Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:III.
(1) There was a man.—Read, But there was a man. Our division of chapters breaks the connection, and the omission of the conjunction leads us to think of the visit of Nicodemus as quite distinct from what has gone before; whereas it really rises out of it (comp. John 3:2 with John 2:23).
The name Nicodemus was not uncommon among the Jews, but like Stephen, Philip, Jason, etc., was derived from their intercourse with the Greeks. (Comp. e.g., Demosth. 549, 23, and Jos. Ant. xiv. 3, § 2.) Of this particular Nicodemus, we know with certainty nothing more than is told us in this Gospel (John 7:50; John 19:39). The Talmud mentions a Nakedimon, so called from a miracle performed by him, who was the son of Gorion, and whose real name was Bonai. It also gives the name Bonai as one of the disciples of Jesus. He was one of the three richest Jews when Titus besieged Jerusalem, but his family was reduced to the most abject poverty. So far the Talmud. The inference is that this change of fortune is connected with his becoming a Christian and with the persecution which followed, and he is himself identified with the Nicodemus of the Gospel. We can only say this may be so. The reader who cares for more on the subject will find full references in Lampe, and the extracts from the Talmud translated in Lightfoot. Others may be content to accept this latter writer’s conclusion. “It is not worth while to take great pains in a question which is very involved, if we may not also call it useless.” (For the “Pharisees,” to which sect Nicodemus belonged, comp. John 1:24, and Matthew 3:7.)
(1) The word πνεῦμα (pneuma) occurs some 370 times in the Greek New Testament, and of these, twenty-three times in this Gospel. It is nowhere rendered “wind” by our translators, except in this instance, and they have rendered the same word by “Spirit” in the same verse, and twice besides in the same context (John 3:5-6). There is another word for “wind” (ἄνεμος), which occurs thirty-one times in the New Testament, and which John himself uses in John 6:18. It is not contended that πνεῦμα may not mean “wind,” “the breath of wind,” but that this is not its New Testament use, where the word is restricted to its special meaning. (It is plural in Hebrews 1:7; see Note there.) It is admitted also that the Hebrew or Chaldee word which πνεῦμα here translates has the two senses, but the sense in which it is here used is fixed by the translator.
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.(2) By night.—This has impressed itself upon the writer’s mind, so that it becomes part of the description of Nicodemus in John 19:39, and in some MSS. in John 7:50. We have to think of him as having heard the answer of the messengers sent to the Baptist (John 1:20 et seq.), as present at the cleansing of the Temple, as the witness of miracles in Jerusalem, as by these means convinced that this Teacher had a message from God, and resolved to hear it. But the Sanhedrin had officially taken a hostile position, and an individual member of it dare not openly take any other. His own conviction is expressed by his coming to Jesus at all; his fear of public opinion and of the possible exclusion from the synagogue by his coming at night. (Comp. John 12:42-43.)
We know that thou art a teacher come from God.—This explains the title he has used. He does not go beyond this. There has been, -as in the case of John the Baptist, sufficient to prove a more than human mission, but with this there has been nothing to meet the common Messianic expectation. Still, if this is a Prophet, working miracles like those of old, and evidently sent from God, He will be able to solve all doubts, and answer the questions pressing on the hearts of men. The plural pronoun expresses nothing more than the general conviction that the power to work miracles was a divine attestation of the teaching (John 9:16; John 9:33). There were, indeed, others in the same mental position as Nicodemus, but none accompanied him; and it is not probable that his visit was known to any of them. The “we” occurs again in our Lord’s reply in John 3:11, and it may be that both find their true explanation in the fact that this interview took place in the house, and in the presence of John, who had led Nicodemus to come, as he himself had gone, with doubting heart, to the place where Jesus was dwelling (John 1:38).
(2) The word for “bloweth,” “breatheth,” is of the same root as πνεῦμα. It is used in the New Testament with “wind,” but naturally has the meaning of its cognate substantive. The Vulgate can exactly render it by “Spiritus ubi vult spirat,” but we have in English no verb cognate with “Spirit.”
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.(3) Jesus answered and said unto him.—The words of Nicodemus are clearly only a preface to further questions. Jesus at once answers these questions; the answer being, as it frequently is, to the unexpressed thought (comp. e.g., John 2:18). The coming of the Messiah, the Divine Glory, God’s Kingdom, these are the thoughts which filled men’s minds. These miracles—in what relation did they stand to it? This Teacher—what message from God had He about it?
Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.—Our translators have followed the ancient expositors in giving the alternative renderings “born again” and “born from above” (margin). Chrysostom notes the two currents of interpretation in his day; and in our own day the opinions of scholars, whether we count them or weigh them, may be equally claimed for either view. There can be no doubt that the Greek word (ἄνωθεν) is found with both meanings. It is equally certain that St. John elsewhere uses it in the local sense “from above” only (John 3:31; John 19:11; John 19:23); but these instances are not sufficient to establish an usus loquendi, and the sense here, and in John 3:7, must be taken in connection with the meaning of the verb. (Comp. the same word in Luke 1:3, “from the very first,” and Galatians 4:9, “again.”) What has not, perhaps, been sufficiently noted is, that the Greek word is not the true key to the difficulty, and that its double sense has led men to seek the meaning in a wrong direction. The dialogue was between One who was called and one who really was a Rabbi. The word actually used almost certainly conveyed but one sense, and it is this sense which the Syriac version, coming to us from the second century, and closely connected with the Palestinian dialect of the first century, has preserved. This version reads “from the beginning,” “afresh,” “anew.” This is the sense which St. John wishes to express for his Greek readers, and the word used by him exactly does express it. That the Greek word has another meaning also, which expresses the same thought from another point of view, may have determined its choice. This other point of view was certainly not absent from the circle of the writer’s thoughts (comp. John 1:13).
On “the kingdom of God,” which is of frequent occurrence in the earlier Gospels, but in St. John is found only here and in John 3:5, comp. Note on Matthew 3:2. To “see” the kingdom is, in New Testament usage, equivalent to “enter into the kingdom,” John 3:5, where indeed some MSS. read “see.” (Comp. in this John John 3:36, and Luke 2:26; Acts 2:27; Hebrews 11:5; 1Peter 3:10; Revelation 18:7.) The condition of the spiritual vision which can see this kingdom is spiritual life, and this life is dependent on being born anew.
(3) It is perfectly natural to ascribe the power of willing to the Spirit, but it is not consistent with the simplicity of our Lord’s teaching thus to personify “wind,” especially in teaching on a subject where the simplest words are hard to fathom. The common rendering makes Him use the same word, in the same verse, of the third person in the Trinity, and of a natural phenomenon.
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?(4) How can a man be born . . .?—Nicodemus understands the words “born again” in the sense given above. The thought is not wholly strange to him. The Rabbis were accustomed to speak of proselytes as children, and the term “new creature” (comp. 2Corinthians 5:17) was in frequent use to express the call of Abraham. But he is himself a child of Abraham, a member of the theocratic kingdom, and is expecting the glory of Messiah’s reign. He is a teacher of the Law, a ruler of the chosen people. He is not as a heathen who can be born into the holy nation. The ordinary spiritual sense of the words cannot hold in his case. What can they mean? He does not wilfully misinterpret, for this is opposed to the whole character of the man, nor does he really suppose the physical meaning is intended; but after the method of Rabbinic dialogue, he presses the impossible meaning of the words in order to exclude it, and to draw forth the true meaning. “You cannot mean that a man is to enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born. What is it, then, that you do mean?”
When he is old does not necessarily apply to Nicodemus himself. It is the most difficult special case coming under the general term, “a man.” In Philo’s artificial division of the lifetime, based on that of Hippocrates, the “old man” (γέρων) is one more than fifty-six years (De Mund. Opif. § 36). If we understand this of Nicodemus personally, it will make the identification with Nak’dimon (Note on John 3:1) barely possible.
(4) The proper meaning of the word rendered “sound” (φωνή) is articulate “voice.” It is used in fifteen passages in this Gospel only, and everywhere translated “voice” except here. Let the reader substitute the one meaning for the other in any of these passages, e.g., John 1:23; John 3:29; John 5:25; John 5:28; John 10:3-5; John 10:16, and he will find that they are not interchangeable.
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.(5) Again the words “Verily, verily” (comp. Note on chap John 1:51), calling attention to the deeper truth which follows; and again the words of authority, “I say unto thee.”
Of water and of the Spirit.—We are here on the borderland of a great controversy. The subject is closely connected with that of the discourse in Capernaum (John 6), and so far as it is a subject for the pages of a Commentary at all, it will be better to treat of it in connection with that discourse. (See Excursus C: The Sacramental Teaching of St. John’s Gospel.) Our task here is to ask what meaning the words were intended by the Speaker to convey to the hearer; and this seems not to admit of doubt. The baptism of proselytes was already present to the thought; the baptism of John had excited the attention of all Jerusalem, and the Sanhedrin had officially inquired into it. Jesus Himself had submitted to it, but “the Pharisees and lawyers” [Nicodemus was both] “rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptised of him” (Luke 7:29). The key to the present verse is found in the declaration of John, “I baptise with water . . . He baptiseth with the Holy Ghost” (John 1:26; John 1:33), and this key must have been then in the mind of Nicodemus. The message was, baptism with water; baptism with water, by which the Gentile had been admitted as a new-born babe to Judaism, the rite representing the cleansing of the life from heathen pollutions and devotion to the service of the true God; baptism with water, which John had preached in his ministry of reformation (comp. Matthew 3:7), declaring a like cleansing as needed for Jew and Gentile, Pharisee and publican, as the gate to the kingdom of heaven, which was at hand; baptism with water, which demanded a public profession in the presence of witnesses, and an open loyalty to the new kingdom, not a visit by night, under the secrecy of darkness—this is the message of God to the teacher seeking admission to His kingdom. This he would understand. It would now be clear to him why John came baptising, and why Jews were themselves baptised confessing their sins. There is no further explanation of the “outward and visible sign,” but the teaching passes on to the “inward and spiritual grace,” the baptism of the Holy Ghost, the birth of the Spirit, which was the work of the Messiah Himself. Of this, indeed, there were foreshadowings and promises in the Old Testament Scriptures (comp., e.g., Ezekiel 36:25 et seq.; Jeremiah 31:33; Joel 2:28); but the deeper meaning of such passages was buried beneath the ruins of the schools of prophets, and few among later teachers had penetrated to it. It is hard for this Rabbi to see it, even when it is brought home to him.
(5) It is believed that the rendering adopted agrees with the whole context, and gives a fuller sense to the words of the great Teacher.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.(6) That which is born of the flesh is flesh.—The first step is to remind him of the law of likeness in natural generation. “Flesh,” as distinct from “spirit,” is human nature in so far as it is common with animal nature, consisting of the bodily frame and its animal life, feelings, and passions. “Flesh,” as opposed to “spirit,” is this nature as not under the guidance of the human spirit, which is itself the shrine of the Divine Spirit, and therefore it is sinful. (Comp. Galatians 5:16 et seq.; Galatians 6:8.) It is this nature in its material constitution, and subject to sin, which is transmitted from father to son. The physical life itself is dependent upon birth. That which is born of the flesh is flesh.
There is an analogous law of spiritual generation. Spirit as opposed to flesh is the differentia of man as distinct from all other creatures. It is the image of God in him, the seat of the capacity for the communion with God, which is the true principle of life. In the natural man this is crushed and dormant; in the spiritual man it has been quickened by the influence of the Holy Ghost. This is a new life in him, and the spiritual life, like the physical, is dependent upon birth. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
(6) The sense suggested for the last clause, “In this manner is every one born who is of the Spirit,” removes the necessity of finding something with which the work of the Spirit may be compared, and it is in this necessity that the received versions of the first clause really find their root.
These reasons are, it is thought, not an insufficient basis for the interpretation here adopted. It is adopted not without the knowledge that a consensus of authorities may be pleaded against it. For its details it may be that no authority can be pleaded, but the rendering of πνεῦμα here by “spirit” is not without the support of width of learning and depth of power, critical acumen and spiritual insight, for it rests on the names of Origen and Augustine, of Albrecht Bengel and Frederick Maurice.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.(7) Ye must be born again.—The laws of natural and spiritual generation have been stated as general truths, holding good for all mankind, “that which is born.” But there is a special application to the present case, “Marvel not that I said unto thee (teacher as thou art) that ye (children of Abraham as ye are) must be born again.” In so far as they were children of Abraham according to the flesh, they were children of Abraham’s physical and sinful nature. The law of that, as of all human nature, was that flesh ruled animal life, and animal life ruled spirit, and the whole man became carnal, bringing forth the fruits of the flesh. The law of the regenerate nature was that the spirit, born by the influence of the Divine Spirit, rose to a new life of communion with God, controlled the lower life, with its affections, feelings, and desires, and that these thus controlled became the motive power of the body; the whole man thus became spiritual, bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit. (Comp. Note on 1Thessalonians 5:23.) For them, then, as for all, it was no matter of wonder, it was an absolute necessity of their true life, that they should be born anew.
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.(8) The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof.—Better (see Note below), the Spirit breatheth where He willeth, and thou hearest His voice. These words are an explanation of the spiritual birth, the necessity of which has been asserted in the previous verses. They must have come to Nicodemus, bringing in their sound echoes of the old familiar words, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). These words would bring to the mind thoughts of the human body, cold, lifeless, corpse-like; of the breath of life passing into it; of the beating pulse, the opening eye, the action of nerve, muscle, and limb, as, in obedience to God’s will, matter became the framework of spirit, and man became a living soul. There are parallel thoughts of the spirit existing in capacity for life and union with God, but crushed beneath the physical life with its imperative demands for support, and the sensible life with its engrossing pleasures and pains, and sorrows and joys; of the Spirit of God breathing upon it; and of the dormant power awakening into a new life of noblest thoughts and hopes and energies, when man is born of the Spirit.
And yet the new spiritual birth, like the physical, cannot be explained. We can observe the phenomena, we cannot trace the principle of life. He breatheth where He willeth, in the wide world of man, free as the wind of heaven, bound by no limits of country or of race. The voice is heard speaking to the man himself, and through him to others; there is the evidence of the new birth in the new life. We know not whence He comes, or whither He goes. We cannot fix the day or hour of the new birth with certainty. We know not what its final issues will be. It is the beginning of a life which is a constant growth, and the highest development here is but the germ of that which shall be hereafter (1John 3:2).
So is every one that is born of the Spirit.—The sense is, In this manner is every one (born) who is born of the Spirit. The universality is again emphatically asserted. Individual spiritual life depends upon individual spiritual birth. The baptism of the Spirit is needed for all. Now, indeed, coming as a fire burning in men’s hearts, consuming the chaff of sin, while He purifies and stores up all that is true and good; now coming as in a moment, and arresting a man in a course of evil, revealing the iniquity of sin, and giving the power to reform; now coming as the gradual dawning of day upon the youthful soul who has never been wholly without it; here in a sermon or a prayer, there in the lessons of childhood; now by the example of a noble life or the lessons of history; again in the study of Scripture or the truths written on the page of nature—the Spirit breatheth where it willeth. We may not limit His action, but by His action must every one be born again. Comp. the instances of what men call gradual conversion and sudden conversion, placed side by side in the same chapter, in Acts 16:14; Acts 16:29 et seq.
The rendering of the first clause of this verse by the Spirit breatheth for “wind bloweth” of the Authorised version has met with so little support that it is right to state briefly the grounds on which it rests.
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?(9) How can these things be?—The answer to the previous question has spoken of a spiritual birth and a spiritual life and a spiritual kingdom, but all this is in a region of which the Rabbinic schools knew nothing. They were the authorised exponents of Law and Prophets; they knew the precise number of words, and the shape of letters; the form of a phylactery, and the width of a fringe; the tithing of garden herbs, and the manner of washing the hands: but spirit, life, a man’s soul born again!—“how can these things be?”
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?(10) Art thou a master of Israel?—Better, Art thou the teacher of Israel? The article is emphatic, and points to the position of Nicodemus as a teacher of repute—“the well-known teacher;” or possibly it is to be understood of the Sanhedrin as represented by him—“Is this the teaching of Israel?” There is something of just indignation here, as everywhere when the words of Jesus Christ are addressed to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. “You who teach others, have you need to learn the very first lessons of true religion? You who claim to loose and bind men, and place heavy burdens on them which they cannot bear, are you without the simplest real knowledge of what God is, or of what man is? Do teachers of Israel know not these things when they lie beneath every page of the Old Testament Scriptures?”
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.(11) Once again the “Verily, verily” of deeper truth. “We speak that we do know” is in sharp contrast to their formal teaching of matters external to the truth. The plural is not usual in the language of Christ, and the immediate passage to the singular forbids us to accept the usual grammatical explanation that it is the plural of majesty. He apparently joins others with Himself,—those who have spoken and known and testified, and whose testimony has been rejected by the Jews. We have to think of him whose life-work was to bear witness of the Light (John 1:8), and of the band of disciples who form a little school round their Master, and who in Jerusalem, as in Galilee, testified of Him; and it may even be that in the house and presence of one of that band this conversation took place (comp. John 3:2). They knew the power of the new life, and had been baptised of water and of spirit. In their measure and degree, as He in fulness, they spake what they knew, and testified what they had seen. (Comp. John 15:27.)
And ye receive not our witness—i.e., “ye Jews,” the teachers, of whom Nicodemus was one, the representatives of His own who received Him not (John 1:11). This attitude of the mind which refused to accept the evidence of witnesses as to things they had known and seen was of the essence of unbelief, and made further revelation impossible. When the will closed the faculty of faith, it left open no access for fuller spiritual truth.
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?(12) Earthly things—i.e., things upon earth, having the sphere of their action upon earth. These are not necessarily restricted to the subjects of this interview. The context includes previous witness borne by Him, and there must have been much which is unrecorded. (Comp. John 2:23.) But the new birth is not excluded from “earthly things,” because it is the entrance to a life which, while it is spiritual, is still a life upon earth.
Heavenly things, in the same way, are things which have the sphere of their action in heaven, the full development of the spiritual life, of which the birth only is on earth; the divine counsels of redemption; the Messianic mysteries, of which this ruler of Israel does not understand even the initiation. Comp. the question in the Wisdom of Solomon, “What man is he that can know the counsel of God? or who can think what the will of the Lord is? . . . And hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth, and with labour do we find the things that are before us: but the things that are in heaven who hath searched out?” (John 9:13; John 9:16).
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 man. When these elements are learnt, the mind is then, and then only, fitted to receive heavenly things. The teaching can only proceed step by step from the known to the unknown; but if the will refuses or the intellect neglects to know the knowable, the man cuts himself off from the power to receive truth. The message from the spirit-world has come, and others read it; but he has not learnt the alphabet. (Comp. Note on John 16:12.)
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.(13) And no man hath ascended up.—There can be no other means of receiving heavenly truth. No man hath learnt it, and is able to teach it, except the Son of Man, who ever was, and is, in heaven. The thought has met us before (John 1:18). To Nicodemus it must have come as an answer to the words of Agur, which had passed into a proverb to express the vanity of human effort to know God. “Who hath ascended up into heaven or descended?. . . . What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?” (Proverbs 30:4). No man had so passed to heaven and returned again to earth; but there was One then speaking with him who had been in heaven with God, and could tell him its eternal truths. He had that knowledge which a man could obtain only by ascending to heaven, and He came down from heaven with it. From the human point of view He was as one who had already ascended and descended. (Comp. Note on John 1:51.) This is the evident meaning of the sentence, and the form is quite consistent with it. To explain the perfect tense of the future ascension, or to introduce the idea of the “hypostatic union,” by virtue of which the human nature may be said to have ascended into heaven with the divine, is, to give an explanation, not of the text, but of a misunderstanding of it. (But comp. John 6:62.)
Which is in heaven.—These words are omitted in some MSS., including the Sinaitic and the Vatican. The judgment of most modern editors (not including Westcott and Hort) retains them. It is an instance where it is hard to account for the insertion by a copyist, but where the omission is not unlikely, owing to their seeming difficulty. And yet the difficulty is one which vanishes before the true idea of heaven. If heaven is thought of as a place infinitely distant beyond clouds and sky, or as a time in the far future when this world’s life shall end, then it is indeed hard to understand what is here meant by “the Son of Man which is in heaven;” and a copyist may well have found in omission the easiest solution of the difficulty. But if heaven is something wholly different from this coldness of distance in space or time; if it is a state, a life, in which we are, which is in us—now in part, hereafter in its fulness—then may we understand and with glad hearts hold to the vital truth that the Son of Man, who came down from heaven, was ever in heaven; and that every son of man who is born of water and of the Spirit is “made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor (in the present, κληρονόμος) of the kingdom of heaven.”
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:(14) And as Moses lifted up.—This verse is closely connected by the conjunction “and” with what has gone before. Jesus has taught that in Himself heaven and earth meet; so that, while subject to the conditions of human life, He, the Son of Man, the representative of humanity, is in heaven. He goes on to show that what is true of the representative is, through Him, true of the whole race. Again the Old Testament Scriptures form the basis of the teaching to their expounder. The people in the wilderness bitten by the fiery serpents, the poison-virus spreading through their veins, and causing burning pain, torpor, and death—this was symbolical of the world lying in the misery, restlessness, and spiritual death, which came from the Serpent’s victory in Paradise. The serpent of brass lifted up by Moses, in which the sufferer saw the means of recovery determined by God, and was healed by faith in Him—this was symbolical of the means of salvation determined by God for the world. (Comp. the phrase “lifted up” in John 8:28; John 12:32; and, as an exact parallel with this passage, John 12:34) Nicodemus must have understood that the healing power of the serpent of brass was in the fact that it led men to trust in Jehovah, who had appointed it. This was the current Jewish interpretation. Comp. the Jerusalem Targum, “Their faces were to be fixed on their Father who is in heaven;” so the Targum of Jonathan ben-Uziel, “The heart was fixed on the name of the word of Jehovah;” so, again, the Wisdom of Solomon, “For he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by Thee, that art the Saviour of all” (Wisdom Of Solomon 16:7; see the whole passage, Wisdom Of Solomon 16:6-13). It was the sign of the Eternal in power and in love present to save, and the man who realised that presence lived with a new life. In the divine counsels it was willed, and must be, that the Son of Man should be the witness to the world of the Eternal Power and Love which saves every man who grasps it.
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.(15) Not perish, but . . .—These words have been added here from the following verse. Omitting them, the sentence should be rendered, that every one who believeth may have in Him eternal life. This construction is borne out by a comparison of John 5:39; John 16:33; John 20:31. “To believe in Him” is not used by St. John. (See Note on John 1:12.) The thought of this verse is that as every Israelite, believing in God, had in the brazen serpent a message from God; so every man who believes in God ever has this message from God in the crucified Son of Man. The object of faith is not here expressed. The words speak only of the man who believeth, whose heart is open to spiritual truth. That man has, in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, a truth which goes to his inmost spirit, sending a new life through his whole being. To the non-believer this may be but the self-sacrifice of heroism. To the believer it is Light breaking upon the darkness of his soul; it is Life bursting the cold sepulchre of a deadened spirit; it is Love winning its way through the scales of a hardened heart; it is Mercy deeper and wider even than his sin; it is Hope bracing the man to a new life of holiness; it is the Word of God, and in Him he has eternal life. The reader will not forget that the lifting up the serpent of brass followed the confession of the people. “We have sinned . . . pray unto the Lord that He take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7).
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.(16) The last verse has spoken of “every one who believeth.” The thought went beyond the limits that Rabbis set to the kingdom of God. Its only limit is humanity. This thought is now repeated and strengthened by the “might not perish,” and the love of God is made the foundation on which it rests. Perhaps no verse in the Bible has been so much explained as this; perhaps no verse can be so little explained. Most young preachers have sermons upon it; older men learn that its meaning must be felt and thought rather than spoken. Still less can it be written; and this Note may not attempt to do more than indicate some lines of thought which may help to lead to others.
God so loved the world.—Familiar as the words are to us, they were uttered to Nicodemus for the first time. They are the revelation of the nature of God, and the ground of our love to God and man. (Comp. Notes on 1John 4:7-11.)
His only begotten Son.—Here, once again, the Old Testament Scriptures suggest and explain the words used. Every Jew knew, and loved to think and tell of his forefather who was willing to sacrifice his own and only son in obedience to what he thought to be the will of God (Genesis 22). But Love gives, and does not require, sacrifice. God wills not that Abraham should give his son, but He gave His only begotten Son. The dread power that man has ever conceived—that is not God; the pursuing vengeance that sin has ever imagined—that is not God; the unsatisfied anger that sacrifice has ever suggested—that is not God. But all that human thought has ever gathered of tenderness, forgiveness, love, in the relation of father to only child—all this is, in the faintness of an earth-drawn picture, an approach to the true idea of God. Yes, the true idea is infinitely beyond all this; for the love for the world gives in sacrifice the love for the only begotten Son.
Believeth in.—Better, believeth upon. The preposition is not the same as in the last verse. (Comp. John 1:12.) There the thought was of the Son of Man lifted up, in whom every one who believes and can interpret spiritual truth, ever has eternal life. Here the thought is of the Son of God given for the world, and every one who believes upon, casts his whole being upon Him, and, like Abraham, in will rests all upon God, finds that God has provided Himself a lamb for a burnt-offering instead of human sacrifice or death.
Everlasting life.—Better, as the same Greek word is rendered in the previous verse, eternal life. For the meaning of this word see Note on Matthew 25:46. It is of frequent use in this Gospel (seventeen times), and always used in reference to life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.(17) To condemn the world gives to the English reader a stronger impression than that of the original Greek. The word (κρίνω, krino, the Latin c(k)erno, and the English dis-cern) means originally to separate, and in the moral sense to separate good from evil. Passing from the act to the effect, it may mean to absolve; but as the usual effect of separation is to exclude the evil, the word has attached to itself more frequently the idea of condemnation. Our word judge, which has itself something of this double meaning, is probably the best rendering in this context.
Part of the current belief about the Messiah’s advent was, that he would destroy the Gentile world. The authorised expositions of many texts of the Old Testament asserted this, and Nicodemus must ofttimes have heard it and taught it. God’s love for, and gift to, the world has just been declared. This truth runs counter to their belief, and is now stated as an express denial of it. The purpose of the Messiah’s mission is not to judge, but to save. The latter clause of the verse changes the order of the thought. It would naturally be “but that He might save the world.” The inversion makes prominent the action of man in willing to be saved.
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.(18) He that believeth on him is not condemned.—Again, judged is better than “condemned.” There is, moreover, an important change of tense in this verse, which the Authorised version does not mark clearly. He that believeth on Him, is not judged: but he that believeth not hath been (and is) already judged.
Because he hath not believed.—The human spirit fulfils the end of its being, and finds its highest good, in communion with God. It cannot, then, fail to recognise and believe in a revelation of God. This revelation has been made in the only way in which it can be fully made (comp. John 1:18), in the person of the only begotten Son. The very fact that He is rejected is the judgment of the spirit which rejects. It has lost by neglect its power to perceive, or by will it hides itself from God. “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10).
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.(19) And this is the condemnation.—For “condemnation” read judgment; for “light” and “darkness,” the light and the darkness. The object is salvation, not judgment (John 3:17); but the separation of the good involves the judgment of the evil. The light makes the darkness visible. Both were before men. That they chose darkness was the act of their own will, and this act of the will was determined by the evil of their deeds. “The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” (Comp. Note on John 1:5.)
The words are general, but they must have had, for him who then heard them, a special force. It was night. He had avoided the light of day, and like men who go forth to deeds of darkness under cover of darkness, he had come in secrecy to Jesus. His own conscience told him that he was in the presence of a Teacher sent from God (John 3:2); but he has checked the voice of conscience. He has shrunk from coming to this Teacher in the light of day, and has loved the darkness of the night.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.(20) For every one that doeth evil hateth the light.—In this and the next verse we have the explanation of the choice of the darkness and rejection of the light. The fact itself is first stated more strongly. Not only does the man that doeth evil love darkness rather than light, but he hates the light. (Comp. Note on John 7:7.) Its presence makes manifest and reproves his works, which he would hide even from himself. It illumines the dark and secret chambers of the heart, and reveals thoughts and deeds which conscience, seeing in this light, trembles at, and turns away to darkness that it may hide itself from its own gaze.
It has been often noted that the word “doeth,” in this and the following verse, represent different words in the original. Perhaps we may distinguish them in English by rendering this verse: “Every one that practiseth evil.” It is not less important to note that the word for evil here differs from the word so rendered’ in the last clause of the previous verse. Strictly, and the change of word seems to demand a strict interpretation (comp. Note on John 5:29), it is not that which is positively, but that which is negatively, evil—that which is trivial, poor, worthless. The man who practiseth such things misses the aim of life, and turns from the light that would point it out to him. He does many things, but forgets that one thing is needful, and spends a life-time in trifles without any permanent result. We are familiar with the thought that immorality shuns the light and warps the will, and thus darkens knowledge and weakens faith; but we remember too seldom the deadening effect of an unreal and aimless existence which is not truly a life.
Should be reproved.—The margin will show that our translators felt a difficulty about this word (see Notes on Matthew 18:15), where it is rendered “tell him his fault,” and comp. the other instances in this Gospel, John 8:9; John 8:46 (“convince” in both), and especially John 16:8 (“reprove,” and margin “convince”). The moral idea is exactly illustrated by the action of light, which makes manifest the wrong, and leads the conscience to see it and repent of it. It is through this chastening that the man passes from darkness to light. It is because men shrink from this chastening that they hate the light. (Comp. Notes on the remarkable parallel in Ephesians 5:11 et seq.)
But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.(21) He that doeth truth is opposed to “him that practiseth evil.” With fixed purpose he doeth not that which is evil or worthless, but that which, when every veil by which it is hidden from himself or others is removed, remains morally true. Regarding truth as the work of life, he cometh to the light, and though for him too it will be a revelation of sins and errors, and deeds of shame, he hates them the moment he knows them, cuts them from his life at whatever cost, and carries his whole being to the light that it may become really true, and that its true works may be made manifest. He will hate the darkness, for he can have nothing to conceal in it. He will love the light, for everything which it reproves he reproves too, and every ray he can gather from it becomes part of the truth which is his life-work. For the remarkable expression “to do the truth,” which, with its opposite “to do a lie” (John 8:44; Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15), is common in Rabbinic writers, comp. Job 13:4, and 1John 1:6; and for “walking in truth,” comp. 2John 1:4, and 3John 1:3-4. In 1Corinthians 13:6, “truth” is opposed to “iniquity.”
That they are wrought in God.—Perhaps better, because they are wrought in God. This is the reason of their being made manifest in the light revealed in the person of Christ. However full the light which had guided men’s steps had been, it was still part of the true Light which lighteth every man, and must lead to Him. Every work wrought in God had already bound them in union with Him, and prepared them to receive Him. That Light was in the world, in the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament Scriptures (Matthew 5:17), in the witness of things invisible ever borne by the things that are made (Romans 1:20), in the law written upon the hearts of men (Romans 2:14-15). As before (John 3:19), these words are general, but we may not exclude from them a special meaning. He who spoke them warrants our applying them to characters, like the true Nathanael, in whom there is no guile (John 1:47); like the rock-man Peter (John 1:42); like the witness John (Matthew 11:11). Some ground was good when the Sower went forth to sow.
Two thoughts are suggested to us at the close of this first discourse. One is, that the writer, with perfect naturalness, says nothing of the effect on Nicodemus, but leaves the after-glimpses to tell their own tale. (See John 7:50; John 19:39.) The other is, that we have come upon teaching distinct in style and matter from that of the earlier Gospels. On this see Excursus D: The Discourses in St. John’s Gospel.
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.(22) After these things.—Not implying that He left Jerusalem at once. The “land of Judæa” is the province as distinct from the capital. This verse points to a work in Judæa of which we know nothing more. It was probably not confined to one place. We have to think of Christ as continuing His teaching, of large numbers influenced by it (John 3:26), and of these as being baptised by the disciples (John 4:2). His converts were the country people, and it is the action of the Pharisees which caused Him to retire to Samaria.
And John also was baptizing in AEnon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.(23) Ænon near to Salim.—The latter place was clearly well known at the time, and regarded as fixing the locality of the former. It has been usual to follow Jerome and Eusebius, who fix the place in the valley of the Jordan, eight miles south from Bethshan, or Scythopolis. (See quotation from the Onomasticon, in Caspari, Chron. and Geogr. Introd., Eng. Trans., p. 122.) The objection to this is, that the text seems to limit us to Judæa (comp. John 4:3-4), whereas this Salim is more than thirty miles from it. The word Ænon means “springs,” and probably belonged to more than one place where “there was much water.” The mention of this is opposed to the locality of the Jordan valley, where it would not be necessary to choose a place for this reason. Dr. Barclay (City of the Great Xing, 1858, pp. 558-570) found both names in a place answering the description, and certainly answering the narrative better than other identifications, at Wady Farah, about five miles from Jerusalem.
They came—i.e., the people.
For John was not yet cast into prison.(24) Was not yet cast into prison.—This Judæan ministry, then, preceded the Galilean ministry of the earlier Gospels. (See John 4:3, and Note on Matthew 4:12.)
Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.(25) Then there arose a question.—For “the Jews,” the reading of the better MSS. is, a Jew. The question arose on the side of John’s disciples. What the exact nature of it was we do not know, and have no means of judging. It was one of the questions which in every age has arisen about external rites, and has too often been accompanied by a neglect of inner principles. This arose in some way from the fact of the disciples of Jesus baptising near to the place where John was baptising, and doubtless was closely connected with these baptisms. The fact is only preserved as an incidental introduction to the remarkable testimony of the Baptist which follows.
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.(26) Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan.—John’s disciples, with a natural attachment to their master, and without the knowledge of what that master’s work really was, are jealous of what seems to them the rival work of Jesus. He had been with John; the Baptist had borne witness to Him. Now He seems to usurp his work, and the throngs which had crowded to the Forerunner go to Him. (Comp. Notes on John 1:8; John 4:2.)
Barest witness.—Better, hast borne witness.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.(27) A man can receive nothing . . .—Do these words apply to the Baptist himself, or to Christ? Do they mean “I cannot assume this higher position which you wish to give me, because it is not given me by heaven;” or, “His work, with its influence over men, ought to convince you that His mission is divine “? Expositors have given, now this, now that answer. The immediate connection with John 3:26 points to the latter view as the correct one (but see Alford’s Note on the other side). The power that had shown itself in word and work, teaching as none ever taught before, binding men—aye, some of their own brotherhood—to Himself, convincing men whose minds were open to the truth that He was the very Christ—all this could only have been received from heaven. Did they feel the movement around them? Let them recognise it as divine, and seek to be borne with it. (See Note on John 6:36.)
Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.(28) Ye yourselves bear me witness.—They remembered (John 3:26) that John had borne witness to Jesus. Did they not remember too what he had said? He had from the first known his own work, and the greater work. Some of his disciples had known it also, and had gone from him to Jesus. This which they see was the necessary result of the truth he had ever declared.
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.(29) He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.—This is the only instance in this Gospel where the familiar imagery of an Eastern marriage meets us. (See Note on Matthew 9:15, where we have the same imagery in the answer of our Lord to these same disciples of John, then taking sides with the Pharisees, on the question of fasting.) The “friend of the bridegroom”—called by the Hebrews “Shōshbēn,” and by the Greeks “Paranymph”—was charged with the preliminaries of the marriage. He arranged the contract, acted for the bridegroom during the betrothal, and arranged for, and presided at, the festivities of the wedding-day itself. It was a position of honour, in proportion to the position of the bridegroom himself, and was given to his chief friend. That friend then joyed in his joy, and there was none brighter on that day than he. This in John’s thought is an illustration of his own position. The bridegroom is the Messiah; the bride is the Kingdom of God—the church, consisting of all who with pure hearts are willing to receive Him; the friend who has arranged the betrothal, who has prepared these hearts, is John himself. He now stands and hears the Bridegroom. Some of those who had been prepared by him for the Bridegroom would have come, it may be, and told him of his words. He is now near at hand. Throngs crowd to Him. The bride is approaching. Do they see in all this matter for envy? It is to him the consummation of all hopes. The life-work has not been in vain. The cup runs over. The joy is fulfilled.
He must increase, but I must decrease.(30) He must increase, but I must decrease.—The office of the paranymph ceases to exist when the marriage is accomplished. It must be so. So too in the interpretation. His own work was well-nigh done, but he is filled with the joy of having done his work, not with disappointment that it pales before the brightness of the work which is to follow. This is the text of the Forerunner’s life. Well will it be for those followers of Christ whose lives shall be sermons on it!
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.(31) He that cometh from above.—Comp. Note on John 3:13, and John 8:23. It is expressed in another form in the last clause of the verse.
Is above all—i.e., above all persons, and, as the context limits the sense, specially above all teachers.
He that is of the earth is earthly.—This is the right sense, but the force of the words is lessened by not preserving the three-fold “of the earth” which is in the Greek. “He who is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh.” The first marks out the Baptist’s origin, as opposed to Him that cometh from above; the second asserts that the nature is, in accord with this origin, human and limited in faculty, as opposed to that of Him who is above all; the third declares that his teaching is from the standpoint of human nature and limited faculty, embracing indeed divine subjects and receiving divine revelation (John 1:33), but having this treasure in earthen vessels, imperfectly realising it, and imperfectly teaching it (John 3:33). Then the contrast carries him away from this thought of self, in all its weakness, to dwell on the fulness of the teaching of the perfect Teacher, and he emphatically repeats, with the change of words suggested by “of the earth,” what he has before said of it, “He that cometh from heaven is above all.”
This repetition is the answer to the jealousy of his disciples, who wished to place him in a position of rivalry with Jesus. It is the answer to all self-assertion on the part of human teachers.
And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony.(32) And what he hath seen and heard.—This is the opposite of the third point, the speaking of the earth in the last verse. Divine in origin, divine in nature, He is divine in teaching. That teaching, too, is a witness of things seen and heard. (Comp. Notes on John 6:11-12.) It was a message from the Father’s home, brought by the Son Himself. His own message was but that of a servant who did not fully know its meaning.
No man receiveth his testimony.—These words are shown by those which immediately follow to go in their pathos beyond the strict limit of the facts present to his own mind. Yet he may well have said “no man.” Of the crowds that thronged to his own baptism, of those who were then thronging to the baptism of Jesus, how many were there who were receiving like testimony of the things seen and heard? (Comp. again John 3:11.) How great the first promise, how bitter the last disappointment, of the Baptist’s life! These words of intense feeling are not to be measured by the cold standard of a formal exactness. And still it may be that the sadness of his tone arises from the fact that of those to whom he speaks, and at the time when he speaks, there was literally no one receiving this testimony, but all were seeking to make the earthly teacher a rival of the divine. The tense is present; those in the next verse are past.
He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.(33) He that hath received.—Better, he that received. “Hath set to his seal,” better, set his seal. It had been so. Earlier disciples, as Andrew and John (John 1:40), had passed from the Forerunner to the Great Teacher, and had heard in His words that which went to the divine in their own spirits, and had come from the short first meeting with the conviction, “We have found the Messias.” They received the witness, and, as they heard it, they too became witnesses. Just as a man sets his private seal—here, probably, the common Eastern stamp that affixed the name is thought of—and by it attests the truth of a document, so they attested, in the power which that witness had over their lives, their recognition of it as truth. It has always been so. The moral fitness of Christianity to meet the spiritual needs of men, and its moral power over the lives of men in all the varying circumstances of culture, race, and creed, has raised up in every age an holy army of witnesses, who have set their seal to its divine truth. (Comp. for the thought of sealing, John 6:27; Romans 4:11; Romans 15:28; 1Corinthians 9:2; &c.)
For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.(34) For he whom God hath sent.—Better, he whom God sent. The acceptance of the witness of things seen and heard is the attestation by the human spirit of the truthfulness of God, for Jesus is as one sent from God to declare Him. It is the divine image in man which recognises divinity. Every human faculty finds its true work, and true satisfaction, and the true object of its being, in Him; and therefore the whole man knows that His words are true, and recognises that He speaks the words of God. (Comp. 1John 5:10.)
For God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.—The italics will show that the words “unto Him” are added in our version; and it is probable that the word “God,” which has been repeated from the first clause of the verse, should be also omitted here. We have then to read, “For He giveth not the Spirit by measure;” or, possibly, “For the Spirit giveth not by measure.” If, however, we remember that John the Baptist is the speaker, and that he had seen “the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and coming upon Him” (see Note on Matthew 3:16, and comp. such passages as Luke 11:13, and in this Gospel John 14:16; John 15:26), we shall still interpret the words in the sense which our version gives. The words “by measure,” in the sense of limitation, are frequent in the classical and rabbinical writings. The Rabbis seem to have applied the phrase to prophets and teachers, saying that the Spirit dwelt in the prophets only in a certain measure. Comp. 2Kings 2:9, where Elisha prays for “a double portion,” or, more exactly, a portion of two—the portion of the first-born son (Deuteronomy 21:17)—of the spirit of Elijah. The same thought meets us in St. Paul (himself a pupil of Gamaliel), who speaks of “the self-same Spirit dividing to every man severally as He will” (see 1Corinthians 12:4-12). The opposite of this thought, then, is before us here. God gives in this case not as in others. The Son who cometh from above is above all. There is no gift of prophet, or of teacher, which is not given to Him. He has the fulness of the spiritual gifts which in part are given to men, and He speaks the very words of God. It will be noted that John is still expounding to his disciples the meaning of his own declaration, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.(35) The Father loveth the Son.—Comp. Note on Matthew 11:27, which is remarkable as an instance of what we call distinctly Johannine thought and diction in the earlier Gospels. We shall meet the words again in John 5:20.
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.(36) Here too we have, in the words of John, thoughts which we have found already (John 3:15-16), and shall find again (John 5:24), in the words of Christ Himself.
He that believeth not the Son.—Better, he that obeyeth not the Son. The word, which occurs only here in the Gospels, is not the same as that at the beginning of the verse, and shows that the faith there intended is the subjection of the will to the Son, to whom the Father hath given all things (John 3:35). (Comp. “obedience to the faith,” Romans 1:5.)
Shall not see life is contrasted with the present possession of the believer. He has life; the man who disobeys has not, and while he disobeys shall not see life, for he cannot be a subject of a kingdom to whose laws he refuses allegiance. But there is also a fearful positive contrast. There is for him a present possession, which shall also remain.
The wrath of God abideth on him.—Once only in the four Gospels does this term, so full of tremendous meaning, meet us, and that in the Gospel of fullest love, and in a context which speaks of the Father’s love to the Son, and of eternal life, which is the portion of all who believe on the Son. It must be so. This wrath (comp. Romans 2:8; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; Revelation 19:15) is not the fierceness of passion, nor is it the expression of fixed hatred. It is the necessary aspect of love and holiness toward those who reject love, and wilfully sin. It is not here spoken of as coming upon them, or as passing from them. It abideth, ever has and ever must; for the wrath of love must abide on hatred, the wrath of holiness must abide on sin. But none need hate, and none need live in wilful sin. “He that believeth”—how vast the love and bright the hope of the all-including words—“hath eternal life”! (Comp. Note on John 6:56.)