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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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John 3

The proper understanding of this chapter begins with the final verses of John 2, where it was revealed that a great number of people "believed on" the Lord Jesus Christ, but whose discipleship was rejected by the Lord because they had "faith only." Commentators who have vainly tried to find something wrong with the faith of those people are frustrated by the fact that "believed on" in John 2:23 means exactly what it means everywhere else in the New Testament. See under John 12:42,43. The failure of those "believers on his name" to be accepted by Jesus was due to the fact that in all the history of redemption nobody was ever accepted upon the basis of faith alone. One of the things, in this dispensation of mercy, that one must have in addition to faith is the experience of the new birth. That was precisely the lack of those believers at the end of John 2; and, appropriately, John next recorded the Saviour's instruction regarding the new birth. This interview with Nicodemus with its teaching on the new birth (John 3:1-21) and the final witness of John the Baptist (John 3:22-36) form the subject matter of this whole chapter.

Verses 1, 2
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jew's; the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him.

Nicodemus ...
means innocent blood, or victor over the people, F1 depending upon whether the name is Greek or Hebrew. He was a wealthy Pharisee, member of the Sanhedrin, teacher of theology, and known as a "ruler of the Jews," a title reserved in Rabbinic literature "for a great man, or a prince." F2 For an article on the Pharisees, see my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 3:7.

The connection here with events of the preceding chapter is dramatic, Nicodemus clearly being one of those "believers" who did not obey the Lord. The omniscience of Jesus is evident in his answering the question of Nicodemus without his utterance of the question. Nicodemus is mentioned three times in this Gospel: (1) He came to Christ (John 3:2); (2) He spoke for Christ (John 7:45-52); and (3) He honored Christ (John 19:39,40); and in each instance the circumstance of his coming to Jesus by night is mentioned.

The same came unto him by night ...
Some have supposed that the night interview resulted from Nicodemus' fear of his peers in the Sanhedrin, but the idea of secrecy must be imported into the text. It is just as reasonable to suppose that the night afforded the best opportunity. In the absence of certain knowledge, one conjecture is as good as another. Although Nicodemus spoke up on behalf of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:45-52), it is not recorded that he did so when that body condemned Jesus to death, hence, the inference that he was not present at that trial. After Jesus' death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea prepared the body for burial (John 19:39,40). One can hope that, after the resurrection, this sincere, fair-minded man became a loyal disciple.

Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God ...
The words "we know" indicate the profound effect which the mighty signs of Jesus had produced in the very center of Judaism. These words admit that the whole Sanhedrin knew of the heavenly origin of Jesus and of the validity of his astounding miracles. Only one of the great signs John selected for this Gospel had been recorded at this point; but Nicodemus' words, along with John 2:23, show that many signs had been wrought.

For no one can do these signs ...
See above paragraph. How amazing it is that with such evidence before them, so few, probably only this man and Joseph of Arimathea, were touched in their hearts sufficiently to lead them to Jesus.

Verse 3
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Born anew ...
is better translated "born again," as in the KJV, PH, IV, New English Bible (1961), etc. The marginal reading "from above" is preferred by some, but such a rendition is too vague, omitting the element of meaning which appears in the word "again." The new birth is another, a second birth; and, although in a sense the second birth is from above, so also in another sense is the first birth, or natural birth. Thus, "born again" is more explicit and correct.

The doctrine of the new birth will be discussed under John 3:5, where Jesus more fully described it. Here the emphasis is upon the absolute necessity of it. It is not merely true that one cannot enter God's kingdom without the new birth; he cannot even see it! The requirement here stated by Jesus was actually a demand that Nicodemus forsake all reliance upon the law of Moses, and upon the elaborate ritual and traditionalism of the Pharisees, and enter upon a totally new way of life. It was a shocking requirement; and the evidence is that Nicodemus, at that point in time, was not able to accept it.

Concerning the abrupt manner of Jesus' speaking to Nicodemus, Hovey said:

The answer seems abrupt, but it is unnecessary to suppose the omission of any connecting thought. For Jesus, being recognized as a teacher from God, and reading for himself at a glance the character of Nicodemus, as well as the question in his heart, viz.: "What must a man do in order to enter Messiah's kingdom?" (Meyer) ... declares at once that a new birth a new life, is indispensable to any real knowledge of the kingdom of God. "No one," he says, "whether Jew or Gentile, can grow up and glide over from nature to grace; every one must begin his life altogether anew, in order to share in my kingdom," F3

The kingdom of God ...
It is a mistake to minimize the teaching of this Gospel regarding the kingdom of God. True, John was more concerned with the credentials of the King, the burden of the Gospel being to prove the deity and Godhead of Jesus Christ; but the kingdom was never far from his thoughts. In this great passage, the terms of entering the kingdom are emphatically stated; and before Pontius Pilate Jesus made pointed reference to "my kingdom" (John 18:36,37). Jesus' great purpose of establishing his kingdom is there stated to have been his total reason for coming into the world; and John, with the synoptics, recorded the inscription with the significant words "The King of the Jews" (John 19:19).

Verse 4
Nicodemus saith unto 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?

Nicodemus the teacher of Israel appeared here in a very obtuse and unspiritual frame of mind, in that he ridiculed the Lord's requirement of a new birth. Even ordinary spiritual perceptiveness would have saved him from such a reply as this, which was merely another way of saying, "What you ask is an impossibility!" However, it was not so much the impossibility of a new birth that Nicodemus rejected, as it was the idea that such a thing was necessary. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of a class that had rejected out of hand the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins preached by John the Baptist (Luke 7:30). It should be remembered that John's baptism was from God, and that all who rejected it rejected God. This fact underlies the truth that the publicans and harlots entered God's kingdom before the Pharisees. They accepted John's baptism; the Pharisees did not. Christ and his apostles accepted the baptism of John and submitted to it; and that baptism was intended as preparatory for the kingdom of heaven; and, therefore, it is impossible to suppose that Nicodemus should have been excused for not knowing what Jesus meant by being "born of water," mentioned in the next breath: the excuse for Nicodemus being founded upon the sophistry that the baptism of the great commission was not announced by Jesus until long after this interview; but there was another water baptism much nearer at hand, of which Nicodemus did know, and which he had rejected along with others of his class. Again from Hovey:

The metaphor of the new birth appears to have been used by the Rabbis to describe the religious change in a Gentile who became a proselyte to Judaism; and the import of baptism as administered by John implied the same view of repentance, namely, that it was a burial of the old life, and entrance upon a new life. F4

Verse 5
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Paraphrased, this statement means that unless one obeys the gospel of Jesus Christ by believing in him, repenting of sin, confessing his name, and being baptized into Jesus Christ (no genuine baptism is possible without the three antecedents mentioned here), and as a consequence of such obedience, receives the Holy Spirit, he can never enter God's kingdom, i.e., he cannot be saved.

At the time Jesus revealed this teaching to Nicodemus, the great commission had not been given; and the immediate application of the teaching to Nicodemus regarded John's baptism which was mandatory for all the followers of Jesus prior to the resurrection; but the glowing words of this passage anticipated the Great Commission and the baptism therein commanded, thus making the passage equally applicable to all of subsequent ages who would enter God's kingdom. See under John 7:39.

The persistent and ingenious efforts of people to shout baptism out of this passage are in vain, for there is no way it can be made to disappear. "Born of water" refers to baptism; and there is absolutely nothing else connected with Christianity to which it could refer. For centuries after this Gospel was received, "born of water" was never otherwise construed than as a reference to baptism; and, as noted above, in its application to Nicodemus, it pointed to the Pharisaical refusal to submit to the baptism of John; but, by extension, it is even more emphatic in its application to that baptism which is greater than John's, namely, that of the Great Commission.

In the study of this passage, it should be remembered that it is only quite recently in Christian times that interpretations of this verse have been devised to exclude its obvious reference to Christian baptism. John Boys, Dean of Canterbury, renowned preacher and scholar of the Church of England in the 17th century, wrote as follows:

Some few modern divines (Note: Although few THEN, they are many NOW - James Burton Coffman) have conceded that these words are not to be construed of external baptism; because, say they, "Christ taketh water here by a borrowed speech for the Spirit of God, the effect whereof it shadoweth out; and so water and the Spirit are all one!" To this interpretation answer is made: first, that it is an old rule in expounding of Holy Scripture, that where a literal sense will stand, the farthest from the letter is commonly the worst ... (Note: Boys wrote at great length concerning the efforts of men toward "changing the meaning of words," calling such conduct "licentious and deluding," and denouncing it as "perverting the text.")
Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Cyril, Beda, Theophylact, Euthymius, in the commentaries on this place (John 3:5), along with Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Ambrose, Hierome, Basil, Gregory, Nyssen, and many more, yea most of the Fathers - Hooker, a man of incomparable reading, openeth his mouth wider, avowing peremptorily that ALL THE ANCIENTS (capitals mine, JBC) have construed this text, as our church doth, of outward baptism. F5

It cannot be denied, therefore, that all interpretations that would edit any reference to baptism out of this text are too late by centuries, to have any weight at all with people who wish to know what the word of the Lord teaches. The warping and distortion of the views of expositors since the Lutheran reformation, who have sought to conform this text to Luther's erroneous theory of justification, were denounced by no less a giant of Biblical exegesis than Alford, who wrote:

There can be no doubt, on any honest interpretation of the words, that [Greek: gennethenai ek hudatos] (born of water) refers to the token or outward sign of baptism, [gennethenai ek pneumatos] (born of the Spirit) to the thing signified, or the 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. F6

It is regrettable that Afford injected the jargon of "outward sign" and "inward grace" into his comment; because the relative meaning of these two things, "born of water" and "born of the Spirit" is not under discussion in this passage. It makes no difference what either one of these things is in its relationship to the other, both are absolutely necessary to salvation, that being the unqualified affirmation of this text. Thus, in order to be saved, one must be baptized (born of water) and receive the Holy Spirit (born of the Spirit). Christ joined these entities in this passage; and what God hath joined, let no man put asunder! The opinions of great scholars might be multiplied in support of this interpretation of the text; and, for those who might be influenced by such opinions, reference is made to the Handbook on Baptism, F7 in which fifty of the most notable scholars of the last 200 years are quoted. Only one other will be cited here, namely, Phillip Schaff (1819-1893), Professor of Church History, Union Theological Seminary, New York, President of the American Company of the New Testament Revisers, and one of the greatest Christian scholars of all time. He said:

In view of the facts that John baptized, that Christ himself was baptized, that his disciples baptized in his name (John 4:2), it seems impossible to disconnect water in John 3:5, from baptism. Calvin's interpretation arose from doctrinal opposition to the Roman Catholic over-valuation of the sacrament, which must be guarded against in another way. F8

Most of the bitterest denunciations against what Jesus taught here are actually directed against a straw man called "baptismal regeneration," in which it is continually affirmed that water cannot save anyone; but, of course, no one supposes that it can. No efficacy was ever attributed to the water, even by the staunchest defenders of what Jesus here clearly made a precondition of salvation. Fulminations against baptismal regeneration might have been relevant in Calvin's day, when that scholar attacked the Medieval superstition that a few drops of water sprinkled religiously upon a dead infant could save a soul; but those arguments by Calvin are not relevant arguments against Christ's promise that "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). And that promise is as good a commentary on John 3:5 as any other (yes, better than any other) that might be brought forward to explain this disputed passage. The importance of the questions raised around the sacred words of Jesus in this place requires that further attention be directed to their study. See "Regarding the New Birth" below.


The new birth "of water and of the Spirit" is one birth, not two, despite there being two elements in it. One of these elements "born of water," is water baptism, that being the element of the new birth for which man himself is responsible for the doing of it. Thus, Saul of Tarsus was commanded, "Get thyself baptized" (Acts 22:16). F9 The other element of the new birth, "born of the Spirit," is the reception of the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13,14). Contrasting with what is done by man, this endowing with the Holy Spirit is what is done by God. The great heresy regarding this one birth is the doctrine that people may omit their part, not being baptized, but that God will go ahead, despite that, and endow the believer with the Holy Spirit anyway! John 3:5 teaches that both elements are absolutely necessary in the new birth.

Born of water
is a reference to the ceremony of baptism; but there is no magic in water, nor does the ceremony itself contribute anything to sanctification, as often alleged. Millions of faithful Christians can testify that submission to the commandment of baptism did not automatically give them a new nature, the new nature coming through a growth process in consequence of the endowment of the Spirit. Care should be taken to distinguish between "baptism" as a reference to the immersion ceremony, and "baptism" meaning the new birth of which the ceremony is an element. Jesus himself used the word in this latter sense in Mark 16:16.

But if the actual ceremony does not change the nature of the convert, what does it do?

  1. It is the last of the preconditions of salvation to be fulfilled by the sinner, the others being: believing, repenting, and confessing Christ; and upon compliance with all of them by the sinner, God forgives all previous sin of the sinner and confers upon him a state of absolute innocence. The fulfilling of the preconditions by the sinner does not merit or earn God's forgiveness, nor provide any class of works that could place God under any obligation other than his own gracious and merciful promise. However, such is the importance of this ceremonial element in the new birth, that it may be dogmatically affirmed that in the history of Christianity there has never been an exception to the proposition that every true believer who repented and was baptized was then and there forgiven of all past sin and endowed with a status of absolute innocence in God's sight. This is accomplished not by the ceremony but by God WHEN the ceremony is obeyed, and not otherwise. This is clear from "Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling upon the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16).

  2. In the second instance, there is achieved in the penitent a clear conscience upon the event of his submission to the ceremony, as affirmed by the apostle Peter (1 Peter 3:1). See my Commentary on Hebrews, Heb. 9:13,14. There is no way that any man on earth can have a clear conscience without submitting to baptism. That is why even the churches that deny the necessity of baptism have not dispensed with it altogether. Their consciences will not allow it, despite the fact that their doctrine, if heeded, would demand it. The universal rejoicing that attends submission to the ordinance was in New Testament times (Acts 8:39; 16:34, etc.), as now, the certain evidence of a clear conscience.

  3. The ceremony of immersion called baptism is the God-ordained rite of initiation into Jesus Christ; and that status of being the appointed device by which God inducts the penitent into corporate union with the Son of God, that is, into his kingdom, church, or spiritual body - that status uniquely belongs to the baptismal ceremony. As Vine noted, "Baptizing into the Name (Matthew 28:19) would indicate that the baptized person was closely bound to, or became the property of, the one into whose Name he was baptized." F10 Three times the New Testament declares that people are baptized "into Christ," or into his "body" (Galatians 3:26,27; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Corinthians 12:13). See article, "Jesus Christ Incorporated," my Commentary on Romans, p. 123. It is encouraging to note that present-day scholarship is taking a further look at the importance of the baptismal ceremony. Thus, Beasley-Murray recently assented to the key thesis maintained here, namely, that "Baptism is the occasion when the Spirit brings to new life him that believes in the Son of Man!" F11 This is true; and if, through failure to obey the Lord in baptism the OCCASION never comes, then neither will the new life.

  4. Thus it is clear that the baptismal ceremony is retrospective as regards the past sins of the believer, being the pivot in which he is forever separated from them all and endowed with a new status of innocence. Earned? A million times, No! The new status is a gracious gift of God to the unworthy sinner who penitently took God at his word and obeyed the gospel, the baptized believer being added, not by men, but by God, to the kingdom or church of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:47).

  5. But that is not all. The new baptized convert, having a clear conscience, and being forgiven of all past sins, and having been added to the spiritual body of Christ, RECEIVES THE HOLY SPIRIT, not to make him a member of Christ (his baptism did that), but because he is a member (Galatians 4:6). This is the second element in the new birth. But, is not this latter thing all that matters? In a sense, perhaps, it is; but this all-important thing is connected with the ceremonial element (baptism) and made a contingent of it, a consequence FOLLOWING Christian baptism. That is why both are required, both are essential and that they are not separate births but one new birth. The apostles honored this requirement of both elements before there can be a new birth. On Pentecost, Peter said:

    Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

    Thus, in that passage, the baptism of penitent believers is made to be a prior condition of receiving the remission of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and in this also appears why the Holy Spirit is called the "Holy Spirit of promise" (Ephesians 1:13).

It will be noted from the discussion above that most of what is said relates to induction into Christ's kingdom, the receiving of forgiveness of past sins, the receiving of a clear conscience, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit - all of these things upon the occasion of baptism and contingent upon obedience to that ceremony - and all of which achievements are accomplished by God and not by the ceremony. What does the ceremony do? It demonstrates and proves that the faith of the believer is of a sufficient degree to save him; it is the sinner's acceptance of Jesus' promise of Mark 16:16; it is therefore his "accepting Christ" by accepting his promise. Those who speak of accepting Christ as if it were some kind of a subjective response are absolutely wrong. Baptism is a renunciation of self in permitting the whole person to be buried under water as a pledge that self shall no longer rule in the life of the convert; it is the successful passing of God's ordained test of faith to determine if faith is sufficient to save; and, as such, it corresponds exactly with Abraham's offering of Isaac upon the altar, whereupon God said, "For now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son" (Genesis 22:12). In that God said, "Now I know," it is equivalent to saying that until that time he did not know (such language is accommodative and anthropomorphic, of course). God did not justify Abraham until he offered Isaac (James 2:21); and, if God did not justify Abraham until he had passed such a test as offering Isaac, how could it ever be imagined that God will justify just any stinking sinner who believes, and purely upon the sinner's assertion of it? Never! Baptism, the water ceremony itself, is the terminator that separates between the saved and the lost; and as long as the faith of any person is insufficient to prompt his obedience to God's universal commandment of baptism, there is no way that such a faith could save. That is why Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16), and, in regard to the quibble which says, "Well, Jesus did not say, `He that is not baptized shall be condemned,'" the answer that thunders from the New Testament is that the meaning is exactly the same as if he had said that!

Now, whereas the operation of the ceremony of baptism itself is retrospective regarding past sins, the second element of the new birth, the reception of the Holy Spirit, is prospective and looks to the perfection of the believer in Christ. It is this progressive work of the Holy Spirit that leads to a greater and greater degree of sanctification in the heart of the saved. For more on sanctification see my Commentary on Romans, Rom. 6:22.

When a person is truly baptized (and only believing, penitent, confessing persons can be TRULY baptized), as Christ commanded, God sends the Holy Spirit into his heart (the second element of the new birth); and, when viewed in connection with this divine fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, baptism is the new birth; but it is not a birth of water only, but a birth of "water and of the Spirit" as Jesus said. On the other hand, when baptism is thought of as the water ceremony only, it is only part of the new birth, nevertheless a vital and necessary part of it. It is proper to use baptism as a synechdoche for the new birth in its entirety; and thus Jesus himself used it in Mark 16:16.

Verse 6
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Just as there are two elements in the new birth, there are two elements in man that require it. The flesh is born of the water (baptized), and the spirit is born of the Spirit (receives the Holy Spirit); but these are not two births, only one new birth.

Born ...
The etymology of this word bears witness to the nature of the ceremony of baptism, coming from an old Anglo-Saxon word, "to be drawn forth from."

The previous verse revealed the two elements of the new birth, this the requirement that both flesh and spirit participate in it. Thus, what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus was: "Do what my disciples have done; first submit to John's baptism, and then come join my company." F12 If he had done so, the second element of the new birth, the reception of the Spirit would have been completed after Pentecost. The fact that at that particular time, Nicodemus could not have received the Holy Spirit, since he was not given yet, proves that the new birth as experienced in the new dispensation was in view here. See under John 7:39.

Verses 7, 8
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

These verses record Jesus' help of Nicodemus to believe and understand the invisible power of the new birth. To be sure, a baptismal ceremony can be seen; but the forgiveness, clean conscience, and receiving the Spirit cannot be seen. Like the powerful wind, though invisible, its power is nevertheless profound. As Barnes said:

Jesus tells him that he should not reject a doctrine merely because he could not understand it. Neither could the wind be seen, but its effects were well known, and no one doubted the existence or power of the agent. F13

Nicodemus, schooled in all the Mosaic ritual, found the concept of a new birth difficult to accept; but he is not the only one who ever had trouble with these words of Jesus. Note this:

If the rite of baptism provided the moment and occasion of the spiritual result, we should know whence it came and whither it went. We might not know how, but we should know WHEN and WHENCE the spiritual change took place. But this knowledge is distinctly negatived by Christ who herein declares the moment of the spiritual birth to be lost or hidden to God. F14

This interpretation (!) is typical of the gimmickry employed in vain efforts to talk the rite of baptism out of this passage and out of the whole New Testament. Note the play upon the words "whence" and "when," as if the similarity of these words interchanged their meaning. Can anyone believe that Jesus was here telling Nicodemus that he could not tell "when" the wind was blowing? But the words rhyme! So what? "P" stands for pool; and "P" rhymes with "T" and "T" stands for trouble, right here in River City! People do know WHEN the wind is blowing; and Christ also revealed the WHEN of the new birth; it is WHEN we are baptized into Christ. As Paul said, "Being THEN made free from sin" (Romans 6:17,18; 6:17,18 ), that is, WHEN we have been baptized. Paul was discussing Christian baptism in that passage, and he did not hesitate to make the Christian's baptism the exact moment, the THEN of his being made free from sin and becoming a servant of righteousness. See my Commentary on Romans, p. 226.

Verse 9
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?

The natural man finds it very difficult to receive spiritual things, due to his inherent preoccupation with the mechanics of them, the "how" of everything. Nicodemus' question is therefore one of remarkable interest to all.


How persistently man probes every mystery! Wherever there are dark and knotty problems, or things hard to be understood, there man stands, the great inquisitor, demanding to know, "How can these things be?" In a sense, this attitude is the glow of the human race, resulting in countless discoveries and inventions; and yet, there are certain areas that God seems to have reserved for himself, for even in Paradise there was a tree forbidden to man. In a little different sense, there remain certain questions of the deep things of God, which, by their very nature, are unanswerable. This is such a question, nor does it stand alone. However, the question of "how" God does this or that is not necessary to the enjoyment of God's gifts. As Jesus said:

So is the kingdom of heaven, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and he should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he knoweth not how ... but when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle (Mark 4:26-29).

From this word of Jesus, it is plain that people should be more concerned with obeying God's laws than in searching out the "why" and the "how." Nicodemus apparently permitted his puzzlement over the "how" of the new birth to prevent his ready acceptance of Christ's word. Of course, such questions have their place, but obedience should not wait upon the resolution of all problems.

Some of the questions which are similar to the one that Nicodemus raised here are: (1) How did God create the heavens and the earth? People strive in vain to answer this; but they cannot agree. It is enough for the child of faith to believe that "God spake, and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast" (Psalms 33:9). (2) How does God answer prayer? Does He answer by performing a miracle? How can prayer do any good when God already knows everything? We must confess a little sadly that we do not know; but we believe that "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). (3) How are the dead raised up? (1 Corinthians 15:35). This is another "how" that torments the intellect endlessly; but the believer holds that it is no more difficult for God to give one another life than it was for Him to have given him the first life. The soul's deepest instinct demands belief in a resurrection; but "how" it will come to pass is a problem beyond the perimeter of man's ability to solve problems. And yet there is an instinct supporting the divine revelation that a resurrection will indeed occur.

Illustration: The great chemist Farraday received an engraved cup of pure silver with his name and inscription on it; but one day a workman knocked it into a jar of nitric acid where it was quickly consumed. The workman was frantic with concern, but the great Farraday only smiled. He added other chemicals to the jar, precipitated the silver from the solution, returned it to the original craftsman; and within six weeks, the same cup was sitting in its accustomed place, perfect as before, inscription and all! If man with his little learning can do a thing like that, how easily may God recall our human spirits and reclothe them with the robes of flesh; nor should we dare to disbelieve it, merely because God has not permitted us to photograph him in the process.

How can a man be born again when he is old ... ?
Part of the answer to that question, namely the reception of the Holy Spirit, was not even available to the apostles at the time Nicodemus made this inquiry; and his mistake of waiting until he had all the answers was tragic. His greater concern should have been the acceptance of what he knew, namely, that he should have accepted the baptism of John. If he had submitted to that, as did Christ and the apostles, he would have experienced more, in time, and would have been truly "born again."

Verse 10
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou the teacher of Israel and understandest not these things?

By this answer, Christ did not deny some element of mystery regarding the questions Nicodemus had raised, but was exclaiming at his failure to understand the basic things Christ had commanded him to do. The Lord's words to this ruler of the Jews were the blunt equivalent of "Look, you Pharisees stop rejecting John's baptism; obey God by submitting to it; but that is only part of it; you must allow the Spirit of God to dwell in your heart, and that can come about only by your following me" (Luke 7:30).

Greater importance attaches to John's baptism than is usually supposed. Jesus submitted to that baptism, as did (presumably) all the apostles, for it is inconceivable that the disciples of Jesus would have refused a baptism to which Jesus himself submitted. Also, those disciples baptized others during John's ministry; and they could not have done this without themselves accepting it and obeying it. Though called the baptism of John, it was actually God's baptism administered by John. Also, for a season, it was also administered by Jesus through his apostles. It was mandatory for all Israel, even for the priests and Pharisees; and it was the only baptism in force until Pentecost. With Pentecost and the preaching of the Great Commission, John's baptism was supplanted by that of the commission; but it was valid until then. The function of John's baptism was exactly like that of the great commission in the particulars of its being by immersion and its being the separator between the true Israel of God and the hardened secular Israel with which the true Israel was commingled until Pentecost.

The Pharisees, including Nicodemus, had utterly rejected God's baptism administered by John, even though Jesus himself submitted to it; and that was the key to their ultimate rejection of Christ. The ignorance of the Pharisaical party regarding the sacred ordinance of baptism was the immediate beginning of the end of the whole Jewish nation as the covenant people. That stubborn blind ignorance, as it appeared so stark and adamant in Nicodemus, called forth the exclamation of Jesus in this verse. No wonder Israel was in trouble spiritually when even her noblest teachers rejected the idea of being born of water and of the Spirit. In such rejection, it was clear that the major part of Israel would continue to trust in Abrahamic descent, despite the warnings of both Jesus and John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8-10; John 8:39).

How strange is it that the same pattern of evil is endlessly repeated? Just as the Pharisees of Jesus' day stumbled at being "born of water," that is, at being baptized, just so, many today stumble at the very same thing; and it is no less a marvel now than it was then.

Verse 11
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.

In this verse, Jesus changed to the plural "we," a change that may be viewed (1) as inclusive of the disciples there gathered with him and also sharing in the witness of the power of the new birth, or (2) as an employment of the editorial "we" instead of the first person singular. If the former is correct, it would have the force of saying, "Nicodemus, I am not merely speaking the truth to you, but the demonstration of it is also before your eyes in the person of my disciples; and yet you do not receive the truth."

Verse 12
I told ye earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?

The earthly things Jesus told Nicodemus regarded the new birth, an experience received by ordinary men during their earthly sojourn. Mysterious as it is, the new birth is a common everyday fact, "earthly" in the sense of men being in actual contact with the phenomenon and aware of it constantly. Thousands of Israel had already responded; but the Pharisees never made it.

Heavenly things ...
is a reference to such things as the incarnation, the death of Christ for the sins of the world, the existence of the spirit world above our own, the final judgment, heaven, hell, and all of those great spiritual realities lying utterly beyond earthly vision. It was of some of such heavenly things that Jesus proceeded to speak to Nicodemus.

Verse 13
And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man who is in heaven.

Here Jesus claimed his unique office as God's messenger who descended to man out of heaven, and yet, in a sense, who was still in heaven. This verse, admittedly difficult, has led to the view that heaven is a state rather than a place, and that Jesus could say the Son of man was in heaven even while he was on earth. Another view supported by this is that during the personal ministry of Christ he continued in the full possession of his heavenly attributes. Still another concept that finds support is the doctrine of the ubiquitousness of Jesus. Dogmatism is out of order here, due to the textual questions regarding this verse. Westcott wrote that these words were "omitted by many very ancient authorities, and appear to be an early gloss bringing out the right contrast between the ascent of a man to heaven and the abiding of the Son of man in heaven." F15 In the International Version, this place reads: "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of man."

Verses 14, 15
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.

The connection between John 3:14-15 and John 3:13 is in the title "Son of man." John 3:13 gave Jesus' identity as God incarnate, and these cite the necessity for his Passion, i.e., his being lifted up on the cross, and through that, lifted up on High.

Moses lifted up the serpent ...
refers to the last of Moses' miracles, which took place on the borders of Canaan (Numbers 21:7ff). Fiery serpents had been sent among the people producing suffering and death; Moses fashioned a serpent of brass and lifted it up on a pole in the center of the camp, and all who looked upon it were healed.

Those who would make that brass snake a type of Jesus Christ go much too far. As Clarke noted:

It does not appear that the brazen serpent was ever intended as a type of Christ. It is possible to draw likenesses out of anything; but, in such matters as these, we should take heed that we go no farther than we can say, "Thus it is written." F16

The usual analogies drawn from the brass snake are these: (1) in each case, those who were benefited could not have been aided any other way; (2) the lifting up in each case was before all Israel, the serpent in the camp, Jesus on the cross; (3) the design in each case was to save life, the serpent physical, the Lord eternal life; (4) the manner of the cure is similar, the Israelites having merely to look on the serpent in order to be cured, and Christians, of course, having to do nothing except believe in order to be saved! Such analogies are not merely untrustworthy; they are fallacious and contradictory to the Sacred Scriptures. There are far more dissimilarities than there are similarities, thus: (1) the brass serpent was of different material from the deadly snakes that were tormenting Israel; but Jesus was made in all points like unto his brethren (Hebrews 2:17); (2) Israel was forbidden to worship the brass snake; but all people are commanded to worship Christ; (3) the brass snake eventually became an idol and was defiled and burned up (2 Kings 18:1,4); (the manner of appropriating the blessing is exceedingly diverse in each case, there having been no moral or spiritual conditions whatever in the healing of snake bites, not even faith). Now, when the Pharisees looked upon Jesus on the cross, were they saved? No! Far more than looking is required for salvation in Christ, as revealed in the next verse. And, as for those who would take this verse as the basis for promising salvation to all who "look upon" Jesus, and then interpret that to mean "faith only," it should be pointed out that Jesus had just revealed to Nicodemus that absolutely nothing short of being born again, born of water and of the Spirit, could suffice for entry into God's kingdom.

Whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life ...
The particular construction of these words reveals that eternal life is promised not to "whosoever believeth," but to all believers who are "in him," that is, in Christ. The misconception sometimes substituted for the promise here is that "all believers SHALL be saved, whether or not they are ever baptized into Christ." The key word in this clause is "may." meaning the right or privilege of entering Christ and thus receiving eternal life in him. To be sure, "may" and "shall" are poles apart in meaning. To read that believers "shall be saved" is to read what is nowhere taught in the Bible; but to read that believers "may be saved" is to read the truth of God. The corruption of this text and that of John 3:16 by rendering "shall" instead of "may" or "should" must be rejected. Both here and in John 3:16, the true rendition is "may" or "should" and not in a thousand years "SHALL have eternal life." See Westcott F17 and all of the legitimate versions. When translators take the liberty of rendering "shall have eternal life," as, for example, in the International Version and others, they are not translating God's word at all but perverting it. Let the student of the word of God beware of the hand of Satan in such translations.

Verse 16
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have eternal life.

We reject the notion of that school of exegetes who make a break at this place, removing this from the interview with Nicodemus and attributing these words, not to Christ, but to John the apostle.

This whole chapter may be read in less than five minutes; and thus there is nothing unusual or atypical in the Master's brief exhortation of Nicodemus concerning those "heavenly things" mentioned in John 3:12. To make of these short remarks some big sermon and to allege on that basis that the interview must have been terminated already is to overlook the near certainty that this interview was longer than a mere five minutes. Moreover, after Nicodemus rejected what Jesus said, exclaiming, "How can these things be?" it was altogether natural for Jesus to have continued for a few moments without any further interruption from Nicodemus. This and the following reasons for rejection of the idea of a break at this point are weighty enough for doing so.

  1. It is fully in keeping with many of Jesus' actions that the world-shaking concept of the new birth should first have been mentioned to this proud and bigoted Pharisee. Did Jesus not also propound the greatest sermon on worship to a woman at the well?

  2. It is more logical to believe that the epic teachings of this passage came first from the lips of Jesus, rather than from John. This verse is the heart of Christianity; and to identify it as coming from the reflections of a Spirit-guided John so long afterward is simply unreasonable. Scholars favoring such a view are unconsciously advocating an evolutionary hypothesis of Christianity, rather than the view that Christ brought it all at one time. They forget that the function of the Spirit in the apostles was to help them remember what Jesus said (John 14:26).

  3. The technical reasons alleged against this position are weak. For example, some words in the paragraph beginning here do not appear elsewhere in words attributed to Jesus but do appear in other writings of John, "only begotten" being a conspicuous example. As Reynolds noted:

    The reply is that John used this great word because he had heard it on the lips of Jesus. He would not have dared use it otherwise; and he used it because he had heard our Lord thus express himself. F18

    Furthermore, the connective, "for," at the beginning of the paragraph shows that there is no break. See below.

For God so loved the world ...
"For" indicates that we do not have here a new section, but the continuation of the interview with Nicodemus.

So loved the world ...
is the burden of the entire corpus of divine revelation. Fittingly, this announcement of God's universal love was made to a representative of the narrowest and strictest sect in ancient Judaism, who taught that God's love was the special province of Israel, who were at that very time hoping for their long-awaited Messiah, who would, according to their views, restore the kingdom of Israel and judge the whole Gentile world with an overwhelming destruction. Jesus' refusal to conform to such an idea of the Messiah was a very conspicuous element in their rejection of him. Here, Christ hurled into the very teeth of the Sanhedrin the mind-blowing concept that God loved everyone on earth, the whole creation! It is no wonder that John never forgot such a confrontation as this; and no wonder that some of the words in this interview became a part of his permanent vocabulary, appearing even in the writings of his old age, as in "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).

God's love for mankind is pure, spontaneous, and constant. Jesus did not die on the cross to compel God to love people, but because he already loved them, the cross being a result of God's love, not the cause of it. God's holy love is not inconsistent with His wrath, for God's love extends to man himself, but not to the sins that man is guilty of. The doom of the wicked appears by implication in this very statement of his love.

That he gave his only begotten Son ...
Although the initiative of the Father appears here in the word "gave," Christ also gave himself for man. Seven centers of initiative are discernible in the drama of the cross, and the student is referred to my Commentary on Romans, pp. 117f, for a review of them. It is the Father's initiative on view here, and it is significant that in the Christian religion alone it is God who provides the offering for sin. In this sublime fact, Christianity rises above any comparison with ethnic and natural religions, in which, in all of them, it is man himself who pays and pays. It is always a man, like Prometheus, who is chained to the rock; but in the holy religion of Christ, it is God who provides the offering for man's sin.

The thought in focus here is the sacrifice of Christ. Such is the nature of sin and rebellion against God, that only God could extricate fallen humanity from the morass into which they had fallen; and God could do it only at awful cost in the giving of Jesus as an offering. Note the significant shift of titles. John 3:14 spoke of the Son of man; here Jesus spoke of the Son of God. No MAN could have died for all men; only God in the form of man could have done it. The highest angel in heaven would not have sufficed to provide such an offering as Jesus.

O listen to our wondrous story: Counted once among the lost, Jesus came from heaven's glory, Saving us at awful cost.
No angel could his place have taken, Highest of the high though he; The loved one on the cross forsaken Was one of the Godhead three! F19

This was the mystery hidden before times eternal, that God would enter the lists of humanity as a man, paying the penalty of human transgression himself in the person of his Son and discharging the debt due to the fall in Eden. It was primarily for the purpose of delivering the flesh of the Messiah to humanity that the device of a chosen people had been provided by God in the days of Abraham; and, despite the will of the chosen people to reject him, Christ here unfolded the full mystery to one of the noblest and best men in the very council of the Sanhedrin itself.

That whosoever believeth on him ...
Faith is the great principle of Christianity, motivating every act of obedience, securing the believer in times of bewilderment or temptation, sustaining the disciple through tribulations and distress, and enlightening the soul during every darkness. Faith is the first of the preconditions of redemption in Christ Jesus, and it is also the last, there never being a single moment of the Christian pilgrimage when faith is not required. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). "On him ..." is alleged to be one of the words that is Johannine rather than from Christ, but such a conceit is rejected. Glorious as faith assuredly is, it is faith "in Christ" that saves, not faith "in faith."

Should not perish ...
The so-called translations that read this place "shall not perish" are incorrect. See under John 3:15. "Perish ..." is a reference to the overthrow of the wicked in hell, and is a hint of the judgment when God will settle accounts with evil. Tender as the love of God is, it does not extend far enough to include any divine acceptance of man's rebellion against the Creator.

But have everlasting life ...
Such an unspeakable reward contrasts with God's wrath (John 3:36), destruction (Matthew 7:13,14), eternal fire (Matthew 18:9), and with judgment or death (John 5:24). Everlasting life is antithetical to such things, being eternal both in its excellence and in its duration.

The careful student should not overlook the fact that this passage (John 3:15) reveals that the eternal life which is available to men is located "in Christ." This means that eternal life is available only for those who become identified with Christ in the absolute sense, being so united with him that they are in fact "Christ," as Paul declared (Galatians 2:20). Nor is this teaching ever lost sight of by the apostle John; he said:

And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son hath not life (1 John 5:11,12).

Verse 17
For God sent not his Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.

Here again, these words have a pertinent application to the prejudices of Nicodemus and the class to which he belonged, to such a degree that it is mandatory to believe they were spoken to Nicodemus by the Saviour, and that they were not anything projected into this context from the thoughts of the apostle John. The Sanhedrinists and all of the leaders of Israel were anxiously expecting a Messiah who would put the Romans out of their country, blast the whole Gentile world with the judgment they hoped God would execute upon them, and restore the political economy of the chosen people. Here, Christ flatly rejected any notion that he had come to execute any such judgment upon the Gentiles, hence, he said, "God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world ..." (that is, in the sense they expected). There was, to be sure, a function of judgment pertaining to the Son, revealed later in this Gospel (John 5:22ff); and that was not here denied. What was denied was Christ's conformity to the Jewish expectation of judgment upon the Gentiles.

Christ's first advent was not to pronounce and execute judgment upon the nations abiding in God's wrath; but rather, his was a saving mission, commensurate with God's love of the whole human creation. It was that saving mission which formed the burden of the Lord's mission in the first advent.

Verse 18
He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.

The change of tense in this verse, regarding the believer who is not judged, and the unbeliever who hath been judged already, is very significant. The believer is not judged, because he is "in Christ," totally identified with Christ and as Christ, being therefore not subject to judgment, but being "perfect in Christ" (Colossians 1:28). On the other hand, the unbeliever is under the uttermost condemnation, not merely from the fact of all people being lost apart from Christ, but from the additional reason of his having rejected the only means of grace and salvation.

Only begotten ...
from the aspect of the Father expresses the unique relationship between the Father and the Son; and from the human viewpoint, this pinpoints the singleness of mortal hope in the fact that there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.

Verse 19
And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light; for their works were evil.

Christ had just mentioned that he had not come to judge the world in any such manner as the hierarchy expected; but, to be sure, there was a judgment going on already, a judgment precipitated by the dramatic appearance of the Messenger of the Covenant who had suddenly come to his temple. It was a judgment required by the dazzling Light of all nations in the first advent of our Lord. As men reacted to that Light, their fate was sealed. That moral judgment could not be put off until some distant cataclysm; it was in full progress while this interview with Nicodemus was going on.

This verse forever lays to rest the conceit that unbelief is an intellectual problem; on the contrary, it is basically a moral problem.

Men have loved darkness rather than light; for their works were evil ...
Jesus thus revealed that loving darkness rather than light is due, not to intelligence or learning, but to evil works. In an age when infidelity masquerades under all kinds of disguises, especially that of intelligence and erudition, this is an extremely important verse. Its very first application, of course, was to the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus' time, who pretended such a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, but who, in the last analysis, knew nothing at all about them. Yes, there was a sense in which such people knew the Scriptures; but, unless knowledge is held in good and honest hearts (and in their case, it was not), then even knowledge itself becomes darkness in the soul.

This verse still applies to unbelief, because the moral judgment going on when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus is still in progress. Believers in Christ are not judged, being safe "in him"; but unbelievers have been judged already by their rejection of the only hope of the world.

Verses 20, 21
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved. But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God.

These two verses are a further explanation of John 3:19, spelling out the universal law regarding the hatred of evil men for the truth of God, called here "the light." Also, there is the converse of it, namely, that good men seek and desire the truth. The whole spectrum of human behavior appears in this concise statement of eternal principles.

He that doeth evil hateth the light ...
Wicked people are essentially night operators, being afraid of the light which could expose them. Most crimes are committed in darkness, and the police force is always busiest at night. Spiritually, the same principles hold. Wicked and unspiritual people stay as far as possible away from any study or discussion of God's word. If they attend worship at all, it is prompted by other considerations than a desire to know God; and for the vast majority of the wicked, worship services are absolutely off limits.

Lest their works should be reproved ...
This is the reason for the wicked's avoidance of contact with truth. Not only would the word of God condemn his deeds, but his own conscience would be aroused against himself if it became enlightened, a discomfort which the wicked will not willingly endure, fleeing from the light to avoid it.

He that doeth the truth cometh to the light ...
The person with the honest and good heart desires to walk uprightly before God and man, loves the truth, and seeks to know more of God's will. The light does not need to seek him; he seeks the light and shuns the works of darkness.

That his works may be manifest ...
The good heart does not shrink from testing his behavior against the teachings of the Lord, being willing to correct deficiencies or aberrations in his life upon becoming aware of them.

That they are wrought in God ...
This is the end of walking in the light. Human behavior is so corrected and disciplined that the whole life and all of its actions are wrought "in God." "For it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

In this connection, it should be observed that: God in people and people in God, Christ in people and people in Christ, the Spirit in people and people in the Spirit, the mind of Christ in people, and the word of Christ in people are not references to various conditions, but to one condition. Who is the person of whom such expressions are valid? He is the Christian, the man born of water and of the Spirit who is faithful to his trust.

This concluded the Lord's interview with Nicodemus, an interview reported only in part, we may be sure; but enough was recorded to make it one of the most significant ever to occur on earth. Here was enunciated, probably for the first time, the doctrine of the new birth; and, from Jesus' words in this interview, there can be no doubt that this doctrine lies at the very heart of Christianity. The conclusion is established beyond any question that in order to enter fellowship with God, one must be baptized into Christ and receive the Holy Spirit - such is the sacred and eternal law laid down here by the Lord. Let every man ask himself, therefore, if indeed he has been born of water and the Spirit!

Verse 22
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them and baptized.


Into the land of Judaea ...
is somewhat of an indefinite location of Jesus' activity at this point; but Hendriksen suggestion the location was "not far from Jericho, near the fords of the Jordan." F20

This Gospel gives the Judaean ministry of Christ, almost totally omitted by the synoptics. The Spirit of God directed the apostles in the choice of the material they included. Jesus had definitely stressed the fact that the Gospel should first be offered to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Luke 24:27; Acts 1:8); and "to the Jew first" became a slogan of the missionary work of Paul, and presumably of all the apostles. How fitting, therefore, that the Lord himself should have carried his great message first to the Jews as revealed in this Gospel, and as we should not have known if only the synoptics existed. Furthermore, this Judaean ministry explains a number of statements in the synoptics which, in the light of this Gospel, are clear references to the Judaean ministry. Thus, Jesus said in Matthew that he had "often" attempted to gather the citizens of Jerusalem unto himself (Matthew 23:37). See Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3if, and Luke 13:34,35, all of which are trace references to the great Judaean ministry of Jesus which occurred before John the Baptist was cast into prison, a fact John stressed, thus making it very early in the Lord's ministry. This Judaean part of it lasted from May until December.

His disciples ...
probably refers to the six already mentioned in this Gospel: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, and Nathaniel. It is not certain if more had been added at this time or not.

He tarried with them and baptized ...
It must be assumed that Jesus took up the work of carrying forward God's work already being evident in the labors of John the Baptist, and that the baptism administered by Jesus (through his disciples) was God's baptism exactly like that of the great herald. It must not be thought that Jesus, in any sense, was here working under the administration of John the Baptist. John was a servant carrying out God's orders; and Jesus was a Son doing the same thing; but in order not to mislead anyone, Jesus refrained from administering God's baptism personally, doing so only through his disciples.

This taking a hand in the preaching of baptism, on the part of Jesus, was probably the result of our Lord's having seen the urgent need in his interview with Nicodemus. With the blindness of the religious leaders in their rejection of John the Baptist's preaching, it was clear that John needed all the help he could get; therefore, Jesus encouraged his disciples to take a hand in the baptizing. The connection of John's baptism (so-called) with the kingdom of heaven lies in the fact of its being the only baptism submitted to by the Lord's disciples prior to Pentecost; for all such, it was not necessary for them to be baptized again, but only to receive the Holy Spirit, thus completing in them the new birth. After Pentecost, the old baptism was no longer valid, but was replaced by the baptism of the great commission.

Nothing may be made of the fact that Jesus did not baptize, but his disciples baptized. See under John 4:2. What one does through his agents he is lawfully said to do; therefore Jesus baptized. Why did he refrain from doing so personally? It might have given rise to jealousies and strife, later on, through some claiming greater privilege in having been baptized personally by the Lord. Perhaps, as noted above, it was to avoid any mistaken notion that Jesus was one of John's subordinates. Furthermore, although Jesus had submitted to God's baptism as preached by John, and for a time administered by himself through his disciples, he was nevertheless above John's baptism in the sense that baptism in his own blessed name was designed to succeed it. For more on the baptism of Christ, see my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 3:13.

Verse 23
And John was also baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there; and they came and were baptized.

Scholars differ as to the exact location of Aenon; but, true to the Holy Spirit which provided this information, the essential fact that there were "many waters there" is given. It is that truth, rather than exactly where Aenon was, which is important; because, as John Calvin said, "From these words, we may infer that John and Christ administered baptism by plunging the whole body beneath the water." F21 As Lightfoot said:

There are some passages that seem to carry a color of conformity of the one to the other: at Matt. 3:6, "They were baptized of John in Jordan"; Matt. 3:16, "Jesus came straight out of the water"; Acts 8:38, "the eunuch went down into the water"; and the words in hand, "John baptized in Aenon because there was much water there. F22

Immersion is the ceremony recognized as baptism by Christ and the apostles; and the appearance of other actions called baptism in the historical church should not obscure this fact.

Verse 24
For John was not yet cast into prison.

There could have been no reason for this statement unless the apostle John was familiar with the other three Gospels and knew that his readers were also fully acquainted with them. The Nestle Greek text gives "the prison" as a legitimate rendition; F23 and, when so read, it carries the weight of "the imprisonment of John," thus an event already established in the common knowledge, as when the Declaration of Independence, is mentioned. Hendriksen wrote:

Taking it for granted that believers had read the earlier Gospels, the author corrects a possible misunderstanding and shows that between Christ's temptation and the arrest of John the Baptist there was a considerable period during which Jesus and John were in a parallel ministry. F24

Verse 25
There arose therefore a questioning on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purifying.

It is not known what the question here involved. Hovey thought that the fact of Jesus and John baptizing at the same time might have raised a question of the relative importance of the two administrations, whether both were of equal value, and if Jesus was to supersede John.

Verse 26
And they came unto John and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.

Jealousy was clearly the motivation of this question, shedding light upon the extensive popularity of Jesus at that time, and suggesting the great success of our Lord's efforts in baptizing multitudes.

Verse 27
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it have been given to him from heaven.

Except it have been given ...
The words here are true in two senses. Jesus could not have enjoyed such widespread success unless God had given it; and John's decline could not have occurred unless the Lord had willed it. How wonderful it would be if every minister accepted the principle that "It is God who gave the increase" (1 Corinthians 3:6). All power, ability, talent, intelligence, skill, beauty - everything comes from God (Deuteronomy 8:18).

Verse 28
Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.

Ye yourselves ...
Most human errors should not require outside help to avoid them. John the Baptist had already thoroughly instructed his disciples regarding his own subordinate position with reference to Christ. Thus their jealous advocacy of the supremacy of their leader was prompted by unworthy motives. If they had truly loved him, they would have heeded his words, as did the author of this Gospel, and have become followers of Jesus.

The Christ ...
John the Baptist's designation of Jesus as the Christ, in these words, is different from "Lamb of God" which he called him at first. Both titles carry the same great weight; but "Christ" had a sharper and more dramatic meaning for Israel. John's use of it indicates that he recognized the full import of Jesus' mission on earth.

Verse 29
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, that standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is made full.

In the New Testament, the church is called the bride of Christ; but this verse does not mean that the church was, at that time, established and that Jesus had possession of it. "The bride" here has reference to the spiritual Israel of God, that portion of the external Israel which were in fact the spiritual seed of Abraham. Although the spiritual Israel had been commingled with secular Israel throughout history to that time, the separation was then being made through the instrumentality of the baptism preached by John, a separation that would become final at Pentecost and afterward. As Westcott said, "The Baptist had fulfilled his office in preparing and bringing the representatives of the spiritual Israel - the new divine Bride - to Christ the Bridegroom." F25

Rejoiceth greatly ...
Far from being envious or jealous of Christ, John was delighted and gratified to see his popularity, even going so far as to say that his joy was made full.

It is erroneous to infer any kind of anachronism from John's use of the term "bride" in this place. Some have alleged that the apostle here imputed words to John the Baptist which were prevalent in the church at the time the Gospel was written. On the contrary, it was this statement of the great herald, along with our Saviour's frequent employment of the same metaphor, as in the parables of the ten virgins and of the marriage feast, which gave rise to preference for this metaphor in the early church. Such a perceptive leader as John the Baptist, to say nothing of his inspiration, found this metaphor most appropriate. The image of the bride and the bridegroom is found often in the prophetical books of the Old Testament, where it was invariably used to describe the relationship between God and his people Israel (Hosea 2:19; Ezekiel 16; Malachi 2:11,; 2:11, ). Thus, it should be concluded that John the Baptist received the metaphor from the Old Testament. It was his before it became the apostle's. Thus, the author of John did not impute his own words here, but gave an accurate account of what was truly said.

Verse 30
He must increase, but I must decrease.

The parallel ministries of Jesus and John, both with the design of baptizing multitudes preparatory to the coming kingdom, existed as a transitional device, and without any heavenly intention of promulgating two distinct systems. In God's providence, John would shortly be cast into prison and lose his life to the sword of Herod, an event that would make it easier for John's disciples to follow Christ.

Verse 31
He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is of the earth, and of the earth he speaketh: he that cometh from heaven is above all.

A large school of commentators understand this verse and to the end of the chapter, not as the words of John the Baptist, but as reflections of John the apostle, alleging this on the basis of what they call a change in style, a more advanced recognition of the true status of Christ, and a supposed reference to the conversation with Nicodemus. This allegation, in a sense, is not important; for there would have been no impropriety on the author's part: if, under the guidance of the Spirit, this paragraph had been added from his own inspired thoughts. But, in another sense, the question is of great import, since:

Strauss, Weisse, Reuss, and Bretschneider make the supposed PROOF of this Johannine appendix an evidence of inhistoricity throughout the Gospel, and the school of Baur finds in the entire representation simply an artistic endeavor on the part of a second century falsarius to show that John's disciples were absorbed into the catholic church. F26

Therefore, we shall note the glaring weakness of the reasoning of such scholars, whose allegation of a change of style turns out to be nothing but a change of tense! And, as Westcott said: "The use of the present tense in John 3:32 is not inconsistent with the position of the evangelist." F27 Despite such an admission of Westcott, that scholar favored the position of understanding these words as of the apostle instead of the herald; but his argument is not convincing. For example, he said, "The use of the title `Son' (used singly and absolutely) appears to be alien from the position of the Baptist." F28 This is refuted by the fact that the first person ever on earth to hear Jesus called `Son' (singly and absolutely) was John the Baptist (Matthew 3:17), God Almighty himself being the speaker! It is therefore impossible to view John's use of the single title "Son" as having been anything alien to his position. These and other considerations confirm the conviction of this writer that the words should be understood as belonging to the person to whom they are ascribed in the Gospel. As Hovey said: "(There is) the improbability that the Evangelist would have passed without notice from the record of the Baptist's words to his own testimony concerning Jesus." F29

He that cometh from above ...
These words regarding Jesus contrast with John's admission that he himself was "of the earth," meaning that he did not come from heaven in the sense that Jesus did.

Verse 32
What he hath seen and heard, of that he beareth witness; and no man receiveth his witness.

As noted above, there is nothing here inconsistent with John's position. His own disciples were not accepting Jesus; and in the situation recounted here, a delegation of them were openly critical and jealous of Jesus and apparently intent on doing something to counteract the rising popularity of the Master. It must have been a matter of deepest wonder on John's part that his own disciples, many of them, rejected Jesus, heedless of his own emphatic identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Son, and the Christ.

Verse 33
He that receiveth his witness has set his seal to this that God is true.

God had spoken out of heaven in broad open daylight in the presence of a multitude, affirming of Jesus that "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased"; and John here asserted his unwavering confidence in God's witness of Christ.

He that receiveth his witness ...
contrasts with "no man receiveth his witness" in John 3:32, leading to the conclusion that John the Baptist here spoke of himself. Those who see something here that is "certainly beyond the scope of John's ministry or message" F30 would appear to have been reading the opinions of men more than they have been studying the word of the Lord.

Verse 34
For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for he giveth not the Spirit by measure.

John 3:32, above, was a statement that what John the Baptist had seen and heard was that of which the herald had borne witness; but the words were equally applicable to Jesus Christ and his message; and here the same declaration is made in such a manner as to show that Jesus is the one named.

He giveth not the Spirit by measure ...
The descent of the dove alighting and remaining on Jesus (John 1:33) is in view here, leading to the conclusion that it was a measureless gift of the Spirit received by Jesus, and the inevitable corollary that Jesus spoke the true words of God. These words further indicate that Jesus was in full possession of God's Spirit, not merely in some manifestation of it, or some portion of it, but to the fullest and total extent. Jesus said to the disciples that "The Holy Spirit abideth with you, and shall be in you," a clear reference to himself as being the perfect embodiment of the Spirit. On the other hand, Christian disciples receive merely "an earnest" of the Holy Spirit, and not even the apostles possessed the Spirit in the total sense that Jesus did.

Verse 35
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.

Again, the baptismal scene was in the mind of the herald. "This is my beloved Son!" He was trying to counteract the jealousy of the disciples who would not follow Jesus by repeating the deduction which he had made following the baptism of Jesus, namely, that God had given all things into Jesus' hands, a deduction he could not have avoided, for "beloved Son" would have required it. These words fit the historical situation exactly, leaving no need for any supposition that the apostle was merely injecting his own words into the narrative at this point.

Verse 36
He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth upon him.

With these dramatic words, John the Baptist disposed of the jealousy that marked the attitude of some of his disciples toward Jesus. In the Son of God eternal life was available for those who obeyed him; and for all others, they would continue to be under the wrath of God.

He that believeth ... he that obeyeth not ...
These are among the most decisive words in the New Testament with regard to what is meant by "believeth," or "faith" as frequently used by New Testament writers. In all instances, it is an OBEDIENT FAITH that is meant, and never is some special quality of faith apart from obedience intended. Salvation by "faith alone" is an erroneous tenet of human creeds, but it is not the teaching of God's word. He who does not obey the Son, in the practical sense, is an unbeliever; and all faith, of whatever degree, is dead without obedience.

The wrath of God ...
New Testament passages regarding God's wrath are extensive; and far more is intended by them than God's displeasure at men who do not accept the Son and obey the gospel. It has reference to the basic antagonism between light and darkness, goodness and evil. The total race of men from Eden and afterward is a fallen and rebellious race, their fellowship with God having been broken by the fall of humanity; and God's face is set against fallen and unregenerated men. He has appointed a day in which the unredeemable portion of humanity will be judged and punished, and when evil will be cast out of God's universe. Mercy and hope for all are available in Christ; but it must be received and appropriated, and the penalty of rejecting the Son of God is the forfeiture of all hope.

In this chapter appeared the principle that evil men love darkness and hate the light (John 3:19), and that principle is still the device of judgment for all who were ever born. As Bowman expressed it:

The great obstacle to men's acceptance of the Bible is not intellectual. It is spiritual. It is not that the Bible is unreasonable. It is that men do not want Christ. They choose to reject God's way in order to follow their own way. F31

An amazing example of the operation of this principle appears in the concluding words of this chapter. The disciples of John the Baptist, who loved and honored him, and who believed what he said, nevertheless rejected Christ. And why? They were evil in themselves.

Footnotes for John 3
1: Ibid.
2: Brooks Foss Westcott, The Gospel according to St. John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), p. 248.
3: Alvah Hovey, Commentary on John (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society, 1885), p. 95.
4: Ibid., p. 96.
5: John Boys, An Exposition of the Dominical Epistles and Gospels (London, 1938); quoted from Handbook on Baptism (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1950), p. 322.
6: Handbook on Baptism, Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1950), p. 320.
7: Ibid.
8: Ibid., p. 334.
9: W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1962), p. 97.
10: Moody Lee Coffman, The Origin of the Inanimate (Atlanta, Georgia: Religion, Science, Communication Research and Development Corporation, 1972), p. 75.
11: G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), p. 278.
12: A. M. Hunter, The Gospel according to John (Cambridge: University Press, 1965), p. 37.
13: Alfred Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1954), Volumes on Luke and John, p. 203.
14: H. R. Reynolds, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), Vol. 17, p. 118.
15: B. F. Westcott, op. cit, p. 57.
16: Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible (London: Mason and Lane, 1837), Vol. V, p. 533.
17: B. F. Westcott, op. cit., p. 55.
18: H. R. Reynolds, op. cit., Vol. 17, p. 122.
19: L. O. Sanderson, Christian Hymns Number Two (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1948), What Did He Do? No. 187.
20: William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1961), p. 146.
21: J. W. Shepherd, Handbook on Baptism (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1950) p. 91.
22: Ibid., p. 92
23: Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), p. 367.
24: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 147.
25: B. F. Westcott, op. cit., p. 57.
26: H. R. Reynolds, op. cit., p, 132.
27: B. F. Westcott, op. cit., p. 60.
28: Ibid.
29: Alvah Hovey, op. cit., p. 108.
30: H. R. Reynolds, op. cit., p. 134.
31: Allen Bowman, Is the Bible True? (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1965), p. 186.
32: Merrill C. Tenney, op. cit., p. 72.
33: Frank Pack, op. cit., Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 5.
34: B. F. Westcott, The Gospel according to St. John, op. cit., p. 15.
35: John Macmillan, The Crucified and Risen Bible (London: Marshall Brothers Ltd.), p. 64.
36: Ibid.
37: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, vi, 7, 4.
38: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 97.
39: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii, line 61, and Act V, Scene i, line 56.
40: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 98,
41: Alvah Hovey, op. cit., p. 78 .
42: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 106.
43: Herbert Lockyer, All the Men of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1958), p. 49.
44: J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan), John I, p. 76.
45: J. C. Ryle, op. cit., p. 76.
46: Herbert Lockyer, op. cit., p. 277.
47: Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Twelve (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1939), p. 40.
48: F. N. Peloubet, Peloubet's Bible Dictionary (Chicago: The John C. Winston Co., 1925), p. 91.
49: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 20.
50: J. C. Ryle, op. cit., p. 88.
51: Edgar J. Goodspeed, op. cit., p. 41.
52: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 777.
53: Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Whole Bible (London: Mason and Lane, 1837), Vol. V, p. 521.
54: Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1863), p. 49.
55: Adam Clarke, op. cit., Vol. V, p. 520.
56: William Hendriksen, op. cit., p. 110.
57: J. C. Ryle, op. cit., p. 91.
58: J. R. Dummelow, op. cit., p. 654.
59: J. C. Ryle, op. cit., p. 89.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on John 3". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  


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