Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
Joh 3:1-21. Night Interview of Nicodemus with Jesus.
1, 2. Nicodemus—In this member of the Sanhedrim sincerity and timidity are seen struggling together.
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. came to Jesus by night—One of those superficial "believers" mentioned in Joh 2:23, 24, yet inwardly craving further satisfaction, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in quest of it, but comes "by night" (see Joh 19:38, 39; 12:42); he avows his conviction that He was
come from God—an expression never applied to a merely human messenger, and probably meaning more here—but only as "a teacher," and in His miracles he sees a proof merely that "God is with Him." Thus, while unable to repress his convictions, he is afraid of committing himself too far.
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. Except, &c.—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 candor. 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 (Joh 2:25)—such methods speed better than more honeyed words and gradual approaches.
a man—not a Jew merely; the necessity is a universal one.
be born again—or, as it were, begin life anew in relation to God; his manner of thinking, feeling, and acting, with reference to spiritual things, undergoing a fundamental and permanent revolution.
cannot see—can have no part in (just as one is said to "see life," "see death," &c.).
the kingdom of God—whether in its beginnings here (Lu 16:16), or its consummation hereafter (Mt 25:34; Eph 5:5).
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, &c.—The figure of the new birth, if it had been meant only of Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion, would have been intelligible enough to Nicodemus, being quite in keeping with the language of that day; but that Jews themselves should need a new birth was to him incomprehensible.
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. of water and of the Spirit—A twofold 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 Ghost. Indeed, element of water and operation of the Spirit are brought together in a glorious evangelical prediction of Ezekiel (Eze 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 Ghost (Tit 3:5).
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
6-8. That which is born, &c.—A great universal proposition; "That which is begotten carries within itself the nature of that which begat it" [Olshausen].
flesh—Not the mere material body, but all that comes into the world by birth, the entire man; yet not humanity simply, but in its corrupted, depraved condition, in complete subjection to the law of the fall (Ro 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 (Job 14:4; Ps 51:5).
is spirit—"partakes of and possesses His spiritual nature."
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
7. Marvel not, &c.—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 Ghost, no wonder a new birth is indispensable.
Ye must—"Ye, says Jesus, not we" [Bengel]. After those universal propositions, about what "a man" must be, to "enter the kingdom of God" (Joh 3:5)—this is remarkable, showing that our Lord meant to hold Himself forth as "separate from sinners."
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, &c.—Breath and spirit (one word both in Hebrew and Greek) are constantly brought together in Scripture as analogous (Job 27:3; 33:4; Eze 37:9-14).
canst not tell, &c.—The laws which govern the motion of the winds are even yet but partially discovered; but the risings, failings, 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 Ghost in the new birth.
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
9, 10. How, &c.—Though the subject still confounds Nicodemus, 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 [Luthardt]. "From this moment Nicodemus says nothing more, but has sunk unto 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 fulness of His divine knowledge, such farther testimonies both of earthly and heavenly things as his docile scholar may to his own profit receive" [Stier].
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
10. master—"teacher." The question clearly implies that the doctrine of regeneration is so far disclosed in the Old Testament that Nicodemus was culpable in being ignorant of it. 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 Ghost, and the necessity of a spiritual obedience under whatever name, in opposition to mere mechanical services, is proclaimed throughout all the Old Testament.
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
11-13. We speak that we know, and … 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 (Joh 1:18). The "we" and "our" are here used, though Himself only is intended, in emphatic contrast, probably, with the opening words of Nicodemus, "Rabbi, we know.", &c.
ye receive not, &c.—referring to the class to which Nicodemus belonged, but from which he was beginning to be separated in spirit.
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—such as regeneration, the gate of entrance to the kingdom of God on earth, and which Nicodemus should have understood better, as a truth even of that more earthly economy to which he belonged.
heavenly things—the things of the new and more heavenly evangelical economy, only to be fully understood after the effusion of the Spirit from heaven through the exalted Saviour.
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. no man hath ascended, &c.—There is something paradoxical in this language—"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'" (Joh 1:18).
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
14-16. And as Moses, &c.—Here now we have the "heavenly things," as before the "earthly," but under a veil, for the reason mentioned in Joh 3:12. The crucifixion of Messiah is twice after this veiled under the same lively term—"uplifting," Joh 8:28; 12:32, 33. Here it is still further veiled—though to us who know what it means, rendered vastly more instructive—by reference to the brazen serpent. 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 [Kurtz]—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" (Ro 8:3), 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" (Joh 12:32). In both cases it is by directing the eye to the uplifted Remedy that the cure is effected; in the one case the bodily eye, in the other 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," &c. (Isa 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 till they died. Alas! is not salvation by a crucified Redeemer subjected to like treatment? Has the offense of the cross" yet ceased? (Compare 2Ki 5:12).
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal 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.
16. For God so loved, &c.—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 honored 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? The picture embraces several distinct compartments: "The World"—in its widest sense—ready "to perish"; the immense "Love of God" to that perishing world, measurable only, and conceivable only, by the gift which it drew forth from Him; THE Gift itself—"He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son," or, in the language of Paul, "spared not His own Son" (Ro 8:32), or in that addressed to Abraham when ready to offer Isaac on the altar, "withheld not His Son, His only Son, whom He loved" (Ge 22:16); the Fruit of this stupendous gift—not only deliverance from impending "perdition," but the bestowal of everlasting life; the MODE in which all takes effect—by "believing" on the Son. 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! (Mal 4:2).
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
17-21. not to condemn, &c.—A statement of vast importance. Though "condemnation" is to many the issue of Christ's mission (Joh 3:19), it is not the object of His mission, which is purely a saving one.
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. is not condemned—Having, immediately on his believing, "passed from death unto life" (Joh 5:24).
condemned already—Rejecting the one way of deliverance from that "condemnation" which God gave His Son to remove, and so wilfully remaining condemned.
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. this is the condemnation, &c.—emphatically so, revealing the condemnation already existing, and sealing up under it those who will not be delivered from it.
light is come into the world—in the Person of Him to whom Nicodemus was listening.
loved darkness, &c.—This can only be known by the deliberate rejection of Christ, but that does fearfully reveal it.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
20. reproved—by detection.
But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
21. doeth truth—whose only object in life is to be and do what will bear the light. Therefore he loves and "comes to the light," that all he is and does, being thus thoroughly tested, may be seen to have nothing in it but what is divinely wrought and divinely approved. This is the "Israelite, indeed, in whom is no guile."
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
Joh 3:22-36. Jesus in the Neighborhood of the Baptist—His Noble Testimony to His Master.
22-24. land of Judea—the rural parts of that province, the foregoing conversation being held in the capital.
baptized—in the sense explained in Joh 4:2.
And John also was baptizing in AEnon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.
23. Ænon … Salim—on the west of Jordan. (Compare Joh 3:26 with Joh 1:28).
For John was not yet cast into prison.
24. John not yet cast into prison—Hence it is plain that our Lord's ministry did not commence with the imprisonment of John, though, but for this, we should have drawn that inference from Mt 4:12 and Mark's (Mr 1:14) express statement.
Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.
25, 26. between some of—rather, "on the part of."
and the Jews—rather (according to the best manuscripts), "and a Jew,"
about purifying—that is, baptizing, the symbolical meaning of washing with water being put (as in Joh 2:6) for the act itself. As 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.
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, &c.—"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.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
27-30. A man, &c.—"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 Bridegroom'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."
A man can receive, &c.—assume nothing, that is, lawfully and with any success; that is, Every man has his work and sphere appointed him from above, Even Christ Himself came under this law (Heb 5:4).
Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.
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 must increase, but I must decrease.
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.
31-34. He that, &c.—Here 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, 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 Ghost. 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.
And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony.
32. what he hath seen and heard—(See on Joh 3:11 and Joh 1:18).
and no man receiveth, &c.—John's disciples had said, "All come to Him" (Joh 3:26). The Baptist here virtually says, Would it were so, but alas! they are next to "none" [Bengel]. They were far readier to receive himself, and obliged him to say, I am not the Christ, and he seems pained at this.
He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.
33. hath set to His seal, &c.—gives glory to God whose words Christ speaks, not as prophets and apostles by a partial communication of the Spirit to them.
For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.
34. for God giveth not the Spirit by measure—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 the entire fulness of divine life and divine power. The present tense "giveth," very aptly points out the permanent communication of the Spirit by the Father to the Son, so that a constant flow and reflow of living power is to be understood (Compare Joh 1:15) [Olshausen].
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.
35, 36. The Father loveth, &c.—See on Mt 11:27, where we have the "delivering over of all things into the hands of the Son," while here we have the deep spring of that august act in the Father's ineffable "love of the Son."
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. hath everlasting life—already has it. (See on Joh 3:18 and Joh 5:24).
shall not see life—The contrast here is striking: The one has already a life that will endure for ever—the other not only has it not now, but shall never have it—never see it.
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! Note.—How flatly does this contradict the teaching of many in our day, that there neither was, nor is, anything in God against sinners which needed to be removed by Christ, but only in men against God!