Commentary Critical and Explanatory
on the Whole Bible
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"
Joh 2:23, 24,
yet inwardly craving further satisfaction, Nicodemus comes to Jesus in
quest of it, but comes "by night" (see
Joh 19:38, 39; 12:42);
he avows his conviction that He was
come from God--an expression never applied to a merely human messenger, and
probably meaning more here--but only as "a teacher," and in His
miracles he sees a proof merely that "God is with Him." Thus, while
unable to repress his convictions, he is afraid of committing himself
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
--such methods speed better than more honeyed words and gradual
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
or its consummation hereafter
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
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
6-8. That which is born, &c.--A great universal proposition; "That
which is begotten carries within itself the nature of that which begat
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
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
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 indispensable.
Ye must--"Ye, says Jesus, not we"
[BENGEL]. After those
universal propositions, about what "a man" must be, to "enter the
kingdom of God"
--this is remarkable, showing that our Lord meant to hold Himself forth
as "separate from sinners."
8. The wind, &c.--Breath and spirit (one word both in
Hebrew and Greek) are constantly brought together in Scripture
(Job 27:3; 33:4;
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
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
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 Saviour.
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'"
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
The crucifixion of Messiah is twice after this veiled under the same
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
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"
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
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
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
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
or in that addressed to Abraham when ready to offer Isaac on the altar,
"withheld not His Son, His only Son, whom He loved"
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!
17-21. not to condemn, &c.--A statement of vast importance. Though
"condemnation" is to many the issue of Christ's mission
it is not the object of His mission, which is purely a
18. is not condemned--Having, immediately on his believing, "passed
from death unto life"
condemned already--Rejecting the one way of deliverance from that
"condemnation" which God gave His Son to remove, and so wilfully
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
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 guile."
JESUS IN THE
NEIGHBORHOOD OF THE
22-24. land of Judea--the rural parts of that province, the foregoing
conversation being held in the capital.
baptized--in the sense explained in
23. Ænon . . . Salim--on the west of Jordan. (Compare
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
25, 26. between some of--rather, "on the part of."
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
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
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
and no man receiveth, &c.--John's disciples had said, "All come
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 this.
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
35, 36. The Father loveth, &c.--See on
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
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