Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
In this chapter we have, I. Christ’s discourse with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, concerning the great mysteries of the gospel, in which he here privately instructs him (v. 1–21). II. John Baptist’s discourse with his disciples concerning Christ, upon occasion of his coming into the neighbourhood where John was (v. 22–36), in which he fairly and faithfully resigns all his honour and interest to him.
We found, in the close of the foregoing chapter, that few were brought to Christ at Jerusalem; yet here was one, a considerable one. It is worth while to go a great way for the salvation though but of one soul. Observe,
I. Who this Nicodemus was. Not many mighty and noble are called; yet some are, and here was one. Not many of the rulers, or of the Pharisees; yet. 1. This was a man of the Pharisees, bred to learning, a scholar. Let it not be said that all Christ’s followers are unlearned and ignorant men. The principles of the Pharisees, and the peculiarities of their sect, were directly contrary to the spirit of Christianity; yet there were some in whom even those high thoughts were cast down and brought into obedience to Christ. The grace of Christ is able to subdue the greatest opposition. 2. He was a ruler of the Jews, a member of the great sanhedrim, a senator, a privy-counsellor, a man of authority in Jerusalem. Bad as things were, there were some rulers well inclined, who yet could do little good because the stream was so strong against them; they were over-ruled by the majority, and yoked with those that were corrupt, so that the good which they wished to do they could not do; yet Nicodemus continued in his place, and did what he could, when he could not do what he would.
II. His solemn address to our Lord Jesus Christ, v. 2. See here,
1. When he came: He came to Jesus by night. Observe, (1.) He made a private and particular address to Christ, and did not think it enough to hear his public discourses. He resolved to talk with him by himself, where he might be free with him. Personal converse with skilful faithful ministers about the affairs of our souls would be of great use to us, Mal. 2:7. (2.) He made this address by night, which may be considered, [1.] As an act of prudence and discretion. Christ was engaged all day in public work, and he would not interrupt him then, nor expect his attendance then, but observed Christ’s hour, and waited on him when he was at leisure. Note, Private advantages to ourselves and our own families must give way to those that are public. The greater good must be preferred before the less. Christ had many enemies, and therefore Nicodemus came to him incognito, lest being known to the chief priests they should be the more enraged against Christ. [2.] As an act of zeal and forwardness. Nicodemus was a man of business, and could not spare time all day to make Christ a visit, and therefore he would rather take time from the diversions of the evening, or the rest of the night, than not converse with Christ. When others were sleeping, he was getting knowledge, as David by meditation, Ps. 63:6, and 119:148. Probably it was the very next night after he saw Christ’s miracles, and he would not neglect the first opportunity of pursuing his convictions. He knew not how soon Christ might leave the town, nor what might happen betwixt that and another feast, and therefore would lose no time. In the night his converse with Christ would be more free, and less liable to disturbance. These were Noctes Christianae—Christian nights, much more instructive than the Noctes Atticae—Attic nights. Or, [3.] As an act of fear and cowardice. He was afraid, or ashamed, to be seen with Christ, and therefore came in the night. When religion is out of fashion, there are many Nicodemites, especially among the rulers, who have a better affection to Christ and his religion than they would be known to have. But observe, First, Though he came by night, Christ bade him welcome, accepted his integrity, and pardoned his infirmity; he considered his temper, which perhaps was timorous, and the temptation he was in from his place and office; and hereby taught his ministers to become all things to all men, and to encourage good beginnings, though weak. Paul preached privately to those of reputation, Gal. 2:2. Secondly, Though now he came by night, yet afterwards, when there was occasion, he owned Christ publicly, ch. 7:50; 19:39. The grace which is at first but a grain of mustard-seed may grow to be a great tree.
2. What he said. He did not come to talk with Christ about politics and state-affairs (though he was a ruler), but about the concerns of his own soul and its salvation, and, without circumlocution, comes immediately to the business; he calls Christ Rabbi, which signifies a great man; see Isa. 19:20. He shall send them a Saviour, and a great one; a Saviour and a rabbi, so the word is. There are hopes of those who have a respect for Christ, and think and speak honourably of him. He tells Christ how far he had attained: We know that thou art a teacher. Observe, (1.) His assertion concerning Christ: Thou art a teacher come from God; not educated nor ordained by men, as other teachers, but supported with divine inspiration and divine authority. He that was to be the sovereign Ruler came first to be a teacher; for he would rule with reason, not with rigour, by the power of truth, not of the sword. The world lay in ignorance and mistake; the Jewish teachers were corrupt, and caused them to err: It is time for the Lord to work. He came a teacher from God, from God as the Father of mercies, in pity to a dark deceived world; from God as the Father of lights and fountain of truth, all the light and truth upon which we may venture our souls. (2.) His assurance of it: We know, not only I, but others; so he took it for granted, the thing being so plain and self-evident. Perhaps he knew that there were divers of the Pharisees and rulers with whom he conversed that were under the same convictions, but had not the grace to own it. Or, we may suppose that he speaks in the plural number (We know) because he brought with him one or more of his friends and pupils, to receive instructions from Christ, knowing them to be of common concern. "Master," saith he, "we come with a desire to be taught, to be thy scholars, for we are fully satisfied thou art a divine teacher." (3.) The ground of this assurance: No man can do those miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Here, [1.] We are assured of the truth of Christ’s miracles, and that they were not counterfeit. Here was Nicodemus, a judicious, sensible, inquisitive man, one that had all the reason and opportunity imaginable to examine them, so fully satisfied that they were real miracles that he was wrought upon by them to go contrary to his interest, and to the stream of those of his own rank, who were prejudiced against Christ. [2.] We are directed what inference to draw from Christ’s miracles: Therefore we are to receive him as a teacher come from God. His miracles were his credentials. The course of nature could not be altered but by the power of the God of nature, who, we are sure, is the God of truth and goodness, and would never set his seal to a lie or a cheat.
III. The discourse between Christ and Nicodemus hereupon, or, rather, the sermon Christ preached to him; the contents of it, and that perhaps an abstract of Christ’s public preaching; see v. 11, 12. Four things our Saviour here discourses of:—
1. Concerning the necessity and nature of regeneration or the new birth, v. 3-8. Now we must consider this,
(1.) As pertinently answered to Nicodemus’s address. Jesus answered, v. 3. This answer was wither, [1.] A rebuke of what he saw defective in the address of Nicodemus. It was not enough for him to admire Christ’s miracles, and acknowledge his mission, but he must be born again. It is plain that he expected the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of the Messiah now shortly to appear. He is betimes aware of the dawning of that day; and, according to the common notion of the Jews, he expects it to appear in external pomp and power. He doubts not but this Jesus, who works these miracles, is either the Messiah or his prophet, and therefore makes his court to him, compliments him, and so hopes to secure a share to himself of the advantages of that kingdom. But Christ tells him that he can have no benefit by that change of the state, unless there be a change of the spirit, of the principles and dispositions, equivalent to a new birth. Nicodemus came by night: "But this will not do," saith Christ. His religion must be owned before men; so Dr. Hammond. Or, [2.] A reply to what he saw designed in his address. When Nicodemus owned Christ a teacher come from God, one entrusted with an extraordinary revelation from heaven, he plainly intimated a desire to know what this revelation was and a readiness to receive it; and Christ declares it.
(2.) As positively and vehemently asserted by our Lord Jesus: Verily, verily, I say unto thee. I the Amen, the Amen, say it; so it may be read: "I the faithful and true witness." The matter is settled irreversibly that except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. "I say it to thee, though a Pharisee, though a master in Israel." Observe,
[1.] What it is that is required: to be born again; that is, First, We must live a new life. Birth is the beginning of life; to be born again is to begin anew, as those that have hitherto lived either much amiss or to little purpose. We must not think to patch up the old building, but begin from the foundation. Secondly, We must have a new nature, new principles, new affections, new aims. We must be born anoµthen, which signifies both denuo—again, and desuper—from above. 1. We must be born anew; so the word is taken, Gal. 4:9, and ab initio—from the beginning, Lu. 1:3. By our first birth we are corrupt, shapen in sin and iniquity; we must therefore undergo a second birth; our souls must be fashioned and enlivened anew. 2. We must be born from above, so the word is used by the evangelist, ch. 3:31; 19:11, and I take this to be especially intended here, not excluding the other; for to be born from above supposes being born again. But this new birth has its rise from heaven (ch. 1:13) and its tendency to heaven: it is to be born to a divine and heavenly life, a life of communion with God and the upper world, and, in order to this, it is to partake of a divine nature and bear the image of the heavenly.
[2.] The indispensable necessity of this: "Except a man (Any one that partakes of the human nature, and consequently of its corruptions) be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the Messiah begun in grace and perfected in glory." Except we be born from above, we cannot see this. That is, First, We cannot understand the nature of it. Such is the nature of things pertaining to the kingdom of God (in which Nicodemus desired to be instructed) that the soul must be re-modelled and moulded, the natural man must become a spiritual man, before he is capable of receiving and understanding them, 1 Co. 2:14. Secondly, We cannot receive the comfort of it, cannot expect any benefit by Christ and his gospel, nor have any part or lot in the matter. Note, Regeneration is absolutely necessary to our happiness here and hereafter. Considering what we are by nature, how corrupt and sinful,—what God is, in whom alone we can be happy,—and what heaven is, to which the perfection of our happiness is reserved,—it will appear, in the nature of the thing, that we must be born again, because it is impossible that we should be happy if we be not holy; see 1 Co. 6:11, 12.
This great truth of the necessity of regeneration being thus solemnly laid down,
a. It is objected against by Nicodemus (v. 4): How can a man be born when he is old, old as I am: geroµn oµn—being an old man? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Herein appears, (a.) His weakness in knowledge; what Christ spoke spiritually he seems to have understood after a corporal and carnal manner, as if there were no other way of regenerating and new-moulding an immortal soul than by new-framing the body, and bringing that back to the rock out of which it was hewn, as if there was such a connection between the soul and the body that there could be no fashioning the heart anew but by forming the bones anew. Nicodemus, as others of the Jews, valued himself, no doubt, very much on his first birth and its dignities and privileges,—the place of it, the Holy Land, perhaps the holy city,—his parentage, such as that which Paul could have gloried in, Phil. 3:5. And therefore it is a great surprise to him to hear of being born again. Could he be better bred and born than bred and born an Israelite, or by any other birth stand fairer for a place in the kingdom of the Messiah? Indeed they looked upon a proselyted Gentile to be as one born again or born anew, but could not imagine how a Jew, a Pharisee, could ever better himself by being born again; he therefore thinks, if he must be born again, it must be of her that bore him first. They that are proud of their first birth are hardly brought to a new birth. (b.) His willingness to be taught. He does not turn his back upon Christ because of his hard saying, but ingenuously acknowledges his ignorance, which implies a desire to be better informed; and so I take this, rather than that he had such gross notions of the new birth Christ spoke of: "Lord, make me to understand this, for it is a riddle to me; I am such a fool as to know no other way for a man to be born than of his mother." When we meet with that in the things of God which is dark, and hard to be understood, we must with humility and industry continue our attendance upon the means of knowledge, till God shall reveal even that unto us.
b. It is opened and further explained by our Lord Jesus, v. 5-8. From the objection he takes occasion,
(a.) To repeat and confirm what he had said (v. 5): "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, the very same that I said before." Note, The word of God is not yea and nay, but yea and amen; what he hath said he will abide by, whoever saith against it; nor will he retract any of his sayings for the ignorance and mistakes of men. Though Nicodemus understood not the mystery of regeneration, yet Christ asserts the necessity of it as positively as before. Note, It is folly to think of evading the obligation of evangelical precepts, by pleading that they are unintelligible, Rom. 3:3, 4.
(b.) To expound and clear what he had said concerning regeneration; for the explication of which he further shows,
[a.] The author of this blessed change, and who it is that works it. To be born again is to be born of the Spirit, v. 5-8. The change is not wrought by any wisdom or power of our own, but by the power and influence of the blessed Spirit of grace. It is the sanctification of the Spirit (1 Pt. 1:2) and renewing of the Holy Ghost, Tit. 3:5. The word he works by is his inspiration, and the heart to be wrought on he has access to.
[b.] The nature of this change, and what that is which is wrought; it is spirit, v. 6. Those that are regenerated are made spiritual, and refined from the dross and dregs of sensuality. The dictates and interests of the rational and immortal soul have retrieved the dominion they ought to have over the flesh. The Pharisees placed their religion in external purity and external performances; and it would be a mighty change indeed with them, no less than a new birth, to become spiritual.
[c.] The necessity of this change. First, Christ here shows that it is necessary in the nature of the thing, for we are not fit to enter into the kingdom of God till we are born again: That which is born of the flesh if flesh, v. 6. Here is our malady, with the causes of it, which are such that it is plain there is no remedy but we must be born again. 1. We are here told what we are: We are flesh, not only corporeal but corrupt, Gen. 6:3. The soul is still a spiritual substance, but so wedded to the flesh, so captivated by the will of the flesh, so in love with the delights of the flesh, so employed in making provision for the flesh, that it is mostly called flesh; it is carnal. And what communion can there be between God, who is a spirit, and a soul in this condition? 2. How we came to be so; by being born of the flesh. It is a corruption that is bred in the bone with us, and therefore we cannot have a new nature, but we must be born again. The corrupt nature, which is flesh, takes rise from our first birth; and therefore the new nature, which is spirit, must take rise from a second birth. Nicodemus spoke of entering again into his mother’s womb, and being born; but, if he could do so, to what purpose? If he were born of his mother a hundred times, that would not mend the matter, for still that which is born of the flesh if flesh; a clean thing cannot be brought out of an unclean. He must seek for another original, must be born of the Spirit, or he cannot become spiritual. The case is, in short, this: though man is made to consist of body and soul, yet his spiritual part had then so much the dominion over his corporeal part that he was denominated a living soul (Gen. 2:7), but by indulging the appetite of the flesh, in eating forbidden fruit, he prostituted the just dominion of the soul to the tyranny of sensual lust, and became no longer a living soul, but flesh: Dust thou art. The living soul became dead and inactive; thus in the day he sinned he surely died, and so he became earthly. In this degenerate state, he begat a son in his own likeness; he transmitted the human nature, which had been entirely deposited in his hands, thus corrupted and depraved; and in the same plight it is still propagated. Corruption and sin are woven into our nature; we are shapen in iniquity, which makes it necessary that the nature be changed. It is not enough to put on a new coat or a new face, but we must put on the new man, we must be new creatures. Secondly, Christ makes it further necessary, by his own word: Marvel not that I said unto thee, You must be born again, v. 7. 1. Christ hath said it, and as he himself never did, nor ever will, unsay it, so all the world cannot gainsay it, that we must be born again. He who is the great Lawgiver, whose will is a law,—he who is the great Mediator of the new covenant, and has full power to settle the terms of our reconciliation to God and happiness in him,—he who is the great Physician of souls, knows their case, and what is necessary to their cure,—he hath said, You must be born again. "I said unto thee that which all are concerned in, You must, you all, one as well as another, you must be born again: not only the common people, but the rulers, the masters in Israel." 2. We are not to marvel at it; for when we consider the holiness of the God with whom we have to do, the great design of our redemption, the depravity of our nature, and the constitution of the happiness set before us, we shall not think it strange that so much stress is laid upon this as the one thing needful, that we must be born again.
[d.] This change is illustrated by two comparisons. First, The regenerating work of the Spirit is compared to water, v. 5. To be born again is to be born of water and of the Spirit, that is, of the Spirit working like water, as (Mt. 3:11) with the Holy Ghost and with fire means with the Holy Ghost as with fire. 1. That which is primarily intended here is to show that the Spirit, in sanctifying a soul, (1.) Cleanses and purifies it as water, takes away its filth, by which it was unfit for the kingdom of God. It is the washing of regeneration, Tit. 3:5. You are washed, 1 Co. 6:11. See Eze. 36:25. (2.) Cools and refreshes it, as water does the hunted hart and the weary traveller. The Spirit is compared to water, ch. 7:38, 39; Isa. 44:3. In the first creation, the fruits of heaven were born of water (Gen. 1:20), in allusion to which, perhaps, they that are born from above are said to be born of water. 2. It is probable that Christ had an eye to the ordinance of baptism, which John had used and he himself had begun to use, "You must be born again of the Spirit," which regeneration by the Spirit should be signified by washing with water, as the visible sign of that spiritual grace: not that all they, and they only, that are baptized, are saved; but without that new birth which is wrought by the Spirit, and signified by baptism, none shall be looked upon as the protected privileged subjects of the kingdom of heaven. The Jews cannot partake of the benefits of the Messiah’s kingdom, they have so long looked for, unless they quit all expectations of being justified by the works of the law, and submit to the baptism of repentance, the great gospel duty, for the remission of sins, the great gospel privilege. Secondly, It is compared to wind: The wind bloweth where it listeth, so is every one that is born of the Spirit, v. 8. The same word (pneuma) signifies both the wind and the Spirit. The Spirit came upon the apostles in a rushing mighty wind (Acts 2:2), his strong influences on the hearts of sinners are compared to the breathing of the wind (Eze. 37:9), and his sweet influences on the souls of saints to the north and south wind, Cant. 4:16. This comparison is here used to show, 1. That the Spirit, in regeneration, works arbitrarily, and as a free agent. The wind bloweth where it listeth for us, and does not attend our order, nor is subject to our command. God directs it; it fulfils his word, Ps. 148:8. The Spirit dispenses his influences where, and when, on whom, and in what measure and degree, he pleases, dividing to every man severally as he will, 1 Co. 12:11. 2. That he works powerfully, and with evident effects: Thou hearest the sound thereof; though its causes are hidden, its effects are manifest. When the soul is brought to mourn for sin, to groan under the burden of corruption, to breathe after Christ, to cry Abba—Father, then we hear the sound of the Spirit, we find he is at work, as Acts 9:11, Behold he prayeth. 3. That he works mysteriously, and in secret hidden ways: Thou canst not tell whence it comes, nor whither it goes. How it gathers and how it spends its strength is a riddle to us; so the manner and methods of the Spirit’s working are a mystery. Which way went the Spirit? 1 Ki. 22:24. See Eccl. 11:5, and compare it with Ps. 139:14.
2. Here is a discourse concerning the certainty and sublimity of gospel truths, which Christ takes occasion for from the weakness of Nicodemus. Here is,
(1.) The objection which Nicodemus still made (v. 9): How can these things be? Christ’s explication of the doctrine of the necessity of regeneration, it should seem, made it never the clearer to him. The corruption of nature which makes it necessary, and the way of the Spirit which makes it practicable, are as much mysteries to him as the thing itself; though he had in general owned Christ a divine teacher, yet he was unwilling to receive his teachings when they did not agree with the notions he had imbibed. Thus many profess to admit the doctrine of Christ in general, and yet will neither believe the truths of Christianity nor submit to the laws of it further than they please. Christ shall be their teacher, provided they may choose their lesson. Now here, [1.] Nicodemus owns himself ignorant of Christ’s meaning, after all: "How can these things be? They are things I do not understand, my capacity will not reach them." Thus the things of the Spirit of God are foolishness to the natural man. He is not only estranged from them, and therefore they are dark to him, but prejudiced against them, and therefore they are foolishness to him. [2.] Because this doctrine was unintelligible to him (so he was pleased to make it), he questions the truth of it; as if, because it was a paradox to him, it was a chimera in itself. Many have such an opinion of their own capacity as to think that that cannot be proved which they cannot believe; by wisdom they knew not Christ.
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
In these verses we have,
I. Christ’s removal into the land of Judea (v. 22), and there he tarried with his disciples. Observe, 1. Our Lord Jesus, after he entered upon his public work, travelled much, and removed often, as the patriarchs in their sojournings. As it was a good part of his humiliation that he had no certain dwelling-place, but was, as Paul, in journeyings often, so it was an instance of his unwearied industry, in the work for which he came into the world, that he went about in prosecution of it; many a weary step he took to do good to souls. The Sun of righteousness took a large circuit to diffuse his light and heat, Ps. 19:6. 2. He was not wont to stay long at Jerusalem. Though he went frequently thither, yet he soon returned into the country; as here. After these things, after he had had this discourse with Nicodemus, he came into the land of Judea; not so much for greater privacy (though mean and obscure places best suited the humble Jesus in his humble state) as for greater usefulness. His preaching and miracles, perhaps, made most noise at Jerusalem, the fountain-head of news, but did least good there, where the most considerable men of the Jewish church had so much the ascendant. 3. When he came into the land of Judea his disciples came with him; for these were they that continued with him in his temptations. Many that flocked to him at Jerusalem could not follow his motions into the country, they had no business there; but his disciples attended him. If the ark remove, it is better to remove and go after it (as those did, Jos. 3:3) than sit still without it, though it be in Jerusalem itself. 4. There he tarried with them, dietribe—He conversed with them, discoursed with them. He did not retire into the country for his ease and pleasure, but for more free conversation with his disciples and followers. See Cant. 7:11, 12. Note, Those that are ready to go with Christ shall find him as ready to stay with them. It is supposed that he now staid five or six months in this country. 5. There he baptized; he admitted disciples, such as believed in him, and had more honesty and courage than those had at Jerusalem, ch. 2:24. John began to baptize in the land of Judea (Mt. 3:1), therefore Christ began there, for John had said, There comes one after me. He himself baptized not, with his own hand, but his disciples by his orders and directions, as appears, ch. 4:2. But his disciples’ baptizing was his baptizing. Holy ordinances are Christ’s, though administered by weak men.
II. John’s continuance in his work, as long as his opportunities laster, v. 23, 24. Here we are told,
1. That John was baptizing. Christ’s baptism was, for substance, the same with John’s, for John bore witness to Christ, and therefore they did not at all clash or interfere with one another. But, (1.) Christ began the work of preaching and baptizing before John laid it down, that he might be ready to receive John’s disciples when he should be taken off, and so the wheels might be kept going. It is a comfort to useful men, when they are going off the stage, to see those rising up who are likely to fill up their place. (2.) John continued the work of preaching and baptizing though Christ had taken it up; for he would still, according to the measure given to him, advance the interests of God’s kingdom. There was still work for John to do, for Christ was not yet generally known, nor were the minds of people thoroughly prepared for him by repentance. From heaven John had received his command, and he would go on in his work till he thence received his countermand, and would have his dismission from the same hand that gave him his commission. He does not come in to Christ, lest what had formerly passed should look like a combination between them; but he goes on with his work, till Providence lays him aside. The greater gifts of some do not render the labours of others, that come short of them, needless and useless; there is work enough for all hands. They are sullen that will sit down and do nothing when they see themselves out-shone. Though we have but one talent, we must account for that: and, when we see ourselves going off, must yet go on to the last.
2. That he baptized in Enon near Salim, places we find nowhere else mentioned, and therefore the learned are altogether at a loss where to find them. Wherever it was, it seems that John removed from place to place; he did not think that there was any virtue in Jordan, because Jesus was baptized there, which should engage him to stay there, but as he saw cause he removed to other waters. Ministers must follow their opportunities. He chose a place where there was much water, hydata polla—many waters, that is, many streams of water; so that wherever he met with any that were willing to submit to his baptism water was at hand to baptize them with, shallow perhaps, as is usual where there are many brooks, but such as would serve his purpose. And in that country plenty of water was a valuable thing.
3. That thither people came to him and were baptized. Though they did not come in such vast crowds as they did when he first appeared, yet now he was not without encouragement, but there were still those that attended and owned him. Some refer this both to John and to Jesus: They came and were baptized; that is, some came to John, and were baptized by him, some to Jesus, and were baptized by him, and, as their baptism was one, so were their hearts.
4. It is noted (v. 24) that John was not yet cast into prison, to clear the order of the story, and to show that these passages are to come in before Mt. 6:12. John never desisted from his work as long as he had his liberty; nay, he seems to have been the more industrious, because he foresaw his time was short; he was not yet cast into prison, but he expected it ere long, ch. 9:4.
III. A contest between John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying, v. 25. See how the gospel of Christ came not to send peace upon earth, but division. Observe, 1. Who were the disputants: some of John’s disciples, and the Jews who had not submitted to his baptism of repentance. Penitents and impenitents divide this sinful world. In this contest, it should seem, John’s disciples were the aggressors, and gave the challenge; and it is a sign that they were novices, who had more zeal than discretion. The truths of God have often suffered by the rashness of those that have undertaken to defend them before they were able to do it. 2. What was the matter in dispute: about purifying, about religious washing. (1.) We may suppose that John’s disciples cried up his baptism, his purifying, as instar omnium—superior to all others, and gave the preference to that as perfecting and superseding all the purifications of the Jews, and they were in the right; but young converts are too apt to boast of their attainments, whereas he that finds the treasure should hide it till he is sure that he has it, and not talk of it too much at first. (2.) No doubt the Jews with as much assurance applauded the purifyings that were in use among them, both those that were instituted by the law of Moses and those that were imposed by the tradition of the elders; for the former they had a divine warrant, and for the latter the usage of the church. Now it is very likely that the Jews in this dispute, when they could not deny the excellent nature and design of John’s baptism, raised an objection against it from Christ’s baptism, which gave occasion for the complaint that follows here (v. 26): "Here is John baptizing in one place." say they, "and Jesus at the same time baptizing in another place; and therefore John’s baptism, which his disciples so much applaud, is either," [1.] "Dangerous, and of ill consequence to the peace of the church and state, for you see it opens a door to endless parties. Now that John has begun, we shall have every little teacher set up for a baptist presently. Or," [2.] "At the best it is defective and imperfect. If John’s baptism, which you cry up thus, have any good in it, yonder the baptism of Jesus goes beyond it, so that for your parts you are shaded already by a greater light, and your baptism is soon gone out of request." Thus objections are made against the gospel from the advancement and improvement of gospel light, as if childhood and manhood were contrary to each other, and the superstructure were against the foundation. There was no reason to object Christ’s baptism against John’s, for they consisted very well together.
IV. A complaint which John’s disciples made to their master concerning Christ and his baptizing, v. 26. They, being nonplussed by the fore-mentioned objection, and probably ruffled and put into a heat by it, come to their master, and tell him, "Rabbi, he that was with thee, and was baptized of thee, is now set up for himself; he baptizeth, and all men come to him; and wilt thou suffer it?" Their itch for disputing occasioned this. It is common for men, when they find themselves run aground in the heat of disputation, to fall foul upon those that do them no harm. If these disciples of John had not undertaken to dispute about purifying, before they understood the doctrine of baptism, they might have answered the objection without being put into a passion. In their complaint, they speak respectfully to their own master, Rabbit; but speak very slightly of our Saviour, though they do not name him. 1. They suggest that Christ’s setting up a baptism of his own was a piece of presumption, very unaccountable; as if John, having first set up this rite of baptizing, must have the monopoly of it, and, as it were, a patent for the invention: "He that was with thee beyond Jordan, as a disciple of thine, behold, and wonder, the same, the very same, baptizes, and takes thy work out of thy hand." Thus the voluntary condescensions of the Lord Jesus, as that of his being baptized by John, are often unjustly and very unkindly turned to his reproach. 2. They suggest that it was a piece of ingratitude to John. He to whom thou barest witness baptizes; as if Jesus owed all his reputation to the honourable character John gave of him, and yet had very unworthily improved it to the prejudice of John. But Christ needed not John’s testimony, ch. 5:36. He reflected more honour upon John than he received from him, yet thus it is incident to us to think that others are more indebted to us than really they are. And besides, Christ’s baptism was not in the least an impeachment, but indeed the greatest improvement, of John’s baptism, which was but to lead the way to Christ’s. John was just to Christ, in bearing witness to him; and Christ’s answering his testimony did rather enrich than impoverish John’s ministry. 3. They conclude that it would be a total eclipse to John’s baptism: "All men come to him; they that used to follow with us now flock after him, it is therefore time for us to look about us." It was not indeed strange that all men came to him. As far as Christ is manifested he will be magnified; but why should John’s disciples grieve at this? Note, Aiming at the monopoly of honour and respect has been in all ages the bane of the church, and the shame of its members and ministers; as also a vying of interests, and a jealousy of rivalship and competition. We mistake if we think that the excelling gifts and graces, and labours and usefulness, of one, are a diminution and disparagement to another that has obtained mercy to be faithful; for the Spirit is a free agent, dispensing to every one severally as he will. Paul rejoiced in the usefulness even of those that opposed him, Phil. 1:18. We must leave it to God to choose, employ, and honour his own instruments as he pleaseth, and not covet to be placed alone.
V. Here is John’s answer to this complaint which his disciples made, v. 27, etc. His disciples expected that he would have resented this matter as they did; but Christ’s manifestation to Israel was no surprise to John, but what he looked for; it was not disturbance to him, but what he wished for. He therefore checked the complaint, as Moses, Enviest thou for my sake? and took this occasion to confirm the testimonies he had formerly borne to Christ as superior to him, cheerfully consigning and turning over to him all the interest he had in Israel. In this discourse here, the first minister of the gospel (for so John was) is an excellent pattern to all ministers to humble themselves and to exalt the Lord Jesus.
1. John here abases himself in comparison with Christ, v. 27–30. The more others magnify us, the more we must humble ourselves, and fortify ourselves against the temptation of flattery and applause, and the jealousy of our friends for our honour, by remembering our place, and what we are, 1 Co. 3:5.
(1.) John acquiesces in the divine disposal, and satisfies himself with that (v. 27): A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven, whence every good gift comes (James 1:17), a general truth very applicable in this case. Different employments are according to the direction of divine Providence, different endowments according to the distribution of the divine grace. No man can take any true honour to himself, Heb. 5:4. We have as necessary and constant a dependence upon the grace of God in all the motions and actions of the spiritual life as we have upon the providence of God in all the motions and actions of the natural life: now this comes in here as a reason, [1.] Why we should not envy those that have a larger share of gifts than we have, or move in a larger sphere of usefulness. John reminds his disciples that Jesus would not have thus excelled him except he had received it from heaven, for, as man and Mediator, he received gifts; and, if God gave him the Spirit without measure (v. 34), shall they grudge at it? The same reason will hold as to others. If God is pleased to give to others more ability and success than to us, shall we be displeased at it, and reflect upon him as unjust, unwise, and partial? See Mt. 20:15. [2.] Why we should not be discontented, though we be inferior to others in gifts and usefulness, and be eclipsed by their excellencies. John was ready to own that it was the gift, the free gift, of heaven, that made him a preacher, a prophet, a baptist: it was God that gave him the interest he had in the love and esteem of the people; and, if now his interest decline, God’s will be done! He that gives may take. What we receive from heaven we must take as it is given. Now John never received a commission for a standing perpetual office, but only for a temporary one, which must soon expire; and therefore, when he has fulfilled his ministry, he can contentedly see it go out of date. Some give quite another sense of these words: John had taken pains with his disciples, to teach them the reference which his baptism had to Christ, who should come after him, and yet be preferred before him, and do that for them which he could not do; and yet, after all, they dote upon John, and grudge this preference of Christ above him: Well saith John, I see a man can receive (that is, perceive) nothing, except it be given him from heaven. The labour of ministers if all lost labour, unless the grace of God make it effectual. Men do not understand that which is made most plain, nor believe that which is made most evident, unless it be given them from heaven to understand and believe it.
(2.) John appeals to the testimony he had formerly given concerning Christ (v. 28): You can bear me witness that I said, again and again, I am not the Christ, but I am sent before him. See how steady and constant John was in his testimony to Christ, and not as a reed shaken with the wind; neither the frowns of the chief priests, nor the flatteries of his own disciples, could make him change his note. Now this serves here, [1.] As a conviction to his disciples of the unreasonableness of their complaint. They had spoken of the witness which their master bore to Jesus (v. 26): "Now," saith John, "do you not remember what the testimony was that I did bear? Call that to mind, and you will see your own cavil answered. Did I not say, I am not the Christ? Why then do you set me up as a rival with him that is? Did I not say, I am sent before him? Why then does it seem strange to you that I should stand by and give way to him?" [2.] It is a comfort to himself that he had never given his disciples any occasion thus to set him up in competition with Christ; but, on the contrary, had particularly cautioned them against this mistake, though he might have made a hand of it for himself. It is a satisfaction to faithful ministers when they have done what they could in their places to prevent any extravagances that their people ran into. John had not only not encouraged them to hope that he was the Messiah, but had plainly told them the contrary, which was now a satisfaction to him. It is a common excuse for those who have undue honour paid them, Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur—If the people will be deceived, let them; but that is an ill maxim for those to go by whose business it is to undeceive people. The lip of truth shall be established.
(3.) John professes the great satisfaction he had in the advancement of Christ and his interest. He was so far from regretting it, as his disciples did, that he rejoiced in it. This he expresses (v. 29) by an elegant similitude. [1.] He compares our Saviour to the bridegroom: "He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. Do all men come to him? It is well, whither else should they go? Has he got the throne in men’s affections? Who else should have it? It is his right; to whom should the bride be brought but to the bridegroom?" Christ was prophesied of in the Old Testament as a bridegroom, Ps. 45. The Word was made flesh, that the disparity of nature might not be a bar to the match. Provision is made for the purifying of the church, that the defilement of sin might be no bar. Christ espouses his church to himself; he has the bride, for he has her love, he has her promise; the church is subject to Christ. As far as particular souls are devoted to him in faith and love, so far the bridegroom has the bride. [2.] He compares himself to the friend of the bridegroom, who attends upon him, to do him honour and service, assists him in prosecuting the match, speaks a good word for him, uses his interest on his behalf, rejoices when the match goes on, and most of all when the point is gained, and he has the bride. All that John had done in preaching and baptizing was to introduce him; and, now that he was come, he had what he wished for: The friend of the bridegroom stands, and hears him; stands expecting him, and waiting for him; rejoices with joy because of the bridegroom’s voice, because he is come to the marriage after he had been long expected. Note, First, Faithful ministers are friends of the bridegroom, to recommend him to the affections and choice of the children of men; to bring letters and messages from him, for he courts by proxy; and herein they must be faithful to him. Secondly, The friends of the bridegroom must stand, and hear the bridegroom’s voice; must receive instructions from him, and attend his orders; must desire to have proofs of Christ speaking in them, and with them (2 Co. 13:3); that is the bridegroom’s voice. Thirdly, The espousing of souls to Jesus Christ, in faith and love, is the fulfilling of the joy of every good minister. If the day of Christ’s espousals be the day of the gladness of his heart (Cant. 3:11), it cannot but be of their too who love him and wish well to his honour and kingdom. Surely they have no greater joy.
(4.) He owns it highly fit and necessary that the reputation and interest of Christ should be advanced, and his own diminished (v. 30): He must increase, but I must decrease. If they grieve at the growing greatness of the Lord Jesus, they will have more and more occasion to grieve, as those have that indulge themselves in envy and emulation. John speaks of Christ’s increase and his own decrease, not only as necessary and unavoidable, which could not be helped and therefore must be borne, but as highly just and agreeable, and affording him entire satisfaction. [1.] He was well pleased to see the kingdom of Christ getting ground: "He must increase. You think he has gained a great deal, but it is nothing to what he will gain." Note, The kingdom of Christ is, and will be, a growing kingdom, like the light of the morning, like the grain of mustard-seed. [2.] He was not at all displeased that the effect of this was the diminishing of his own interest: I must decrease. Created excellencies are under this law, they must decrease. I have seen an end of all perfection. Note, First, The shining forth of the glory of Christ eclipses the lustre of all other glory. The glory that stands in competition with Christ, that of the world and the flesh, decreases and loses ground in the soul as the knowledge and love of Christ increase and get ground; but it is here spoken of that which is subservient to him. As the light of the morning increases, that of the morning star decreases. Secondly, If our diminution or abasement may but in the least contribute to the advancement of Christ’s name, we must cheerfully submit to it, and be content to be any thing, to be nothing, so that Christ may be all.
2. John Baptist here advances Christ, and instructs his disciples concerning him, that, instead of grieving that so many come to him, they might come to him themselves.
(1.) He instructs them concerning the dignity of Christ’s person (v. 31): He that cometh from above, that cometh from heaven, is above all. Here, [1.] He supposes his divine origin, that he came from above, from heaven, which bespeaks not only his divine extraction, but his divine nature. He had a being before his conception, a heavenly being. None but he that came from heaven was fit to show us the will of heaven, or the way to heaven. When God would save man, he sent from above. [2.] Hence he infers his sovereign authority: he is above all, above all things and all persons, God over all, blessed for evermore. It is daring presumption to dispute precedency with him. When we come to speak of the honours of the Lord Jesus, we find they transcend all conception and expression, and we can say but this, He is above all. It was said of John Baptist, There is not a greater among them that are born of women. But the descent of Christ from heaven put such a dignity upon him as he was not divested of by his being made flesh; still he was above all. This he further illustrates by the meanness of those who stood in competition with him: He that is of the earth, is earthly, ho oµn ek teµs geµs, ek teµs geµs esti—He that is of the earth is of the earth; he that has his origin of the earth has his food out of the earth, has his converse with earthly things, and his concern is for them. Note, First, Man has his rise out of the earth; not only Adam at first, but we also still are formed out of the clay, Job 33:6. Look to the rock whence we were hewn. Secondly, Man’s constitution is therefore earthly; not only his body frail and mortal, but his soul corrupt and carnal, and its bent and bias strong towards earthly things. The prophets and apostles were of the same mould with other men; they were but earthen vessels, though they had a rich treasure lodged in them; and shall these be set up as rivals with Christ? Let the potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth; but let them not cope with him that came from heaven.
(2.) Concerning the excellency and certainty of his doctrine. His disciples were displeased that Christ’s preaching was admired, and attended upon, more than his; but he tells them that there was reason enough for it. For,
[1.] He, for his part, spoke of the earth, and so do all those that are of the earth. The prophets were men and spoke like men; of themselves they could not speak but of the earth, 2 Co. 3:5. The preaching of the prophets and of John was but low and flat compared with Christ’s preaching; as heaven is high above the earth, so were his thoughts above theirs. By them God spoke on earth, but in Christ he speaketh from heaven.
[2.] But he that cometh from heaven is not only in his person, but in his doctrine, above all the prophets that ever lived on earth; none teacheth like him. The doctrine of Christ is here recommended to us,
First, As infallibly sure and certain, and to be entertained accordingly (v. 32): What he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth. See here, 1. Christ’s divine knowledge; he testified nothing but what he had seen and heard, what he was perfectly apprized of and thoroughly acquainted with. What he discovered of the divine nature and of the invisible world was what he had seen; what he revealed of the mind of God was what he had heard immediately from him, and not at second hand. The prophets testified what was made known to them in creams and visions by the mediation of angels, but not what they had seen and heard. John was the crier’s voice, that said, "Make room for the witness, and keep silence while the charge is given," but then leaves it to the witness to give in his testimony himself, and the judge to give the charge himself. The gospel of Christ is not a doubtful opinion, like an hypothesis or new notion in philosophy, which every one is at liberty to believe or not; but it is a revelation of the mind of God, which is of eternal truth in itself, and of infinite concern to us. 2. His divine grace and goodness: that which he had seen and heard he was pleased to make known to us, because he knew it nearly concerned us. What Paul had seen and heard in the third heavens he could not testify (2 Co. 12:4), but Christ knew how to utter what he had seen and heard. Christ’s preaching is here called his testifying, to denote, (1.) The convincing evidence of it; it was not reported as news by hearsay, but it was testified as evidence given in court, with great caution and assurance. (2.) The affectionate earnestness of the delivery of it: it was testified with concern and importunity, as Acts 18:5.
From the certainty of Christ’s doctrine, John takes occasion, [1.] To lament the infidelity of the most of men: though he testifies what is infallibly true, yet no man receiveth his testimony, that is, very few, next to none, none in comparison with those that refuse it. They receive it not, they will not hear it, they do not heed it, or give credit to it. This he speaks of not only as a matter of wonder, that such a testimony should not be received (Who hath believed our report? How stupid and foolish are the greatest part of mankind, what enemies to themselves!) but as matter of grief; John’s disciples grieved that all men came to Christ (v. 26); they thought his followers too many. But John grieves that no man came to him; he thought them too few. Note, The unbelief of sinners is the grief of saints. It was for this that St. Paul had great heaviness, Rom. 9:2. [2.] He takes occasion to commend the faith of the chosen remnant (v. 33): He that hath received his testimony (and some such there were, though very few) hath set to his seal that God is true. God is true, though we do not set our seal to it; let God be true, and every man a liar; his truth needs not our faith to support it, but by faith we do ourselves the honour and justice to subscribe to his truth, and hereby God reckons himself honoured. God’s promises are all yea and amen; by faith we put our amen to them, as Rev. 22:20. Observe, He that receives the testimony of Christ subscribes not only to the truth of Christ, but to the truth of God, for his name is the Word of God; the commandments of God and the testimony of Christ are put together, Rev. 12:17. By believing in Christ we set to our seal, First, That God is true to all the promises which he has made concerning Christ, that which he spoke by the mouth of all his holy prophets; what he swore to our fathers is all accomplished, and not one iota or tittle of it fallen to the ground, Lu. 1:70, etc. Acts 13:32, 33. Secondly, That he is true to all the promises he has made in Christ; we venture our souls upon God’s veracity, being satisfied that he is true; we are willing to deal with him upon trust, and to quit all in this world for a happiness in reversion and out of sight. By this we greatly honour God’s faithfulness. Whom we give credit to we give honour to.
Secondly, It is recommended to us as a divine doctrine; not his own, but his that sent him (v. 34): For he whom God hath sent speaketh the word of God, which he was sent to speak, and enabled to speak; for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. The prophets were as messengers that brought letters from heaven; but Christ came under the character of an ambassador, and treats with us as such; for, 1. He spoke the words of God, and nothing he said savoured of human infirmity; both substance and language were divine. He proved himself sent of God (ch. 3:2), and therefore his words are to be received as the words of God. By this rule we may try the spirits: those that speak as the oracles of God, and prophesy according to the proportion of faith, are to be received as sent of God. 2. He spoke as no other prophet did; for God giveth not the Spirit by measure to him. None can speak the words of God without the Spirit of God, 1 Co. 2:10, 11. The Old-Testament prophets had the Spirit, and in different degrees, 2 Ki. 2:9, 10. But, whereas God gave them the Spirit by measure (1 Co. 12:4), he gave him to Christ without measure; all fulness dwelt in him, the fulness of the Godhead, an immeasurable fulness. The Spirit was not in Christ as in a vessel, but as in a fountain, as in a bottomless ocean. "The prophets that had the Spirit in a limited manner, only with respect to some particular revelation, sometimes spoke of themselves; but he that had the Spirit always residing in him, without stint, always spoke the words of God." So Dr. Whitby.
(3.) Concerning the power and authority he is invested with, which gives him the pre-eminence above all others, and a more excellent name than they.