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Bible Commentaries

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged
John 3

 

 

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Verse 1

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: See introductory remark at the commencement of this section.

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The connecting particle [ de (Greek #1161)] with which the original introduces this scene should not have been omitted, as the Evangelist is now going to show, in continuation of his subject, that all the accessions to Christ during this His first public visit to Jerusalem were not like those of whom he had spoken at the close of the preceding chapter. It should have begun thus: 'But (or 'Now') there was a man,' etc. Nicodemus is a purely Greek name, of frequent occurrence among the later Greeks, whose names were often appropriated by the Jews, especially those of foreign extraction. This Nicodemus, besides being of the stricter sect of the Pharisees, was a "ruler" [ archoon (Greek #758)], or one of the Sanhedrim. In John 3:10 he is called a "master," or 'doctor' of the law. It is useless attempting, as Lightfoot has done, to identify him with a rabbi of this name who lived at the destruction of Jerusalem.


Verse 2

The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.

The same came to Jesus. The true text here clearly is 'to Him' [ pros (Greek #4314) auton (Greek #846)]; this being regarded as but a continuation of the same subject with which the preceding chapter closed. The word "Jesus" no doubt came in first in those Church Lessons which began with John 3:1-36, and so required it; just as many in the public reading of the Scriptures insert the name of the person instead of "he" or "him," for clearness' sake. So all recent critical editors agree.

By night - "for fear of the Jews," as is evident from all we read of him: see the notes at John 7:50-52; and at John 19:38-39.

And said unto him, Rabbi, [ = didaskalos (G1320)], we know - meaning, probably, that a general conviction to that effect had been diffusing itself through the thoughtful portion of the worshippers with whom Jerusalem was then crowded, though much yet remained for anxious inquiry regarding His claims, and that as the representative of this class he had now come to solicit an interview with Him.

That thou art a teacher come from God , [ apo (Greek #575) Theou (Greek #2316) eleeluthas (Greek #2064)] - not "sent from God," as is said of the Baptist, John 1:6. Stier and Luthardt call attention to this, as expressing more than a conviction that Jesus was divinely commissioned, as were all the prophets. Certain it is that the expression "come from God" is nowhere used of any merely human messenger, while this Gospel of ours teems with phraseology of this kind applied to Christ. It is possible, therefore, that Nicodemus may have designed to express something indefinite as to Christ's higher claims; though what follows hardly bears that out.

For no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. See the note at John 2:23. From all these particulars about Nicodemus, we may gather that sincerity and timidity struggled together in his mind. The one impelled him, in spite of his personal and official position, to solicit an interview with Jesus; the other, to choose the "night" time for his visit, that none might know of it. The one led him frankly to tell the Lord Jesus what conviction he had been constrained to come to, and the ground of that conviction; the other, so to measure his language as not to commit himself to more than a bare acknowledgment of a miraculously attested commission from God to men.


Verse 3

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus answered and said unto him; Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. This blunt and curt reply was plainly meant to shake the whole edifice of the man's religion, in order to lay a deeper and more enduring foundation. Nicodemus probably thought he had gone a long way, and expected, perhaps, to be complimented on his candour. Instead of this, he is virtually told that he has raised a question which he is not in a capacity to solve, and that before approaching it, his spiritual vision required to be rectified by an entire revolution on his inner man. Had the man been less sincere, this would certainly have repelled him; but with persons in his mixed state of mind-to which Jesus was no stranger (John 2:25) - such methods speed better than more honeyed words and gradual approaches. Let us analyze this great brief saying. "Except a man" [ tis (Greek #5100)] - 'a person,' or 'one' "be born again," the most universal form of expression. The Jews were accustomed to say of a pagan proselyte, on his public admission into the Jewish faith by baptism, that he was a newborn child. But our Lord here extends the necessity of the new birth to Jew and Gentile alike-to every one!

Be born again , [ anoothen (Greek #509)] - or, as the word admits of being rendered, 'from above.' Since both are undoubted truths, the question is, Which is the sense here intended? Origen and others of the fathers take the latter view, though Chrysostom leaves it undecided; and with them agree Erasmus, Lightfoot, Bengel, Meyer, DeWette, Lucke, Lange, and others. But as it is evident that Nicodemus understood our Lord in the sense of a second birth, so the scope of our Lord's way of dealing with him was to drive home the conviction of the nature rather than the source of the change. And accordingly, as the word employed is stronger than "again" [ palin (Greek #3825)] it should be rendered by some such word as 'anew,' 'of new,' 'afresh.' In this sense it is understood, with our translators, by the Vulgate, Luther, Calvin, Beza, Maldonat, Lampe, Olshausen, Neander, Tholuck, Stier, Luthardt, Campbell, Alford, Webster, and Wilkinson. Considering this to be the undoubted sense of the term, we understand our Lord to say that unless one begin life anew, in relation to God-his manner of thinking, and feeling, and acting, in reference to spiritual things, undergoing a fundamental and permanent revolution.

He cannot see - that is, 'can have no part in'-just as one is said to "see life," "see death," etc.

The kingdom of God - whether in its beginnings here or its consummation hereafter. (See the note at Matthew 5:3; and compare Luke 16:16; Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 5:5.)


Verse 4

Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?

Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Nicodemus probably referred here to himself.

Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? The figure of the new birth, as we have seen, would have been intelligible enough to Nicodemus if it had been meant only of Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion; but that Jews themselves should need a new birth was to him incomprehensible.


Verse 5

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit , [ ex (Greek #1537) hudatos (Greek #5204) kai (Greek #2532) pneumatos (Greek #4151)] - or, more simply, 'of water and the Spirit,'

He cannot enter into the kingdom of God. We have here a two-fold explanation of the new birth, so startling to Nicodemus. To a Jewish ecclesiastic, so familiar with the symbolical application of water, in every variety of way and form of expression, this language was fitted to show that the thing intended was no other than 'a thorough spiritual purification by the operation of the Holy Spirit.' Indeed, this element of water and operation of the Spirit are brought together in a glorious evangelical prediction of Ezekiel 36:25-27, which Nicodemus might have been reminded of had such spiritualities not been almost lost in the reigning formalism. Already had the symbol of water been embodied in an initiatory ordinance, in the baptism of the Jewish expectants of Messiah by the Baptist, not to speak of the baptism of Gentile proselytes before that; and in the Christian Church it was soon to become the great visible door of entrance into "the kingdom of God," the reality being the sole work of the Holy Spirit.

In this way of viewing the two elements - "water" and "the Spirit" - we avoid the unsatisfactory interpretation of the "water," as if our Lord had meant no more than 'Except a man be regenerated by the ordinance of baptism and by the Holy Spirit.' We call this unsatisfactory, because, as the ordinance of baptism was not instituted until Jesus was on the wing for glory, we think it harsh to suppose any direct allusion here to that institution. But neither is it to be reduced, with Lampe, etc., to a mere figure for the truth. It is undoubtedly the cleansing or purifying property of water which is referred to, in conformity with the familiar ideas of the Jewish ritual and the current language of the Old Testament. But since this was already taking form in an initiatory ordinance, in the ways just mentioned, it would be unreasonable to exclude all reference to baptism; although it would be nearer the truth, perhaps, to say that Baptism itself only embodies in a public ordinance the great general truth here announced-that a cleansing or purifying operation of the Spirit in everyone is indispensable to entrance into the kingdom of God.


Verse 6

That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. A most weighty general proposition. As Olshausen expresses it, 'That which is begotten partakes of the nature of that which begat it.' By "flesh" here is meant, not the mere material body, but all that comes into the world by birth-the entire man: yet since "flesh" is here opposed to "spirit," it plainly denotes in this place, not humanity merely, but humanity in its corrupted, depraved condition-humanity in entire subjection to the law of the fall, called in Romans 8:1-39 "the law of sin and death." (See the notes at Romans 8:1-9.) So that though a man could "enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born," he would be no nearer this new birth than before. (See Job 14:4; Psalms 51:5.) Contrariwise, when it is said, "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit," the meaning is, that the fruit of that operation of the Holy Spirit upon the inner man, which had been pronounced indispensable, is the production of a spiritual nature, of the same moral qualities as His own.


Verse 7

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. If a spiritual nature only can see and enter the kingdom of God, if all we bring into the world with us be the reverse of spiritual, and if this spirituality be solely of the Holy Spirit-no wonder a new birth is indispensable. Bengel, with his usual acuteness, notices that our Lord here says, not 'we', but 'ye must be born again.' And surely after those universal propositions, about what "a man" must be, to "enter the kingdom of God," this is remarkable; showing clearly that our Lord meant to hold Himself forth as "separate from sinners."


Verse 8

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and where it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit. The word for wind here is not that usually so rendered [ anemos (Greek #417)], which means a gale; but that which signifies the 'breath' of life [ pneuma (Greek #4151) = ruwach (Hebrew #7307), anima], or the gentle zephyr. Hence, it is that in the Old Testament, "breath" and "spirit" are constantly interchanged, as analogous (see Job 27:3; Job 33:4; Ezekiel 37:9-14). The laws which govern the motion of the winds have, indeed, been partially discovered; but the risings, fallings, and change in direction many times in a day, of those gentle breezes here referred to, will probably ever be a mystery to us: So of the operation of the Holy Spirit in the new birth.


Verse 9

Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?

Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Though the subject, says Luthardt, still confounds him, the necessity and possibility of the new birth is no longer the point with him, but the nature of it and how it is brought about. From this moment, to use the words of Stier, Nicodemus says nothing more, but has sunk into a disciple who has found his true teacher. Therefore the Saviour now graciously advances in His communications of truth, and once more solemnly brings to the mind of this teacher in Israel, now become a learner, his own not guiltless ignorance, that He may then proceed to utter, out of the fullness of His divine knowledge, such further testimonies, both of earthly and heavenly things, as his docile scholar may to his own profit receive.


Verse 10

Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master , [ su (Greek #4771) ei (Greek #1487) ho (Greek #3588) didaskalos (Greek #1320)] - rather, 'Art thou the teacher.' Perhaps this means only, 'Dost, thou occupy the important post of the teacher,' or doctor of the law; not, as some good critics understand it, 'Art thou the well-known,' or 'distinguished teacher,' "of Israel, and knowest not these things?" The question clearly implies that the doctrine of regeneration was so far disclosed in the Old Testament as to render Nicodemus' ignorance of it culpable. Nor is it merely as something that should be experienced under the Gospel that the Old Testament holds it forth-as many distinguished critics allege, denying that there was any such thing as regeneration before Christ. For our Lord's proposition is universal, that no fallen man is or can be spiritual without a regenerating operation of the Holy Spirit; and surely the necessity of a spiritual obedience, under whatever name in opposition to mere mechanical services, which is proclaimed throughout all the Old Testament, amounts to a proclamation of the necessity of regeneration.


Verse 11

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen - that is, by absolute knowledge and immediate vision of God, which "the Only begotten Son in the bosom of the Father" claims as exclusively His own (John 1:18).

And ye receive not our witness - referring to the class to which Nicodemus belonged, but from which he was now beginning to be separated. Though our Lord says, "we speak" and "our testimony," Himself only is intended-probably in emphatic contrast with the opening words of Nicodemus, "Rabbi, we know," etc.


Verse 12

If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

If I have told you earthly things, [ ta (G3588) epigeia (G1919)], and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? [ ta (Greek #3588) epourania (Greek #2032)] - rather simply, 'tell you heavenly things.' By the "earthly things" which Christ had just told Nicodemus of is certainly meant regeneration, the one subject of His teaching to him up to this point; and it is so called, it would seem-in contrast with the "heavenly things" - as being a truth even of that more earthly economy to which Nicodemus belonged, and as the gate of entrance to the kingdom of God upon earth. The "heavenly things" are the things of the new and more heavenly evangelical economy, especially that great truth of salvation by faith in the atoning death of the Son of God, which He was now about to "tell" Nicodemus; though He forewarns him of the probability of people stumbling much more at that than he had done at the former truth-since it had been but dimly unfolded under the earthly economy, and was only to be fully understood after the effusion of the Spirit from heaven through the exalted Saviour.


Verse 13

And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. How paradoxical this sounds: 'No one has gone up but He that came down, even He who is at once both up and down.' Doubtless it was intended to startle and constrain his auditor to think that there must be mysterious elements in His Person. The old Socinians, to subvert the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, seized upon this passage as teaching that the man Jesus was secretly caught up to heaven to receive his instructions, and then "came down from heaven" to deliver them. But the sense manifestly is this: 'The perfect knowledge of God is not obtained by any man's going up from earth to heaven to receive it-no man hath so ascended; but He whose proper habitation, in His essential and eternal nature, is heaven, hath, by taking human flesh, descended as "the Son of Man" to disclose the Father, whom He knows by immediate gaze alike in the flesh as before He assumed it, being essentially and unchangeably "in the bosom of the Father," (John 1:18.) Now comes He to tell him the heavenly things.


Verse 14

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:4-9), even so must the Son of man be lifted up;


Verse 15

That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. Since this most heavenly thing, for the reason just mentioned, might be apt to stumble, Jesus holds it forth under a somewhat veiled form, but with sublime precision-calling His death His 'uplifting' (compare John 8:28; John 12:32-33); and by comparing it to the up-lifting of the brazen serpent, He still further veiled it. And yet to us, who know what it all means, it is, by being cast in this form, unspeakably more lively and pregnant with instruction. But what instruction? Let us see. The venom of the fiery serpents, shooting through the veins of the rebellious Israelites, was spreading death through the camp-lively emblem of the perishing condition of men by reason of sin. In both cases the remedy was divinely provided. In both the way of cure strikingly resembled that of the disease. Stung by serpents, by a serpent they are healed.

By "fiery serpents" bitten-serpents, probably, with skin spotted fiery-red-the instrument of cure is a serpent of brass or copper, having at a distance the same appearance. So in redemption, as by man came death, by Man also comes life-Man too, "in the likeness of sinful flesh," differing in nothing outward and apparent from those who, pervaded by the poison of the serpent, were ready to perish. But as the uplifted serpent had none of the venom of which the serpent-bitten people were dying, so while the whole human family were perishing of the deadly wound inflicted on it by the old serpent, "the Second Man," who arose over humanity with healing in His wings, was without spot or wrinkle or any such thing. In both cases the remedy is conspicuously displayed: in the one case on a pole; in the other on the cross, to "draw all men unto Him" (John 12:32). In both cases it is by directing the eye to the uplifted Remedy that the cure is effected: in the one case it was the bodily eye, in the other it is the gaze of the soul by "believing in Him," as in that glorious ancient proclamation - "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth," etc. (Isaiah 45:22) Both methods are stumbling to human reason.

What, to any thinking Israelite, could seem more unlikely than that a deadly poison should be dried up in his body by simply looking on a reptile of brass? Such a stumbling-block to the Jews and to the Greeks foolishness was faith in the crucified Nazarene, as a way of deliverance from eternal perdition. Yet was the warrant in both cases to expect a cure equally rational and well-grounded. As the serpent was God's ordinance for the cure of every bitten Israelite, so is Christ for the salvation of every perishing sinner; the one however a purely arbitrary ordinance, the other divinely adapted to man's complicated maladies. In both cases the efficacy is the same. As one simple look at the serpent, however distant and however weak, brought an instantaneous cure; even so, real faith in the Lord Jesus, however tremulous, however distant-be it but real faith-brings certain and instant healing to the perishing soul. In a word, the consequences of disobedience are the same in both. Doubtless many bitten Israelites, galling as their case was, would reason rather than obey, would speculate on the absurdity of expecting the bite of a living serpent to be cured by looking at a piece of dead metal in the shape of one-speculate thus until they died. Alas! is not salvation by crucified. Redeemer subjected to like treatment? Has "the offence of the Cross" yet ceased? (compare 2 Kings 5:12.)


Verse 16

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Who shall speak or write worthily of such a verse? What proclamation of the Gospel has been so oft on the lips of missionaries and preachers in every age since it was first uttered-what has sent such thrilling sensations through millions of mankind-what has been honoured to bring such multitudes to the feet of Christ-what to kindle in the cold and selfish breasts of mortals the fires of self-sacrificing love to mankind, as these words of transparent simplicity yet overpowering majesty have done? The picture embraces several distinct compartments. First, we have the object of regard, "THE WORLD" [ ton (Greek #3588) kosmon (Greek #2889)] - in its widest sense, ready to "perish:" Next, "THE LOVE OF GOD" to that perishing world-measured by, and only measurable and conceivable by, the gift which it drew forth from Him-He so loved the world, that He gave," etc.: Then, THE GIFT itself, He so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son; or, in the language of the apostle, He "spared not His own Son" (Romans 8:32): Further, THE FRUIT of this stupendous gift-negatively, in deliverance from impending perdition, that they "might not perish;" and positively, in the bestowal of "everlasting life:" and finally, THE MODE in which all takes effect-simply by "believing on the Son of God." How would Nicodemus' narrow Judaism become invisible in the blaze of this Sun of righteousness seen rising on "the world" with healing in His wings!


Verse 17

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. A statement of vast importance. Though "condemnation" is to many the issue of Christ's mission (John 3:19), it is not the object His mission which is purely a saving one.


Verse 18

He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

He that believeth on him is not condemned , [ ou (Greek #3756) krinetai (Greek #2919)] - literally, 'is not being judged,' or 'is not coming into judgment.' The meaning is, as the apostle expresses it, that "there is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). Compare John 5:24, "He that heareth my word, and believeth on Him that sent me hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is (or hath) passed from death unto life."

But he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. Rejecting the one way of deliverance from that condemnation which God gave His Son to remove, they thus willfully remain condemned.


Verse 19

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

And this is the condemnation - emphatically so; revealing the condemnation already existing, and sealing up under it those who will not be delivered from it.

That light, [ to (G3588) foos (G5457), rather, 'the light'] is come into the world - in the Person of Him to whom Nicodemus was listening.

And men loved [`the'] darkness [ to (G3588) skotos (G4655)] rather than [`the'] light, because their deeds were evil. [On the aorist - eegapeesan (Greek #25) - here, see the note at John 10:4.] The deliberate rejection of Himself was doubtless that to which Jesus here referred, as that which would fearfully reveal men's preference for the darkness.


Verse 20

For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved - by being brought out to the light.


Verse 21

But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

But he that doeth [`the'] truth , [ teen (Greek #3588) aleetheian (Greek #225)] - whose one object in life is to be, and to do what will bear the light, "cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God"

Cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God - that all he is and does, being thus thoroughly tested, may be seen to have nothing in it but what is divinely performed and divinely approved. This is the "Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile."

Remarks:

(1) What an air of naturalness is there in the first part of this section, regarding the "many" who believed in Jesus name when they saw the miracles which He did at His first official visit to Jerusalem, and during the paschal feast. One might have expected that all with whom He came in contact would be divided simply into two classes-those who recognized and those who repudiated His claims; or, if another class should emerge, it would be of the undecided, or the waverers-either unable to make up their minds, or oscillating between the two opposing views of His claims. But here we have a fourth class, or the first class separated into two divisions-the cordial and thorough accessions to Him and the shallow and fickle believers; and of these latter it seems there were "many" who came over on this occasion. Another thing which strikes one-as betokening the absence of everything artificial in the drawing up of this narrative-is, that "the miracles" which He did during the feast are not recorded at all; although they were such that not only they were won over by them, but the class of which Nicodemus was the most hopeful specimen were convinced by them of our Lord's divine commission. No wonder that unprejudiced readers, even of the highest class, as they bend over these wonderful Records, feel them to be true without, perhaps, one conscious reflection on the question, whether they are so or not-guided by that experience and sound judgment which, with the force of an instinct, tells them that such a Tale cannot deceive. But

(2) If this may be said of the first part of this section, what shall be said of the sequel of it-the night interview of Nicodemus with Jesus-a historical picture which, for graphic vividness, interest, and power surpasses almost everything even in the Gospel History? Two figures only appear on the canvas; but to us it seems that there must have been one other in the scene, whose young and meditative eye scanned, by the night-lamp, the Jewish ruler and Him he had come to talk with, and whose ear drank in every word that fell from both. Our Evangelist himself-was not he there? What pen but that of an eye-and-ear witness could have reported to us a scene whose minute details and life-like touches rivet, and have riveted from the beginning, the very children that read it, never again to forget it, while the depths and heights of its teaching keep the most mature ever bending over it, and its grandeur, undiminished by time, will stand out to arrest and astonish, to delight and feed the Church so long as a Bible shall be needed by it here below? If this Gospel was written when it probably was, some 60 more years must have elapsed between the occurrence itself and this Record of it for the ages to come.

And yet how fresh, how life-like, how new and warm it all is-as if our Evangelist had taken down every word of it that very night, immediately on the departure of Nicodemus. We think we see this anxious ruler-not unaware of his own importance, and the possible consequences of this step to one in his position, yet unable any longer to rest in doubt-stealing along, approaching the humble dwelling where lodged the Lord of glory, and, as he enters, surveying the countenance of this mysterious Person, who courteously receives him and asks him to seat himself. It is Nicodemus who first breaks that silence which was only to be resumed as the last words of the most wonderful announcements ever yet made to any human being fell from the lips of the Son of God, and he who came a trembling inquirer, departed a humble, though secret, disciple. If no other fruit had come of that first visit to Jerusalem but the accession of this disciple, would it not, even by angel-eyes, have been regarded as enough? For, as was said of the precious ointment which Mary purchased to anoint her Lord withal at the supper in Bethany, but in which the Lord Himself saw another and yet dearer purpose - "She is come aforehand to anoint My body to the burying" - so may we say of this Nicodemus, that he was gained, and kept in reserve all the time of Christ's public ministry even until His death, in order that, having purchased an hundred pound weight of myrrh and aloes wherewith to anoint the body, he and Joseph of Arimathea, another secret disciple, might be the honoured instruments of wrapping and laying it in the virgin-sepulchre. Nay, but even if this service had not been rendered by Nicodemus to his dead Lord, that such an interview should have taken place between them in order to its being reproduced here for all time, was itself alone sufficient fruit of this first visit to Jerusalem; and doubtless the Lord, as He sees of this travail of His soul, is satisfied.

(3) Nothing is more remarkable in this scene than the varied lights in which the Lord Jesus is exhibited in it. Observe, first of all, how entirely this "Man, Christ Jesus," isolates Himself from all other men, as not within the category of that humanity whose regeneration He pronounces indispensable to entrance into the kingdom of God: "Except one [ tis (Greek #5100)] be born again." And after giving a reason for this, arising from that kind of human nature which is propagated from parent to child in every descendant of Adam, He adds, "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must [ dei (Greek #1163) humas (Greek #5209)] be born again." Nor can it be alleged that this is a strain upon the words, which need not be pressed so far as to exclude Himself. For in almost every succeeding verse He continues to speak of Himself as if, though truly man, His connection with humanity were something voluntarily assumed-something super-induced upon His own proper being-that by thus coming into our world He might discharge a great mission of love to the world from His Father in heaven: "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen: No man hath ascended up to heaven but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven: God sent His Only begotten Son." Putting all these statements together, how evident is it that our Lord does mean to isolate Himself as Man from that universal humanity which cannot without regeneration enter into the kingdom of God.

And, in connection with this, it maybe stated that He never once mixes Himself up with other individual men by the use of such pronouns as "we," and "us," and "our" - except where no false inference could possibly be drawn-but always says, "I" and "they," "I" and "you," "Me" and "them," "My" and "your:" -remarkable and most pregnant fact. But next, observe the lofty style into which He rises when speaking of Himself. He could suggest no measure by which to gauge the love of God to a perishing world except the gift of Himself for it: "God so loved the world that He gave His Only begotten Son." What creature, not lost to all sense of his proper place, would have dared to use such language as this? Then, notice how warily-if we may so express it-our Lord uses the two names by which Himself is designated, "The Son of Man" and "The Son of God." When He would speak of His uplifting from beneath, He uses the former - "Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up:" When He would Speak of His descending from above, as the Father's gift to the world, He uses the latter - "God gave His Only begotten Son." And yet, as if to show that it is One glorious Person who is both these, He uses the one of these-and the lower one too-to express both His higher and His lower natures and His actings in both: "No one [ oudeis (Greek #3762)] hath ascended up to heaven but He that descended from heaven, even the Son of man who is in heaven." This was much observed and dwelt on by the Greek Fathers, who called it 'the communication' or 'interchange of properties' [koinoonia idioomatoon], in virtue of the Oneness of the Person [dia teen tees hupostaseoos tautoteeta]. But once more, with all this lofty bearing, when speaking of Himself, with what meekness, with what patience, with what spiritual skill, does He deal with this soul, in whom candour and caution seem to struggle for the mastery-a jealousy, on the one hand, for his own position, and an anxiety, on the other, to get to the bottom of Christ's claims! (4) What a directory for the preachers of the Gospel, and for all who would save souls, have we here! The two great truths, of Regeneration by the Holy Spirit and Reconciliation by the death of Christ, are here held forth as the two-fold need of every sinner who would be saved. Over the portals of the kingdom of God may be seen two inscriptions, as in great letters of fire:

NO REGENERATION-NO ENTRANCE HERE: WITHOUT THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD-NO FORGIVENESS

Or to turn it out of the negative into the positive form --

THE PURE IN HEART SEE GOD: BELIEVE IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AND BE SAVED

As the one of these gives us the capacity for the kingdom, so the other gives us the right to it. The one rectifies our nature; the other adjusts our relation to God. Without the one we cannot see Him; without the other He will not see us. As upon these two pivots saved souls must ever turn, so on these must turn all preaching and teaching that would be divinely owned.

(5) Is it true that the quickening operations of the Holy Spirit are like the gentle breath of heaven-unseen but not unfelt-with laws of movement divinely ordained, yet to us inscrutable; or if to some small extent so to be traced that our expectations may be stimulated, yet as little to be laid down by us as the laws of heaven's breath? Then let the Church at large, let every section of it, and every Christian, beware of tying down the Spirit of God to their own notions of the way in which, the measure in which, the time in which, and the agencies by which He shall work. There has been far too much of this in all past time, and even until now; and how much the Spirit of the Lord has been thus hindered and restrained, grieved and quenched, who shall tell? He is a "FREE Spirit," but as Himself divine, is saying, "I will work, and who shall let it?" The one test of His presence is its effects. "Every good gift and every perfect is from above." "Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?" Since nothing can be done effectually without the Spirit, and Christ Himself without the Spirit is no Saviour at all to us (John 16:8-15; Romans 8:9), our business is to be lying in wait for His blessed breathings, expecting them from above (Luke 11:13), and prepared both to welcome and use them, to hail them wheresoever and in whomsoever we find them, and to put ourselves alongside of those operations of His, giving them our countenance and lending them our agency for carrying them out to their proper ends-just as sailors in a calm watch for the moment when a breeze shall spring up, which they know well may be when they least expect it, and hoist and adjust their sails to it with a speed and a skill at which others wonder, so as to let none of it be lost.

(6) Definite, sharp, authoritative, spiritual teaching of divine truth is what alone we may expect will be divinely blessed. It was our Lord's transparent perception of the difference between truth and error, and of what Nicodemus needed, as the right beqinning of a religious character, that prompted His special manner of dealing with him. But the weighty brevity, the sharpness of those lines of distinction between "perdition" and "salvation," the high authority with which He bore in these great truths upon this inquirer, mingled with such gentle and winning spirituality-it is this that is so remarkable and so pregnant with wisdom for all that would follow Him in dealing with souls. Nor is He in these inimitable. The authority with which He uttered these great truths is indeed His own; and of this God says from the excellent glory, "Hear Him." But when we utter them, we do it with His authority, and have a right to use it, as did the apostolic preachers. Nay, this is our strength. The apologetical tone, or the reasoning tone-if it be the main characteristic of our preaching-will leave no divine impress, no stamp of heaven, upon it. Weak in itself, its effects will be weak too. And do not the facts of the pulpit attest this? "My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God."


Verse 22

After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.

After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judea , [ eis (Greek #1519) teen (Greek #3588) Ioudaian (Greek #2449) geen (Greek #1093)] - not the province of Judea, as distinguished from Galilee and Samaria, for the foregoing conversation was held in its capital. But the meaning is, that leaving the city He withdrew to the rural districts, and, it would appear, to some part of the valley-district of the Jordan northward.

And there he tarried with them, and baptized , [ ebaptizen (Greek #907)] or, as we should say, 'kept baptizing;' but only in the sense explained in John 4:2.


Verse 23

And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.

And, [ de (G1161), rather, 'Now,' or 'But,'] John also was baptizing in Aenon , [ =`ayin (Hebrew #5869) `eeynaan (Hebrew #5881)] - 'an eye,' 'a fountain,' which accords with the Evangelist's explanation at the end of this verse.

Near to Salim. The site of these places cannot now be certainly ascertained. But the scenes of the Master's and the servant's labours could not have been very far apart.

Because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized , [ pareginonto (Greek #3854) kai (Greek #2532) ebaptizonto (Greek #907)] - or 'kept coming and getting baptized.'


Verse 24

For John was not yet cast into prison. For John was not yet cast into prison. From the first three Evangelists one would naturally conclude that our Lord's public ministry only began after the Baptist's imprisonment. But here, about six months, probably, after our Lord had entered on His public ministry, we find the Baptist still at his work. How much longer this continued cannot be determined with certainty; but probably not very long. For the great importance of this little verse for the right harmonizing of the Gospels, and determining the probable duration of our Lord's ministry, see the note at Matthew 4:12.


Verse 25

Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.

Then there arose a question between [some of] John's disciples and the Jews , [ ek (Greek #1537) toon (Greek #3588) matheetoon (Greek #3101) Iooannou (Greek #2491) meta (Greek #3326) Ioudaioon (Greek #2453)] - rather, 'on the part of John's disciples with the Jews.' But the true reading beyond doubt is, 'with a Jew' [ Ioudaiou (Greek #2453)]. The received text has but inferior support.

About purifying - that is, baptizing; the symbolical meaning of washing with water being put (as in John 2:6) for the act itself. Since John and Jesus were the only teachers who baptized Jews, discussions might easily arise between the Baptist's disciples and such Jews as declined to submit to that rite.


Verse 26

And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.

And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan. 'He was with thee,' they say-not 'thou with him.'

To whom thou barest witness , [ su (Greek #4771) memartureekas (Greek #3140)] - rather, 'to whom thou hast borne witness;' that is, hast been doing it all this time.

Behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him: - q.d., 'Master, this man tells us that he to whom thou barest such generous witness beyond Jordan is requiting thy generosity by drawing all the people away to himself. At this rate, thou shalt soon have no disciples at all.' The reply to this is one of the noblest and most affecting utterances that ever came from the lips of man.


Verse 27

John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.

John answered and said, A man can receive nothing , [ ou (Greek #3756) dunatai (Greek #1410) anthroopos (Greek #444) lambanein (Greek #2983) ouden (Greek #3762)] - rather, as in the margin, 'A man can take to himself,' or 'assume nothing;' that is, lawfully, and with any success,

Except it be given [or 'have been given' ee (G2228) dedomenon (G1325)] him from heaven: - q.d., 'Every divinely-commissioned person has his own work and sphere assigned him from above.' Even Christ Himself came under this law. See the note at Hebrews 5:4.


Verse 28

Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.

Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.


Verse 29

He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.

He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly [or 'with joy' chara (G5479) chairei (G5463)] because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled.


Verse 30

He must increase, but I must decrease.

He must increase, but I must decrease: - q.d., 'I do my heaven-prescribed work, and that is enough for me. Would you have me mount into my Master's place? Said I not unto you, I am not the Christ? The Bride is not mine, why should the people stay with me? Mine it is to point the burdened to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, to tell them there is balm in Gilead, and a Physician there. And shall I grudge to see them, in obedience to the call, flying as a cloud, and as doves to their windows? Whose is the Bride but the Bridgegroom's? Enough for me to be the Bridegroom's Friend, sent by Him to negotiate the match, privileged to bring together the Saviour and those he is come to seek and to save, and rejoicing with joy unspeakable, if I may but "stand and hear the Bridegroom's voice," witnessing the blessed espousals. Say ye, then, they go from me to Him? Ye bring me glad tidings of great joy. He must increase, but I must decrease; this, my joy, therefore, is fulfilled.'


Verse 31

He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all.

He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly. Since the words in this last clause are precisely the same, they had better have been so rendered: 'He that is of the earth is of the earth;' although the sense is correctly given by our translators, namely, that those sprung of the earth, even though divinely commissioned, bear the stamp of earth in their very work: but,

He that cometh from heaven is above all. Here, then, is the reason why He must increase, while all human teachers must decrease. The Master "cometh from above" - descending from His proper element, the region of those "heavenly things" which He came to reveal-and so, although mingling with men and things on the earth, He is not "of the earth," either in Person or Word: The servants, on the contrary, springing of earth, are of the earth, and their testimony, even though divine in authority, partakes necessarily of their own earthiness. So strongly did the Baptist feel this contrast that the last clause just repeats the first. It is impossible for a sharper line of distinction to be drawn between Christ and all human teachers, even when divinely commissioned and speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit. And who does not perceive it? The words of prophets and apostles are undeniable and most precious truth; but in the words of Christ we hear a voice as from the excellent Glory, the Eternal Word making Himself heard in our own flesh.


Verse 32

And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony.

And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth. See the note at John 3:11, and at John 1:18.

And no man receiveth his testimony. John's disciples had said, "All come to Him" (John 3:26), Would it were so, says the Baptist, but, alas! they are next to none. Nay, they were far readier to receive himself, insomuch that he was obliged to say I am not the Christ; and this seems to have pained him.


Verse 33

He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.

He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true - gives glory to God whose words Christ speaks, not as prophets and apostles, by a partial communication of the Spirit to them.


Verse 34

For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.

For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure [unto him]. Here, again, the sharpest conceivable line of distinction is drawn between Christ and all human inspired teachers: 'They have the Spirit in a limited degree; but God giveth not [to him] the Spirit by measure.' It means, as Olshausen says, the entire fullness of divine life and divine power. The present tense "giveth" [ didoosin (Greek #1325)] very aptly points out the ever-renewed communication of the Spirit by the Father to the Son, so that a constant flow and re-flow of living power is to be understood (see John 1:51).


Verse 35

The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.

The Father loveth the Son , [ agapa (Greek #25), not filei (Greek #5368) - diligit, not amai]. The word denotes the love of character, as distinguished from the mere love of person. But this shade of distinction cannot be expressed in the translation, nor in the present case ought they to be separated.

And hath given all things into his hand. See the note at Matthew 11:27, where we have the same delivering over of all things into the hand of the Son, while here, over and above that, we have the deep spring of that august act, in the Father's ineffable love of the Son.


Verse 36

He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life - already hath it. See the note at John 3:18; and at John 5:24.

And [or rather, 'but' de (G1161)] he that believeth not the Son shall not see life. The contrast here is striking. The one has already a life that will endure forever: the other not only has it not now, but shall never have it-never see it.

But the wrath of God abideth on him. It was on Him before, and not being removed in the only possible way, by "believing on the Son," it necessarily remaineth on him.

Remarks:

(1) Here again we have the marriage-relation of Yahweh to the Church-one of the leading Evangelical ideas of the Old Testament-which in Psalms 45:1-17 is transferred to Messiah, and is here, as in the First Gospel, appropriated by Christ to Himself, who thereby serves Himself Heir to all that the Old Testament holds forth of Yahweh's gracious affections, purposes, and relations toward the Church. See the note at Matthew 22:2, and Remark 1 at the close of that section.

(2) What a beautiful and comprehensive idea of the office of the ministry is this, of "Friends of the Bridegroom" - instrumentally bringing the parties together; equally interested in both of them and in their blessed union; rejoicing as they listen to the Bridegroom's voice, with whom the whole originates, by whom all is effected, and from whom flows all the bliss of those united to Him!

(3) No test of fidelity in the service of Christ can be more decisive than the spirit here displayed by the Baptist-absorption in his Master's interests, joy at the ingathering of souls to Him, and a willingness to decrease that He may increase, as stars before the rising sun.

(4) The difference between Christ and all other, even inspired, teachers is carefully to be observed, and never lost sight of. By this the honour in which the early Church held the Gospels above every other portion of the inspired Scripture is fully justified; nor are the other portions of canonical Scripture thereby disparaged, but rather the contrary, being thus seen in their right place, as all either preparatory to or expository of THE GOSPEL, as the Four Evangelical Records were called-Christ Himself being the chief Corner-stone.

(5) When Christ "speaketh the words of God," it is not simply as "The Word made flesh," but (according to the teaching of the Baptist in John 3:34) as plenarily gifted with the Holy Spirit-that "oil of gladness with which God, even His God, anointed Him above His fellows." As this was prophetically announced in Isaiah 61:1-3, so it was recognized by Christ Himself (Luke 4:18). But to guard against the abuse of this truth, as if Christ differed from other teachers only in having the Spirit given Him in larger measure, we shall do well to observe how jealous the fathers of the Church found it necessary to be on this point, when, having to combat such abuses, they decreed in one of their councils, that if anyone said that Christ 'spake or performed miracles by the Spirit of God, as by a power foreign to Himself,' he was to be condemned.

Thus then-as at His baptism and elsewhere, so here-we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all present, and each in His respective office in the work of redemption.

(6) The Son of God is the great Administrator of the kingdom of grace. As this is part of the closing testimony of the Baptist to Him, so does the last book of the New Testament canon conclude with it - "Behold, I come quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every man according as his work is" (Revelation 22:12). But this is not held forth here merely as a great fact. It is to give meaning and weight to what follows (John 3:36) - that the destinies of all that hear the Gospel, their blissful or blighted eternity, hang upon their reception or rejection of the Son of God.

(7) God's attitude toward the unbelieving is that of "wrath" [ orgee (Greek #3709)], that is, righteous displeasure, whose judicial expression is called "vengeance" [ ekdikeesis (Greek #1557)]. While it repays [ apodidoosi (Greek #591)] the unbelieving by excluding them from "seeing life," it does so still more awfully by leaving them under the weight of God's settled, abiding displeasure. And yet, with such teaching sounding in their ears, there are those who confidently teach that there never was, is not, nor can be anything in God against sinners, needing to be removed by Christ, but solely in men against God. Having formed to themselves certain notions of the love and unchangeableness of God, which they think incompatible with there being anything in Him against the sinner needing to be removed in order to his salvation, they make the Scripture to bend to these notions, instead of adjusting their own views to its indisputable teaching.

This may be consistent enough in those who believe in no authoritative divine Revelation, and regard the Scripture, and Christianity itself, as only designed to quicken and develop the natural religiousness of the human heart. But none who profess to bow to the teaching of Scripture as authoritative and conclusive can, consistently with the concluding words of this chapter, deny that God's view and treatment of the sinner will be that of reconciliation, complacency, and admission to life everlasting, or of abiding wrath or judicial displeasure, and permanent exclusion from life, according as he believes or believes not on the Son; in other words, that we must be not only internally but relatively right with God, or that He must be gained to us as well as we to Him. That He is willing and waiting to be so is indeed most true, as His whole procedure in the matter of salvation shows; and that neither Christ's death nor our faith in it make Him so-as we be slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say-is equally true. But until the sinner meets Him at the Cross, and sets to his own seal to the reconciliation effected by it-until both the Offended and the offending parties embrace each other over the same Sacrifice that taketh away the sin of the world, that love of God which yearns toward the sinner cannot, and will not, reach him. See the notes at Matthew 5:23-26, Remark 7 at the close of that section.

(8) The language of the last six verses of this chapter, regarding Christ, has been thought by not a few critics to go so far beyond the Baptist's point of view, that they cannot persuade themselves that he uttered it as it stands reported here; and they think that the Evangelist himself has, in the exercise of his apostolic illumination and authority, blended the Baptist's fainter and his own clearer views into one full-orbed testimony, as that of the Baptist himself-being his in sense if not in form. We have put this view of Bengel, Wetstein Lucke, Olshausen, DeWette, da Costa, and Tholuck, as favourably as we could. But first, if this principle is to be admitted, we can have no confidence that even Christ's own discourses are correctly reported, except that they are too lofty to have been expressed as they are by any human pen; and though this may do very well to authenticate them in the general, there are some statements of our Lord of so special a nature that we should not feel bound to abide by them as the stand, if we could persuade ourselves that they were, in the form of them at least, due to the Evangelist himself.

Thus is a principle of uncertainty in the testimony of the Gospels introduced, of which no one can see the end, or rather, the end of which has been too sadly seen in the criticism of Schleiermacher (on the Gospel of Luke, for example), and after him of Strauss. But again, this whole testimony of the Baptist-from John 3:27 - is so homogeneous, as Meyer well remarks, so uniform, consistent, and continuous, that one cannot see why the former portion of it should be thought to be strictly his, and the rest betray the Evangelist's own pen. But once more, we have seen already how glorious are the rays of Gospel truth-regarding the Person and the Work of Christ alike-which darted from the lips of His honoured herald (see the note at John 1:29; and at 1:49): and as from Luke 11:1 it is clear that John's teaching to his disciples took a wider range than anything expressly reported in the Gospels, we have no reason for doubting that this testimony-explicitly related as his, and so entirely in harmony with all his recorded testimonies-was really his, merely because it widens out into something singularly clear and lofty; more especially when we consider that it must have been among the very last testimonies, if not altogether the last, which he was permitted to bear to his blessed Master before his imprisonment.

 


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Bibliography Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on John 3:4". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jfu/john-3.html. 1871-8.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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