors of Israel, however proud of superior sanctity and knowledge; even you must be born again, in this spiritual sense." The passage is remarkably strong and emphatical.
John 3:8. The wind bloweth, &c.— Our Saviour observed, that there was no cause for Nicodemus to be surprised if there were some things in this doctrine of regeneration of an obscure and unsearchable nature; because even in the natural world many things are so. As much as to say, "It is true, thou mayest not understand how this second birth can be brought to pass, but that is no reason why it should be disbelieved; since there are many great effects in nature, which you must acknowledge, thoughyou cannot explain their causes. For instance, the wind bloweth where it pleaseth, and you hear the sound of it, but you know not whence it comes,— ποθεν ερχεται, from what repository; or whither it goes, που υπαγει, into what place:" (alluding probably, to Psalms 135:7 where God is said to bring the wind out of his treasuries. See Ecclesiastes 11:5.) so is every one that is begotten and born of the Spirit. The influences by which he is begotten, are altogether imperceptible to sense, yet the effects thereof are far from being so. Moreover, to the actions and ends of the spiritual life, the new birth is as essential, as the natural is to those of the animal life.
John 3:9-10. Nicodemus answered, &c.— Our Lord's arguments were undeniable: nevertheless, Nicodemus, who had been accustomed to the pomp and ceremony of an external religion, surprised to hear that Jews (who by birth were the people of God,) must be begotten and born again, still urged that the thing was impossible; which it doubtless was, taking regeneration, as he did, for conversion to Judaism, a notion which he was led into from what Jesus had told him, John 3:5-6 namely, that the regeneration he spake of was a moral and spiritual one. Our Lord replies, Art thou a master,— διδασκαλος, a teacher in Israel,—and knowest not these things? Our Lord having all along spoken to Nicodemus in the common dialect of the Jewish divinity schools, might justly express his surprise, that he, who was a teacher in Israel, did not understand it: for though he affixed a meaning to the word regeneration different from what it bare in the mouths of the doctors, it was plainly analogous to their sense of it, and so might easily have been understood even by a novice; the admission of a proselyte being looked upon by the Jews as a second birth to him, in regard that his parents and relations were no longer reckoned such, and the proselyte was thought to have received a new soul by the change of his religion. It is strange that any should doubt whether proselytes were admitted into the Jewish church by baptism, that is, by washing; when it is plain, from express passages in the Jewish law, that no Jew who had lived like a Gentile for one single day, could be restored to the communion of their church, except by baptism. Compare Numbers 19:19-20 and many other passages relating to ceremonial pollutions, by which the Jews were rendered incapable of appearingbefore God in the tabernacle or temple, till they were washed, either by bathing or sprinkling.
John 3:11. We speak that we do know,— Some have supposed, that, as Christ speaks here in the plural number, he may refer not only to the doctrine which was delivered by himself, but to the testimony which was given to the truth of it by John the Baptist, and to the preaching also of his own disciples, who all concurred in testifying the same things, the certainty of which they were assured of by the teachings of the Spirit, and by their own experience; while it was known to Christ by his omniscience, and by the intimate acquaintance he had with all the counsels of the Father.—And others have supposed that he includes here with himself the Father and the Spirit, who are expressly spoken of in other passages, as being witnesses to the truth of what he said, and as agreeing with him in the testimony that he gave. Compare ch. John 8:18, John 14:20; John 14:26 and 1 John 5:6; 1 John 5:8. But there is no necessity that we should suppose him to refer to any other than himself, since nothing is more usual than for a person of authority to speak of himself in the plural number, as Christ may be observed to have done elsewhere; (Mark 4:30.) and here, in the next verse, he appears to have restrained it to himself, where he says only in the singular number, If I have told you earthly things, &c. In the next clause, and testify that which we have seen, Christ seems to allude to what is mentioned in the law as qualifying a man to be a witness, that he was able to declare of what he had testified, that he had seen or known it, Leviticus 5:1.; and as he therefore had a clear perception and a certain knowledge of the truth of what he said, there was the highest reason to receive his testimony, and to regard him as a true and faithful witness.
John 3:12-13. If I have told you earthly things,— "If you believe not these obvious truths concerning the spiritual nature of God's kingdom, and the qualifications of his subjects, how shall you believe the more sublime doctrines of religion, which I am come to teach you?" OurLord goes on, "In the mean time, you may safely receive my instructions; for I am vested with an authority, and endued with gifts far superior to all prophets that have ever appeared; No man hath ascended up to heaven," &c. Perhaps Jesus mentioned his coming down from heaven, to put the Jewish doctor in mind of the acknowledgment with which, at the beginning of their interview, he had addressed him, namely, that he was a teacher come from God. This passage is a plain instance of what is usually termed the communicationof properties between the divine and human natures, whereby what is proper to the divine nature is spoken concerning the human, and what is proper to the human, is spoken of thedivine. Thus when it is said (1 Corinthians 2:8.) The Lord of glory was crucified, and (Acts 20:28.) when he is called God, who purchased the church with his own blood,—the meaning is not that he, as the Lord of glory, was crucified, or, as God, shed his blood, as if the Divine nature could be crucified and bleed; but that the person, who was the Lord of glory in one nature, was crucified in the other; and the person, who was God in one nature, purchased the church with his own blood, which belonged to his other nature: so when it is said, The Son of man is in heaven, the meaning is not that he, as the Son of man, was there while he was on earth; but that he, who was here in his human nature, was there in his divine.
John 3:14-15. And as Moses lifted up— Our Lord, by telling Nicodemus that the death of the Messiah was prefigured by types in the law, shewed him, that it was agreeable both to the doctrine of Moses, and to the councils of heaven, that the Messiah should be in a suffering state; consequently he insinuated, that the meanness of his present appearance upon earth was no reason why Nicodemus should doubt of his having come down from heaven. The type that he mentioned as prefiguring his sufferings, both in their circumstances and consequences, was that of the brazen serpent, which, though it represented a thing noxious in its nature, was so far from being so, that all who were poisoned by the stings of real serpents, obtained a perfect and speedy cure, if they but looked at it. In like manner, the Son of God, though made in the similitude of sinful flesh, would, by his death on the cross, heal all true penitents; even such as had been guilty of the greatest and most deadly sins, when applying to him by faith for salvation. But see the note on Numbers 21:9.
John 3:16. For God so loved the world,— Our Lord here assures Nicodemus, that men owed the unspeakable happiness spoken of in the preceding verse, to the free and unutterable love of God the Father, who desired their salvation with such ardency, that he sent his only-begotten Son to bestow everlasting life on those who perseveringlybelieve in him; so far washe from sending him to condemn them, as he had reason to fear. This is one of those bright and heart-affecting passages in the gospel, which shines too strong to admit the least attempt at illustration in a commentator. Reader! may your soul and mine feel and experience its energy now and for ever!
John 3:17. For God sent not his Son—to condemn the world;— God is often represented as an avenger in the Old Testament: and as mankind had incurred his wrath by their iniquities, it might be expected that when he sent his Son into the world, it would have been to inflict punishments upon them, as the word rendered condemn also implies; but, on the contrary, the Son of God was sent to save the world and to give life, as the Syriac emphatically renders it.
John 3:18. He that believeth on him is not condemned:— From the gracious design of God towards the world, mentioned in the preceding verses, our Lord concludes, that they who believe on the Son of God are not condemned; whereas they who do not believe, are condemned already for that sin; and justly, because their unbelief is owing to their own wickedness, and not to any defect in the evidences of his divine mission, which, through grace are sufficiently full to work conviction in every unprejudiced mind. The condemnation mentioned here, and strongly implied in John 3:15 is thought by Dr. Doddridge and many others to refer to that natural state of condemnationwherein fallen man stands. "And till men enter deeply into this important truth," says the learned expositor just mentioned, the "Gospel may indeed be their amusement, but I see not how it is likely to be their joy or their cure." We may just observe, upon the expression in the name of the only-begotten, &c. that though the name of a person be frequently put for the person himself, yet it seems further intimated in that expression, that the person spoken of is great and magnificent, and therefore it is generally used to express either God the Father, or God the Son, even our Lord Jesus Christ.
John 3:19. And this is the condemnation,— That is, the cause of condemnation; they will not receive the light of the Logos, the God of Christians, because they will not obey him.
John 3:21. He that doeth truth— He that practiseth truth: that is, "is exercised in righteousness and goodness." See Ephesians 5:9. This phrase often occurs as the character of a good man: compare. Psalms 119:30. Isaiah 26:2. 1 Peter 1:22. 1 John 1:6.; and it is used with peculiar propriety, since there is really truth or falsehood in actions as well as in words. Of the same kind is the phrase ποιειν ψευδος, to make a lie, used more than once by St. John, perhaps in a beautiful opposition to this before us; and if it were rendered practiseth a lie, that opposition would be more apparent. See Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15. The phrase that they are wrought in God signifies, that they are always agreeable to the divine nature and will, and the consequence of that union of soul with God, which is the perfection and happiness of the intelligent natu
Such was the purport of our Lord's discourse with Nicodemus, which we may easily believe affected him greatly. He perceived that Jesus saw into his heart, was thoroughly convinced, and from that time forth became his disciple, defended him in the great council of which he was a member, and, with Joseph of Arimathea, paid him the honours of a funeral,when all his bosom friends had deserted him. See ch. John 7:50, John 19:39.
John 3:22-24. After these things— Some time after the conference with Nicodemus, Jesus and his disciples, leaving Jerusalem, went into the land of Judea, or those parts of Judea which were remote from Jerusalem. As he took this journey that he might have an opportunity of baptizing his disciples, that is, the persons who believed him to be the Messiah, it is probable he went to Bethabara beyond Jordan, John having removed thence to Enon, a place in Samaria, about eight miles south of Scythopolis, remarkable for its waters, and where he had great conveniency for baptizing. Jesus himself never baptized any person with water, as appears from ch. John 4:2 but his disciples administered that kind of baptism in his name, and by his order. It seems probable from the 24th verse, as well as from tradition, and from many other passages in this gospel itself, that St. John wrote it as a supplement to the rest; for he speaks of the Baptist's imprisonment as a thing generally known, and yet says nothing of his martyrdom, though he had given so large an account of his ministry. We cannot suppose that he would have omitted so material a fact, had he not known that the other evangelists had before recorded it at large.
John 3:25. And the Jews— It should be observed, that the word Jews, in this place and some others, does not mean persons of that nation in general, but of the country of Judea (see John 3:22.), where baptism had just then been administered under the direction of Jesus; and where, as most of John's disciples were of Galilee, it was natural for persons of these two schools, to bring their respective disciples into competition; and that some Jews or men of Judea, baptized under Christ, would, by invidious comparisons, raise the jealousy of some Galileans baptized by John. The Jews called all sorts of ablutions prescribed by their teachers purifications: the subject therefore of this debate was, how Jesus, who had been himself baptized by John, came to re-baptize John's disciples, Acts 19:4-5 that is, assume a greater authority than John, and virtually declare, that his baptism was inefficacious for the purposes of purification. The Baptist's disciples, though they had often heard their master speak on the subject, not understanding the subserviency of his ministry to that of Jesus, were unable to give their antagonists a satisfactory answer, so came and proposed their question to John himself. See the next verse.
John 3:27-28. A man can receive nothing, &c.— "A man of God, or prophet, can assume no greater dignity and authority, than God has thought fit to confer on him: you yourselves bear me witness, even by the words you have just now made use of, describing Jesus by the character of him, to whom I bear witness, that I said I am not the Christ, &c. I never pretended to be the Messiah, as you very well know; but when you asked me, I told you, I was only his harbinger, sent before to give you notice of his coming, and to prepare you for receiving him."
John 3:29. He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom:— "So far am I from envying his growing fame, or the number of his disciples, that I greatly rejoice in both; just as the bridegroom's friend, who is appointed to stand and hear him converse with his bride, rejoices in the love that she expresses to him; of which love the friend forms an idea likewise, by what he hears, the bridegroom say to her in return. My highest joy therefore is, that men cheerfully submit to the Messiah, and pay him all due honour." Among the Jews there is frequent mention, in the marriage ceremonies, of the Hhupha, a canopy or place where the bridegroom used to discourse familiarly with the bride, under a covering, as the means of conciliating her esteem, which he was not supposed to have done till he came cheerfully out of the Hhupha. This custom is preserved by the modern Jews, either before the synagogue, in a square place covered over, or, where there is no synagogue, they throw a garment over the bridegroom and the bride. While the bridegroom is engaged in this conference with the bride, his friends stand at the door or entrance; and when they hear the voice of joy from the bridegroom, a signal of his success, they immediately rejoice and spread the happy news. These circumstances appear to give light to the present passage; and as the idea of a bridegroom is more than once affixed to our Saviour, and the gospel dispensation compared to a marriage-feast, this interpretation will need no farther proof to establish it.
John 3:30-31. He must increase,— "I am not ignorant that his fame and the number of his disciples shall every day increase, while mine shall decrease; for he is a person of infinitely greater dignity than I am, possesses far more intimate knowledge of the divine will; and the discoveries which he makes thereof as far transcend mine, as heaven exceeds earth."
John 3:32. What he hath seen, &c.— In allusion to his being from above, where he enjoys the most intimate communications of his Father's counsels; that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony; particularly concerning the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God, and the qualifications requisite in his subjects. There is a strong resemblance between this and what our Lord himself said to Nicodemus, John 3:11; John 3:13. As the two senses of seeing and hearing furnish us with the most certain knowledge, they are mentioned to denote the certainty of the doctrines delivered by Christ
John 3:33-34. Hath set to his seal, &c.— Hath made a most becoming and substantial acknowledgment of the veracity of God, who by his prophets in antient times foretold what the nature of the Messiah's kingdom would be; and who speaketh now to men by his only-begotten Son, in such a manner as he never did by any mere prophet. For he whom God hath sent,—that is, his only-begotten Son, speaketh the words of God; doctrines, which by their own native truth and light shew themselves to be the oracles of God: and which besides have the confirmation of the most extraordinary miracles; for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. God has given him, as man, the inspiration of the Spirit, without those limitations and interruptions wherewith they were given to all other prophets whatsoever; for in sacred scripture, as well as in profane writers, to do, or give a thing by measure, is to do, or give it sparingly. See Ezekiel 4:16. Jeremiah 46:28. We may just observe, that it was customary among the Jews, for the witness to set his seal to the testimony which he had given.
John 3:35. The Father loveth the Son,— The affection which the Father bears to his only-begotten Son, is altogether different from the regard which he shewed to his other messengers. They were servants, and were treated as such, being endued with scanty portions of the Spirit in comparison: whereas this is God's Son, for which reason he hath anointed him with the oil of gladness above his fellows, and made him not the greatest Prophet and Priest only, but the greatest King also that ever was; even King and Judgeuniversal; by whose laws men must govern their lives, and at whose bar they shall all finally be tried.
John 3:36. He that believeth on the Son, &c.— "This," says the Baptist, "is the substance, and this is the end of my whole testimony; that he who has a lively faith in this only Son of God, hath everlasting life; hath a title to it, and the beginning of it already wrought in his soul; but he who disobeys the Son (for so the Greek should be rendered) shall not see life." It is of great importance to preserve a difference in the translation corresponding to that in the original, because the latter phrase explains the former, and shews that the faith to which the promise of life is annexed, is an effectual principle of sincere and unreserved obedience; and it is impossible to make one part of scripture consistent with another, unless this be taken into our idea of saving faith. "He who believes on the Son, is opposed to him who disobeys the Son," says Dr. Heylin: "the sense of the word faith, which was familiarly used among the Jews when Christ and his disciples first taught, began to be perverted when St. John wrote his gospel; and therefore he guards the primitive sense by the antithesis." The Baptist adds, But the wrath of God abideth on him. In scripture the word abide has a particularsignification, denoting the adhesion and permanency of the thing which is said to abide. Of this signification we have an example here; for there is a momentary wrath of God, which quickly passeth; but his abiding wrath torments, and does not kill; and being once inflicted, never draws to an end. Thus the Baptist bare testimony to Jesus anew, setting forth his dignity in the plenitude of his commission, the excellencyof his gifts, the nearness of his relation to God the Father as his only Son, and the greatness of his power as universal Judge.
Inferences.—How could any one do such miracles as Christ did, unless he and his doctrines were owned of God! and how plain and important were the doctrines of regeneration and faith in him, which he preached as necessary to salvation! And yet how natural is it for carnal minds to misjudge of spiritual things, to disbelieve them, and to be prejudiced against them, because, after all, there will be something incomprehensible in them! For who can, here below at least, fully explain the manner of the Holy Spirit's operations in and upon the souls of believers? Or who can tell how the divine and human natures are personally united in God manifested in the flesh, who, as the Son of God, always was in heaven, whilst, as the Son of man, he was only upon earth! And O how surprising is the thought of the Lord of glory's being lifted up on the cross, that he might be proposed in the gospel as a proper object for a sinner's faith; and that we, under a sense of guilt and danger, as wounded by sin, might look to him, and be as effectually healed of our soul's diseases, as the Israelites were of their desperate wounds, by looking to the brazen serpent in the wilderness! And how inexpressibly rich and free is that love which is the original cause of salvation, and has displayed itself in the gift of Christ to our world, to Gentiles as well as Jews, that whoever believes in him may have everlasting life! With what esteem, and preference to all others, should we think of the dear and only Saviour, who is originally from above, and was anointed with the Holy Ghost without measure for office-performances on earth, who is the object of the Father's highest love, and who is the great Lord and Husband of the church, and is Head over all things for its welfare; and what an honour and delight is it to be instrumental in espousing souls to him! What his servants do in holy ministrations, by his authority, is as valid as if it were done personally by himself; and they should go on in his work, according to the ability and opportunity that he gives them for it, without envying others who excel them in gifts and graces and success; as knowing that no man can receive any good thing for the service of others, or the benefit of his own soul, except it be given him from heaven; for that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. But, alas! how much more concerned are formalists in religion about an external baptism and purification, than about being baptized with the Holy Spirit, and having an experience in themselves of a real work of heart-changing grace!—How great is the sin of unbelief! It rejects the testimony of God concerning his Son, and is envious at Christ's glory; and it proceeds from unreasonable prejudices against him, from a love of evil ways, and unwillingness to be reformed, and from a hatred of the pure light of God's word, lest it should disturb the soul's peace and pleasure in an indulgence of beloved lusts! And how dreadful are its effects, as it binds all a man's other sins upon him, refuses his only remedy, and subjects him to condemnation and wrath with the highest aggravations of guilt! But O the excellence of true faith! It receives the Lord Jesus, sets to its seal that God is true, and depends upon his faithfulness for the performance of all that he has said about his Son, and said to us in a way of grace and mercy through him; it rejoices in the prosperity of his interest, in the espousal of souls to him, and in every thought of his being exalted; it proceeds from a desire of coming to the light of God's word, and from the discovery that is thereby made of the sinner's own vileness, and of the relief there is in Christ for him, and from a willingness to be saved from sin, as well as from the curse of the law, and the wrath of God; and by means of this faith the sentence of condemnation is reversed, and the soul receives a title to eternal life. Which of these states is mine? and in which of them am I likely to be found at death and judgment?
REFLECTIONS.—1st, We have a singular instance of a great man who submitted to be saved by grace.
1. There was a man, of great note and eminence, of the Pharisees, the sect which ever expressed the bitterest enmity against our Lord, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrim; the same came to Jesus by night, solicitous to have some particular discourse with him concerning the things that he had heard him preach; and he chose this time, as some suppose, out of shame and cowardice, as not daring to appear publicly with him, for fear of the Jews; or because this was the season when Christ would be more at leisure, being engaged all the day in public; and when he might more freely and at large talk over with him the important point concerning which he desired to be resolved. With great respect he addressed him, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. These were such credentials of his divine mission, and wrought with such notorious evidence, that the more they were examined, the more forcibly they proved the author of them sent from God. Note; (1.) The grace of Jesus can reach those whose condition in life is most dangerous, if they will but come to him. (2.) When the profession of the true religion is reproachful and unfashionable, some, who dare not openly avow their sentiments, approve in secret the truths which others despise, and will slip in among the faithful, if they cannot be seen, as Nicodemus, by night. (3.) Christ is come to be a teacher of babes, to lead a dark world to the light of life, and guide the erring feet of sinners into the paths of everlasting peace. May we then be humble scholars, and learn of him!
2. In consequence of the application of Nicodemus, Christ addresses him in the following instructive discourse:
[1.] On the nature and necessity of regeneration. Verily, verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus, like the rest of his countrymen, tinctured with the common prejudices concerning the Messiah's kingdom, supposed that the seed of Abraham would be all admitted to an honourable place in it. But Christ strikes at that radical mistake; assuring him, that no man's external privileges, religious profession, or moral attainments, availed any thing, if his heart and life were not effectually wrought upon by the regenerating influences of the Spirit of God. For, as we are born by nature corrupt and polluted with sin, and spiritually dead in trespasses, we must receive another, a new, a divine nature, the work of God. And unless this supernatural change passes upon us, we can neither understand the nature of the Messiah's kingdom, nor receive any of the blessings and benefits which it was designed to convey to us. Nicodemus, mistaking Christ's meaning, and understanding the words in a literal sense, expresses his surprise at the assertion, not comprehending how it was possible for a man, old as he was, to pass a second time through his mother's womb. In answer to his objection, Christ enforces and explains his declarations, Verily, verily I say unto thee, a truth which is a most infallible certainty, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God: Christ's word, however strange and unintelligible to the natural man, cannot change. There can be no entrance into glory, without that new birth which gives a meetness for it. The soul, by the powerful agency of the Spirit of God, must be cleansed from its natural pollution, as water purifies the body from any filth which it has contracted. And the necessity of such a spiritual change is evident, because that which is born of the flesh, is flesh: could a man a thousand times pass through the womb, he would still come forth with the same corrupted nature, unfit for the kingdom of God; man's nature being utterly sensual in his mere fallen state, and all his appetites, delights, and pursuits being after the flesh, and the things which gratify his bestial part: so that the soul in this condition is utterly enslaved, and the whole man flesh, and not spirit. Whilst, on the contrary, that which is born of the Spirit, is Spirit: when the Holy Ghost works effectually on the believing heart, it is refined from the dregs of sensuality, the soul is restored to spiritual understanding, and the whole man, now brought under the influence of a new, divine, implanted principle of grace, becomes spiritual, in his affections, pursuits, and designs, delivered from the bondage of base lusts and vile corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God, and restored to a capacity of enjoying him. Marvel not, therefore, adds our Lord, that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again; nor, though we are ignorant of the manner in which this divine change is wrought, is that any objection to the thing: for, in the world around us, we see effects, of the immediate causes of which we are ignorant. As for instance, The wind bloweth where it listeth, without controul from any creature, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: the effects produced by it are sensibly felt: but why it blows at one time stronger than at another, why from one point rather than another, where it begins and where it ends, these are secrets known only to him who bringeth the winds out of his treasuries. So is every one that is born of the Spirit: so mysterious are the operations of the Divine Spirit in his first movements and operations on the believing heart, when he bears down every obstruction, quickening, comforting, sanctifying the believer's soul, and giving him a blessed experience of his divine power and influence; though he works mysteriously, and leaves the manner of his operations still a secret to us.
[2.] When yet Nicodemus appeared ignorant, and questioned how these things could be; for to the natural man the things of the Spirit of God are foolishness: Christ proceeds to reprove his dulness, and to enlarge on the certainty and sublimity of those glorious truths which he had advanced: Art thou a master of Israel, a famed teacher, and professor of divinity, and knowest not these things? Note; It is a shame for those who undertake to instruct others, to be ignorant themselves, and, while they affect to pass for men of deep learning and erudition, to be unacquainted with the most important truths that pertain unto salvation. Verily, verily I say unto thee, We speak that we do know: the truths that Christ taught, were of infallible certainty; he spoke as commissioned by his Father, and in correspondence with what all the prophets and John had before declared: and testify that we have seen: not speaking on hearsay, but on the most undoubted evidence, and with the clearest assurance: and ye receive not our witness: such was the blindness, such the prejudices, that had spread over the Jews in general, and the Pharisees and rulers in particular, that they refused to receive and embrace the doctrines of salvation taught by the Son of God, though so infallibly true, so plainly delivered, and attested by such miracles: so that they were without excuse,—as all infidels are, who refuse to submit to the evidence of revelation. If therefore I have told you earthly things, illustrating, with the familiar instances of water and the wind, the necessity of a spiritual change in the hearts of sinners here below, and ye believe not, comprehend not the meaning, nor give credit to the truths advanced, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? of the more sublime doctrines of the gospel, the amazing union of the divine and human natures, the design of the incarnation of the Son of God; his sufferings, death, and exaltation; the nature of his spiritual kingdom, and of the beatific vision? how much more must these be mysterious, when delivered in language suitable to the vast subject, if the plainer truths appear so difficult to be understood? For instance, No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven: the prophets of God indeed had spoken under a divine inspiration, and what they said came from heaven; but none of them ever spoke of their own knowledge, nor had been with God in glory, acquainted with all the secrets of his will; this was the distinguished privilege of the Son of man, the Messiah, who from eternity lay in the bosom of the Father, and was now come down from heaven, as a teacher eminently sent from God; and who, though upon earth, was even then the Son of man which is in heaven; though in his human nature he stood and talked with Nicodemus, his divine nature filled heaven and earth, was every where present, and, in virtue of that communication of properties which subsists between the two natures, the Son of man, though on earth, was, as God, in heaven; that which was done by him in one nature being ascribed to him in the other. Note; (1.) There are mysteries above our comprehension, which are to be received on the evidence of God's word. Where reason fails, faith must be exercised. (2.) In all the humiliations of the Son of man, we must never forget that he is unchangeably the same, God over all, blessed for ever.
[3.] As the great prophet, he proceeds to describe the end of his incarnation, and the eternal blessedness of those who truly and perseveringly believe in him. He came to seek and to save that which was lost, to heal our mortal wounds, and to recover our perishing souls.
(1.) He came to heal our mortal wounds, as the antitype of the brazen serpent which Moses in the wilderness lifted up, that those who were stung by the fiery serpents might look and live. And 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. (1.) We are mortally stung by the old fiery serpent Satan, and the deadly poison of sin has been diffused through our nature; the wound is incurable, the torment intolerable and eternal, unless more than human help and healing be vouchsafed to us. (2.) Christ is the only hope of the desperate, the brazen serpent lifted up, for the healing of the nations, on the pole of the everlasting gospel, as crucified on a tree, but now exalted to the throne, bright-shining with the beams of grace on every miserable soul that turns the eye of faith towards him. (3.) It is looking to him alone which performs the wondrous cure. The soul that seeks to any other physician, or refuses this simple method of cure, Look unto me, and be ye saved, Isaiah 45:22 perishes without remedy; while faith infallibly brings health and healing: for, (4.) However obnoxious we are by sin to the wrath of God, however deep our guilt, or aggravated our iniquities, he is a Saviour to the uttermost: whoever looks to him, shall live, though, like the dying thief, reduced to the last gasp; not only the chief of sinners shall be rescued from the eternal ruin which he justly apprehends and fears, but, if he persevere in cleaving to Christ, shall have eternal life, all the bliss and blessedness of glory, through the salvation which is in Jesus Christ.
(2.) He came to save our lost souls by the sacrifice of himself. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life. (1.) Christ is the universal Saviour, not of the Jews only, but of the Gentiles also; and, as his free salvation is preached to all, whoever will is invited to come to him. They who reject his calls, sin against their own mercies. (2.) He is the only-begotten Son of God, which bespeaks his infinite dignity and all-sufficiency to save. (3.) The love of God in thinking upon us in our ruined state, and sending his Son to be a propitiation for our sins, is the astonishment of angels, and should be matter of our increasing wonder, praise, and adoration. (4.) All who by faith receive the Lord Jesus, as the Son of God and the Redeemer of lost souls, placing their whole dependence on his infinite merit and intercession, are sure to obtain the remission of all their sins. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, as the Jews supposed their Messiah would destroy the Gentile nations, and exalt their own; but that the world through him might be saved. Even the vilest and most guilty, who believe in him, whether Jew or Gentile, may now through him obtain salvation; while out of him, ruin and despair must seize the whole fallen race. He that believeth on him is not condemned: there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus; no charge lies against those whom God justifieth through faith in the Blood of his Son. But, (5.) Destruction inevitable and eternal must be the portion of those who neglect or despise so great a salvation; he that believeth not the gospel-word preached unto them, whether Jew or Gentile, is condemned already; lies at present under the curse which is the wages of sin, and without repentance will as assuredly be lost, as when the sentence shall be executed in the great day, because he hath not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. Unbelief is the great damning sin: there can be no cure for those who reject the only remedy; and when God hath been so rich in grace, as to give his only-begotten Son, the baseness of the ingratitude in rejecting him cannot but bring aggravated guilt and perdition on the sinner's soul. And this is the greatest and most fatal cause of their condemnation, that light is come into the world, the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, in which he shines as the sun of righteousness arisen to guide our feet into the ways of peace: and men, notwithstanding, loved darkness rather than light. The Jews held fast their corrupt traditions; the Gentiles, their idolatrous superstitions; and both shunned the light of truth, which made manifest and condemned their works of darkness, because their deeds were evil; therefore do they lie under the divine wrath; and such wilful ignorance, and obstinate rejection of the truth, must needs fill up the measure of their iniquities. (6.) This then will be the test between the wilfully impenitent and the sincere inquirer after truth. For every one that doeth evil, makes it his practice and his delight, and is wedded to his sins, hateth the light, his carnal mind is at enmity with Christ and his gospel; neither cometh to the light, but shuns the means of grace, the ministrations of the faithful, and the company and converse of such whose words and works would be a rebuke to his darkness; lest his deeds should be reproved; lest his darling corruptions should be held up to him in their own hideous form, his danger faithfully set before him, and his conscience wounded with remorse. But he that doeth truth, in simplicity following the mind of God, as far as it is revealed to him, open to conviction, and willing to be searched, cometh to the light of God's word, desirous to know, and disposed to follow it, however contrary to his own natural inclinations or worldly interests; that his deeds may be made manifest, his heart examined, his principles brought to the test, his mind enlightened, and his conduct regulated; so that it may appear he is now under the influence of a regenerate spirit, designing in all his works the divine glory, and evidencing that they are wrought in God, by his gracious influence, according to his holy will, and in a state of union and communion with him. Blessed and happy are the people who are in such a case!
2nd, When our Lord had finished his discourse with Nicodemus, we are told,
1. Whither he went, and what he did. He left Jerusalem, and travelled into the country of Judea, where he continued some time, preaching the gospel of the kingdom; and by the ordinance of baptism, which his apostles administered, admitted those who professed their faith in him into the number of his avowed disciples.
2. John continued his ministry in another part of the country with success. He did not join with Jesus, lest their enemies should pretend that there was a combination between them; nor did he desist from his labours, though he knew his Superior was now gone forth to minister, but continued to preach and baptize all who came to him; having fixed himself at a place where were many streams of water, which rendered it convenient to administer baptism to the multitudes which resorted to him; for as yet he was not cast into prison, as he shortly afterwards was, and a period put to his farther usefulness. Note; The work of the ministry is wide; there is room for the exercise of all our several talents, nor must any be discouraged by their own comparative inferiority: they are suited for their place, and may hope to see their labours successful.
3. A contest arose between some of John's disciples and the Jews, concerning purifying. [See the Annotations.] Puzzled with the difficulty which embarrassed them, John's disciples carry the case to their master, and, jealous for his honour, and their own who were connected with him, report with concern what they had lately heard, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, and, among others, received baptism; to whom thou barest witness, pointing him out with peculiar distinction; behold, the same baptizeth, setting up himself as a rival to thee; and all men come to him. They look upon it as a piece of presumption in Jesus to assume the Baptist's office, and ungrateful to make use of the testimony which John had borne, in prejudice to him: nor could they, without envy, behold their master eclipsed by him whom they regarded as lately his disciple, and as one of themselves. So ready are good men to be under the temptation of a party-spirit, and to feel unbecoming jealousies and risings of envy against superior excellence, which seems to eclipse their own.
4. John's answer shewed what spirit he was of. Far from envying Jesus as his rival, he rejoices in his success; and, confirming the testimony that he had before borne to him, cheerfully turns over to him all his interest in Israel.
[1.] John answered and said, A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven. God gives gifts to his ministers severally as he will. If he is pleased to bestow more on one than another, there is no room for complaint: whatever our measure is, it is a matter of favour to us, and we have reason to be thankful, nor ought to envy the superior honours or usefulness of others: and this consideration should, in every case, silence every murmur of discontent or envy.
[2.] He appeals to what he had uniformly advanced from the beginning. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. All the honour that he had ever assumed, was that of being his harbinger, and going before the face of the Lord to prepare his way: if therefore he was now arrived, his forerunner, far from being grieved, must rejoice in it. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; Christ hath alone the right over his church, and to him must the gathering of the people be. He is come from heaven to espouse it to himself, the heavenly bridegroom. There can be no reason therefore for murmurs or jealousy; but, far otherwise, the friend of the bridegroom, as he was, which standeth and heareth him, waiting upon him as his attendant, helping forward his interests, and desiring to advance his honour, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice, when he comes to take his bride, and issues his orders and institutions to those who wait in his train. This my joy therefore is fulfilled, to hear that Christ appears publicly, inviting sinners to come to him; and that multitudes flock to him, embracing the offers of his grace. And thus does every faithful minister stand before the great Bridegroom of souls, to receive his commands, and deliver his messages of love to his church; delighted to behold the happy effects produced by them; and rejoicing greatly in every soul converted to Jesus, and brought by faith and love to cleave to him alone.
[3.] Far from envying the rising glory of his Lord, John beholds with pleasure the fulfilment of the divine will, He must increase, but I must decrease; his fame must spread, his glory be manifested, his disciples multiply; and to him does John gladly turn over all his interest, content to fade before his superior brightness, as the morning star disappears before the rising sun; and well pleased to see that kingdom of the Messiah established and increasing, which must spread from pole to pole, and endure to the end of time. And to behold this, cannot but give the most singular delight to every faithful minister. The glory of his person, and the surpassing excellence of his office, cannot but give him this superiority. He that cometh from above, is above all: his nature and original being divine, he must needs have the undisputed precedency, and supreme authority, over all other messengers sent from God, who speak only in his name, and by his commission. He that is of the earth, and such are the greatest saints and prophets, is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: as he is sprung from the dust, and must return to the dust, he is naturally attached to earthly things; his conceptions low and groveling; and, when even under divine inspiration, unable adequately to express the sublime mysteries of infinite wisdom; while he that cometh from heaven is above all. Contrasted with the teachings of Jesus, in whom from eternity dwelt all the treasures of wisdom, as being one of the sacred self-existent Godhead, the wisdom of the wisest is weakness, and their speech not to be compared with his preaching. And the reason is evident, because what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth, from the most intimate knowledge of the divine nature and councils, both as God incarnate, and in the human nature possessing the Spirit without measure. But such was the blindness and obstinacy of those to whom he spoke, that, though he was greatly attended, and John's disciples apprehended that all who followed him believed in him, he lets them know the case was far otherwise: no man receiveth his testimony; none, comparatively speaking; so few of the multitudes who came to him would be found his real disciples. Blessed and happy, however, are those who receive his gospel in the light and love of it; for he that hath received his testimony, hath set his seal that God is true. He subscribes to the faithfulness and veracity of God, in having fulfilled all the prophesies concerning the Messiah; and embraces, with full confidence of their completion, the gracious promises of his gospel, as being Yea and Amen in Christ Jesus. And herein God is glorified, when we trust our everlasting hopes upon the word that he has delivered to us by his Son; for he whom God hath sent, speaketh the words of God; all his language spoke the Divinity resident in him; and no word of human infirmity ever dropped from his lips; for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. All the other prophets, who were sent of God, possessed but a measure of the Spirit, and only spoke under his immediate inspiration on some particular occasions, being at other times left to speak their own words; but he in whom dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily, ever spoke the words of God. The Father loveth the Son with a peculiar and transcendant regard, as being possessed with the same nature and perfections. He delights in his Son's undertaking as Mediator, and hath given all things into his hand; investing him in his human nature with all power and authority in heaven and in earth. All the great affairs of the kingdom of providence, grace, and glory, are committed to his management, that his enemies may feel his vengeance; that his faithful ones may experience his blessing, protection, and care; and all at last appear before him as their eternal judge. He that believeth therefore on the Son, receives him as manifest in the flesh, and rests his hopes on the rich grace revealed in the gospel alone, hath everlasting life; he shall not only hereafter, if faithful unto death, be put in possession of it, but has already in himself the beginning and foretastes of it: and, on the contrary, he that believeth not the Son rejecteth his divine authority and mission, incredulous of his word, and disobedient to his will, shall not see life: while he remains under the power of unbelief, he is dead in trespasses and sins, and nothing but misery inconceivable and eternal awaits him, because the wrath of God, which is for ever wrath to come, abideth on him. How terrible is the end of all who believe not God, and obey not the gospel of his dear Son!
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on John 3". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany