Night Interview of Nicodemus with
1, 2. Nicodemus—In this member of the
Sanhedrim sincerity and timidity are seen struggling together.
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
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.
3. Except, &c.—This blunt and curt
reply was plainly meant to shake the whole edifice of the man's
religion, in order to lay a deeper and more enduring foundation.
Nicodemus probably thought he had gone a long way, and expected,
perhaps, to be complimented on his candor. Instead of this, he is
virtually told that he has raised a question which he is not in a
capacity to solve, and that before approaching it, his spiritual
vision required to be rectified by an entire revolution on his inner
man. Had the man been less sincere, this would certainly have
repelled him; but with persons in his mixed state of mind—to
which Jesus was no stranger (Joh 2:25)—such methods speed better than
more honeyed words and gradual approaches.
a man—not a Jew merely; the
necessity is a universal one.
be born again—or, as it were, begin
life anew in relation to God; his manner of thinking, feeling, and
acting, with reference to spiritual things, undergoing a fundamental
and permanent revolution.
cannot see—can have no part in (just
as one is said to "see life," "see death," &c.).
the kingdom of God—whether in its
beginnings here (Lu 16:16),
or its consummation hereafter (Mt 25:34; Eph 5:5).
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.
5. of water and of the Spirit—A twofold
explanation of the "new birth," so startling to Nicodemus. To a Jewish
ecclesiastic, so familiar with the symbolical application of water, in
every variety of way and form of expression, this language was fitted
to show that the thing intended was no other than a thorough
spiritual purification by the operation of the Holy Ghost. Indeed,
element of water and operation of the Spirit are brought
together in a glorious evangelical prediction of Ezekiel (Eze 36:25-27), which Nicodemus might have been
reminded of had such spiritualities not been almost lost in the
reigning formalism. Already had the symbol of water been embodied in an
initiatory ordinance, in the baptism of the Jewish expectants of
Messiah by the Baptist, not to speak of the baptism of Gentile
proselytes before that; and in the Christian Church it was soon to
become the great visible door of entrance into "the kingdom of God,"
the reality being the sole work of the Holy Ghost (Tit 3:5).
6-8. That which is born, &c.—A great
universal proposition; "That which is begotten carries within itself
the nature of that which begat it" [Olshausen].
flesh—Not the mere material body, but
all that comes into the world by birth, the entire man; yet not
humanity simply, but in its corrupted, depraved condition, in
complete subjection to the law of the fall (Ro 8:1-9). So that though a man "could enter a
second time into his mother's womb and be born," he would be no nearer
this "new birth" than before (Job 14:4; Ps 51:5).
is spirit—"partakes of and possesses
His spiritual nature."
7. Marvel not, &c.—If a spiritual
nature only can see and enter the kingdom of God; if all we bring into
the world with us be the reverse of spiritual; and if this spirituality
be solely of the Holy Ghost, no wonder a new birth is
Ye must—"Ye, says Jesus, not
we" [Bengel]. After those
universal propositions, about what "a man" must be, to "enter
the kingdom of God" (Joh 3:5)—this is remarkable, showing that
our Lord meant to hold Himself forth as "separate from
8. The wind, &c.—Breath and
spirit (one word both in Hebrew and Greek) are
constantly brought together in Scripture as analogous (Job
27:3; 33:4; Eze 37:9-14).
canst not tell, &c.—The laws which
govern the motion of the winds are even yet but partially
discovered; but the risings, failings, and change in direction many
times in a day, of those gentle breezes here referred to, will
probably ever be a mystery to us: So of the operation of the Holy Ghost
in the new birth.
9, 10. How, &c.—Though the subject
still confounds Nicodemus, the necessity and possibility of the new
birth is no longer the point with him, but the nature of it and how it
is brought about [Luthardt]. "From this
moment Nicodemus says nothing more, but has sunk unto a disciple
who has found his true teacher. Therefore the Saviour now
graciously advances in His communications of truth, and once more
solemnly brings to the mind of this teacher in Israel, now become a
learner, his own not guiltless ignorance, that He may then
proceed to utter, out of the fulness of His divine knowledge, such
farther testimonies both of earthly and heavenly things as his docile
scholar may to his own profit receive" [Stier].
10. master—"teacher." The question
clearly implies that the doctrine of regeneration is so far
disclosed in the Old Testament that Nicodemus was culpable in being
ignorant of it. Nor is it merely as something that should be
experienced under the Gospel that the Old Testament holds it
forth—as many distinguished critics allege, denying that there
was any such thing as regeneration before Christ. For our Lord's
proposition is universal, that no fallen man is or can be spiritual
without a regenerating operation of the Holy Ghost, and the necessity
of a spiritual obedience under whatever name, in opposition to
mere mechanical services, is proclaimed throughout all the Old
11-13. We speak that we know, and … have
seen—that is, by absolute knowledge and
immediate vision of God, which "the only-begotten Son in the
bosom of the Father" claims as exclusively His own (Joh 1:18). The "we" and "our" are here used,
though Himself only is intended, in emphatic contrast, probably, with
the opening words of Nicodemus, "Rabbi, we know.", &c.
ye receive not, &c.—referring to
the class to which Nicodemus belonged, but from which he was
beginning to be separated in spirit.
12. earthly things—such as
regeneration, the gate of entrance to the kingdom of God on
earth, and which Nicodemus should have understood better, as a
truth even of that more earthly economy to which he
heavenly things—the things of the new
and more heavenly evangelical economy, only to be fully understood
after the effusion of the Spirit from heaven through the exalted
13. no man hath ascended, &c.—There
is something paradoxical in this language—"No one has gone up but
He that came down, even He who is at once both up and down." Doubtless
it was intended to startle and constrain His auditor to think that
there must be mysterious elements in His Person. The old Socinians, to
subvert the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, seized upon this
passage as teaching that the man Jesus was secretly caught up to heaven
to receive His instructions, and then "came down from heaven" to
deliver them. But the sense manifestly is this: "The perfect knowledge
of God is not obtained by any man's going up from earth to heaven to
receive it—no man hath so ascended—but He whose proper
habitation, in His essential and eternal nature, is heaven, hath,
by taking human flesh, descended as the Son of man to disclose the
Father, whom He knows by immediate gaze alike in the flesh as before He
assumed it, being essentially and unchangeably 'in the bosom of the
Father'" (Joh 1:18).
14-16. And as Moses, &c.—Here now we
have the "heavenly things," as before the "earthly," but under a veil,
for the reason mentioned in Joh 3:12. The
crucifixion of Messiah is twice after this veiled under the same lively
term—"uplifting," Joh 8:28; 12:32, 33. Here it is still further
veiled—though to us who know what it means, rendered vastly more
instructive—by reference to the brazen serpent. The venom of the
fiery serpents, shooting through the veins of the rebellious
Israelites, was spreading death through the camp—lively emblem of
the perishing condition of men by reason of sin. In both cases the
remedy was divinely provided. In both the way of cure strikingly
resembled that of the disease. Stung by serpents, by a serpent they are
healed. By "fiery serpents" bitten—serpents, probably, with skin
spotted fiery red [Kurtz]—the
instrument of cure is a serpent of brass or copper, having at a
distance the same appearance. So in redemption, as by man came
death, by Man also comes life—Man, too, "in the likeness of
sinful flesh" (Ro 8:3),
differing in nothing outward and apparent from those who,
pervaded by the poison of the serpent, were ready to perish. But as the
uplifted serpent had none of the venom of which the serpent-bitten
people were dying, so while the whole human family were perishing of
the deadly wound inflicted on it by the old serpent, "the Second Man,"
who arose over humanity with healing in His wings, was without spot or
wrinkle, or any such thing. In both cases the remedy is
conspicuously displayed; in the one case on a pole, in the other
on the cross, to "draw all men unto Him" (Joh 12:32). In both cases it is by directing
the eye to the uplifted Remedy that the cure is effected; in the
one case the bodily eye, in the other the gaze of the soul by
"believing in Him," as in that glorious ancient
proclamation—"Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends
of the earth," &c. (Isa 45:22).
Both methods are stumbling to human reason. What, to any thinking
Israelite, could seem more unlikely than that a deadly poison should be
dried up in his body by simply looking on a reptile of brass? Such a
stumbling-block to the Jews and to the Greeks foolishness was faith in
the crucified Nazarene as a way of deliverance from eternal perdition.
Yet was the warrant in both cases to expect a cure equally rational and
well grounded. As the serpent was God's ordinance for the cure
of every bitten Israelite, so is Christ for the salvation of every
perishing sinner—the one however a purely arbitrary
ordinance, the other divinely adapted to man's complicated
maladies. In both cases the efficacy is the same. As one simple look at
the serpent, however distant and however weak, brought an instantaneous
cure, even so, real faith in the Lord Jesus, however tremulous, however
distant—be it but real faith—brings certain and
instant healing to the perishing soul. In a word, the consequences of
disobedience are the same in both. Doubtless many bitten Israelites,
galling as their case was, would reason rather than obey,
would speculate on the absurdity of expecting the bite of a
living serpent to be cured by looking at a piece of dead metal in the
shape of one—speculate thus till they died. Alas! is not
salvation by a crucified Redeemer subjected to like treatment? Has the
offense of the cross" yet ceased? (Compare 2Ki 5:12).
16. For God so loved, &c.—What
proclamation of the Gospel has been so oft on the lips of missionaries
and preachers in every age since it was first uttered? What has sent
such thrilling sensations through millions of mankind? What has been
honored to bring such multitudes to the feet of Christ? What to kindle
in the cold and selfish breasts of mortals the fires of
self-sacrificing love to mankind, as these words of transparent
simplicity, yet overpowering majesty? The picture embraces several
distinct compartments: "The
World"—in its widest sense—ready "to
perish"; the immense "Love of God"
to that perishing world, measurable only, and conceivable only,
by the gift which it drew forth from Him; THE
Gift itself—"He so loved the world that He
gave His only begotten Son," or, in the language of Paul,
"spared not His own Son" (Ro 8:32), or in that addressed to Abraham when
ready to offer Isaac on the altar, "withheld not His Son, His
only Son, whom He loved" (Ge 22:16);
the Fruit of this stupendous
gift—not only deliverance from impending
"perdition," but the bestowal of everlasting life; the
MODE in which all takes effect—by
"believing" on the Son. How would Nicodemus' narrow Judaism
become invisible in the blaze of this Sun of righteousness seen rising
on "the world" with healing in His wings! (Mal 4:2).
17-21. not to condemn, &c.—A
statement of vast importance. Though "condemnation" is to many the
issue of Christ's mission (Joh 3:19), it is not the object of His
mission, which is purely a saving one.
18. is not condemned—Having, immediately
on his believing, "passed from death unto life" (Joh 5:24).
condemned already—Rejecting the one
way of deliverance from that "condemnation" which God gave His Son to
remove, and so wilfully remaining condemned.
19. this is the condemnation,
&c.—emphatically so, revealing the condemnation
already existing, and sealing up under it those who will not be
delivered from it.
light is come into the world—in the
Person of Him to whom Nicodemus was listening.
loved darkness, &c.—This can only
be known by the deliberate rejection of Christ, but that does
fearfully reveal it.
20. reproved—by detection.
21. doeth truth—whose only object in
life is to be and do what will bear the light. Therefore he loves and
"comes to the light," that all he is and does, being thus thoroughly
tested, may be seen to have nothing in it but what is divinely wrought
and divinely approved. This is the "Israelite, indeed, in whom is no
Joh 3:22-36. Jesus in the
Neighborhood of the Baptist—His
Noble Testimony to His Master.
22-24. land of Judea—the rural parts of
that province, the foregoing conversation being held in the
baptized—in the sense explained in
23. Ænon … Salim—on the west
of Jordan. (Compare Joh 3:26 with Joh 1:28).
24. John not yet cast into prison—Hence
it is plain that our Lord's ministry did not commence with the
imprisonment of John, though, but for this, we should have drawn that
inference from Mt 4:12 and
1:14) express statement.
25, 26. between some of—rather, "on the
and the Jews—rather (according to the
best manuscripts), "and a Jew,"
about purifying—that is, baptizing,
the symbolical meaning of washing with water being put (as in Joh 2:6) for the act itself. As John and
Jesus were the only teachers who baptized Jews, discussions might
easily arise between the Baptist's disciples and such Jews as declined
to submit to that rite.
26. Rabbi, &c.—"Master, this man
tells us that He to whom thou barest such generous witness beyond
Jordan is requiting thy generosity by drawing all the people away to
Himself. At this rate, thou shalt soon have no disciples at all." The
reply to this is one of the noblest and most affecting utterances that
ever came from the lips of man.
27-30. A man, &c.—"I do my
heaven-prescribed work, and that is enough for me. Would you have me
mount into my Master's place? Said I not unto you, I am not the Christ?
The Bride is not mine, why should the people stay with me?? Mine it is
to point the burdened to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of
the world, to tell them there is Balm in Gilead, and a Physician there.
And shall I grudge to see them, in obedience to the call, flying as a
cloud, and as doves to their windows? Whose is the Bride but the
Bridegroom's? Enough for me to be the Bridegroom's friend, sent
by Him to negotiate the match, privileged to bring together the Saviour
and those He is come to seek and to save, and rejoicing with joy
unspeakable if I may but 'stand and hear the Bridegroom's voice,'
witnessing the blessed espousals. Say ye, then, they go from me to Him?
Ye bring me glad tidings of great joy. He must increase, but I must
decrease; this, my joy, therefore is fulfilled."
A man can receive, &c.—assume
nothing, that is, lawfully and with any success; that is, Every man has
his work and sphere appointed him from above, Even Christ Himself came
under this law (Heb 5:4).
31-34. He that, &c.—Here is the
reason why He must increase while all human teachers must decrease. The
Master "cometh from above"—descending from His proper
element, the region of those "heavenly things" which He came to
reveal, and so, although mingling with men and things on the earth, is
not "of the earth," either in Person or Word. The servants, on the
contrary, springing of earth, are of the earth, and their testimony,
even though divine in authority, partakes necessarily of their own
earthiness. (So strongly did the Baptist feel this contrast that the
last clause just repeats the first). It is impossible for a sharper
line of distinction to be drawn between Christ and all human teachers,
even when divinely commissioned and speaking by the power of the Holy
Ghost. And who does not perceive it? The words of prophets and apostles
are undeniable and most precious truth; but in the words of Christ we
hear a voice as from the excellent Glory, the Eternal Word making
Himself heard in our own flesh.
32. what he hath seen and heard—(See on
Joh 3:11 and Joh
and no man receiveth, &c.—John's
disciples had said, "All come to Him" (Joh 3:26). The Baptist here virtually says, Would
it were so, but alas! they are next to "none" [Bengel]. They were far readier to receive himself,
and obliged him to say, I am not the Christ, and he seems pained at
33. hath set to His seal, &c.—gives
glory to God whose words Christ speaks, not as prophets and apostles by
a partial communication of the Spirit to them.
34. for God giveth not the Spirit by
measure—Here, again, the sharpest conceivable line of
distinction is drawn between Christ and all human-inspired teachers:
"They have the Spirit in a limited degree; but God giveth not
[to Him] the Spirit by measure." It means the entire fulness of
divine life and divine power. The present tense "giveth," very
aptly points out the permanent communication of the Spirit by the
Father to the Son, so that a constant flow and reflow of living power
is to be understood (Compare Joh 1:15) [Olshausen].
35, 36. The Father loveth, &c.—See
on Mt 11:27, where we have the "delivering
over of all things into the hands of the Son," while here we have
the deep spring of that august act in the Father's ineffable "love
of the Son."
36. hath everlasting life—already has
it. (See on Joh 3:18 and Joh
shall not see life—The contrast here
is striking: The one has already a life that will endure for
ever—the other not only has it not now, but shall never have
it—never see it.
abideth on him—It was on Him before,
and not being removed in the only possible way, by "believing on
the Son," it necessarily remaineth on him!
Note.—How flatly does this contradict the teaching of many
in our day, that there neither was, nor is, anything in God
against sinners which needed to be removed by Christ, but only in
men against God!