SUMMARY.--The Ruler Seeking Jesus by Night. The Necessity of a New Birth. The Birth of Water and of the Spirit. The Son of Man to Be Lifted Up. The Love of God for Man. Condemnation for Unbelief. John at Ænon. John's Testimony.
1. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus is named three times by John, and not elsewhere; here; in chapter 7:50, 51, where he protests against condemning Jesus unheard; and in chapter 19:38, 39, where he aids Joseph of Arimathæa in the burial of Jesus. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrim (a ruler), and a rabbi (verse 10).
2. The same came to Jesus by night. He probably chose the night in order to escape observation. He did not dare encounter the hostility of the priests, filled with rage over the cleansing of the temple, and yet he wished to know more of one whom he believed to be sent from God. Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God. Nicodemus confesses, not only his belief, but that of his fellow Pharisees and rulers. The miracles of Jesus convinced them, even if they would not admit it, that he was a teacher sent from God. He came for information, and Jesus recognized it in what follows.
3. Verily, verily, I say unto thee. This form of expression was often upon the lips of Jesus to give emphasis to an unusually solemn and weighty declaration. See Matt. 5:18. It occurs twenty-four times in John. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The term translated "again" is rendered "anew" in the Revision, which is better. It is the great doctrine, so fundamental in the Gospel, of Regeneration, a new Birth, being made a new creature, the same doctrine spoken of in chapter 1:12, 13. Nicodemus, like all Jews, supposed that all who were born as children of Abraham would, as Abraham's seed, be citizens of the kingdom, but Jesus shows him that no one can be a new creature in Christ Jesus unless he is born anew. We are born naturally into the kingdom of nature, to live the natural life; if we enter the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of grace, it must be by a new birth. The doctrine that a man can bury his old sinful life, and begin a new one with the freshness of youthful hope, is foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Isa. 1:18; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), and taught in the New Testament (Rom. 6:8; 8:3; 12:2; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15, 16).
4. How can a man be born again when he is old? The question of Nicodemus indicates his surprise, skepticism and misapprehension of what Jesus meant.
5. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Jesus does not reply directly to the question of Nicodemus, but proceeds to give a more explicit statement concerning the new birth. One must be born of water and of the Spirit. Whatever this may mean, it will be admitted by all (1) that no one is a member of the kingdom of God until he is born again; (2) that the Savior declares the impossibility of one entering who is not born of water and of the Spirit. All agree that the birth of the Spirit refers to the inward, or spiritual change that takes place, and all candid authorities agree that born of water refers to baptism. So Alford, Wesley, Abbott, Whitby, Olshausen, Tholuck, Prof. Wm. Milligan, the Episcopal Prayer Book, the Westminister Confession, the M. E. Discipline, and M. E. Doctrinal Tracts, and also the writers of the early Church all declare. Alford says: "All attempts to get rid of this have sprung from doctrinal prejudices." Abbott says: "We are to understand Christ as he expected his auditor to understand him. John the Baptist baptized both Jew and Gentile as a sign of purification by repentance from past sins. Nicodemus would then have certainly understood by the expression, 'born of water,' a reference to this rite of baptism."
7. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The necessity is implied in the word kingdom. No one born a citizen of England can become a citizen of the United States without complying with our naturalization laws. The kingdom of God has its naturalization laws, and there is no other way of entrance than to be born of water and of the Spirit. We may not understand all the mysteries of the new birth, any more than we do those of the natural birth, but we can understand what has to be done and what is necessary. Two things are needful: the spirit must be renewed; we must be baptized.
8. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Most commentators have held that this means: "As the wind moves mysteriously, so does the Spirit, and it breathes upon whom it will, effecting the inward change called the birth of the Spirit arbitrarily." This view I believe due to a wrong translation, sanctioned, not by Greek, but by current theology. Let it be noted that: (1) Exactly the same Greek term is rendered "wind" and "Spirit" in this verse. It is a violation of all law that the same word should experience so radical a change of meaning in the same sentence. (2) That the word (pneuma) is not translated "wind" elsewhere, although it occurs scores of times in the New Testament, but is always rendered "Spirit." (3) Another word in the Greek, anemos, is usually used to represent "wind." (4) The erroneous idea creates a confusion of figures. It makes Christ to say: "The wind bloweth where it listeth; so is (not the Spirit, but) every one born of the Spirit." It affirms of him who is born just what is affirmed of the wind, a thing the Savior never did. These facts are sufficient to show that the rendering "wind" is wrong. All we have to do is to translate pneuma here, as is done in the latter part of the verse and elsewhere in the New Testament. The verse then reads: "The Spirit (pneuma) breathes where it pleases and thou hearest the voice thereof, but canst not tell whence it comes nor whither it goes. So (by hearing its voice) is every one born of the Spirit" (pneuma). The meaning is: The Spirit breathes where it wills and you recognize its manifestation by its voice; by the words spoken by men of God as the Holy Spirit gives them utterance. You cannot tell whence the Spirit comes to whither it goes, but you can hear its voice when it does come. So, by hearing the voice of the Spirit, is every one born of the Spirit. He who receives by faith the communications of the Spirit is born of the Spirit. The birth of the Spirit is not the same thing as the gift of the Spirit. To those who are born of the Spirit is given. "Because ye are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father" (Gal. 4:6). Hence, in harmony with the above view, Peter says, "Being born again, not by corruptible seed, but incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever."
10. Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? The question implies that Nicodemus was one of the doctors of the law. These made very arrogant claims of superior knowledge.
11. We speak that we do know . . . ye receive not our witness. "Ye" includes Nicodemus and all Jews who failed to confess him; "we" includes himself and those who should testify of him by the Spirit.
12. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not. He had spoken of the things that belonged to the kingdom of God on earth, of the new birth. If Nicodemus could not understand and believe this, how would he receive testimony concerning the heavenly kingdom, God, and eternal glory?
13. And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down . . . the Son of man which is in heaven. This implies: (1) That he existed before he appeared on earth. (2) That heaven was his true abode. (3) That, on earth, his spirit was in communication with heaven.
14, 15. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up. The reference is to Numbers 21:4-9. As the bitten Israelites were healed by looking upon the brazen serpent lifted on high, so the world in sin is saved by looking to Jesus lifted up upon the cross.
16, 17. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, etc. There is no sweeter verse in the Bible. It declares: (1) That God is love. (2) That he loved the world instead of hating it. (3) That he so loved that he gave his Son. The Son did not come to appease the Father's wrath, but the Father sent him because he loved so well. (4) That he came to keep men from perishing.
18. He that believeth on him is not condemned. "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." Faith in Christ is essential to salvation, because it is the power that leads to obedience to him. Is condemned already. "He that believeth not shall be damned." The unbeliever condemns himself. He is lost and refuses to be saved by Christ.
19, 20. This is the condemnation. That men refuse the light. Usually it is not evidence, but an honest heart and a sincere desire for truth, that are needed in order to faith. All kinds of evil doers hate the light.
21. He that doeth truth. Truth has to be lived. He who lives it, lives an honest life sincerely desiring light, will come to the light.
22. Came into the land of Judea. Left Jerusalem and went into the country districts. Tarried . . . and baptized. The first intimation that Jesus administered the baptismal rite. He did it through his disciples (John 4:2).
23. And John was baptizing in Ænon near Salim. The site was first identified by Lieut. Conder, of the British Palestine Exploration. He found a village of Ainun near another named Salim, not far from the Jordan, northeast of Samaria, with, as he says (Tent Work, p. 92), "the two requisites for the scene of baptism of a large multitude;--an open space and abundance of water." Prof. McGarvey, who visited it, says: "Pools, well suited for baptizing are abundant." Because there was much water there. This explains, not why John preached at Ænon, but why he baptized there. "Much water" was essential to baptism in New Testament times.
25, 26. There arose a question . . . about purifying. The Revision says "a Jew," probably a Pharisee who associated baptism with ceremonial purification. From the fact that John's disciples mention Jesus, it is evident that his name came up in the discussion.
27-29. Ye yourselves bear me witness. They complain of the fact that Jesus baptized and was very popular at this time, but John refers to the witness he had borne (1:20, 29), and affirms that each is fulfilling the work "given him of heaven." He that hath the bride. The bride is the Church; the bridegroom is Christ. John, "the friend of the bridegroom," already rejoices in the prospect of the union of the Bridegroom and Bride.
31. He that cometh from above. Christ, who is, therefore, above and over John.
32. No man receiveth his testimony. So few at that time that those who received were as nothing in contrast with the others.
36. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life. Eternal life and eternal death turn upon trust in Christ. He who believes on the Son with a heartfelt, obedient faith, a faith that trusts all and surrenders all to the will of Christ, is born again and "hath eternal life." The faith that saves is a faith that moves us to come to Christ.