Greek Testament Critical Exegetical Commentary - Alford
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:'Chap. 3:1-21.] The Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus,—one of these believers on account of His Miracles—on the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God and the necessity of the new birth.
1.] We have in the Talmud (see Lightfoot, Hor. Heb. in loc.) a Nicodemus ben Gorion, who was properly called Bonai, and said to have been a disciple of Jesus: but he is found living at the destruction of Jerusalem. This might certainly have been; still it must be quite uncertain whether he be the same with this Nicodemus.
He is mentioned again ch. 7:50; 19:39. He was a member of the Sanhedrim (ἄρχων, see reff.), and, besides, a νομοδιδάσκαλος (ver. 10).
2.] νυκτός—for fear of the Jews: see ch. 12:42. The discourse seems to have taken place between Jesus and Nicodemus alone,—and may have been related by our Lord to the Evangelist afterwards. If this be deemed improbable (though I do not see why it should),—of the two other alternatives I would rather believe that John was present, than that Nicodemus should have so minutely related a conversation which in his then position he could not understand.
οἴδαμεν] This plural may be merely an allusion to others who had come to the same conclusion, e.g. Joseph of Arimathea; or it may express that Nicodemus was sent in the name of several who wished to know the real character of this Person who wrought such miracles. It is harsh, in this private conversation, to take the plural as merely of singular import, as Lightfoot seems to do. His other rendering, “vulgo agnoscitur,” is better,—but not satisfactory; for the common people did not generally confess it, and Nicodemus, as an ἄρχων, would not be likely to speak in their name (see ch. 7:49). I would rather take it to express the true conviction respecting Jesus, of that class to which Nicodemus belonged—the ἄρχοντες: and see in it an important fact, that their persecutions and murder of the Prince of Life hence found their greatest aggravation, that they were carried on against the conclusions of their own minds, out of bitter malice, and worldly disappointment at His humble and unobtrusive character, and the spiritual purity and self-sacrifice which He inculcated. Still this must not, though undoubtedly it has truth in it, be carried too far: cf. Acts 3:17 note, and Acts 13:27: 1Corinthians 2:8. Some degree of ignorance there must necessarily have been in all of them, even Caiaphas included, of our Lord’s Office and Person. Stier (iv. 11 ff., edn. 2) seems to think that Nicodemus, by using the plural, is sheltering himself from expressing his own conviction, so as to be able to draw back again if necessary.
ἐλήλυθας] Stier (and Schleiermacher, cited by Stier, iv. 12, edn. 2, note) thinks that there is involved in this word a recognition by Nicodemus of the Messianic mission of Jesus:—that it expresses His being ὁ ἐρχόμενος (Matthew 11:3 .). It is never used of any but the Messiah, except by the Lord Himself, when speaking of John the Baptist as the subject of prophecy (see Matthew 11:14 al.).
διδάσκαλος] In this and the following words, Nicodemus seems to be cautiously withdrawing from his admission being taken as expressing too much. For who of the Jews ever expected a teacher to come from God? They looked for a King, to sit on David’s throne,—a Prophet, to declare the divine will;—but the Messiah was never designated as a mere teacher, till the days of modern Socinianism. So that he seems trying to qualify or recall his ἐλήλυθας by this addition.
The following words exhibit the same cautious inconsistency. No one can do, &c. unless—we expect some strong expression of the truth, such as we had from Nathanael in ch. 1:50, but the sentence drops to merely—‘God be with him,’ which is a very poor and insufficient exponent of ἀπὸ θ. ἐλήλυθας. Against this inconsistency,—the inner knowledge that the Kingdom of God was come, and He who was to found it, on the one hand,—and the rationalizing endeavour to reduce this heavenly kingdom to mere learning, and its Founder to a mere teacher, on the other,—is the following discourse directed.
3.] We are not to imagine that any thing is wanting to complete the sense or connexion. Our Lord replies, It is not learning, but life, that is wanted for the Messiah’s Kingdom; and life must begin by birth. Luther (Stier, iv. 17, edn. 2) says: “My teaching is not of doing and leaving undone, but of a change in the man (nicht von Thun und Lassen, fondern von Werden);—so that it is, not new works done, but a new man to do them; not another life only, but another birth.” And only by this means can Nicodemus gain the teaching for which he is come,—ἰδεῖν τ. β. τ. θ.,—‘become a disciple of Christ:’—ἴδοι, τουτέστι νοήσοι, Thl.,—‘understand, by sharing’—‘have any conception of.’
ἄνωθεν—οἱ μὲν “ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ” φασιν, οἱ “ἐξ ἀρχῆς.” ,—who, as also , explains γεν. ἄνωθ. by παλιγγενεσία:—, , and Thl. taking the other meaning.
The true meaning is to be found by taking into account the answer of Nicodemus, who obviously understood it of a new birth in mature life. Born afresh would be a better rendering than ‘born again,’ being closer to the meaning of ἄνωθεν, ‘from the very beginning;’—‘unless a man begin his life anew altogether (πἁλιν ἄνωθεν, Galatians 4:9), he cannot’ &c.
It is not impossible that the other meaning may lie beneath this,—as the βασιλεία is τοῦ θεοῦ, and so must the birth be;—but Grotius has remarked that in Hebrew and Aramaic (in one of which languages our Lord, discoursing with a Rabbinical Jew, probably spoke) there is no word of double meaning corresponding to ἄνωθεν:—so that He must have expressed it, as Nicodemus understood it, of an entirely new birth. That John never uses the word elsewhere in this sense (Lücke) is here of little weight, for he uses it only three times more, and never with a verb cognate to γεννάομαι. The Evangelist most likely chose the Greek expression γεν. ἄνωθ. as strictly corresponding to the term ἀναγεννᾶσθαι, which, when he wrote, was in common use in the Church: see 1Peter 1:3, 1Peter 1:23. Justin Martyr, as Bp. Wordsworth reminds us, quotes as our Lord’s saying, Apol. i. 61, p. 79, ἆν μὴ ἀναγεννήθητε, οὐ μὴ εἰσέλθητε εἰς τ. βασιλείαν τῶν οὐρανῶν: probably mixing this with Matthew 18:3. On the birth itself, see below, ver. 5.
4.] It is impossible that Nicodemus can have so entirely and stupidly misunderstood our Lord’s words, as his question here would seem to imply. The idea of new birth was by no means alien from the Rabbinical views. They described a proselyte when baptized as “sicut parvulus jam natus.” Lightfoot in loc. I agree with Stier in thinking that there was something of the spirit that would not understand, and the disposition to turn to ridicule what he heard. But together with this there was also considerable real ignorance. The proselyte might be regarded as born again, when he became one of the seed of Abraham: this figure would be easily explained on the Judaical view: but that every man should need this, was beyond Nicodemus’s comprehension. He therefore rebuts the assertion with a reductio ad absurdum, which in spirit expresses, as in ch. 6:60,—‘This is an hard saying; who can hear it?’
γέρων ὤν] Probably he himself was old, and he instances his own case.
5.] Our Lord passes by the question of Nicodemus without notice, further than that this His second assertion takes as it were the ground from under it, by explaining the token and means of the new birth.
There can be no doubt, on any honest interpretation of the words, that γεννηθῆναι ἐξ ὕδατος refers to the token or outward sign of baptism,—γ. ἐκ πνεύματος to the thing signified, or inward grace of the Holy Spirit. All attempts to get rid of these two plain facts have sprung from doctrinal prejudices, by which the views of expositors have been warped. Such we have in Calvin: “spiritum, qui nos repurgat, et qui virtute sua in nos diffusa vigorem inspirat cœlestis vitæ;”—Grotius: “spiritum aquæ instar emundantem;”—Cocceius: “gratiam Dei, sordes et vitia abluentem;”—Lampe: “obedientiam Christi;”—Tholuck, who holds that not Baptism itself, but only its idea, that of cleansing, is referred to;—and others, who endeavour to resolve ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος into a figure of ἕν διὰ δυοῖν, so as to make it mean ‘the cleansing or purifying Spirit.’ All the better and deeper expositors have recognized the co-existence of the two, water and the Spirit. So for the most part the ancients: so Lücke (in his last edition), De Wette, Neander, Stier, Olshausen, &c.
This being then recognized, to what does ὕδωρ refer? At that time, two kinds of baptism were known: that of the proselytes, by which they were received into Judaism,—and that of John, by which, as a preparatory rite, symbolizing repentance, the people were made ready for Him who was to baptize them with the Holy Ghost. But both these were significant of one and the same truth; that namely of the entire cleansing of the man for the new and spiritual life on which he was to enter, symbolized by water cleansing the outward person. Both were appointed means,—the one by the Jewish Church,—the other, stamping that first with approval, by God Himself,—towards their respective ends. John himself declared his baptism to be incomplete,—it was only with water; One was coming, who should baptize with the Holy Ghost. That declaration of his is the key to the understanding of this verse. Baptism, complete, with water and the Spirit, is the admission into the kingdom of God. Those who have received the outward sign and the spiritual grace, have entered into that Kingdom. And this entrance was fully ministered to the disciples when the Spirit descended on them on the day of Pentecost. So that, as spoken to Nicodemus, these words referred him to the baptism of John, which probably (see Luke 7:30) he had slighted. But they were not only spoken to him. The words of our Lord have in them life and meaning for all ages of His Church: and more especially these opening declarations of His ministry. He here unites together the two elements of a complete Baptism which were sundered in the words of the Baptist, ch. 1:33—in which united form He afterwards (Matthew 28:19, Matthew 28:20: Mark 16:16) ordained it as a Sacrament of His Church. Here He speaks of spiritual Baptism, as in ch. 6. of spiritual Communion, and in both places in connexion with the outward conditions and media of these sacraments. It is observable that here, as ordinarily (with a special exception, Acts 10:44 ff.), the outward sign comes first, and then the spiritual grace, vouchsafed in and by means of it where duly received.
εἰσελθεῖν εἰς is more than ἰδεῖν above, though no stress is to be laid on the difference. The former word was perhaps used because of Nicodemus’s expectation of teaching being all that was required: but now, the necessity of a real vital change having been set forth, the expression is changed to a practical one—the entering into the Kingdom of God.
6.] The neuter denotes not only the universal application of this truth, but (see Luke 1:35) the very first beginnings of life in the embryo, before sex can be predicated. So Bengel: “notat ipsa prima stamina vitæ.”
The Lord here answers Nicodemus’s hypothetical question of ver. 4, by telling him that even could it be so, it would not accomplish the birth of which He speaks.
In this σάρξ is included every part of that which is born after the ordinary method of generation: even the spirit of man, which, receptive as it is of the Spirit of God, is yet in the natural birth dead, sunk in trespasses and sins, and in a state of wrath. Such ‘flesh and blood’ cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, 1Corinthians 15:50. But when the man is born again of the Spirit (the water does not appear any more, being merely the outward form of reception,—the less included in the greater), then just as flesh generates flesh, so spirit generates spirit, after its own image, see 2Corinthians 3:18 fin.; and since the Kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, such only who are so born can enter into it.
7.] The weightiest word here is ὑμᾶς. The Lord did not, could not, say this of Himself. Why?—Because in the full sense in which the flesh is incapacitated from entering the kingdom of God, He was not born of the flesh. He inherited the weakness of the flesh, but His spirit was not, like that of sinful man, alien from holiness and God; and therefore on Him no second birth passed; when the Holy Spirit descended on Him at His baptism, the words spoken by the Father were indicative of past approval, not of renewal. His obedience was accepted as perfect, and the good pleasure of the Father rested on Him. Therefore He includes not Himself in this necessity for the new birth.
The μὴ θαυμάσῃς applies to the next verse, in which Nicodemus is told that he has things as wonderful around him every day in the natural world.
8.] Our Lord might have chosen any of the mysteries of nature to illustrate the point:—He takes that one, which is above others symbolic of the action of the Spirit, and (which in both languages, that in which He spoke, as well as that in which His speech is reported) is expressed by the same word as it. So that the words as they stand apply themselves at once to the Spirit and His working, without any figure;—spiritus ubi vult spirat. Bengel, after Origen and Augustine, takes τὸ πν. of the Holy Spirit exclusively: but this can hardly be. The form of the sentence, as well as its import, is against it. The πνεῖ, ἀκούεις, οἶδας, are all said of well-known facts. And the comparison would not hold on that supposition—‘As the Spirit is in His working on those born of Him, so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ But on the other interpretation, we have The wind breatheth, &c.:—so is, i.e. ‘so it is with’ (see a similar construction Matthew 13:45) every one born of the Spirit.
Notice it is not ὁ ἄνεμος here, but τὸ πνεῦμα, the gentle breath of the wind;—and it is heard, not felt;—a case in which the οὐκ οἶδας κ.τ.λ. is more applicable than in that of a violent wind steadily blowing. It is one of those sudden breezes springing up on a calm day, which has no apparent direction, but we hear it rustling in the leaves around.
πᾶς ὁ γεγ.] Our Lord can hardly, as Stier explains (iv. 48, edn. 2), mean Himself by these words; or, if He does, only inclusively, as being γεγ. ἐκ τ. πν.,—not principally. He describes the mystery of the spiritual life: we see its effects, in ourselves, and others who have it; but we cannot trace its beginnings, nor can we prescribe to the Holy Spirit His course: He works in us and leads us on, accompanying us with His witness,—His voice, spiritually discerned. “Homo in quo spiritus spirat, e spiritu respirat.” Bengel.
This saying of the Lord—in contradiction to all so-called Methodism, which prescribes the time and manner of the working of the Spirit—assures us of the manifold and undefinable variety of both these. “The physiognomies of those who are born again, are as various as those of natural men” (Dräseke, cited by Stier, iv. 50, edn. 2).
9.] The question of Nicodemus is evidently still one of unbelief, though no longer of frivolity: see ver. 12.
10.] I believe the E. V. is right in rendering ὁ διδ. a master; the article is inserted as required by τοῦ before Ἰσραήλ, which is expressed as giving a solemnity to Ἰσρ. as the people of God. Or is it possible that ὁ διδάσκαλος may merely be meant as one of οἱ διδάσκαλοι? I prefer either of these reasons for the presence of the article, to supposing it to have any emphatic meaning. Nicodemus was manifestly in no supereminent place among the ἄρχοντες: see ch. 7:50-52. Still less can I with Bp. Middleton, Gr. Art. pp. 242-3, believe any blame conveyed in the title. [Dean Alford afterwards preferred rendering ὁ διδάσκαλος the teacher; see N.T. for English Readers, and N.T. Authorized Version Revised.]
11.] Henceforward the discourse is an answer to the unbelief, and in answering that, to the question (πῶς δύν. τ. γεν.) of Nicodemus: by shewing him the appointed means of this new birth, and of being upheld in the life to which it is the entrance, viz. faith in the Son of God.
ὃ οἴδαμεν λ.…] Why these plurals? Various interpretations have been given: ἢ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ καὶ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦτό φησιν, ἢ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ μόνομ (Euthym.);—“Loquitur de se et de Spiritu” (Bengel);—of Himself and the Prophets (Beza, Tholuck);—of Himself and John the Baptist (Knapp);—of Teachers like Himself (Meyer);—of all the born of the Spirit (Lange, Wesley);—of the three Persons in the Holy Trinity (Stier);—or, the plural is only rhetorical (Lücke, De Wette). I had rather take it as a proverbial saying; q. d. ‘I am one of those who,’ &c. Our Lord thereby brings out the unreasonableness of that unbelief which would not receive His witness, but made it an exception to the general proverbial rule.
οὐ λαμβάνετε, addressed still to Nicodemus, and through him to the Jews: not to certain others who were present, as Olsh. supposes.
12.] The words μαρτυρίαν λαμβάνειν prepared the way for the new idea which is brought forward in this verse—πιστεύειν. Faith is, in the most pregnant sense, ‘the receiving of testimony;’ because it is the making subjectively real the contents of that testimony. So the πιστεύειν εἰς αὐτόν [see ver. 15] is, the full reception of the Lord’s testimony; because the burden of that testimony is, grace and truth and salvation by Himself. This faith is neither reasoning, nor knowledge, but a reception of divine Truth declared by One who came from God; and so it is far above reasoning and knowledge:—πιστεύομεν above οἴδαμεν.
But what are the ἐπίγεια? The matters relating to the new birth which have hitherto been spoken of;—called so because that side of them has been exhibited which is upon earth, and happens among men;—ἃ τοῖς ἐπὶ γῆς ἔτι διατρίβουσιν ἀνθρώποις δυνατὰ ὑπάρξαι τε καὶ νοηθῆναι, Origen. That the parable about the wind is not intended, is evident from κ. οὐ πιστεύετε, which in that case would be ‘do not understand.’ And the ἐπουράνια are the things of which the discourse goes on to treat from this point: viz. the heavenly side of the new birth and salvation of man, in the eternal counsels of God regarding His only-begotten Son.
Stier supposes a reference in this verse to Wisd. 9:16, καὶ μόλις εἰκάζομεν τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, καὶ τὰ ἐν χερσὶν εὑρίσκομεν μετὰ πόνου, τὰ δὲ ἐν οὐρανοῖς τίς ἐξιχνίασεν