Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:1. There was a man] Better, Now there was a man. The conjunction shows the connexion with what precedes: Nicodemus was one of the ‘many’ who ‘believed in His name,’ when they beheld His signs (John 2:23).
Nicodemus] He is mentioned only by S. John. It is impossible to say whether he is identical with the Nicodemus of the Talmud, also called Bunai, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem. The name was common both among Greeks and Jews. Love of truth and fear of man, candour and hesitation, seem to be combined in his character. Comp. John 7:50, John 19:39. In John 19:39 his timidity is again noted and illustrated.
a ruler of the Jews] A member of the Sanhedrin, John 7:50. Comp. John 12:42; Luke 23:13; Luke 24:20. His coming by night is to avoid the hostility of his colleagues: the Sanhedrin was opposed to Jesus. Whether or no S. John was present at the interview we cannot be certain: probably he was. Nicodemus would not fear the presence of the disciples.
Chap. John 3:1-21. The discourse with Nicodemus
This is the first of the eleven discourses of our Lord which form the main portion, and are among the great characteristics, of this Gospel. They have been used as a powerful argument against its authenticity; (1) because they are unlike the discourses in the Synoptic Gospels, (2) because they are suspiciously like the First Epistle of S. John, which all admit was written by the author of the Fourth Gospel, (3) because this likeness to the First Epistle pervades not only the discourses of our Lord, but those of the Baptist also, as well as the writer’s own reflections throughout the Gospel. The inference is that they are, as much as the speeches in Thucydides, if not as much as those in Livy, the ideal compositions of the writer himself.
On the question as a whole we may say at once with Matthew Arnold (Literature and Dogma, p. 170), “the doctrine and discourses of Jesus cannot in the main be the writer’s, because in the main they are clearly out of his reach.” ‘Never man spake like this man’ (John 7:46); not even S. John, and still less any one else, could invent such words.
But the objections urged above are serious and ought to be answered. (1) The discourses in S. John are unlike those in the Synoptists, but we must beware of exaggerating the unlikeness. They are longer, more reflective, less popular. But they are for the most part addressed to the educated and learned, to Elders, Pharisees, and Rabbis: even the discourse on the Bread of Life, which is spoken before a mixed multitude at Capernaum, is largely addressed to the educated portion of it (John 6:41; John 6:52), the hierarchial party opposed to Him. The discourses in the first three Gospels are mostly spoken among the rude and simple-minded peasants of Galilee. Contrast the University Sermons with the Parish Sermons of an eminent modern preacher, and we should notice similar differences. This fact will account for a good deal. But (2) the discourses both in S. John and in the Synoptists are translations from an Aramaic dialect. Two translations may differ very widely, and yet both be faithful; they may each bear the impress of the translator’s own style, and yet accurately represent the original. This will to a large extent answer objections (2) and (3). And we must remember that it is possible, and perhaps probable, that the peculiar tone of S. John, so unmistakeable, yet so difficult to analyse satisfactorily, may be a reproduction, more or less conscious, of that of his Divine Master.
But on the other hand we must remember that an eventful life of half a century separates the time when S. John heard these discourses from the time when he committed them to writing. Christ had promised (John 14:26) that the Holy Spirit should ‘bring all things to the remembrance’ of the Apostles; but we have no right to assume that in so doing He would override the ordinary laws of psychology. Material stored up so long in the breast of the Apostle could not fail to be moulded by the working of his own mind. And therefore we may admit that in his report of the sayings of Christ and of the Baptist there is an element, impossible to separate now, which comes from himself. His report is sometimes a literal translation of the very words used, sometimes the substance of what was said put into his own words: but he gives us no means of distinguishing where the one shades off into the other.
Cardinal Newman has kindly allowed the following to be quoted from a private letter written by him, July 15th, 1878. “Every one writes in his own style. S. John gives our Lord’s meaning in his own way. At that time the third person was not so commonly used in history as now. When a reporter gives one of Gladstone’s speeches in the newspaper, if he uses the first person, I understand not only the matter, but the style, the words, to be Gladstone’s: when the third, I consider the style, &c. to be the reporter’s own. But in ancient times this distinction was not made. Thucydides uses the dramatic method, yet Spartan and Athenian speak in Thucydidean Greek. And so every clause of our Lord’s speeches in S. John may be in S. John’s Greek, yet every clause may contain the matter which our Lord spoke in Aramaic. Again, S. John might and did select or condense (as being inspired for that purpose) the matter of our Lord’s discourses, as that with Nicodemus, and thereby the wording might be S. John’s, though the matter might still be our Lord’s.”
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.2. we know] Others are disposed to believe as well as Nicodemus.
a teacher come from God] In the Greek the order is, that Thou art come from God as teacher. We are not sure that ‘come from God’ points to the Messiah, ‘He that should come.’ But if so, we see the timidity of Nicodemus; he begins with an admission of Christ’s Messiahship, and ends with the weak word ‘teacher;’ the Messiah was never thought of as a mere teacher. But ‘come from God’ may only mean divinely sent, as a Prophet (John 1:6), or even less.
these miracles] Better, these signs, as in John 2:11.
except God be with him] A similarly weak conclusion, shewing timidity: one expects ‘unless he be a Prophet,’ or ‘the Messiah.’
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.3. Jesus answered] He answers his thoughts before they are expressed. See on John 2:25, and on John 1:51.
born again] The word translated ‘again’ may mean either ‘from the beginning,’ or ‘from above.’ By itself it cannot exactly mean ‘again.’ S. John uses the same word John 3:31; John 19:11; John 19:23. In all three places, (see especially John 19:11), it means ‘from above,’ which is perhaps to be preferred here: ‘from the beginning’ would make no sense. To be ‘born from above’ recalls being ‘born of God’ in John 1:13, (comp. 1 John 3:9; 1 John 4:7; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:4; 1 John 5:18). Of course being ‘born from above’ is necessarily being ‘born again;’ but ‘again’ comes not so much from the Greek word, as from the context. Comp. ‘verily I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven,’ Matthew 18:3.
There is a probable reference to this passage (3–5) in Justin Martyr, Apol. I. lxi. If so, we have evidence that this Gospel was known before a.d. 150. See on John 1:23 and John 9:1.
he cannot see] i.e. so as to partake of it. Comp. to ‘see corruption,’ Psalm 16:10; to ‘see evil,’ Psalm 90:15; to ‘see death,’ John 8:51; Luke 2:26.
the kingdom of God] This phrase, so frequent in the Synoptists, occurs only here and John 3:5 in S. John. We may conclude that it was the very phrase used.
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?4. when he is old] He purposely puts the most impossible case; the words do not imply that he was an old man himself. It is difficult to believe that Nicodemus really supposed Christ to be speaking of ordinary birth; the metaphor of ‘new birth’ for spiritual regeneration cannot have been unfamiliar to him. Either he purposely misunderstands, in order to reduce Christ’s words to an absurdity; or, more probably, not knowing what to say, he asks what he knew to be a foolish question.
the second time] This expression has contributed to the word which probably means ‘from above,’ being translated ‘again.’ But ‘to enter a second time into his mother’s womb’ is simply a periphrasis for ‘to be born’ in the case of an adult. The word which means ‘from above’ is not included in the periphrasis. It is precisely that which perplexes Nicodemus; so he leaves it out.
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.5. of water and of the Spirit] Christ leaves the foolish question of Nicodemus to answer itself: He goes on to explain what is the real point, and what Nicodemus has not asked, the meaning of ‘from above:’ ‘of water and (of the) Spirit.’ The outward sign and inward grace of Christian baptism are here clearly given, and an unbiassed mind can scarcely avoid seeing this plain fact. This becomes still more clear when we compare John 1:26; John 1:33, where the Baptist declares ‘I baptize with water;’ the Messiah ‘baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.’ The Fathers, both Greek and Latin, thus interpret the passage with singular unanimity. Thus once more S. John assumes without stating the primary elements of Christianity. Baptism is assumed here as well known to his reader, as the Eucharist is assumed in chap. 6. To a well-instructed Christian there was no need to explain what was meant by being born of water and the Spirit. The words therefore had a threefold meaning, past, present, and future. In the past they looked back to the time when the Spirit moved upon the water causing the birth from above of Order and Beauty out of Chaos. In the present they pointed to the divinely ordained (John 1:33) baptism of John: and through it in the future to that higher rite, to which John himself bore testimony.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.6. The meaning of ‘birth from above’ is still further explained by an analogy. What a man inherits from his parents is a body with animal life and passions; what he receives from above is a spiritual nature with heavenly aspirations and capabilities. What is born of sinful, human nature is sinful and human; what is born of the Holy Spirit is spiritual and divine.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.7. Ye must] The declaration is brought more closely home. In John 3:3; John 3:5 Christ had made a very general statement, ‘except a man.’ He now shews that none are exempt from it. ‘Ye, the chosen people, ye, the Pharisees, ye, the rulers, must all be born from above.’
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.8. The wind bloweth, &c.] This verse is sometimes taken very differently: the Spirit breatheth where He willeth, and thou hearest His voice, but canst not tell whence He cometh and whither He goeth; so is every one (born) who is born of the Spirit. The advantages of this rendering are (1) that it gives to Pneuma the meaning which it almost invariably has in more than 350 passages in N.T. in which it occurs, of which more than 20 are in this Gospel. Although pneuma may mean ‘the breath of the wind,’ yet its almost invariable use in N.T. is ‘spirit’ or ‘the Spirit,’ while anemos is used for ‘wind:’ (2) that it gives a better meaning to ‘willeth,’ a word more appropriate to a person than to anything inanimate: (3) that it gives to phônê the meaning which it has in 14 other passages in this Gospel, viz., ‘articulate voice,’ and not ‘inarticulate sound.’ On the other hand this rendering (1) gives to pnei the meaning ‘breathes,’ a meaning quite unknown in N.T.: (2) uses the expression ‘the voice of the Spirit,’ also unknown to Scripture: (3) requires the insertion of ‘born’ in the last clause, in order to make sense. For the usual rendering may be pleaded (1) that it gives to pnei the meaning which it has everywhere else in N.T., viz. in John 6:18 and five other passages. Although pnei may mean ‘breathes,’ yet its invariable use in N.T. is of the ‘blowing’ of the wind, while another word (John 20:22) is used for ‘breathe:’ (2) that it gives the most literal meaning to ‘hearest:’ (3) that the last clause makes excellent sense without any repetition of ‘born.’ The Aramaic word probably used by our Lord has both meanings, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit,’ so that it is not impossible that both meanings are meant to run concurrently through the passage. “It was late at night when our Lord had this interview with the Jewish teacher. At the pauses in the conversation, we may conjecture, they heard the wind without, as it moaned along the narrow streets of Jerusalem; and our Lord, as was His wont, took His creature into His service—the service of spiritual truth. The wind was a figure of the Spirit. Our Lord would have used the same word for both.” (Liddon.) There is a clear reference to this passage in the Ignatian Epistles, Philad. vii. Thus we have evidence of the Gospel being known certainly as early as a.d. 150, and probably a.d. 115.
so is every one] i.e. such is the case of every one: he feels the spiritual influence, but finds it incomprehensible in its origin, which is from above, and in its end, which is eternal life.
born of the Spirit] The Sinaitic MS. and two ancient versions read, born of water and of the Spirit. The inserted words are a gloss.
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?9. How can these things be?] He is bewildered; there is no appearing not to understand, as in John 3:4. ‘Be,’ come to pass (see on John 1:6).
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?10. Art thou a master of Israel] Better, art thou the teacher of Israel, the well-known Rabbi, a representative of the supreme authority in the Church?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.11. We speak that we do know] The plural is no proof that any of the disciples were present, though S. John at least may have been; nor does it necessarily include more than Christ Himself. The plurals may be rhetorical, giving the saying the tone of a proverb; but the next verse seems to shew that they do include others. Christ and his disciples tell of earthly things, Christ alone of heavenly.
testify] Or, bear witness of (see on John 1:7).
we have seen] Of which we have immediate knowledge. Comp. John 1:18; John 14:7; John 14:9.
and ye receive not] The tragic tone once more; see on John 1:5. ‘Ye teachers of Israel,’ the very men who should receive it.
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?12. earthly things] Things which take place on earth, even though originating in heaven, e.g. the ‘new birth,’ which though ‘from above,’ must take place in this world. See notes on 1 Corinthians 15:40 and James 3:15.
heavenly things] The mysteries which are not of this world, the Divine counsels respecting man’s salvation.
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.13. no man hath ascended up to heaven] No man has been in heaven, so as to see and know these heavenly things, excepting Christ.
came down from heaven] Literally, out of heaven; at the Incarnation. On ‘the Son of Man’ see on John 1:51.
which is in heaven] These words are omitted in the best MSS. If they are retained, the meaning is ‘Whose proper home is heaven.’ Or the Greek participle may be the imperfect tense (comp. John 6:62, John 9:25, John 17:5), which was in heaven before the Incarnation. It is doubtful whether in this verse we have any direct allusion to the Ascension, though this is sometimes assumed.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:14. the serpent] We here have some evidence of the date of the Gospel. The Ophitic is the earliest Gnostic system of which we have full information. The serpent is the centre of the system, at once its good and evil principle. Had this form of Gnosticism been prevalent before this Gospel was written, this verse would scarcely have stood thus. An orthodox writer would have guarded his readers from error: an Ophitic writer would have made more of the serpent.
even so] Christ here testifies to the prophetic and typical character of the O.T.
must] It is so ordered in the counsels of God. Hebrews 2:9-10.
be lifted up] On the cross: the lifting up does not refer to the exaltation of Christ to glory. The glory to which the cross led (crux scala coeli) is not included. Comp. John 8:28 and John 12:32; and for other symbolic language about His death comp. Matthew 12:40.
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.15. That] The eternal life of believers is the purpose of the ‘must’ in John 3:14. For ‘should’ read may both here and in John 3:16.
not perish, but] These words are not genuine here, but have been taken from the next verse. When they are struck out it is better to take ‘in Him’ with ‘have’ than with ‘believeth:’ that every one who believeth may have in Him eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.16. For] Explaining how God wills eternal life to every one that believeth.
loved the world] The whole human race: see on John 1:10. This would be a revelation to the exclusive Pharisee, brought up to believe that God loved only the chosen people. The word for ‘love,’ agapân, is very frequent both in this Gospel and in the First Epistle, and may be considered characteristic of S. John.
that he gave his only begotten] This would be likely to remind Nicodemus of the offering of Isaac. Comp. 1 John 4:9; Hebrews 11:17; Romans 8:32. See note on John 1:14.
everlasting life] The Greek is the same as in the previous verse, and the translation should be the same, eternal life. ‘Eternal life’ is one of the phrases of which S. John is fond. It occurs 17 times in the Gospel (only eight in the Synoptics) and six times in the First Epistle. In neither Gospel nor Epistle is ‘eternal’ (aiônios) applied to anything but ‘life.’ On aiônios, which of itself does not necessarily mean ‘everlasting’ or ‘unending,’ see note on Matthew 25:46.
16–21. It is much disputed whether what follows is a continuation of Christ’s discourse, or the comment of the Evangelist upon it. The fact that terms characteristic of S. John’s theology are put into the mouth of Christ, e.g. ‘only-begotten’ and ‘the Light,’ cannot settle the question: the substance may still be our Lord’s, though the wording is S. John’s. It seems unlikely that S. John would give us no indication of the change from Christ’s words to his own, if the discourse with Nicodemus really came to a full stop in John 3:15. See on John 3:31-36.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.17. the world] Note the emphatic repetition: the whole human race is meant, as in John 3:16, not the Gentiles in particular.
not … to condemn] This does not contradict John 9:39, ‘For judgment am I come into this world.’ Comp. Luke 9:56. Since there are sinners in the world Christ’s coming involves a separation of them from the good, a judgment, a sentence: but this is not the purpose of His coming; the purpose is salvation. ‘Condemn’ is too strong here for the Greek word, which is simply to judge between good and bad; but the word frequently acquires the notion of ‘condemn’ from the context (see on John 5:20). Note the change of construction; not, ‘to save the world,’ but ‘that the world might be saved through Him.’ The world can reject Him if it pleases.
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.18. is not condemned … is condemned already] Better, is not judged … hath been judged already. The change of tense from present to perfect must be preserved. Unbelievers have no need to be sentenced by the Messiah; their unbelief is of itself their sentence. The next verse explains how this is. ‘Judge’ and ‘judgment’ are among S. John’s characteristic words.
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.19. And this is the condemnation] Rather, But the judgment is this; this is what it consists in: comp. John 15:12, John 17:3.
and men loved darkness, &c.] The tragic tone again (see on John 1:5). Both words should have the article, loved the darkness rather than the light. An understatement; they hated the Light. There is probably no allusion to Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night. He chose the darkness, not because his deeds were evil, but because they were good. He wished to conceal, not an evil deed from good men, but a good deed from evil men.
deeds] Better, works here and John 3:20-21.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.20. doeth evil] The Greek word for ‘doeth’ is not the same as that in the next verse; but it is not quite certain that any distinction of meaning is intended, although John 5:29 inclines one to think so. There the words are paired in precisely the same way as here. On the other hand in Romans 7:15-20 these same two words are interchanged indifferently, each being used both of doing good and of doing evil. In order to make a distinction practiseth evil has been suggested. But ‘evil’ also requires re-translation, for in the Greek it differs from ‘evil’ in John 3:19. The meaning in this verse is rather ‘frivolous, good-for-nothing, worthless.’ He that practiseth worthless things (the aimless trifler), hateth the light, which would show him the true value of the inanities which fill up his existence.
lest his deeds should] Better, in order that his works may not.
reproved] The margin gives ‘discovered.’ In John 8:9 the same word is translated ‘convict,’ in John 8:46 ‘convince,’ and in John 16:8 ‘reprove’ with ‘convince’ in the margin. Of all these ‘convict’ is perhaps the best; in order that his works may not be convicted of being worthless, proved to be what they really are. See note on Matthew 18:15.
But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.21. doeth truth] Or, as in 1 John 1:6, doeth the truth, the opposite of ‘doing’ or ‘making a lie,’ Revelation 21:27; Revelation 22:15. It is moral rather than intellectual truth that is meant. To ‘do the truth’ is to do that which is true to the moral law (comp. John 8:32), that which has true moral worth, as opposed to ‘practising worthless things.’ In 1 Corinthians 13:6 we have a similar antithesis: ‘rejoicing with the truth’ is opposed to ‘rejoicing in iniquity.’
that his deeds may be made manifest] ‘His’ is emphatic, ‘his deeds’ as opposed to those of him that doeth evil. ‘Be made manifest’ balances ‘be reproved.’ The one fears to be convicted; the other courts the light, not for self-glorification, but as loving that to which he feels his works are akin. See on John 1:31.
wrought in God] Better, have been wrought in God. This is his reason for wishing them to be made manifest; it is a manifestation of something divine. The Greek for ‘that they are’ may mean ‘because they are.’
These three verses (19–21) shew that before the Incarnation there were two classes of men in the world; a majority of evil-doers, whose antecedents led them to shun the Messiah; and a small minority of righteous, whose antecedents led them to welcome the Messiah. They had been given to Him by the Father (John 6:37, John 17:6); they recognised His teaching as of God, because they desired to do God’s will (John 7:17). Such would be Simeon, Anna (Luke 2:25; Luke 2:36), Nathanael, the disciples, &c.
We have no means of knowing how Nicodemus was affected by this interview, beyond the incidental notices of him John 7:50-51, John 19:39, which being so incidental shew that he is no fiction.
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.22–36. The Baptism and Final Testimony of John
22, 23. We have here a mark of authenticity similar to John 2:12. These passages “it is impossible to regard as embodiments of dogma. It is equally impossible to regard them as fragments detached from the mass of tradition. The only conclusion remains, that they art facts lodged in the memory of a living witness of the events described.” S. p. 86. S. John records them, not for any theological purpose, but because he was there, and remembers what took place.
and baptized] Or, was baptizing during his stay there, through his disciples (John 4:2). Christ’s baptism was not yet in the Name of the Trinity (John 7:39) as ordered to the Apostles (Matthew 28:19). It was a continuation of John’s baptism, accompanied by the operation of the Spirit (John 3:5). We have abundant evidence that John baptized before Christ’s public ministry commenced, and that the disciples baptized after His ministry closed. That the one baptism should be the offspring of the other is probable enough antecedently; “yet this is the one passage in which it is positively stated that our Lord authorised baptism during His lifetime.” S. p. 85.
And John also was baptizing in AEnon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.23. John also was baptizing] Not as a rival to the Messiah, but still in preparation for Him. Although John knew that the Messiah had come, yet He had not yet taken the public position which John had expected Him to take, and hence John was by no means led to suppose that his own office in preaching repentance was at an end. There is no improbability in Jesus and John baptizing side by side. But with this difference; Jesus seldom, if ever, administered His own baptism; John apparently always did administer his.
Aenon] The name means ‘springs.’ The identifications of both Aenon and Salim remain uncertain. The most probable conjecture is the Wâdy Fâr’ah, running from Mount Ebal to Jordan, an open vale, full of springs. There is a Salim three miles south of the valley, and the name of Aenon survives in ’Ainûn, a village four miles north of the waters.
much water] For immersion; the Greek means literally many waters. The remark shews that these places were not on the Jordan. It would be gratuitous to say of the Jordan that ‘there was much water there.’
For John was not yet cast into prison.24. This corrects the impression, naturally derived from the Synoptists, that Christ’s public ministry did not commence till after the imprisonment of the Baptist. The whole of these first three chapters and part of the fourth must be placed before Matthew 4:12, where there are great gaps in the history.
Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.25. Then there arose] Better, there arose therefore; i.e. in consequence of John’s baptizing at Aenon.
a question] Or, questioning.
between some of John’s disciples and the Jews] Better, on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew. ‘A Jew’ for ‘Jews’ is the reading of the best authorities. We do not know what the question was; probably the efficacy of John’s baptism as compared with Christ’s, or as compared with the ordinary ceremonial washings, for purifying from sin. There is no clue as to who this Jew was. His question makes the disciples of John go at once to their master for his opinion about Jesus and His success.
And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.26. to whom thou barest witness] Rather, to whom thou hast borne witness. This was the monstrous thing in their eyes; that One who seemed to owe His position to the testimony of John should be competing with him and surpassing him.
behold, the same] Or perhaps, behold, this fellow, expressing astonishment and chagrin, and perhaps contempt.
all men] An exaggeration very natural in their excitement. The picture is very true to life. Comp. the excited statement of the Samaritan woman, John 4:29; and of the Pharisees, John 12:19; contrast John 3:32 and see on John 6:15.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.27. A man can receive nothing, &c.] Comp. John 19:11. The meaning of John’s declaration is given in two ways: (1) ‘Jesus could not have this great success, unless it were granted Him from Heaven. This ought to satisfy you that He is sent by God;’ (2) ‘I cannot accept the position of supremacy, which you would thrust upon me; because I have not received it from Heaven.’ The former is better, as being a more direct answer to ‘all men come to Him.’ But it is quite possible that both meanings are intended.
be given] More literally, have been given.
Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.28. Ye yourselves] Though you are so indignant on my account.
bear me witness, that I said] They had appealed to his testimony (John 3:26); he turns it against them.
before him] ‘Before Him, of whom you complain, whom I proclaim to be the Christ.’ In John 1:26; John 1:30, John spoke less clearly.
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.29. John explains by a figure his subordination to the Messiah.
He that hath the bride] Here only in this Gospel does this well-known symbol occur. It is frequent both in O.T. and N.T. Isaiah 54:5; Hosea 2:19-20; Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7; Revelation 21:2; Revelation 21:9. Comp. Song of Solomon, passim; Matthew 9:15; Matthew 25:1. In O.T. it symbolizes the relationship between Jehovah and His chosen people, in N.T that between Christ and His Church.
the friend of the bridegroom] The special friend, appointed to arrange the preliminaries of the wedding, to manage and preside at the marriage feast. Somewhat analogous to our ‘best man,’ but his duties were very much more considerable. A much closer analogy may be found among the lower orders in the Tyrol at the present day. Here the Messiah is the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride; John is His friend who has prepared the heart of the Bride and arranged the espousal. He rejoices to see the consummation of his labours.
heareth him] i.e. listens attentively to do his bidding.
because of the bridegroom’s voice] Heard in the midst of the marriage-festivities.
is fulfilled] i.e. has been fulfilled and still remains complete. Comp. John 15:11, John 16:24, John 17:13; 1 John 1:4.
He must increase, but I must decrease.30. must] It is so ordained in the counsels of God. Comp. John 3:7; John 3:14, John 9:4, John 10:16, John 20:9. This joy of the friend of the Bridegroom, in full view of the inevitable wane of his own influence and dignity, is in marked contrast to the jealousy and vexation of his disciples.
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.31. that cometh from above] i.e. Christ. Comp. John 3:13, John 8:23, He ‘is above all,’ John included. No one, however exalted a Prophet, can rival Him.
is earthly] There is loss instead of gain in obliterating the emphatic repetition of the words ‘of the earth’ as they appear in the Greek. He that is of the earth, of the earth he is, and of the earth he speaketh. This was John’s case: he spoke of ‘earthly things’ (see on John 3:12), Divine Truth as manifested in the world, and as revealed to him. He could not, like Christ, speak from immediate knowledge of ‘heavenly things.’ Note that ‘speaking of the earth’ is a very different thing from ‘speaking of the world’ (1 John 4:5). The one is to speak of God’s work on earth; the other of what opposes, or at least is other than, God’s work.
he that cometh from heaven] A repetition with further development, very characteristic of S. John’s style.
31–36. A question is raised with regard to this section similar to that raised about John 3:16-21. Some regard what follows not as a continuation of the Baptist’s speech, but as the Evangelist’s comment upon it. But, as in the former case, seeing that the Evangelist gives us no intimation that he is taking the place of the speaker, and that there is nothing in what follows to compel us to suppose that there is such a transition, it is best to regard the Baptist as still speaking. It is, however, quite possible that this latter part of the discourse is more strongly coloured with the Evangelist’s own style and phraseology, while the substance still remains the Baptist’s. Indeed a change of style may be noticed. The sentences become less abrupt and more connected; the stream of thought is continuous.
“The Baptist, with the growing inspiration of the prophet, unveils before his narrowing circle of disciples the full majesty of Jesus; and then, as with a swan-like song, completes his testimony before vanishing from history.” Meyer, in loco.
There is no contradiction between this passage and Matthew 11:2-6, whatever construction we put on the latter (see notes there). John was ‘of the earth,’ and therefore there is nothing improbable in his here impressing on his disciples the peril of not believing on the Messiah, and yet in prison feeling impatience, or despondency, or even doubt about the position and career of Jesus.
And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony.32. what he hath seen and heard] In His pre-existence with God; John 3:11, John 1:18. He has immediate knowledge of heavenly things.
that he testifieth] Better, that he witnesseth (see on John 1:7). Precisely this is the substance of His witness.
and no man] The tragic tone again; see on John 1:5, and comp. John 3:11. ‘No man’ is an exaggeration resulting from deep feeling: comparatively speaking none, so few were those who accepted the Messiah. Comp. the similar exaggeration on the other side, John 3:26, ‘all men come to Him.’ These extreme contradictory statements, placed in such close proximity, confirm our trust in the Evangelist as faithfully reporting what was actually said. He does not soften it down to make it look plausible.
receiveth his testimony] Better, receiveth His witness. The Baptist takes up Christ’s words in John 3:11.
He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.33. The Baptist shews at once that ‘no man’ is hyperbolical; there are some who received the testimony.
hath received … hath set to his seal] Better, received … set his seal.
his testimony] his witness. ‘His’ is emphatic, balancing ‘God.’ ‘He that received Christ’s witness, set his seal that God is true.’ To believe the Messiah is to believe God, for the Messiah is God’s interpreter, John 1:18. The metaphor is from sealing a document to express one’s trust in it and adherence to it. Comp. John 6:27; 1 Corinthians 9:2, On ‘true’ see note on John 1:9; ‘true’ here is opposed to ‘lying’ not to ‘spurious.’
For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.34. whom God hath sent] Better, whom God sent, viz. Christ ‘who cometh from above,’ John 3:31.
God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him] ‘God’ is of doubtful authority; ‘unto Him’ is not in the Greek. We must translate He giveth not the Spirit by measure; or, the Spirit giveth not by measure. The former is better, and ‘He’ probably means God; so that the only question is whether ‘unto Him’ is rightly supplied or not. In translation it is best to omit the words, although there is a direct reference to Jesus. ‘Not by measure giveth He the Spirit,’ least of all to Jesus, ‘for it pleased (the Father) that in Him the whole plenitude (of Divinity) should have its permanent abode,’ Colossians 1:19. Some take ‘He’ as meaning Christ, who gives the Spirit fully to His disciples.
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.35. loveth the Son] Comp. John 5:20. This is the reason for His giving all things into His hand. Christ is thus made ‘Head over all things’ (Ephesians 1:22), and ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36).
He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.36. hath everlasting life] Or, eternal life (see on John 3:16). Note the tense; ‘hath’ not ‘shall have.’ Believers are already in possession of eternal life. Christians often think of eternal life as something yet to be won. It has been already given to them; the question is whether they will lose it again or not. The struggle is not to gain but to retain. Comp. John 17:3.
he that believeth not] This may also mean he that obeyeth not, and this is better, for it is not the same word as ‘he that believeth’ with the negative added. The same correction seems to be needed, Acts 14:2; Acts 19:9; Romans 11:30 (see margin). Comp. Hebrews 4:6; Hebrews 4:11; 1 Peter 4:17.
shall not see] Not only has not beheld, but has no prospect of beholding.
the wrath of God] This phrase occurs nowhere else in the Gospels. It is the necessary complement of the love of God. If there is love for those who believe, there must be wrath for those who refuse to believe. Comp. Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7; Romans 1:18; Romans 9:22; Romans 12:19.
abideth] Not ‘shall come to him:’ this is his portion already. He is under a ban until he believes, and he refuses to believe: therefore the ban remains. He, like the believer, not only will have but has his portion; it rests with him also, whether the portion continues his. He has to struggle, not to avert a sentence, but to be freed from it.