John 3:2
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.
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(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.)

Rabbi.—The customary title of reverence for a teacher (comp. Note on John 1:38), but given here by a technically trained Rabbi to One who had no formal title to it (John 7:15).

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.”



John 3:2

The connection in which the Evangelist introduces the story of Nicodemus throws great light on the aspect under which we are to regard it. He has just been saying that upon our Lord’s first visit to Jerusalem at the Passover there was a considerable amount of interest excited, and a kind of imperfect faith in Him drawn out, based solely on His miracles. He adds that this faith was regarded by Christ as unreliable; and he goes on to explain that our Lord exercised great reserve in His dealings with the persons who professed it, for the reason that ‘He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.’

Now, if you note that reiteration of the word ‘man,’ you will understand the description which is given of the person who is next introduced. ‘He knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.’ It would have been enough to have said, ‘There was a Pharisee.’ When John says ‘a man of the Pharisees,’ he is not merely carried away by the echo in his ears of his own last words, but it is as if he had said, ‘Now, here is one illustration of the sort of thing that I have been speaking about; one specimen of an imperfect faith built upon miracles; and one illustration of the way in which Jesus Christ dealt with it.’

Nicodemus was ‘a Pharisee.’ That tells us the school to which he belonged, and the general drift of his thought. He was ‘a ruler of the Jews.’ That tells us that he held an official position in the supreme court of the nation, to which the Romans had left some considerable shadow of power in ecclesiastical matters. And this man comes to Christ and acknowledges Him. Christ deals with him in a very suggestive fashion. His confession, and the way in which our Lord received it, are what I desire to consider briefly in this sermon.

I. Note then, first, this imperfect confession.

Everything about it, pretty nearly, is wrong. ‘He came to Jesus by night,’ half-ashamed and wholly afraid of speaking out the conviction that was working in him. He was a man in position. He could not compromise himself in the eyes of his co-Sanhedrists. ‘It would be a grave thing for a man like me to be found in converse with this new Rabbi and apparent Prophet. I must go cautiously, and have regard to my reputation and my standing in the world; and shall steal to Him by night.’ There is something wrong with any convictions about Jesus Christ which let themselves be huddled up in secret. The true apprehension of Him is like a fire in a man’s bones, that makes him ‘weary of forbearing’ when he locks his lips, and forces him to speak. If Christians can be dumb, there is something dreadfully wrong with their Christianity. If they do not regard Jesus Christ in such an aspect as to oblige them to stand out in the world and say, ‘Whatever anybody says or thinks about it, I am Christ’s man,’ then be sure that they do not yet know Him as they ought to do.

Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night,’ and therein condemned himself. He said, ‘Rabbi, we know.’ There is more than a soupcon of patronage in that. He is giving Jesus Christ a certificate, duly signed and sealed by Rabbinical authority. He evidently thinks that it is no small matter that he and some of his fellows should have been disposed to look with favour upon this new Teacher. And so he comes, if not patronising the young man, at all events extremely conscious of his own condescension in recognising Him with his ‘We know.’

Had he the right to speak for any of his colleagues? If so, then at that very early stage of our Lord’s ministry there was a conviction beginning to work in that body of ecclesiastics which casts a very lurid light on their subsequent proceedings. It was a good long while after, when Jesus Christ’s attitude towards them had been a little more clearly made out than it was at the beginning, that they said officially, ‘As for this fellow, we know not whence He is.’ They ‘knew’ when He did not seem to be trenching on their prerogatives, or driving His Ithuriel-spear through their traditional professions of orthodoxy and punctilious casuistries. But when He trod on their toes, when He ripped up their pretensions, when He began to show His antagonism to their formalism and traditionalism, then they did not know where He came from. And there are many of us who are very polite to Jesus Christ as long as He does not interfere with us, and who begin to doubt His authority when He begins to rebuke our sins.

The man that said ‘We know,’ and then proceeded to tell Christ the grounds upon which He was accepted by him, was not in the position which becomes sinful men drawing near to their Saviour. ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher’-contrast that, with its ring of complacency, and, if not superior, at least co-ordinate, authority, with ‘Jesus! Master! have mercy on me,’ or with ‘Lord! save or I perish,’ and you get the difference between the way in which a formalist, conceited of his knowledge, and a poor, perishing sinner, conscious of his ignorance and need, go to the Saviour.

Further, this imperfect confession was of secondary value, because it was built altogether upon miraculous evidence. Now, there has been a great deal of exaggeration about the value of the evidence of miracle. The undue elevation to which it was lifted in the apologetic literature of the eighteenth century, when it was almost made out as if there was no other proof that Jesus came from God than that He wrought miracles, has naturally led, in this generation and in the last one, to an equally exaggerated undervaluing of its worth. Jesus Christ did appeal to signs; He did also most distinctly place faith that rested merely upon miracle as second best; when He said, for instance, ‘If ye believe not Me, yet believe the works.’ Nicodemus says, ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher sent from God, because no man can do these miracles except God be with him.’ Ah! Nicodemus! did not the substance of the teaching reveal the source of the teaching even more completely than the miracles that accompanied it? Surely, if I may use an old illustration, the bell that rings in to the sermon {which is the miracles} is less conclusive as to the divine source of the teaching than is the sermon itself. Christ Himself is His own best evidence, and His words shine in their own light, and need no signs in order to authenticate their source. The signs are there, and are precious in my eyes less as credentials of His authority than as revelations of His character and His work. They are wonders; that is much. They are proofs; as I believe. But, high above both of these characteristics, they are signs of the spiritual work that He does, and manifestations of His redeeming power. And so a faith that had no ears for the ring of the divine voice in the words, and no eyes for the beauty and perfection of the character, was vulgar and low and unreliable, inasmuch as it could give no better reason for itself than that Jesus had wrought miracles,

I need not remind you of how noticeable it is that at this very early stage in our Lord’s ministry there were a sufficient number of miracles done to be qualified by the Evangelist as ‘many,’ and to have been a very powerful factor in bringing about this real, though imperfect, faith. John has only told us of one miracle prior to this; and the other Evangelists do not touch upon these early days of our Lord’s ministry at all. So that we are to think of a whole series of works of power and supernatural grace which have found no record in these short narratives. How much more Jesus Christ was, and did, and said, than any book can ever tell! These are but parts of His ways; a whisper of His power. The fulness of it remains unrevealed after all revelation.

But the central deficiency of this confession lies in the altogether inadequate conception of Jesus Christ and His work which it embodies. ‘We know that Thou art a Teacher, a miracle-worker, a man sent from God, and in communion with Him.’ These are large recognitions, far too large to be spoken of any but a select few of the sons of men. But they fall miserably beneath the grandeur, and do not even approach within sight of the central characteristic, of Christ and of His work. Nicodemus is the type of large numbers of men nowadays. All the people that have a kind of loose, superficial connection with Christianity re-echo substantially his words. They compliment Jesus Christ out of His divinity and out of His redeeming work, and seem to think that they are rather conferring an honour upon Christianity when they condescend to say, ‘We, the learned pundits of literature; we, the arbiters of taste; we, the guides of opinion; we, the writers in newspapers and magazines and periodicals; we, the leaders in social and philanthropic movements-we recognise that Thou art a Teacher.’ Yes, brethren, and the recognition is utterly inadequate to the facts of the case, and is insult, and not recognition.

II. Let me ask you to look now, in the next place, at the way in which Jesus Christ deals with this imperfect confession.

It was a great thing for a young Rabbi from Nazareth, who had no certificate from the authorities, to find an opening thus into the very centre of the Sanhedrim. There is nothing in life, to an ardent young soul, at the beginning of his career-especially if he feels that he has a burden laid upon him to deliver to his fellows-half so sweet as the early recognition by some man of wisdom and weight and influence, that he too is a messenger from God. In later years praise and acknowledgment cloy. And one might have expected some passing word from the Master that would have expressed such a feeling as that, if He had been only a young Teacher seeking for recognition. I remember that in that strange medley of beauty and absurdity, the Koran, somewhere or other, there is an outpouring of Mahomet’s heart about the blessedness of his first finding a soul that would believe in him. And it is strange that Jesus Christ had no more welcome for this man than the story tells that He had. For He meets him without a word of encouragement; without a word that seemed to recognise even a growing and a groping confidence, and yet He would not ‘quench the smoking flax.’ Yes! sometimes the kindest way to deal with an imperfect conception is to show unsparingly why it is imperfect; and sometimes the apparent repelling of a partial faith is truly the drawing to Himself by the Christ of the man, though his faith be not approved.

So, notice how our Lord meets the imperfections of this acknowledgment. He begins by pointing out what is the deepest and universal need of men. Nicodemus had said, ‘Rabbi, we know that Thou art a Teacher come from God.’ And Christ says, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must be born again.’ What has that to do with Nicodemus’s acknowledgment? Apparently nothing; really everything. For, if you will think for a moment, you will see how it meets it precisely, and forces the Rabbi to deepen his conception of the Lord. The first thing that you and I want, for our participation in the Kingdom of God, is a radical out-and-out change in our whole character and nature. ‘Ye must be born again’; now, whatever more that means, it means, at all events, this-a thorough-going renovation and metamorphosis of a man’s nature, as the sorest need that the world and all the individuals that make up the world have.

The deepest ground of that necessity lies in the fact of sin. Brother, we can only verify our Lord’s assertion by honestly searching the depths of our own hearts, and looking at ourselves in the light of God. Think what is meant when we say, ‘He is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.’ Think of that absolute purity, that, to us, awful aversion from all that is evil, from all that is sinful. Think of what sort of men they must be who can see the Lord. And then look at yourself. Are we fit to pass that threshold? Are we fit to gaze into that Face? Is it possible that we should have fellowship with Him? Oh, brethren, if we rightly meditate upon two facts, the holiness of God and our own characters, I think we shall feel that Jesus Christ has truly stated the case when He says, ‘Ye must be born again.’ Unless you and I can get ourselves radically changed, there is no Heaven for us; there is no fellowship with God for us. We must stand before Him, and feel that a great gulf is fixed between us and Him.

And so when a man comes with his poor little ‘Thou art a Teacher,’ no words are wanted in order to set in glaring light the utter inadequacy of such a conception as that. What the world wants is not a Teacher, it is a Life-giver. What men want is not to be told the truth; they know it already. What they want is not to be told their duty; they know that too. What they want is some power that shall turn them clean round. And what each of us wants before we can see the Lord is that, if it may be, something shall lay hold of us, and utterly change our natures, and express from our hearts the black drop that lies there tainting everything.

Now, this necessity is met in Jesus Christ. For there were two ‘musts’ in His talk with Nicodemus, and both of them bore directly on the one purpose of deepening Nicodemus’s inadequate conception of what He was and what He did. He said, ‘Ye must be born again,’ in order that his hearer, and we, might lay to heart this, that we need something more than a Teacher, even a Life-giver; and He said, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up,’ in order that we might all know that in Him the necessity is met, and that the Son of Man, who came down from Heaven, and is in Heaven, even whilst He is on earth, is the sole ladder by which men can ascend into Heaven and gaze upon God.

Thus it is Christ’s work as Redeemer, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, Christ’s power as bringing to the world a new and holy life, and breathing it into all that trust in Him, which make the very centre of His work. Set by the side of that this other, ‘Thou art a Teacher sent from God.’ Ah, brethren, that will not do; it will not do for you and me! We want something a great deal deeper than that. The secret of Jesus is not disclosed until we have passed into the inner shrine, where we learn that He is the Sacrifice for the world, and the Source and Fountain of a new life. I beseech you, take Christ’s way of dealing with this certificate of His character given by the Rabbi who did not know his own necessities, and ponder it.

Mark the underlying principle which is here-viz. if you want to understand Christ you must understand sin; and whoever thinks lightly of it will think meanly of Him. An underestimate of the reality, the universality, the gravity of the fact of sin lands men in the superficial and wholly impotent conception, ‘Rabbi! Thou art a Teacher sent from God.’ A true knowledge of myself as a sinful man, of my need of pardon, of my need of cleansing, of my need of a new nature, which must be given from above, and cannot be evolved from within, leads me, and I pray it may lead you, to cast yourself down before Him, with no complaisant words of intellectual recognition upon your lips, but with the old cry, ‘Lord! be merciful to me a sinner.’

III. And now, dear friends, one last word. Notice when and where this imperfect disciple was transformed into a courageous confessor.

We do not know what came immediately of this conversation. We only know that some considerable time after, Nicodemus had not screwed himself up to the point of acknowledging out and out, like a brave man, that he was Christ’s follower; but that he timidly ventured in the Sanhedrim to slip in a remonstrance ingeniously devised to conceal his own opinions, and yet to do some benefit to Christ, when he said, ‘Does our law judge any man before it hear him?’ And, of course, the timid remonstrance was swept aside, as it deserved to be, by the ferocious antagonism of his co-Sanhedrists.

But when the Cross came, and it had become more dangerous to avow discipleship, he plucked up courage, or rather courage flowed into him from that Cross, and he went boldly and ‘craved the body of Jesus,’ and got it, and buried it. No doubt when he looked at Jesus hanging on the Cross, he remembered that night in Jerusalem when the Lord had said, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up,’ and he remembered how He had spoken about the serpent lifted in the wilderness, and a great light blazed in upon him, which for ever ended all hesitation and timidity for him. And so he was ready to be a martyr, or anything else, for the sake of Him whom he now found to be far more than a ‘Teacher,’ even the Sacrifice by whose stripes he was healed.

Dear brethren, I bring that Cross to you now, and pray you to see there Christ’s real work for us, and for the world. He has taught us, but He has done more. He has not only spoken, He has died. He has not only shown us the path on which to walk, He has made it possible for us to walk in it. He is not merely one amongst the noble band that have guided and inspired and instructed humanity, but He stands alone-not a Teacher, but the Redeemer, ‘the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.’

If He is a Teacher, take His teachings, and what are they? These, that He is the Son of God; that ‘He came from God’; that He ‘went to God’; that He ‘gives His life a ransom for many’; that He is to be the Judge of mankind; that if we trust in Him, our sins are forgiven and our nature is renewed. Do not go picking and choosing amongst His teachings, for these which I have named are as surely His as ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,’ or any other of the moral teachings which the world professes to admire. Take the whole teachings of the whole Christ, and you will confess Him to be the Redeemer of your souls, and the Life-giver by whom, and by whom alone, we enter the Kingdom of God.

3:1-8 Nicodemus was afraid, or ashamed to be seen with Christ, therefore came in the night. When religion is out of fashion, there are many Nicodemites. But though he came by night, Jesus bid him welcome, and hereby taught us to encourage good beginnings, although weak. And though now he came by night, yet afterward he owned Christ publicly. He did not talk with Christ about state affairs, though he was a ruler, but about the concerns of his own soul and its salvation, and went at once to them. Our Saviour spoke of the necessity and nature of regeneration or the new birth, and at once directed Nicodemus to the source of holiness of the heart. Birth is the beginning of life; to be born again, is to begin to live anew, as those who have lived much amiss, or to little purpose. We must have a new nature, new principles, new affections, new aims. By our first birth we were corrupt, shapen in sin; therefore we must be made new creatures. No stronger expression could have been chosen to signify a great and most remarkable change of state and character. We must be entirely different from what we were before, as that which begins to be at any time, is not, and cannot be the same with that which was before. This new birth is from heaven, ch. 1:13, and its tendency is to heaven. It is a great change made in the heart of a sinner, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It means that something is done in us, and for us, which we cannot do for ourselves. Something is wrong, whereby such a life begins as shall last for ever. We cannot otherwise expect any benefit by Christ; it is necessary to our happiness here and hereafter. What Christ speak, Nicodemus misunderstood, as if there had been no other way of regenerating and new-moulding an immortal soul, than by new-framing the body. But he acknowledged his ignorance, which shows a desire to be better informed. It is then further explained by the Lord Jesus. He shows the Author of this blessed change. It is not wrought by any wisdom or power of our own, but by the power of the blessed Spirit. We are shapen in iniquity, which makes it necessary that our nature be changed. We are not to marvel at this; for, when we consider the holiness of God, the depravity of our nature, and the happiness set before us, we shall not think it strange that so much stress is laid upon this. The regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is compared to water. It is also probable that Christ had reference to the ordinance of baptism. Not that all those, and those only, that are baptized, are saved; but without that new birth which is wrought by the Spirit, and signified by baptism, none shall be subjects of the kingdom of heaven. The same word signifies both the wind and the Spirit. The wind bloweth where it listeth for us; God directs it. The Spirit sends his influences where, and when, on whom, and in what measure and degree, he pleases. Though the causes are hidden, the effects are plain, when the soul is brought to mourn for sin, and to breathe after Christ. Christ's stating of the doctrine and the necessity of regeneration, it should seem, made it not clearer to Nicodemus. Thus the things of the Spirit of God are foolishness to the natural man. Many think that cannot be proved, which they cannot believe. Christ's discourse of gospel truths, ver. 11-13, shows the folly of those who make these things strange unto them; and it recommends us to search them out. Jesus Christ is every way able to reveal the will of God to us; for he came down from heaven, and yet is in heaven. We have here a notice of Christ's two distinct natures in one person, so that while he is the Son of man, yet he is in heaven. God is the HE THAT IS, and heaven is the dwelling-place of his holiness. The knowledge of this must be from above, and can be received by faith alone. Jesus Christ came to save us by healing us, as the children of Israel, stung with fiery serpents, were cured and lived by looking up to the brazen serpent, Nu 21:6-9. In this observe the deadly and destructive nature of sin. Ask awakened consciences, ask damned sinners, they will tell you, that how charming soever the allurements of sin may be, at the last it bites like a serpent. See the powerful remedy against this fatal malady. Christ is plainly set forth to us in the gospel. He whom we offended is our Peace, and the way of applying for a cure is by believing. If any so far slight either their disease by sin, or the method of cure by Christ, as not to receive Christ upon his own terms, their ruin is upon their own heads. He has said, Look and be saved, look and live; lift up the eyes of your faith to Christ crucified. And until we have grace to do this, we shall not be cured, but still are wounded with the stings of Satan, and in a dying state. Jesus Christ came to save us by pardoning us, that we might not die by the sentence of the law. Here is gospel, good news indeed. Here is God's love in giving his Son for the world. God so loved the world; so really, so richly. Behold and wonder, that the great God should love such a worthless world! Here, also, is the great gospel duty, to believe in Jesus Christ. God having given him to be our Prophet, Priest, and King, we must give up ourselves to be ruled, and taught, and saved by him. And here is the great gospel benefit, that whoever believes in Christ, shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and so saving it. It could not be saved, but through him; there is no salvation in any other. From all this is shown the happiness of true believers; he that believeth in Christ is not condemned. Though he has been a great sinner, yet he is not dealt with according to what his sins deserve. How great is the sin of unbelievers! God sent One to save us, that was dearest to himself; and shall he not be dearest to us? How great is the misery of unbelievers! they are condemned already; which speaks a certain condemnation; a present condemnation. The wrath of God now fastens upon them; and their own hearts condemn them. There is also a condemnation grounded on their former guilt; they are open to the law for all their sins; because they are not by faith interested in the gospel pardon. Unbelief is a sin against the remedy. It springs from the enmity of the heart of man to God, from love of sin in some form. Read also the doom of those that would not know Christ. Sinful works are works of darkness. The wicked world keep as far from this light as they can, lest their deeds should be reproved. Christ is hated, because sin is loved. If they had not hated saving knowledge, they would not sit down contentedly in condemning ignorance. On the other hand, renewed hearts bid this light welcome. A good man acts truly and sincerely in all he does. He desires to know what the will of God is, and to do it, though against his own worldly interest. A change in his whole character and conduct has taken place. The love of God is shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost, and is become the commanding principle of his actions. So long as he continues under a load of unforgiven guilt, there can be little else than slavish fear of God; but when his doubts are done away, when he sees the righteous ground whereon this forgiveness is built, he rests on it as his own, and is united to God by unfeigned love. Our works are good when the will of God is the rule of them, and the glory of God the end of them; when they are done in his strength, and for his sake; to him, and not to men. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a subject to which the world is very averse; it is, however, the grand concern, in comparison with which every thing else is but trifling. What does it signify though we have food to eat in plenty, and variety of raiment to put on, if we are not born again? if after a few mornings and evenings spent in unthinking mirth, carnal pleasure, and riot, we die in our sins, and lie down in sorrow? What does it signify though we are well able to act our parts in life, in every other respect, if at last we hear from the Supreme Judge, Depart from me, I know you not, ye workers of iniquity?The same came to Jesus - The design of his coming seems to have been to inquire more fully of Jesus what was the doctrine which he came to teach. He seems to have been convinced that he was the Messiah, and desired to be further instructed in private respecting his doctrine, It was not usual for a man of rank, power, and riches to come to inquire of Jesus in this manner; yet we may learn that the most favorable opportunity for teaching such men the nature of personal religion is when they are alone. Scarcely any man, of any rank, will refuse to converse on this subject when addressed respectfully and tenderly in private. In the midst of their companions, or engaged in business, they may refuse to listen or may cavil. When alone, they will hear the voice of entreaty and persuasion, and be willing to converse on the great subjects of judgment and eternity. Thus Paul says Galatians 2:2, "privately to them which are of reputation," evincing his consummate prudence, and his profound knowledge of human nature.

By night - It is not mentioned why he came by night. It might have been that, being a member of the Sanhedrin, he was engaged all the day; or it may have been because the Lord Jesus was occupied all the day in teaching publicly and in working miracles, and that there was no opportunity for conversing with him as freely as he desired; or it may have been that he was afraid of the ridicule and contempt of those in power, and fearful that it might involve him in danger if publicly known; or it may have been that he was afraid that if it were publicly known that he was disposed to favor the Lord Jesus, it might provoke more opposition against him and endanger his life. Since no bad motive is imputed to him, it is most in accordance with Christian charity to suppose that his motives were such as God would approve, especially as the Saviour did not reprove him. We should not be disposed to blame men where Jesus did not, and we should desire to find goodness in every man rather than be ever on the search for evil motives. See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. We may learn here:

1. That our Saviour, though engaged during the day, did nor refuse to converse with an inquiring sinner at night. Ministers of the gospel at all times should welcome those who are asking the way to life.

2. That it is proper for men, even those of elevated rank, to inquire on the subject of religion. Nothing is so important as religion, and no temper of mind is more lovely than a disposition to ask the way to heaven. At all times men should seek the way of salvation, and especially in times of great religions excitement they should make inquiry. At Jerusalem, at the time referred to here, there was great solicitude. Many believed on Jesus. He performed miracles, and preached, and many were converted. There was what would now be called a revival of religion, having all the features of a work of grace. At such a season it was proper, as it is now, that not only the poor, but the rich and great, should inquire the path to life.

Rabbi - This was a title of respect conferred on distinguished Jewish teachers, somewhat in the way that the title "Doctor of Divinity" is now conferred. See the notes at John 1:38. Our Saviour forbade his disciples to wear that title (see the notes at Matthew 23:8), though it was proper for Him to do it, as being the great Teacher of mankind. It literally signifies great, and was given by Nicodemus, doubtless, because Jesus gave distinguished proofs that he came as a teacher from God.

We know - I know, and those with whom I am connected. Perhaps he was acquainted with some of the Pharisees who entertained the same opinion about Jesus that he did, and he came to be more fully confirmed in the belief.

Come from God - Sent by God. This implies his readiness to hear him, and his desire to be instructed. He acknowledges the divine mission of Jesus, and delicately asks him to instruct him in the truth of religion. When we read the words of Jesus in the Bible, it should be with a belief that he came from God, and was therefore qualified and authorized to teach us the way of life.

These miracles - The miracles which he performed in the Temple and at Jerusalem, John 2:23.

Except God be with him - Except God aid him, and except his instructions are approved by God. Miracles show that a prophet or religious teacher comes from God, because God would nor work a miracle in attestation of a falsehood or to give countenance to a false teacher. If God gives a man power to work a miracle, it is proof that he approves the teaching of that man, and the miracle is the proof or the credential that he came from God.

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.

He came by night to Christ, not, as some (too charitably) possibly may think, that he might have the freer and less interrupted communion and discourse with him; but either through fear, or possibly shame, being a master in Israel, to be looked upon as a scholar going to learn of another. He saluteth him by the name they usually gave to their teachers, (as we showed, John 1:49), and saith,

we know, by which he hints to us, that not only he, but others of the Pharisees also, knew that he was a teacher sent from God in a more extraordinary manner; and he giveth the reason of this their knowledge, because of those miraculous operations which he had wrought. God hath his number among all orders and sorts of men; and those that are his shall come unto Christ. There was a weakness in the faith and love of this Nicodemus; (his station amongst the Jews was a great temptation to him); but yet there was a truth of both in him, which further discovered itself, John 7:50, and more upon Christ’s death, John 19:39. But here ariseth a greater question, viz. How Nicodemus could conclude that Christ was a teacher sent from God, by his miracles.

Answer. It is to be observed, that he doth not say, in the general, that no man does signs or wonders of any kind, unless the power and favour of God be with him. But he speaks particularly and eminently of those things which Jesus did; they were so great in their nature, so real and solid in their proof, so Divine in the manner of performing them by the empire of his will; so holy in their end, to confirm a doctrine most becoming the wisdom and other glorious attributes of God, and that were the verification of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, whose coming it was foretold should be with miraculous healing benefits; that there was the greatest assurance, that none without the omnipotent hand of God could do them; for it is clear by the light of reason and Scripture, that God will not assist by his almighty power the ministers of Satan, to induce those who sincerely search for truth to believe a lie. The magicians indeed performed divers wonders in Egypt, but they were outdone by Moses, to convince the spectators that he was sent from a power infinitely superior to that of evil spirits. Real miracles, that are contrary to the order and exceed the power of nature, can only be produced by creating power, and are wrought to give credit to those who are sent from God. And when God permits false miracles to be done by seducers, that would thereby obtain authority and credit amongst men, the deception is not invincible; for it is foretold expressly to give us warning, that the man of sin shall come with lying wonders, by the working of Satan, 2 Thessalonians 2:9; and the heavenly doctrine of the gospel has been confirmed by real miracles, incomparably greater than all the strange things done to give credit to doctrines opposite to it.

The same came to Jesus by night,.... Through fear of the Jews, of being reproached or turned out of his place by them; or through shame, that such a doctor as he was, should be known to go to Jesus of Nazareth, to be instructed by him; or lest he should offend any of his brethren of the sanhedrim: though some things may be said in favour of this conduct of Nicodemus; for since Christ would not trust himself with those that believed in him upon seeing his miracles, John 2:23, among whom Nicodemus seems to be; or would not admit them into his company, and enter into a free conversation with him; it was necessary, that if he would have any discourse with him, that he should take this method; and if it was the same night, in which he had seen his miracles in the day, as is probable, he took the first opportunity he could, and which shows great readiness and respect; add to which, that it was very common with the Jewish doctors, to meet and converse together, and study the law in the night.

"R. Aba rose, , "in the middle of the night", and the rest of the companions, to study in the law (e).''

And it is often (f) said of R. Simeon ben Joehal, and Eleazar his son, that they sat in the night and laboured in the law; and it was reckoned very commendable so to do, and highly pleasing to God: it is said (g),

"whoever studies in the law in the night, the holy blessed God draws a thread of mercy upon him in the day:''

and likewise (h), that

"every one that studies in the law in the night, the Shekinah is over against him.''

But it seems, the Babylonian Jews did not study in the law in the night (i): it might seem a needless question to ask, whether Nicodemus came alone, or not, were it not that according to the Jewish canon (k) a scholar might not go out in the night alone, because of suspicion:

and said unto him, Rabbi; a title which now greatly obtained among the Jewish doctors, and of which they were very fond; See Gill on Matthew 23:7. It comes from a word, which signifies great and large; and was used by them, to suggest the large compass, and great plenty of knowledge they would be thought to have had; and best becomes and suits with our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are: salutations among the Jews, were forbidden in the night (l);

"says R. Jochanan, it is forbidden a man to salute his neighbour in the night, lest it should be a demon:''

but here was no such danger; nor was this salutation made in the street, and in the dark, which the canon seems to respect:

we know that thou art a teacher come from God; the Jews expected the Messiah as a teacher, which they might learn from many prophecies, as from Isaiah 2:2. Upon the first of which, and on that passage in it, "he will teach us of his ways", a noted commentator (m) of theirs has this remark;

"the teacher", he is the King Messiah.''

And the Targum on Joel 2:23 paraphrases the words thus:

"O ye children of Zion, rejoice and be glad in the word of the Lord your God, for he will return , "your teacher" to you.''


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

(b) We know that you are sent from God to teach us.

(c) But he in whom some part of the excellency of God appears. And if Nicodemus had rightly known Christ, he would not only have said that God was with him, but in him, as Paul does in 2Co 1:19.

John 3:2. οὗτος ἦλθε πρὸς αὐτὸν. The pronoun instead of the name Jesus, as Holtzmann remarks, shows the close connection with the closing verses of the last chapter. Nicodemus came to the fountain head, dissatisfied with the way in which his colleagues were dealing with Jesus, and resolved to judge for himself. Nothing could be more hopeful than such a state of mind. When a man says, I will see for myself what Jesus is, not influenced by what other men say; before I sleep I will settle this matter, the result is fairly certain to be good. See chap. John 7:50, John 19:39. He came νυκτὸς, certainly with the purpose of secrecy, and yet for a man in his position to come at all was much. No timidity is shown in John 7:50. In John 19:39 John still identifies him as “he that came to Jesus by night,” but adds “at the first” in contrast to the courage he afterwards showed. Similarly, as Grotius tells us, Euclid of Megara visited Socrates by night when Athens was closed by edict against the Megarians. Modestly and as if not presuming to speak as an individual but as representing a party however small (John 3:2), he says, Ῥαββεί οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος, “Rabbi, we know that Thou art come from God as a teacher”. We need not see in the words anything either patronising or flattering, but merely the natural first utterance of a man wishing to show the state of his mind. He was convinced that Jesus was a divinely commissioned teacher. He came to hear what He had to teach. His teaching, in the judgment of Nicodemus, was divinely authenticated by the miracles; but to Nicodemus at any rate the teaching was that for which the miracles existed. They were σημεῖα, and though not recorded, they must have been of a kind to strike a thoughtful mind ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, the emphatic pronoun, as if other miracles might not have been so convincing. At the same time the reply of Jesus shows that behind this cautious designation of “teacher” there lay in the mind of Nicodemus a suspicion that this might be the Messiah. Nicodemus may have taken to heart the Baptist’s proclamation. Grotius supposes the conversation is abridged, and that Nicodemus had intimated that he wished to learn something about the kingdom which formed the subject of our Lord’s teaching. “Responsio tacite innuit, quod adjectum a Nicodemo fuerat, nempe, velle se scire, quandoquidem Jesus Regni coelestis inter docendum mentionem saepe faceret, quae ratio esset eo perveniendi.” But with the introduction to this incident (John 2:23-25) in our mind, it seems gratuitous to suppose that part of the conversation is here omitted. Jesus speaks to the intention and mental attitude of His interlocutor rather than to his words. He saw that Nicodemus was conceiving it as a possible thing that these miracles might be the signs of the kingdom; and in this visit of Nicodemus He sees what may be construed into an overture from the Pharisaic party. And so He cuts Nicodemus remorselessly short. As when the Pharisees (Luke 17:20) demand of Him when the Kingdom of God should come, He replied: The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation, not with signs which the natural man can measure, it comes within you; so here in strikingly similar language He says, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. This allusion to the kingdom, which is not a favourite idea of John’s, is one of the incidental marks of his historical trustworthiness.—ἄνωθεν is sometimes local = ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, from above; sometimes temporal = ἐξ ἀρχῆς, de novo. The former meaning is advocated here by Baur, Lücke, Meyer, and others. But the use of παλιγγενεσία and the difficulty stated by Nicodemus in John 3:4 rather indicate that the Syriac and Vulgate [nisi quis renatus fuerit], Augustine, Calvin, and among many others Weiss are right in adopting the temporal meaning and rendering with R.V[38] “anew”. [Wetstein, in proof of this meaning, quotes from Artemidorus, who tells of a father who dreamt that there was born to him a child exactly like himself; “he seemed,” he says, “to be born a second time,” ἄνωθεν. And in the touching story which gave rise to the Domine quo vadis Church at Rome where Peter met Christ, the words of the Lord, as given in the Acta Pauli, are ἄνωθεν μέλλω σταυρωθῆναι.] The answer of Nicodemus might seem to indicate that he had understood ἄνωθεν as equivalent to his own δεύτερον. But it is impossible to determine with certainty which is the correct meaning. A man must be born again, says our Lord, because otherwise οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. Is ἰδεῖν here to be taken in the sense of “seeing” or of “enjoying,” “partaking”? Meyer and Weiss, resting on such expressions as ἰδεῖν θάνατον (Luke 2:26, Hebrews 11:5), διαφθοράν (Acts 2:27), ἡμέρας ἀγαθάς (1 Peter 3:10), understand that “participation” is meant. So Calvin, “videre regnum Dei idem valet ac ingredi in regnum Dei,” and Grotius, “participem fieri”. Confirmation of this view is at first sight given by the εἰσελθεῖν of John 3:5. But it is of “signs” Nicodemus has been speaking, of observing the kingdom coming; and Christ says: To see the kingdom you must be spiritual, born anew, for the signs are spiritual. In this language there should have been nothing to stumble Nicodemus. All Jerusalem was ringing with the echoes of the Baptist’s preaching, the essence of which was “ye must be born again”. To be children of Abraham is nothing. There is nothing moral, nothing spiritual, nothing of the will, nothing related to the Kingdom of God in being children of Abraham. As regards your fleshly birth you are as passive as stones and as truly outside the kingdom. In fact John had excommunicated the whole nation, and expressly told them that they must submit to baptism, like Gentile proselytes, if they were to be prepared for the Messiah’s reign. The language may not have puzzled Nicodemus. Had our Lord said: “Every Gentile must be born again,” he would have understood. It is the idea that staggers him. His bewilderment he utters in the words:

[38] Revised Version.

2. we know] Others are disposed to believe as well as Nicodemus.

a teacher come from God] In the Greek the order is, that Thou art come from God as teacher. We are not sure that ‘come from God’ points to the Messiah, ‘He that should come.’ But if so, we see the timidity of Nicodemus; he begins with an admission of Christ’s Messiahship, and ends with the weak word ‘teacher;’ the Messiah was never thought of as a mere teacher. But ‘come from God’ may only mean divinely sent, as a Prophet (John 1:6), or even less.

these miracles] Better, these signs, as in John 2:11.

except God be with him] A similarly weak conclusion, shewing timidity: one expects ‘unless he be a Prophet,’ or ‘the Messiah.’

John 3:2. Νυκτός, by night) There is never a time that Christ does not receive comers to Him.—οἴδασμεν, we know) I, and those like me: the rulers rather than the Pharisees, ch. John 12:42. To this plural answers the plural, John 3:7, “Ye must be born again.” The Antecedent is put by Nicodemus as the consequent: For this reason I wished to confer with Thee. He wished to hear as to heavenly things and as to sublime things, John 3:12 [but Jesus brings him up to first principles.—V. g.]—[49] σημεῖα, signs) ch. John 2:23, “At the passover, on the feast day, many believed on Him when they saw the miracles which He did.”

[49] διδάσκαλος, master, [teacher]) That indeed is true; but it by no means carries with it every point [that is needed for salvation]; ver. 14, 16, “As Moses lifted up the serpent, etc., so must the Son of Man be lifted up, etc.: for God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish,” etc.—V. g.

Verse 2. - This man came to him by night, and said unto him. To suppose, with many commentators (after Augustine), that the night is here symbolic of the mental condition of the man, is far-fetched. Thoma, here intent on his principle of the fabricated character of the Gospel, compares this to King Saul (Paul's ancestor!) going by night to Samuel - a type of Christ! There is more probability that the night of the Last Supper was in the mind of John, and that these two nights, the one at the beginning, the other at the close of the ministry of Jesus - nights of extraordinary significance - were impressed ineffaceably on his memory, and, to some extent, contrasted with each other. Nicodemus did not fear the Lord or his disciples, but his own colleagues, whose excitement had already betrayed their sentiments. Without "believing on his Name," they had come to some conclusions, and Nicodemus with them. Rabbi, said he, we know. He does not conceal a common sentiment at that moment agitating his own class in society, and he bestows the honorific title of Rabbi, "my Master," which, as coming from a learned doctor to a humble peasant, was a remarkable testimony to the effect Jesus had indirectly exerted beyond the circle of his immediate hearers: that thou art a Teacher come from God. The phrase, ἀπὸ Θεοῦ, precedes "the Teacher come." Certainly it yields to Jesus great dignity. He is God-sent, like the prophets of old. He has a right to teach. His doctorate is a heavenly diploma; and Nicodemus draws a wiser conclusion than the many did who, in some sense, believed on his Name. They were rushing heedlessly forward to further conclusions. Nicodemus saw a grand authority as a Teacher of men, a Heaven-sent Messenger, in the Lord Jesus, and he came to this conclusion from the settled persuasion that no man can do the signs which thou art performing, if God be not with him. This confession was true, indicating candid and honest inquiry and a teachable mind. It was the very truth which Peter in subsequent times gave to Cornelius as explanation of the healing and beneficent powers of Jesus. Christ knew the whole man, understood at once the honesty of the inquiry, and did entrust himself to Nicodemus. There was more faith in this modest inquiry, in this honest scepticism of his own position, than in the clamours and hosannas of the fickle crowd. John 3:2To Jesus

The best texts substitute πρὸς αὐτὸν, to him.

By night

Through timidity, fearing to compromise his dignity, and possibly his safety. The fact is noticed again, John 19:39 (see on John 7:50). By night, "when Jewish superstition would keep men at home." He could reach Jesus' apartment without being observed by the other inmates of the house, for an outside stair led to the upper room.


The teacher of Israel (John 3:10) addresses Jesus by the title applied by his own disciples to himself - my master (see on John 1:38). "We may be sure that a member of the sect that carefully scrutinized the Baptist's credentials (John 1:19-24) would not lightly address Jesus by this title of honor, or acknowledge Him as teacher" (Milligan and Moulton).

We know (οἴδαμεν)

Assured conviction based on Jesus' miracles (see on John 2:24).

Thou art a teacher

According to the Greek order, that thou art come from God as teacher.

From God

These words stand first in the sentence as emphatic. It is from God that thou hast come.

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