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This is the first of the eleven discourses recorded by this evangelist, and for the most part addressed to the cultivated, hierarcical party in Jerusalem, who questioned him in an unfriendly spirit. On the sources of these records, and the degree to which John's subjectivity coloured his record of them, see Introduction.
But there was a man of the Pharisees. Is this narrative introduced, as Baur thinks, to give a specimen of wrongly directed faith, to which Christ did not entrust himself? and was the evangelist busy at once on his great mission of undervaluing the Jewish parties and nation? Certainly not. We have a clear proof that, in the case of the genuine inquirer, Christ did open His very heart; and to a "ruler of Jews," to a "Pharisee," to a "teacher of Israel," he deigned (because he knew what was in the man, and required nobody's help) to unveil the deepest realities of the kingdom of God and of the salvation of man. Baur is not correct in making Nicodemus out to be a specimen of unbelieving Judaism and unsusceptible Pharisaism, seeing that the later notices of this Sanhedrist show that he became a disciple of Jesus, if secretly, Nicodemus was attracted, as others had been, by the "signs" which Jesus had wrought; but he had gone further and deeper than they, and Jesus "knew it." A controversy has arisen on the point—Did our Lord, by these penetrative glances, manifest his Divine nature, assume a Divine prerogative, or exercise a lofty, penetrative human gift? Westcott, on the philological ground of the contrast in meaning between γινώσκειν and εἰδέναι, urges that the former word, used here, represents knowledge acquired by processes of inquiry and perception, as distinct from the latter, which is reserved for absolute and settled knowledge. Godet, on theological grounds, urges that the phrase refers to the human faculty of observation rather than to the Divine prerogative of heart-searching. There are, however, many other indications of this same thought-mastery, which the evangelists appear to regard as proofs of Divine power; so that I think the real significance of the passage is an ascription to Jesus of Divine power. The supernatural in mind, the superhuman mental processes of Jesus, are part of the proof we have that, though he was Man, he created the irresistible impression that he was more than man. Thus Nathanael and Thomas found these to be the most irresistible proofs of the supreme Divine perfections of their Master (cf. John 1:49; John 4:17; John 6:61; John 11:4, John 11:14; John 13:11; John 21:17; and also Revelation 2:2, Revelation 2:9, Revelation 2:13, etc.). "The man of the Pharisees" furnishes (Godet) a test for determining the authenticity of the narrative. If the lines of the following discourse, which move from the first fundamental conditions of admission into the kingdom of God to the deepest principles of Divine character, and the grounds and consequences of reconciliation with God, are such as meet the standpoint and correct the deductions of the Pharisee, we have, then, all but demonstrative evidence that this conversation did not evolve itself out of the consciousness of the second century. The Pharisaic party was excited by the ministry of John implies a certain timidity, and perhaps unworthy reticence. These are relative terms. Much moral courage must have been required for a ruler of the Jews (a phrase only applicable to a man of high ecclesiastical rank) to have dreamed of doing what he is reported to have done here and elsewhere. The Talmud mentions a Nicodemus ben Gotten, who was also called Bonai, a disciple of Jesus, of great wealth and piety, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem, and therein lost nil his fortune. The hint that he was an old man in this year renders his survival till A.D. 70 improbable, but not impossible by any means. The identification is not complete. The Talmud does not speak of him as a Sanhedrist, though it gives curious details, which imply that he must have been a priest in the temple, and had the charge of providing the water supply for the pilgrims (Geikie, 1:584; Winer, 'Real.,' 2:152).
This man came to him£ by night, and said unto him. To suppose, with many commentators, that the night is here symbolic of the mental condition of the man, is far-fetched. Thoma, here intent on his principle of the fabricated character of the Gospel, compares this to King Saul (Paul's ancestor!) going by night to Samuel—a type of Christ! There is more probability that the night of the Last Supper was in the mind of John, and that these two nights, the one at the beginning, the other at the close of the ministry of Jesus—nights of extraordinary significance—were impressed ineffaceably on his memory, and, to some extent, contrasted with each other. Nicodemus did not fear the Lord or his disciples, but his own colleagues, whose excitement had already betrayed their sentiments. Without "believing on his Name," they had come to some conclusions, and Nicodemus with them. Rabbi, said he, we know. He does not conceal a common sentiment at that moment agitating his own class in society, and he bestows the honorific title of Rabbi, "my Master," which, as coming from a learned doctor to a humble peasant, was a remarkable testimony to the effect Jesus had indirectly exerted beyond the circle of his immediate hearers: that thou art a Teacher come from God. The phrase, ἀπὸ Θεοῦ, precedes "the Teacher come." Certainly it yields to Jesus great dignity. He is God-sent, like the prophets of old. He has a right to teach. His doctorate is a heavenly diploma; and Nicodemus draws a wiser conclusion than the many did who, in some sense, believed on his Name. They were rushing heedlessly forward to further conclusions. Nicodemus saw a grand authority as a Teacher of men, a Heaven-sent Messenger, in the Lord Jesus, and he came to this conclusion from the settled persuasion that no man can tie the signs which thou art performing, if God be not with him. This confession was true, indicating candid and honest inquiry and a teachable mind. It was the very truth which Peter in subsequent times gave to Cornelius as explanation of the healing and beneficent powers of Jesus. Christ knew the whole man, understood at once the honesty of the inquiry, and did entrust himself to Nicodemus. There was more faith in this modest inquiry, in this honest scepticism of his own position, than in the clamours and hosannas of the fickle crowd.
5. The revelation of earthly and heavenly things to one who knew that God was with him.
(1) The conditions of admission into the kingdom of God. New birth of the Spirit.
Many explanations have been offered of the link of connection between the suggestion of Nicodemus and the reply of Jesus. Many expansions or additions have been conjectured, such as the following, suggested by Christ's own language elsewhere: "You, by the finger of God, are casting out devils; then the kingdom of God has come nigh unto us. How may we enter upon its further proofs?"—a view which would demand a deeper knowledge of the mind of Christ than we have any reason to suppose diffused at this period. Others (Baumlein) have supposed Nicodemus to have said, "Does the baptism of John suffice for admission into the kingdom?"—a suggestion which would be most strange for a Pharisaic Sanhedrist to have extemporized. At the same time, it may be proved that the rabbis regarded proselytism as a "new birth," and one produced or brought about by circumcision and baptism. Others, again, have put further words into the reply of Jesus, such as, "The kingdom of God is not in the miracles which I am working; it is in a state of things which can only be appreciated by a radical spiritual change" (Lucke). Similarly Luthardt. Nicodemus was thinking of the kingdom of God evinced by miraculous signs; and Jesus points him to the inner reality rather than to the outer manifestation. Godet sees the Pharisaic position in the question of Nicodemus, "Art thou the Messiah? is the kingdom of God near, as thy miracles seem to indicate?" He was assuming that, as a Pharisee, he had nothing to do but walk in the light, the dawn of which was revealed to him in the signs of a divinely sent Teacher. All these views embrace a large amount of possible conjectural truth; but they ignore the play upon the words of Nicodemus, which the answer of Jesus involves, showing that a sharp, clean retort followed the speech of the former. "We know that NO MAN IS ABLE to do these signs which thou art working EXCEPT GOD, BE WITH HIM. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, EXCEPT ONE be born anew, HE IS NOT ABLE to see the kingdom of God." The form of both protasis and apodosis in each sentence closely corresponds, and this correspondence suggests the fact of an immediate repartee. adopting even the form of the question or assertion of the ruler of the Jews. To the "we know" of Nicodemus, comes the "I say unto thee" of Jesus. To the general sentiment of Nicodemus Christ gives a personal application. In place of speculation concerning his own relation to God and to the kingdom, Christ searches in the heart of his questioner for spiritual susceptibility. Over against the general proposition about God being with the Worker of these signs Christ sets the practical truth and Divine possibility of any man seeing the kingdom of God. To the suspicion of Jesus being the Messenger and Minister of God, he opposes the supposition of being born from heaven, or anew. From ancient times commentators have been divided as to the meaning of the word ἄνωθεν—whether it should be rendered "from above" or "anew," "again." The first was favoured by Origen and many others down to Bengel, Lucke, Meyer, Baur, Wordsworth, Lange, based on the local meaning of the word in numerous places; e.g. "from the top" (Matthew 27:51), "from heaven above" (James 3:15, James 3:17; John 3:31; John 19:11). Moreover, John uses the idea of birth from God, or by his will supervening on the life of man, and the consequent conference upon it of a new beginning (John 1:13; 1Jn 3:9; 1 John 4:7; 1Jn 5:1, 1 John 5:4, 1 John 5:18). The great point on which our Lord insists is the Divine spiritual origin of the life of which he has so much to say. Several of the English versions, Coverdale's—and second edition of the Bishops' Bible—have adopted this rendering, with the Armenian and Gothic versions. The Revised version has placed it in the margin. Against it is to be brought the use of the verb ἀναγεννᾶσθαι (1 Peter 1:3, 33, and in Justin, 'Apol.,' 1 Peter 1:6)—a word which corresponds with this clause, ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι, and yet could scarcely be translated "to be born from above," but, "to be born again." The second rendering, giving a temporal value to ἄνωθεν, was adopted by Augustine, Chrysostom (who uses both views), the vulgate, Luther, Calvin, Tholuck, Godet, Westcott, Moulton, Weiss, and Luthardt, and is sustained by the fact that Nicodemus was led by it to an inquiry about (δεύτερον γεννηθῆναι) a second birth. If the expression had had no ambiguity about it, and merely conveyed the idea of a heavenly birth, his mistake would have been greater than it was. There are, moreover, numerous passages confirming the temporal sense of ἄνωθεν (Wettstein and Grimm both quote from Josephus, 'Ant.,' John 1:18. John 1:3; and Artemidorus, 'Oneiroc.,' John 1:13); and the παλιγγενεσία of Titus 3:5 points in the same direction. The Jewish rabbi ought to have been familiar with the idea of the "new heart" and "right spirit," and the marvellous and mighty change wrought in men by the Holy Spirit; but the spiritual idea had been overlaid by rabbinic ritualism, and all the hopeless entanglements of ceremonial purity which had been reacts to do duty for spiritual conformity with the Divine will. Archdeacon Watkins reminds us that the Syriac version here gives the rendering "from the beginning," or "anew," and lays great stress on this solution of the ambiguity in the Greek word. The statement of Christ is very remarkable. A man must be born anew, must undergo a radical change, even to see the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 18:3). The true kingdom is not a Divine government of outward, visible magnificence, sustained by miraculous aid—a physical sovereignty which shall rival and eclipse the majesty of Caesar. When the kingdom shall come in its genuine power, the carnal eye will not discover its presence. The man born anew will alone be able to appreciate it. The Jews boasted that they were born of God (John 8:41), but could not understand that they needed vital, fundamental, moral renewal—a second birth, a new beginning. Let the opening of Christ's Galilaean ministry be compared with this bold utterance. There in public discourse he called upon all men everywhere to "repent," to undergo a radical change of mind, and that because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Μετάνοια portrays the same change as παλιγγενεσία; but one term denotes thai; change as a human experience and effort, the other as a Divine operation. Neither repentance nor regeneration commended itself to the rabbinic mind as a necessity for one who was exalted by privilege and ennobled by obedience. The phrase, "kingdom of God," is not a mode of representing truth to which this Gospel calls frequent attention. Still our Lord to Pilate (John 18:36) admits that be is himself the Head of kingdom which is "not from hence"—not resting on this world as its foundation or source. In Matthew the whole of the mission of Christ among men is repeatedly portrayed as "the kingdom of heaven." And from the time when the Lord ascended until now, various efforts have been made to realize, to discover, to embody, to emblazon, to crush, to ignore, that kingdom and its King. This great utterance is a key to much of the history of the Church, and an explanation of its numberless mistakes. Moreover, it supplies an invaluable hint of the true nature of the kingdom of God. Thoma insists on the other rendering of ἄνωθεν, and compares it with the Philonic doctrine, "that the substance of the νοῦς is not attributed to that which is created, but is breathed into the flesh from above (ἄνωθεν) by God …Aim, O soul, at the bodiless essence of the spirit world as thy inheritance." These ideas, he thinks, John has placed into the lips of Jesus. The two classes of ideas are fundamentally distinct. Philo contrasts the sensuous and the intellectual; Christ is contrasting nature and grace.
Nicodemus saith to 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? The numerous endeavours to interpret the motive or mind of Nicodemus show almost as much misunderstanding of the naiveté of his amazement, as Nicodemus did of the deepest significance of this solemn utterance of the Lord. Two things are perfectly clear:
(1) Nicodemus saw a grave and amazing difficulty in the idea of a second birth of a man old, like himself, in years, prepossessions, habits of thought, ways of acting, social ties, ancestral and traditional customs, and in venerable ideas consecrated by long usage. He might have known the language of the prophets concerning circumcision of heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4) and concerning a new heart and right spirit (Ezekiel 36:26, Ezekiel 36:27; Psalms 51:10; Psalms 86:4); but the full bearing of these prophetic ideas were beyond and different to the almost drastic form of Christ's call for spiritual change and "birth from the beginning." There is no necessity for us to accuse him either of "narrowness" (Meyer) or of imbecility (Reuss, Lucke), or to make such a charge react upon the spirit or temper of the evangelist in delineating him. It is enough that Nicodemus should have seen a grave difficulty; and Thoma here is justified in referring to the language of the apostles, when the narrow entrance into the kingdom was set forth under the image of the camel and the needle's eye; and to Mary, when she cried, "How can this thing be?" Moreover, the same perplexity, after eighteen hundred years of Christian experience, still encumbers this utterance of the Master.
(2) Nicodemus did not, by the form of his question, put such query to the Lord in any literal baldness or insolent worldliness. Surely such a view ignores all the tropical methods of speech current in the rabbinical schools. He virtually said," Birth such as you speak of is as impossible as the second physical birth of an old man, as preposterous as would be re-entrance into the womb of his mother for the purpose of a second birth." Christ had spoken of a fundamental change—one going right down to the very sources and beginnings of life. The Lord had used this difficult image, and propounded his view in a term capable of various interpretation. Nicodemus simply expresses his alarm and incredulity in terms of the image itself. It is little more than the language of the prophet, "Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or a leopard his spots?" Are you not proposing a natural impessibility? Must not the kingdom of God, which we thought we saw in thy advent and mighty deeds, be on this understanding hopelessly veiled from human vision? The "being old" shows that Nicodemus had gone through the metaphor to the condition of mind of which it was the subject. There was no greater physical difficulty in an old man re-entering his mother's womb than for a boy of twelve to do so; but being probably, not necessarily, an old man, and belonging to a society of grave, reverend elders, with the inveterate habits, practices, traditions, of long lives behind them, how impracticable and impossible does the notion of so complete a change appear to him! Hence his question. Westcott says admirably, "The great mystery of religion is not the punishment, but the forgiveness of sins; not the natural permanence of character, but spiritual regeneration."
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man (any one) have been born (out) of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. This memorable utterance has been the occasion of much controversy, arising from the contested sanction thus supposed to be given to the opus operatura of baptism, and to the identification of water baptism with Spirit baptism. Expositors have asserted that the rite of water baptism is not merely regarded as the expressive symbol and prophecy of the spiritual change which is declared to be indispensable to admission into the kingdom, but the veritable means by which that baptism of the Spirit is effected. Now, in the first place, we observe that the sentence is a reply to Nicodemus, who had just expressed his blank astonishment at the idea that a fundamental change must pass over a man, in any sense equivalent to a second birth, before he can see the kingdom of God. Our Lord modifies the last clause, and speaks of entering into the kingdom of God rather than perceiving or discerning the features of the kingdom. Some have urged that ἰδεῖν of John 3:3 is equivalent to εἰσελθεῖν εἰς of John 3:5. The vision, say they, is only possible to those who partake of the privileges of the kingdom. But the latter phrase does certainly express a further idea—a richer and fuller appreciation of the authority and glory of the King; just as the "birth of water and of the Spirit" conveys deeper and further thought to Nicodemus, than did the previously used expression, γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν. The first expression was dark in the extreme; the latter pours light upon it. "Birth of water" points at once to the method so frequently adopted in Jewish ceremonial, by which a complete change of state and right before God was instituted by water. Thus, a man who had not gone through the appropriate and commanded lustrations was unfit to present his offering, to receive the benediction sought by his sacrificial presentment; the priest was not in a fit state to carry the blood of the covenant into the holy place without frequent washings, which indicated the extent and defilement of his birth stain. Nicodemus for probably thirty years had seen priests and men thus qualifying themselves for solemn functions. So great was the urgency of these ideas that, as he must have known, the Essenes had formed separate communities, with the view of carrying out to the full consummation the idea of ritual purity. More than this, it is not improbable that proselytes from heathen nations, when brought into covenant relation with the theocratic people, were, at the very time of this conversation, admitted by baptismal rites into this privilege. To the entire confusion of Pharisee and Sadducee, John the Baptist had demanded of every class of the holy people "repentance unto remission of sins," a demand which was accepted on the part of the multitudes by submitting to the rite of baptism. The vastly important question then arises'—Did John by this baptism, or by any power he wielded, give to the people repentance or remission of sins? Certainly not, if we may conclude from the repeated judgment pronounced by him self and by the apostles after him. Nothing but the blood and Spirit of Christ could convey either remission or repentance to the souls of men. John preached the baptism of repentance unto remission, but could confer neither. He taught the people to look to One who should come after him. He sharply discriminated the baptism with water from the baptism of the Spirit and fire. This discrimination has been repeatedly referred to already in this Gospel. Thus the Fathers of the Church saw distinctly that there was no regenerating efficacy in the water baptism of John, and the Council of Trent elevated this position into a canonical dogma. It is most melancholy that they did not also perceive that this judgment of theirs about the baptism of John applied to water baptism altogether. Christ's disciples baptized (not Christ himself, John 4:2) with water unto repentance and remission; but even up to the day of Pentecost there is no hint of this process being more than stimulus to that repentance which is the gift of God, and to the consequent pardon which was the condition of still further communication of the Holy Spirit. The great baptism which Christ would administer was the baptism of Spirit and fire. The references to the baptism of the early Church are not numerous in the New Testament, but they are given as if for the very purpose of showing that the water baptism was not a necessary or indispensable condition to the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius and his friends received the sacred bestowment before baptism. The language of the Ethiopian ennuch shows that he had received the holy and best gift of Divine illumination and faith before baptism. Simon Magus was baptized with water by Philip, but was in the gall of bitterness and un-spirituality. There is no proof at all that the apostles of Christ (with the exception of Paul) wore ever baptized with water, unless it were at the hands of John. Consequently, we cannot believe, with this entire group of facts before us, that our Lord was making any ceremonial rite whatsoever indispensable to entrance into the kingdom. His own reception and forgiveness of the woman that was a sinner, of the paralytic, and of the dying brigand, his breathing over his disciples as symbolic of the great spiritual gift they were afterwards to receive, is the startling and impressive repudiation of the idea that Christian baptism in his own name, or, still less, that that ordinance treated as a supernaturally endowed and divinely enriched sacrament, was even so much as referred to in this great utterance. But the entire system of Jewish, proselyte, and Johannine baptisms was in the mind of both Nicodemus and Christ. These were all symbolic of the confession and repentance, which are the universal human conditions of pardon, and, as a ritual, were allowed to his disciples before and after Pentecost, as anticipatory of the great gift of the Holy Spirit. No baptism, no "birth out of water," can give repentance or enforce confession; but the familiar process may indicate the imperative necessity for both, and prove still more a prophecy of the vital, spiritual transformation which, in the following verse, is dissociated from the water altogether. Calvin, while admitting the general necessity for baptism, repudiates the idea that the rite is indispensable to salvation, and maintains that "water" here means nothing different or other than "the Spirit," as descriptive of one of its great methods of operation, just as "Holy Spirit and fire" are elsewhere conjoined.
That which hath been born of the flesh, is flesh. Σάρξ is not the physical as opposed to the spiritual or immaterial. nor is σάρξ necessarily sinful, as we see from John 1:14, but as it often appears in John's writing and Paul's, σάρξ is the constituent element of humanity as apart from grace—humanity (body, intellect, heart, conscience, soul, spirit) viewed on its own side and merits and capacity, without the Divine life, or the Divine supernatural inbreathing. The being born of the flesh is the being born into this world, with all the privations and depravations, evil tendencies and passions of a fallen humanity. Birth into the theocracy, birth into national or ecclesiastical privilege, birth that has no higher quality than flesh, no better germ or graft upon it. simply produces flesh, humanity over again. When the Logos "became flesh," something more than and different from ordinary traduction of humanity took place.£
Destitute of any higher birth than the birth of flesh, man is fleshly, psychical, earthly, σαρκικός ψυχικός χοΐκός (Romans 7:14-45.7.25), and, more than that, positively opposed to the will and grace of God, lashed with passions, defiled with debasing ideas, in enmity against God. Hence the birth "from the Spirit" is entirely antithetic to the birth from the flesh. That which hath been born of the Spirit, is spirit. There is a birth which supervenes on the flesh-be-gotten man, and it is supernaturally wrought by the Spirit of God. As in the first instance, at man's creation, God breathed into man the breath of life, and by that operation man became a living soul; so now the new birth of man is wrought in him by the Spirit, and there is a new life, a new mode of being, a new bias and predomimating impulse. "A spiritual mind which is life and peace" has taken the place of the old carnal mind. He is "spiritual," no longer "psychical," or "carnal," but able to discern the things that are freely given to him. The eye of the spirit is opened, unsealed, the τὰ τοῦ πνεύματος are revealed to him (1 Corinthians 2:12-46.2.16; 1 Corinthians 3:1-46.3.5). The reference to "birth of water" is not repeated, because the birth from water is relatively unimportant, and of no value apart from the Spirit-change of which it may be a picture, or even a synonym. More than that, the Spirit-birth, the Divine operation, is the efficient cause of that which, under the form of a human experience, is called μετάνοια. The human metanoia, rather than the new birth, is the great burden of our Lord's public address, as recorded in the synoptic Gospels. In both representations the same fact, the same condition and state of the human consciousness, is referred to. In "repentance," however, and in the moral characters which are the several preliminaries to the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, a change is declared necessary for the constitution and inauguration of the kingdom of heaven. This change is there viewed from the standpoint of human experience, and urged in the form of a direct appeal to conscience. In this discourse to Nicodcmus the same change is exhibited on its Divine side, and as one produced by the Spirit of God. In the Sermon on the Mount "meekness," "poverty of spirit," "mourning," "hunger after righteousness," "purity of heart," the spirit of forgiveness and long suffering, are the moral conditions of those minds and hearts which would become the city of God and the light of the world (Matthew 5:1-40.5.12). On this occasion, when addressing the learned rabbi, Christ sums all up in the demand for a birth from the Spirit—a new and spiritual recommencement of life from the Spirit of God. The clause found in the vetus Itala and the Syriac, quia Deus spiritus est, et de Deo natus est, is a gloss sustained by no Greek manuscript authority. Thorns here quotes two interesting passages from Philo, 1:533, 599, where the νοῦς is spoken of as given to man from above, and where the supremacy of the spiritual over the fleshly is made the only guarantee of admission into the world of spirit. But Philo obviously meant the intellectual rather than the moral element in human nature, and prized the ascetic process rather than the supernatural regeneration.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. Nicodemus had revealed, by his expressions of countenance or unrecorded words, his surprise. This further explanation deepened the solemnity of the first assertion by a bold antithesis between the birth of flesh producing nothing but flesh, however high its culture, and the birth of spirit from the Spirit himself, the heavenly and Divine Originator of all genuine repentance, and the sole Cause of the new life. Nicodemus was clinging more and more eagerly to the old ideas of national privilege, of sacramental purification, of soundly taught principles and habits. He marvelled at such representation which took the heart out of all his previous training. The Messianic kingdom for which he had been looking and longing seemed to fade away in the clouds of an utter mysticism, and to vanish out of his power of recognition. Our Lord gently reproved the expression of his surprise, and reminded him of the previous utterance, "I said to thee, Ye," etc. Nicodemus had come in the name of others. Jesus replies, and reasserts the principles for the entire group of persons which Nicodemus might be supposed to represent. We must not fail to notice that, whereas in other parts of the discourse our Lord speaks in the plural first person, yet be discriminates himself from. others in this statement. He does not say, "We must," etc., but "Ye must," etc. He had no consciousness of personal need of regeneration, nor was he in the first case born as flesh from flesh. His flesh was itself the work of the Spirit.
The wind bloweth where it willeth, and thou hearest (his voice) the sound thereof, but thou knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. Vulgate (followed by Wickliffe and the Rheims versions) is, Spiritus ubi vult spirat et vocem ejus audis, sed nescis unde veniat, aut quo vadat: sic est omnis qui natus est ex Spiritu. Augustine, though acquainted with the other rendering, approves of this; so Origen, Bengel. The great majority of commentators and versions have held that the former of the two translations is correct; that the first time the word Πνεῦμα is used, it refers to the wind, "the unseen similitude of God the Spirit—his most meet and mightiest sign;" and that, since the same word is used for the two things, Spirit and wind, the Lord, after the parabolic manner which he adopted (in the synoptic Gospels), took advantage of some gusts of roaring wind then audible, to call attention to the mystery and incomprehensibility of its origin or end, and to see a parallel between the unknown ways of the wind and the unknown points of application to the human spirit of the mighty energy of the living God. The passage, Ecclesiastes 11:5, may have been in his mind (though there "Spirit" is as likely to be the reference as is the motion of the "wind," and our ignorance of the way of the Spirit is akin to our ignorance of the formation of bones in the womb of her who is with child), and the adoption of the unusual word πνεῖ (cf. John 6:18; Revelation 7:1; Matthew 7:25; Acts 27:40) is in support of the comparison between "wind" and the "Spirit;" while the φωνή, the "voice" or sound of the wind in trees or against any barriers, and the other effects that the rapid motion of the air produces, gives a lively illustration of the method in which the Spirit of God works in human minds, revealing, not itself, but its effects. The parallel is not peculiar to Scripture. It is further urged that the following clause, So is every one that hath been born£ of the Spirit—meaning, So doth it happen to every one who is born of the Spirit—suggests the analogy between πνεῦμα in its material sense, and πνεῦμα in its customary and deeper sense. Now, on the other hand, it appears to me that this latter clause is compatible with the older translation and application. There is a comparison, but it may be between the mysterious working, breathing of the Divine Spirit, whose "voice" or "word" may be heard, whose effects are present to our senses and consciousness, but the beginnings and endings of which are always lost in God,—and the special operations of Divine grace in the birth of the Spirit. There are numberless operations of the Spirit referred to in the Old Testament, from the first brooding of the Spirit on the formless abyss, to all the special and mighty effects wrought in creation, all the heightening and quickening of human faculty, all the conference of special strength upon men—their intellectual energies and Divine inspirations. Over and above all these, there is all the supernatural change wrought in souls by the Holy Spirit. Christ calls this a "birth of the Spirit," and declares that, according to all the mysterious comings and departings of the Spirit, leaving only manifold effects, so is the special Divine work which morally and spiritually recreates humanity. Pneuma is used three hundred and fifty times in the New Testament, and twenty times in this Gospel for "the Spirit;" and if the usage is reversed here, this is the solitary occasion. The word θέλει, is, moreover, more appropriate to a living Being than to the wind. There is another way which suggests itself by which the word Πνεῦμα may mean the same in both clauses: The breath of God bloweth where it listeth, etc., so is every one born of the breath of God. If this be possible, the form of the expression supplies a cooperating similitude drawn from the unknown origin and mighty effects of the unseen breath of heaven; and on this translation the comparison is drawn between all the ways of the Spirit and the special work of the Spirit in regeneration. An inference is deducible from either interpretation of this verse, incompatible with the theory that "birth from water" is equivalent to "regeneration in baptism." If the rite of baptism provided the moment and occasion of the spiritual result, we should know whence it came and whither it went. We might not know "how," but we should know "when" and "whence" the spiritual change took place. But this knowledge is distinctly negatived by Christ, who herein declares the moment of the spiritual birth to be lost or hidden in God. Physical birth is a deep mystery, both whence the "spirit" comes and whither it goes; the signs of the presence of life are abundant, but there is an infinite difference between the stillborn or dead child and the living one. Similarly, the commencement of the Spirit's creation within our nature is lost in mystery. We discern its presence by its effects, by consciousness of a new life and sense of a new world all around the newly born, but the Spirit-birth, like all the other operations of the Spirit, is hidden in God.
Nicodemus answered and said to him, How can these things come to pass? He takes the position now of a learner, and does not by his query repudiate regeneration as absolutely impossible, but he asks the questions "why" and "how." He may reveal his continued ignorance of the subject matter, but he is willing to be taught. The idea we form of our Lord's reply is regulated by the strict meaning we assign to the question—(πῶς;) "how?" (cf. Romans 2:19, Romans 2:29, and note on Romans 2:12).
Jesus answered and said to him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and perceivest thou not these things? The term "Israel" is used four times by John (John 1:31, John 1:49; John 12:13; and here). In each place the high dignity, calling, and glory of the nation chosen for the loftiest privilege and destiny are involved. Notice the article, "the Israel" of God. The article before διδάσκαλος gives a high distinction to Nicodemus. Schottgen and Lucke suppose some special office to be here referred to, either the president of the Sanhedrin, or the hakim, or chakam, "the wise man," who sat on his left in the public sessions, or the "father of the house of judgment," who sat on his right; but it may simply mean the teacher of Israel, who has come to me in representative fashion, and who is reminded that he should have been more intimately acquainted with the teaching of his own sacred books. Without doubt, the fact of human corruption, and the power of the Spirit of God to renovate, to change utterly down to the very core and heart of human nature, is a great dogma of the Old Testament (cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; Deuteronomy 30:6; 1 Samuel 10:9, where God gave Saul another heart; 1 Samuel 16:13, the effect upon David; David's own prayer, Psalms 51:10; and the great promises of God by Ezekiel, Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 18:31; Ezekiel 36:26; Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 31:33). Nicodemus, an illustrious man, a teacher of ethers, presumably acquainted with the teaching of the Scriptures, need not have been in such doubt and amazement at the searching words of Jesus.
Verily, verily, I say to thee, We speak that which we know, and testify that which we have seen. Lucke and Meyer think that our Lord here merely uses the pluralis majestaticus—uses it as St. Paul does, when clearly he was referring to himself alone. It is difficult to believe this in the curious and impressive change of person here adopted, and the return to the first person singular in John 3:12. There was some reason why Jesus, in making this particular saying, uses the plural.
(1) Luthardt says, "Christ and the Baptist."
(2) Luther and Tholuck, "Christ and the whole prophetic company."
(3) Stier, "The Three Persons of the blessed Trinity" (see Chrysostom, etc.).
(4) Hengstenberg, Godet, Westcott, Moulton, have in various ways recognized the fact that the company of the disciples already called into the spiritual kingdom, and alive to the mighty power of the Spirit in recreating humanity, were present at this interview. They stood there to affirm the reality of the truth of which their Lord was speaking. Nothing in this sentence is incongruous with the experience and practice of those who had appreciated and were already speaking of the necessity of radical change or spiritual regeneration and of genuine repentance. John in his First Epistle (John 1:1-43.1.4) uses some of the very phraseology of this solemn verse, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν … μαρτυροῦμεν. Our Lord, on this occasion, gave him permission to do so. The knowledge which he spake of, the vision to which he testified, was in its way and to a degree within the compass of any disciple who had been waked up by the Lord's words to crave an entirely new beginning of his life, a birth of the Spirit. And ye receive not our testimony. This melancholy assertion proves that from the very first (as John said in his "prologue" concerning all the ministry of the Logos, and all the testimony of the prophetic Spirit to the reality of the light) "the darkness reeeiveth it not." The first demand which the Divine Lord made was rejected, the first "testimony" was disbelieved. From the beginning the dark shadow of death fell on his path. Nicodemus, or those whom he represented, may have had their curiosity excited, but their entire attitude was non-admission of the fundamental principle, viz. the inward illumination and life he came to supply.
If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how will ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? Our Lord here drops the plural form of address, and returns to the singular. He is about to refer to matters in which the testimony of disciples was not available. It has sometimes been said that the "earthly" and "heavenly" things refer to the wind parable and its interpretation. But, on the supposition that there is a parable or metaphor in John 3:8, which we have seen reason to doubt, there would be no perplexity about the reception of the earthly illustration; none could in that day have made a moment's question touching the invisibility and incomprehensibility of the motion of the wind. The birth from water has been supposed by others to be the (ἐπίγειον) "earthly" thing of which he had spoken, as contrasted with the heavenly thing, the birth anew from the Spirit. But this also is improbable, for of all the things of which Jesus spoke, that was the least likely to have been rejected by the Pharisaic party. The "earthly things" are the subject matter of the discourse as a whole, in apprehending which Nicodemus manifested such obtuseness. The change, renovation of human nature, the new beginning "from the Spirit" of each human life, was indeed operated on the ground of an earthly experience, and came fairly within the compass of common appreciation. Though produced by the Spirit, these things were enacted on earth. When Nicodemus asks the question "how?" he launches the inquiry into another region. There is wide difference between the question "what?" and the question "how?" The one in physical science refers to the whole range of phenomena, and the answer states the facts as they present themselves to the senses; the other question inquires into what Bacon called the latens processus—into verae causae, into the movements and method of the creative hand. So the answer to the question "what?" may be an "earthly thing," the answer to the question "how?" a "heavenly thing." If Christ answer the "how" of his listener, he raises his mind to the "heavenly" and transcendental realities which Nicodemus and we too will have to receive on an authority which entirely outsoars that of daily experience or temporal phenomena. Truly he does proceed to do so, but the difficulty of acceptance is indefinitely augmented. The answer of Christ to the matters of personal experience, verifiable by conscience and affirmed by Scripture, was difficult to the master of Israel. The answer of Jesus to the question "how?" may prove far more formidable. It involves the revelation of "the Son of man," and the redemption by the cross, and the ascension of the Son of man into heaven, and the love of God to the world, and the gift of eternal life to faith.
(2) The truth concerning the Son of man and his sacrifice.
And. The simple copula is here fuller significance. Olshausen regards it as "adversative," equivalent to "yet." Meyer, as a simple continuation of the previous statement. The καὶ has more than a mere conjunctive force. Lance puts it thus: "And yet you must be told heavenly things by him who, being the Heavenly One, is himself the first subject of this revelation." No one hath ascended into heaven. The past tense must be honestly considered. The word cannot refer to the future ascension of Jesus the Lord of glory to where he was before—to the glory which he had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5); nor can it refer, as the Socinian interpreters supposed, to a rapture into heaven of the Divine Man between his baptism and temptation, of which we have not the faintest trace either in Scripture or tradition; nor is it sufficient, with Hengstenberg and others, to regard it as a mere Hebraism for high and exalted intercourse with God and heavenly things. True, there have been many who have sought to climb the steep ascent (Genesis 11:4; Isaiah 14:13); true also that rabbis spoke of Moses having "ascended into the heavens," by which (says Whitby) they meant "admission to the Divine counsels." The authority on which he depends is the late 'Targum on Song of Solomon 1:5, Song of Solomon 1:11, Song of Solomon 1:12,' by which, however, all that is clear is that the Targnmist was referring to the ascent of Moses to the top of Sinai, i.e. above the multitude in the deserts, to the place whither Jehovah came to speak with him. But Exodus 20:22, the canonical Scripture, makes it clear that it was "from the heavens" that Jehovah spoke with his servant. There are, however, other passages quoted by Schottgen from Jerusalem Targum on Deuteronomy 30:12, and from the 'Mishna,' in which Moses is said to have "ascended into heaven, and heard the voice of God;" but further inquiry leads us to judge that the Hebrew commentators were thinking of the going up to Sinai for his lofty revelations, and their followers have supposed that this process was a synonym of the revelations themselves. Many have thought to rise above the world to the beatific vision, but Jesus says none have done it in the only sense in which they would have been thereby fitted to discourse on the heavenly things. Two things are needed for this in the main—to be in heaven, and come thence charged with its Divine communications. Enoch, Elijah, may have been translated that they should not see death, but they are not so lifted into the abode of God that they might come thence charged with heavenly truth, and able to explain the "how" of Divine grace. No one hath ascended into heaven except he who has by living there as in his eternal home come down from heaven. Meyer, Luthardt, Westcott, etc., all call attention to other and analogous usage of εἰ μὴ, which fastens upon a part of the previous negative, not the whole assertion, and therefore here upon the idea of living in heaven and coming thence (Matthew 12:4; Luke 4:26, Luke 4:27; Galatians 1:7). Man, if he should presume to come with a full revelation of Divine and heavenly things, must come down from a height to which he had previously ascended; but no man has thus and for this purpose ascended, except he who has descended from heaven, having been there before his manifestation in the flesh, having been "in God." "with God," "in the bosom of the Father," and having come thence, not losing his essential ego, his Divine personality, even though calling himself the Son of man. For any other to have come down from heaven, it was necessary that he should first have ascended thither; but the Son of man has descended without having ascended. He calls himself "Son of man," and he claims to have come down from heaven without ceasing to be what he was before. Godet urges that, by the "ascended into heaven," he meant such lofty communion with God and immediate knowledge of Divine things as to differentiate him from all others, but that the phrase, "come down from heaven," implies previous existence in his native place, and that the Lord's filial intimacy with God rests on his essential sonship. Still, he conceives that Jesus asserts his own ascension in the spiritual sense to the heart of God, and his descent with consequent resultant knowledge, and expounds both statements by the explanation that as Son of man he is living the twofold life in heaven and on earth at the same time. By using the term, "Son of man," Christ emphasized the exalted dignity that is involved in the extent of his self-humiliation,, and complete sympathy with us. He was the second Adam, the Lord from heaven."£ Who is (not was) in heaven. If this be only an early gloss, it throws light on the two previous clauses. It declares that, though he came down, and though his introduction to this world was an incarnation, yet that he is in the deepest sense still in heaven. Such language is a vindication of his claim to reveal heavenly things. Augustine says, "Ecce hic erat et in coelo erat, hic erat in carne, in coelo erat divinitate, natus de matre, non recedens a Patre." Again, "Si Paulus ambulabat in carne in terra et conversabatur in coelo, Deus coeli et terrae poterat esse et in coelo et in terra." Archdeacon Watkins says admirably, "If heaven is a state, a life, in which we are, which is in us, now in part, hereafter in its fulness, then we may understand, and with glad hearts hold to, the vital truth that the Son of man who came down from heaven was ever in heaven."
John 3:14, John 3:15
And. Seeing that our Lord had claimed supreme right to speak of heavenly things, he proceeds at once to speak of them also. There may be many ways of taking the καὶ: supposing that it indicates a transition from the person of the Lord to his work. From his Divine and endowed humanity thus shown to be competent to explain and re veal heavenly things, he proceeds to his atoning sacrifice. These underlying links of connection are not mutually exclusive. Even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must also the Son of man be lifted up. The narrative of Numbers 21:8, etc., is one of the rest curious in Scripture, and it was a great puzzle to the Jewish commentators, who felt that it was in apparent violation of the second command of the Decalogue. Moreover, in the days of Hezekiah the reverence paid to the serpent led to disastrous consequences and puritanic removal of the idolatrous snare. The Jewish divines consulted by Trypho were unable to explain it. Philo regarded it as a designed contrast to the serpent of the Book of Genesis, but he supposed the antithesis to be that between pleasure and righteousness or prudence ('De Leg. All.,' Genesis 2:1.80). The Book of Wisdom (Genesis 16:6), "The murmuring people were troubled for a while for warning, having a symbol of salvation … he that turned to it was saved, not by reason of that which he beheld, but by reason of the Saviour of all." Ferguson, in his 'Tree and Serpent Worship,' regards the narrative as an indication that within the bosom of Israel the worship of the serpent had been introduced and had left its traces. But the narrative itself shows that the serpent healing from the serpent bite was a Jehovistie symbol of Divine love and victory. The 'Test. XII. Patr. Benj.,' 9, refers to it as the type of the cross (cf. Philippians 2:9; Acts 2:33). "Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived." The fiery flying serpent, with its poisonous bite and its deadly malice, was the vivid type of the evil of disobedience to the Divine command, infusing its malign venom into the whole nature of its victim. The serpent of brass was not venomous, though it bore the likeness of the deadly plague. It was not flying, gliding from tent to tent, but captured, still, hoisted triumphantly upon the pole, a sign of its conquest. The serpent in Hebrew and Christian literature throughout was emblematic of evil, not as in many Oriental religions, of healing or deliverance (see Genesis 3:1; 2 Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9; and, properly translated, Job 26:13, Revised version); and it is possible to see in this type an anticipation of the "lifting up" of Jesus on the cross. There are several interpretations of the ὑψωθῆναι. Paulus urged that Jesus by it referred to the final glorification of himself; but if so, why was not the word δοξασθῆναι used? It may mean, with Bleek, Lechler, Godet, the exaltation upon the cross as the steppingstone to his glory, the way, not only to David's throne, but to the very throne of God—a conception profoundly different from the current Pharisaic notions concerning the Messiah. The word is used in John 8:28 and John 12:32, John 12:34 for the passion of the cross, although Peter (Acts 2:33) and Paul (Philippians 2:9) used it for the glorification consequent upon the Passion. Surely the word does, if it is to correspond with Moses' exaltation of the serpent of brass, point to the exaltation of the cross, but to that as to the very throne of his power and glory. Tholuck says, "A word must have been used in Aramaic which admitted both ideas, and the word כָקַזְ means in Chaldee and Syriac to 'lift up' and 'crucify.'" Many striking relations thus present themselves.
(1) The Lord was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin.
(2) The evil of sin was seen in him conspicuously revealed, but conquered; not only conquered, but transformed into a remedy. The enemy of man, the world itself, was crucified on the cross of Christ. Sin was nailed to the cross when, in the likeness of sinful flesh, the eternal Son of God made flesh submitted to all the shame of the flesh. "The world is crucified unto me," says Paul ("in the cross of Christ"), "and I to the world." Jesus says, "Even so must the Son of man be lifted up." The Son of man here on earth, but having always a Divine life in heaven, when revealed in human nature, subject to the laws and destiny of the flesh, "must" be lifted up. This pathway to his glory must pass through the blood and agony of the Passion. There was a needs be in the Divine counsel, in the purposes of Divine love, in the fall measure of the grace which was welling from the heart of God.
(3) The comparison, however, and relation between type and antitype is more conspicuous still in the fifteenth verse, where Jesus added: In order that whosoever believeth might have in him eternal life.£ Granting that the above is the true text, in our translation an instance occurs of the frequent absolute usage of πιστεύειν (πιστεύειν ἐν αὐτῷ is not a Johannine phrase, while we do find (John 5:39; John 16:33; John 20:31) that "life," "peace," are "in him"). On this ground, if we retain the ἐν αὐτῷ, we translate it as above. The object of faith is not specified; but he who believes, who looks with God-taught longing to the Christ, to the Son of man uplifted to save, sees God at his greatest, his best, and discerns the fullest revelation of the redeeming love. "Believing" corresponds with "looking" in the narrative of Numbers 21:1-4.21.35. Whosoever "looked, lived." Such looking was an act of faith in the promise of Jehovah; the otherwise despairing, dying glance of poisoned men was a type of the possibility of a universal salvation for sin-envenomed, devil-bitten, perishing men. Let them believe, and there is life. Let them understand the meaning of the Son of man thus exhausting the curse, and enduring in love the burden and penalty of human transgression, and they have straightway a life that is spiritual, fundamentally and radically new, a life heavenly and eternal. Thus can this vast change of which he had spoken to Nicodemus supervene. "How," asks Nicodemus, "can this be?" "Thus may it be," answers the Son of man. It is not necessary that all the mystery of the cross should have been perceived by Nicodemus, yet the subsequent references to this man make it highly probable that, when he saw Jesus suspended on the cross, instead of giving way to unbelief and despair, he was stimulated to an act of lofty faith (John 19:39, and note). In this great utterance we have the answer which Paul addressed to the Philippian jailer, and we have the argument of Paul in Romans 1:1-45.1.32, Romans 2:1-45.2.29, and we infer that the sources of the Pauline doctrine were to be found in the known teaching of the Lord himself.
Many commentators, beginning with Erasmus, and followed by Neander, Tholuck, Lucke, Westcott, and Moulton, have supposed that our Lord's discourse with Nicodemus ended with Romans 2:15, and that thenceforward we have the reflections in after times made by the evangelist, in harmony with the teachings which he had received from the Lord. This is urged on the ground that in John 1:18, and at the close of the present chapter (John 1:31-43.1.36), when reciting the testimony of the Baptist, it appears to the commentators that John has blended his own reflections with the words of the Baptist, adding them without break to the sentences which he does record (see notes). I am not prepared to admit the analogy; there is nothing in these words, if attributed to the Baptist, incompatible with the purely Old Testament position and transition standpoint to which he adhered. The argument drawn from the past tenses, ἠγάπησεν and ἔδωκεν, is not incompatible with the large view of the whole transaction which the Son of God adopted, as though in the fulness of its infinite love it had already been consummated. We are told that there are certain phrases which nowhere else are ascribed to Jesus himself, such as "only begotten Son"—a term which is found in the prologue (John 1:14, John 1:18) and First Epist. (1 John 4:9), i.e. in John's own composition. The reply is that John used this great word on the specified occasion because he had heard it on the lips of Jesus; that he would not have dared to use it if he had not had the justification of such use, the like to which he here recounts. The believing εἰς τὸ ὄνομά—"on the name of"—does not occur, it is said, in the recorded words of Jesus, though it is found in the discourse of the evangelist himself in John 1:12; John 2:23; and 1 John 5:13. The same criticism applies. John used it because he had heard our Lord thus deign to express himself. Moreover, the commencement of the paragraph, by the use of the particle γὰρ, shows that no break has occurred, that a richer and fuller and more triumphant reason is to be given for the obtaining of life eternal than that which had already been advanced. He passes from the Son of man (who is in heaven, and came from heaven and God) to the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father. He speaks in more practical and explanatory form of the Object of faith, and the Divine source of the arrangement and its issues. A flood of new thoughts and some terms occur here for the first time; but they are no more startling than other words of Jesus, whose awful weight of meaning and rich originality gave to the evangelist all his power to teach. It is quite unnecessary to find fault with the abruptness of the close of this discourse, or the sudden cessation of the dialogue, or the disappearance of Nicodemus, or of any lack of affectionateness in the style of address. Christ is often abrupt, and in numerous replies which he gave to his interlocutors he prolongs the remarks as though they were addressed to the concealed mind of the speakers rather than to their uttered words. If there had been any hint or indication that these were John's reflections, we can only say that he who by the Holy Spirit penned the prologue was not incapable of these splendid and heart-searching generalizations of love, faith, judgment, and eternal life. But there does not appear to be any sufficient reason for such an hypothesis. Still, it must be admitted that we have not the whole of the former or the latter part of this wondrous discourse. Much has, without any doubt, been omitted. John has seized upon the most salient points and the loftiest thoughts. These stand out like mountain peaks above the glittering seas, indicating where the inner and hidden connections of their bases lie, but not unveiling them. We do not doubt that John's mind, by long pondering on the thoughts of Jesus and his words of profound significance, had acquired to some extent the method of his speech, and do not doubt that a certain subjective colouring affects his condensation of the discourses of Jesus. He was not a shorthand reporter, photographically or telephonically reproducing all that passed. He was a beloved disciple, who knew his Lord and lost himself in his Master. He seized with inspired and intuitive accuracy the root ideas of the Son of man, and reproduced them with the power of the true artist. It is incredible, even if we regard the entire paragraph (verses 16-21) as the language of our Lord, that we have the whole of the discourse, or conversation, of the memorable night. Still less satisfactory is it to suppose that we have in it nothing more than an imaginary scone, an idealization of the bearing of Christian truth on Jewish prejudice. So vast a thought, though it be the burden of the New Testament, and because it is so, issued from the heart of Jesus.
(3) Divine love and judgment.
For God so loved the world. The Divine love to the whole of humanity in its condition of supreme need, i.e. apart from himself and his grace, has been of such a commanding, exhaustless, immeasurable kind, that it was equal to any emergency, and able to secure for the worst and most degraded, for the outcast, the serpent-bitten and the dying, a means of unlimited deliverance and uplifting. The Divine love is the sublime source of the whole proceeding, and it has been lavished on "the world." This world cannot be the limited "world" of the Augustinian, Calvinian interpreters—the world of the elect; it is that "whole world" of which St. John speaks in 1 John 2:2. "God will have all men to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4). Calvin himself says, "Christ brought life, because the heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish." Pharisaic interpretations of the Old Testament had left the outside world in judgment, to cursing and condign punishment, and had made Abrahamic descent and sacramental privilege the conditions of life and honour and royal freedom. Here the poor world is seen to be the object of such love, that he—the Father-God—gave, "delivered up," we do not know certainly to "what," but we may judge from the context that it was such a deliverance, or such giving up. as is involved in the uplifting of the Son of man upon his cross of humiliation and shame. But the Lord induces a more wonderful term to denote his own personality. This "Son of man" is none other than his only begotten Son (cf. notes, John 1:14, John 1:18). Just as Abraham had not kept back his only begotten son from God, so God has not withheld his perfect Image, his Well-beloved, his Eternal Logos, the perfect ideal of sonship. He gave him with the following view: that whosoever believeth in him (εἰς αὐτὸν) may not perish, but have eternal life. The previous saying is repeated as in a grand refrain for which a deeper reason and fuller explanation have been supplied. Perishing, ruin, the issues of poisonous corruption, might and would, by the force of natural law, work themselves out in the destinies of men. The awful curse was spreading, but it may be arrested. None need be excluded. Looking is living. Believing in this manifestation of Divine love is enough. This is the first, high, main condition. Appropriation of such a Divine gift unriddles the mysteries of the universe, emancipates from the agelong bondage, confers a life which is beyond the conditions or occasions of dissolution. This verse is infinite in its range, and, notwithstanding a certain vagueness and indefiniteness of expression, presents and enshrines the most central truth of Divine revelation. When the terms "gave," "only begotten Son," "believeth," "life," "perishing," "God," "the world," are fully interpreted, then the words of this text gather an ever-augmenting force and fulness of meaning; and they may have been expanded to meet the prejudices of Nicodemus or the difficulties of disciples. The idea of gift and giver and the ends of the giving may have at once suggested to the Pharisaic mind the grand distinction between Israel and the world, and the inquiry may have been made—Is not Messiah, then, about to judge the world, to summon all the nations round to hear their doom? To some such heart-deadening query, to some such conscience-benumbing scepticism, our Lord continued—No; this love to the world on the part of God, this condition of faith on the side of man, thus laid down, is perfectly honest and sincere—
For—notwithstanding your vain and selfish interpretation of the older revelation—God sent not his Son to judge the world. Observe that the word "sent" replaces the word "gave" of the previous statement (ἀποστέλλω, not πέυπω). The word carries with it "the sending on a special mission" (see notes on John 20:21), and arrests attention by denoting the immediate function of the Son of God's mission into the world. He was sent, not to judge the world. This judgment is not the end of his manifestation. This statement is not without difficulty, because we learn from John 5:27, John 5:28 and John 12:48 that there is a great function of judgment which will ultimately be discharged by him, and which does, indeed, follow from the contact of all men with his truth and light. This is confirmed by the declarations of our Lord in Matthew (Matthew 13:24-40.13.30, Matthew 13:47), that the judgment would be delayed till the consummation of his work, but would then be most certain (see Matthew 25:1-40.25.46.). But judgment is not the end or purpose of his mission. Judgment, discrimination of the moral character of men, is a consequence, but not the prime nor the immediate purport of his coming. Numerous passages from the Book of Enoch and the Fourth Book of Esdras, and the literal interpretation of Psalms 2:9; Malachi 4:1, etc., may be quoted to show the Jewish prejudices against which our Lord here protested. But God sent his Son that the world through him maybe saved. "Saved" is here the analogue and interpretation of the not perishing and the having of eternal life. Christ is "the Saviour of the world" (John 4:42). Hengstenberg says truly, "The Old Testament basis for the words is found in Isaiah 52:10, 'And all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.'" His coming will, as he goes on to say, exercise a discriminating process and a saving energy. There will occur a further advent, when he will consummate both his judgment and his mercy. "In the Old Testament," says Lunge, "the Judge becomes Redeemer by judging; in the New Testament, the Redeemer becomes Judge by his redeeming." Through him the world may be saved from its ruin, by reason of individuals accepting his grace. The saving of humanity as a whole issues from the believing and living of men. God's love of the world and his sending of his Son aim at the saving of the world as their Divine end. Salvation (σωτηρία) is the largest of all the famous biblical terms which denote the restoration and blessedness of man. It means all that is elsewhere denoted by "justification," but much more than that. It connotes all that is included in "regeneration" and "sanctification," but more than these terms taken by themselves. It includes all that is involved in "redemption" and "adoption" and the "full assurance," and also the conditions of "appropriation"—the subjective states which are the human antecedents of grace received, such as "faith" and "repentance," with all the "fruits of the Spirit." These Divine blessings originated in the bosom of the Father, where the only begotten Son forevermore abides, and they are all poured forth through the Son upon the world in the coming of the Christ. He was sent to save.
Salvation is the Divine result of believing on him, and salvation lifts the saved man from the necessity of the judgment, of the moral discrimination which awaits every man, and is passed upon every man by his own conscience and by the providence of God. The word κρίνω does not necessarily mean "to condemn" (see John 3:17), and whensoever the unfavourable issue of judgment is emphatically referred to, then κατακρίνω is used (Romans 2:1; Romans 8:3; 1 Corinthians 11:32; Matthew 27:3). Still, this first clause shows that the predominant sense in which it is used throughout the passage is condemnatory. He that believeth on him—i.e. whoso submits and yields to the truth confessed and conspicuous in the Christ—he who accepts the mission of the Logos, both before and after the Incarnation (see notes on John 1:12-43.1.14)—is not judged. If there be a judgment, it is one of acquittal. In his case judgment is salvation, salvation is the judgment. Faith, affectionate confidence in the supreme Judge, transforms the judgment into mercy, anticipates the Divine and gracious result. But he that believeth not (subjective negative) has been already judged, and is now so adjudged (here the word seems necessarily to assume a condemnatory character) that he hath not believed on the Name of the only begotten Son of God. Such non-belief reveals insensibility to truth, indifference to the reality of things, unsusceptibility to the light, and a moral perversity which has been persisted in. The approach to such a one of the Eternal Logos did not move him, the unveiling of the Divine face did not awe him into reverence. The sin of his life had blinded his eyes, closed his ears, hardened his heart, and the consequence was that when the Name of the only begotten Son was made known to him, like all previous Divine self-revelations, it exercised no commanding influence upon him, no convincing power, no saving grace. To refuse Christ, to manifest unbelief under such circumstances, proves that the laws of Divine judgment which are always going on have already enacted themselves. He has been (and is) condemned. He is "judged already," and the unbelief is the judgment which the self-acting moral laws, or rather which the Logos actively at work in every human being, pronounces upon him. The manner in which any man receives Divine revelation is the judgment passed upon his entire life up to that moment by the unerring and infallible wisdom of the supreme Judge. The final judgment is thus anticipated, but it is not irreversible, and, should repentance and faith supervene by Divine grace on this stolid indifference and damnable unbelief, the once unbeliever will become the believer, the judgment upon whom is no more a judgment of condemnation, but one of life and peace. Nothing can indicate a more untractable, unspiritual, and carnal state than a refusal to admit so great and imposing a manifestation of the Divine nature as the Name of the only begotten Son of God.
The above interpretation is confirmed by the explanatory sentence which follows, and which is obviously meant to explain the nature of the κρίσις, the process of the judgment of which he had spoken. This crisis, in the case of the believer, furnishes a clear and illustrious proof that the Son of God had primarily come to save, not to judge; while in the case of the unbeliever it was sufficiently manifested by the absence of faith in that which was so sublimely adapted to induce affectionate reverence and adoring trust. Now this is the judgment. The peculiar form of the sentence, αὕτη δέ ἑστιν ἡ κρίσις ὅτι, is found elsewhere in John (1Jn 1:5; 1 John 5:11, 1 John 5:14). We are here reminded of the words of the prologue (John 1:5, John 1:9, see notes), where the original shining of the Light in the σκοτία (the abiding state of darkness) ended in non-reception, non-perception of the Light. Subsequently it is said that the light—the archetypal light which illumines, shines upon, every man who comes into the world—came, i.e. in a new and more impressive manner, and by its coming, originated a process of judgment and discrimination among men. This utterance of the prologue is here shown to depend upon the words of the only begotten Son of God made flesh. The critical school make this correspondence with the prologue and with Johannine thought incontestable evidence that we have here John's meditation rather than the word of Jesus. There is, of course, an alternative interpretation. But it appears to us that it is equally rational and critical to see in the words of Jesus thus reported, the origin of the prologue. Light has come into the world, and made evident and established the awful fact that men loved (aorist, denoting a defined characteristic) the darkness (σκότος, used here and 1 John 1:6 for absolute darkness, the complete contradictory of the light), rather than the light. Lucke has urged that μᾶλλον here might mean magis, not potius, and that the Lord admits a certain amount of love for the light, though less than that for the darkness; but numerous passages of similar construction make it certain that potius, not magis, is the meaning. "The light," though so needed, and so lovely in itself, was not loved by men. It brought consequences from which "men" recoiled and revolted. They loved their own ignorance and peril. They shrank from the demands—from the repentance, the transformation of habit and character, the utter moral revolution that must be consequent upon the reception of the light. Darkness was loved, hailed, accepted, rested in. The process of the judgment was conspicuous in demonstrating this unholy love. If a man love the deformed, the misshapen, the defiled, and the corrupt thing, rather than the truly beautiful, this is a judgment passed upon his entire previous life and on his present character, which is the outcome and upshot of the life. If a man love sensual gratification, its objects and its means, rather than virtue and chastity and serene and sacred purity, this is in itself a terrific κρίσις—the announcement of his previous career of dissipation and folly. If a man love the darkness of unrenewed humanity rather than the uncreated light embodied, this is his κρίμα, and the process by which it is made evident is the κρίσις passing over him. The explanatory clause that follows gives great force to the previous assertion: For their works were evil. Their habitual conduct supplies permanence and energy to their perverse "love," and reveals its historical antecedent—their works (ἔργα) were "evil" (πονηρά). The love of darkness was the consequence of their wicked ways. The judgment of eternal law has fallen upon their violation of it. The great penalty of sin is sinful desire. A bias towards evil is originated and confirmes by sinful compliance. The blinding of the eye, deafening of the ear (cf. Matthew 13:10, and parallels), is the judicial result of their unwillingness to see or walk in the light of the Lord.
This verse expounds and supplies a further and causal explanation of the relation of conduct to character. For every one that praetiseth bad things. The first suggests the repeated acts of a man's conduct, his habits, his practice, and not unfrequently it has a bad sense attributed to it, while the second, ποιεῖν, refers to the full expression of an inward life, and is more appropriate to denote the higher deeds and grander principles). This practice of bad ways (φαῦλα) leads infallibly, by the just judgment of God, to a hatred of that which will reveal and confound the transgressor. Every one, etc., hateth the light (this shows that we cannot err in giving to μᾶλλον in John 3:19 the sense of potius), and the hardening process which is a judgment of God upon man, ever going on, becomes more conspicuous in this, that he cometh not to the light, in order that his works may not be convicted; i.e. lest his works should be revealed—shown to him and to others in their true light. The night time, during which so many evil things, base things, unclean things, are practised, was darkening down over Jerusalem when our Lord was speaking, and would give fateful emphasis to these solemn words. This love of darkness proceeded from a hatred of the revealing power of the light. This rejection of the only begotten Son of God proceeded from a long habit of sin, showing more emphatically than before the need of radical spiritual regeneration—a birth of water and of the Spirit. The rejection of the Christ's claim to cleanse the temple—a fact of which Nicodemus, as Sanhedrist, must have been fully aware—was a striking illustration of his great argument. The "dread of the light is both moral pride and moral effeminacy" (Meyer). (See parallel in Ephesians 5:11, Ephesians 5:12.)
But he that doeth the truth—who is "of the truth," and "heareth his voice" (John 18:37), he who is "morally true," inwardly sincere, who would never shrink from a genuine self-revelation—cometh to the light. This remarkable expression allies itself with many other words of Christ, and suggests that in the heart of Judaism and of mankind generally, amid and notwithstanding the darkness which prevailed, there were found elect souls, taught of the Spirit, longing for more light, yearning to know the truth about themselves, however humiliating it might prove to be. This is confirmed by St. Paul's argument (Romans 1:1-45.1.32 and Romans 2:1-45.2.29), where some Gentiles who have not the Law are admitted to do by nature the things contained in the Law, and even to become a law unto themselves; and where, in contradistinction to the hopelessly rebellious, Paul assumes that there are some who "by patient continuance in well doing, seek for glory, honour, and immortality." These "do the truth, and have no pleasure in unrighteousness." They are "taught of God," they have "seen and heard from the Father" some of the great things of the Law. The Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to see great things in the Law, and they come to the light. They are not afraid of the revelation it will make. They may be humbled and pained by the disclosure, but there is a Divine luxury in such pain. The purpose of the coming to the light on the part of one who doeth the truth, is in order that his works may be made manifest. This is the precise contrary of the conduct of the man whose eye is scaled and whose heart is made fat by sin. Such a one dreads conviction, the outward affirmation or utterance of the inwardly known κρίσις; and therefore shrinks from conviction or any conduct which will promote it. He flees from the man of God, he disdains the revealing Word, he rejects the blessed Christ, he loves the darkness, this is his condemnation. On the other hand, the sincere man, who is honest with himself, is supremely anxious for the true light to bear down upon his "works." He is willing that they should be manifested. If he is deceiving himself with false hopes, he yearns that these should disappear before the shining of the true light. If his works will bear examination, then let him know the verdict which is unconsciously being given by the revelation of the light. It is a nice question to determine the meaning of the ὅτι. The current interpretation is for, or because, they are wrought in God; i.e. the sincere man desires this self-manifestation, comes to the light because his works have been inwrought by Divine grace. He loves the light, he does the truth because God has wrought within him to will and to do. In other words, the work of grace is in every case the adequate explanation of such a contrast to the common condition of human nature. Godet suggests that ὅτι here has the meaning of "that," and urges that the Greek usage in John 4:35 and other passages will justify the translation, he cometh … manifest, that they are wrought in God, as though this Divine revelation were the real end of his coming to the light. This appears to me to be incompatible with the fact. The man who doeth the truth may yet need very much instruction before he accepts the Divine Original of his own conduct, or desires the manifestation to others of the Divine Source of his humble search. The more current translation, "because," is in harmony with the facts of Christian and religious experience, and is in keeping with the biblical assurance, that all good, all holiness, sincerity, and upright striving, just such as Nicodemus was then displaying, is God's own work, and is the result of his grace.
Nicodemus comes, asks questions, receives weighty answers, and retires. We do not know the immediate result of these most wonderful words upon him; but we do find him taking the part of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50, John 7:51); and from John 19:39 we learn that, though a secret disciple, he did not disdain to come out of his hiding place to houour the corpse of the Crucified. The death of Jesus, which had blasted the hopes of the apostles, had fired those of Nicodemus. Every word of this discourse is compatible with the position of the great Prophet at this early period of his ministry, is suited to the Pharisaic mind, and adapted to meet its difficulties and correct its prejudices. If a few expressions, such as "the only begotten Son," "this is the condemnation, that," "he that doeth the truth," are found in writings which are John's undoubted composition, the circumstance may be explained that he borrowed them from Jesus. This is quite as rational (not to say legitimate and reverential) as to suppose, because of them, that John invented them, and betrayed their origin by placing them in the lips of Jesus.
We do not suppose that John has mechanically recited the whole of the words that were spoken on either side, but preserved those heads of discourse which rise like mountain peaks above the oceans of thought between them, and are linked together by the glory which they severally reflect from the sublime personality of the Son of man.
6. The swanlike song of the Baptist.
(1) The ministry and baptism of Jesus in Judaea.
With this verse a new departure is taken, and circumstances are described which indirectly, rather than explicitly, indicate the manner of our Lord's ministry for the larger part of a year; and they furnish opportunity for recording the last great public utterance of John the Baptist, with all its special difficulties of chronology and doctrine. After these things, related in the previous paragraphs; after, that is, the scene in the temple, and the demand for a sign, and the typical discourse of the Lord with a ruler of the Jews, from reasons not difficult to deduce from the narrative, Jesus (came) and his disciples [came] into the land of Judaea. Surrounded or accompanied by some of his disciples (John being one of them), Jesus left the metropolis and betook himself to the countryside. His Messianic claims were not accepted by the authorities. He did not entrust himself to the half-believers. He altered or deviated from the course hitherto adopted, and addressed himself to the less-prejudiced inhabitants of the country places in the province of Judaea. His hour was not yet come. Jerusalem and Judah were thus compared or contrasted in Ezra 2:1; Ezr 7:14; 2 Chronicles 20:18. The precise locality is not stated, though it is probable it was not far from the new scene chosen by John for the continuance of his ministry. The identification of the site of Aenon, near Saleim, does not finally determine the scene of our Lord's abode or baptismal ministry. We are expressly told, both here and in John 4:3, that it was in Judaea, not Samaria, that Jesus there tarried with them, and was baptizing. The words imply a lengthened abode, and a method of ministry which, from that time, he laid aside. The statement that he administered the rite personally is in John 4:2 explicitly corrected. The baptism by the disciples was done, however, with the sanction and under the direction of Jesus. As the trial ministry of the twelve apostles (mentioned in Matthew 10:1-40.10.42.), occurring during our Lord's earthly life, corresponded with the first preaching of John rather than with that which followed the glorification of Jesus and the Pentecostal effusion, so this ordinance closely resembled the water baptism of John; it was a preparatory symbol, an educational rite, one that allied this early ministry to that of his great forerunner. The water baptism of Jesus corresponded in significance with the water baptism of John. They were one and the same ordinance, predictive, symbolic, anticipatory of the baptism of the Spirit. "Jesus adopted John's baptism ere its waters forever ceased to flow, and thus he blessed and consecrated them. He took up the work of his forerunner and completed it" (Edersheim, 1:393). Weiss (with consent of Renan) admits that these reminiscences reveal their own historicity, and none more so than the return of Jesus for a time to the scenes of the activity of the Baptist. Apparently such an act conflicts with the exalted ideas the author of the Fourth Gospel entertains with reference to his Master. Thoma thinks he sees in Pauhne writings indication of Christ's baptismal ministry, and suggests that the "Johannist" therefore finds a place for such "a washing in water by the Word" in the active word of Jesus! When our Lord, after his resurrection, referred to the baptism with the Spirit, he contrasted it with the baptism of John, and made no reference to his own temporary adoption of the same rite. All water baptism is thus placed in its true relation to the baptism of the Spirit—not as the necessary preliminary of the latter, nor its indispensable seal or guarantee, but as the impressive symbol of the need of heavenly cleansing, and of the direct impact upon the soul of the power of the eternal Spirit. The length of our Lord's residence in Judaea cannot be positively determined; but one hint may be gathered item John 4:35. The "four months before the harvest" indicate the arrival of the month of December, and therefore the lapse of some eight months between the cleansing of the temple and the return to Galilee. This last event, in Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 4:12-40.4.17 with parallels), is associated with the imprisonment of John. The Fourth Gospel, by obvious reference to the current synoptic chronology of the commencement of the Galilaean ministry (one which made this imprisonment a note of time), shows that the period described in this Gospel, and the baptismal energy of Jesus in Judaea, and the profoundly interesting events mentioned in John 3:1-43.3.36. and 4., were not incompatible with admitted facts. It also suggests that the character of our Lord's ministry in the neighbourhood of the metropolis was closely allied with that which the synoptists described as obtaining in his early Galilaean efforts. We are impressed by the solemn silence which has fallen over these eight months. It may be accounted for on the general principle of the evangelist, which was to fasten upon and preserve the memory of a few solemn moments which especially impressed his own mind, and which had been overlooked or unknown by Matthew and the other evangelists. Moreover, it is more than probable that the author of this Gospel was not with the Master during the whole of this period. There are, however, hints that the rumours of the spiritual might and gathering power of Jesus had produced a great effect upon John the Baptist, and qualified the tone of his last testimony.
And John also was baptizing in AEnon, near to Salim, because there were many waters there; and they came, and were baptized. There is much difficulty in determining the site of AEnon, near Saleim. Eusebius and Jerome (in 'Onomasticon') place it in the northern part of Samaria, about eight miles south of Scythopolis. This does not well accord with the statement that Jesus was "in Judaea," and proposed to "pass through Samaria" (cf. verse 22; John 4:1-43.4.4). It may be observed, however, that our narrative does not limit the scene of our Lord's Judaean ministry to any one place, nor does it assert that the Baptist and Jesus were in near proximity, but rather the reverse. There is a Shilhim mentioned in Joshua 15:32, with which is associated an ain (or fountain)—a word closely resembling "AEnon." This would seem to have been in the south of Judaea. Godet thinks that, since Ain and Rimmon are associated with each other in Joshua 19:7 and 1 Chronicles 4:32, and an En-Remmon is spoken of in Nehemiah 11:29, that we have in this blending the origin of the word "AEnon." He thinks that the presence of waters is more likely to be specified in a dry region like that of the border of Edom than in a fertile district like Samaria; and he goes on to argue that Jesus may therefore have travelled south between Hebron and Beersheba, even as, in the synoptics, we find him in Caesarea Philippi, the northernmost portion of the Holy Land. Certainly he may have tarried there during the eight months, but we have no right to establish it from this passage. It is not said that Jesus was at AEnon. Dr. Barclay reports the discovery of AEnon at Wady Far'ah, a secluded valley five miles northeast of Jerusalem (Grove, Smith's ' Dict. Bible'). The recent discoveries of the Palestine Exploration Society find this Enun (Aynun) and Saleim not far from the Askar, or Sychar, where Jesus rested when John's ministry had been suddenly arrested. Allegory reaches the point of absurdity when we are told by Theme that neither place nor time are historic. The Salem is (says he), according to Psalms 76:2, the tabernacle or place of God, and therefore, according to Philo, indicates the Logos, who thenceforth becomes the Illuminator and Ruler. "The multitude of waters" would be suitable, necessary, to any great gatherings such as those which had followed the Baptist to the banks of the Jordan, as well as for baptismal processes. Such a site for AEnon is far more probable, on historical grounds, than is the southern extremity of Judaea; for Herod would have had no jurisdiction there, and would not have been tempted to arrest John's ministrations, nor would he or Herodias have suffered from the Baptist's rebuke of their adultery, if such reproaches had been spoken so far away from the centre of his tetrarchy. If, however, John had made no secret of his disapproval in regions so near to Galilee and Peraea, over which he presided, the consequent irritation of the voluptuous prince may have been more easily aroused, and his vengeance more legitimately taken. But how came John to be still administering baptism with a group of disciples of his own, and doing this long after the amazing announcements he had made in the spring of the year with reference to the rank and functions of the Lord Jesus? This narrative is the true key to the otherwise inexplicable contrariety between the Johannine testimonies to Christ and the message from the prison as described by the synoptists. It is the solution of the mystery that one who hailed Jesus as the Son of God and the Lamb of God and Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, and who was declared by Christ himself to be the greatest of woman born, was, notwithstanding, "less than the least in the kingdom of heaven." John is here shown by the fourth evangelist to have been still taking an independent position. He pointed others to Jesus, but he did not enroll himself among his followers. John was at last "offended" more than he knew at the humility of Jesus. He still waited for the coming of the Conqueror and the Wielder of the axe; he was looking for the manifested King, for the hour which had not yet come. He is a remarkable specimen of the energy with which a great purpose is embraced by those who are pledged to make it accomplish its end. The preparatory work of John could not, any more than the Hebraism of which it was the highest type, come to an abrupt end voluntarily; hence he continued it even to the peril of sacrificing all its value. They came, and were baptized; as "they" had done at Bethabara. There was some splitting up of the Messianic movement (Keim), and we see the effect of it upon his disciples and him self. Even in the midst of the labours of Paul (Acts 19:1-44.19.4), we find that Johannine baptism was still practised, and traces of the custom may still be observed in Oriental sects even to the present day.£
For John had not yet been cast into the prison. This clause shows that the evangelist was alive to the apparent discrepancy which his account of a Judaean ministry might otherwise have suggested with the synoptic chronological initium of the Galilaean ministry. The remark shows that all that happened preceded that ministry, and equates the journey through Samaria with that mentioned in Matthew 4:12. Even Hilgenfeld says, "Involuntarily the fourth evangelist here testifies to his acquaintance with the synoptical narrative." In our opinion it was designed and spontaneous. The first journey to Galilee, mentioned in John 1:43, was not the commencement of a public prophetic ministry, and the synoptists are silent about it. The ἀνεχώρησεν, he "withdrew," shows that there was some reason for his abrupt departure, over and above what was stated. John gives the reason for the departure by John 4:1, John 4:2, where the conduct of the Pharisees was becoming more watchful and jealous. The authority which John here assumes to correct and enlarge apostolic tradition, reveals the claim of one who professed unique knowledge of inexpugnable facts.
There arose therefore a questioning on the part of John's disciples with a Jew£ about purifying. Such proximity of two such leaders, teaching and proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, and baptizing into a glorious hope, a Divine future, and a spiritual change, was certain to excite controversy. The word (ζήτησις) "questioning" is used in Acts 15:2 for the dispute at Antioch, and Paul uses the same phrase for dangerous, useless, and angry debate (1Ti 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:23; Titus 3:9). It was, perhaps, not the first, and certainly it was not the last, of the controversies which raged over the symbolic purification of the Church. John's disciples appear to have taken up arms against some particular Jew, who was prepared either to question the right of Jesus to baptize, or the essential value of this ordinance. This "Jew" was apparently maintaining a greater potency for the baptism of Jesus than John could claim for his, and was basing his view upon the testimony which John had already borne to Jesus. Purifying was the great theme of Essenic and Pharisaic profession. It was without doubt one of the great symbolic purposes of the Levitical legislation. The purification of the flesh was, however, in Christ's teaching, a very small part of the claim for purity. Nothing less than a spiritual and radical moral change availed, and our Lord insisted on this to the disparagement of the mere ceremonial. This was the first recorded discussion on the nature and value of baptismal purifying. Would that it had been the last! The question arose among those who had been baptized by John, whether another had any right to administer such an ordinance? Could another receive the confession of sins? Was the baptism of John to terminate now that he had come of whom John himself had said, "This is he that baptizeth with the Holy Spirit"
They (the disciples of John) came to John, and said to him, Rabbi—the title of deep respect (verse 2), which stood in Jewish reverence high above all civil and military rank, and was here yielded in courtesy to the heroic leader—he who was with thee, apparently in entire mutual understanding with thee, receiving baptism at thy hands, and thus admitting thy right to baptize the people of God—"with thee" as we are "with thee"—beyond Jordan—at Bethany (Bethabara), at a better baptizing—place than this, on a grand historic site, the very scene of the great administration, where the Sanhedrin deferred to thy claims and the multitudes attested the hold thou hadst on their affections—to whom thou hast borne testimonies—the man who received thy homage, but who admitted also thy claims, about whom thou didst utter such strong things of unspeakable import—behold, he is now thy rival in popular esteem; this man is baptizing, and—with a pardonable exaggeration, they add—all men are coming unto him. He is eclipsing thee; he seems to usurp the high and unique position which had been assumed by thyself. Serious questions these, which must lead to a complete disruption among the disciples of John. Before examining the reply of John to the query, it is well to observe that John had been walking in the blinding and bewildering light of new ideas; that the Fourth Gospel brings us into contact with John at the moment where the synoptic narrative draws its portraiture to a conclusion; and yet the Fourth Gospel, quite as firmly as the synoptists, shows that the fresh light which had dawned on John had not induced him to forego the preparatory mission on which his heart was set, and the zeal of which had consumed him. If the perplexity arises—How could John have borne such ample testimony to Jesus and not at once have followed in his train? we reply that the language of John in Matthew 3:14 is just as difficult to reconcile with the message from the prison. Thoma admits that this fact corresponds with the question, "Art thou he that should come, or look we for another?" In like manner, Hebraism itself within the bosom of the Church maintained a place after all its purpose had been fulfilled. The destruction of the temple and of the Jewish state was necessary to abolish the force of the Hebrew tendency to ritualism of place and symbol even in the heart of Christ's disciples. Many of the mighty powers of the world, if they had not possessed an energy and vitality which refused to succumb when their work was really done, would never have done that work at all.
(2) The earthly and heavenly commission.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing—neither office, function, faculty, nor life work, in the kingdom of God—except it has been given him from heaven. The raying is broad, general, comprehensive, sustaining. It is not the glorification of success, but an explanation of the ground of high service. All good service, all high faculty, all holy mission, all sacred duty, are assigned to us by Heaven. "No man taketh this honour unto himself, unless he be called of God." Commentators have ranged themselves into three groups as to the primary application of the words.
(1) Those who have limited the mental reference to John himself. "My function is, as I am about to explain, a subordinate one," "I have received that and nothing else from heaven." "I cannot make myself into the Bridegroom of the Church, or the Light of the world, or the Baptizer with the Holy Ghost." "I have received that only which is given and assigned to me by God." (So Bengel, Calvin, Hengstenberg, and at one time Godet.)
(2) Those who regard it as being a distinct reference to Christ, and as a vindication of Jesus from the complaint of John's own disciples. The high activity and present position of Jesus is declared by John to have been conferred on Christ "from heaven." He would not, could not, have taken it upon himself apart from the Divine order. (So Godet, Meyer, Watkins, Thorns.)
(3) Those who refer it to both "John and Jesus;" i.e. accept it as the general principle, applicable with equal force to them both. Intense man that he was. John felt justified in referring the entire function and mission of both the Christ and his forerunner to the will, predestination, and bestowment of Heaven. (So Wettstein, Lunge, Luthardt, Lucke, Westcott, Geikie, Moulton.) This is surely the most obvious and rational interpretation. Perhaps "heaven" is not exactly identical with "God," but may point to the whole of the providential circumstances, to the Divine resources, to the inheritance of effects from more remote antecedents in the Divine will; but it is difficult to press this distinction in all cases.
Ye yourselves (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:9 for similar emphatic pronoun) bear me witness—you will do it readily, if I challenge you, for my testimonies were frequent and varied (in fact, the synoptists and the fourth evangelist are equally explicit here)—that I said, I am not the Messiah (John 1:20; Matthew 3:11, Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:15-42.3.17). This announcement, made with great publicity at Bethany, was the basis of the present remonstrance; and the words which follow strongly sustain John's reference to the Divine predestination in his own case and that of Jesus. But that I am one sent (on a special mission) before him. He boldly implies, "This is more than I have already testified concerning 'the Christ;' and my place is not at his side, not following in his train. I am 'a voice;' my work is continuously to break up a way for him. I am here still, making the mountains low, and filling up the valleys for the approach of the great King." A man can receive nothing in the shape of lifework except that which is assigned to him out of heaven.
And now the Baptist bethinks him of another remarkable image, with which, as a student of the Old Testament, and being himself "more than a prophet," He was familiar. The tenderness of the imagery had not hitherto, however, comported with the ministry of the vox clamantis. Whereas the New Testament represents the loving kindness and righteousness of the Lord God under the metaphor of a Father's love to his prodigal but repenting children, the prophets were often disposed to set forth the same idea in the light of a Husband yearning over his bride, even betrothing her a second time unto himself after her faithlessness and folly. Jehovah and Jehovah's King and Representative are set forth as the Bridegroom of the true Israel (Psalms 45:1-19.45.17.; Isaiah 54:5; Hosea 2:19, Hosea 2:20; the Song of Songs; Ezekiel 16:1-26.16.63.; Malachi 2:11, etc.); and the New Testament writers, especially John himself, who delights in the image (Revelation 19:7; Revelation 21:2, Revelation 21:9; Revelation 22:17), and Paul, who compares the relation of the Saviour to his Church under this endearing imagery (Ephesians 5:32; 2 Corinthians 11:2), vindicate the legitimacy of the metaphor. The Baptist might easily think of this language, but it is more than possible that he had been profoundly touched by the news that had reached him concerning the presence of Jesus at a marriage feast. John had been a Nazarite from his birth. Jesus was revealing himself amid the pleasures and innocent joys of life and love. John's conception of the kingdom had been that of severance from the world—seclusion, ascetic restraint. Jesus had manifested his glory amid the festival and in the common life and daily ways of men. John may have seen that there was much in this to captivate the heart of the true Israel; and he glances at the bridal of heaven and earth in this new conception of the mission of the Messiah. It may have staggered him, as he had taught Israel to hope for One whose hand would be more heavy upon them and on their sins than his had been. Where was the axe laid at the root of the trees? where the fire that scorches to cleanse and purify? But he accepted to some extent the new revelation, and found his own place in the novel reconstruction of the kingdom. So he says, He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. However, John throws in a novel thought, explanatory of his own position, and not found in the Old Testament imagery: "I am not the Bridegroom," says he; "but it is also true that I am not the Bride. Such is my position that I am standing outside the company of those who are the prophetic 'Bride.'" The friend of the bridegroom (φίλος τοῦ νυμφίου παρανύμφιος, answering to the בהֵוֹ) and נבֶשְׁוֹשׁ of the Aramaic writers) is he who acts the part of intermediary—the confidant of both. He presides at the ceremonies of the betrothal and at the wedding tent, and especially in the interests of the bridegroom. The image was probably suggested to him by the great discovery made by the friend of the Cana bridegroom touching the "glory" of the mysterious Guest on that typical occasion. "The friend of the bridegroom" differs profoundly from the Bridegroom. The Christ will prove ready to occupy this position, and John has declared that he is not the Christ. Moreover, John differs from the Bride; he does not receive the lavish love, nor the deep intimacies of that affection, nor the dowry of sacrificial devotion with which that love will at length be won. This paranymphios standeth and heareth him. It is not said, "seeth him." Some have argued that John here calls attention to the fact that all that the Bridegroom has been saying has reached him by means of the information brought to him on the part of those who were both his own disciples and the disciples of Jesus; but the next clause is inconsistent with this. The friend of the bridegroom stands ready to do the will and promote the honour and pleasure of his friend. (The materialistic and sensualistic manner in which some have pressed the force of the imagery is out of place.) "The voice of the bridegroom," the hilarious joy of the bridegroom, is a proverbial expression (Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 16:9; Jeremiah 25:10). There is a contrast felt between the formal business-like fellowship that prevailed between the bride and the friend of the bridegroom, and the free outspoken love of the bridegroom himself. The lispings of prophecy are contrasted with the outspoken utterances of the gospel of love. And he rejoiceth with joy (χαρᾷ χαίρει; cf. for this form of expression, which corresponds with the frequent Hebrew juxtaposition of the finite verb with the infinitive absolute, the LXX. of Isaiah 30:19; Isaiah 66:10; Deuteronomy 7:26, etc.; Luke 22:15; Acts 4:17; Acts 5:28; Acts 23:14; James 5:17). It is not an indubitable Hebraism, because similar expressions are found in the classics, as Plato, 'Sympos.,' 195, B., φεύγων φυγῇ; 'Phaedr.,' 265, D.; Soph., 'OEd. Rex,' 65; see Winer, 'Gramm. E.T.,' p. 585. This is the only place where such a construction occurs in the writings of John) because of the bridegroom's voice. Intense joy is thus ascribed to one who was the minister of the bliss of another. This my joy—or, this joy, therefore, which is mine—hath been made full. "I have thus completed my task, and reached the climax of my bliss. I have wooed and won," The bridal of heaven and earth is begun. In subsequent words of Jesus and his disciples other great epochs of complete consummation are referred to. The joy of the Lord will only be entirely realized when, after the resurrection and the second advent, the rapture of fellowship with his Bride will be completed. But the Baptist recognized that his own work was finished when the Messiah had been introduced to those who understood something of his claims, when the kingdom was at hand, when there were many who sought and found their Lord.
He must—by a Divine necessity of things (cf. John 3:7, John 3:14; John 9:4; John 10:16; John 20:9; Revelation 1:1), he must—increase; augment in power and following and great joy. He must win eventually all hearts. His enemies must become the footstool of his feet. His is the beginning of an eternal blessedness. I must decrease; not become annihilated, though through the very completion of the purpose of my calling of God, my scope must, by the nature of the case, become narrower and smaller. Some have felt the improbability of the great prophet, the ascetic reformer, acquiescing so patiently in the diminution of his influence or the virtual cessation of the primary importance of his career. Yet this is in complete harmony with John's repeated and continuous recognition of the preparatory and transitory nature of his own work. He cannot lay down his commission, but he knows that, like prophetism, priesthood, Nazarite asceticism, and the like, it will be merged in the grander life of which he was the herald. The ministers of the New Testament all take up the same note of Divine praise and of self-depletion as they prepare the way of the Lord to human hearts. They hide themselves behind the greater glory of their Lord. However considerable their powers, they are serviceable only as they contribute to the glory, and succeed in unveiling the thee, of their Lord. There is a Johannine message still required to disturb the fleshly equanimity and to break up the narcotized sleep of the unbeliever. The stern spirit of rebuke and warning is still indispensable; yet the voice of him that cries, "Repent!" knows that his voice may fade away into faint echoes and stillness, so soon as the promises of redemption and salvation are uttered by the Divine Lord. When the absolution of grace gives the kiss of peace to the broken-hearted, the morning star fades into the dawning of the day.
A large number of commentators of all schools hold that the remaining verses of this chapter give us the reflections of the evangelist rather than a continuous discourse of the Baptist. Strauss, Weisse, Reuss, and Bretschneider, who make the supposed proof of this Johannine appendix to the Baptist's words an evidence of inhistoricity throughout the Gospel, and the school of Baur, which finds in the entire representation simply an artistic endeavour on the part of a second century falsarius to show that John's disciples were absorbed into the Catholic Church, are joined here by Bengel, De Wette, Westcott, Moulton, and Edersheim, who see no difficulty in the introduction of these sentiments, which correspond with those of the Epistles of John, as an appendix of the evangelist, and not a reminiscence of the teaching of the Baptist. The reasons in favour of this view are that the ideas and phraseology are said to be far in advance of John the Baptist's theological position, and certainly reflect the later teaching of the Master. We will consider some of these seriatim, but cannot accept the argument as final. Hengstenberg, Meyer, Godet, Alford, Lange, even Renan, do not yield to the positions thus assumed, nor will they admit any word of the Baptist here uttered to be inconsistent with the known doctrine of the forerunner; whereas they urge that the simple communication to John of the substance of our Lord's discourse to Nicodemus is adequate explanation of the similarities between the two. It may be admitted that some subjective colouring from the apostle's own mind may have been transfused by him into his report of both discourses, which we cannot doubt were conducted in the Aramaic tongue. Weiss makes the pertinent suggestion that we cannot think that John the son of Zebedee beard the final testimony of the Baptist. It may easily have been communicated to the circle around Jesus by Andrew and some other disciple of the two masters. This may account for the appearance throughout the discourse of more Johannine language than usual. If we cannot, or may not, make these simple hypotheses, then we too should be disposed to think that the subjective element had so predominated as almost to hide the historic quality of the whole of this swanlike song of the Old Testament dispensation. But the hypotheses seem to be highly probable and extremely natural, and the coherence of the passage with what has gone before to be obvious and complete. The discourse contrasts the entire prophetic ministry with that of the Son of God (verses 31, 32), which then sets forth the menus of appropriating the Divine gift of the Son of God (verses 33-35), and predicts the awful issues of rejecting the supreme claims of the Divine Lord (verse 36). The teaching is in accord with Old Testament doctrine, illumined, as we learn that John's was, by special visions, and by communications to him of the significance of the Lord's uttered words. It is quite irrelevant, if not absurd, to say that such a testimony of the forerunner makes the cotinuance or spread of John's teaching and baptism impossible; for
(1) the words were obviously addressed to a small group only of the many thousands who heard John preach, and
(2) it does not follow that all those who heard these memorable words should have deserted their first master, even in deference to his own advice. The words that follow, whether a simple record of John's discourse or one deeply coloured by the subjectivity of the evangelist, are as follows:—
He that is coming from above is above all. Now, it is obvious that Jesus had spoken of the Son of man as having come down from heaven (John 3:13), and of his own power to speak of heavenly things (i.e. of causes and measures of Divine operations); and he contrasts these with the "earthly things" of which he too had spoken—"earthly" they were because they dealt with experiences felt and witnessed and realized on earth. Now, John is represented, on the occasion of the baptism of our Lord, as being convinced that Jesus was "the Son of God," and that his existence was prior to his own, and that his rank in the universe was one utterly transcending his own. These statements have been already put into the lips of John by the fourth evangelist, and are scarcely exceeded, if at all, by the utterance before us. We find a bold contrast between the Logos himself and the witness to the manifested Logos. He who cometh from above, being before John, and being, therefore, in his essential dignity, superior to him, is above all, and therefore above him. He that is, in his origin and the entire self-realization of his life, from the earth, and not incarnate Logos, is of the earth in quality, and speaketh of the earth (observe, not κόσμος, but γῆ is here used). The experiences to which he refers are enacted on the earth, and he has no power to go back and heavenwards for the full explanation of them. Higher than heaven are the thoughts and revelations of the Son of God. He can unveil the heart of the eternal Father. Christ can link his own work with the ministry of the mightiest of the Heaven-sent messengers; but John starts from the consciousness, the perils, the self-deceptions and contrition of man. He that cometh out of heaven is above all.£This great utterance is repeated, and it involves little more than what John had implied to the Sanhedrin (John 1:30-43.1.34).
That which he hath seen and heard, this he testifieth; or, beareth witness to. His pre-existent glory with the Father makes him the adequate Witness to the heavenly things (ἐπουράνια) of which he hath authoritatively spoken; i.e. the eternal love of the Father, the purpose of the Son being sent into the world from the heart of God, and its ultimate issues—eternal life to the believer, and condemnation to those who love the darkness and do not believe. Westcott, who regards these words as the free reflections of the evangelist, thinks that reference is being made to the continued testimony of the Church as the voice of Christ; but the spirit of the passage is obscured by this interpretation. The living present vocal testimony of Christ is being throughout contrasted with that of John. And no man receiveth his witness. This seems in direct antagonism to the language of the disciples, "All men come to him;" and to John's own language, "He must increase." Westcott regards it, again, as the melancholy reflection of the aged apostle towards the close of the century. This seems to me to be an inadequate explanation. The reception of the witness of Christ had moved the whole world when John wrote his Gospel; and it would be inconsistent with the tone of exhilaration with which the evangelist closes his work. The forerunner may, however, have used this strong expression in purposed contrast to the jealous language of his own followers. "No man"—in comparison with the multitudes who ought to have already accepted him as the Son of God, as the heavenly Bridegroom. The concourse who crowded to the baptism of Jesus for a little moment did not blind the Baptist to the persistent and malignant opposition which awaited Jesus. "His joy (verse 29) and his grief (verse 32) both formed a noble contrast to the jealousy of his own disciples" (Meyer).
(3) The consequences of accepting and rejecting the supreme revelation.
He that receiveth his witness—i.e. his testimony to what he hath personally seen and heard in the heaven from which he has come—sealed—(ἐσφράγισεν), confirmed by such very act, ratified arid vindicated as trustworthy and stable (cf. Romans 4:1-45.4.25. l 1; Romans 15:28; 1Co 9:2; 2 Corinthians 1:22. In other places the idea or image of a "seal" is used for guaranteeing a special commission, John 6:27 (see notes); Revelation 7:3; Ephesians 1:13)—that God is true; i.e. admits that the words of Christ are the words of God, are absolute truth and reality—an idea which is made more obvious by verse 35, where Jesus is the Ambassador of God. It may even mean more than this, viz. that in Jesus "all the promises of God are Yea and Amen," that God is true in himself, and the witness of Christ embraces all that for which prophecy and promise and previous revelation had prepared the way (see Luthardt and Westcott). Such an idea is certainly beyond the scope of John's ministry or message.
The γὰρ shows that the former utterance is sustained. For he whom God sent uttereth the words of God. The full, many-sided, abundant expression of the thought of God. He has been sent for this purpose. Some take this clause to refer to all the ambassadors of God, and pre-eminently to the "man (John 1:6) sent from God, whose name was John." But, on the ether hand, observe that throughout the Gospel, ἀπόστελλω and πέμπω are used of the "Lord from heaven" (verse 17). Christ certainly is ἀπεσταλμένος as well as ἐρχομένος, and this great statement, viz. that Christ speaks the words of God, is a justification of the fact that, in accepting the witness of Christ to invisible and eternal things, and in the admission that he has been sent from heaven charged with the words of God, every separate believer becomes a seal, a ratification, of the veracity of God. The clause that follows (seeing that "to him" is unquestionably a gloss of translators, and is not found in any manuscripts) may be translated in three different ways.
(1) For God giveth not the Spirit by measure;£ for if ὁ Θεός is omitted, still the same subject, "God," might be and is generally supplied, and the object, supposed to be either Christ or any of his servants to whom in these days of the baptism of the Spirit, the Holy Ghost is poured forth from an inexhaustible treasure. Augustine and Calvin urged that it was said concerning Christ; for we read in verse 35 that "the Father hath given all things into his hand;" but exclusively to limit the object of δίδωσι to Christ is more than the passage will justify.
(2) For he (the Messiah, sc.) giveth not the Spirit by measure; i.e. He is exalted to pour forth from the heart of the Deity the Spirit of the Father and Son. This is preferred by Westcott, and by those who see in the entire passage the reflections of the author of the Gospel (cf. John 15:26).
(3) For the Spirit giveth not by measure; the object (sc.) being "the words of God," which he who is sent and is coming from heaven, and is above all, is now lavishing upon the world. This translation (Godet) is in harmony with the vision of John at the baptism, when the Holy Spirit after the manner of a dove descended and abode upon him. With an unmeasurable supply of spiritual energy was the humanity of him who came (qua his Divine nature and personality) from heaven enriched for his prophetic and Messianic functions as the beloved Son of God on earth. I see no difficulty in this last interpretation.
(a) The present tense is justified by the statement of the abiding of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus, and the continuous operation of the gift in the "words of God," which were flowing from his lips.
(b) The αὐτῷ is easily supplied in thought.
(c) The connection is thus instituted with the thirty-fifth verse. Meyer and Lange prefer a wider significance being given to the words, seeing in them a broad reference to the affluence and measureless capacity of the gift of the Spirit. Luthardt: "This is true of all God's messengers, but especially of him of whom the Baptist speaks" (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4-46.12.12). The Lord from heaven receives all the gifts of the Spirit.
John 3:35, John 3:36
These fired verses certainly have the ring of the Gospel as a whole, and correspond with the fulness of Christological teaching, with which the words of Christ abound, as well as the Epistle of John; yet there is no exact parallel in the later revelation, From whom could such a statement come with greater power than from him who heard the Divine voice from heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son: hear him"? The Berleb. Bible (quoted by Hengstenberg) adds, to the great words, the Father loveth the Son, "as I sufficiently learned from the voice at the Jordan"—and hath given all things into his hand. The "all things" may he taken by us in their widest sense (cf. Matthew 11:27)—"all ἐξουσία in heaven and earth" (Mat 28:18; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27; Revelation 1:18); and the power of determining the final condition of all souls, suggested in verse 36. But we may conceive a less extended horizon limiting the vision of the Baptist: all things belonging to the kingdom of God, to the progress and consummation of it in the world. John need not be supposed to have swept onward into the eternal future, but mainly to have been thinking of the mutual relations of the forerunner and the Christ. The Son will determine the place of his herald and of his disciple. There is no limit expressed. He who had these matters entrusted to him might easily be supposed to have "all things in his hand." He rested the less upon the greater.
He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life (cf. here, John 3:16, John 3:17; John 17:3; 1 John 5:10). These words, which above every other clause in this "swanlike song," are suffused with a glow that it is difficult to believe issued from the heart of the forerunner, unless we may make the supposition already referred to, that some of John's former disciples had carried to his earlier master the grand refrain of the discourse to Nicodemus. The entrusting of the soul in utter moral surrender to the Son of God, is life—eternal life. All cruel suspicions of God vanish when the veil is lifted which sin and the corruption of the human heart have hung over the holiest of all. John had passed into a new world when he discovered the true nature of the kingdom—the tempted, humbled, sacrificial, triumphant character of the Son of God. To believe on the Son is to have the life. But he that is disobedient to the Son. The words ὁ ἀπειθῶν are, in the English version, translated "believeth not," and again so in Romans 11:30, where ἀπιστεῖν and ἀπειθεῖν are used interchangeably. The word means one who is (ἀπειθής distrustful, who refuses to be persuaded, is contumacious and expresses the opposite to faith in active exercise, who repudiates faith on its fiducial and practical side. Nothing is said of those who have had no opportunity of coming to a knowledge of the Son of God. Shall not see life; shall not even see so as to be able to conceive of, much less enjoy, life (Westcott; see Romans 11:3). There is a blinding power in disobedience, which prevents those who are actively hostile to the essential excellences and glories of Christ from even knowing what life is. Life is obviously here and elsewhere more than physical existence, or than its continuance, or than its resuscitation after death; it is the activity of the new spirit, the supernatural and eternal blessedness wrought by "birth of the Spirit." Nor is the calamity referred to a mere negation. John may be said here to have gone beyond the words of the Master in the previous discourse, and, moreover, it is in fiery earnestness that he speaks. The wrath of God, which has already been called down upon him by his disobedience, abideth on him. God's ὀργή had been spoken of by the Baptist (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7); and the term, wherever used, is far more than "the consuming fire of infinite love," into which many strive to resolve it. It represents active and terrible displeasure revealed from heaven (Romans 1:18; Rom 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:16). Much of the wrath of the Lord is said to be temporary in its character (Wis. 16:5; 18:20); but this is abiding, and, so far as is here revealed, permanent. The most terrible expression in the New Testament is the "wrath of the Lamb" (Revelation 6:16). The last word of the Baptist, even in the Fourth Gospel, is a word of thunder, and he disappears from view when he has delivered this terrible condemnation on those who are wilfully, actively resisting that Son whom "the Father loves," and to whose hands he has "entrusted all things." The ministry of John is, after all, that of the Elijah, not that of the Christ. To the last word, even if the phraseology has been moulded in the Greek of the fourth evangelist into a closer resemblance to his own vocabulary,£ and if by his attempt to epitomize what may have taken hours to say in varied phrase, the apostle has unconsciously adopted some of his own favourite terms, yet the message flashes with the fire of the prophet of the wilderness; and men are threatened with the peril of abiding under the wrath of Almighty God.
The interview of Christ with Nicodemus.
This brings before us one of the most important passages in Scripture.
I. NICODEMUS APPEARS HERE AS A RELIGIOUS INQUIRER.
1. He was "a ruler of the Jews." That is, not a civic magistrate, but a member of the Sanhedrin, which governed the Jewish community in ecclesiastical concerns.
2. He was a Pharisee. The most popular and influential of the Jewish sects—narrow in its particularism, and with a zeal springing out of a selfish root. According to his view as a Pharisee, every Jew with the authorized ritualistic qualification would enter the Messianic kingdom as a matter of right, and saw in the Messiah the Head of a new kingdom that would annihilate Gentile powers and control the destiny of the world.
3. Nicodemus was of a timid and compromising temper. He came to Jesus "by night;" not, as some suppose, because he feared to give too much importance to the young Rabbi by coming openly, but because he feared to lose his credit with his unbelieving colleagues of the Sanhedrin. This timid spirit never left him, though he became somewhat stronger with experience; for he afterwards defended Jesus without acknowledging any personal interest in him (John 7:51), and it was not till Jesus was dead and his body in the hands of Joseph of Arimathaea, that he brought the precious offering that displayed his faith.
4. His curiosity in Jesus may have been excited by the report made to the Sanhedrin by the deputation that waited on John the Baptist. His present secret visit, therefore, was one of inquiry as to whether Jesus was not the Messiah spoken of by the Baptist.
II. THE MODE OF HIS INQUIRY. "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."
1. He concedes that Jesus was a Rabbi, though he had not received his knowledge from the rabbinical schools, but "from God" himself.
2. He concedes his miracle-working power as an evidence of his Divine mission. This was in accordance with our Lord's own declaration at another time, that "his works bore witness that the Father sent him" (John 5:36). It is suggestive that Nicodemus uses the very expression of Peter when, in describing our Lord's ministry and miracles, that apostle said, "God was with him" (Acts 10:38).
3. Yet he does not concede our Lord's Messiahship, much less his Divinity as the Son of God. He calls him simply "a Teacher," as if he were not different from other teachers. This was the error of Nicodemus.
4. Yet his inquiry, though not formally expressed, was for further light—as to how far this teaching and these miracles betokened the dawn of the Messiah's kingdom.
III. OUR LORD'S ANSWER TO HIS INQUIRY. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." We have here the statement of the doctrine of regeneration by the Holy Ghost. The answer is, in substance, "You are asking, Am I the Messiah, and is my kingdom near, as my miracles seem to testify? I answer that my kingdom is at hand; but it is not a kingdom that men see coming 'with observation,' but a spiritual state into which men enter by a transformation of character."
1. Our Lord asserts the fact of the new birth.
(1) This new phrase is used six times in this Gospel, six times in the First Epistle of John, and once in the First Epistle of Peter. It marks the starting point of a new spiritual experience.
(2) It is more than moral renovation or outward conformity to a rule of life.
(3) It is more than baptism, to which some think it a theological equivalent; for baptism was no mystery to the Pharisees, as this new birth appeared to be, for they were familiar with the baptism of proselytes.
(4) It signified the change of heart which is wrought by the Spirit of God, when a sinner believes repentingly on Jesus Christ. It is no mere fact of New Testament experience (Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26).
(5) Yet it was a mystery to Nicodemus, notwithstanding his presumed knowledge of Scripture; else he never would have asked the absurd question, "How can a man be born when he is old?" He confounded a second beginning with a different beginning—the sphere of nature with the sphere of grace.
2. Our Lord asserts the condition of this new birth, and the agent in its accomplishment. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The usual interpretation is that the water refers to a definite external rite—baptism—and to an internal spiritual operation. The theory of baptismal regeneration points to this passage as one of its favourite proofs. Many able divines, however, believe that there is no allusion whatever here to Christian baptism.
(1) Because this ordinance was not then instituted, though the baptism of John must have been familiar to Nicodemus.
(2) Because, if the expression, "born of water," refers to baptism, and the expression, "born of the Spirit," to regeneration, they are distinct. The very use of the two terms implies that baptism will not of itself save.
(3) Because, in an analogous passage, "He who believeth and is baptized, shall be saved," baptism and faith are not regarded as the same thing. There may be baptism without faith, and faith without baptism.
(4) Because to understand baptism by "the water" here involves the absurdity of extending the same meaning to the word everywhere in this Gospel wherever anything spiritual is meant by water.
But let it be conceded that "born of water" does refer to baptism, there is nothing in the passage to justify the theory of regeneration by baptism.
(1) Consider that John the Baptist made a marked distinction between baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Ghost. He could administer the one; Jesus only could administer the other.
(2) As Pusey concedes there was no such thing as baptismal regeneration till the Spirit was given after the ascension of Christ, there could have been no such thing when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus—no possibility of a man on that night Being born both of water and of the Spirit.
(3) Scripture uniformly represents faith, not baptism, as necessary to salvation. As a matter of fact, faith was, in adults, regarded as necessary to baptism; and as faith is the pure effect of regeneration, regeneration can, no more than faith, be the effect of baptism. We have instances in the New Testament of regeneration before baptism, and therefore without baptism; therefore baptism does not regenerate (Acts 10:44-44.10.48; etc.).
(4) Much as John speaks of regeneration in his First Epistle, he never connects it with baptism. Yet, in naming the tests of regeneration, he never includes baptism among them.
(5) Regeneration is expressly referred to the Word, and not to baptism (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18). There is an analogy, indeed, in the relation of baptism and the Word respectively to salvation. The Word saves, as baptism saves; yet all who hear it do not believe, just as all the baptized are not regenerated.
(6) If "water" in the text means baptism, then baptism is necessary to salvation. Then, all the unbaptized, not to speak of the whole body of the Quakers, are lost.
(7) This theory implies that all the baptized are saved. Yet Simon Magus was still unregenerate after his baptism.
(8) If this theory be true, people are born of God who have not a single mark of regeneration, but rather every sign of godless apostasy.
(9) Such an interpretation makes it difficult to understand why our Lord rebuked Nicodemus for not knowing it: "Knowest thou not these things?" He knew there was baptism, but he did not know it involved regeneration.
(10) If baptism is equivalent to regeneration, why should it be so seldom referred to in Scripture? Faith, which is the true means of our salvation, is mentioned everywhere. Yet baptism is only mentioned twice in Romans, seven times in Corinthians, only once in Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and Peter.
IV. THE NECESSITY OF THE NEW BIRTH. "That which is of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is of the Spirit, is spirit." Nicodemus had spoken of a man entering once more into his mother's womb, and being born again. Our Lord declares that if such a thing were possible, it would not effect the new birth. Children will always be like their parents. Grace does not descend with blood. Therefore there is a profound necessity for the life of the Spirit being imparted by the Spirit.
V. THE MYSTERY OF THE NEW BIRTH. "The wind bloweth where it listeth,…but thou canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth." We cannot account for the beginning, or the influence, or the direction of the wind. So there is deep mystery in the action of the Holy Spirit upon the spirit of man; for while man preserves his absolute moral freedom, the Spirit works in him to will and to do according to his good pleasure.
VI. THE EVIDENCE OF THE NEW BIRTH. "Thou hearest the sound thereof." We cannot know all the mysteries of the wind, but we see and feel the effects of its presence in nature. So the mystery of regeneration comes visibly to the surface of Christian life in the fruits of that life.
The advent of a wholly new teaching.
Nicodemus asks in surprise, "How can these things be?" And Jesus, with equal surprise, asks how a teacher in Israel can be ignorant of them. Then he discloses a new scheme of truth.
I. THE NEW TEACHING "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen." Mark:
1. Its nature. "That we do know."
(1) Jesus knows the truth, for he is the Truth itself.
(2) He imparts it by the Spirit of truth.
(3) It is a blessed thing to know what he knows—"the truth as it is in Jesus."
2. Its source. "That we have seen." Man believes, for he must here walk by faith, not by sight; but Jesus sees. He has seen heaven, and knows all heavenly realities by immediate intuition.
3. It is truth to be openly declared. "We speak … we testify." Jesus and his disciples are witnesses to the truth.
4. Yet it was rejected by the rabbinical teachers. "And ye receive not our testimony."
(1) The Pharisees "rejected the counsel of God. against themselves, being not baptized by him [John]" (Luke 7:30). The acceptance of John's work involved the acceptance of that of Jesus.
(2) Our Lord desires Nicodemus to break with his party.
II. FAITH IS NEEDED FOR THE RECEPTION OF THIS NEW TEACHING. "If I told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?" There is an evident contrast between two classes of truths.
1. Earthly things.
(1) These were not things touching worldly interests, much less carnal things.
(2) But things within the sphere of man's knowledge and appreciation, affecting the life of the soul. The new birth itself, though "a heavenly thing," has its life and manifestation on earth. The earthly things are the elements of spiritual knowledge, having their test in the moral sense, and. in their fitness to supply the spiritual wants of men.
(3) The moral fitness of the gospel is one main guarantee of its Divinity.
2. Heavenly things. These are the secrets of Heaven which are to be received on the word of Christ. The knowledge of earthly things will initiate us into the knowledge of heavenly things. Evidently our Lord classes among heavenly things the revelation he makes in the following verses respecting the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
III. THE AUTHOR OF THE NEW TEACHING. "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man who is in heaven." Jesus knows heavenly things because heaven is his native home.
1. These words imply the Incarnation of the Son of God; for they imply his pre-existence.
2. They imply his possession of two natures in one Person; for he who is the Son of man as to his human nature, is in heaven in his Divine nature.
3. They imply that during his human life he received an immediate intuition of heavenly things.
4. They imply that heaven is a place as well as a state.
John 3:14, John 3:15
The revelation of the Divine plan of salvation.
Redemption is the essential content of revelation. The Incarnation carries with it the necessity of the Crucifixion.
I. THE NATURE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT SYMBOL HERE PRESENTED TO OUR VIEW. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up."
1. This refers to the last miracle wrought by Moses on the borders of the promised land. (Numbers 21:7.)
2. The Israelites were to see in it the sovereign hand of God, and not to ascribe the efficacy of the cure to the mere outward symbol—the brazen serpent—apart from Divine power.
3. They were to see in the whole incident, not a mere effective comparison, but a preparatory type—a figure of "good things to come," exhibiting
(1) the punishment of sin,
(2) and the image of a vicarious dispensation. "By his stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).
II. THE WORK OF CHRIST. "Even so must the Son of man be lifted up."
1. Consider the meaning of this expression.
(1) It does not signify that he was to be exalted in the sight of men in the preaching of the gospel.
(2) Nor does it signify his exaltation to heaven.
(3) But his being lifted up on the cross. This is the commentary of the apostle himself: "This he said, signifying what death he should die" (John 12:33). The cross was to be the step to the throne.
2. There was a Divine necessity for the death of Christ. "The Son of man must be lifted up."
(1) The Divine prophecies must be fulfilled.
(2) The justice of God demanded the sacrifice. Sin can no more exist without punishment than it can exist without hatefulness. The justice of God is as manifest as his grace in the death of his Son.
(3) The love of God was the grand motive for this sacrifice.
(4) The necessity of Christ's death is attested by many passages of Scripture (Heb 7:1-28 :29; Hebrews 8:3; Hebrews 9:7, Hebrews 9:12, Hebrews 9:22).
III. THE DESIGN OF THE CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST. "That whosoever believeth in him should have eternal life." Mark the various points of comparison between the type and the antitype.
1. The poison of the serpents in the wilderness represents the deadly nature of sin. That poison was death; so sin is death.
2. The gaze of the stricken Israelites answers to the look of faith. "There was life in a look."
(1) Faith is the eye of the soul looking to a Saviour. "Look unto me, and be ye saved" (Isaiah 45:22).
(2) The look implied a dependence in the divinely appointed remedy.
3. The brazen serpent answers to Christ the Son of man. We admit none of the fancies of divines respecting this matter. The one point of analogy was in the "lifting up." Jesus is the Object to be looked at by faith; and, as such, is seen
(1) in the excellence of his Person,
(2) in the completeness of his work,
(3) in the fulness of his grace.
4. The healing of the Israelites answers to that eternal life which is the result of faith. Thus the death of Christ is indispensable to the life of believers. And it stands in causal connection with eternal life as their inheritance. This passage proves not, as some divines say, that life is first, and that the acceptance of the sinner flows from the life; but that acceptance flows from Christ's death, and that life issues out of the acceptance.
The immensity of God's love to the world.
The apostle here emphasizes the love which was manifest in the method of salvation.
I. THE TRUE ORIGIN OF SALVATION. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son." It is God's love, infinite, eternal, unchangeable.
1. Salvation is not wrung from the Father by the Son. The atonement was the effect, not the cause, of God's love.
2. This love is no contradiction to the wrath of God, which is implied in this very verse as the doom of unbelievers.
3. It is not inconsistent with the justice of God; for love is here defined as giving the Son to a sacrificial death, which signifies the satisfaction of Divine justice.
4. It is not possible to resolve justice into love under the idea of "a dualism of the Divine attributes;" for they are each distinct attributes: as in love God gives, in justice he maintains his inalienable prerogatives as God.
5. Christ does not set forth God's love with the mere object of assuring us of its reality, but rather to magnify it by the value of the sacrifice which was the design of it.
6. Love is not sacrificed to justice, but becomes all the more transcendently glorious because of the Divine necessity for a satisfaction to justice.
II. THE INFINITE SACRIFICE FOR THE WORLD. "He gave his only begotten Son."
1. It was the Son of God who was given by God. In the previous verse his tide is the Son of man, which recalls his humiliation. Here his title recalls his Divine dignity. The union of the two natures in the Person at the Mediator gives an infinite value to his sacrifice.
2. The gift of the Son implies his sacrificial death.
(1) The words do not point to God's purpose of salvation.
(2) Nor to the gift of the Son to the believer in the application of redemption by his Spirit.
(3) But to his being given up to death, whether it refers to the Father's act in giving him (Romans 8:32), or to the Son's act in giving himself (Matthew 20:28; Galatians 1:4). The expression points to sacrifice, because the offerer of the victim in the Levitical economy presented it himself as part of the established ceremony.
3. The unworthy objects of this love. "God so loved the world."
(1) It would be a startling announcement to Nicodemus, with all the narrow particularism of the Pharisee, that this love was destined to extend to the whole world of man outside the borders of Judaism.
(2) There is nothing in God's love to the world inconsistent with his wrath against sin. He loves all his creatures, but he hates and. punishes their sin, and will not imperil the effects of his love while the obstacles caused by sin stand in the way.
III. THE DESIGN OF THE SACRIFICE OF CHRIST. "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
1. The channel of Divine life is opened by faith.
(1) Faith accepts the Divine testimony respecting Christ as the Redeemer (1 John 5:10).
(2) Faith is the instrument of our justification, as it is the means of apprehending the righteousness of Christ.
(3) Faith is the root principle of Christian life (Galatians 2:20).
2. The tremendous evil that is averted. "Should not perish." This implies
(1) separation from God both here and hereafter (2 Thessalonians 1:9);
(2) the sufferings of hell (Revelation 20:10, Revelation 20:15);
(3) an eternity of punishment (Matthew 25:46).
3. The infinity of the blessings received by faith. "Everlasting life." It is contrasted
(1) with the wrath of God (John 3:36);
(2) with destruction (Matthew 7:13, Matthew 7:14);
(3) with eternal fire (Matthew 18:9);
(4) with judgment or death (John 5:24).
(5) It is everlasting in duration, as well as in excellence.
The Incarnation regarded respectively in its design and in its actual result.
I. THE DESIGN OF THE INCARNATION. "For God sent not his Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world through him might be saved."
1. It was for the salvation of the world.
(1) There was no longer a merely particularistic dispensation, but one that included the whole race of man.
(2) It was not a mere design to include the race within an area of religious privileges.
(3) It was a design to save man
(a) from the guilt of sin,
(b) from the power of sin,
(c) and to give him an eternal inheritance in glory.
2. It was not for the judgment of the world. The Jews expected the kingdom for the Jews, and judgment for the Gentiles.
(1) The text does not imply that the Son of man will not judge the world in the great day. This will be his personal act.
(2) It implies that the advent of the Messiah would not, as the Jews fondly imagined, involve an immediate judgment of the Gentiles or nations.
(3) But the salvation brought by the Messiah, though not including judgment, was, by the act of men themselves, a preparation for judgment.
II. THE ACTUAL RESULT OF THE INCARNATION—A JUDGMENT. "To judge is to prove a man's moral state by a detailed examination of his acts." The judgment is not condemnation, for it may he favourable or otherwise.
1. The application of the judgment. "He that believeth on him is not judged: but he that believeth not is judged already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
(1) Judgment does not touch the believer, because, being in Christ, there is no condemnation against him (Romans 8:1). The death of the Surety is his guarantee against judgment.
(2) Judgment rests on the unbeliever by the very fact of his unbelief.
(a) The greatest sin is unbelief, because it is a rejection of God's dear Son, his sacrifice, his work.
(b) This unbelief reveals the moral tendency of the man. It is a mistake to think that unbelief is a purely intellectual act. It is moral as well as intellectual.
2. The peculiarity of the judgment. "And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light." The unbeliever unveils his moral state by rejecting Christ.
(1) The light—which is Christ—is offered, setting forth the revelation of God in the clearest manner. In that light men might well see
(a) themselves and
(2) The darkness is chosen because it is loved more than light.
(a) It is hard to conceive of a rational creature loving darkness, walking in it, having fellowship with the works of darkness, because, darkness suggests the idea
(α) of stumbling,
(β) of discomfort,
(γ) of danger.
(b) The reason of their choice. "Because their deeds were evil."
(α) Thus the evil life reacts upon the mental judgment.
(β) The unbeliever is resolved to continue in his evil, and therefore will not allow the light to fall upon him.
III. THE CAUSE OF THIS SELF-EXECUTING RESULT. There is a twofold moral state.
1. Those who do evil hide from the light, because they dread its manifesting power. "For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved."
(1) This displays the cowardice of man in unbelief. He is afraid of himself. He is afraid to see himself as he really is in the sight of God's unerring Law.
(2) It displays the folly of man, for there is a day coming in which the secrets of all hearts shall be made manifest. No sinner can escape from final judgment.
(3) It shows how the principle of unbelief is more moral than intellectual.
2. The true believer seeks the light, because he seeks the manifestation of his divinely done acts. "Right action is true thought realized" in the case of the "doer of truth."
(1) He recognizes the true source of all his holy deeds—they are "wrought in God;" for God works in him to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:14, Philippians 2:15).
(2) He seeks to give God the glory of his obedience (1 Corinthians 10:31).
(3) The manifesting light is
The ministry of our Lord in the country districts of Judaea.
I. MARK THE INCESSANT ACTIVITY OF OUR LORD. "After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized."
1. He passed from the city to the country, finding, perhaps, a happy change in the simplicity and docility off the peasantry. If he is rejected in Jerusalem, he will appeal to the people of Judaea outside the religious centre. He went about every day doing good.
2. He baptized disciples.
(1) His baptism was preparatory to the establishment of his kingdom, like John's baptism.
(2) The baptism was administered by the disciples, yet by his authority. It was less ostentatious to employ the disciples, as the ordinance involved the acceptance of himself as Saviour.
II. MARK THE SUCCESS OF HIS COUNTRY MINISTRY. The baptisms implied that he had collected disciples. "All men come unto him." The success that was denied to him in Jerusalem was most marked in the places where the representatives of the reigning Pharisaism had no place.
The relation between our Lord and his forerunner.
Jesus seems to have followed in the footsteps of John, who was still at large, baptizing disciples in the southern borders of Judaea.
I. THE CONTROVERSY BETWEEN THE JEWS AND JOHN'S DISCIPLES. The subject of dispute. "About purifying." It was caused by the competition of the two baptisms, and turned upon the best mode of true purification.
1. The Jews might ascribe greater efficacy to Jesus' baptism than to John's.
2. John's disciples might claim the honour of superiority, because their master's baptism was the first in point of time.
3. The Jews might argue that John's was unnecessary now that Christ had come.
4. John's disciples might argue that their master's baptism was still necessary as a preparation for the Messiah.
II. CONSIDER HOW JOHN SETTLES THE CONTROVERSY.
1. The Baptist does not resolve it directly at all, for he makes no allusion to the question of baptism.
2. He resolves it by pointing out, with a noble and touching humility, the exact rotation existing between himself and our Lord, as one not of opposition or comparison at all.
(1) He represents the greater success of Jesus as due to God. "A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven." It is God's will, not man's energy or zeal, that secures success.
(2) He reminds his disciples that he had all along consistently represented his mission as purely provisional. "Ye yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him."
(3) He distinctly marks the inferior place assigned to himself. "He that hath the bride is the bridegroom." He is himself not the Bridegroom, but his friend.
(a) The bride is the Messianic community;
(b) Christ is the Bridegroom;
(c) John is "the friend of the Bridegroom," whose office it was to bring them together.
(4) He is perfectly satisfied with this position. "This my joy therefore is fulfilled." He is delighted to bear the Bridegroom's voice, and to be the agent of bringing the Jews to recognize his Messiahship.
3. He regards his own importance as destined to diminish from day to day before the increasing acceptance of the Messiah. "He must increase, but I must decrease."
(1) It is a great trial to human pride to efface one's self in the midst of a career of extraordinary popularity, while the energies of life are still unbroken, and the hopes of expanding usefulness are strong in the heart.
(2) As a test of character, this declaration marks the true greatness of the Baptist. There is something sublime as well as touching in his humility.
The Baptist's confirmation of his statement respecting the superiority of Christ.
He gives several reasons why Jesus must increase, and he himself must decrease.
I. THE ORIGIN OF JESUS. "He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth."
1. Jesus belongs to heaven; the Baptist to the earth.
2. Jesus is above all servants of God; the Baptist is one of his servants.
3. Jesus must ever eclipse all his servants, causing them to fade away like the morning star before the sun; they find their true enjoyment in the resplendent glory of Christ.
4. John is hemmed in by the peculiar limitations of an earthly existence; his ideas are derived and. dependent; he sees heavenly realities from the imperfect standpoint of faith. He can summon the world to repentance, but he cannot give repentance.
II. THE PERFECTION OF CHRIST'S TEACHING. "And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth."
1. His Divine origin secures the unique glory of his teaching; for, being in the bosom of the Father, he is acquainted with all his counsels. He is a witness who has both seen and heard what he declares to man.
2. Consider the perverse unbelief that rejects the teaching. "And no man receiveth his testimony." Jerusalem, as the religious centre of Judaism, gives it no welcome.
3. The believer's witness to the truth of God. "He that receiveth his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true."
(1) The Jews' rejection was not total. There were many believers in Christ's words.
(2) The believer bears his testimony—the testimony of his inward experience—to the truth of God, just as the unbeliever makes God a liar (1 John 2:4). What a grand reality is faith!
(3) The reason of Christ's words being the very truth of God; for "God giveth net the Spirit by measure." Therefore he is "full of grace and truth," and "in him are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
4. Christ's filial dignity and sovereignty. "The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand."
(1) The love of the Father is the source of all gifts to the Head, and, through the Head, to the members.
(2) The sovereignty in the hands of Christ enables him to make all things work together for the good of his people. He has a hand of power, of pity, of blessing, always stretched out over his Chinch.
5. The practical consequence of the Son's sumpremacy in the twofold issue of life.
(1) The issue of eternal life. "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life."
(a) The nature of faith.
(α) It is not a mere brief in the Son's Godhead, or Mediatorship, or ability to give life; it is not a mere assent to Divine testimony concerning the Son.
(β) It is an actual trusting in the Son, and therefore an act of the will and the heart as welt as of the understanding.
(b) The object of faith. "The Son," who is able to save,
(α) because he is the Son of God, and therefore Divine;
(β) because he is the Son of man, and therefore human. Faith derives all its importance from its object.
(c) The connection between faith and life. Faith brings the sinner into possession of everlasting life, because it unites him to Christ as his life. "Because I live, ye shall live also." "The life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God" (Galatians 2:20).
(2) The issue of abiding wrath. "But he that disobeyeth the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."
(a) Unbelief is disobedience, as faith is obedience, to the Son of God. Thus it is essentially a practical principle controlling conduct.
(b) The guilt of disobedience is enhanced by the supreme dignity of him to whom it is due.
(c) Disobedience is incapacity to see life. The sinner has
(α) no conception of its nature,
(β) and no enjoyment of its blessings.
(d) The retribution of disobedience is permanent.
(α) So long as a sinner obstinately refuses to receive the Son of God, there is nothing to break the connection established by Divine law between disobedience and wrath. "The wrath of God abideth on him."
(β) There is wrath as well as love in God.
(γ) The last words of this discourse represent the last words of the Old Testament—for the warning voice of the Baptist is no more heard; and they recall the closing sentence of that Testament, "Lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."
HOMILIES BY J.R. THOMSON
Christianity the kingdom of God.
From this language of the Lord Jesus, employed thus early in his ministry, we learn what was his own conception of the religion he came to found amongst men. It is reasonable to believe that the Jewish theocracy suggested the form and type of the new and perfect religion. The Divine wisdom had instituted a State which was intended to serve, and which had served, the purpose of introducing into the world ideas of the eternal righteousness. But the Jewish nation was only a shadow of the Christian Church. We are accustomed usually to speak of Jesus as the Saviour, and to picture Christianity under its gentler aspect as a fellowship and a family. But Christ claimed to be a King, and represented his Church as a kingdom. Not that this aspect is exclusive of others. But our Lord stated the plain truth, and his statements should be taken as a rebuke to all merely sentimental and selfish views of religion.
I. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS RULED BY A DIVINE SOVEREIGN. Absolute monarchy is among men distrusted on account of the imperfections and weaknesses of human nature. The autocrat is usually a tyrant. But Christ, being the Son of God, and the incarnation of Divine wisdom, justice, and clemency, is fitted to rule; and his sway is acknowledged as deserving of implicit submission on the part of all mankind.
II. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS COMPOSED OF CONSECRATED HUMAN NATURES. The empire of the Creator over the inanimate and the brute creation is perfect, The Lord Jesus came to reassert and re-establish the Divine dominion over intelligent and spiritual beings. That these are in a sense subject to Divine authority is not disputed. But Christ desires a voluntary and cheerful obedience. Unwilling subjects afford him no satisfaction. To rule over the bodily and outward life of men is an object of human ambition. But the kingdoms of this world, and their glory, have no charm for Christ. It is in human hearts that he desires and loves to reign. He has undoubtedly an external empire; but this he possesses in virtue of his spiritual sway.
III. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS GOVERNED BY RIGHTEOUS LAWS. The ordinances of earthly governments aim at justice, and in varying degrees they secure their aim. Yet they partake of human imperfection. But of the laws of Christ, and of his apostles, who spoke with his authority, we may say that they are the expressions of the Eternal Mind. It is no grievance to obey them. They realize our moral ideals, i.e. in their intention and requirements. Their observance tends to the highest human good and well being. Their practical and universal prevalence would make earth heaven.
IV. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS ENTERED BY COMPLIANCE WITH CONDITIONS PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL. Men are born subjects of the Queen of England; but they must be born anew of water and of the Spirit, in order that they may become subjects of the Lord Christ. Both the Catholic and the Puritan ideas of regeneration convey this truth. The one lays more stress upon the baptism, which symbolizes a heavenly influence; the other upon the individual experience, which emphasizes the spiritual personality. Both alike agree with the scriptural assertion that Christianity, in its Divine completeness, involves men's participation in newness of convictions, newness of feeling, newness of principle, newness of life. The new birth begins the new life. The birth, no doubt, directs our thoughts to a Divine agency; the new life leads us to think of the human cooperation. And the kingdom of the just and holy Christ is characterized both by the Divine provision and by the human acceptance, both by the Divine authority and the human submission.
V. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS DISTINGUISHED BY MANY AND VALUABLE PRIVILEGES. The citizenship of a great nation, of a powerful city, is prized among men for the sake of its accruing honours and advantages. Civis Romanus sum was no empty boast. Far greater are the immunities and honours and joys connected with citizenship in the kingdom of Christ. The safety which is experienced beneath Divine protection, the happiness which flows from Divine favour, the spiritual profit which accompanies submission to Divine requirements,—these are some of the privileges accorded to such as are within, unknown to such as are without, the heavenly kingdom of the Son of God.
VI. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM HAS BEFORE IT A DESTINY BRIGHT AND GLORIOUS. All earthly kingdoms bear within them the seeds of corruption and decay. From these the spiritual state is free. It is subject to no "decline and fall." Because Divine, it is incorruptible; and because incorruptible, imperishable—"an everlasting kingdom, a dominion enduring unto all generations."—T.
The turn which our Lord Jesus gave to this conversation with Nicodemus must have been a great surprise to the "teacher of Israel." The thoughts of the rabbi seem to have run, naturally enough, upon outward and tangible realities. To him a prophet was authenticated by "signs;" a "kingdom" was something of political interest, "birth" was physical, etc. Christ's way of looking at religion, and at the religious life, evidently perplexed him. Yet it would seem that afterwards, when these new ideas had penetrated his mind, he came to sympathize with the mission and the methods of the Messiah. He exchanged his carnal views for such as were spiritual, his timidity for boldness, his questioning for a confident faith.
I. THE SUBJECT OF THE NEW BIRTH. In opposition to the prejudices of Nicodemus, who at first could think only of a body as susceptible of birth, our Lord taught that the spirit of man may be born anew, and must be so born in order to the experience of highest blessing.
II. THE NEED OF THE NEW BIRTH. This is to be remarked in the nature of the old and unregenerate life. The soul which is misled by error, which is abandoned to sin, which is strange to the favour of God, needs to be born anew. Carnal views of religion, selfish principles of life, need to be eradicated from the soul. But evil is so inwrought into man's constitution and habits that he needs to be spiritually reconstructed in order that he may see as God sees, feel as God. feels, act as God wills.
III. THE POWER OF THE NEW BIRTH. The change to be effected is so radical and so complete that no human means can avail to bring it about. Hence, as our Lord teaches, the necessity for the operations of the Spirit of God—mighty, though mysterious, as the rush of the wind when it bends the trees of the forest and roars in its fierceness, though man can neither see nor comprehend it. This we know: that if the spirit of man is the scene of transforming operations, if spiritual results are to be wrought, the Spirit of God alone can account for such a process.
IV. THE PROOF OF THE NEW BIRTH. In a word, this is the new life. The interest of birth lies in the life to which it is the introduction. So is it in the spiritual realm. The higher, the spiritual life, is a contrast to the old; it is marked by all that is divinely excellent and beautiful, and it is immortal, being perfected only in the presence and the fellowship of God himself.—T.
The wind and the Spirit.
Things natural are the emblems of things spiritual. It is no accident that in this very verse the same word is used to designate the wind that blows upon the surface of the earth, and the Spirit that breathes over the souls of men. In many languages the breeze or the breath is the symbol of the unseen vital principle that distinguishes living beings from the material universe, and even of the higher and properly spiritual nature. Our Lord in this passage of his conversation with Nicodemus extends the symbolism from the principle to its agency, and illustrates the working of the Spirit of God by a reference to the mysterious movement of the wind. The parallelism appears in—
I. THE ORIGIN. Man is powerless to cause the wind to blow from one quarter or from another, for the wind is one of the great forces of nature, i.e. of the operation of God, the Maker and Lord of all. In like manner, the Spirit of truth and holiness is the Spirit of God. No man can claim credit for his influences; they belong to the superhuman system which is independent of human wisdom or skill. If the Church of Christ is the creation of the Spirit (ubi Spiritus, ibi Ecclesia), it is not an institution of human origin and device, but an organism into which God himself has breathed the breath of life.
II. THE CHARACTERISTICS.
1. The wind is invisible, and the same is the case with the Spirit of God, who is perceived by no one of the senses. Invisibility is no proof of the unreality of the breeze or the gale. The influence of the Spirit of God is upon human souls, and cannot be traced by the action of the senses; but that influence is as real as is that of any force, whether material or psychical.
2. The Spirit of God resembles the wind in the secret and inscrutable character of his operations. That there are meteorological laws is not questioned; but the forces that account for the wind are so many and so complicated, that they are even now only very partially understood. At all events, the variations of the atmosphere were altogether unknown to Nicodemus, and the argument was obviously effective for him. In like manner, the operations of God's Spirit are mysterious; they take place in the recesses of the soul; their method is often incomprehensible by us. Yet there is nothing arbitrary or capricious in these operations; they are all the manifestations of Divine wisdom and goodness. The workings of the Holy Ghost are present where we, perhaps, should little have expected them. Not only can we not prescribe to God how he should work; we cannot always tell how he has worked. He evidently has many direct channels by which his Spirit approaches the souls of men.
III. THE RESULTS. If we cannot see the wind or trace its modes of action, we are at no loss to understand and appreciate its effects. We hear its sound, we feel its force, we perceive its presence by its works. The Spirit makes his efficacy apparent by his fruits.
1. How powerful is the Spirit of God! The wind, by its steady blowing, turns the sails of the mill, propels the ship across the ocean; by its vehemence, in the form of a hurricane or a whirlwind, destroys great works, uproots trees, unroofs houses. But what is this, as evidence of power, compared with the effects wrought by the Holy Spirit in human hearts—in human society? Here we see the mightiest works of the Supreme.
2. How various are the tokens of the Spirit's working! The wind may be Boreas or Zephyr; may sink into a sigh or wax into a roar; may pile the clouds in masses, or drive the mists like sheep before it, or fling the hail abroad. And the Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth, of conviction, of holiness, of consolation. The same Spirit distributes varied gifts to men "severally as he will." None can limit, none can even trace out, the diversity of spiritual operations.
3. How beneficent is the Spirit of God in his working! The wind does harm; yet its action, on the whole, is advantageous. But the Holy Ghost not only works good; he works nothing but good. He who is "born of the Spirit" is born to a new, a holy, a Divine life. A spiritual dispensation is the occasion of hope to this humanity, imparts to it a prospect which otherwise the most sanguine would not venture to dream of. A ransomed humanity thus becomes a renewed humanity, and renewal is the pledge of glorification. From the four winds the breath comes and breathes upon the slain; and the dead. live, and "stand upon their feet, an exceeding great army."—T.
John 3:14, John 3:15
An emblem of salvation.
It was Christ's teaching that Moses testified of him. This Moses did by foretelling the advent of a prophet like unto himself, and still more strikingly by the whole system of sacrifice which he perfected, and which the Messiah both fulfilled and superseded. He did so likewise by symbolic acts, thus unconsciously witnessing to Christ and his works. It was natural that our Lord's first mention of Moses should occur in his conversation with a Hebrew rabbi, an inquirer, and a sympathizing inquirer into his claims. The incident in Jewish history upon which our Lord grafts great spiritual lessons was one familiar, doubtless, to Nicodemus, but one of which he could never until now have seen the deep spiritual significance.
I. THE SERPENT BITE IS THE EMBLEM OF SIN. For the moral evil is, like the venom of the viper,
(1) diffused in action;
(2) rapid in progress;
(3) painful to experience;
(4) dangerous and deadly in result.
II. THE DEATHS IN THE CAMP OF ISRAEL ARE THE EMBLEMS OF THE SPIRITUAL CONSEQUENCES OF SIN. Scripture consistently represents death, i.e. moral, spiritual death, as the natural and appointed result of subjection to sin. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die;" "The wages of sin is death." If spiritual life is the vigorous exercise, in the way appointed by heavenly wisdom, of the faculties of our intelligent and voluntary nature, spiritual death consists in the deprivation of power, in the cessation or suspension of such activities as are acceptable to God.
III. THE BRAZEN SERPENT IS AN EMBLEM OF THE DIVINE REDEMPTIVE REMEDY.
1. Like the figure placed upon the banner staff, the provision for salvation from spiritual death is due to Divine mercy. Christ is the Gift of God; the power of spiritual healing is Divine power; the ransom paid is appointed and accepted by God.
2. In both there is observable a remarkable connection between the disease and the cure. It was not without significance that the remedy provided in the wilderness bore a resemblance to the disease. Christ too was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, and in a human body endured for us that death which is the penalty of sin.
IV. THE ELEVATION OF THE BRAZEN SERPENT UPON THE POLE WAS AN EMBLEM OF OUR SAVIOUR'S CRUCIFIXION AND EXALTATION. It is observable how early in his ministry Jesus referred to his "lifting up." That he by this language indicated his crucifixion does not admit of question. "When ye have lifted up the Son of man;" "I, if I be lifted up from the earth;"—are instances which show how distinctly Jesus foresaw and foretold his death, and even the manner of it. The consistency is manifest between this elevation of sacrificial death and the subsequent elevation to the throne of eternal glory.
V. THE LOOKING AT THE LIFTED FIGURE OF THE SERPENT IS AN EMBLEM OF FAITH IN CHRIST. There was nothing in the act of gazing which itself contributed to the recovery of those who were bitten. Nor is there anything meritorious in the attitude of the soul that exercises faith in the Saviour. But it is an act which brings the soul into closest relation with the all-gracious Redeemer. Faith is an attitude, an inspiration of the soul, which instrumentally secures salvation. The Divine ordinance is this: "Look and live!"
VI. THE PUBLICATION OF THE NEWS CONCERNING THE SERPENT OF BRASS IS EMBLEMATICAL OF THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL. It was a ministry of benevolence and of blessing which was discharged by those who went through the camp of Israel, heralding deliverance and life. And there are no tidings so honourable to deliver, and so profitable to receive, as the glad tidings of a great Saviour and a great salvation, which it is the office of the Christian preacher to publish to those who are afar off and to those who are near.—T.
John 3:16, John 3:17
"The gift of God."
This is the language either of our Lord himself or of the evangelist. If these are Christ's words, they contain his authoritative testimony to his own declaration. If they are the words of John, we have in them the inspired judgment of one who was in most intimate fellowship with Jesus, and who was peculiarly competent to represent his Master's work in accordance with that Master's own mind. Familiar as this comprehensive and sublime utterance is to all Christians, there is danger lest it should become trite, lest it should fail to impress our minds with its most amazing import. Obvious as are the several aspects of the central truth of Christianity here presented, it may be well to bring them successively before the mind.
I. THE MOTIVE WHICH PROMPTED THE GIFT. This was love, an emotion which some think too human to attribute to the Ruler of the universe. But we are justified in believing that we ourselves are susceptible of love only because God has fashioned us in his own likeness. Love is distinguishable from goodness as having more of the character of personal interest. And the relations between God and man being considered, love here must be understood as involving pity and also sacrifice. And whereas human love is often intense in proportion to its narrowness and concentration, Divine love is all-embracing - includes all mankind. This, indeed, follows from the origination of this love in the Divine mind. It was nothing in mankind except their need and sin and helplessness which called forth the benevolence of the heart of the heavenly Father.
II. THE PRECIOUSNESS OF THE GIFT. Great love found its expression in a great gift, worthy of the generous and munificent Benefactor of mankind. The use of the appellation, "only begotten Son," seems to point to the estimation in which Christ was held by the Father, in whose view none was to be compared with Christ. It is not easy for us to realize the value set upon Christ by the Father; but we can look at this gift from our own side, and can form some judgment of the worth of the Lord Jesus to our humanity. Because he was the Son of man the Friend of sinners, and because he was this in his humiliation, and is this in his glory, therefore he is dear and precious to the hearts of those whose nature he deigned to assume, whose lot he deigned to share. He who withholds no good thing from men, withheld not, spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all.
III. THE INTENTION AND PURPOSE WITH WHICH THE GIFT WAS BESTOWED. As here presented, this was twofold.
1. The aim was one of deliverance, to secure men from impending condemnation and perdition.
2. It was also an aim of highest beneficence, we must understand, not the mere continuance of existence, but the perpetuity of the highest well-being - that life which truly deserves the name, and which, being Divine, is also imperishable.
IV. THE CONDITION UPON WHICH THIS GIFT MAY BE ENJOYED. A moral, spiritual gift cannot be bestowed, as can a material boon, independently of the character and religious position of the beneficiary. The greatest gift of God is conferred, not upon the deserving or open the fortunate, but upon the believing. Concerning this condition of faith, it should be remarked that it is
(1) indispensable upon God's side, for he is honoured by the grateful acceptance of his free and precious gift. And it is further
(2) indispensable upon man's side, for the gift must be accepted and appropriated by those for whom it is intended. He who rejects Christ cannot benefit by Christ; it is faith that links the soul to the Savior.
APPLICATION. The word "whosoever" is here employed in order to point out that, in the Divine compassion there is no limitation, in the Divine offer there is no restriction. There is nothing in the purposes of God, nothing in the condition prescribed by Divine wisdom, which can exclude the meanest or the vilest, if only penitent and believing, from the enjoyment of this incomparable gift. - T.
Faith and judgment.
Man's life is full of alternatives. Choice between different paths that offer themselves, often between two paths, determines the direction and the character of the journey. If it is so in the decision men form as to a profession, an abode, a friendship, etc., is it not also thus with regard to religion, with regard to the principle which shall govern our moral life and decide our lasting destiny? Immediately after propounding one of the fullest and riches statements of the gospel, our Lord reverts to the moral probation which is distinctive of human life, and which is only intensified by the privilege of bearing of and knowing himself. The question for those thus privileged is—Shall they or shall they not believe on the Son of God?
I. OUR JUDICIAL RELATION TO GOD NECESSARILY INVOLVES ONE OR OTHER OF TWO SENTENCES. Because he has devised and provided the gospel, God does not therefore cease to be a Judge, wise, holy, and just. As such he will pronounce upon all who are subject to his authority a sentence either of
(1) condemnation, which is the due of sin and the desert of sinners; or of
(2) acquittal, which proceeds from Divine grace, and which is the condition of true well being. This being the alternative, it is for us a question of supreme moment—Can we in any way affect this sentence?
II. OUR MORAL RELATION TO GOD DETERMINES OUR JUDICIAL RELATION. In other words, his sentence will be according to the attitude, so to speak, of our hearts. It is open to us:
1. To reject or disbelieve in Christ the Saviour. The "only begotten Son of God" claims our reverence and our faith. But the language of Jesus makes it evident that we may withhold what he claims; and to neglect and disregard is the same thing as to refuse and despise salvation. Such a choice is falling back upon our own deserts; and to appeal to justice is to court condemnation. Or we may:
2. Accept or put faith in Christ. Such a choice is opening the eye of the soul to the light that shines, and welcoming it and walking in it. This is to fall in with the gracious proposals of our heavenly Father, to obey the call to spiritual liberty and life. If it be said that God judges righteously according to the character of those who stand at his tribunal, this is admitted; but it should be observed that faith is the means of forgiveness, and forgiveness is the spring of obedience and of conformity to the mind and will of the All-holy.
III. THE SENTENCE OF ACQUITTAL OR CONDEMNATION IS THEREFORE VIRTUALLY PRONOUNCED BY OURSELVES, AND THAT IN THIS PRESENT LIFE. There is an awful meaning in these words: "He that believeth not hath been judged already." Condemnation is virtually passed upon the unbelieving, even in this life; and it may be said that it is pronounced by themselves. This doctrine of Christ is in no way inconsistent with the scriptural declaration that there shall be a day in which God shall judge all men by Jesus Christ. But it reminds us of the far-reaching, the eternal influence of cur present decision, and bids us "flee from the wrath to come."—T.
Lovers of darkness.
Our Lord's discourse to Nicodemus was mainly of redemption and regeneration, and was therefore bright and hopeful. Yet he was constrained, in faithfulness and candour, to speak also of condemnation. The prospect before mankind was not one of unclouded glory. The prevalence of sin and the alienation of man from God were a cloud upon the horizon which obscured the brightness even of the gospel day.
I. THE ADVENT OF LIGHT. In the spiritual world light is the emblem of knowledge. Christ is designated by the evangelist "the true Light;" he calls himself "the Light of the world." He brings the knowledge of God, and consequently of salvation and of eternal life. This spiritual sunrise involves the diffusion of purity, peace, and joy.
II. THE PREFERENCE OF SOME MEN FOR DARKNESS OVER LIGHT. In itself light is best. "Light is good, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun." Those who live and walk in the light of God are spiritually blessed. If any person rejects and loathes the light, the fault is in the eye of the soul, which is manifestly diseased. The captive may prefer the dungeon to liberty. Of many of the Jews—Christ's own countrymen—it was justly said, "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." And even now, when the gospel is preached, and men are invited to come into the sunshine of God's favour, there are found those who prefer to lurk in the dark caves of ignorance, superstition, and sin.
III. THEIR REASON OR MOTIVE FOR THIS PREFERENCE. Our Lord speaks explicitly and powerfully upon this. His doctrine, his religion, condemns sin; his gospel is good tidings of deliverance from sin. His own hatred to sin was such that he was crucified by sinners who could not endure his purity, whilst he endured crucifixion that he might redeem men from the power and love of sin. Hence Christ's society was distasteful to impenitent sinners when he was upon earth, and his gospel is distasteful, is repugnant, to the same class today. Those whose works are evil will not come to the light, for thus their evil works would be exhibited in their monstrous heinousness, and they themselves would be reproved.
IV. THE JUDGMENT THUS INCURRED.
1. The ground of judgment is here plainly stated; it is not so much for sin, as for that content and delight in sin, which leads to the rejection of the gospel, to the refusal of deliverance from sin, to the hatred of that Saviour who came to vanquish sin.
2. The court of judgment is implied. The lovers of darkness are condemned by their own conscience, whose dictates they disregard in order to follow the impulses of passion. Yet it is Christ himself, the Word of God, who speaks in human nature, and utters the sentence of disapproval and of condemnation. Thus it is that Christ is to all men either their Saviour or their Judge. His coming to this earth was the cause only of salvation, but to many it was the occasion of judgment and of confusion.—T.
If this passage describes the fulness of spiritual gifts and powers bestowed by God upon the Lord Jesus, then there is here implicit or explicit mention of the Three Persons of the Trinity. Impossible though it is for the finite intellect thoroughly to understand the statement, Christians receive it in faith, and believe that the Father bestows the Spirit upon the Son, and that in unstinted liberality.
I. A CONTRAST IS HERE IMPLIED BETWEEN CHRIST AND THE PROPHETS,
1. The immediate suggestion seems to be the language in which John the Baptist acknowledged the superiority of the Messiah, whose herald and forerunner he was appointed to be. John was inspired in such measure as was requisite in order to the accomplishment of his mission. But the compass of his revelation was limited, and, powerful as was his preaching, it was of necessity human, and by its very aim one-sided. The inspiration of Christ was very different; for his ministry was Divine and perfect, and needed qualifications altogether transcending those which sufficed for his forerunner.
2. The same was the case with the earlier prophets of the older dispensation. They could, indeed, truly preface their prophecies with the declaration, "The Spirit of the Lord was upon me." But they were commissioned for a purpose, and they were inspired accordingly; and when they foretold the advent of the Messiah, they foretold that that advent should be accompanied by a Divine effusion of blessing—a very flood of spiritual energy and life. And they, as well as John, testified beforehand of the higher gifts of him who should come.
II. REASONS ARE APPARENT FOR THE BESTOWAL OF THE SPIRIT IN UNLIMITED MEASURE UPON THE CHRIST.
1. The Lord Jesus was, by virtue of his Divine nature, capable of receiving the Spirit in a larger degree than all who went before him, than all who followed him.
2. The Father's approval and love of the Son were unlimited; for Christ did always those things that pleased the Father, and the Father declared himself to be well pleased with him.
3. Inasmuch as the Father sent his Son upon a mission altogether unique, one requiring most peculiar qualifications, it was evidently necessary that there should be a corresponding impartation of spiritual power, that the work might be not only performed, hut performed in a manner wanting in no respect. The greatest of all works needed the greatest of all gifts.
III. THERE WERE PROOFS IN OUR LORD'S CHARACTER AND MINISTRY THAT HE POSSESSED AN INEXHAUSTIBLE SUPPLY OF THE SPIRIT OF GOD. The whole of the Gospels might be quoted in support of this assertion. Upon Christ rested the Spirit, as the Spirit of wisdom, of power, and of love. His discourses, his mighty works, his demeanour under suffering and wrong, his willing death, his glorious exaltation,—all evinced the presence and indwelling of the immortal power that pervades and hallows to highest ends the spiritual universe of God.
IV. THE UNIQUE OUTPOURING OF THE DIVINE SPIRIT UPON OUR LORD ACCOUNTS FOR THE UNIQUE RESULTS WHICH FOLLOWED HIS MISSION TO EARTH. Thus:
1. Christ's ministry was perfectly acceptable to the Father, who both commissioned and qualified him to become the Mediator.
2. The perfect efficiency of this wonderful ministry was thus secured.
3. The glorious results of Christ's coming into the world were thus accounted for. Why did the Pentecostal effusion, and the subsequent dispensation of the Holy Ghost, follow the exaltation of the Mediator to the throne of dominion? Evidently because in Christ the Spirit overflowed from himself to his people, and to the race for whom he died; because he "received gifts for men." Himself participating in unlimited supply in the graces of the Holy Spirit, he became the glorious agent through whom copious blessings were conferred upon the Church and upon the world. He received, not for himself merely, but for us also. The gifts were unto him, but they were for us.—T.
HOMILIES BY B. THOMAS
The greatness of God's love to the world.
This will be seen if we consider—
I. THE OBJECT OF HIS LOVE. "The world"—the fallen human family.
1. There was nothing in the world to attract and deserve his love. For he loved the world, not as he made it, but as it made itself by sin. God loves all holy beings. This is natural, as natural as it is for a virtuous father to love a dutiful son. But God loved the world in its disobedience and sin. It was the magnitude and gravitation of his love, and not the attraction of the world.
2. There was much in the world to repel his love. Not only it was not attractive, but it was most repelling. Its fall was deliberate and wilful, and it was indifferent, and even rebellious in its fallen state. The magnitude of any force is measured by the opposing forces it conquers. In this light, how great must be the love of God to the world! He conquered the mightiest oppositions—the sin, the disobedience, the bitterest enmity, and the cruelest antagonism of the world. He loved the world in spite of itself.
3. The world deserved punishment—perdition. This punishment was hanging over it. Justice called and demanded vengeance, but mercy triumphed over judgment, took justice into its confidence, made a treaty with it, and became responsible for all its heavy claims. What must be the greatness of the love that did this!
4. He loved the whole world. Not a part of it, or a few of its inhabitants, but all alike, and altogether. He might have made a selection, but the selection of Divine love was the whole world. This reveals it as a boundless and fathomless ocean, inexhaustible in its riches, and infinite in its kind impulses. The arms of his love are so everlasting that they took hold of the fallen world and fondled it in their safe and warm embrace.
II. THE GIFT OF HIS LOVE. Love is measured by the gifts it presents and the sacrifice it makes. In this light, how great is God's love to the world!
1. He gave his Son. Think of him as a mere Son—good, dutiful, and holy. How great is the gift! To give a holy being, such as an angel, would be a great gift and a manifestation of great love; but he gave his Son.
2. He gave his only begotten Son. To give one son out of many would be a manifestation of great love; but he gave his only Son, and his only begotten Son—his equal—who was one with him in essence, mind, and heart; the Son of his love, who was ever with him and ever his delight. Such a gift he never gave before, and can never give again. The gift is royal and matchless, the sacrifice is Divine and unique—an index of love too high, too broad, too deep, too Divine for mortals to comprehend.
3. He gave his only begotten Son as a sacrifice. To send his Son would be a manifestation of great love, but to give him is a manifestation of a far greater; for he sent his Son to the world as a Messenger of peace, but he gave him as a Sacrifice for the world's sin. Divine love in the Incarnation appears like a brilliant star, like that star the "wise men" saw in the east; but in the Crucifixion, with all its indignities and agonies, it appears like a sun all ablaze, and filling the universe with its matchless radiance. On Calvary God's love is on fire, and the flames envelop the world, and even the throne of glory; so that in view of this, how natural is the exclamation of the evangelist elsewhere. "God is love"! When we gaze upon it in sacrifice, we are completely dazzled, so that we can see nothing but love Divine and infinite.
III. THE PURPOSE OF HIS LOVE. This is twofold.
1. To save the human race from the greatest calamity. "Should not perish."
(1) Their perdition was inevitable without God's interference. If the Law were left to take its course, its transgressors would be summarily punished; they were already in the hands of justice, and the verdict was "perdition."
(2) God was under no obligation to interfere. He fully performed his part of the covenant, and surrounded man with all the possibilities and advantages of an obedient and consequently a happy life; but man wilfully neglected his own part, and transgressed the Law of his Creator, and brought upon himself his awful but righteous doom; and there was no stipulation as to mercy, so there was no obligation on the part of God to intercede.
(3) God was under no necessity to interfere. In the exercise of his matchless love in Christ, he was absolutely free and independent, for the world to him is as the small dust of the balance, and its inhabitants as mere grasshoppers. He would be eternally glorious and happy if the guilty world were left to its horrible fate. Consequently, his love is as pure and unselfish as it is glorious and infinite; for what but the most unselfish and intense love could prompt him to hold this guilty world in his arms, and prevent it from falling over the awful precipice?
2. To bring within the reach of all the greatest good. "But have eternal life."
(1) That man may enjoy the greatest good. "Life." Every life is good in itself and very precious; but this life is the highest and best of all; it is spiritual life—the life of God in the soul, and represents all good and happiness which the soul needs and is capable of enjoying.
(2) That man may enjoy, the greatest good forever. "Eternal life"—endless good and happiness. To save the guilty world from perdition manifests great love; but Divine love shines more brilliantly still, when, at the greatest possible sacrifice, not merely saves the world from the greatest calamity, but brings within its reach the greatest good, "eternal life."
IV. THE CONDITION ON WHICH THE BLESSINGS OF HIS LOVE MAY BE OBTAINED. There are many good human measures, offering great advantages, but containing disadvantageous clauses, which debar most from the benefit. But throughout the great scheme of redemption, God's love shines with steady and ever-increasing brilliancy. Even in the condition on which its blessings are offered, simple faith in Christ—"whosoever believeth in him."
1. This condition is essential. The blessings offered could not be received, appropriated effectively, without faith, which means trustful and hearty reception. "Without faith it is impossible to please God;" and it is quite as impossible without it to save and bless man.
2. This condition is reasonable. Is it not reasonable that those who stand in need of salvation should believe and trust their Saviour? Are not the faith and trust demanded by Divine love continually exercised in the affairs of our daily life, as conditions of temporal well being? Reason is on the side of faith and against unbelief.
3. The condition is easy. Divine love could not fix upon an easier condition. A higher condition doubtless could be demanded; but such is the greatness of Divine love, and the intensity of the Divine will that all should avoid perdition and obtain eternal life, that they are offered on the easiest condition possible—simple faith, simple trust, and a grateful acceptance of the benefit. This condition is in the power of all; and in view of what God has done through Christ, one would think that it is easier far to believe than not.
4. The same condition is for all, and all partake of the benefit on the same condition. "Whosoever believeth," etc. There is no distinction of any kind, no partiality, no limit. He might make a distinction—he had perfect right; but such is the infinitude of his love that he makes none, no distinction, no limit; he leaves this to man himself, but not without every effort of Divine love to direct his conduct and guide his choice.
1. The tale of God's love is most eloquently told by its own deeds. If it be asked how much God loved the world, the simple answer is, "God so loved the world that he gave," etc. The gift and sacrifice of love answer with Divine and ever-increasing eloquence.
2. Man's ruin is entirely of himself; his salvation is entirely of God. The simple progeny of his grace, the pure offspring of his love.
3. It is far easier now for man to enter life than fall into perdition. For between him and perdition there are Divine barriers—God's love, in the agonies of suffering and the eloquence of sacrifice, warning and beseeching him. Between him and life there is nothing but his own unbelief.
4. If anything can bring man to repentance and faith, it is the love of God in the sacrifice of his Son. If this cannot, nothing can.
5. Nothing can show the moral resisting power and perversity of man as much as his going to perdition in spite of God's love in Christ. What power of madness! What a terrible fall—to fall to perdition over the infinite love of God!—B.T.
The great purpose of God in the mission of his Son.
I. IN ITS NEGATIVE ASPECT. "For God sent not his Son," etc. This implies:
1. That God might have sent him for purposes of judgment.
(1) The world amply deserved this. The Jewish world had abused its great and special privileges, and the heathen world had not lived up to the light it possessed, and had become guilty and abominably wicked. Hypocrisy, infidelity, and vice were rampant.
(2) This would be strictly just. If the Son were sent to condemn and destroy the world, the ends of justice would be strictly answered; for even the Jewish world was disimproving under the preliminary dispensation of mercy, and loudly called for judgment.
(3) The world expected and feared this. The world, being guilty naturally, expected and feared punishment. It was suspicious of any communication from the other side. It feared that it might be a message of vengeance. It was so in Eden, and throughout the old dispensation and at the beginning of the new. Friendly angels were suspected of being the executers of justice, and even the Messiah himself was expected to appear as a Judge.
2. God did not do what he might have justly done. "For God sent not," etc.
(1) He had a sufficient reason for this. The reason doubtless was the gracious purpose of his love.
(2) The world is ignorant and guilty and selfish, so as to be blind to the gracious purposes and the merciful movements of Jehovah. The pure in heart can only see him.
(3) God moves in an infinitely higher groove than man. Therefore man's surmises and. anticipations of the Divine purposes are often false, he is better than we think, and more gracious than we expect. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways," etc.
3. Much of God's goodness to the world consists in not doing what he might justly and easily do.
(1) This is seen in nature. In thousands of instances we see how mighty forces would be destructive if not checked by the laws of nature, which are but the almighty and gracious and ever-present energy of the Divine will.
(2) This is seen in providence, as illustrated in the recorded dealings of God towards his people, as well as in the experience of all who seriously think and reflect in every age. "He has not dealt with us after our sins," etc.
(3) This is especially seen in redemption. "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world," etc. Although the world deserved this, God might have sent his Son for the purpose of judgment, but in his goodness he averted the calamity. He sent him not for this purpose.
II. IN ITS AFFIRMATIVE ASPECT. "But that the world through him might he saved."
1. The gracious purpose of God in Christ is salvation.
(1) This is suggested by the fact of the Incarnation. God might have sent his Son into the world to judge it, to punish it. He had a perfect right to do this, but it is not likely that he would do it. The Incarnation does not seem essential to judge and punish. He could do this without it. The fact suggests that the Divine purpose was not vengeance, but salvation; not judgment, but mercy.
(2) This is proved by the mission of the Son in the world. It was "peace on earth, and good will to men." he appeared not with the sword of vengeance, but with the golden sceptre of mercy; and rather than kill any one physically or morally, he voluntarily submitted to be killed himself, and from death offered life to the world, even to his cruelest foes.
(3) This is proved by the effects of his mission in the world. The effects were not destruction, but reformation; not death, but life; not vengeance, but salvation. His ministry and Divine energy healed multitudes physically and spiritually. He cheered, quickened, and saved them.
2. The purpose of God is the salvation of the world, and the whole world. "That the world should be saved." His purpose is as gracious and universal as his love. It embraces the world. Without any distinction of nationality, race, character, education, or position, the purpose is worthy of God as a Divine Philanthropist.
3. The purpose of God is the salvation of the world through the Son. "That the world through him," etc.
(1) He is the Medium of salvation, the great Agent and Author of eternal salvation. Through him the world was created, is supported, and through him it will be saved. What he has done and is doing has made the salvation of the world possible, and through him already the world is potentially saved.
(2) He is the only Medium of salvation. He is the only Saviour. There is no other, and no other would do. If some one else would suffice, the Son would not be sent. The world could be condemned and destroyed through other means, but could be saved through the Son alone.
(3) He is an all-efficient Medium of salvation. The Divine purpose of salvation, in its self-sacrificing love, its greatness, universality, its difficulties, found in him an efficient Medium. He is equal to the task. He has authority to save: God sent him. He is mighty to save: the Son of God. An almighty Saviour by nature, by birth, by Name, by experience, and by ample proofs and Divine and human testimonials, he intends to save; he was sent fur that purpose, and his purpose and love are one with those of God who sent him.
4. The gracious purpose of God to save the world through the Son makes its salvation very hopeful "For God sent not," etc. In view of this, in spite of the world's sin and terrible unbelief, we see infinite possibilities of its salvation. It is now a glorious possibility. Shall it become a practical tact? This is the Divine purpose. Shall it fail? God has answered, it shall not fail on his part. Let the world answer.
1. What God did to the world was infinitely more difficult than what he might have done. He could easily punish it, but to save it cost him infinite sacrifice.
2. What he did, when contrasted with what he might have done, stands forth as a brilliant illustration of his grace and a monument of his love.
3. What he did will be a greater condemnation of the impenitent world then what he might have done. It has placed the world under obligations and responsibilities which neither time nor eternity can obliterate. The punishment of love will be more severe than the punishment of justice.
4. What he did will bring greater glory to his Name. He will be infinitely more glorious in the anthems of a saved world than he would have been in the wails of a lost one.—B.T.
The Bridegroom's friend true to the last.
I. THE DISCIPLES' COMPLAINT. It is the embodiment of a blind and angry zeal. And. as such:
1. It is ever disparaging in its language. "He that was with thee beyond Jordan." They address their own master as "Rabbi," but speak of Jesus as "he that was," etc., as if he had no name; and, if he had, it was not worth mentioning compared with their master's. The memory of angry zeal is very shaft, and its respect for supposed opponents or rivals is shorter still.
2. It is ever contradictory in its language. "To whom thou hast borne witness." This part of their complaint contradicts the whole; for, had they reflected a little, they would find that the present actions of Jesus were in perfect harmony with John's past testimony. Blind zeal is ever contradictory, contradicting truth, God, the ministry, and even itself.
3. It is ever inaccurate in its language. "Behold, the same baptizeth." This was virtually true, but literally false. It was a hearsay mistake of the Pharisees, which the evangelist had to correct. Neither cruel opposition nor angry zeal is over-careful about the niceties of truth and accuracy of statement. To hear a thing is quite enough for its purpose.
4. It is ever exaggerating in its language. "And all men come to him." Would this were true! He invited all, and they ought to come. Doubtless Jesus was more popular now than John. The popular flow was towards him; but that all men came to him was an exaggeration, as proved by the evangelist's statement, "And no man receiveth his testimony." Jealous zeal is ever exaggerating. It sees a crowd in a few, and sometimes only a few in a large crowd. There is a vast difference between its reports and those of calm and unbiased truth.
5. It is ever calculated to do much harm. It was calculated, in this instance, to prejudice John against Jesus, and create in his breast a spirit of jealousy and rivalry, especially if we consider the plausibility of the complaint.
(1) It is expressed in a plausible language add manner. He to whom thou barest witness has set up in opposition against thee. Behold, he baptizeth in the very place where thou used to baptize; and this, after all, is his treatment to thee for thy favour and friendship.
(2) It is made by warm friends. His old disciples, in an enthusiastic and kind spirit and from good motives. And this will go very far to influence most teachers.
(3) It is made in a very critical period. John's position was altogether unique and mysterious. His popularity was now on the wane, and he was but a man. And such a complaint made at such a period was calculated strongly to tempt him to doubt and melancholy, if not to a spirit of rivalry and jealousy. And what an incalculable harm would this be! It would be a source of joy to infidelity and atheism through ages, and most damaging to the gospel, if its first great herald gave way in the hour of temptation, proved unworthy of his mission, and unfaithful to his trust.
II. JOHN'S TRIUMPHANT DEFENCE. He stood firm as a rock and majestically calm in the sudden and sweeping storm. His character as the forerunner of the Messiah never shone more brightly titan on this occasion, and, being his last public testimony to Jesus, it reaches a glorious climax and a grand peroration. His defence reveals:
1. The spirituality of his private conceptions.
(1) He looks at heaven as the source of spiritual gifts. "A man can receive nothing," etc. This is the starting point of his noble defence. Before the breath of jealousy, the suggestions of rivalry, and the storms of strife, he goes up at once into his native air, the birthplace of his mission, the nursery of good and holy thoughts, and the source of spiritual power and influence.
(2) He looks at heaven as the only source of spiritual gifts. "A man can receive nothing," etc. You may get the same kind of article in different warehouses; but spiritual power is the gift of God, and of him alone. Divine commissions are issued only from the Divine throne, and spiritual endowments come only from on high; so that neither John nor Jesus could exercise any spiritual power but what he had received.
(3) From this standpoint all is harmonious. There is no room for pride or dejection, and the jealous complaint of the disciples is entirely swept away. John and Jesus were exactly what Heaven made them—John the herald and Jesus the coming Messiah. All things which proceed from heaven are harmonious; and if we want to see them in their harmony and beauty we must view them from above. If we wish to rise above the mists and storms of party jealousy and rivalry, we must ascend into the home of love, peace, and order, and look at things in the light of heaven. From this altitude there can be no rivalry between John and Jesus. All Divine agencies are harmonious. There can be no jealousy between the morning star and the blazing sun. Had John remained down, and viewed things from his disciples' standpoint, he would see and feel as they did. But, like an eagle, he flew up to the vicinity of the sun, the central light of the kingdom of heaven, and all was harmony.
2. The consistency of his public testimony with regard to the Messiah and himself.
(1) As to what he was not. "I am not the Christ." Such were the character, the popularity, and the circumstances of John that he was naturally suspected of being the Messiah. Consequently, much of his testimony was negative, and with all his might he iterated and reiterated, "I am not the Christ," etc.
(2) As to what he was. His forerunner. "I am sent before him." Twice he directly pointed him out, but as a rule he spoke of him in general, but characteristic, terms, that they might know him rather by his character and deeds.
(3) As to the evidence of his consistency. Such was the consistency of his testimony to the Messiah that he could most confidently appeal to his disciples, and even to the complaining ones, "Ye yourselves bear me witness," etc. "Even in your jealous complaint you bear me witness." The invariable uniformity of his testimony to Christ made him now strong in the hour of trial. One wrong step or wrong expression may lead to another. All the links make up the chain. One weak link affects the whole. It is a great source of strength to the preacher if he can summon his audience to bear witness to the consistency of his ministry. One part of life affects the other. John in the wilderness was a great help to John at AEnon. If we wish our public testimony to be consistent, let our private conceptions be spiritual and heavenly.
3. The reasons of his continued attachment.
(1) The relationship of Christ to believers. He is the Bridegroom; they are the bride. As such, the bride is his; "For he that hath the bride is the Bridegroom," and no one else. His claims are absolute, sacred, and indisputable. The bride is his.
(2) His own relationship to Christ. His friend. "The friend of the Bridegroom." As such, his duty was to set forth his excellences so as to win the heart of the bride. The Bridegroom was partly a stranger. He required a friend to introduce him. Such he found in John. He realized his position and duties. By his own superiority, and the plausible, but evil, suggestions of his disciples, he was tempted to take the place of the Bridegroom and win the bride's affections for himself; but he felt that in this he would not be a friend, but the meanest foe. He realized his relationship to Christ, and performed its obligations with increasing firmness and happiness. He had no higher ambition than to be the Bridegroom's friend.
4. The sources of his joy. "Rejoiceth greatly," and why?
(1) At a fuller recognition of Jesus. Before there was expectation, and therefore anxiety and doubt; but these are gone. He hears his voice—the first notes of his public ministry. He recognized him before by appearance, and pointed to him as the "Lamb of God;" but now recognizes him by his voice, and his voice filled the land with Divine music and his soul with ecstatic joy.
(2) At Jesus' success. His success in winning the affections of the bride. The joy of having won the bride is the Bridegroom's, but his friend, standing by and hearing, shares it. The voice of the Bridegroom with the bride is joyous—the joy of mutual satisfaction and delight. There is no joy to be compared with that of triumphant and ardent love. Christian joy is common and contagious. The success of the Master produces joy in all the disciples. At the marriage of the Lamb all the good wish him joy, and are joyous with him, especially his friends and forerunners. Jesus is introduced to the soul; but a long time of anxiety often elapses between the introduction and success. When the success comes, what a joy!
(3) At the fulfilment of his own mission. When he heard the voice of the Bridegroom he heard the first victorious notes of his own mission; for his mission was to bring the Bridegroom and the bride together, and prepare for the Lord a ready people. He rejoiced that the great One he had heralded had come. He was often anxious and hesitating, but now joyous. If we herald Christ's coming faithfully, there will be no disappointment on his part; and, when come, every expectation will be more than filled and every want more than satisfied. John was joyous because his mission was fulfilled. The match was made between the King's Son and the captive daughter of Zion—between heaven and earth, between Jesus and believing souls; and it was a very happy one on both sides. The Bridegroom said of the bride, "As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters," and the bride said. of him, "Thou art the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily," etc; and the bridegroom's friend, standing by, heareth, and rejoiceth greatly. What was intended to fill him with jealousy filled him with joy, and, being filled with holy joy, he had no room for anything else.
5. His thorough self-renunciation. "He must increase," etc.
(1) The necessity of this is recognized. John saw the "must" of the case. It was becoming and necessary—the natural course of things. He must increase personally, officially, representatively, and dispensationally. He must increase in his influence in the hearts of humanity, in the institutions of the world, and in the songs of the redeemed. And John must decrease officially. He had introduced the Bridegroom to the bride and, the bride to the Bridegroom, and his work was at an end.
(2) The necessity of this is willingly recognized. "He must," etc. It is one thing to see the necessity of an event, it is another to submit to it willingly. John not only saw the necessity and recognized the law of increase as the lot of Jesus and of decrease as his, but accepted its flat even with joy and delight. It is not only the logic of his head, but the language of his heart. "I am willing; I am glad. Let him ascend and shine; I joyously disappear that he may be manifested." A noble self-sacrifice of the friend, and a befitting introduction to the even nobler one of the Bridegroom.
1. Every true minister is a forerunner of Christ, preparing souls to receive him. When Christ enters the soul by faith, the office of the forerunner is, to a great extent, at an end.
2. Ministers should not go between Jesus and believers. The friend of the Bridegroom should not attempt to take his place in the esteem and affections of the bride. This is the essence of the great apostasy. The friend should act as a friend all through, and nothing more.
3. There should be no jealousy or rivalry between, the disciple and the Master, nor between any of the disciples themselves. Their interests are identical, and their duty is to elevate Christ and bring humanity into living fellowship with him.
4. Ministers should avoid the temptations of declining years, waning popularity, and jealousy of a popular contemporary. All this should be kept down by a spirit absorbed in the sacred mission. Many can act on the stage with better grace than they can leave it. The last notes are often out of harmony with the tune of life. Let the end be a sunset like that of John, beautiful and glowing—a convincing proof of an earnest and a sincere life.—B.T.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
John 3:1, John 3:2
Coming to Jesus by night.
I. THE SIMPLE FACT IS STATED. We are left to draw our own inferences. Evidently we are meant to think the worse of Nicodemus for coming by night, and we may draw inferences without making Nicodemus out to be an exceptionally bad character. Just the average man of the world, with a position made for him, having much to lose by taking up boldly with new ways, and therefore feeling he could not be too cautious in his first approach to Jesus. He did not want to be compromised.
II. JESUS DID NOT SEND AWAY THE MAN WHO CAME BY NIGHT. He did not stand upon his dignity. He did not say, "Go away again, and come by daylight." Jesus is the most accessible of beings. It is better to come by day than by night, because such a coming indicates a brave, determined mind, bent on getting at the truth, and so much the better placed for reaching the truth, because it has risen above that fear of man which bringeth a snare. But it is better to come by night than not at all; and it matters a great deal to us to know that Jesus did not send this man away because he came by night. Thus we have illustration how Jesus does not break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. If weak ones are to make headway in the path of faith and righteousness, they must not he dealt with hardly in the beginning.
III. JESUS HAS THE SAME MESSAGE WHENEVER WE MAY COME. Whatever hour Nicodemus may choose, it is the same truth he will have to hear, the same process he will have to go through. Come at midnight or come at noonday, the announcement is the same, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
IV. CONTRAST THE COMING OF NICODEMUS WITH HIS DEPARTURE. Not that we are told how he departed. He may have succeeded in his immediate desire. His visit to Jesus may have remained unknown to everybody but Jesus and himself, he came in the darkness of physical night, and in the darkness of physical night he probably went away. But nevertheless, uncomfortable consequences must have come to him in ways he did not at all expect, he came in the gross darkness of spiritual ignorance, but he can hardly have gone away without some dim rays of spiritual light upon his path. There must. at all events, have been a disturbing sense of a larger world than he had. been heretofore accustomed to. He had been brought face to face with more searching views of life. You may, perhaps, choose what you will begin and how, but how you will end is beyond your choice. The one thing that everybody now knows about Nicodemus is that he is the man who came to Jesus by night. What a commentary on the vain wisdom and expectations of men! The very means Nicodemus takes to ensure secrecy end in the widest publicity. And yet it is a publicity that does not hurt Nicodemus, and it is for the world's good. It is long, long ago since it could matter in the least to Nicodemus who knew the way of his coming to Jesus.—Y.
John 3:2, John 3:3
Jesus humbling vaunted knowledge.
I. THE VAUNTED KNOWLEDGE OF NICODEMUS. Nicodemus wants to come to Jesus with safety to his own position, and he gets over the difficulty, as he thinks, by coming at night. But such a proceeding may produce greater difficulties than it removes. Now he has come, what shall he say? His aim is to sound Jesus a little, and find out if it will be politic to encourage him. We may be tolerably sure that, with such aims, Jesus would not make his task the easier. Imagine Nicodemus, after going through the usual salutations and beginnings of conversation, making his way to the business that has brought him. How, then, ought he to have begun? Surely something after this fashion: "You will think it a strange thing for me to come under cover of the dark, but you must know that I am a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, and so I cannot come just at any hour I please. Coming in the daylight, my coming would get known, and all the good things I have worked so hard to gain would speedily vanish. So, before I risk them, I want to know a little more about you." But instead of beginning with simple truth, he says the very thing he ought not to have said—the very thing which was in plain contradiction to the way of his coming, he says he knows Jesus has come from God, and these Pharisees, one and all of them, were professed servants of God, ostentatious even in their service. If, then, Nicodemus had really believed Jesus to have come from God, would he have sought conference with him in this ignominious fashion? Nicodemus feared men more than he feared God. He really knows nothing at all about God. As yet he is a mere player with words instead of an earnest dealer in deep realities. Talking about words and names must not be confounded with real searching into things. Nicodemus should have none to Jesus, saying, "Thou doer of marvels, whence hast thou come? what hast thou brought? what dost thou ask for?"
II. THE WAY TO TRUE KNOWLEDGE. Nicodemus must have his mind cleared of cant and illusion and empty tradition. Jesus does this at once by one of those fundamental declarations going down to the heart of human need. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Thus an indication is given as to the sort of people who profit by the teaching of Jesus. Nicodemus is right in calling Jesus a Teacher; but, then, he can only teach certain people. Jesus, who came to establish a spiritual kingdom of God, can as yet do nothing for Nicodemus, whose notions of a kingdom are of something having a power and splendour to be perceived by the bodily eye. Both Jesus and Nicodemus can talk about the kingdom of God, but they mean very different things. Jesus knows well what the Pharisee has come for. He suspects that Jesus, unlikely as he looks, may be a great one in the expected kingdom, and if so Nicodemus may get the first chance of a good position. So the heart of the man must be altogether altered before he can listen sympathetically to the teaching of Jesus.—Y.
"Born of water and of the Spirit."
I. OBSERVE THE TRUE TEACHER. This verse is in answer to a question. The first word of Jesus to Nicodemus is a word that brings a question. The true teacher seeks to provoke activity of mind and curiosity in the learner. The question is certainly a most absurd one, but Nicodemus had no time to prepare a sensible one. It is easy for us to be wise over the introductory declaration of Jesus, because we look at it with plenty of illustrations and explanations shining upon it. But Nicodemus, in all his previous thinking, had nothing to make him expect Jesus would thus speak; and so it is little wonder to find him staggered, confused, utterly bewildered, to hear Jesus speaking thus calmly of such a wondrous experience. The question, however absurd, leads on to a piece of most practical information.
II. THE FURTHER EXPLANATION OF JESUS. We are not likely to suppose that being born again means to live natural life over again. Few would care for that, travelling over the old road, meeting the old difficulties, fighting the old battles. Jesus explains that to be born again is to be born of water and of the Spirit. Being born of water means, of course, passing through the experience of repentance. The true disciple of John the Baptist was born of water. He repented, changed from his old view of life, manifested that changed view by changed habits and practices, and, for sign of all this, was baptized with water. Nicodemus evidently had this experience still to go through. He had not been a disciple of John the Baptist. He had yet to see what a poor shallow affair an outward kingdom is. But being born of water takes us only a small way into the regeneration. Yon must follow up discipleship of John with discipleship of Jesus. You may cease to care for the old, and yet not have found your way to possession of the new. The only new creature worth calling such is the new creature in Christ Jesus. You must feel on your heart the breath of him who has eternal life. By repentance, old things pass away; by spiritual birth, all things become new. The spiritual man looks on a virtually new world. The precious becomes worthless, and the worthless precious; the once neglected is sought for, and the once sought for is neglected.—Y.
John 3:14, John 3:15
The lifting up of the Son of man.
These are probably the closing words of Jesus to Nicodemus. Jesus has had to teach him great spiritual truths from the analogies of natural birth and the wind blowing where it listeth. Now he will conclude with an historical parallel.
I. AN HONOURED NAME IS MENTIONED. Nicodomus and his sect professed to glorify Moses. Jesus did glorify him ia reality. Perhaps Nicodemus is beginning to think that, after all, there is nothing in Jesus likely to he of much service, no correspondence between outward appearance and desired results. And now he is made to understand that Jesus is well acquainted with all the proceedings of Moses, and can use them just when they are wanted. Moses is not only giver of laws, prescriber of ceremonies, fountain of honoured traditions; he is also a saviour, and a saviour by methods that to the natural eye look to have no salvation in them.
II. A PRESSING NEED IS SUGGESTED. There must be deliverance from destruction. Something had to be done for the bitten, dying children of Israel, and God gave Moses instructions according to his own wisdom. Other means might have been employed, but those means actually were employed which served the largest ends. Why Moses had to raise the brazen serpent is not seen till Jesus is lifted on the cross. Then we understand how God has his eye on perishing individuals still. Nicodemus is not yet bitten of a guilty conscience. His aims are earthly and limited. He wants something for his own temporal advantage—something ministering to his pride as a Jew. And now Jesus hints to Nicodemus how he must discover his spiritual danger, if he is to get the full blessing from Jesus. Jesus is a Saviour as well as a Teacher. He would have men learn first their need of salvation, and then, being saved, they will go on to learn from him how best to use the life that has been saved.
III. THE DEMAND FOR SIMPLE FAITH. Such a demand must not be left out of such a discourse. There are many things Jesus cannot yet explain to Nicodemus. Even were Nicodemus a spiritual man, he would have to wait while Jesus goes on through all the transactions of his great work. How mysterious the announcement of the lifting up of Jesus would seem when it was first made! But Jesus, we may be sure, made that announcement with a view to all in future ages who should read of his lifting up on the cross. Nicodemus might not come again, so Jesus sends him away with as much of essential truth as possible. Let us, too, be deeply thankful fur the parallel Jesus draws between the brazen serpent and himself. It makes us see the power residing in simple faith when that faith goes out to an object of God's own appointment.—Y.
The love of God in deed and truth.
Here the producing cause of the gospel is briefly stated—why men need it, and why God sends it. How God regards the world and what he would do for it are here set before us.
I. THE WOULD IS A PERISHING WORLD. If those believing in the Son of God will not perish, the conclusion is plain that those who remain unbelieving in Christ will perish. The word might have been, "God so loved the world as to fill it, with all manner of things pleasant to eye and ear and taste, comforts various and numberless for the temporal life of man." But the awful word "perish" is brought in, and so we are forced to think, first of all, not of comforts and blessings, but of perils. Drop the word "perish" out of the text, and the profit of all the rest is gone. The world is a perishing world, and we are perishing in the midst of it. The assumption that man is a perishing being without Christ underlies every page of the Scriptures, and is implied in every doctrine of the gospel. The very fact that there is a gospel is the very proof that the gospel is needed. None but he who made us can have an adequate sense of the ruin of our nature through sin. Only he knows all the glory and perfection of which we are capable without sin; only he can estimate the corresponding shame and corruption when sin has gotten the mastery. God only knows all we can enjoy, all we can suffer.
II. THE FEELING OF OUR DANGER NEEDS TO BE PRODUCED AND INTENSIFIED IN US. It gets hidden from our eyes by present comforts and enjoyment. And God knows how indifferent we are, how we trifle with the danger, and style those who would impress us with it fanatical and impertinent. And so we need God's grace opening our eyes to spiritual danger as well as offering to us spiritual salvation. The feeling of danger will never come of itself. The danger is a spiritual one, and hence only as the Spirit of God takes hold of us shall we feel how real and great the danger is. There will be no fear of our failing to see the danger when once the Holy Spirit gets full control in our life. We are ever to remember that part of his work is pressing home upon us our need of salvation and our debt to a Saviour.
III. THE DANGER SEEN, THE SAVIOUR WILL BE WELCOMED. We cannot took to one another for salvation. The perishing cannot help the perishing. We need a Saviour who does not need to be saved himself. It is a grand thing to point, not to a feeble, uncertain earthly friend, but to a heavenly one. When we feel ourselves to be perishing, we shall rejoice in being able to look to such a Saviour. Faith grows gradually and. strongly when the peril and the Saviour are continually present to our thoughts. Then, with salvation ever more and more present to us as a reality, the sense of God's love to the world will be also more and more an inspiring power in our hearts.—Y.
John and Jesus.
We have here—
I. A MAN PUTTING SELF IN ITS PROPER. PLACE. John is a man ready to say, "I must decrease." If he had not been a man ready to say it, he would never have got the chance of saying it. Ability to speak in this spirit does not spring up all at once. Much in John's position was very tempting to self. It is easily seen how painful it might have been to hear friends coming to say that the crowds once wont to flock round John were now flocking round Jesus. But John had self well in check and discipline. And we must have the same attainment, or self-humiliation in some shape will assuredly come. The truly humble man never can be humiliated. John must ever have borne himself humbly, not forgetting his own sins while so earnest in denouncing the sins of others. We must be willing to accept any kind el decrease that is for the world's good and Christ's glory. Put self in the proper place; that is, always keep it out of the first place.
II. A MAN PUTTING CHRIST IN HIS PROPER PLACE. The increase of Christ and the decrease of John were all of a piece. John's work was soon done. His message was soon given, and then he could only begin over again. With all his greatness he was only one among the company of witnesses. He did his own work in his own generation, and then passed away. He had his time of increase—disciples increasing, influence increasing, name more widely known; and then Jesus comes on the scene, and there is no room for Jesus and John together. But in his own decrease John can rejoice, for it is a consequence of the increase of Jesus. The day never came when Jesus had to look upon some successor to himself and say, "He must increase, and I must decrease." That is the only satisfactory decrease in any of us which comes by the increase of Christ. He can never have too much authority, never be too much spoken about. As life goes on, the feeling should deepen that we cannot do without him.
III. A MAN PUTTING HIS FELLOW MEN IN THEIR PROPER PLACE. One can see a certain chivalry and nobleness in these disciples of John, a certain intention not to desert their master. But John intimates that going to Jesus in the right spirit is advance and not apostasy. It is going from a lower school to a higher. John can only begin; Jesus must finish. Swearing by human teachers and authorities is a miserable business. It is the Spirit of the Lord Jesus himself who is to lead us into truth. There is no true getting of understanding unless we understand from Jesus what he wishes, what he claims, what he proposes.
IV. A MAN WHOM JESUS WILL PUT IN HIS TRUE PLACE AT LAST. It is only relatively that John decreases. Ceasing to serve in a way that draws great public attention, he yet goes on with real service just as much. Jesus will glorify in his own way those who glorify him, and it will be the best way. Not a servant of Christ, however obscure his sphere, however self-forgetting his life, slips to the grave without his Master's notice. There is a sense in which we are able to say, and bound to say, "He must increase, and I must increase too."—Y.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on John 3". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent