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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
John 3



Other Authors
Verses 1-36

THIS CHAPTER REALLY begins with a word, which may be translated, But, though it is omitted in the Authorised Version. Nicodemus was amongst those impressed with the miracles, but in his case something further existed. The signs he had witnessed had led him in his thoughts to God, and after God he sought. The orthodox way of seeking God was to go to the Temple, and that Nicodemus would have done by day. He chose the unorthodox way of seeking an interview with this “Teacher come from God,” who was not popularly accepted; hence he did it by night. He himself was a leader and teacher in Israel, and he assumed that all he needed for himself was further instruction. It was no small thing for this proud Pharisee to take the place of a humble scholar!

The Lord met him at once with that great and emphatic pronouncement concerning the absolute necessity of the new birth. Without it no one even sees the kingdom of God. He may see the miracles and signs, but he does not see the kingdom. Nicodemus needed the new birth and not teaching for at once he showed himself quite incapable of understanding the Lord’s words, and thereby he illustrated their truth. He could not see anything in them but a mystifying reference to natural birth. This called forth a second emphatic pronouncement in which the matter is carried a step further. The kingdom is not only to be seen but entered, and the birth for this must be of water and of Spirit.

What is imperative is not merely new behaviour or new principles of action, but a new birth, and this signifies an entirely new origin. The origin and pedigree of Nicodemus was of the best, since he came of true

Abrahamic stock. Moreover he had acquired all possible culture in the Jew’s religion. If he, a cultured son of Abraham needed a new birth then it shows that all flesh, even Abrahamic flesh, is condemned before God. The fact that new birth is universally needed puts the sentence of condemnation upon us all. By our first birth we found our origin in Adam, partaking of his life and nature. Only by experiencing new birth, which brings us into another life and nature, can we see or enter the kingdom.

The Lord’s words in verse John 3:5 are clearly a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel 36:24-32, which foretells the deep and fundamental cleansing which will reach Israel in the beginning of the millennial age, when God will “sprinkle dean water” upon them, giving them “a new heart,” and putting within them “a new spirit,” and then putting His Spirit within them. As a result of this they will be so cleansed in their very being that they will loathe themselves as in their former corruptions, and then they will be blessed of God. This passage does not give us the full truth of the matter, but it gives so much that Nicodemus ought to have felt no surprise at the things he had just heard. As a master in Israel he should have known what Ezekiel had said.

A good deal of sprinkling was enjoined under the law, generally of blood, but sometimes of water, as in Numbers 8:1-26; Numbers 19:1-22. By sprinkling the blood or water was applied. Water is the great cleansing agent. Ezekiel used these familiar figures to teach that God would apply His cleansing agent to Israel for their spiritual renewal. His spiritual cleansing agent is His word, as is indicated in Psalms 119:9.

So here we find the Lord in His earliest utterances linking His teaching with what had been made known through Ezekiel, and at the same time clarifying and expanding the truth. Yet more is revealed to us about it in the epistles, and we must remember that what we read as to it, in John 1:12, John 1:13, were written by the apostle John years after full light had been granted on the subject. To Nicodemus Jesus stated that new birth is an imperative necessity for every soul that would see or enter the kingdom; that it is of the Spirit as the active Agent, and of the water of the Word as the passive agent. Such is the state of all men that nothing less fundamental and drastic than a new birth will suffice.

He also stated that flesh always remains flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit partakes of His nature and remains spirit. Verse John 3:6 makes it very plain that the two natures are altogether distinct and never merge into one another. The phrase, oft repeated in Genesis 1:1-31, applies— “after his kind.” There is no more trace of evolution here than there is in Genesis 1:1-31 : by no amount of cultivation or natural selection can flesh be transmuted into spirit.

A good deal of reasoning and controversy has taken place as to the new birth which might have been avoided if verse John 3:8 had been duly noted. The Greek word for “wind” and “Spirit” is the same. Like wind the Spirit is invisible, and only to be apprehended by hearing Him in the word He gives, or feeling the effects of His operations. Like the wind, too, He is not subject to our control, and His actions beyond all our thoughts. The same thing applies to all those who are spirit as born of Him. There must therefore be about the new birth, and about those born again, elements that are incomprehensible to us; consequently our reasonings may easily be futile or even erroneous.

In verse John 3:11 we get the note of special emphasis— “Verily, verily,” for the third time in this chapter. Nicodemus was specially to note that the Lord was not speaking as a mere prophet. He had inward conscious knowledge of the things of which He spoke: He had actually seen that concerning which He testified. He was ever “in the bosom of the Father,” as before intimated. Nevertheless His witness was not received by man, apart from the operation of the Spirit of God. And of what did He bear witness? He had spoken of things intimated by Ezekiel as necessary for earthly blessing in the millennial age, giving an expansion to Ezekiel’s prophecy, and here was Nicodemus full of hesitancy and doubt. He had yet to speak of things related to God’s purposes for heaven; were these things then likely to be received in faith?

Heavenly things in their very nature must be wholly inaccessible to men. Their feet tread the earth and they have a familiarity with it, but to heaven they have never come. But here was One wholly competent to reveal heavenly things. An astonishing paradox greets us. He came down from heaven, yet He was in heaven. If however we remember how the Gospel started, the paradox disappears. Here is the Word who was God and became flesh. In becoming flesh He certainly came down from heaven: yet He never ceased to be God who is in heaven. But He said, “the Son of Man which is in heaven.” Yes, and evidently we are intended to learn thereby that we are not at liberty to dissect in our minds His person, as some are inclined to do. We must not say, In that position He is wholly as God; or, That He did altogether as Man. We may distinguish of course, but we must not divide. Even when in Manhood His personality is one and indivisible. Hence the Son of Man is the completely competent Spokesman of heavenly things. How different from all who had gone before!

Having mentioned heavenly things, the Lord at once proceeded to foretell the great event that must take place before they could be available for men, and the full revelation of them be made. The event had been typified by the brazen serpent in the wilderness—even the lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross. This is the work wrought for us, outside of ourselves. New birth is a work wrought in us. As to both Jesus used the word, MUST for both are imperative if we are to have to do with God in blessing. The sacrificial death of the Son of Man is the only possible way of eternal life for man; a way that becomes effective for “whosoever believeth in Him;” that is, by faith.

Verses John 3:16-17 both begin with “For,” and thus are connected closely with verses John 3:14-15. We discover that this Son of Man, who came down from heaven, yet is in heaven, who was lifted up on the cross, is the only begotten Son whom God gave. How strikingly all this fits in with Romans 8:3, where also is set forth the truth typified by the brazen serpent. Just as Moses made the brazen serpent in the likeness of the fiery serpents that were the source of the mischief, so God had sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, that sin in the flesh might be condemned in His sacrifice for sin. Sin was resident in our flesh, dominating and corrupting our old life. Believing in Jesus, the Son of God, eternal life is ours; but it rests for its basis on God’s condemnation of sin at the cross. There the governing power, active in our old life, was condemned, the pledge that ultimately it will be removed for ever. On that basis eternal life is given.

In the gift of the only begotten Son the love of God is revealed; a love which embraced not Israel merely, but the world. The way in which the grace made known in this Gospel overleaps the narrow boundaries of Israel is very striking. In the opening verses we saw that “the life was the light of men,” not of Israel merely; as also that the true Light “lighteth every man.” So here, “God... loved the world,” and the gift of the Son is the measure of the love. Further the term, “only begotten,” expresses the supreme and exclusive place He holds in God’s love. The type of Abraham and Isaac helps us here. Hebrews 11:1-40 tells us that Abraham offered “his only begotten son,” though as a matter of fact he had Ishmael at that time and subsequently many more sons. Isaac however stood solitary and alone in God’s purpose and in Abraham’s affection. After this striking fashion the term is used of the Son of God, and it is intended to enhance in our minds the greatness of God’s gift. God gave the One supreme and unique in His affections.

Verse John 3:17 furnishes a further thought. Perishing is at the end of the course the world pursues, as verse John 3:16 indicates. Now we find that judgment and condemnation lies ahead of it. To perish is to lie eternally in utter alienation and separation from God; that is, in a state of eternal death. Life is consequently an urgent necessity for men and the gift of the only begotten Son has made it possible for the believer in Him to have not merely life of some sort, but “eternal life,” life of that Divine and surpassingly wonderful quality. So too, the coming of the Son into the world was not for the purpose of condemnation; the law of Moses had already brought that in very effectively. He came to save. The godly in Israel expected the raising up of “an horn of salvation” in the house of David, that would save them from their enemies (see Luke 1:68-71), but this is something much greater. The salvation is from sin and its effects, and the scope of it is the world.

Still though the Son of God had not come to earth with the object of condemning, His presence here did incidentally bring in condemnation, inasmuch as He was the Light, and light makes everything manifest, and so brings all men to the test. Light acts in illumination and manifestation, and in its presence man reacts in one of two ways. If he is a doer of evil he loves darkness and hates light because it reproves him. If a doer of truth he welcomes the light and comes to it. These verses (18-20) assume that “he that believeth on Him” is the doer of truth; whilst “he that believeth not” is the doer of evil. The one comes to the light and there is no condemnation for him; the other remains in the darkness, and this is sufficient to condemn him. The light has appeared in the coming of the Son of God and he has not believed. That is enough, and there is no need to wait until the arrival of the actual day of judgment. He is condemned already.

Verses John 3:22-24 make it quite clear that the foregoing things transpired before John was cast into prison, which is the point from which the Lord’s public ministry started according to Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 3:20. For a short time baptism was being administered by both the Lord—through His disciples (see John 4:2)—and John. Certain Jews took occasion to apprise John of this activity of the Lord, as though they would stir him to jealousy. If this was their object, they wholly failed to achieve it.

With real humility and fidelity John kept his place as a servant of God who had nothing but that which he had received from heaven. They had to bear witness that he had never claimed to be the Christ. He had claimed to be the forerunner of the Messiah; he was also the friend of the Bridegroom. In this second claim he evidently spoke figuratively by way of illustration. Truth, such as we have in Revelation 19:7, was not yet revealed, but doubtless he was inspired to express himself in terms which exactly suit that truth, when revealed. He had no link with the bride, but as the friend of the Bridegroom he had in Him the deepest interest and affection. To hear the Bridegroom’s voice filled up his cup of joy to the brim.

Then John uttered words which should be graven upon the heart of everyone who loves the Lord Jesus— “He must increase, but I must decrease.” For the third time in this chapter we get “MUST.” In verse John 3:7 it is connected with man’s great need; in verse John 3:14 with God’s great love; here with the devotion of the true-hearted servant. Like the sun, Christ was to rise to his zenith with increasing glory; thus, like the moon, John was to fade out and disappear. He knew it and rejoiced, for at that moment in his thoughts Christ was all. He knew Him as One coming from heaven and not of earth at all. Being such, He spoke in a way impossible to all others. He was in touch with the full range of heavenly things in a way impossible to the greatest of the prophets, such as John.

John’s words came true, and soon he had to decrease and drop out of sight in prison. In this he was no exception to the rule. It is the rule for all the servants of God: in one way or another they decrease and depart. It was so with Moses in the Old Testament, and with Paul in the New. Great servants as they were, we must not think too much of them. Paul had his day as an ardent evangelist and founder of churches. But then came prison for him, and failure in the churches, and so he drops out of our sight. Paul decreases, but only to increase the supreme excellence of Christ. So it must be for all of us, and we should rejoice in it, as John did.

The opening words of verse John 3:33 appear to contradict the closing words of verse John 3:32, but the paradox is a purely verbal one, and based upon one of those abstract statements which appear so repeatedly in John’s writings.

Man in his natural condition is wholly dead and unresponsive to the Divine testimony. The fact is stated abstractly at the close of verse 32. But then on the other hand God works by His Spirit in the hearts of some; and so from a practical standpoint we do find those who receive the testimony, and by so doing set to their seal that God is true. At the beginning the devil impugned the testimony God gave to Adam, and thus sin was introduced. Faith vindicates the truth of the testimony, and thus life and salvation are brought in.

Testimony from God had existed from the time that God spoke to Adam about the trees of the Garden, but now it was reaching its climax in this One whom God had sent, who knew by observation the heavenly things of which He spoke, who uttered them in “the words of God,” possessing the Spirit without any measure or limit. At last therefore there was a testimony of infinite range and incomparable fulness. Of course it wholly transcended the powers of the natural man, yet the simple believer can accept it, attaching his seal to it as the truth of God.

Verses John 3:35-36 appear to be a separate paragraph in which the words of the Baptist are supplemented by the Evangelist, who could speak in the full light of all that had been revealed in the Word become flesh. The Son having been manifested, the Father had been made known, together with the relations between these Divine Persons. Three great facts concerning the Son meet us here. He is the Object of the Father’s love. By the Father’s gift all things are in His hand, to be disposed of as He sees fit. He is the Object of faith, and therefore the test of every man. To believe on Him is to become possessed of life eternal. To refuse the subjection of faith to Him is to be excluded from life and lie under the wrath of God.

Thus quite early in this Gospel do we discover that the Son is not only the Creator of all things and the Revealer of all things as the Word, but He is also the Operator in all things, the Disposer of all things, and finally as the Object of the Father’s love He is manifested amongst men, becoming the Criterion for all. We notice that, in verse John 3:36, life is to be possessed and also to be seen, which shows how comprehensive a term “eternal life” is: and further, that the antithesis to seeing life is abiding under the wrath of God. Here again things are stated abstractly, but the language is such as to negative both the theories by which men endeavour to escape the solemn fact of eternal punishment. The words, “shall not see life,” negative universal reconciliation, which declares that in some way or other all shall ultimately see it, The theory of conditional immortality, which means the annihilation of impenitent unbelievers, is negatived by the fact that the wrath of God “abideth” on such—therefore they exist abidingly. At this point let us again recall John 20:31. This Gospel is written that we may be amongst those who believe and have life. The terrible alternative to this is put before us very plainly here.


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on John 3:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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