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1. A man. With a reference to the last word of the previous chapter. The interview with Nicodemus is, apart from the important truth which it embodies, an illustration of Christ's knowledge of what was in man. Godet truthfully observes that John reminds us by the word anqrwpov (man), that Nicodemus was a specimen of the race which Jesus knew so well.
Named Nicodemus. Literally, Nicodemus, the name unto him. The name means conqueror of the people (nikh, victory, and dhmov, people), though some give it a Hebrew derivation meaning innocent blood.
A ruler. A member of the Sanhedrim.
2. To Jesus. The best texts substitute prov aujton, to him.
By night. Through timidity, fearing to compromise his dignity, and possibly his safety. The fact is noticed again, xix. 39 (see on vii. 50). By night, "when Jewish superstition would keep men at home." He could reach Jesus' apartment without being observed by the other inmates of the house, for an outside stair led to the upper room.
Rabbi. The teacher of Israel (ver. 10) addresses Jesus by the title applied by his own disciples to himself - my master (see on i. 38). "We may be sure that a member of the sect that carefully scrutinized the Baptist's credentials (i. 19-24) would not lightly address Jesus by this title of honor, or acknowledge Him as teacher" (Milligan and Moulton).
We know (oidamen). Assured conviction based on Jesus' miracles (see on ii. 24).
3. Answered and said. See on ii. 18.
Verily, verily. See on i. 51.
Be born again (gennhqh anwqen). See on Luke i. 3. Literally, from the top (Matt. xxvii. 51). Expositors are divided on the rendering of anwqen, some translating, from above, and others, again or anew. The word is used in the following senses in the New Testament, where it occurs thirteen times:
4. Again: Gal. iv. 9, but accompanied by palin, again.
In favor of the rendering from above, it is urged that it corresponds to John's habitual method of describing the work of spiritual regeneration as a birth from God (i. 13; 1 John iii. 9; iv. 7; v. 1, 4, 8); and further, that it is Paul, and not John, who describes it as a new birth.
In favor of the other rendering, again, it may be said:
1. that from above does not describe the fact but the nature of the new birth, which in the logical order would be stated after the fact, but which is first announced if we render from above. If we translate anew or again, the logical order is preserved, the nature of the birth being described in ver. 5.
2. That Nicodemus clearly understood the word as meaning again, since, in ver. 4, he translated it into a second time.
3. That it seems strange that Nicodemus should have been startled by the idea of a birth from heaven.
Canon Westcott calls attention to the traditional form of the saying in which the word ajnagennasqai, which can only mean reborn, is used as its equivalent. Again, however, does not give the exact force of the word, which is rather as Rev., anew, or afresh. Render, therefore, as Rev., except a man be born anew. The phrase occurs only in John's Gospel.
4. When he is old (gerwn wn). Literally, being an old man.
Can he (mh dunatai). The interrogative particle anticipates a negative answer. Surely he cannot.
Second time. Nicodemus looks at the subject merely from the physical side. His second time is not the same as Jesus' anew. As Godet remarks, "he does not understand the difference between a second beginning and a different beginning."
1. That Jesus here lays down the preliminary conditions of entrance into His kingdom, expanding and explaining His statement in ver. 3.
2. That this condition is here stated as complex, including two distinct factors, water and the Spirit.
3. That the former of these two factors is not to be merged in the latter; that the spiritual element is not to exclude or obliterate the external and ritual element. We are not to understand with Calvin, the Holy Spirit as the purifying water in the spiritual sense: "water which is the Spirit."
4. That water points definitely to the rite of baptism, and that with a twofold reference - to the past and to the future. Water naturally suggested to Nicodemus the baptism of John, which was then awakening such profound and general interest; and, with this, the symbolical purifications of the Jews, and the Old Testament use of washing as the figure of purifying from sin (Ps. ii. 2, 7; Ezek. xxxvi. 25; Zech. xiii. 1). Jesus' words opened to Nicodemus a new and more spiritual significance in both the ceremonial purifications and the baptism of John which the Pharisees had rejected (Luke vii. 30). John's rite had a real and legitimate relation to the kingdom of God which Nicodemus must accept.
5. That while Jesus asserted the obligation of the outward rite, He asserted likewise, as its necessary complement, the presence and creating and informing energy of the Spirit with which John had promised that the coming one should baptize. That as John's baptism had been unto repentance, for the remission of sins, so the new life must include the real no less than the symbolic cleansing of the old, sinful life, and the infusion by the Spirit of a new and divine principle of life. Thus Jesus' words included a prophetic reference to the complete ideal of Christian baptism - "the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost" (Tit. iii. 5; Eph. v. 26); according to which the two factors are inseparably blended (not the one swallowed up by the other), and the new life is inaugurated both symbolically in the baptism with water, and actually in the renewing by the Holy Spirit, yet so as that the rite, through its association with the Spirit's energy, is more than a mere symbol: is a veritable vehicle of grace to the recipient, and acquires a substantial part in the inauguration of the new life. Baptism, considered merely as a rite, and apart from the operation of the Spirit, does not and cannot impart the new life. Without the Spirit it is a lie. It is a truthful sign only as the sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
6. That the ideal of the new life presented in our Lord's words, includes the relation of the regenerated man to an organization. The object of the new birth is declared to be that a man may see and enter into the kingdom of God. But the kingdom of God is an economy. It includes and implies the organized Christian community. This is one of the facts which, with its accompanying obligation, is revealed to the new vision of the new man. He sees not only God, but the kingdom of God; God as King of an organized citizenship; God as the Father of the family of mankind; obligation to God implying obligation to the neighbor; obligation to Christ implying obligation to the church, of which He is the head, "which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all things with all things" (Ephesians i. 23). Through water alone, the mere external rite of baptism, a man may pass into the outward fellowship of the visible church without seeing or entering the kingdom of God. Through water and the Spirit, he passes indeed into the outward fellowship, but through that into the vision and fellowship of the kingdom of God.
Enter into. This more than see (ver. 3). It is to become partaker of; to go in and possess, as the Israelites did Canaan.
6. That which is born (to gegennhenon). Strictly, that which hath been born, and consequently is now before us as born. The aorist tense (3, 4, 5, 7), marks the fact of birth; the perfect (as here), the state of that which has been born (see on 1 John v. 18, where both tenses occur); the neuter, that which, states the principle in the abstract. Compare ver. 8, where the statement is personal: everyone that is born. Compare 1 John v. 4, and 1 John v. 1, 18.
Of the flesh (ek thv sarkov). See on ver. 14. John uses the word sarx generally, to express humanity under the conditions of this life (i. 14; 1 John iv. 2, 3, 7; 2 John 7), with sometimes a more definite hint at the sinful and fallible nature of humanity (1 John ii. 16; John viii. 15). Twice, as opposed to pneuma, Spirit (iii. 6; vi. 63).
Of the Spirit (ek tou pneumatov). The Holy Spirit of God, or the principle of life which He imparts. The difference is slight, for the two ideas imply each other; but the latter perhaps is better here, because a little more abstract, and so contrasted with the flesh. Spirit and flesh are the distinguishing principles, the one of the heavenly, the other of the earthly economy.
7. Unto thee - ye must. Note the change from the singular to the plural pronoun. In his address to Nicodemus (thee) the Lord had spoken also to those whom Nicodemus represented, and whom he had included when he said "we know" (ver. 2). His error was the error of his class.
8. The wind (to pneuma). Some hold by the translation spirit, as Wyc., the spirit breatheth where it will. In Hebrew the words spirit and wind are identical. Pneuma is from pnew to breathe or blow, the verb used in this verse (bloweth), and everywhere in the New Testament of the blowing of the wind (Matt. vii. 25, 27; Luke xii. 55; John vi. 18). It frequently occurs in the classics in the sense of wind. Thus Aristophanes, to pneum' elatton gignetai, the wind is dying away ("Knights," 441), also in the New Testament, Heb. i. 7, where the proper translation is, "who maketh His angels winds," quoted from Ps. ciii. 4 (Sept.). In the Septuagint, 1 Kings xviii. 45; xix. 11; 2 Kings iii. 17; Job i. 19. In the New Testament, in the sense of breath, 2 Thess. ii. 8; Apoc. xi. 11. The usual rendering, wind, is confirmed here by the use of the kindred verb pnei, bloweth, and by fwnhn, sound, voice. Tholuck thinks that the figure may have been suggested to Jesus by the sound of the night-wind sweeping through the narrow street.
Where it listeth (opou qelei). On the verb qelw, to will or determine, see on Matt. i. 19. Listeth is old English for pleasure or willeth, from the Anglo-Saxon lust, meaning pleasure. Chaucer has the forms leste, lust, and list.
"Strong was the wyn, and wel to drynke us leste (pleased)." "Canterbury Tales," 752.
"Love if thee lust." "Canterbury Tales," 1185.
"She walketh up and down wher as hire list (wherever she pleases)." "Canterbury Tales," 1054.
" A wretch by fear, not force, like Hannibal, Drives back our troops, and conquers as she lists." Shakespeare, "Henry VI.," Pt. I., 1, 5, 22.
Hence listless is devoid of desire. The statement of Jesus is not meant to be scientifically precise, but is rather thrown into a poetic mold, akin to the familiar expression "free as the wind." Compare 1 Cor. xii. 11; and for the more prosaic description of the course of the wind, see Eccl. i. 6.
Sound (fwnhn). Rev., voice. Used both of articulate and inarticulate utterances, as of the words from heaven at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration (Matt. iii. 17; 2 Pet. i. 17, 18); of the trumpet (Matt. xxiv. 31; 1 Cor. xiv. 8), and of inanimate things in general (1 Corinthians xiv. 17). John the Baptist calls himself fwnh, a voice, and the word is used of the wind, as here, in Acts ii. 6. Of thunder, often in the Revelation (vi. 1; xiv. 2, etc.).
Canst not tell (ouk oidav). Better, as Rev., knowest not. Socrates, (Xenophon's "Memorabilia)," says, "The instruments of the deities you will likewise find imperceptible; for the thunder-bolt, for instance, though it is plain that it is sent from above, and works its will with everything with which it comes in contact, is yet never seen either approaching, or striking, or retreating; the winds, too, are themselves invisible, though their effects are evident to us, and we perceive their course" (iv. 3, 14). Compare Eccl. xi. 5.
So. So the subject of the Spirit's invisible influence gives visible evidence of its power.
9. These things. Such as the new birth.
Be (genesqai). Literally, come to pass.
10. Answered and said. See on ii. 18.
Art thou a master of Israel (su ei o didaskalov tou Israhl). The su, thou, is emphatic. A master is more correctly rendered by Rev., the teacher. Not ironical, but the article marks Nicodemus' official relation to the people, and gives additional force to the contrast in the following words. Similarly Plato: "Will you (su, emphatic), O professor of true virtue, pretend that you are justified in this?" ("Crito," 51). On "Israel," see on i. 47. The word occurs four times in John's Gospel; here, i. 31, 47, 49.
Knowest not (ou ginwskeiv). See on ii. 24. Nicodemus is not reproved for the want of previous knowledge, but for the want of perception or understanding when these truths are expounded to him. Rev., better, understandest not.
11. We speak - we know - we have seen. After the use of the singular number in vv. 3, 5, 7, 12, the plural here is noteworthy. It is not merely rhetorical - "a plural of majesty" - but is explained by ver. 8, "every one that is born of the Spirit." The new birth imparts a new vision. The man who is born of the Spirit hath eternal life (ver. 36); and life eternal is to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent (xvii. 3). "Ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know (oidate) all things" 22 (1 John ii. 20). He who is born of water and of the Spirit sees the kingdom of God. This we therefore includes, with Jesus, all who are truly born anew of the Spirit. Jesus meets the we know of Nicodemus (ver. 2), referring to the class to which he belonged, with another we know, referring to another class, of which He was the head and representative. We know (oidamen), absolutely. See on ii. 24.
Testify (marturoumen). Rev., better, bear witness of. See on i. 7.
12. Have told (eipon). Rendering the aorist more strictly, I told.
Earthly things (ta epigeia). Compounded of ejpi, upon, and gh, earth. In Col. iii. 2, the adjective appears in its analyzed form, ta ejpi thv ghv, things on the earth. It is in this literal sense it is to be taken here; not things of earthly nature, but things whose proper place is on earth. Not worldly affairs, nor things sinful, but, on the contrary, "those facts and phenomena of the higher life as a class, which have their seat and manifestation on earth; which belong in their realization to our present existence; which are seen in their consequences, like the issues of birth; which are sensible in their effects, like the action of the wind; which are a beginning and a prophecy, and not a fulfillment" (Westcott). The earthly things would therefore include the phenomena of the new birth.
Heavenly things (ta epourania). Compounded with ejpi, upon or in, and oujranov, heaven. Not holy things as compared with sinful, nor spiritual things as compared with temporal; but things which are in heaven, mysteries of redemption, having their seat in the divine will, realized in the world through the work and death of Jesus Christ and the faith of mankind (v. 14-16). Thus it is said (ver. 13) that the Son of man who is in heaven came down out of heaven, and in vv. 31, 32 that He that cometh out of heaven beareth witness (on earth) of what He has seen and heard; and that, being sent from God, He speaketh the words of God (ver. 34).
It has been urged against the genuineness of the fourth Gospel that the lofty and mystical language which is there ascribed to Jesus is inconsistent with the synoptical reports of His words. That if the one represents truthfully His style of speaking, the other must misrepresent it. Godet's words on this point are worth quoting: "It would be truly curious that the first who should have pointed out that contrast should be the Evangelist himself against whose narrative it has been brought forward as a ground of objection. The author of the fourth Gospel puts these words (iii. 12) into the mouth of Jesus. He there declares that He came down from heaven to bring this divine message to the world. The author of the fourth Gospel was then clearly aware of two ways of teaching adopted by Jesus; the one the usual, in which he explained earthly things, evidently always in their relation to God and His kingdom; the other, which contrasted in many respects with the first, and which Jesus employed only exceptionally, in which He spoke directly, and as a witness, of God and the things of God, always naturally in connection with the fate of mankind. The instructions of the first kind had a more simple, more practical, more varied character. They referred to the different situations of life; it was the exposition of the true moral relations of men to each other, and of men to God.... But in that way Jesus could not attain to the final aim which He sought, the full revelation of the divine mystery, of the plan of salvation. Since His baptism Jesus had heaven constantly open before Him; the decree of salvation was disclosed to Him; He had, in particular, heard these words: 'Thou art my well beloved Son;' He reposed on the Father's bosom, and He could descend and redescend without ceasing into the depths of the Father's fathomless love, of which He felt the vivifying power; and when He came, at certain exceptional moments, to speak of that divine relationship, and to give scope to that fullness of life with which it supplied Him, His language took a peculiar, solemn, mystical, one might even say a heavenly tone; for they were heavenly things which He then revealed. Now such is precisely the character of His language in the fourth Gospel." Compare Luke x. 18, sqq., where Jesus' words take on a character similar to that of His utterances in John.
13. And (kai). Note the simple connective particle, with nothing to indicate the logical sequence of the thought.
Hath ascended. Equivalent to hath been in. Jesus says that no one has been in heaven except the Son of man who came down out of heaven; because no man could be in heaven without having ascended thither.
Which is in heaven. Many authorities omit.
14. Must (dei). Must signifies the eternal necessity in the divine counsels. Compare Luke xxiv. 26, 46; Matt. xxvi. 54; Mark viii. 31; John xii. 34. Lifted up (uywqhnai). The following are the uses of the word in the New Testament: The exaltation of pride (Matt. xi. 23; Luke x. 15; xiv. 11). The raising of the humble (Luke i. 52; Jas. iv. 10; 1 Pet. v. 6). The exaltation of Christ in glory (Acts ii. 33; v. 31). The uplifting on the cross (John iii. 14; viii. 28; xii. 32, 34). The reference here is to the crucifixion, but beyond that, to the glorification of Christ. It is characteristic of John to blend the two ideas of Christ's passion and glory (viii. 28; xii. 32). Thus, when Judas went out to betray him, Jesus said, "Now is the Son of man glorified" (xiii. 31). Hence the believer overcomes the world through faith in Him who came not by water only, but by water and blood (1 John v. 4-6).
Should not perish, but. The best texts omit.
The interview with Nicodemus closes with ver. 15; and the succeeding words are John's. This appears from the following facts:
1. The past tenses loved and gave, in ver. 16, better suit the later point of view from which John writes, after the atoning death of Christ was an accomplished historic fact, than the drift of the present discourse of Jesus before the full revelation of that work.
2. It is in John's manner to throw in explanatory comments of his own (i. 16-18; xii. 37-41), and to do so abruptly. See i. 15, 16, and on and, i. 16.
4. The phrase believe on the name is not used elsewhere by our Lord, but by John (i. 12; ii. 23; 1 John v. 13).
6. The phrase to do truth (ver. 21) occurs elsewhere only in 1 John i. 6. 23
16. The world (kosmon). See on i. 9.
Gave. Rather than sent; emphasizing the idea of sacrifice.
Only-begotten Son. See on i. 14.
Have. See on ver. 15.
This attitude of God toward the world is in suggestive contrast with that in which the gods of paganism are represented.
Thus Juno says to Vulcan:
And Apollo to Neptune:
"Thou would'st not deem me wise, should I contend With thee, O Neptune, for the sake of men, Who flourish like the forest-leaves awhile, And feed upon the fruits of earth, and then Decay and perish. Let us quit the field, And leave the combat to the warring hosts." "Iliad," xxi., 461, 467.
Man has no assurance of forgiveness even when he offers the sacrifices in which the gods especially delight. "Man's sin and the divine punishment therefore are certain; forgiveness is uncertain, dependent upon the arbitrary caprice of the gods. Human life is a life without the certainty of grace" (Nagelsbach, "Homerische Theologie"). Mr. Gladstone observes:
17. Sent (apesteilen). See on i. 6. Sent rather than gave (ver. 16), because the idea of sacrifice is here merged in that of authoritative commission.
His Son. The best texts read ton, the, for aujtou, his.
Condemn (krinh). Better, as Rev., judge. Condemn is katakrinw, not used by John (Matt. xx. 18; Mark x. 33, etc.). The verb krinw means, originally, to separate. So Homer, of Ceres separating the grain from the chaff ("Iliad," v. 501). Thence, to distinguish, to pick out, to be of opinion, to judge. See on Hypocrite, Matt. xxiii. 13.
World. The threefold repetition of the word has a certain solemnity. Compare i. 10; xv. 19.
18. Is condemned already (hdh kekritai). Rev., more correctly, hath been judged already. Unbelief, in separating from Christ, implies judgment. He has been judged in virtue of his unbelief.
19. This. That is, herein consists the judgment. The prefacing a statement with this is, and then defining the statement by oti or ina, that, is characteristic of John. See xv. 12; xvii. 3; 1 John i. 5; v. 11, 14; 3 John 6. Light (to fwv). Rev., correctly, the light. See i. 4, 9.
Darkness (to skotov). See on i. 5. Rev., correctly, the darkness. John employs this word only here and 1 John i. 6. His usual term is skotia (i. 5; viii. 12; 1 John i. 5, etc.), more commonly describing a state of darkness, than darkness as opposed to light.
Were (hn). Habitually. The imperfect tense marking continuation.
20. Doeth (prasswn). The present participle, indicating habit and general tendency.
Evil (faula). Rev., ill. A different word from that in the previous verse. Originally, light, paltry, trivial, and so worthless. Evil, therefore, considered on the side of worthlessness. See on Jas. iii. 16.
Lest his works should be reproved (ina mh elegcqh ta erga autou). Rather, in order that his works may not be reproved. Elegcw, rendered reprove, has several phases of meaning. In earlier classical Greek it signifies to disgrace or put to shame. Thus Ulysses, having succeeded in the trial of the bow, says to Telemachus, "the stranger who sits in thy halls disgraces (elegcei) thee not" ("Odyssey, xxi. 424). Then, to cross-examine or question, for the purpose of convincing, convicting, or refuting; to censure, accuse. So Herodotus: "In his reply Alexander became confused, and diverged from the truth, whereon the slaves interposed, confuted his statements (hlegcon, cross-questioned and caught him in falsehood), and told the whole history of the crime" (i. 115). The messenger in the "Antigone" of Sophocles, describing the consternation of the watchmen at finding Polynices' body buried, says: "Evil words were bandied among them, guard accusing (elegcwn) guard" (260). Of arguments, to bring to the proof; prove; prove by a chain of reasoning. It occurs in Pindar in the general sense of to conquer or surpass. "Having descended into the naked race they surpassed (hlegxan) the Grecian band in speed ("Pythia," xi. 75).
In the New Testament it is found in the sense of reprove (Luke iii. 19; 1 Timothy v. 20, etc.). Convince of crime or fault (1 Cor. xiv. 24; Jas. ii. 9). To bring to light or expose by conviction (Jas. iii. 20; Eph. v. 11, 13; John viii. 46; see on that passage). So of the exposure of false teachers, and their refutation (Tit. i. 9, 13; ii. 15). To test and expose with a view to correction, and so, nearly equivalent to chasten (Hebrews xii. 5). The different meanings unite in the word convict. Conviction is the result of examination, testing, argument. The test exposes and demonstrates the error, and refutes it, thus convincing, convicting, and rebuking the subject of it. This conviction issues in chastening, by which the error is corrected and the erring one purified. If the conviction is rejected, it carries with it condemnation and punishment. The man is thus convicted of sin, of right, and of judgment (John xvi. 8). In this passage the evil-doer is represented as avoiding the light which tests, that light which is the offspring of love (Apoc. iii. 19) and the consequent exposure of his error. Compare Eph. v. 13; John i. 9-11. This idea of loving darkness rather than light is graphically treated in Job 24 and runs through vv. 13-17.
21. Doeth the truth (poiwn thn alhqeian). The phrase occurs only here and in 1 John i. 6. Note the contrasted phrase, doeth evil (ver. 20). There the plural is used: doeth evil things; evil being represented by a number of bad works. Here the singular, the truth, or truth; truth being regarded as one, and "including in a supreme unity all right deeds." There is also to be noted the different words for doing in these two verses: doeth evil (prasswn); doeth truth (poiwn). The latter verb contemplates the object and end of action; the former the means, with the idea of continuity and repetition. Prasswn is the practice, while poiwn may be the doing once for all. Thus poiein is to conclude a peace: prassein, to negotiate a peace. So Demosthenes: "He will do (praxei) these things, and will accomplish them (poihsei)." In the New Testament a tendency is observable to use poiein in a good sense, and prasswin in an evil sense. Compare the kindred word praxiv, deed or work, which occurs six times, and in four out of the six of evil doing (Matt. xvi. 27; Luke xxiii. 51; Acts xix. 18; Rom. viii. 13; xii. 14; Col. iii. 9). With this passage compare especially v. 29, where the two verbs are used with the two nouns as here. Also, Rom. vii. 15, 19. Bengel says: "Evil is restless: it is busier than truth." In Rom. i. 32; ii. 3, both verbs are used of doing evil, but still with a distinction in that prassw is the more comprehensive term, designating the pursuit of evil as the aim of the activity.
21. Cometh to. In contrast with hateth (ver. 20). His love of the light is shown by his seeking it.
In God. The element of holy action. Notice the perfect tense, have been wrought (as Rev.) and abide.
Tarried (dietriben). The verb originally means to rub, hence to wear away, consume; and so of spending or passing time.
Came - were baptized. Imperfects. They kept coming.
24. Prison (thn fulakhn). See on Acts v. 18, 21.
Question (zhthsiv). Rev., more correctly, questioning. Question would be zhthma, always in the sense of a question in debate. The word here represents the process of inquiry.
Between (ek). Rev., correctly, on the part of. Literally, proceeding from. The rendering of the A.V. does not show with which party the discussion originated. The Greek distinctly states that the question was raised by the disciples of the Baptist.
The Jews. The best texts read Ioudaiou, with a Jew. Possibly one who asserted that John's baptism might now be dispensed with.
Purifying. Probably not about the familiar ceremonial purifications, but as to whether the baptism of Jesus or of John had the greater purifying power.
26. Behold (ide). Used by both Matthew and Mark, not by Luke, but very frequently by John.
Baptizeth - come. The present would be better rendered by is baptizing, are coming.
27. Receive. Answering to given.
Be given (h dedomenon). Rev., more correctly, have been given.
From heaven. Literally, out of heaven (ek).
Friend of the bridegroom. Or groomsman. The term is appropriate to Judaea, the groomsmen not being customary in Galilee. See Matt. ix. 15, where the phrase children of the bridechamber is used. (See on Mark ii. 19). In Judaea there were two groomsmen, one for the bridegroom, the other for his bride. Before marriage they acted as in