The Pulpit Commentary

John 3:3-12 (John 3:3-12)

(1) The conditions of admission into the kingdom of God. New birth of the Spirit.

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John 3:3 (John 3:3)

Many explanations have been offered of the link of connection between the suggestion of Nicodemus and the reply of Jesus. Many expansions or additions have been conjectured, such as the following, suggested by Christ's own language elsewhere: "You, by the finger of God, are casting out devils; then the kingdom of God has come nigh unto us. How may we enter upon its further proofs?"—a view which would demand a deeper knowledge of the mind of Christ than we have any reason to suppose diffused at this period. Others (Baumlein) have supposed Nicodemus to have said, "Does the baptism of John suffice for admission into the kingdom?"—a suggestion which would be most strange for a Pharisaic Sanhedrist to have extemporized. At the same time, it may be proved that the rabbis regarded proselytism as a "new birth," and one produced or brought about by circumcision and baptism. Others, again, have put further words into the reply of Jesus, such as, "The kingdom of God is not in the miracles which I am working; it is in a state of things which can only be appreciated by a radical spiritual change" (Lucke). Similarly Luthardt. Nicodemus was thinking of the kingdom of God evinced by miraculous signs; and Jesus points him to the inner reality rather than to the outer manifestation. Godet sees the Pharisaic position in the question of Nicodemus, "Art thou the Messiah? is the kingdom of God near, as thy miracles seem to indicate?" He was assuming that, as a Pharisee, he had nothing to do but walk in the light, the dawn of which was revealed to him in the signs of a divinely sent Teacher. All these views embrace a large amount of possible conjectural truth; but they ignore the play upon the words of Nicodemus, which the answer of Jesus involves, showing that a sharp, clean retort followed the speech of the former. " We know that NO MAN IS ABLE to do these signs which thou art working EXCEPT GOD , BE WITH HIM . Verily, verily, I say unto thee, EXCEPT ONE be born anew, HE IS NOT ABLE to see the kingdom of God. " The form of both protasis and apodosis in each sentence closely corresponds, and this correspondence suggests the fact of an immediate repartee. adopting even the form of the question or assertion of the ruler of the Jews. To the "we know" of Nicodemus, comes the "I say unto thee" of Jesus. To the general sentiment of Nicodemus Christ gives a personal application. In place of speculation concerning his own relation to God and to the kingdom, Christ searches in the heart of his questioner for spiritual susceptibility. Over against the general proposition about God being with the Worker of these signs Christ sets the practical truth and Divine possibility of any man seeing the kingdom of God. To the suspicion of Jesus being the Messenger and Minister of God, he opposes the supposition of being born from heaven, or anew. From ancient times commentators have been divided as to the meaning of the word ἄνωθεν —whether it should be rendered "from above" or "anew," " again. " The first was favoured by Origen and many others down to Bengel, Lucke, Meyer, Baur, Wordsworth, Lange, based on the local meaning of the word in numerous places; e.g. "from the top" ( Matthew 27:51 ), "from heaven above" ( James 3:15 , James 3:17 ; John 3:31 ; John 19:11 ). Moreover, John uses the idea of birth from God, or by his will supervening on the life of man, and the consequent conference upon it of a new beginning ( John 1:13 ; 1 John 3:9 ; 1 John 4:7 ; 1 John 5:1 , 1 John 5:4 , 1 John 5:18 ). The great point on which our Lord insists is the Divine spiritual origin of the life of which he has so much to say. Several of the English versions, Coverdale's—and second edition of the Bishops' Bible—have adopted this rendering, with the Armenian and Gothic versions. The Revised version has placed it in the margin. Against it is to be brought the use of the verb ἀναγεννᾶσθαι ( 1 Peter 1:3 , 33, and in Justin, 'Apol.,' 1 Peter 1:6 )—a word which corresponds with this clause, ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι , and yet could scarcely be translated "to be born from above," but, "to be born again." The second rendering, giving a temporal value to ἄνωθεν , was adopted by Augustine, Chrysostom (who uses both views), the vulgate, Luther, Calvin, Tholuck, Godet, Westcott, Moulton, Weiss, and Luthardt, and is sustained by the fact that Nicodemus was led by it to an inquiry about ( δεύτερον γεννηθῆναι ) a second birth. If the expression had had no ambiguity about it, and merely conveyed the idea of a heavenly birth, his mistake would have been greater than it was. There are, moreover, numerous passages confirming the temporal sense of ἄνωθεν (Wettstein and Grimm both quote from Josephus, 'Ant.,' John 1:18 . 3; and Artemidorus, 'Oneiroc.,' John 1:13 ); and the παλιγγενεσία of Titus 3:5 points in the same direction. The Jewish rabbi ought to have been familiar with the idea of the "new heart" and "right spirit," and the marvellous and mighty change wrought in men by the Holy Spirit; but the spiritual idea had been overlaid by rabbinic ritualism, and all the hopeless entanglements of ceremonial purity which had been reacts to do duty for spiritual conformity with the Divine will. Archdeacon Watkins reminds us that the Syriac version here gives the rendering "from the beginning," or "anew," and lays great stress on this solution of the ambiguity in the Greek word. The statement of Christ is very remarkable. A man must be born anew, must undergo a radical change, even to see the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 18:3 ). The true kingdom is not a Divine government of outward, visible magnificence, sustained by miraculous aid—a physical sovereignty which shall rival and eclipse the majesty of Caesar. When the kingdom shall come in its genuine power, the carnal eye will not discover its presence. The man born anew will alone be able to appreciate it. The Jews boasted that they were born of God ( John 8:41 ), but could not understand that they needed vital, fundamental, moral renewal—a second birth, a new beginning. Let the opening of Christ's Galilaean ministry be compared with this bold utterance. There in public discourse he called upon all men everywhere to "repent," to undergo a radical change of mind, and that because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. ΄ετάνοια portrays the same change as παλιγγενεσία ; but one term denotes thai; change as a human experience and effort, the other as a Divine operation. Neither repentance nor regeneration commended itself to the rabbinic mind as a necessity for one who was exalted by privilege and ennobled by obedience. The phrase, "kingdom of God," is not a mode of representing truth to which this Gospel calls frequent attention. Still our Lord to Pilate ( John 18:36 ) admits that be is himself the Head of kingdom which is "not from hence"—not resting on this world as its foundation or source. In Matthew the whole of the mission of Christ among men is repeatedly portrayed as "the kingdom of heaven." And from the time when the Lord ascended until now, various efforts have been made to realize, to discover, to embody, to emblazon, to crush, to ignore, that kingdom and its King. This great utterance is a key to much of the history of the Church, and an explanation of its numberless mistakes. Moreover, it supplies an invaluable hint of the true nature of the kingdom of God. Thoma insists on the other rendering of ἄνωθεν , and compares it with the Philonic doctrine, "that the substance of the νοῦς is not attributed to that which is created, but is breathed into the flesh from above ( ἄνωθεν ) by God …Aim, O soul, at the bodiless essence of the spirit world as thy inheritance." These ideas, he thinks, John has placed into the lips of Jesus. The two classes of ideas are fundamentally distinct. Philo contrasts the sensuous and the intellectual; Christ is contrasting nature and grace.

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John 3:1-8 (John 3:1-8)

The interview of Christ with Nicodemus.

This brings before us one of the most important passages in Scripture.


1 . He was " a ruler of the Jews. " That is, not a civic magistrate, but a member of the Sanhedrin, which governed the Jewish community in ecclesiastical concerns.

2 . He was a Pharisee. The most popular and influential of the Jewish sects—narrow in its particularism, and with a zeal springing out of a selfish root. According to his view as a Pharisee, every Jew with the authorized ritualistic qualification would enter the Messianic kingdom as a matter of right, and saw in the Messiah the Head of a new kingdom that would annihilate Gentile powers and control the destiny of the world.

3 . Nicodemus was of a timid and compromising temper. He came to Jesus "by night;" not, as some suppose, because he feared to give too much importance to the young Rabbi by coming openly, but because he feared to lose his credit with his unbelieving colleagues of the Sanhedrin. This timid spirit never left him, though he became somewhat stronger with experience; for he afterwards defended Jesus without acknowledging any personal interest in him ( John 7:51 ), and it was not till Jesus was dead and his body in the hands of Joseph of Arimathaea, that he brought the precious offering that displayed his faith.

4 . His curiosity in Jesus may have been excited by the report made to the Sanhedrin by the deputation that waited on John the Baptist. His present secret visit, therefore, was one of inquiry as to whether Jesus was not the Messiah spoken of by the Baptist.

II. THE MODE OF HIS INQUIRY . "Rabbi, we know that thou art a Teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him."

1 . He concedes that Jesus was a Rabbi, though he had not received his knowledge from the rabbinical schools, but "from God" himself.

2 . He concedes his miracle-working power as an evidence of his Divine mission. This was in accordance with our Lord's own declaration at another time, that "his works bore witness that the Father sent him" ( John 5:36 ). It is suggestive that Nicodemus uses the very expression of Peter when, in describing our Lord's ministry and miracles, that apostle said, "God was with him" ( Acts 10:38 ).

3 . Yet he does not concede our Lord ' s Messiahship, much less his Divinity as the Son of God. He calls him simply "a Teacher," as if he were not different from other teachers. This was the error of Nicodemus.

4 . Yet his inquiry, though not formally expressed, was for further light— as to how far this teaching and these miracles betokened the dawn of the Messiah's kingdom.

III. OUR LORD 'S ANSWER TO HIS INQUIRY . "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." We have here the statement of the doctrine of regeneration by the Holy Ghost. The answer is, in substance, "You are asking, Am I the Messiah, and is my kingdom near, as my miracles seem to testify? I answer that my kingdom is at hand; but it is not a kingdom that men see coming 'with observation,' but a spiritual state into which men enter by a transformation of character."

1 . Our Lord asserts the fact of the new birth.

2 . Our Lord asserts the condition of this new birth, and the agent in its accomplishment. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The usual interpretation is that the water refers to a definite external rite—baptism—and to an internal spiritual operation. The theory of baptismal regeneration points to this passage as one of its favourite proofs. Many able divines, however, believe that there is no allusion whatever here to Christian baptism.

But let it be conceded that "born of water" does refer to baptism, there is nothing in the passage to justify the theory of regeneration by baptism.

(10) If baptism is equivalent to regeneration, why should it be so seldom referred to in Scripture? Faith, which is the true means of our salvation, is mentioned everywhere. Yet baptism is only mentioned twice in Romans, seven times in Corinthians, only once in Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and Peter.

IV. THE NECESSITY OF THE NEW BIRTH . "That which is of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is of the Spirit, is spirit." Nicodemus had spoken of a man entering once more into his mother's womb, and being born again. Our Lord declares that if such a thing were possible, it would not effect the new birth. Children will always be like their parents. Grace does not descend with blood. Therefore there is a profound necessity for the life of the Spirit being imparted by the Spirit.

V. THE MYSTERY OF THE NEW BIRTH . "The wind bloweth where it listeth,…but thou canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth." We cannot account for the beginning, or the influence, or the direction of the wind. So there is deep mystery in the action of the Holy Spirit upon the spirit of man; for while man preserves his absolute moral freedom, the Spirit works in him to will and to do according to his good pleasure.

VI. THE EVIDENCE OF THE NEW BIRTH . "Thou hearest the sound thereof." We cannot know all the mysteries of the wind, but we see and feel the effects of its presence in nature. So the mystery of regeneration comes visibly to the surface of Christian life in the fruits of that life.

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John 3:3 (John 3:3)

Christianity the kingdom of God.

From this language of the Lord Jesus, employed thus early in his ministry, we learn what was his own conception of the religion he came to found amongst men. It is reasonable to believe that the Jewish theocracy suggested the form and type of the new and perfect religion. The Divine wisdom had instituted a State which was intended to serve, and which had served, the purpose of introducing into the world ideas of the eternal righteousness. But the Jewish nation was only a shadow of the Christian Church. We are accustomed usually to speak of Jesus as the Saviour, and to picture Christianity under its gentler aspect as a fellowship and a family. But Christ claimed to be a King, and represented his Church as a kingdom. Not that this aspect is exclusive of others. But our Lord stated the plain truth, and his statements should be taken as a rebuke to all merely sentimental and selfish views of religion.

I. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS RULED BY A DIVINE SOVEREIGN . Absolute monarchy is among men distrusted on account of the imperfections and weaknesses of human nature. The autocrat is usually a tyrant. But Christ, being the Son of God, and the incarnation of Divine wisdom, justice, and clemency, is fitted to rule; and his sway is acknowledged as deserving of implicit submission on the part of all mankind.

II. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS COMPOSED OF CONSECRATED HUMAN NATURES . The empire of the Creator over the inanimate and the brute creation is perfect, The Lord Jesus came to reassert and re-establish the Divine dominion over intelligent and spiritual beings. That these are in a sense subject to Divine authority is not disputed. But Christ desires a voluntary and cheerful obedience. Unwilling subjects afford him no satisfaction. To rule over the bodily and outward life of men is an object of human ambition. But the kingdoms of this world, and their glory, have no charm for Christ. It is in human hearts that he desires and loves to reign. He has undoubtedly an external empire; but this he possesses in virtue of his spiritual sway.

III. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS GOVERNED BY RIGHTEOUS LAWS . The ordinances of earthly governments aim at justice, and in varying degrees they secure their aim. Yet they partake of human imperfection. But of the laws of Christ, and of his apostles, who spoke with his authority, we may say that they are the expressions of the Eternal Mind. It is no grievance to obey them. They realize our moral ideals, i.e. in their intention and requirements. Their observance tends to the highest human good and well being. Their practical and universal prevalence would make earth heaven.

IV. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS ENTERED BY COMPLIANCE WITH CONDITIONS PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL . Men are born subjects of the Queen of England; but they must be born anew of water and of the Spirit, in order that they may become subjects of the Lord Christ. Both the Catholic and the Puritan ideas of regeneration convey this truth. The one lays more stress upon the baptism, which symbolizes a heavenly influence; the other upon the individual experience, which emphasizes the spiritual personality. Both alike agree with the scriptural assertion that Christianity, in its Divine completeness, involves men's participation in newness of convictions, newness of feeling, newness of principle, newness of life. The new birth begins the new life. The birth, no doubt, directs our thoughts to a Divine agency; the new life leads us to think of the human cooperation. And the kingdom of the just and holy Christ is characterized both by the Divine provision and by the human acceptance, both by the Divine authority and the human submission.

V. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM IS DISTINGUISHED BY MANY AND VALUABLE PRIVILEGES . The citizenship of a great nation, of a powerful city, is prized among men for the sake of its accruing honours and advantages. Civis Romanus sum was no empty boast. Far greater are the immunities and honours and joys connected with citizenship in the kingdom of Christ. The safety which is experienced beneath Divine protection, the happiness which flows from Divine favour, the spiritual profit which accompanies submission to Divine requirements,—these are some of the privileges accorded to such as are within, unknown to such as are without, the heavenly kingdom of the Son of God.

VI. THE SPIRITUAL KINGDOM HAS BEFORE IT A DESTINY BRIGHT AND GLORIOUS . All earthly kingdoms bear within them the seeds of corruption and decay. From these the spiritual state is free. It is subject to no "decline and fall." Because Divine, it is incorruptible; and because incorruptible, imperishable—"an everlasting kingdom, a dominion enduring unto all generations."—T.

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John 3:2-3 (John 3:2-3)

Jesus humbling vaunted knowledge.

I. THE VAUNTED KNOWLEDGE OF NICODEMUS . Nicodemus wants to come to Jesus with safety to his own position, and he gets over the difficulty, as he thinks, by coming at night. But such a proceeding may produce greater difficulties than it removes. Now he has come, what shall he say? His aim is to sound Jesus a little, and find out if it will be politic to encourage him. We may be tolerably sure that, with such aims, Jesus would not make his task the easier. Imagine Nicodemus, after going through the usual salutations and beginnings of conversation, making his way to the business that has brought him. How, then, ought he to have begun ? Surely something after this fashion: "You will think it a strange thing for me to come under cover of the dark, but you must know that I am a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, and so I cannot come just at any hour I please. Coming in the daylight, my coming would get known, and all the good things I have worked so hard to gain would speedily vanish. So, before I risk them, I want to know a little more about you." But instead of beginning with simple truth, he says the very thing he ought not to have said—the very thing which was in plain contradiction to the way of his coming, he says he knows Jesus has come from God, and these Pharisees, one and all of them, were professed servants of God, ostentatious even in their service. If, then, Nicodemus had really believed Jesus to have come from God, would he have sought conference with him in this ignominious fashion? Nicodemus feared men more than he feared God. He really knows nothing at all about God. As yet he is a mere player with words instead of an earnest dealer in deep realities. Talking about words and names must not be confounded with real searching into things. Nicodemus should have none to Jesus, saying, "Thou doer of marvels, whence hast thou come? what hast thou brought? what dost thou ask for?"

II. THE WAY TO TRUE KNOWLEDGE . Nicodemus must have his mind cleared of cant and illusion and empty tradition. Jesus does this at once by one of those fundamental declarations going down to the heart of human need. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Thus an indication is given as to the sort of people who profit by the teaching of Jesus. Nicodemus is right in calling Jesus a Teacher; but, then, he can only teach certain people. Jesus, who came to establish a spiritual kingdom of God, can as yet do nothing for Nicodemus, whose notions of a kingdom are of something having a power and splendour to be perceived by the bodily eye. Both Jesus and Nicodemus can talk about the kingdom of God, but they mean very different things. Jesus knows well what the Pharisee has come for. He suspects that Jesus, unlikely as he looks, may be a great one in the expected kingdom, and if so Nicodemus may get the first chance of a good position. So the heart of the man must be altogether altered before he can listen sympathetically to the teaching of Jesus.—Y.

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John 3:1-36 (John 3:1-36)

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John 3:3-21 (John 3:3-21)

5. The revelation of earthly and heavenly things to one who knew that God was with him.

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