1.] We have in the Talmud (see Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. in loc.) a Nicodemus ben Gorion, who was properly called Bonai, and said to have been a disciple of Jesus: but he is found living at the destruction of Jerusalem. This might certainly have been; still it must be quite uncertain whether he be the same with this Nicodemus.
He is mentioned again ch. John 7:50; John 19:39. He was a member of the Sanhedrim ( ἄρχων, see reff.), and, besides, a νομοδιδάσκαλος (John 3:10).
1–21.] The Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus,—one of these believers on account of His Miracles—on the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God and the necessity of the new birth.
2.] νυκτός—for fear of the Jews: see ch. John 12:42. The discourse seems to have taken place between Jesus and Nicodemus alone,—and may have been related by our Lord to the Evangelist afterwards. If this be deemed improbable (though I do not see why it should),—of the two other alternatives I would rather believe that John was present, than that Nicodemus should have so minutely related a conversation which in his then position he could not understand.
οἴδαμεν] This plural may be merely an allusion to others who had come to the same conclusion, e.g. Joseph of Arimathea; or it may express that Nicodemus was sent in the name of several who wished to know the real character of this Person who wrought such miracles. It is harsh, in this private conversation, to take the plural as merely of singular import, as Lightfoot seems to do. His other rendering, “vulgo agnoscitur,” is better,—but not satisfactory; for the common people did not generally confess it, and Nicodemus, as an ἄρχων, would not be likely to speak in their name (see ch. John 7:49). I would rather take it to express the true conviction respecting Jesus, of that class to which Nicodemus belonged—the ἄρχοντες: and see in it an important fact, that their persecutions and murder of the Prince of Life hence found their greatest aggravation, that they were carried on against the conclusions of their own minds, out of bitter malice, and worldly disappointment at His humble and unobtrusive character, and the spiritual purity and self-sacrifice which He inculcated. Still this must not, though undoubtedly it has truth in it, be carried too far: cf. Acts 3:17 note, and Acts 13:27; 1 Corinthians 2:8. Some degree of ignorance there must necessarily have been in all of them, even Caiaphas included, of our Lord’s Office and Person. Stier (iv. 11 ff., edn. 2) seems to think that Nicodemus, by using the plural, is sheltering himself from expressing his own conviction, so as to be able to draw back again if necessary.
ἐλήλυθας] Stier (and Schleiermacher, cited by Stier, iv. 12, edn. 2, note) thinks that there is involved in this word a recognition by Nicodemus of the Messianic mission of Jesus:—that it expresses His being ὁ ἐρχόμενος (Matthew 11:3 alli(42).). It is never used of any but the Messiah, except by the Lord Himself, when speaking of John the Baptist as the subject of prophecy (see Matthew 11:14 alli(43).).
διδάσκαλος] In this and the following words, Nicodemus seems to be cautiously withdrawing from his admission being taken as expressing too much. For who of the Jews ever expected a teacher to come from God? They looked for a King, to sit on David’s throne,—a Prophet, to declare the divine will;—but the Messiah was never designated as a mere teacher, till the days of modern Socinianism. So that he seems trying to qualify or recall his ἐλήλυθας by this addition.
The following words exhibit the same cautious inconsistency. No one can do, &c. unless—we expect some strong expression of the truth, such as we had from Nathanael in ch. John 1:50, but the sentence drops to merely—‘God be with him,’ which is a very poor and insufficient exponent of ἀπὸ θ. ἐλήλυθας. Against this inconsistency,—the inner knowledge that the Kingdom of God was come, and He who was to found it, on the one hand,—and the rationalizing endeavour to reduce this heavenly kingdom to mere learning, and its Founder to a mere teacher, on the other,—is the following discourse directed.
3.] We are not to imagine that any thing is wanting to complete the sense or connexion. Our Lord replies, It is not learning, but life, that is wanted for the Messiah’s Kingdom; and life must begin by birth. Luther (Stier, iv. 17, edn. 2) says: “My teaching is not of doing and leaving undone, but of a change in the man (nicht von Thun und Lassen, fondern von Werden);—so that it is, not new works done, but a new man to do them; not another life only, but another birth.” And only by this means can Nicodemus gain the teaching for which he is come,— ἰδεῖν τ. β. τ. θ.,—‘become a disciple of Christ:’— ἴδοι, τουτέστι νοήσοι, Thl.,—‘understand, by sharing’—‘have any conception of.’
ἄνωθεν— οἱ μὲν “ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ” φασιν, οἱ “ ἐξ ἀρχῆς.” Chr(44),—who, as also Euthym(45), explains γεν. ἄνωθ. by παλιγγενεσία:—Orig(46), Cyr(47), and Thl. taking the other meaning.
The true meaning is to be found by taking into account the answer of Nicodemus, who obviously understood it of a new birth in mature life. Born afresh would be a better rendering than ‘born again,’ being closer to the meaning of ἄνωθεν, ‘from the very beginning;’—‘unless a man begin his life anew altogether ( πἁλιν ἄνωθεν, Galatians 4:9), he cannot’ &c.
It is not impossible that the other meaning may lie beneath this,—as the βασιλεία is τοῦ θεοῦ, and so must the birth be;—but Grotius has remarked that in Hebrew and Aramaic (in one of which languages our Lord, discoursing with a Rabbinical Jew, probably spoke) there is no word of double meaning corresponding to ἄνωθεν:—so that He must have expressed it, as Nicodemus understood it, of an entirely new birth. That John never uses the word elsewhere in this sense (Lücke) is here of little weight, for he uses it only three times more, and never with a verb cognate to γεννάομαι. The Evangelist most likely chose the Greek expression γεν. ἄνωθ. as strictly corresponding to the term ἀναγεννᾶσθαι, which, when he wrote, was in common use in the Church: see 1 Peter 1:3; 1 Peter 1:23. Justin Martyr, as Bp. Wordsworth reminds us, quotes as our Lord’s saying, Apol. i. 61, p. 79, ἆν μὴ ἀναγεννήθητε, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τ. βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν: probably mixing this with Matthew 18:3. On the birth itself, see below, John 3:5.
4.] It is impossible that Nicodemus can have so entirely and stupidly misunderstood our Lord’s words, as his question here would seem to imply. The idea of new birth was by no means alien from the Rabbinical views. They described a proselyte when baptized as “sicut parvulus jam natus.” Lightfoot in loc. I agree with Stier in thinking that there was something of the spirit that would not understand, and the disposition to turn to ridicule what he heard. But together with this there was also considerable real ignorance. The proselyte might be regarded as born again, when he became one of the seed of Abraham: this figure would be easily explained on the Judaical view: but that every man should need this, was beyond Nicodemus’s comprehension. He therefore rebuts the assertion with a reductio ad absurdum, which in spirit expresses, as in ch. John 6:60,—‘This is an hard saying; who can hear it?’
γέρων ὤν] Probably he himself was old, and he instances his own case.
5.] Our Lord passes by the question of Nicodemus without notice, further than that this His second assertion takes as it were the ground from under it, by explaining the token and means of the new birth.
There can be no doubt, on any honest interpretation of the words, that γεννηθῆναι ἐξ ὕδατος refers to the token or outward sign of baptism,— γ. ἐκ πνεύματος to the thing signified, or inward grace of the Holy Spirit. All attempts to get rid of these two plain facts have sprung from doctrinal prejudices, by which the views of expositors have been warped. Such we have in Calvin: “spiritum, qui nos repurgat, et qui virtute sua in nos diffusa vigorem inspirat cœlestis vitæ;”—Grotius: “spiritum aquæ instar emundantem;”—Cocceius: “gratiam Dei, sordes et vitia abluentem;”—Lampe: “obedientiam Christi;”—Tholuck, who holds that not Baptism itself, but only its idea, that of cleansing, is referred to;—and others, who endeavour to resolve ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος into a figure of ἕν διὰ δυοῖν, so as to make it mean ‘the cleansing or purifying Spirit.’ All the better and deeper expositors have recognized the co-existence of the two, water and the Spirit. So for the most part the ancients: so Lücke (in his last edition), De Wette, Neander, Stier, Olshausen, &c.
This being then recognized, to what does ὕδωρ refer? At that time, two kinds of baptism were known: that of the proselytes, by which they were received into Judaism,—and that of John, by which, as a preparatory rite, symbolizing repentance, the people were made ready for Him who was to baptize them with the Holy Ghost. But both these were significant of one and the same truth; that namely of the entire cleansing of the man for the new and spiritual life on which he was to enter, symbolized by water cleansing the outward person. Both were appointed means,—the one by the Jewish Church,—the other, stamping that first with approval, by God Himself,—towards their respective ends. John himself declared his baptism to be incomplete,—it was only with water; One was coming, who should baptize with the Holy Ghost. That declaration of his is the key to the understanding of this verse. Baptism, complete, with water and the Spirit, is the admission into the kingdom of God. Those who have received the outward sign and the spiritual grace, have entered into that Kingdom. And this entrance was fully ministered to the disciples when the Spirit descended on them on the day of Pentecost. So that, as spoken to Nicodemus, these words referred him to the baptism of John, which probably (see Luke 7:30) he had slighted. But they were not only spoken to him. The words of our Lord have in them life and meaning for all ages of His Church: and more especially these opening declarations of His ministry. He here unites together the two elements of a complete Baptism which were sundered in the words of the Baptist, ch. John 1:33—in which united form He afterwards (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:16) ordained it as a Sacrament of His Church. Here He speaks of spiritual Baptism, as in ch. 6. of spiritual Communion, and in both places in connexion with the outward conditions and media of these sacraments. It is observable that here, as ordinarily (with a special exception, Acts 10:44 ff.), the outward sign comes first, and then the spiritual grace, vouchsafed in and by means of it where duly received.
εἰσελθεῖν εἰς is more than ἰδεῖν above, though no stress is to be laid on the difference. The former word was perhaps used because of Nicodemus’s expectation of teaching being all that was required: but now, the necessity of a real vital change having been set forth, the expression is changed to a practical one—the entering into the Kingdom of God.
6.] The neuter denotes not only the universal application of this truth, but (see Luke 1:35) the very first beginnings of life in the embryo, before sex can be predicated. So Bengel: “notat ipsa prima stamina vitæ.”
The Lord here answers Nicodemus’s hypothetical question of John 3:4, by telling him that even could it be so, it would not accomplish the birth of which He speaks.
In this σάρξ is included every part of that which is born after the ordinary method of generation: even the spirit of man, which, receptive as it is of the Spirit of God, is yet in the natural birth dead, sunk in trespasses and sins, and in a state of wrath. Such ‘flesh and blood’ cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, 1 Corinthians 15:50. But when the man is born again of the Spirit (the water does not appear any more, being merely the outward form of reception,—the less included in the greater), then just as flesh generates flesh, so spirit generates spirit, after its own image, see 2 Corinthians 3:18 fin.; and since the Kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, such only who are so born can enter into it.
7.] The weightiest word here is ὑμᾶς. The Lord did not, could not, say this of Himself. Why?—Because in the full sense in which the flesh is incapacitated from entering the kingdom of God, He was not born of the flesh. He inherited the weakness of the flesh, but His spirit was not, like that of sinful man, alien from holiness and God; and therefore on Him no second birth passed; when the Holy Spirit descended on Him at His baptism, the words spoken by the Father were indicative of past approval, not of renewal. His obedience was accepted as perfect, and the good pleasure of the Father rested on Him. Therefore He includes not Himself in this necessity for the new birth.
The μὴ θαυμάσῃς applies to the next verse, in which Nicodemus is told that he has things as wonderful around him every day in the natural world.
8.] Our Lord might have chosen any of the mysteries of nature to illustrate the point:—He takes that one, which is above others symbolic of the action of the Spirit, and (which in both languages, that in which He spoke, as well as that in which His speech is reported) is expressed by the same word as it. So that the words as they stand apply themselves at once to the Spirit and His working, without any figure;—spiritus ubi vult spirat. Bengel, after Origen and Augustine, takes τὸ πν. of the Holy Spirit exclusively: but this can hardly be. The form of the sentence, as well as its import, is against it. The πνεῖ, ἀκούεις, οἶδας, are all said of well-known facts. And the comparison would not hold on that supposition—‘As the Spirit is in His working on those born of Him, so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ But on the other interpretation, we have The wind breatheth, &c.:—so is, i.e. ‘so it is with’ (see a similar construction Matthew 13:45) every one born of the Spirit.
Notice it is not ὁ ἄνεμος here, but τὸ πνεῦμα, the gentle breath of the wind;—and it is heard, not felt;—a case in which the οὐκ οἶδας κ. τ. λ. is more applicable than in that of a violent wind steadily blowing. It is one of those sudden breezes springing up on a calm day, which has no apparent direction, but we hear it rustling in the leaves around.
The ὅπου θέλει, in the application, implies the freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17) and unrestrained working of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11).
πᾶς ὁ γεγ.] Our Lord can hardly, as Stier explains (iv. 48, edn. 2), mean Himself by these words; or, if He does, only inclusively, as being γεγ. ἐκ τ. πν.,—not principally. He describes the mystery of the spiritual life: we see its effects, in ourselves, and others who have it; but we cannot trace its beginnings, nor can we prescribe to the Holy Spirit His course: He works in us and leads us on, accompanying us with His witness,—His voice, spiritually discerned. “Homo in quo spiritus spirat, e spiritu respirat.” Bengel.
This saying of the Lord—in contradiction to all so-called Methodism, which prescribes the time and manner of the working of the Spirit—assures us of the manifold and undefinable variety of both these. “The physiognomies of those who are born again, are as various as those of natural men” (Dräseke, cited by Stier, iv. 50, edn. 2).
9.] The question of Nicodemus is evidently still one of unbelief, though no longer of frivolity: see John 3:12.
10.] I believe the E. V. is right in rendering ὁ διδ. a master; the article is inserted as required by τοῦ before ἰσραήλ, which is expressed as giving a solemnity to ἰσρ. as the people of God. Or is it possible that ὁ διδάσκαλος may merely be meant as one of οἱ διδάσκαλοι? I prefer either of these reasons for the presence of the article, to supposing it to have any emphatic meaning. Nicodemus was manifestly in no supereminent place among the ἄρχοντες: see ch. John 7:50-52. Still less can I with Bp. Middleton, Gr. Art. pp. 242–3, believe any blame conveyed in the title. [Dean Alford afterwards preferred rendering ὁ διδάσκαλος the teacher; see N.T. for English Readers, and N.T. Authorized Version Revised.]
11.] Henceforward the discourse is an answer to the unbelief, and in answering that, to the question ( πῶς δύν. τ. γεν.) of Nicodemus: by shewing him the appointed means of this new birth, and of being upheld in the life to which it is the entrance, viz. faith in the Son of God.
ὃ οἴδαμεν λ.…] Why these plurals? Various interpretations have been given: ἢ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ καὶ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦτό φησιν, ἢ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ μόνομ (Euthym(48));—“Loquitur de se et de Spiritu” (Bengel);—of Himself and the Prophets (Beza, Tholuck);—of Himself and John the Baptist (Knapp);—of Teachers like Himself (Meyer);—of all the born of the Spirit (Lange, Wesley);—of the three Persons in the Holy Trinity (Stier);—or, the plural is only rhetorical (Lücke, De Wette). I had rather take it as a proverbial saying; q. d. ‘I am one of those who,’ &c. Our Lord thereby brings out the unreasonableness of that unbelief which would not receive His witness, but made it an exception to the general proverbial rule.
οὐ λαμβάνετε, addressed still to Nicodemus, and through him to the Jews: not to certain others who were present, as Olsh. supposes.
12.] The words μαρτυρίαν λαμβάνειν prepared the way for the new idea which is brought forward in this verse— πιστεύειν. Faith is, in the most pregnant sense, ‘the receiving of testimony;’ because it is the making subjectively real the contents of that testimony. So the πιστεύειν εἰς αὐτόν [see John 3:15] is, the full reception of the Lord’s testimony; because the burden of that testimony is, grace and truth and salvation by Himself. This faith is neither reasoning, nor knowledge, but a reception of divine Truth declared by One who came from God; and so it is far above reasoning and knowledge:— πιστεύομεν above οἴδαμεν.
But what are the ἐπίγεια? The matters relating to the new birth which have hitherto been spoken of;—called so because that side of them has been exhibited which is upon earth, and happens among men;— ἃ τοῖς ἐπὶ γῆς ἔτι διατρίβουσιν ἀνθρώποις δυνατὰ ὑπάρξαι τε καὶ νοηθῆναι, Origen. That the parable about the wind is not intended, is evident from κ. οὐ πιστεύετε, which in that case would be ‘do not understand.’ And the ἐπουράνια are the things of which the discourse goes on to treat from this point: viz. the heavenly side of the new birth and salvation of man, in the eternal counsels of God regarding His only-begotten Son.
Stier supposes a reference in this verse to Wisdom of Solomon 9:16, καὶ μόλις εἰκάζομεν τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, καὶ τὰ ἐν χερσὶν εὑρίσκομεν μετὰ πόνου, τὰ δὲ ἐν οὐρανοῖς τίς ἐξιχνίασεν;
13.] The whole verse seems to have intimate connexion with and reference to Proverbs 30:4; and as spoken to a learned doctor of the law, would recall that verse,—especially as the further question is there asked, ‘Who hath gathered the wind in His fists?’ ( מִי אָסַף־רוּחַ בּחָפְנָיו), and ‘What is His name, and what His Son’s name?’ See also Deuteronomy 30:12, and the citation, Romans 10:6-8.
All attempts to explain away the plain sense of this verse are futile and ridiculous. The Son of Man, the Lord Jesus, the Word made Flesh, was in, came down from, heaven,—and was in heaven (heaven about Him, heaven dwelling on earth, ch. John 1:51), while here, and ascended up into heaven when He left this earth;—and by all these proofs, speaking in the prophetic language of accomplished Redemption, does the Lord establish, that He alone can speak of τὰ ἐπουράνια to men, or convey the blessing of the new birth to them. Be it remembered, that He is here speaking proleptically, of results of His course and sufferings on earth,—of the way of regeneration and salvation which God has appointed by Him. He regards therefore throughout the passage, the great facts of redemption as accomplished, and makes announcements which could not be literally acted upon till they had been so accomplished. See John 3:14 ff., whose sense will be altogether lost, unless this ἀναβέβηκεν be understood of His exaltation to be a Prince and a Saviour.
ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρ.] See ch. John 1:18 and note. Doubtless the meaning involves ‘whose place is in heaven;’ but it also asserts the being in heaven of the time then present: see ch. John 1:51. Stier (iv. 68, edn. 2) speaks well of the majestic ὁ ὢν ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, by which the Lord characterizes His whole life in the flesh between the καταβαίνειν and the ἀναβαίνειν. As uniting in Himself God, whose dwelling is heaven, with man whose dwelling is on earth, He ever was in heaven. And nearly connected with this fact is the transition to His being the fountain of eternal life, in John 3:14 ff.: cf. 1 Corinthians 15:47-50, where the same connexion is strikingly set forth.
To explain such expressions as ἀναβαίνειν εἰς τ. οὐρ., &c., as mere Hebrew metaphors (Lücke, De Wette, &c.) is no more than saying that Hebrew metaphors were founded on deep insight into divine truth:—these words in fact express the truths on which Hebrew metaphors were constructed. Socinus is quite right, when he says that those who take ἀναβ. εἰς τ. οὐ. metaphorically, must in all consistency take ὁ καταβὰς ἐκ τ. οὐρ. metaphorically also; “qualis descensus, talis etiam ascensus.”
14.] From this point the discourse passes to the Person of Christ, and Redemption by His Death.
The Lord brings before this doctor of the Law the mention of Moses, who in his day by divine command lifted up a symbol of forgiveness and redemption to Israel.
καθώς] We must avoid all such ideas as that our Lord merely compares His death to the elevation of the brazen serpent, as if only a fortuitous likeness were laid hold of by Him. This would leave the brazen serpent itself meaningless, and is an explanation which can only satisfy those who do not discern the typical reference of all the ceremonial dispensation to the Redeemer.
It is an important duty of an expositor here, to defend the obvious and only honest explanation of this comparison against the tortuous and inadequate interpretations of modern critics. The comparison lies between the exalted serpent of brass, and the exalted Son of Man. The brazen serpent sets forth the Redeemer. This by recent Commentators (Lücke, De Wette, and others) is considered impossible: and the tertium comparationis is held to be only ‘the lifting up.’ But this does not satisfy the construction of the comparison. ‘The brazen serpent was lifted up: every one who looked on it, lived,’ = ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up: every one who believes on Him, shall live.’ The same thing is predicated of the two;—both are lifted up; cognate consequences follow,—body-healing and soul-healing (as Erskine, On the Brazen Serpent). There must then be some reason why the only two members of the comparison yet unaccounted for stand where they do,—considering that the brazen serpent was lifted up not for any physical efficacy, but by command of God alone. Now on examination we find this correspondence fully established. The ‘serpent’ is in Scripture symbolism, the devil,—from the historical temptation in Genesis 3. downwards. But why is the devil set forth by the serpent? How does the bite of the serpent operate? It pervades with its poison the frame of its victim: that frame becomes poisoned:—and death ensues. So sin, the poison of the devil, being instilled into our nature, that nature has become σὰρξ ἁμαρτίας, a poisoned nature,—a flesh of sin. Now the brazen serpent was made in the likeness of the serpents which had bitten them. It represented to the children of Israel the poison which had gone through their frames, and it was hung up there on the banner-staff, as a trophy, to shew them that for the poison, there was healing;—that the plague had been overcome. In it, there was no poison; only the likeness of it. Now was not the Lord Jesus made ἐν ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας, Romans 8:3? Was not He made ‘Sin for us, who knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)? Did not He, on His Cross, make an open shew of, and triumph over, the Enemy, so that it was as if the Enemy himself had been nailed to that Cross (Colossians 2:15)? Were not Sin and Death and Satan crucified, when He was crucified? ἐκεῖ μέν, ἐπεὶ διʼ ὄφεως ἡ βλάβη, διʼ ὄφεως καὶ ἡ θεραπεία· ἐνταῦθα δέ, ἐπεὶ διʼ ἀνθρώπου ὁ θάνατος εἰσῆλθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον, διʼ ἀνθρώπου καὶ ἡ ζωὴ παρεγένετο, Euthym(49)
δεῖ, it is necessary, in the Father’s counsel—it is decreed, but not arbitrarily;—the very necessity of things, which is in fact but the evolution of the divine Will, made it requisite that the pure and sinless Son of Man should thus be uplifted and suffer: see Luke 24:26.
ὑψωθῆναι] In this word there is more than the mere crucifixion. It has respect in its double meaning (of which see a remarkable instance in Genesis 40:13; Genesis 40:19, E. V.) to the exaltation of the Lord on the Cross, and through the Cross to His Kingdom; and refers back to ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τ. οὐρ. before. Stier quotes the Christian proverb, ‘Crux scala cæli.’
15.] The corresponding clause applying to the type is left to be supplied—‘And as every one who looked on it was healed, so …’
πιστ. ἐν αὐτῷ] This expression, here only used by John, implies His exaltation,—see ch. John 12:32. It is a belief in (abiding in, see note on John 3:18) His Person being what God by His sufferings and exaltation hath made Him to be, and being that TO ME. This involves, on the part of the believer, the anguish of the bite of the fiery serpent,—and the earnest looking on Him in Whom sin is crucified, with the inner eye of faith.
ἔχῃ ζ. αἰ.] Just as in the type, God did not remove the fiery serpents,—or not all at once,—but healing was to be found in the midst of them by looking to the brazen serpent ( πᾶς ὁ δεδηγμένος ἰδὼν αὐτὸν ζήσεται, LXX),—so the temptations and conflicts of sin shall not leave the believer,—but in the midst of these, with the Eye of Faith fixed on the uplifted Son of Man, he has eternal life; perishes not of the bite, but ζήσεται.
See on this verse the remarkable passage, Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-13, where as much of the healing sign is opened as could be expected before the great Antitype Himself appeared.
16.] Many Commentators—since the time of Erasmus, who first suggested the notion—have maintained that the discourse of our Lord breaks off here, and the rest, to John 3:21, consists of the remarks of the Evangelist. (So Tholuck, Olshausen, Lücke, De Wette; which last attributes John 3:13-14 also to John.) But to those who view these discourses of our Lord as intimately connected wholes, this will be as inconceivable, as the idea of St. Matthew having combined into one the insulated sayings of his Master. This discourse would be altogether fragmentary, and would have left Nicodemus almost where he was before, had not this most weighty concluding part been also spoken to him. This it is, which expands and explains the assertions of John 3:14-15, and applies them to the present life and conduct of mankind.
The principal grounds alleged for supposing the discourse to break off here seem to be ( α) that all allusion to Nicodemus is henceforth dropped.
But this is not conclusive, for it is obvious that the natural progress of such an interview on his part would be from questioning to listening: and that even had he joined in the dialogue, the Evangelist would not have been bound to relate all his remarks, but only those which, as John 3:2; John 3:4; John 3:9, were important to bring out his mind and standing-point. ( β) That henceforth past tenses are used; making it more probable that the passage was added after the great events alluded to had taken place. But does not our Lord speak here, as in so many other cases, proleptically, of the fulness of the accomplishment of those designs, which in the divine counsels were accomplished? Is not this way of speaking natural to a discourse which is treating of the development of the new birth, itself not yet brought in till the Spirit was given? See a parallel instance, with the Evangelist’s explanation, ch. John 7:37-39. ( γ) On account of this use of μονογενής,, John 3:16; John 3:18, which is peculiar to John. But, as Stier well enquires (iv. 84, edn. 2), whence did John get this word, but from the lips of his Divine Master? Would he have ventured on such an expression, except by an authorization from Him? ( δ) It is asserted that John often continues our Lord’s discourses with additions of his own;—and John 3:31, and ch. John 1:16, are alleged as instances. Of these, ch. John 1:16 is beside the question;—for the whole prologue is spoken in the person of the Evangelist, and the Baptist’s testimony in John 3:15 is merely confirmatory of John 3:14, and then the connexion goes on with John 3:16. On the untenableness of the view with regard to John 3:31 ff., see notes there.
It would besides give us a very mean idea of the honesty or reverence of one who sets forth so sublime a view of the Divinity and Authority of our Lord, to suppose him capable, in any place, of attributing to his Master words and sentiments of his own invention. And that the charge amounts to this, every simple reader can bear testimony. The obvious intention of the Evangelist here is, that the Lord shall have said these words. If our Lord did not say them, but the Evangelist, we cannot stop with the view that he has added his own remarks to our Lord’s discourse, but must at once pronounce him guilty of an imposture and a forgery. (See Stier, iv. 81 ff., edn. 2.) I conclude therefore on all these grounds that the words following, to John 3:21, cannot be otherwise regarded than as uttered by our Lord in continuation of His discourse.
ἠγάπησεν] The indefinite signifying the universal and eternal existence of that love which God Himself is (1 John 4:8).
τὸν κόσμον, the world, in the most general sense, as represented by, and included in, man,—Genesis 3:17-18; Genesis 1:28;—not, the elect, which would utterly destroy the force of the passage: see on John 3:18.
The Lord here reveals Love as the one ground of the divine counsel in redemption,—salvation of men, as its one purpose with regard to them.
τὸν υἱὸν … ἔδωκεν] These words, whether spoken in Hebrew or in Greek, seem to carry a reference to the offering of Isaac; and Nicodemus in that case would at once be reminded by them of the love there required, the substitution there made, and the prophecy there uttered to Abraham, to which ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστ. so nearly corresponds.
ἔδωκεν—absolute, not merely τῷ κόσμῳ—gave up,— παρέδωκεν,—Romans 8:32; where as Stier remarks, we have again, in the οὐκ ἐφείσατο, an unmistakeable allusion to the οὐκ ἐφείσω, said to Abraham, Genesis 22:16.
ἵνα …] By the repetition of this final clause verbatim from John 3:15, we have the identity of the former clauses established: i.e. the uplifting of the Son of Man like the serpent in the wilderness is the manifestation of the Divine Love in the gift of the Son of God:— ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου of John 3:14, = in the strictest sense, ὁ υἱὸς αὐτ. ὁ μονογ. of John 3:16.
17.] The κόσμος,—the Gentile world,—was according to Jewish ideas to be judged and condemned by the Messiah. This error our Lord here removes. The assertion ch. John 9:39, εἰς κρῖμα ἐγὼ εἰς τ. κόσ. τοῦτ. ἦλθον, is no contradiction to this. The κρῖμα there, as here, results from the separation of mankind into two classes,—those who will and those who will not come to the light; and that result itself is not the purpose why the Son of God came into the world, but is evolved in the accomplishment of the higher purpose, viz. Love, and the salvation of men. Observe, the latter clause does not correspond to the former—it is not ἵνα σώζῃ τὸν κόσμον,—but ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος διʼ αὐτοῦ:—the free will of the κόσμος is by this strikingly set forth, in connexion with John 3:19-20. Not that the Lord is not the σωτὴρ τοῦ κόσμου (ch. John 4:42), but that the peculiar cast of this passage required the other side of the truth to be brought out.
18.] On πιστ. εἰς αὐτ. (which is John’s usual phrase) the remarks above on John 3:15 apply with little distinction; εἰς giving more the direction of the belief towards, and its resting upon, ἐν its abiding in, Jesus as the Saviour.
οὐ κρίνεται] See ch. John 5:24, where the same assertion is made more fully; and note there.
ἤδη κέκριται, implying,—by no positive act of judgment of mine,—but by the very nature of things themselves. God has provided a remedy for the deadly bite of sin; this remedy the man has not accepted, not taken: he must then perish in his sins: he is already judged and sentenced.
μὴ πεπίστευκεν] The perfect implies more than ‘that faith is a definite act in time’ (Lücke, De Wette); it sets before us the deliberate choice of the man, q. d. ‘he hath not chosen to believe’ (Lange, in Stier, iv. 93, edn. 2): see 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12.
εἰς τὸ ὄν., not without meaning: that name was ἰησοῦς, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν, Matthew 1:21.
The μονογενοῦς also here sets before us the hopelessness of such a man’s state: he has no other Saviour.
19.] The particular nature of this decided judgment is now set forth,—that the Light (see ch. John 1:4-5; John 1:7, and notes) is come into the world ( ἐλήλυθεν, in reference perhaps to ἐλήλυθας, John 3:2), and men (= ὁ κόσμος, men in general; an awful revelation of the future reception of the Gospel) loved (the perversion of the affections and will is the deepest ruin of mankind) the darkness (see note on ch. John 1:5; = the state of sin and unbelief) rather than (not = ‘and not,’ but as Bengel says, “Amabilitas lucis eos perculit, sed obhæserunt in amore tenebrarum,” see ch. John 5:35; John 12:43 : 2 Timothy 3:4) the light, because their deeds were evil (their habits, thoughts, practices,—all these are included,—were perverted).
ἠγάπησαν and ἦν are the indefinite aorists, implying the general usage and state of men, when and after the φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τ. κόσ.
20.] This verse analyses the psychological grounds of the preceding. The φῶς is not here ‘the common light of day,’ nor light in general: but as before, the Light; i.e. the Lord Jesus, and His salvation: see John 3:21 fin.
There is here a difference between φαῦλα πράσσειν, and ποιεῖν τὴν ἀλήθειαν, which is too remarkable to be passed over,—especially as the same distinction is observed in ch. John 5:29,— οἱ τὰ ἀγαθὰ ποιήσαντες εἰς ἀνάστασιν ζωῆς, οἱ δὲ τὰ φαῦλα πράξαντες εἰς ἀν. κρίσεως. Bengel, who noticed this, hardly I think gives the right reason for it: “malitia est irrequieta, est quiddam operosius quam veritas;” nor does Stier fully reach it, “that πράσ. signifies more a subordination, a being the servants of sin, ἐργάται ἀδικίας, Luke 13:27.” I think the distinction is rather perhaps this,—that πράσσειν is more the habit of action; so that we might say ‘he that practises evil;’ but ποιεῖν the true doing of good, good fruit, good that remains. He who πράσσει, has nothing but his πρᾶγμα, which is an event, a thing of the past, a source to him only of condemnation, for he has nothing to shew for it, for it is also φαῦλον, worthless; whereas he that ποιεῖ, has his ποίημα,—he has abiding fruit; his works do follow him. So that the expressions will not perhaps here admit of being interchanged. (See however Romans 7:15-20, where the two verbs are certainly interchanged more than once.) There may possibly be a hint [in the mention of σκότος, John 3:19] at the coming by night of Nicodemus, but surely only by a distant implication. He might gather this from what was said, that it would have been better for him to make open confession of Jesus; but we can hardly say that our Lord reproves him for coming even as he did.
21.] Who is this ποιῶν τ. ἀλήθ.? the end of ch. 1 will best explain to us,— ἐν ᾧ δόλος οὐκ ἔστιν, see also Luke 8:15, and Psalms 15. The πράσσων πονηρά is crooked and perverse; he has a light, which he does not follow; he knows the light, and avoids it; and so there is no truth, singleness, in him; he is a man at variance with himself. But the simple and single-minded is he who knowing and approving the light, comes to it; and comes that he may be carried onward in this spirit of truth and single-mindedness to higher degrees of communion with and likeness to God. “The good man seeks the light, and to place his works in the light, not from a vain love of praise, but from a desire for communion wherein he finds strength and security,” De Wette. But this is not all: the manifesting his works, that they are wrought in God, is and can be only by the candle of the Lord being kindled within him, and he himself born again in the Kingdom of God: see Psalms 139:23-24.
We hear nothing of the effect produced on Nicodemus by this interview. It certainly did not alienate him from Jesus, see ch. John 7:50; John 19:39, also ch. John 12:42. “It speaks for the simplicity and historic truthfulness of our Evangelist, that he adds nothing more, and even leaves untold the immediate result which the discourse had.” (Baumgarten-Crusius, in Stier, iv. 102, edn. 2.)
22. μετὰ ταῦτα] The sequence is not immediate; for this, John uses μετὰ τοῦτο, see ch. John 11:7; John 11:11; John 19:28.
τὴν ἰουδαίαν γῆν, the rural districts of Judæa, in distinction from the metropolis.
ἐβάπτ., viz. by means of His disciples: see ch. John 4:2, and note. The place is not named: perhaps He did not remain in one fixed spot.
22–36.] Removal of Jesus and His disciples into the neighbourhood of the Baptist, who, upon occasion given, bears another notable testimony to Him.
23.] The situation of these places is uncertain. Eusebius and Jerome place Salim eight Roman miles south of Scythopolis, and Ænon at the same distance, on the Jordan. If Scythopolis was the ancient Bethshan, both places were in Samaria: and to this agree Epiphanius and the Samaritan chronicle called Abul Phatach. In Judith 4:4, we find mention of ὁ αὐλὼν σαλήμ in Samaria (see note on Hebrews 7:1). An Ænon in the wilderness of Judah is mentioned Joshua 15:61 [(56) (50)], and ib. Joshua 15:32, שִׁלְחִים and עַיִן, σελεεὶμ κ. ἀίν (m(51)., omit(52) κ. ἀίν (53) (54)), both in Judah, where it is certainly more probable, both from the text here and from à priori considerations, that John would have been baptizing, than in Samaria. The name עַינָן, is an intensive form of עַיִן, a fountain, which answers to the description here given. Both places were West of the Jordan: see John 3:26, and compare ch. John 1:28.
παρεγ. κ. ἐβ., i.e. the multitudes.
24.] There is much difficulty, which probably never will be cleared up, about the date of the imprisonment of John, and its reference to the course of our Lord’s ministry. Between Matthew 4:11-12, there seems to be a wide hiatus, in which (see note there) the first chapters of this Gospel should be inserted. But the records from which the three synoptic Gospels have arisen were apparently unconscious of any such interval. Our Evangelist seems here to refer to such records, and to insert this remark, that it might not be imagined, as it would be from them, that our Lord’s public ministry (in the wider sense, see below on John 3:26) began with the imprisonment of the Baptist.
25.] The circumstances under which this dispute arose seem to have been these:—John and our Lord were baptizing near to one another. (On the relation of their baptisms, see below on John 3:26.) They were both watched jealously (see ch. John 4:1) by the Pharisees. One of these ( ἰουδαῖος, i.e. ἰουδ. τις) appears to have entered into dispute with the disciples of John about the relative importance of the two baptisms; they perhaps maintaining that their master’s καθαρισμός preparatory to the Messiah was absolutely necessary for all, and he (the ἰουδαῖος) pointing out to them the apparent inconsistency of this Messiah himself authorizing a baptism in his name, and alleging that if so, their master’s baptism was rendered superfluous. We are driven to these conjectures, because the text gives us no further insight into the fact than that the circumstances and the answer of John render probable.
26.] Compare ch. John 1:28.
πάντες ἔρχ.] Not, probably, any who had been baptized already by John; but multitudes of persons. The baptism now carried on by the disciples appears to have stood very much in the same position as that of John. It was preparatory to the public ministry of our Lord properly so called, which began in Galilee after the imprisonment of John. It was not accompanied with the gift of the Spirit, see ch. John 7:39. As John’s commission was now on the wane, so our Lord’s was expanding. The solemn cleansing of the temple was its opening; and now it is proceeding onwards, gathering multitudes around it (see ch. John 4:1).
27.] The subject of this answer is,—the divinely appointed humiliation and eclipsing of the Baptist himself before the greater majesty of Him who was come after him. Accordingly he begins in this verse by answering to the zeal of his disciples, ‘that he cannot go beyond the bounds of his heaven-appointed mission.’ “Non possum mihi arrogare et capere quæ deus non dedit.” (Wetstein.) Some apply the words to Jesus:— εἰ δὲ λαμπρότερα τὰ ἐκείνου, καὶ πάντες πρὸς αὐτὸν ἔρχονται, θαυμάζειν οὐ χρή. τοιαῦτα γὰρ τὰ θεῖα. Chrys. But the whole tone of the answer makes the other view more likely. Of course the remark, being general, may in the background have reference to the greater mission of Jesus; but not primarily. The parallelism of ἄνθρωπος here and himself as the subject of εἶπον in the next verse, also supports this view: see Hebrews 5:4.
28.] ‘Not only so, but I have always given the same consistent testimony; that I was only the forerunner of One greater than myself.’ ἐκείνου does not refer to ὁ χριστός, in which case it would have been αὐτοῦ (see, however, apparent exceptions to this, ch. John 7:45 : Acts 3:13; see also Winer, Gr., edn. 6, § 23. 1): but to Jesus, as the subject of John 3:26; and thus is not merely a general testimony with regard to the Messiah, but a personal one to Jesus.
29.] Here first, (and here only in our Gospel,) comes from the mouth of the Forerunner, this great symbolical reference which is so common in the other Gospels and in the Epistles. It is remarkable that our Lord brings it forward in His answer to the disciples of John respecting fasting, Matthew 9:15; where see note on the further import of the terms used.
The φίλος τοῦ νυμφίου (Heb. שׁוֹשְׁבַּן) was the regular organ of communication in the preliminaries of marriage, and had the ordering of the marriage feast. It is to this last time, and not to any ceremonial custom connected with the marriage rites, that this verse refers. The friend rejoices at hearing the φωνὴ τοῦ νυμφίου, (see Jeremiah 7:34; Jeremiah 16:9; Jeremiah 25:10; Revelation 18:23,) in his triumph and joy, at the marriage. He χαρᾷ χαίρει (see reff.: 1 Thessalonians 3:9 is not a parallel case as to construction, for ᾗ there is only by attraction) because he hears in the voice of the Bridegroom an assurance of the happy completion of his mission, and on account of the voice itself,— τὴν οὕτω γλυκεῖαν, τὴν οὕτως ἐπέραστον, τὴν οὕτω σωτήριον.
ἑστηκὼς καί belongs merely to the graphic setting forth of the similitude.
αὕτη … πεπλήρ.] παραδόντος ἐκείνῳ τὴν νύμφην, καὶ πεπληρωκότος, ὡς εἴρηται, τὴν ἐγχειρισθεῖσάν μοι διακονίαν. Euthym(55)
30.] ἐλαττοῦσθαι,— ὡς ἡλίου ἀνατείλαντος ἑωσφόρον. Euthym(56) See note on Matthew 11:2 ff.
31.] Many modern critics, beginning with Bengel and Wetstein, and including Lücke, Kuinoel, Olshausen, Tholuck, De Wette. and others, maintain that after John 3:30 we have the words, not of the Baptist, but of the Evangelist. Lücke and De Wette assume that the Evangelist has put his own thoughts into the Baptist’s mouth, or at least mixed them with his words. The reason of this arbitrary proceeding is, ( α) that the sentiments of the following verses seem to them not to be congruous with the time and position of the Baptist. But some of them confess (e.g. Lücke, De Wette) that this very position of the Baptist is to them yet unexplained, and are disposed to question the applicability to their idea of it of very much which is undoubtedly recorded to have been said by him. So that we cannot allow such a view much critical weight, unless it can be first clearly shewn, what were the Baptist’s convictions concerning the Person and Office of our Lord. ( β) That the diction and sentiments of the following verses are so entirely in the style of our Evangelist. But first, I by no means grant this, in the sense which is here meant. It will be seen by the reff. that the Evangelist does not so frequently repeat himself as in most other passages of equal length. And even were this so, the remark made above on John 3:16-21, would apply here also; that the Evangelist’s peculiar style of theological expression was formed on some model; and on what more likely than in the first place the discourses of his Divine Master, and then such sententious and striking testimonies as the present? But there is a weightier reason than these for opposing the above view, and that arises from what modern criticism has been so much given to overlook,—the inner coherence of the discourse itself; in which John explains to his disciples the reason why HE must increase; whereas his own dignity was to be eclipsed before Him. This will be seen below as we proceed.
And there is nothing inconsistent with what the Lord himself says of the Baptist in these verses. He (the Baptist) ever speaks not as a disciple of Jesus, not as within the Kingdom,—but as knowing the blessedness of those who should be within it; as standing by, and hearing the Bridegroom’s voice.
Nor again is there any thing inconsistent with the frame of mind which prompted the question sent by John to our Lord afterwards in the onward waning of his days in prison: see note on Matthew 11:2.
ὁ ἄνωθ. ἐρχ.] This gives us the reason why HE must increase: His power and His words are not from below, temporary, limited; but are divine and inexhaustible; and, John 3:32, His witness is not, like John’s, only of what he has been forewarned to expect, but of that which he has seen and heard. But οὐδείς,—i.e. in reference to the κόσμος into which He is come, the σκοτία in which His light shines,—no one comparatively,—receives His testimony. The state of men’s minds at Jerusalem with regard to Jesus must ere this have been well known to the Baptist. Notice in John 3:31 the collocation of the words as regards emphasis: ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν, κ. ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ.
33, 34.] This exception shews the correctness of the sense just assigned to οὐδείς.
ὁ λαβὼν αὐτοῦ τὴν μαρτυρίαν καὶ πιστεύων αὐτῷ, ἐβεβαίωσεν, ἔδειξεν, ὅτι ὁ θεὸς ἀληθής ἐστιν ὁ ἀποστείλας αὐτόν, οὕτινός ἐστι τὰ ῥήματα ἃ λαλεῖ· ὁ δὲ μὴ λαβὼν αὐτὴν καὶ ἀπιστῶν αὐτῷ, τοὐναντίον ποιεῖ, καὶ οὐδὲν ἕτερον ἢ προδήλως θεομαχεῖ. Euthym(57)
The middle σφραγίζομαι is more usual in this signification. See instances in Wetstein.
ἀληθής, not as Wetstein, “Deum veracem esse, et quæ per Prophetas promiserat, præstitisse;” this does not suit the context, and besides would require πιστός, not ἀληθής (see 1 John 1:9): but, as above from Euthym(58), true.
οὐ γὰρ ἐκ μ.…] Seeing that the contrast is between the unlimited gift of the Spirit to Him that comes from above, and the limited participation of Him by those who are of the earth; we must not understand the assertion generally, but supply αὐτῷ, as has usually been done, after δίδωσιν. “Spiritus sanctus non habitavit super Prophetas, nisi mensura quadam; quidam enim librum unum, quidam duos vaticiniorum ediderunt.” (Vajikra Rabba, in Wetstein.) This unmeasured pouring of the Spirit on Him accounts for his speaking the words of God.
35.] This, again, is the ground why the Father gives not the Spirit by measure (to Him): see Matthew 11:27-29, with which this verse forms a remarkable point of connexion, shewing that what is commonly known as John’s form of expression was not confined to him, but originated higher, having its traces in the synoptic narrative, which is confessedly, in its main features, independent of him.
36.] Compare ch. John 1:12-13; John 3:15.
ἀπειθῶν may mean disbelieving, see reff. Unbelief implies disobedience.
μένει] It was on him, see John 3:18, in his state of darkness and nature,—and can only be removed by faith in the Son of God, which he has not.
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Alford, Henry. "Commentary on John 3". Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary. https://pro.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany