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B. W. Johnson
The New Testament Commentary: Vol. III--John (1886)



      This chapter relates another and a remarkable incident of this visit to Jerusalem, an interview with a member of the Sanhedrim, a prominent Pharisee. The @last verses of the second chapter state that there were many who believed in Jesus when they saw his miracles, not with that unfaltering trust that commits everything to the Lord, but a belief that he was a man of God. One of this number was Nicodemus, who came confessing that Jesus must be "a teacher come from God," because no man could do such miracles unless God was with him, and who sought to learn more in a private interview. In order to understand the significance of the Savior's words to him, the reader must inform himself as to the position of this "ruler of the Jews." He was a prominent member of the most influential sect of Israel, of an order who were in great repute on account of their reputation for holiness, a body of Hebrew saints elevated above the rest of the Jews by their devotion to the law of God. The body probably had its beginning about the time of the Captivity, but we discover it first as a power in Israel at the time of the great revival of the Maccabees, about two centuries before the time of this interview. At that time there was a determined effort to detach the Jewish nation from the religion of their fathers and to induce them to adopt the ways of the Syrian Greeks. Against this attempt the Pharisees set themselves with the sternness of Puritans and were a buckler to the Maccabees in their effort to re-establish the national freedom with the ancient religion. Seeking, at first, the preservation of the law of Moses with all its rites in their original purity, they gradually degenerated into a set of formalists who kept the letter of the law while its spirit was lost. In the time of the Savior the two fundamental rules were to pay tithes of everything, even to mint and cumin, and to keep rigidly every ceremonial required to secure legal purification. Hence, they made a great show of sanctity, were outwardly very religious, and esteemed themselves much holier than the rest of the people, but at the same time were proud, puffed up, and really corrupt at heart. My space will not allow me to go into details, but these would show in them one of the most conspicuous examples on record of the complete loss of the spiritual life in a slavish bondage to forms. At the same time they regarded themselves as the favorites of heaven, entitled to the approval of God by their righteousness, and the very nucleus of the [54] kingdom of God. Hence, when one of these holy ones, with the prejudices of his order, but more open-hearted, inquiring and teachable than his brethren, came to the great "Rabbi" from Galilee for information, the occasion is a remarkable one, and the Savior, in his first utterance, fells to the earth the Pharisaic pride when he declares: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nor need we wonder at the perplexity of Nicodemus concerning the "New Birth," when we realize that he deemed the natural birth of the race of Abraham together with a rigid observance of the law as the essentials to membership in that kingdom.

      1. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus is named three times by John, and not elsewhere; here, in @chapter 7:50, where he protests against condemning Jesus unheard, and in @chapter 19:39, where he aids Joseph of Arimathæa, in the burial of Jesus. There are untrustworthy traditions about him and an allusion in the Jewish Talmud to a Nicodemus who lived about this time, but it may have been another man. Two facts are here stated: (1) That he was a Pharisee of the powerful, self-righteous sect which laid such stress on ceremonial observances and Jewish birth; and (2) That he was a ruler, a member of the Sanhedrim, the congress of seventy persons who held the chief authority in Israel. The allusion to him in @verse 10 as a "teacher in Israel," would imply that he was one of the prominent doctors of the law.

      2. The same came to Jesus by night. He probably chose the night in order to escape observation. The radical act of Jesus in driving the cattle and the dealers, as well as the money changers, from the temple court, had excited the wrath of the priests who derived gain from the desecration. The holy and uncalculating zeal of the young Teacher on this occasion, like that of an old Hebrew prophet, his teachings and miracles in Jerusalem, had excited much discussion. Nicodemus was deeply moved, yet dared not provoke the scorn and opposition of his fellow-rulers by going openly to Jesus. Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God. Nicodemus confesses, not only his belief, but that of his fellow Pharisees and rulers. The miracles of Jesus convinced them, even if they would not admit it, that he was a teacher sent from God. No man whom God did not send could do such works. There is more in the words of Nicodemus than his words. He really intends a question. He was one of those who waited for the salvation of Israel. John had preached that the long expected kingdom was at hand. Now, while John was still preaching, this Galilean Teacher had startled all Jerusalem by his act of authority in the temple, by his teaching and miracles. Nicodemus wants to know what he has to do with, and to say about, the Kingdom. [55]

      3. Verily, verily, I say unto thee. This form of expression was often upon the lips of Jesus to give emphasis to an unusually solemn and weighty declaration. See @Matt. 5:18. It occurs twenty-four times in John. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The term translated "again" is rendered "anew" in the Revision, which is better. It is the great doctrine, so fundamental in the Gospel, of Regeneration, a new Birth, being made a new creature, the same doctrine spoken of in @chapter 1:12, 13. Nicodemus, like all Jews, supposed that all who were born as children of Abraham would, as Abraham's seed, be citizens of the kingdom. John had rejected this idea and denounced the claim of special privileges because they had Abraham for their father, but Nicodemus seems to have had his breath fairly taken away by the declaration that no man could see (enjoy) the Kingdom unless he was born anew; that the Jew, ruler, Pharisee, priest and Levite were not exceptions, and stood on the same footing as the despised Gentile.

      Life begins visibly with birth; the new life must begin with a new birth; no one can be a new creature in Christ Jesus unless he is born anew. We are born naturally into the kingdom of nature, to live the natural life; if we enter the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of grace, it must be by a new birth. The doctrine that a man can bury his old sinful life, and begin a new one with the freshness of youthful hope, is foreshadowed in the Old Testament (@Isaiah 1:18; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), and taught in the New Testament (@Rom. 6:8; 8:3; 12:2; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15,16).

      4. How can a man be born again when he is old? The question of Nicodemus indicates his surprise and skepticism. He ought to have apprehended the meaning of Jesus better. The Jews were wont to admit Gentile proselytes to the Jewish religion and to speak of them as born again. They even insisted that the proselyte was no longer kin to his old relations and might marry his nearest kin without offence, because old relationships were destroyed by his new birth. This doctrine of naturalization ought to have given him a better conception of the Savior's meaning.

      5. Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Jesus does not reply directly to the question of Nicodemus, but proceeded to give a more explicit statement concerning the new birth. One must be born of water and of the Spirit. Whatever this may mean, it will be admitted by all, 1. That no one is a member of the kingdom of God until he is born again; 2. That the Savior declares the impossibility of one entering who is not born of [56] water and of the Spirit. One cannot enter by being born of water alone, nor of the Spirit alone, but must be born of water and of the Spirit. Otherwise he cannot enter. What, then, is the meaning of these two words? Concerning the birth of the Spirit we need say little, as there is little controversy about it. Concerning born of water we agree with Alford that it refers to baptism, while "of the Spirit " refers to the inward change. He adds: "All attempts to get rid of these two plain facts have sprung from doctrinal prejudices by which the views of expositors have been warped." Abbott says: "We are to understand Christ as he expected his auditor to understand him. The Jewish proselyte, as a sign that he had put off his old faiths, was baptized on entering the Jewish church. John the Baptist baptized both Jew and Gentile as a sign of purification by repentance from past sins. Nicodemus would then have certainly understood by the expression, born of water, a reference to this rite of baptism." Milligan, of Scotland, says: "John said: I baptize with water; the One coming baptizes with Spirit; but Christ says: The baptism of both is necessary. One must be born of water and of the Spirit." See also @Titus 3:5 and Rom. 6:4.

      6. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; . . . of the Spirit is spirit. Our fleshly bodies are born of our human parents and are like them, endowed with carnal passions and are sinful; but it is the inward man, the spirit, that is renewed by the Spirit and the subject of the new birth of the Spirit. Like, in each case, produces like.

      7. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The necessity and reasonableness of the new birth is explained more fully below. It is implied in the word kingdom. No one born a citizen of England can become a citizen of the United States without complying with our naturalization laws. The kingdom of God has its naturalization laws and there is no other way of entrance than to be born of water and of the Spirit. We may not understand all the mysteries of the new birth, any more than we do those of the natural birth, but we can understand what has to be done and what is necessary. It is plain that a new spirit is essential to a new life.

      8. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. No passage, probably, in the New Testament, has caused more bewilderment or controversy than this verse. Most commentators have held that it means: "As the wind moves mysteriously, so does the Spirit, and it breathes upon whom it will, effecting the inward change called the birth of the Spirit arbitrarily." This view we believe to be incorrect and caused by a wrong translation, sanctioned, not by the Greek, but by current theology. Let it be noted that, [57] 1. Exactly the same term is rendered "wind" and "Spirit" in this verse. It is a violation of all law that the same word should experience so radical a change of meaning in the same sentence. 2. That word (pneuma) is not translated "wind" elsewhere, although it occurs scores of times in the New Testament, but is always "Spirit." 3. Another word in the Greek, anemos, is usually used to represent "wind" in the New Testament. 4. This erroneous idea creates a confusion of figures. It makes Christ to say: The wind blows where it listeth; so is (not the Spirit, but) every one born of the Spirit. It affirms of him just what is affirmed of the wind, a thing the Savior never did. These facts are sufficient to show that the rendering "wind" is wrong. All we have to do is to translate pneuma here, as is done in the latter part of the verse and elsewhere in the New Testament. The verse then reads: "The Spirit breathes where it pleases and thou hearest the voice thereof, but canst not tell whence it comes nor whither it goes. So (by hearing its voice) is every one born of the Spirit." The meaning is: The Spirit breathes where it wills and you recognize its manifestation by its voice; by the words spoken by men of God as the Holy Spirit gives them utterance. You cannot tell whence the Spirit comes or whither it goes, but you can hear its voice when it does come. So, by listening to the voice of the Spirit, is every one born of the Spirit. He who receives by faith the communications of the Spirit is born of the Spirit. The birth of the Spirit is not the gift of the Spirit. To those who are born the Spirit is given. "Because ye are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son unto your hearts, crying, Abba, Father." @Gal.4:6. Hence, in harmony with the above view, Peter says, "Being born again, not by corruptible seed, but incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever."

      9. How can these things be? His skeptical tone is gone and he is an humble inquirer. He has been sobered and awed by the earnestness and moral power of Christ, like the Samaritan woman, or Festus and Agrippa.

      10. Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? The question implies that Nicodemus was one of the doctors of the law. These made very arrogant claims of superior knowledge. Christ intends to show their ignorance of the fundamental principles of the kingdom. Though the prophets had indicated the new heart and spirit as one of its conditions they had entirely overlooked it.

      11. Verily, verily, I say unto thee. This is the third time these words have occurred. Each time they mark a new stage of the discourse. We speak that which we do know . . . ye receive not our witness. Why does Christ change to the plural? Various answers have been given, but we believe that the change of "thou" to "ye" explains it. "Ye" includes Nicodemus and all Jews who failed to confess him; "we" includes himself and those who should testify of him [58] as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance. They I knew and testified that they had "seen." This is closely connected in thought with @verse 8th. The birth of the Spirit is due to hearing the "voice of the Spirit," to being "born of the word of God," to believing the things witnessed by the Spirit.

      12. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not. He had spoken of the things that belonged to the kingdom of God on earth, of the new birth. If Nicodemus could not understand and believe this, so plain, easily understood and connected with human life, how would he receive testimony concerning the heavenly kingdom, God, and eternal glory? He had said: "We know that thou art a teacher, come from God;" Christ now declares that he is not "a man sent from God" like John, but has come down from heaven, still is of heaven, and therefore, can bear witness of heavenly things.

      13. For no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down . . . the Son of man which is in heaven. No man has gone to heaven and returned to bear witness of heavenly things and the counsels of God. The only witness is the Son of man who came down and is still in heaven, because divine and in constant communication therewith. This implies: 1. That he existed before he appeared on earth. 2. That heaven was his true abode. 3. That, on earth, his spirit was in communication with heaven.

      14, 15. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. The reference is to @Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites sinned through unbelief and were bitten by fiery serpents and died. Moses, at the command of God, raised on a pole a brazen serpent and those bitten who looked in faith were healed. So the world is in sin and dying because bitten by the serpent of sin through unbelief. Christ, he declares, will be lifted up on the cross, and whosoever looks to the crucified Savior and believes upon him will not perish, but have everlasting life. This implies that those who reject the uplifted Christ win perish.

      16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, etc. There is no sweeter verse in the Bible. It declares, 1. That God is love. 2. That he loved the world instead of hating it. 3. That he so loved that he gave his Son. The Son did not come to appease the Father's wrath, but the Father sent him because he loved so well. 4. That he came to keep men from perishing;--to [59] save them. 5. That those who believe upon him, so as to receive him, will not perish but have everlasting life. God's love is not limited;--"he loved the world." Men limit its grace by refusing to receive its medium, "the only begotten Son."

      17. God sent not his Son to condemn the world. Christ came to be the Savior. His mission was to "save his people from their sins." There is condemnation, but it is because of unbelief. "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."

      18. He that believeth on him is not condemned. "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." Faith in Christ is essential to salvation, because it is the power that leads to obedience to him. Belief in him must be strong enough to sway all the life and soul. Is condemned already. "He that believeth not shall be damned." The unbeliever condemns himself. He is lost and refuses to be saved by Christ. He is dead and refuses to be made alive. The judgment is already passed upon him; the day of judgment will only make it manifest. Hath not believed in the name. The name Jesus, which means Savior. To disbelieve that name is to reject the salvation of Jesus; the only name whereby we must be saved.

      19, 20. This is the condemnation. The ground of condemnation. The light had come into the world, Christ, the true Light, but men chose to walk in darkness because they loved it rather than light. The evil doer shuns light because it exposes. Birds and beasts of prey, thieves and evil doers, love the night because it hides their deeds. There is nothing that frauds of every kind dread so much as investigation. They hate the light lest their deeds should be reproved. The fact that men love sin accounts for the unbelief and spiritual darkness of our race. Myriads do not want truth or light which condemns their evil deeds.

      21. He that doeth truth cometh to the light. Truth is not an abstract idea; it is something that must be lived. Many a life is a false one, a lie; many a [60] life is a true one, an illustration of the truth. He that does the truth, is conscious of a true and genuine life, seeks the light, and is willing that his deeds should be manifest.


      1. One cannot creep secretly into the kingdom of heaven. He must come out openly on the side of the Savior and publicly confess him.

      2. Earthly birth, or station, does not entitle to spiritual privileges. The kingdom is not composed of sons of Abraham, or priests, or nobles, or princes, but of those who have been born again.

      3. No one can enter the kingdom who is not "born of water and of the Spirit." To baptize a babe, or anyone without faith, cannot make it a member of the kingdom, because it is not born of the Spirit. Nor can one enter who may claim that he is born of the Spirit unless he is "born of water" also. The proof that one has received the "Spirit is that he receives the things of the Spirit."

      4. The Spirit breathes upon whom he wills and then he "speaks as the Holy Spirit gives him utterance." His voice was heard. So, by hearing his voice and obeying, every one is born of the Spirit. Vain are the claims of men to the new birth who refuse to obey the Spirit's commands.

      5. Those who believe upon the Son are born of the Spirit, and have everlasting life. He that believeth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is born of God, because his belief, if of the heart, leads him to a truthful and obedient acceptance of him who is the life.


      22. After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judea. Shortly after the passover and the interview with Nicodemus, he left the Jewish metropolis. It had refused to hear him and he retired to the country districts, probably on the banks of the Jordan. There he tarried with them and baptized. This is the first intimation of Christ administering the baptismal rite. He did not baptize in person, but by his disciples (@John 4:2). His baptism at this time could not have been the Christian rite that he instituted after his resurrection, but was preparatory like John's. Christian baptism could not exist until the Son had demonstrated his relation to the Father by the resurrection, and until the Holy Spirit was given. The baptismal formula recognizes the authority of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

      23. John also was baptizing at Ænon near to Salim. The location of Ænon [61] was long in doubt, and it was left for Lieut. Conder, of the British Palestine Exploration, to settle the question so satisfactorily that the authorities on the sacred localities, Robinson, Stanley, Thompson, Schaff and McGarvey, have accepted his discovery. He, the only man who has made a scientific survey of Palestine, locates it northeast of Samaria, in a beautiful valley, not far from the Jordan. He says (Tent Work, p. 92): "The valley is open in most of its course, and we find in it the two requisites for the scene of the baptism of a large multitude,--an open space and abundance of water. Not only does the name Salim occur in the village three miles south of the valley, but the name Ænon, signifying 'springs,' is recognized as the village of Ainun, four miles north of the stream. There is only one other place of the latter name in Palestine, Beit Ainun, near Hebron, but this is a place that has no fine supply of water and no Salim near it. On the other hand there are many other Salims all over Palestine, but none of them has an Ænon near it. The site of Wady Far'ah is the only one where all the requisites are met,--the two names, the fine water supply, the proximity of the desert, and the open character of the ground." Prof. McGarvey, who visited the locality, says: "The much water we found all the way, and although the season was exceptionally dry, pools well suited for baptizing were abundant. . . . Here, then, was the open space required, and a more suitable place for the gathering of a multitude could not be found on the banks of any stream in Palestine. . . . We cut an oleander cane apiece from the bank of the stream, and took a bath in one of its pools."--Lands of the Bible, pp. 508-9. Because there was much water there. This is assigned as a reason, not why John was at Ænon, or preached at Ænon, but why he baptized at Ænon. It explains "baptizing." "Much water" was essential to baptism in New Testament times, and Ænon provided it. It shows the stress of Pedobaptists when they insist that he chose Ænon because the great multitudes would require much water for domestic purposes. The Scripture explains its necessity otherwise. Nor does the criticism that polla hudata means "many waters" help their cause. The phrase is applied in the Septuagint to the Euphrates (@Jer. 51:13), and in Revelation to the Tiber (@Rev. 17:1). It may mean either "much" or "many" waters. There were many fountains at Ænon and many pools in the stream they created. Whatever polla hudata may mean it explains the reason why John was baptizing there, a fact that can be reconciled only with immersion. The reason why the historian gives this explanation is that all the other accounts of John's baptizing locate him at the river Jordan. As it is here affirmed that he was baptizing at a place some distance from the Jordan, it is explained that there "was much water there" also.

      24. For John was not yet cast into prison. This incident occurred just before the seizure of John. The testimony following is the last words recorded of the great forerunner before he was sent to prison and from thence to death. As the other Gospels omit this incident, and, after the baptism of Christ, [62] mention John next in prison, the author of the Fourth Gospel is particular to say "he was not yet cast into prison."

      25. There arose a question between John's disciples and the Jews. The Revision reads "a Jew" which is supported by the best manuscripts. We can only conjecture the nature of this dispute. "The Jew," evidently not a disciple of either John or Jesus, but perhaps a Pharisee (see @John 4:1), associated baptism with the bathings of the Jewish law for purification. The context shows that in a discussion with disciples of John he gave preference either to Christ's baptism, or to Christ himself, over John and his baptism. He probably also spoke of the great numbers who resorted to Christ.

      26. Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, . . . the same baptizeth. Full of jealousy for the reputation of their master, they rush to him with their complaint, as if the growing influence of Jesus and his practice of baptism were an infringement on the rights of John. Note that they had been impressed by the witness that John had borne to Jesus at Bethabara.

      27, 28. A man can receive nothing except it be given him from heaven. This trial of John would have been a sore one had he been swayed by human feeling. To see his great popularity and influence gradually waning, and another coming up to take his place, was well calculated to arouse jealousy. But John, in the spirit of his mission, rose to a sublime superiority over carnal weakness. He declares, first, that what he is, and what Jesus is, is due to the will of heaven. Each will fill his appointed mission "given him from heaven." Next, he cites his own words before spoken, of which they were witnesses, in which he declared that he was not the Christ, but only the messenger who went before the King to prepare his way. The superiority of Jesus was only what he himself had predicted.

      29. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom. This expressive figure is often used. The church, espoused to Christ, is the bride; Christ, the bridegroom. John, in the growing influence of Christ, already sees in anticipation the bridegroom united to the bride. As the friend of the bridegroom he rejoices [63] in the happiness of the bridegroom The good news that his disciples bring him of Christ, so far from arousing envy, causes him to rejoice. He feels that his own work is done: "My joy therefore is fulfilled."

      30. He must increase, but I must decrease. As the light of the moon fades out before the rising sun, so John must decrease before the bright light of the Sun of Righteousness. His own decrease is, however, only a proof of the increase and fulness of Christ. These last words of John are in the spirit of Christian sacrifice and are a fitting close of his work.

      31. He that cometh from above is above all. It is generally supposed that the following words are, not those of John the Baptist, but of the Apostle. There is a contrast of style, and a part of what follows contains references to the words of our Lord. The one that cometh from above is Christ, who is above every earthly teacher, prophets, apostles, and John the Baptist.

      32. What he hath seen and heard, he testifieth. He hath no need for instruction, for the one from heaven knows personally of what he testifies. No, man receiveth his testimony. The world, in John the apostle's time still rejected Christ. Here and there were churches who honored the Master, but mankind refused to receive his testimony.

      33. Hath set his seal that God is true. A few, comparatively, had received his testimony, and these thereby demonstrated their conviction that God is true; that his promises have been fulfilled in Christ. To attach a seal to a document is to confirm it.

      34. He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God. So Christ affirmed of himself. It was the Father who spoke in him. He had the fulness of the Spirit. It is the testimony of the whole world, believing and unbelieving, that "he spake as man never spake." The reason of this is plain. It was the Father speaking through him.

      35. The Father loveth the Son. Therefore he had the Spirit without measure, and in him dwelt the "fulness of the Godhead."

      36. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life. Eternal life and death [64] turn on the question of faith in Christ. They turn on this principle because "without faith we cannot please God," for we cannot live the life, while unbelievers, that pleases him. Faith is the mightiest power of earth to move men to action, and faith in Christ moves to the life that is needful to become the sons of God. He who believes with a heartfelt, obedient faith, a faith that trusts all and surrenders all to the will of Christ, is born again and "hath eternal life," while the unbeliever remains in disobedience and abides in death. It is not "faith alone" that gives life, but "faith made perfect" by obedience. See @James 2:22.


      1. Those who neglect, or disparage the rites which God has established, trample under foot the example of the Master. He obeyed, preached, and practiced John's baptism. Much the more ought all his followers to regard that which the Lord has enacted.

      2. The true servant of God seeks not his own honor, but the glory of Christ. A godly preacher will hide himself behind the Master and be forgetful of himself so that Christ is honored. "God forbid that he should glory, save in Christ and him crucified." It is no credit to a preacher that his hearers should go away from his preaching thinking and talking of himself. He only preaches effectually who fixes their thoughts on Christ.

[NTC3 54-65]

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The New Testament Commentary: Vol. III--John (1886)

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