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Bible Commentaries
John 3

The Fourfold GospelFourfold Gospel

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Verses 1-21

(Jerusalem, April 9, A. D. 27.)

Subdivision B.
dJOHN III. 1-21.

d1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. [Nicodemus is mentioned only by John. His character is marked by a prudence amounting almost to timidity. At John 7:50-52 he defends Jesus, but without committing himself as in any way interested in him: at John 19:38, John 19:39 he brought spices for the body of Jesus, but only after Joseph of Arimathæa had secured the body. Nicodemus was a ruler, or a member of the Sanhedrin]: 2 the same came unto him by night [Thus avoiding the hostility of his colleagues, and also obtaining a more personal and uninterrupted interview with Jesus. That his coming by night revealed his character is shown by the fact that John repeats the expression when describing him at John 19:39. But, in justice, it should be said that Nicodemus was the only one of his order who came at all during our Lord’s life], and said to him, Rabbi, we [Nicodemus uses the plural, to avoid committing himself too much. Nicodemus would assert nothing but that which was commonly admitted by many. We learn from John 12:42, John 12:43 that late in the ministry of Christ, when hostility towards him was most bitter, many of the rulers still believed in him. No doubt, then, when Nicodemus said "we" he used the word advisedly and conscientiously] know that thou art a teacher come from God [The rulers knew that Jesus was not the product of any of the rabbinical schools, and his miracles marked him as a prophet and distinguished him from all who were guided merely by reason, no matter how learned]; for no one can do these signs that thou doest [ John 2:25], except God be with him. [These words show the effect of Christ’s miracles. Miracles arrest attention and challenge investigation, [126] and prove that he who works them is from God-- Acts 10:38.] 3 Jesus answered [Not the words, but the thoughts of Nicodemus. The answers of Jesus often look rather to the thoughts of the questioner than to the form of the question. Nicodemus came seeking to know something about the kingdom of God, and Jesus opened at once upon the subject] and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. [The word translated "anew" may also mean "from above," and some commentators seek to so translate it here, but it is rightly translated "anew," for Nicodemus understood it to mean a second birth. As to the import of the passage, Luther’s words are pertinent: "My doctrine is not of doing, and of leaving undone, but of being and becoming; so that it is not a new work to be done, but the being new created--not the living otherwise, but the being new-born." To "see" the kingdom means to possess or enjoy it-- Psalms 16:10, Psalms 90:15, John 8:51, Luke 2:26.] 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? [Knowing that a man can not be literally born a second time, Nicodemus states to Jesus the literal import of his words, hoping thereby to draw from him an explanation of this new, strange metaphor which he was using. So far as he did grasp the meaning of Jesus, Nicodemus saw himself barred forever from the kingdom by an impossible requirement. Many, like him, need to learn that God asks of us nothing that is impossible; that, on the contrary, the yoke is easy and the burden is light.] 5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [By far the vast majority of scholars consider the word "water" in this verse as a reference to Christian baptism. The Cambridge Bible says "the outward sign and inward grace of Christian baptism are here clearly given, and an unbiased mind can scarcely avoid seeing this plain fact. This becomes still clearer when we compare [127] John 1:26, John 1:33, where the Baptist declares, ’I baptize in water’, the Messiah ’baptizeth in the Holy Spirit’. The fathers, both Greek and Latin, thus interpret the passage with singular unanimity." Men would have no difficulty in understanding this passage were it not that its terms apparently exclude "the pious unimmersed" from Christ’s kingdom. But difficulties, however distressing, will justify no man in wrestling the Scriptures of God ( 2 Peter 3:16, Romans 3:4). Water and Spirit are joined at Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38, Acts 19:1-7, Titus 3:5.] 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [Jesus here draws the distinction between fleshly birth and spiritual birth. He did this to prepare Nicodemus to understand that it is the spirit and not the flesh which undergoes the change called the new birth. Regeneration is no slight, superficial change, but a radical one, and one which we can not work for ourselves.] 7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. [Jesus here plainly declares that none are exempt from this gospel requirement. Man must obtain more than his fleshly nature if he would inherit eternal life.] 8 The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. [In this sentence we have the word pneuma translated by the two words "wind" and "spirit." There can be no justification in rendering pneuma "wind," when in the last clause of the same sentence, and three times in the immediate context, it is rendered "spirit." There can be no doubt that it means the same in both clauses of this verse, and if we render it wind in the first clause, we must say "born of the wind" in the last clause. Whatever is the meaning of this verse, it must be extracted from the rendering which the Revisers have strangely placed in the margin, viz.: "The Spirit breathes where it will, and thou hearest," etc. It teaches that a man is born of the Spirit, breathing as he wills through inspired men. It is equivalent to Paul’s maxim that faith comes by hearing the [128] word of God. Matthew 15:14). Nicodemus should have understood that such a change as Jesus was speaking of would be necessary, for, 1. It was foreshadowed in the Old Testament ( Deuteronomy 10:16, 1 Samuel 10:9, 1 Samuel 16:13, Psalms 51:10, Ezekiel 18:31, Jeremiah 4:4). 2. John the Baptist suggested the need of some such change when he attacked the Jewish trust in their descent from Abraham.] 11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We [a rhetorical plural-- Mark 4:30] speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen. [his words were not founded upon reasonings, speculations, and guesses, but were the plain testimony of an eye-witness, who was able to see and had seen things which to us are invisible]; and ye receive not our witness. [Ye teachers of Israel, who, above all men, should receive our guidance, are the very last to follow us. As the Jewish rulers would not receive Christ’s testimony, let us not be surprised if many of our day refuse to listen to the gospel which we preach.] 12 If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things? [Jesus here divides religious phenomena into two divisions--earthly and heavenly. The earthly phenomena are those which have their sphere in this world. In this sense [129] regeneration is an earthly thing; for though it has a heavenly origin, its manifestations are among the daily sights and experiences of our earthly life. Religion has also its heavenly phenomena, such as the ordering of God’s celestial household; the experiences of those who pass into the divine presence; the propitiation, or the changes wrought in the attitude of God toward man by the sacrifice of Christ; the powers and limitations of Christ’s priestly intercession, etc. These things have their sphere far removed from earth, and transcended the comprehension of Nicodemus. Now, if Nicodemus would not believe Jesus when he told him of things which he himself partially knew, how would he believe when Jesus spoke of that which was utterly unknown to him?] 13 And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven. [Nicodemus is here informed that Christ alone can teach concerning heavenly things. Jesus can so teach, for he did not begin on earth and ascend to heaven, but he came from heaven to earth, and returned thence (afterwards) to heaven. Jesus speaks of himself as being present in heaven, because his divine nature was in constant communication with the powers of heaven. If we conceive of heaven as a locality (a proper conception), Jesus was upon the earth; but if we conceive of it as a present communion with the presence of God (also a proper conception), then Christ was in heaven as he talked with Nicodemus-- John 8:29.] 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; 15 that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life. [Jesus here indicates the prophetical character of the Old Testament. The extent of Christ’s indorsement of the Old Testament becomes apparent when we consider on how many occasions he revealed himself under the same symbolism which the Old Testament used to reveal him. At John 2:19 he revealed his resurrection under the symbolism of the destroyed and restored temple. At Matthew 12:40 the same event is revealed under the symbolism of Jonah and the whale. And [130] here his crucifixion is likewise partially veiled and partially disclosed under a symbolic reference to the brazen serpent. The account of the brazen serpent will be found at Numbers 21:4-9. The lesson of the brazen serpent will be found in its main points of resemblance to the crucifixion of Christ. When the people were bitten by fiery serpents, something made to resemble a serpent was hung upon a pole, and the people who looked to it in faith through it healing and life. Such is the epitome of Christ’s gospel. When the world was perishing because of sin, Jesus, made to resemble sin ( Romans 8:3, 2 Corinthians 5:21) was hung upon the cross, that those who look unto him in faith ( Isaiah 45:22) may find life through him-- 1 John 5:11-13.] 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life. [Luther calls this verse "the Bible in miniature." It is a lesson as to God’s love: 1. Its magnitude--he gave his only begotten Son. 2. Its reach--he gave it to a sinful world ( Romans 5:8). 3. Its impartiality--he gives it to whomsoever; that is, to all alike ( Matthew 5:45, Revelation 22:17). 4. Its beneficial richness--it blesses with life eternal. 5. Its limitations--it is nowhere said that God so loves that he will save unbelievers. Love is the mutual and binding grace between God and man; it may almost be said that in Christ it made God human and man divine. John uses the word "eternal" seventeen times in his Gospel and six times in his first Epistle. He always applies it to life. The synoptists use it eight times, applying it to life, and also to fire, punishment, damnation, and habitation.] 17 For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him. [Christ’s first mission to the world was for salvation rather than for judgment. His second mission will be for judgment, but a judgment-hour wherein he will be able to save those who have accepted the means of grace which he established by his first coming. But the first coming of Christ incidentally involved judgment ( John 9:39), and John the Baptist emphasized the judgment of Christ. [131] This judgment, however, was not the principal object of Christ’s coming, but was an inevitable result of it. Jesus here speaks of it as a self-executed judgment. It was a necessary result of the revealed presence of Christ ( Luke 2:35). That Christ is at present a Saviour, and not a judge, is a truth which needs to be emphasized. Catholics are taught to fear Christ and flee to the Virgin; and many ignorant Protestants are disposed to look upon him as a prosecutor rather than as an advocate.] 18 He that believeth on him is not judged; he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God. [The name "Jesus" means Saviour; to disbelieve this name is to reject Christ as Saviour. John 3:14, John 3:15 require belief in Jesus as the Son of man. This verse requires belief in him as the Son of God. Belief in this dual nature of Jesus is essential to salvation. Unbelief is the world’s crowning sin; and belief is, humanly speaking, the source of its justification. The verse teaches that God’s judgments are in a state of perpetually present enactment. The believer is saved now ( Acts 13:39), and the unbeliever rests already under that condemnation which he fears the Son of God may some day pronounce against him.] 19 And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. 20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. 21 But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God. [These verses show that when God judges a man by his faith, the judgment is not arbitrary and irrational. Men believe according to the secret aspirations and desires of their nature. Christ, as the example and model of life, shines out as the light of the world; those who approve and love such a life are drawn to him and constrained to believe in him. Spiritually, they abide in his presence, that they may compare their lives with his, and that they may be assured that their works are [132] wrought under the renewing and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit, who is sent of Christ. But one whose desires are evil shrinks from Christ, and struggles to disbelieve in him: he seeks to know as little of Christ as possible, because such knowledge exposes the wickedness and depravity of his own sinful nature.]

* From this (Bro. McGarvey’s) construction of John 3:8 I dissent, and hold that the Revisers have given us the true reading in the text. The question has been fully discussed in Lard’s Quarterly, Vol. III, p. 337; Benjamin Franklin’s Sermons, Vol. I, p. 281; Millennial Harbinger, 1832, p. 604; 1833, p. 24; 1869, pp. 317, 478, 522, 688. I take this passage to mean that the process by which a man is regenerated by the Spirit of God is no more mysterious than other operations in the natural world, of which operations the blowing of the wind is taken as an example.--P.

[FFG 126-132]

Verses 22-36

(Judæa and Ænon.)
dJOHN III. 22-36.

d22 After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judæa [That is, he left Jerusalem, the capital of Judæa, and went into the rural districts thereof. We find him there again in John 11:1-57. and John 11:1-57. He gained disciples there, but of them we know but few, such as Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Simeon, and Judas Iscariot]; and there he tarried with them [It is not stated how long he tarried, but it may have been from April to December, for the passover was in April, and December was "yet four months" before the harvest-- John 4:35], and baptized. [This baptism was not into the three names of God ( John 7:39), into which the apostles were afterwards directed to baptize ( Matthew 28:19). It was a continuation of John’s baptism, preparatory to the organization of the church--a preparation for the kingdom. Some think that Jesus, at this time, baptized in his own name, and afterwards gave the full baptismal formula into the other two names--Father and Spirit. But there is no evidence of this, and Christian baptism is a baptism into the death of Christ ( Romans 6:3). Christ would hardly have ordered baptism into his death before his crucifixion. Such a proceeding would have wrought confusion.] 23 And John also was baptizing [The fact that John also was baptizing is a further indication that the baptism administered by Jesus was [133] preparatory. There would hardly be two kinds of baptism administered by divine consent at one time] in Aenon [This name means "springs"] near to Salim, because there was much water there [If one starts at Sychar, at the foot of Mount Ebal, and follows the Damascus road northward for seven miles, he comes upon the valley called Wady Farah. In this beautiful wady the stream flows eastward, having Salim three miles to its south and ’Ainun four miles to its north. For the most part the valley is narrow, and hemmed in by rocky cliffs. But if one follows the course seven miles eastward from the Damascus road, he comes upon a beautiful valley, about one mile wide and three miles broad--a place every way suitable for the gathering of multitudes to hear the preaching of John. A perennial stream, with copious springs all along its course, furnishes, even in the longest, driest summers, the "much water" required for baptism]: and they came, and were baptized. ["Here, then," says Lieutenant Conder, "in the wild, desert valley, beneath the red precipices, where the hawk and kite find nests in ’the stairs of the rocks’, or by the banks of the shingly stream, with its beautiful oleander blossoms shining in the dusky foliage of luxuriant shrubs, we may picture the dark figure of the Baptist, in his robe of camel’s hair, with the broad leather Bedawi belt around his loins, preaching to the Judæan multitude of pale citizens--portly, gray-bearded rabbis, Roman soldiers in leathern armor and shining helmets, sharp-faced publicans, and, above all, to the great mass of oppressed peasantry, the ’beasts of the people’, uncared for, stricken with palsy, with blindness, with fever, with leprosy, but eagerly looking forward to the appearance of that Messiah who came to preach the gospel to the poor."] 24 For John was not yet cast into prison. [John’s Gospel shows that the ministry of Christ was well under way before that of the Baptist ceased: a fact which the synoptists do not reveal.] 25 There arose therefore a questioning on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purifying. [What this questioning was we are not told. The word "therefore" doubtless refers to [134] the baptisms just mentioned, so that the dispute probably related to the necessity or purifying effects of that ordinance. But whatever the dispute was about, it brought to notice the fact that Jesus was baptizing more than John, a fact which some of the disciples of John quickly resented.] 26 And they came unto John, and said to 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 [This verse shows that John’s disciples looked upon Jesus as one who owed all his position and popularity to the Baptist’s testimony, and were, therefore, surprised to find that Jesus was surpassing John. They looked upon this conduct as a species of ingratitude on the part of Jesus. This verse also shows us that the witness of John did not pass unheeded. His witness was public and notorious, and men remembered it, though they did not always profit by it. That these friends of John felt unkindly toward Jesus is shown by their exaggerated statement that "all men come to him."] 27 John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it have been given him from heaven. [Some take this to mean that Jesus could not have had this great success unless Heaven gave it to him; but it is more likely that John used the words with entire reference to himself. A man can only take what is given to him; the Son of God takes what he chooses. The friend receives only what hospitality extends to him, but the heir takes what he will, as the owner of the house.] 28 Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said [In stating that John had borne witness ( John 3:26) John’s disciple had already committed themselves to the fact that John disclaimed to be the Messiah, and that Jesus was the Messiah; for it was concerning these two things that John had given his testimony], I am not the Christ, but, that I am sent before him. 29 He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, that standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is made full. [John looks upon the body of disciples as [135] the Lord’s bride, and prophetically anticipates the very title which was subsequently applied to the church. It was the duty of "the friend of the bridegroom" to arrange the preliminaries of the wedding, and to promote the mutual interests of the bride and bridegroom. His duties and responsibilities greatly exceeded those of our "best man," for it was his place to demand the hand of the bride, and to prepare everything for the reception of the bride and bridegroom. Joy at the sound of the bridegroom’s voice is part of the drapery of John’s figure. Voices of bride and bridegroom are a Biblical symbol of festivity and joy ( Jeremiah 7:34, Jeremiah 25:10, Jeremiah 33:11). The Song of Solomon is the only book in the Bible which dwells upon the relationship of bride and bridegroom, and in it the voice of the bridegroom is mentioned with joy ( Song of Solomon 2:8). If John meant anything more by the phrase than mere drapery, he used it to express his pleasure that the Messiah was directing his own affairs and speaking his wishes with his own voice, instead of using his friend as a mouthpiece.] 30 He must increase, but I must decrease. [Noble words! "He must increase"--because the divine law has ordered it, and prophecy has foretold it ( Isaiah 52:13), and because the very divinity of his nature absolutely requires it. "I must decrease"--in popularity, in power, in following. The Christian minister finds the increase of his work the same as the increase of Christ’s kingdom; but with the Baptist the case was different. He was a Jewish prophet, and as the power of the New Dispensation, under Christ, gained headway, the Old Dispensation, of which he was a part, waxed old, and was ready to vanish away.] 31 He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is of the earth, and of the earth he speaketh: he that cometh from heaven is above all. [Some think that the testimony of the Baptist closes with the John 3:30, and that the rest of the chapter is the comment of the apostle John, but there is certainly no sufficient ground for such a view.] 32 What he hath seen and heard, of that he beareth witness; and no man receiveth his witness. [In John 3:31, John 3:32 the Baptist [136] draws a contrast between his testimony and that of the Messiah. The Baptist’s testimony was largely of a negative character. He testified that he was not the Christ ( John 3:28), and while he pointed Jesus out as the Christ, the worthy one, the spiritual baptizer, he nowhere undertook to elaborate as to the character or nature of Jesus. He looked upon Jesus as being so far above all earthly prophets that no prophet could reveal him. The task of such revelation devolved upon Jesus himself. God must be self-revealed. It was no heavy disappointment to John that his disciples had failed to grasp his testimony concerning himself, and yet so few were persuaded by the testimony of Jesus that John hyperbolically says "no man receiveth his witness."] 33 He that hath received his witness hath set his seal to this, that God is true. [We have here a metaphor, taken from the sealing of a document, as an expression of trust in or adherence to it. Compare John 6:27, 1 Corinthians 9:2. To receive Christ’s witness was to publicly confess a conviction that God was true--true to his promise that he would send a Messiah, a Saviour ( Romans 3:4). To believe Christ is to believe God; to make Christ a liar is to make the Father one also, for he speaks concerning Christ ( 1 John 5:10) and through Christ-- John 7:16, John 16:24.] 34 For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for he giveth not the Spirit by measure. [To give anything by measure indicates a partial, scanty bestowal ( Ezekiel 4:16). The Spirit of God, even in inspired prophets, was but a partial and intermittent gift ( 1 Corinthians 7:25, 1 Corinthians 13:9, 1 Peter 1:11, Hebrews 1:1), but in Jesus, the Son of God, the Spirit of God dwelt fully and uninterruptedly ( Colossians 1:19). The present tense, "giveth," points to a continuous communication of the Spirit. If Christ had received the Spirit "by measure," then his gift of the Spirit might be exhausted.] 35 The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. [This fact was afterwards asserted by Jesus ( Matthew 28:18). Jesus is indeed King of kings-- Psalms 2:6-8, Matthew 11:27, Acts 2:33, Acts 10:36, Ephesians 1:22.] [137] 36 He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life [the New Testament represents everlasting life as a present possession obtained by belief]; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him. [In the second clause of this verse "obeyeth" stands in contrast with "believeth" in the first clause. No mental assent, however strong, is reckoned by the Scriptures as faith unless it results in obedience ( James 2:20, Romans 1:5). "Wrath of God" is a strong phrase, and is not to be lightly explained away. The unconverted sinner rests under this wrath. His study should be not only to avert a sentence to be pronounced at some future day, but to be freed from one already resting upon him. This verse shows conclusively that Christ’s atoning work had its divine as well as its human side; that God had to be propitiated as truly as man had to be reconciled. The Baptist had already repeatedly warned the Jewish people of wrath to come if they rejected the Messiah, and in this, his last recorded utterance, he boldly reiterates that warning.]

[FFG 133-138]

Bibliographical Information
J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton. "Commentary on John 3". "The Fourfold Gospel". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tfg/john-3.html. Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1914.
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