John 3 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

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(Read all of John 3)
1. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

[Nicodemus.] The Talmudists frequently mention Nicodemus. Now the Jews derive this name, not from the Greek original, but from this story:

"Upon a certain time, all Israel ascended up to Jerusalem to the feast, and there wanted water for them. Nicodemus Ben Gorion comes to a great man, and prays him, saying, 'Lend me twelve wells of water, for the use of those that are to come up to the feast, and I will give you back twelve wells again; or else engage to pay you twelve talents of silver': and they appointed a day. When the day of payment came, and it had not yet rained, Nicodemus went to a little oratory, and covered himself, and prayed: and of a sudden the clouds gathered, and a plentiful rain descended, so that twelve wells were filled, and a great deal over. The great man cavilled that the day was past, for the sun was set: Nicodemus goes into his oratory again, covers himself and prays, and the clouds dispersing themselves, the sun breaks out again. Hence that name given him Nicodemus, because the sun shone out for him."

If there be any thing of truth in this part of the story, it should seem Nicodemus was a priest, and that kind of officer whose title was a digger of wells; under whose peculiar care and charge was the provision of water for those that should come up to the feast. His proper name was not Nicodemus, but Bonai; as Taanith in the place above quoted. Now in Sanhedrim, Bonai is reckoned amongst the disciples of Jesus, and accounted one of the three richest men amongst the Jews at that time, when Titus besieged Jerusalem. "There were three the most wealthy men in Jerusalem, Nicodemus Ben Gorion, Calba Sabua, and Zizith Hakkeesoth." But in Echah Rabbathi, "There were then in Jerusalem four counsellors, Ben Zizith, and Ben Gorion, and Ben Nicodemon, and Ben Calba Sabua; men of great wealth," &c.

There is mention also of a "daughter of Nicodemus Ben Gorion, the furniture of whose bed was twelve thousand deniers." But so miserably was she and the whole family impoverished, that "Rabban Jochanan Ben Zaccahi saw her gathering barleycorns out of the dung of the Arabs' cattle: saith he to her, 'Who art thou, my daughter?' 'I am (saith she) the daughter of Nicodemus Ben Gorion.' 'What then (saith he) is become of all thy father's wealth?'" &c.

I leave it with the reader to determine with himself whether the Nicodemus mentioned amongst them be the same with this of ours or no. It is not much for the reputation of that Nicodemus (whatever may be supposed in the affirmative), that these authors should all along make so honourable mention of him. However, some passages look as if it might be the same man, viz., the name Bonai, by which he went for a disciple of Jesus; the impoverishment of his family, which may be conceived to fall upon them in the persecution of Christianity, &c.: but it is not tanti that we should labour at all in a thing so very perplexed, and perhaps no less unprofitable.

2. The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, 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.

[We know.] It may be a question whether Nicodemus, using the plural number [we know], does by that seem to own that the whole Sanhedrim (of which himself was a member) acknowledge the same thing. I am apt to think the fathers of the Sanhedrim could not well tell how indeed to deny it: which will be more largely discussed upon chapter 11:48. But we know may either be the plural or the singular, which in the first person is most commonly used in all languages. Or else, we know, may signify as much as, it is commonly owned and acknowledged.

[Thou art a teacher come from God.] Nicodemus seems to have reference to the long cessation of prophecy which had not been known in that nation for above four hundred years now past; in which space of time there had been no masters or teachers of the people instituted but by men and the imposition of hands; nor had there in that appeared any one person that would pretend to teach them by a spirit of prophecy:--But we see that thou art a teacher sent from God.

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

[Jesus answered, &c.] You may ask how this answer suits with the question that Nicodemus put: it may appear very apposite upon this account: "You seem, O Nicodemus, to see some sign of the approaching kingdom of heaven in these miracles that are done by me. Verily, I say unto thee, No one can see the kingdom of God as he ought, if he be not born from above."

[Except a man be born again.] By what word our Saviour expressed born again in the Jewish language, it is not easy determining. The subject of the question, well considered, may afford us some light in the solution of it.

I. We must not suppose it a set discourse merely, and on purpose directed upon the subject of regeneration, though the doctrine of the new birth may be well enough asserted and explained from hence: but the question is about the aptitude and capacity of the man qualified to be a partaker of the kingdom of God, or of heaven, or of the times or benefits of the Messiah. For that the kingdom of God or of heaven are terms convertible in the evangelist, is obvious to every one that will take the pains to compare them: and that by the kingdom of God or of heaven is meant the kingdom and times of the Messiah, is so plain, that it needs no argument to prove it.

When, therefore, there was so vehement and universal an expectation of the coming and reign of the Messiah amongst the Jews, and when some token and indication of these times might appear to Nicodemus in the miracles that Christ had wrought, our Saviour instructs him by what way and means he may be made apt and capable for seeing and entering into this kingdom, and enjoying the benefits and advantages of Messiah's days. For,

II. The Jews thought that it was enough for them to have been of the seed of Abraham, or the stock of Israel, to make them fit subjects for the kingdom of heaven, and the happiness that should accrue to them from the days of the Messiah. Hence that passage, There is a part allotted to all Israel in the world to come; that is, in the participation of the Messiah. But whence comes it that universal Israel claim such a part? Merely because they are Israelites; i.e. merely because they come of the stock and lineage of Israel. Our Saviour sets himself against this error of theirs, and teacheth that it is not enough for them to be the children of Abraham, or the stock of Israel, to give them any title to or interest in the Messiah; but they must further be born from above; they must claim it by a heavenly, not an earthly birth. These words of his seem to fall in and bear the same kind of sense with those of John Baptist, "Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our Father."

III. The Jews acknowledged, in order to proselytism, some kind of regeneration or new birth absolutely necessary: but then this was very slightly and easily attainable. If any one become a proselyte, he is like a child new born. But in what sense is he so?

"The Gentile that is made a proselyte, and the servant that is made free, behold, he is like a child new born. And all those relations he had whiles either Gentile or servant, they now cease from being so. By the law it is lawful for a Gentile to marry his mother, or the sister of his mother, if they are proselyted to the Jewish religion. But the wise men have forbidden this, lest it should be said, We go downward from a greater degree of sanctity to a less; and that which was forbidden yesterday is allowable today." Compare this with 1 Corinthians 5:1.

Christ teaches another kind of new birth, requisite for those that partake of the kingdom of the Messiah, beyond what they have either as Israelites or proselytes; viz., that they should be born from above, or by a celestial generation, which only makes them capable of the kingdom of heaven.

4. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?

[Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb?] The common opinion of the Jews about the qualification of an Israelite, qua Israelite, still sticks in the mind of this Pharisee: and although our Saviour useth that term, which in the Jewish language plainly enough intimates the necessity of being born from heaven, yet cannot he easily get off from his first prejudice about the Israelitish generation: "Whereas the Israelites, as they are Israelites, have a right to be admitted into the kingdom of the Messiah, do you therefore mean by this expression of yours, that it is necessary for any to enter a second time into his mother's womb, that he may be an Israelite anew?"

He knew and acknowledged, as we have already said, that there must be a sort of a new birth in those that come over to the Jewish religion; but he never dreamt of any new proselytism requisite in one that had been born an Israelite. He could not therefore conceive the manner of a new birth, that he should be made an Israelite anew, unless it were by entering into the mother's womb a second time; which to him seemed an impossible thing.

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

[Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit.] He tells him, that the Jew himself cannot be admitted into the kingdom of the Messiah unless he first strip himself of his Judaism by baptism, and then put off his carnal and put on a spiritual state. That by water here is meant baptism, I make no doubt: nor do I much less question but our Saviour goes on from thence to the second article of the evangelical doctrine. And as he had taught that towards the participation of the benefits to be had by the Messiah, it is of little or of no value for a man to be born of the seed of Abraham, or to be originally an Israelite, unless he was also born from above.

10. Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

[Art thou a master of Israel?] Art thou a Wise man in Israel? It was the answer of a boy to R. Joshua, when he asked him, "Which is the shortest way to the city? The boy answered, 'This is the shortest way though it is the longest: and that is the longest way though it is the shortest.' R. Joshua took that way which was the shortest, though the longest. When he came very near the city, he found gardens and places of pleasure hedged in [so that he could go no further]. He returned therefore to the boy, and said to him, 'My son, is this the shortest way to the city?' The boy answered, 'Art thou a wise man in Israel? did I not thus say to thee, That is the shortest way though the longest?'" &c.

14. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

[And as Moses lifted up the serpent, &c.] The Jews dote horribly about this noble mystery. There are those in Bemidbar Rabba, that think that the brazen serpent was not affixed to a pole, but thrown up into the air by Moses, and there to have settled without any other support.

"Moses put up the serpent for a sign; as he that chastiseth his son sticks up the rod in some eminent place, where the child may see it, and remember."

Thou shalt remove the mischief by that which did the mischief; and thou shalt heal the disease by that which made thee sick. The same hath R. Bechai; and both confess that it was a miracle within a miracle. But it is not for a Jew to understand the mystery; this is the Christian's attainment only.

17. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.

[Not to condemn the world.] In what sense (beside that which is most common and proper) the Jewish schools use the word the world, we may see from these and such like instances:

I. The whole world hath forsaken the Misnas, and followed the Gemara. Where something may be noted in the story as well as in the grammar of it.

So John 12:19: Behold the world is gone after him. We very often meet with All the world confesseth, &c. and The whole world doth not dissent, &c. By which kind of phrase, both amongst them and all other languages, is meant a very great number or multitude.

II. When they distinguish, as frequently they do, betwixt the poor of their own city, and the poor of the world; it is easy to discern, that by the poor of the world are meant those poor that come from any other parts.

III. "R. Ulla requires not only that every great man should be worthy of belief, but that the man of the world should be so too." It is easy to conceive, that by the man of the world is meant any person, of any kind or degree.

IV. But it is principally worthy our observation, that they distinguish the whole world into Israel, and the nations of the world; the Israelites and the Gentiles. This distinction, by which they call the Gentiles the nations of the world, occurs almost in every leaf, so that I need not bring instances of this nature. Compare Luke 12:30 with Matthew 6:32; and that may suffice.

V. They further teach us, that the nations of the world are not only not to be redeemed, but to be wasted, destroyed, and trodden underfoot. "This seems to me to be the sense: the rod of the exactor shall not depart from Judah, until his Son shall come to whom belongs the subduing and breaking of the people; for he shall vanquish them all with the edge of his sword." So saith Rambam upon that passage in Genesis 49.

"'The morning cometh, and also the night,' Isaiah 21:12. It will be the morning to Israel [when the Messiah shall come]; but it will be night to the nations of the world."

"R. Abin saith, That the Holy Blessed God will make the elders of Israel sit down in a semicircle, himself sitting president, as the father of the Sanhedrim; and shall judge the nations of the world."

"Then comes the thrashing; the straw they throw into the fire, the chaff into the wind; but the wheat they keep upon the floor: so the nations of the world shall be as the burning of a furnace; but Israel alone shall be preserved."

I could be endless in passages of this nature out of these authors: but that which is very observable in all of them is this; That all those curses and dreadful judgments which God in his holy writ threatens against wicked men, they post it off wholly from themselves and their own nation, as if not at all belonging to them, devolving all upon the Gentiles and the nations of the world. So that it was not without great reason that the apostle asserteth, Romans 3:19, "Whatsoever things the law saith, it saith to them which are under the law." Which yet they will by no means endure.

Christ, therefore, by this kind of phrase or scheme of speech, well enough known to Nicodemus, teacheth him (contrary to a vulgar opinion, which he also could not be ignorant of), that the Messiah should become a Redeemer and propitiation, as well to the Gentiles as to the Jews. They had taught amongst themselves, that God had no regard to the nations of the world, they were odious to him, and the Messiah, when he came, would destroy and condemn them: but the Truth saith, "God so loved the world, that he hath sent his Son not to condemn, but to save the world." This very evangelist himself is the best commentator upon this expression, 1 John 2:2; "He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world"; i.e. not for us Jews only, but for the nations of the world.

25. Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.

[A question about purifying.] I. Question, Syriac, inquire: which calls to mind that which is so perpetually in use amongst the Talmudic authors; R. N. inquired of R. N. Whence that also, as familiarly used, If you ask I will tell you. If the word in this place be taken according to this scholastic use of it, as it may very well be, then we may expound this passage thus:

The disciples of John, having heard that Jesus did baptize also, they with the Jews inquire, what sort of purifying resulted from the baptism of Christ; whether that purified more than the baptism of John. They inquire jointly, Doth Jesus superinduce a baptism upon the baptism of John? and John his upon the baptisms or washing of the Jews? Whither will this purifying at last tend? and what virtue hath this of Jesus' beyond that of John's?

II. Or, if you will, suppose we that this be a dispute betwixt the disciples of St. John and the Jews about the legal purifications and the baptism now introduced: there is no doubt but both parties contended to the uttermost of their power.

27. John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.

[A man can receive nothing.] The rendering of this word receive , may be a little questioned. The Syriac hath it to receive. Perhaps it might be more fitly translated to perceive or apprehend. For the Baptist seems in these words to rebuke the incredulity and stupidity of these men: q.d. "Ye see, by this very instance of yourselves, that no man can learn, perceive, or believe, unless it be given him from heaven. For ye yourselves are my witnesses, that I did prefer Jesus before myself, that I testified of him that he was the Son of God, the Lamb of God, &c.; and ye now would cavil against him, and prefer me before him. It is apparent that no one can perceive or discern what he ought to do, unless it be given from heaven." Compare with this, verse 32, "No man receiveth his testimony."

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

[But the friend of the bridegroom.] Of which we have already spoken in our notes upon chapter 2.

His friend, that is, his 'shoshebin.' Where the Gloss hath this passage, which at first sight the reader may a little wonder at:

The friend of the bridegroom is not allowed him all the days of the nuptials. The sense is; He is not admitted to be a judge or witness for him all that time, wherein for certain days of the nuptials he is his shoshebin, or the friend of the bridegroom.

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

[He that is of the earth is earthly.] Mark but the antithesis, and you will not suspect any tautology:

1. He that is of the earth, and He that cometh from heaven. Where the antithesis is not so much between Christ and John, as betwixt Christ and all mankind.

2. He is of the earth, and He is above all. He that is of the earth is only of earthly degree, or rank: and he that is from heaven is above all degree.

3. He speaks of the earth, and what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth. He that is of the earth speaketh earthly things, and what he hath learned upon the earth; but he that is from heaven speaketh those things which he learned in heaven, viz., those things which he hath seen and heard from God. The Baptist seems to allude to the manner of bearing witness, and teaching. In matter of fact there was need of an eyewitness; in matter of doctrine, they delivered what they had heard from their Master.