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COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (Ch 3)

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Nicodemus and The New Birth, God’s Salvation, The Continuing Ministry Of John The Baptist.

The New Birth And God’s Salvation (John 3.1-21).

When Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus he learns that he needs to be ‘born from above’, that is, that he must be born of the Spirit (compare 1.12-13), if he would enter under the Kingly Rule of God. He then learns that this salvation will only be accomplished through the death of ‘the Son of Man’, God’s only Son, in Whom he must believe if he would have eternal life.

3.1 ‘Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews’.

Not long after the commencement of His ministry Jesus was approached by a man named Nicodemus, who was a very important man. He was a Pharisee and a member of the governing Jewish council (the Sanhedrin). Possibly this was why he came ‘at night’ (v.2). He probably did not want to jeopardise his position. He was prepared to give Jesus a hearing in private, but did not wish to commit himself publicly.

He was one of those who demonstrated that not all the Pharisees opposed Jesus, and that when ‘the Pharisees’ were spoken of in derogatory terms, not all were to be seen as included. The Pharisees were a small minority (probably around 6000 to 7000 in all), probably descendants of the Hasidim, those who had kept themselves ‘pure’ during the persecutions of 2nd century BC and had been faithful to the Law and the Prophets. In order to maintain this position they had gradually built up a system of over six hundred extra laws which explained in detail the meaning of God’s laws in the Torah (‘the Instruction’ - the first five books of the Bible). Among other things they required constant washings in order to preserve purity, and a strict regime of ritual cleanliness. But because of this many of them had begun to look down on the common people and to have a high opinion of their own goodness. Many of them had become self-righteous and self-opinionated, and, as such men will, some had begun to twist the Law to suit their own religious purposes. These were the ones Jesus described as ‘hypocrites’.

‘There was a man’. This connects directly with 2.25. ‘He knew what was in man, now there was a man ---’, and Jesus can read that man like an open book.

3.2 ‘The same came to him by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no man can do these signs except God be with him”.’

This Pharisee acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher ‘come from God’ and that ‘God was with Him’ because he was impressed by the ‘signs’ that He had done. In other words while not being a recognised teacher of the schools Jesus had in Nicodemus’ eyes satisfactorily demonstrated that He was in the prophetic mould. But Nicodemus had not rightly interpreted the signs, for he had come short of a recognition that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. Furthermore the good opinion of his compatriots was so important to him that he ‘came by night’. He was still in darkness. He was one of those who had ‘believed’ but to whom Jesus was not willing to trust Himself (2.23-25). To put it in the best light, he wanted to make sure of Jesus before he committed himself. Later he will help in the decent burial of the body of Jesus and will at that stage be remembered by the fact that previously he had come at night (John 19.39).

‘Came to him by night’. ‘By night’ suggests that he did not want to be observed. But for John it probably has another meaning, that the man who was in darkness was approaching the light of the world. John draws out these nuances, compare 13.30 where Judas the betrayer goes out ‘and it was night’.

‘A teacher come from God.’ This in contrast with teachers of the recognised kind who had received their training through the Rabbinic schools.

3.3 ‘Jesus answered and said to him, “In very truth I tell you except a man be born from above (or anew) he cannot see the Kingly Rule of God”.’

Jesus cut short his preamble and came emphatically to the point, (although of course John may well have abbreviated the discussion). “Unless a man is born from above (Gk. anothen) he cannot appreciate or experience the Kingly Rule of God.” Nicodemus was learning that an understanding of God’s spiritual rule over men, which Jesus had come to bring, required spiritual understanding. The implication appears to be that He saw Nicodemus as lacking that spiritual understanding.

The phrase ‘the kingdom/kingly rule (basileia - kingship) of God’, mentioned only here in John (although see for the idea 18.35=37), needs to be understood. In Jesus’ day a kingdom was not a piece of land with boundaries, but a sphere over which a king ruled, a place where he exercised his kingship. Where there were people who came under his rule there was his kingdom, even though the boundaries kept changing. Desert sheikhs own no land but they rule over their ‘kingdom’, for where their tribe is at any time, there is their kingdom. It rides about with them. So God’s kingdom is composed of those who admit and acknowledge His rule wherever they are.

Note on The Kingly Rule of God.

The Kingly Rule of God (or Heaven) was a central part of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke which can be ‘seen together’ (sun opsis) because they follow a common pattern). It was a Kingly Rule which was present in Jesus and into which men then entered by responding to Him, but which would finally be revealed in greater manifestation in Heaven. It had both a past, a present and a future aspect. It had been intended that Israel would be under the Kingly Rule of God (Deuteronomy 33.5; 1 Samuel 8.7), but they had rejected His kingship As Christians we are under the Kingly Rule of God, and are called on to be responsive to His kingship. And in future those who are His will enter under the eternal Kingly Rule of God.

God’s kingship, His rule over His people, had been established at Sinai (Deuteronomy 33.5) but it had finally been rejected (1 Samuel 8.7), and the history of the Old Testament, bore witness to the fact that it had never become a practical reality. Right from the beginning they had fought against the idea. Indeed that was why they had sought an earthly king over them (1 Samuel 10.17-19). They had wanted a king whom they could see and rely on. And throughout their history they had constantly rebelled, so that it became apparent that God’s rule could not be established because of their disobedience. In the words of Isaiah 63.19, ‘we are become as those over whom you never bore rule, as those who were not called by your name’.

Thus the prophets declared that their wretched condition, so unlike what had been promised, was due to this failure. The prophets then began to look forward to a day when God would change the hearts of His people by the pouring out of His Spirit and would at that stage establish His rule (Isaiah 44.3-6; Ezekiel 36.26-28; Jeremiah 33.3-4), and this was linked with the coming of a great king (Isaiah 11.1-5; Jeremiah 30.9) and the coming of a great prophet (Isaiah 42.1-4; 49.1-6; 52.13-53.12; 61.1-3). These would reintroduce God’s rule over men. Now, says Jesus, that time has come. God is going to act to establish His rule.

The Kingly Rule of God was to be both within them (the acceptance of His rule in their hearts) and among them (because Jesus the king and His true people were there) (Matthew 6.33; 12.28; 21.31, 43; Mark 4.26, 30; 9.1; 10.14-15; 12.34; Luke 7.28; 9.27; 10.9; 11.20; 16.16; 17.21; 18.17; Acts 8.12; 14.22; 20.25; 28.23, 31; Romans 14.17; 1 Corinthians 4.20). To follow Jesus, and to truly believe in Him, was to respond to the Kingly Rule of God and come under His rule, and this was something that Jesus wanted Nicodemus to appreciate.

There are no grounds for saying that the Kingly Rule of God was postponed. What actually happened was that it bypassed many of the Jews, who rejected Jesus’ view of it. But it continued its expansion into the world. Paul and others continued to call men under the Kingly Rule of God (Acts 8.12; 14.22; 20.25; 28.23, 31; Romans 14.17; 1 Corinthians 4.20). As will be clear from the references above it was the constant message of the early church.

But it has, of course its vital future aspect, for God’s rule will never be fully established over all men until that day when all that is contrary to Him is done away, and those who are His enter into His everlasting kingdom (Isaiah 24.23; Obadiah 1.21; Zephaniah 3.15; Zechariah 14.9; Mark 14.25; Luke 13.29; 22.16-18; 19.11; 21.31; 1 Corinthians 6.9-10; 15.50; Galatians 5.21; Colossians 4.11; 2 Thessalonians 1.5). The one is preparatory to the other.

Interestingly this is the only passage in John where the Kingly Rule of God is spoken of, although the idea is not totally ignored, for a parallel idea produces before Pilate a statement of great significance (18.36). Thus the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel begins with an emphasis on the Kingly Rule of God, and ends with an emphasis on the Kingly Rule of Christ. The writer hardly therefore saw it as insignificant.

But in John, in between these firm statements about the Kingly Rule of God/Christ (3.3 & 18.36), the same idea is more often spoken of from the point of view of possession of ‘eternal life’ (three times in chapter 3, twice in chapter 4, twice in chapter 5, five times in chapter 6, once in chapter 10, twice in chapter 12, twice in chapter 17). To be under the Kingly Rule of God now is to possess eternal life. To enter in future into the Kingly Rule of God will be to enjoy eternal life. Both represent the same idea from a different viewpoint and have the same twofold aspect, both present (it is ours to enjoy now) and future (one day it will be ours).

This difference of expression in John is largely due to John’s deliberate selectivity and the fact that much in John’s Gospel was spoken to Pharisees who, unlike the people, thought in terms of ‘the life of the age to come’ (eternal life). They believed firmly in the resurrection to come. The people on the other hand thought more in terms of coming under the Kingly Rule of God (although in their view that meant a kingdom on earth established by a war-like Messiah). Thus to the Pharisees Jesus mainly spoke of eternal life, both present and future, whilst to the people He mainly spoke of coming under the Kingly Rule of God, again something to be experienced both now and in the future. To the disciples He proclaimed both (Matthew 19.29; John 6.65; Matthew 6.33).

It also reflects John’s preference for the aspects of Jesus’ teaching that used the phrase ‘eternal life’, which had tended not to be emphasised by the sources of the Synoptic Gospels. They chose rather to think in terms of coming under God’s kingly rule, which probably seemed more substantial. But they did speak of eternal life when dealing with the conversations of people in Jerusalem, such as the rich young ruler and a certain Pharisee. See Luke 10.25; 18.18, 30 and parallels; Matthew 25.46. It will be noted that in Luke 18.18, 24, 25, 30 the two ideas are put side by side. To have eternal life is to be under the Kingly Rule of God. Note also Matthew 18.8, 9; 19.17; Mark 9.43, 45 where ‘life’ is the equivalent of ‘eternal life’.

We must ever remember that during His ministry Jesus taught and did a huge amount which was never recorded (compare John 21.25). Only a comparatively small amount of selective teaching was memorised and passed on. And John, the favoured disciple, appears to have heard and memorised teaching which the others either had not heard, had not understood, or did not fully appreciate, teaching given in Judea among the Judaisers. This passage in itself, however, demonstrates that he knew the importance that Jesus placed on the Kingly Rule of God.

End of note.

‘Born from above.’ In 3.31; 8.23; 19.11 the word ‘anothen’ unquestionably means ‘from above’ referring to the One Who comes ‘from above’ and power given ‘from above’. Thus birth ‘from above’ fits the overall picture. This probably has Isaiah 45.8 in mind. ‘Drop down, you heavens from above (in LXX we discover anothen as here), and let the skies pour down righteousness.’ The idea there is of rain falling in abundance and producing new life, the crops and fruit which are evidence of the righteousness of those so blessed, an idea which is then applied to the pouring out of the Spirit on God’s true people producing righteousness ( Isaiah 44.1-4 - see further on verse 5).

‘Not see the kingly rule of God’. This could mean ‘not understanding the Kingly Rule of God’, but compare 3.36; 8.51 where to ‘see’ means to experience life or death. In that case it would mean here that they would not experience the Kingly Rule of God. In fact both ideas may be in mind for John loves the double meaning. The thought is important. It is stressing that, without the Spirit’s work, entry under God’s direct rule is not possible. For it depends on a spiritual transformation.

3.4 ‘Nicodemus says to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” ’

Nicodemus takes what Jesus says to mean born again physically, and speaks as though he confuses this with natural birth. John often uses a question arising from a misunderstanding to illuminate a truth. So Nicodemus asks, ‘How can an old man enter his mother’s womb a second time?’ He is probably simply seeking more information. He does not understand what Jesus means, and deliberately makes it sound enigmatic.

3.5 ‘Jesus answered, “In very truth I tell you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingly Rule of God.’

Jesus replies that He is speaking about a birth “of water and Spirit” without which entry under the reign of God is impossible. The connection of water with Spirit may possibly, but not certainly, look back to John’s baptism in the writer’s mind, but it is not strictly of baptism that Jesus is thinking. He is thinking of the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Spirit like the rain. Baptism is but the symbol. The need is for a work of the Spirit, as symbolised by John’s baptism, the Spirit being poured out ‘from above’ like rain on the dry ground.

Like most Jews Nicodemus was looking forward to the coming of “the Kingly Rule of God” understood in their own terms, which the Jews saw as a time when God’s king would rule over the world and bring a time of plenty and prosperity, especially for the Jews. But Jesus stresses that coming under God’s rule requires a work of the Spirit, for it must be spiritually appreciated. Human birth will only bring human understanding, a spiritual relationship with God requires spiritual birth (compare 1.12-13).

But what does Jesus mean by being “born of water” and being “born from above” (or born anew)? . The phrases link back to the preaching of John the Baptiser and to the prophets. John spoke of fruits meet for repentance, of ripened grain that would be harvested, of trees that produced good fruit, and of one who would ‘drench (baptizo) with the Holy Spirit’. These were all pictures of when the land came alive again after the dry season, when the dead land lived again, when it was ‘born again’

There is good Old Testament precedent for this. In Psalm 72 the psalmist is praying for the king of Israel. He prays that he will be just and wise, and he clearly has especially in mind the future king, for he speaks of his world wide dominion and the fact that all nations would call him blessed (verses 8 and 17). This king will be “like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth”, for in his days righteousness will flourish, and peace will abound. The water from above has done its work.

The thought is taken further in Isaiah 45.8 where righteousness (i.e. vindication, being ‘put in the right’) ‘rains down’ like showers, and deliverance and righteousness ‘sprout forth’ from the earth, and in Isaiah 32.15 where a period of desolation is followed by ‘the Spirit’ being ‘poured upon us from above’ resulting in fruitfulness and deliverance. In Isaiah 44.1-5 the promises are more personalised. “I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and streams upon the dry ground. I will pour my Spirit upon your children and my blessing upon your offspring.” (Isaiah 44.1-4). The people will flourish like grass at the coming of the rainy season, like willows planted where there is abundant water, and the result will be a full-hearted dedication to the Lord (Isaiah 44.5).

This vivid picture speaks most forcefully to those who live in hot countries like Israel. There they are used to the long hot summer when everything dries up, the grass withers, the ground is barren and fruitless, the bushes die. Life appears to have gone. But then the rain comes, and everything changes. The ground is almost immediately covered with the beginnings of luxurious vegetation, the bushes spring to life and the trees grow and flourish. It has to be seen to be believed. It is an apt picture of spiritual renewal. They are born again, born from above!

Isaiah 55.10-13 takes it even further. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring to birth (The Hebrew is yalad in the hiphil, almost exclusively used of the birth of living creatures) and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth, it will not return to me empty. It will accomplish what I purpose and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Here we have the clear idea of new birth from above, and it is here connected with the going forth of the word of God. God speaks and the Spirit acts (compare Isaiah 34.16 where God’s word precedes the action of His Spirit). And now, says John, the Word of God has come (1.1-18) and the Spirit is acting.

Hosea 6.1-3 adds, ‘He has torn and He will heal us, He has smitten and He will bind us up, after two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him --- he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.’ This would again seem to be a picture of a raising again to life connected with showers of rain.

A further passage in the Old Testament which illustrates the new birth by the Spirit is Ezekiel 36.25-27. Here God promises His people that “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean”. The fact that the water is sprinkled indicates that it is seen as water purified by the ashes of sacrifice for those who have touched what is impure (Numbers 19.7-20). There would appear to be no other reason for stressing that it is CLEAN water.

The result of this sprinkling is that “a new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you. I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh, and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my ordinances and carry them out”.

While Ezekiel, thinking as a priest, has apparently illustrated the idea of rain with the priestly sprinkling of water purified with the ashes of a heifer, he soon moves on to the idea of fruitfulness and plenty (verses 29-30). It would be difficult to conceive of a better picture of the new birth. So here the new birth is linked with purification through the shedding of sacrificial blood.

So when Jesus speaks of being born of water, born from above, He has every reason to think that Nicodemus will understand Him, and to chide him for failing to do so. It is possible that there is in the back of His mind John’s baptism, but if so His vision is filled with that baptism’s significance as a picture of the life-giving rains pouring down, transforming the earth and producing a cleansing, regenerating work of God and ‘fruits meet for repentance’. The new work of the Spirit, begun in embryo by John the Baptiser and continuing with Jesus, is bringing new life into the hearts of those who ‘put their trust in Him’ so that they ‘might not perish but have the life of the age to come’ (John 3.15). And Nicodemus is in danger of missing out!

3.6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Here we can refer back to John 1.12-13 where John had distinguished natural birth from being ‘born of God’. Being born a Jew, or in Christendom, or in a Christian family is not sufficient. Just as being baptised is not enough. New life received from the Spirit is what is required, God watering the heart. This comparison of flesh and Spirit arises, of course, from Nicodemus’ earlier question. Having made clear that He is referring to the Spirit under the picture of life-giving water Jesus has now connected it up with what Nicodemus has asked.

3.7-8 “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’. The wind blows where it wills, and you hear its voice but do not know from where it comes or where it is going. So is every one who is born of the Spirit.”

At this stage Jesus can see that Nicodemus is still puzzled. ‘Do not marvel that I say to you, you must be born anew’, He says, ‘the wind (pneuma) blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it but cannot tell from where it is coming or where it is going. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit (Pneuma)’. In other words, He says, just as we cannot control the wind, or understand its comings and goings, so we cannot control the Spirit and His comings and goings. He acts where He wills. Religious hierarchies are in no position to dictate the work of the Spirit. Baptism may precede the coming of the Spirit to a man (Acts 8.14-16; 19.5-6), or it may follow it (Acts 10.47), but it does not control it. That is in the hands of the Spirit alone.

There is, of course, a play here on the different meanings of ‘pneuma’, which can mean either ‘wind’, ‘breath’ or ‘Spirit’. All act invisibly and powerfully.

3.9 ‘Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can these things be?” ’

Nicodemus still does not understand. ‘How can these things be?’, he asks. What is clear to many a Christian child is a total mystery to the learned scholar. We must, however, remember that he has long cherished views. To him water is for outward purifying, and his religious agenda is found in seeking to keep God’s laws assiduously and totally in order to be true to the covenant with God and achieve eternal life in the future. The thought of the freedom and new life that comes through the Spirit of God is foreign to him. He is baffled.

3.10 ‘ Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?” ’

Jesus words are a gentle rebuke. ‘Do you claim to be a teacher (literally ‘the master’ - therefore a particularly learned teacher) of Israel and yet do not understand this?’ Many Pharisees were seen as ‘teachers of Israel’, and Nicodemus was particularly highly respected. They thought that it was from their teachers that men must find the secrets of God. So Jesus wants him to know that He considers that he should understand it because he has seen it in action in Himself and John the Baptiser. There are ‘earthly things’ witnessed on earth through the successes of John the Baptiser and the successes of His own ministry. Nicodemus really ought to have understood. But there are none as blind as those who are too certain that they are themselves right.

3.11 “In very truth I tell you, we speak what we know, and bear witness of what we have seen, and you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

‘We’ is Jesus and His disciples. ‘You’ (plural) are Nicodemus and his co-religionists. ‘We (Jesus and His disciples) speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen’. Already such things have happened in the ministry of Jesus that they should have convinced the world. Many lives have been transformed, many men have become more dedicated to God. Wonderful things are happening on earth. And they should have observed them.

And then he adds, ‘but you (plural) do not receive our testimony’. Here Jesus links Nicodemus with his co-leaders. The authorities had come to observe and to criticise, but they were not spiritually perceptive enough to recognise what was happening, that the promises of the prophets about the Spirit being poured down were being fulfilled. (While the greater inundation is in the future, the Spirit’s present work, constantly referred to in John’s Gospel, should have been sufficient to convince even the most incredulous).

This being so, even if He tells them even more wonderful things, He doubts if they will accept them, for they are deliberately closing their eyes. ‘If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ Those who will not accept the evidence of God’s activity before their eyes on earth, cannot hope to appreciate the deeper facts which His coming has brought into play. The things that are happening have far deeper roots than what is obvious on the surface, but if they are to be appreciated they require a total rethink.

3.13 “And no man has ascended into Heaven, but he who descended out of Heaven, even the Son of Man who is in Heaven.”

In Proverbs 34.4 the question is asked, “Who has ascended up into heaven and descended?” and the expected answer is ‘nobody’. For as Jesus brings out here, the only One Who can ascend into Heaven is One Who has first descended. Only such a one can ascend to control the ‘ruach’ (Spirit, wind) and the rain (Proverbs 34.4). Thus the ‘ascending’ refers to Jesus exercising His power over things above. Jesus will later stress that He cannot work without the Father being present with Him. But the writer may well also wish us to gain the hint of His final ascension.

What are the ‘heavenly things’ of verse 11? Firstly that Jesus has come from His glory in Heaven and has been made man. Secondly that He is the Son of man who has access to Heaven and Heaven’s secrets (compare Matthew 11.25-27). And thirdly that He alone is able to enter Heaven (compare John 6.62) as the glorious Son of Man to receive the kingdom and the power and the glory (Daniel 7.13), for ‘no one has ascended up into heaven except He Who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man’.

Jesus has already declared Himself to be the Son of Man (John 1.51), and now He links the title with the heavenly Son of Man (Daniel 7.13), as He does also in the other Gospels. He Himself is the One Who has come down from heaven, and maintains contact with Heaven (compare John 1.51) and can therefore finally return to His heavenly home in triumph as the glorious Son of Man.

‘Who is in Heaven’. This is omitted in many manuscripts, and although it is fairly strongly evidenced the weight of evidence must be seen as against it (p66, Aleph, B, L, W omit it. A Theta f1 f13 include it). However, the idea behind it, that Jesus has access to Heaven’s secrets is unquestionable (Matthew 11.25-27).

3.14-15 ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

The fourth mystery is the greatest of all. That this Son of Man must be lifted up on show, as a means of salvation. ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21.9) so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life’. In the wilderness the bronze serpent was lifted up at a time when the people were being punished by a plague of snakes because of their unbelief, and when they looked to it they were healed. Thus too the Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’ and looked to for salvation.

At this stage ‘lifted up’ would not be fully understood, but later we learn fully what it means. He will be lifted up on the cross to die (8.28; 12.32-33), and men must look to Him as the crucified Saviour. This is Heaven’s greatest mystery, that through His sacrifice of Himself life will come to all who believe in Him, and look to Him for salvation.

So the Son of Man, who is a citizen of heaven, has come down from heaven (v13) so that He might be “lifted up”, in order that those who believe in him might have ‘eternal life’, the life of the age to come, the life of the Spirit.

The word ‘eternal’ (literally “of the ages”) focused in Jewish thinking more on the future ‘coming age’ than on the Greek conception of eternity, although that coming age was of course seen as being everlasting, and that age would be supremely the age of the Spirit. But the idea behind the ‘life of the age to come’ was mainly of the quality of that life.

The Pharisees also had hopes of eternal life, but they hoped to achieve it by obedience to the covenant revealed in their punctilious observance of the Law, and especially of their own interpretations of it. But as the Bible makes clear that way could only lead to hopelessness, for the more they strove the more they failed. In the end the Law they loved so much could only condemn them. So Jesus now tells Nicodemus that what he is hopelessly striving for can be his as a gift if only he responds fully to Him.

We notice here how well this teaching agrees with the other Gospels. There too Jesus speaks of Himself as the Son of Man, stresses that He must suffer, and that finally he will receive His glory and come in that glory from Heaven to judge the world (e.g. Mark 8.31; 14.62; Matthew 25.31). John adds the idea of His position as Judge in 5.27.

3.16 ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes on him should not perish but have everlasting life’.

The message is now expanded. The reason that Jesus has come is because “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son”. This is the amazing new revelation that surpasses all that has gone before, that God was such that He had not only seen man’s need but has met it in the only way possible at greatest cost to Himself. ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us, and gave His Son to be a propitiation for ours sins’ (1 John 4.10).

A further interesting fact is that it is ‘the world’ that is in view. His love is reaching out to the world. Jesus is not just a Messiah for the Jews, He is the Christ for the world, the world that is in darkness (1.10). He has come to be a light to every man.

The point is that there was no other way by which salvation and deliverance could come to mankind, only by God’s giving of His only Son to die on the cross, ‘wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities --- the Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.5-6. See Luke 22.37 for Jesus’ own application of this chapter to Himself). This is the full meaning of the title ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1.29, 36).

Here Jesus’ distinctiveness is again being drawn out. ‘His only Son’, ‘the only Son from the Father’ (1.14, 18), Who was in the bosom of the Father (in closest personal relationship) and Who made the Father known and revealed His glory (1.18), is the One Who will be offered up for sin.

And the purpose? Negatively, to save men from ‘perishing’. Positively, that they might have eternal life. In Plato’s Immortality to ‘perish’ meant to be destroyed utterly. He used it as the opposite of being an immortal soul. As Paul says, God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6.16). We will no doubt read into this what we will.

3.17 ‘For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world should be saved through him.’

Other (mythical) gods came to the world to condemn it, never to save it, but God’s purpose in sending His Son was to save. He wanted to give men eternal life. He wanted to save them from ‘perishing’. And there was only one way to do so, by taking their deserved suffering on Himself. Notice the stress on the fact that Jesus is ‘God-sent’. His sending by the Father is a theme of the Gospel.

Thus God’s purpose towards the world is one of love. But this must not lead us into presumption. If we reject that offer of love and refuse to come to His light so that our sins might be revealed, because we love our sins too much, then we face the awful alternative of condemnation.

3.18 ‘He who believes in Him is not condemned, but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God’.

He stresses that it is not God Who condemns men, rather they condemn themselves. When they see God’s supreme Word, Jesus, revealing His glory and the glory of God, their very refusal to acknowledge Him condemns them. They are showing what they really are. For had their hearts been open and true they would immediately have believed in Him and received Him gladly. And their sin is made worse by the fact that that they are rejecting ‘the only Son of God’. This is then emphasised in another way.

‘He who believes in Him is not condemned’. What an incredible truth. For the one whose full trust is in Jesus Christ there can be no condemnation (Romans 5.1), for, because the Eternal Judge is also their Saviour, He makes intercession for them and points to His death on the cross on their behalf as proof that their sin has been atoned for. There is thus no one to lay a charge against one of God’s chosen ones (Romans 8.33-34). But note that it is axiomatic that such a person turns from evil (verses 19-21).

‘He who does not believe is condemned already.’ This is the opposite side of the picture. What greater condemnation could there be than the rejection of God’s offer of mercy. For their rejection of Him demonstrates the hardness of their hearts and their utter sinfulness.

‘Because he has not believed in the only begotten Son of God.’ This in the end is why the condemnation is so great. It is not just anyone they are rejecting but the only true Son of God. It is almost incredible. The creature rejecting its Creator! Once again monogenes means someone of the same nature.

3.19 ‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’.

God bases His condemnation on the fact that Jesus has come as ‘the light’ into the world (John 1.4-5, 9; 8.12), and by His life and teaching has offered the light of life and revealed the light of truth. But men turn from Him because they love their sins and His light therefore shines on them and condemns them. They do not want to give up their lives which ‘come short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3.23), the glory revealed by Jesus, and so they reject Jesus and even say evil things against Him, and thus are in danger of the unforgivable sin, final rejection of the clear testimony of the Spirit (Mark 3.22 with 28, 29). If we refuse to open our lives to the light of Jesus we have no one to blame but ourselves when we are finally condemned.

When we pick up a rock in the garden the light shines where it was previously dark and we find there many unpleasant creatures that immediately scuttle for cover. So when Christ’s light shines on men they too will respond or run for cover, depending on the state of their hearts, and the result of what they do will determine their eternal future.

‘The only begotten Son of God.’ Strictly speaking in earthly terms Jesus was not ‘begotten of God’ for on earth to be begotten is to come into existence after the begetter. The idea is rather that He is true God and of the same nature as the Father. Unlike all others He is not a created being.

3.20 ‘For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved’.

While we are behaving like ‘nice Christians’ and doing good, men will praise us and say nice things about us, but let us once speak and behave in such a way that it condemns their own selfish and evil living, and they will immediately change and begin to show their anger and condemn us. For men hate the light.

So it was even more supremely with Jesus. While He preached in parables which could be generalised He was popular. But once His preaching began to reach the heart many left Him (John 6.66), and when He exposed the hypocrisy of much Jewish teaching He was condemned out of hand. But by their desertion, and by their condemnation, these people revealed that they were evil. They did not want to face up to the truth or let the truth come out, and so they hid from the light. They ceased listening to Him because it was too disturbing.

The truth is that men naturally ‘hate the light’. They do not want to be exposed as what they are. They do not want to know the truth about themselves and will do anything to hide from it. Nor do they want to be ‘reproved’ or condemned. So they hide in the darkness where they are satisfied that their sins cannot be seen. But in Jesus light had come, and it was shining through His life and teaching and they must therefore now respond one way or the other. What they must never forget is that one day a light will shine on their lives from which they cannot hide. And then judgment will be passed and they will ‘perish’.

3.21 ‘But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God’.

On the other hand those who do what is right have no fear of the truth about their lives coming out. They gladly come to Jesus and listen eagerly to His words and to the word of God and let Him examine them, for they know that His words will help them get rid of sin and that when He examines them He will help them rid themselves of what is spoiling their lives. They want their lives to be open to examination and be put under the spotlight of God, so that what they really are can be seen, that they are true children of God.

‘That it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God’. Such a man’s conscience is totally clear. He does not mind that his life is brought into the light, for he knows that anything he had of which he should be ashamed has been dealt with by the blood of Christ, and that now he is so living that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Thus he is happy for anyone to see the light shining from him. As Jesus said elsewhere, ‘let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in Heaven’. (Matthew 5.16). But in the end, more importantly, he is happy for God to see what he does so that God will be pleased with what he has done.

‘That his deeds have been wrought in God.’ That is that that they have been carried out by one who is committed to God and enveloped in Him by faith, that they are the result of an attitude of obedience which brings them within His sphere. That they have God’s full approval as wrought by one who is truly His. They are the consequence of his close walk with God.

But a final word of warning. Coming to Jesus Christ and believing in Him involves coming to the light. Those who continue in darkness may have some kind of belief but it is not the belief in Jesus Christ that saves, for when Jesus saves His work is effective.

Note. Are John 3.16-21 the words of Jesus?

The impression given by the passage is that we do have here the words of Jesus. It is not of course possible to assert dogmatically that those who take another position are not correct, for each must see it as he will. But there is nothing in the passage which is not said elsewhere by Jesus in one way or another. Verses 13-15 are equally 'extreme' in their ideas, and many would not deny them to Jesus. (Some would deny any words to Jesus, but that is another matter).

Nor is there any theology in it that is not spoken elsewhere by Jesus. He elsewhere speaks regularly of 'the Son', which by inference means 'the only Son'. He has already just spoken of His coming death in veiled form (and it is equally veiled in 3.16. We look on it from the other side of the resurrection).

But a main argument for the position of those who see this as a comment of John’s is that here Jesus speaks baldly of 'God' whereas normally He speaks of 'the Father'. However the fact is that God is only mentioned twice in the whole passage, whilst elsewhere Jesus does equally suddenly and baldly say 'God' elsewhere (e.g. 13.31, 32; 4.10; 4.24; 5.42; 6.27, 33, 46; 7.17; 8.40, 47; 11.4; 14.1), as He also does in the other Gospels. Yet in all places He is also careful not to overuse the term. Note how He often uses the passive tense so as to avoid saying 'God'. E.g. 'They shall be comforted' rather than 'God will comfort them'. This attitude was especially important when speaking to the Pharisees and strict Jews for they too sought to avoid using the name God as much as possible, while not doing so completely.

But here Jesus is in personal and close conversation with a seeker and wants the idea to come over with full force. Furthermore this is at the beginning of His ministry and we could equally suggest that He had not yet finalised His later way of speaking. So there really is no strong reason for denying that these words are the words of Jesus.

One possibly stronger argument, is that it is difficult to see verses 35-36 on the lips of John the Baptiser. It was Jesus who spoke of 'the Father' and 'the Son'. But it is one thing to see a small comment at the end of a section as a comment of the author, quite another to argue the same for a much larger portion as here. And besides, John the Baptiser does say some surprising things and had no doubt had many close conversations with Jesus after His baptism.

Whether the author would add words to the words of Jesus in a way that could be so easily misleading is a matter of opinion. But there is a strong case for suggesting that in the early church the words of Jesus were looked on as so important that such a procedure would have been frowned on.

End of Note.

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