John 3:4
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?
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(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.

John 3:4-5. Nicodemus — Exceedingly surprised at Christ’s declaration; saith, How can a man be born when he is old — As I now am? Can he enter, &c. — As if he had said, It would be perfectly absurd to think that thou intendest thy words to be taken in a literal sense, and yet, I confess, I am at a loss to know what figurative interpretation to put upon them. Jesus answered, Except a man be born — He meant likewise begotten, as previous thereto, for the original word signifies both, see James 1:18; of water — That is, baptized; and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God — Or, in plain terms, Whosoever would become a regular member of it, he must not only be baptized, but, if he would share its spiritual and eternal blessings, he must experience the renewing and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit on his soul, to deliver it from the power of corruption, and to animate it to a divine and spiritual life. “To be born of water and of the Spirit,” says Bishop Hopkins, “may admit of a double interpretation: for either by water is meant baptism,” or it “may denote to us the manner of the Spirit’s proceedings in the work of regeneration. Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit — That is, except he be renewed by the Holy Ghost, working as water, leaving the same effect upon the soul in cleansing and purifying it from sinful defilements, as water doth upon the body in washing off contracted filth. Nor, indeed, is this manner of expression strange to the Holy Scripture: for John Baptist, speaking of Christ, tells them, that he should baptize them with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: that is, he should baptize them with the Holy Ghost, working as fire, which eats out and consumes the rust and dross of metals,” &c. Or, as Dr. Macknight interprets the clause, “Unless a man has a new nature given him by the Spirit, which is being born of the Spirit, and publicly receive the Christian religion, when offered to him, (Matthew 10:33,) which is being born of water, he cannot be a subject of God’s kingdom here, nor have a share in his glory hereafter.” And he justly observes, in a note, “Our Lord did not mean that baptism is in all cases necessary to salvation; for in the apostle’s commission, (Mark 16:16,) notwithstanding faith and baptism are equally enjoined upon all nations, not the want of baptism, but of faith, is declared to be damning. Besides, it should be considered, that this is a mere ceremony, which in itself has no efficacy to change men’s natures, or to fit them for heaven, and that in some circumstances it may be absolutely impracticable. Nevertheless, as the washing of the body with water in baptism fitly represents the purification of the soul necessary to its enjoyment of heaven, this ceremony is very properly made the rite by which we publicly take upon ourselves the profession of the Christian religion, the dispensation preparatory to heaven. Wherefore the receiving of this rite is necessary in all cases where it may be had; the confessing of Christ being oftentimes as necessary as believing on him. If so, persons who undervalue water baptism, on pretence of exalting the baptism of the Spirit, do greatly err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the commandment of Christ.”

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?How can a man ... - It may seem remarkable that Nicodemus understood the Saviour literally, when the expression "to be born again" was in common use among the Jews to denote a change from "Gentilism" to "Judaism" by becoming a proselyte by baptism. The word with them meant a change from the state of a pagan to that of a Jew. But they never used it as applicable to a Jew, because they supposed that by his birth every Jew was entitled to all the privileges of the people of God. When, therefore, our Saviour used it of a Jew, when he affirmed its necessity of every man, Nicodemus supposed that there was an absurdity in the doctrine, or something that surpassed his comprehension, and he therefore asked whether it was possible that Jesus could teach so absurd a doctrine - as he could conceive no other sense as applicable to a Jew - as that he should, when old, enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born. And we may learn from this:

1. that prejudice leads men to misunderstand the plainest doctrines of religion.

2. that things which are at first incomprehensible or apparently absurd, may, when explained, become clear. The doctrine of regeneration, so difficult to Nicodemus, is plain to a "child" that is born of the Spirit.

3. Those in high rank in life, and who are learned, are often most ignorant about the plainest matters of religion. It is often wonderful that they exhibit so little acquaintance with the most simple subjects pertaining to the soul, and so much absurdity in their views.

4. A doctrine is not to be rejected because the rich and the great do not believe or understand it. The doctrine of regeneration was not false because Nicodemus did not comprehend it.

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. By the answer of Nicodemus, it should seem that he was an old man; which is also probable, because he was one of the rulers: he puts the case as to himself; I am, saith he, an old man, how should I be born? Can a man

enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? How true is that of the apostle, 1 Corinthians 2:14, The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God! What a gross conception doth Nicodemus (though doubtless a learned as well as a great man) discover of regeneration, as if it could not be without a man’s mother travailing in birth with him a second time! Nicodemus’s question discovers a great deal of ignorance and weakness, but yet a great deal of simplicity and plainness in him; that he did not come, as the Pharisees generally were wont to come to Christ, to catch him by captious questions, but brought discendi pietatem, a pious desire to learn from him, and to be instructed by him. The Pharisees had been used to study the traditions of the elders, and spent their time about unprofitable niceties, as to the meaning of the law; so were not at all versed in the great things which concerned the kingdom of God. The like instance hath been in later ages, the popish divines spending their time generally about nice school questions, showing themselves much ignorant of spiritual things, and the great mysteries of the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus saith unto him,.... Understanding him of a natural birth, to be repeated:

how can a man be born when he is old? as it seems by this, he himself now was:

can he enter the second time into his mothers womb, and be born? the Ethiopic version adds, "again"; and the Arabic version, "and then be born"; this he urges, as absurd, impracticable, and impossible; and which shows him to have been as yet a natural man, who could not receive nor discern spiritual things.

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

(f) How can I who am old be born again? For Nicodemus answers as if Christ's words were only addressed to himself.

John 3:4. The question does not mean: “If the repetition of a corporeal birth is so utterly impossible, how am I to understand thy word, ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι?” (Lücke); nor: “How can this ἄνωθεν γενν. take place, save by a second corporeal birth?” as if Nicodemus could not conceive of the beginning of a new personal life without a recommencement of natural life (Luthardt, comp. Hofmann); nor: “How comes it that a Jew must be born anew like a proselyte?” (Knapp, Neander, comp. Wetstein; for the Rabbins liken proselytes to new-born babes, Jevamoth, f. 62. 1; 92. 1); nor again: “This requirement is as impossible in the case of a man already old as for one to enter again, etc.” (Schweizer, B. Crusius, Tholuck, comp. Baumgarten and Hengstenberg). These meanings are not in the words, they are simply imported into them. But the opinion that Nicodemus here wished to “entangle Jesus in His words” (Luther), or that, under excited feelings, he intentionally took the requirement in a literal sense in order to reduce it ad absurdum (Riggenbach), or “by a stroke of Rabbinical cleverness in argumentation” to declare it to be too strongly put (Lange, Life of Jesus p. 495), is opposed to the honourable bearing of this straightforward man. According to the text, what Nicodemus really asks is something preposterous. And this is of such a nature, that it is only reconcilable with the even scanty culture of a Jewish theologian (John 3:10), who could not, however, be ignorant of the O. T. ideas of circumcision of heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4), of a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 11:19-20; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Psalm 51:12; Psalm 86:4 ff.), as well as of the outpouring of the Spirit in the time of the Messiah (Joel 2; Jeremiah 31), upon the assumption that, being a somewhat narrow-minded man, and somewhat entangled by his faith in the miracles, he was taken aback, confused and really perplexed, partly by the powerful impression which Jesus produced upon him generally, partly by the feeling of surprise at seeing his thoughts known to Him, partly by the unexpected and incomprehensible ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι, in which, however, he has an anticipation that something miraculous is contained. In this his perplexity, and not “in an ironical humour” (as Godet thinks, although out of keeping with the entire manifestation), he asks this foolish question, as if Jesus had spoken of a corporeal birth and not of a birth of one’s moral personality. Still less can there be any suspicion of this question being an invention, as if John merely wished to represent Nicodemus as a very foolish man (Strauss; comp. De Wette and Reuss),—a notion which, even on the supposition of a desire to spin out the conversation by misapprehensions on the part of the hearers, would be too clumsy to be entertained.

γέρων ὤν] when he is an old man; Nicodemus added this to represent the impossibility with reference to himself in a stronger light.

δεύτερον] with reference to being for a time in the mother’s womb before birth. He did not take the ἄνωθεν to mean δεύτερον, he simply did not understand it at all.

John 3:4. πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται, etc. In this reply there is no attempt to fence with Jesus, but merely an expression of the bewilderment created by His statement. The emphasis is on πῶς, which asks for further explanation. The μὴ of the second clause shows that Nicodemus understood that Jesus could not mean a second physical birth (see Lücke). On γέρων ὤν Grotius remarks: “Exemplum in se ponit, qui senex jam erat”. That our Lord understood Nicodemus’ words as a request for further explanation appears from His at once proceeding to give it.

4. when he is old] He purposely puts the most impossible case; the words do not imply that he was an old man himself. It is difficult to believe that Nicodemus really supposed Christ to be speaking of ordinary birth; the metaphor of ‘new birth’ for spiritual regeneration cannot have been unfamiliar to him. Either he purposely misunderstands, in order to reduce Christ’s words to an absurdity; or, more probably, not knowing what to say, he asks what he knew to be a foolish question.

the second time] This expression has contributed to the word which probably means ‘from above,’ being translated ‘again.’ But ‘to enter a second time into his mother’s womb’ is simply a periphrasis for ‘to be born’ in the case of an adult. The word which means ‘from above’ is not included in the periphrasis. It is precisely that which perplexes Nicodemus; so he leaves it out.

John 3:4. Πῶς) This how and why are often obstacles to faith: John 3:9, “How can these things be?” ch. John 6:52, [The Jews object] “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” Nicodemus ‘marvels,’ as John 3:7 implies. It is well that he simply asks the question.[51]—ΓΕΝΝΗΘῆΝΑΙ, be born) Nicodemus ought to have taken into account the ἄνωθεν, from above: that he passes by: therefore he says δεύτερον, a second time.—γέρων) an old man, not merely a grown-up man. Nicodemus therefore being an old man, asks the question on his own account;[52] and had come to Jesus, who was much his junior.—ΜῊ ΔΎΝΑΤΑΙ; can he [num potest; requiring a negative answer: Surely he cannot?]) Nicodemus objects rather vehemently, [and in such a way, that his words appear not far removed from derision. Hence it is that Jesus frames His succeeding answer as well a little more distinct, as also somewhat more paradoxical and severe.—V. g.]

[51] As an inquirer, not a doubter.—E. and T.

[52] And so puts it in that form which applied to his own case.—E. and T.

Verse 4. - Nicodemus saith to him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born? The numerous endeavours to interpret the motive or mind of Nicodemus show almost as much misunderstanding of the naivete of his amazement, as Nicodemus did of the deepest significance of this solemn utterance of the Lord. Two things are perfectly clear:

(1) Nicodemus saw a grave and amazing difficulty in the idea of a second birth of a man old, like himself, in years, prepossessions, habits of thought, ways of acting, social ties, ancestral and traditional customs, and in venerable ideas consecrated by long usage. He might have known the language of the prophets concerning circumcision of heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4) and concerning a new heart and right spirit (Ezekiel 36:26, 27; Psalm 51:10; Psalm 86:4); but the full bearing of these prophetic ideas were beyond and different to the almost drastic form of Christ's call for spiritual change and "birth from the beginning." There is no necessity for us to accuse him either of "narrowness" (Meyer) or of imbecility (Reuss, Lucke), or to make such a charge react upon the spirit or temper of the evangelist in delineating him. It is enough that Nicodemus should have seen a grave difficulty; and Thoma here is justified in referring to the language of the apostles, when the narrow entrance into the kingdom was set forth under the image of the camel and the needle's eye; and to Mary, when she cried, "How can this thing be?" Moreover, the same perplexity, after eighteen hundred years of Christian experience, still encumbers this utterance of the Master.

(2) Nicodemus did not, by the form of his question, put such query to the Lord in any literal baldness or insolent worldliness. Surely such a view ignores all the tropical methods of speech current in the rabbinical schools. He virtually said," Birth such as you speak of is as impossible as the second physical birth of an old man, as preposterous as would be re-entrance into the womb of his mother for the purpose of a second birth." Christ had spoken of a fundamental change - one going right down to the very sources and beginnings of life. The Lord had used this difficult image, and propounded his view in a term capable of various interpretation. Nicodemus simply expresses his alarm and incredulity in terms of the image itself. It is little more than the language of the prophet, "Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or a leopard his spots?" Are you not proposing a natural impessibility? Must not the kingdom of God, which we thought we saw in thy advent and mighty deeds, be on this understanding hopelessly veiled from human vision? The "being old" shows that Nicodemus had gone through the metaphor to the condition of mind of which it was the subject. There was no greater physical difficulty in an old man re-entering his mother's womb than for a boy of twelve to do so; but being probably, not necessarily, an old man, and belonging to a society of grave, reverend elders, with the inveterate habits, practices, traditions, of long lives behind them, how impracticable and impossible does the notion of so complete a change appear to him! Hence his question. Westcott says admirably, "The great mystery of religion is not the punishment, but the forgiveness of sins; not the natural permanence of character, but spiritual regeneration." John 3:4When he is old (γέρων ὤν)

Literally, being an old man.

Can he (μὴ δύναται)

The interrogative particle anticipates a negative answer. Surely he cannot.

Second time

Nicodemus looks at the subject merely from the physical side. His second time is not the same as Jesus' anew. As Godet remarks, "he does not understand the difference between a second beginning and a different beginning."

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