John 3 - Thru the Bible Commentary
3:1 This man is set apart from the mob. Our Lord didn’t trust the mob because He knew their faith was not genuine. But this man Nicodemus is a genuine man. Let’s get acquainted with him.
Three things are said about him here. The first thing is that he was a man of the Pharisees. That means that he belonged to the best group in Israel. They believed in the inspiration of the Old Testament, they believed in the coming of the Messiah, they believed in miracles, and they believed in the Resurrection. He was a man of the Pharisees, and his name was Nicodemus—we are given his name. And he was a ruler of the Jews. This tells us of the three masks that this man wore.
This is a picture of modern man if there ever was one. Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisees when he met with them. When he was in their midst, he was just one of them. He more or less let down his guard. Then, when he went out from the Pharisees and walked down the street, people would see him coming and would step off the sidewalk. He would be wearing his robe and his phylacteries and prayer shawl, and they would say, “My, that is the ruler, Nicodemus. He’s an outstanding man. He’s a ruler of the Jews.” So he would adopt an altogether different attitude with them. But his name was Nicodemus, and down underneath these two masks that he wore, he was just plain, little old “Nicky.”
There are many men who live like this today. There’s many a man who is a businessman and president of a corporation. He goes into the office in the morning and those in the office speak to him and they call him, “Mister,” and they bow and scrape to him. Although they think they know him, they don’t really. Then he leaves his office and sees several of his customers that morning and when they ask him about business, he says, “Oh, business is great.” Then he goes to his club at noon for lunch. The minute he steps inside the club, he’s a different man. He’s not Mister So–and–So, the president of a corporation, but now he’s just plain old Joe Dokes. They play golf with him, they think they know him, and they call him by his first name. He adopts a different attitude with them. It is a different relationship. They ask him about business and he tells them, “Oh, business is great.” Then in the evening, when the work is done, he goes home. He opens the door to his home, steps in and takes off his coat, and drops down into a chair. He’s an altogether different man. His wife comes in and looks at him as he sits there dejected with both of his masks off now. He’s no longer the businessman, the head of a corporation, and he’s no longer one of the fellows at the club. Now he’s just plain little old “Joe.” His wife asks him, “What’s the matter, Joe? Is business bad?” He replies, “Business is rotten.” This is who he really is.
3:2 This man, Nicodemus, comes to the Lord Jesus with a mask on. He says, “we know.” Who is we? The Pharisees. He comes as a man of the Pharisees. He is wearing that mask.
He comes with a genuine compliment. He’s no hypocrite. He says that we Pharisees have agreed that You are a teacher come from God. I think that he came to talk about the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees wanted to establish the kingdom and throw off the yoke of Rome, but they had no way of doing it. Here comes this One who is popular—with the multitudes following Him wherever He goes—so the Pharisees want to hitch their little wagon to His star. Since He has come from the country up in Galilee and they think He doesn’t know how to deal with these politicians as they do, they want to combine forces. So Nicodemus comes, acknowledging that Jesus is a teacher come from God.
The proof that he points to is the miracles Jesus performed. He had to recognize the miracles. Please notice that no one doubted the miracles of our Lord—not in that day! You’ve got to be a professor in a seminary today, removed by two thousand years and several thousand miles from the land where it all took place, and then you can doubt the miracles. But you will not find that either the friends of Jesus or His enemies ever doubted His miracles.
3:3 This is the reason I think he came to talk about the kingdom of God. I see no other reason why our Lord would almost abruptly interrupt him and say to him, “The thing is, you can’t even see the kingdom of God except you’ve been born again.” Now here is a man, a Pharisee, who is religious to his fingertips, and yet our Lord told him he couldn’t see the kingdom of God except he be born again. If this man came to talk about the kingdom and the establishing of it, which I think he did, then certainly this statement of our Lord detoured him. So now he drops the mask of the man of the Pharisees, but he is still a ruler of the Jews.
3:4 Jesus had said he must be born again. The Greek word for “again” is anothen which means “from above.” This man Nicodemus couldn’t think of anything but a physical birth. He immediately dropped the condescending mask of the Pharisee and asked how this could be. Our Lord wasn’t speaking of a physical birth at all. He was speaking about a spiritual birth. But Nicodemus couldn’t understand about a spiritual birth. The reason was that he had no spiritual capacity to comprehend it.
3:5 Now what does it mean to be born of water and of the Spirit? There are those who think that to be born of water is a reference to water baptism. But this would be a strange expression if it did refer to that. Then, there have been several very fine Christian doctors who interpret “born of water” as the physical birth which is a birth in water; that is, the child in the womb is in water. I don’t think that is what is meant here at all. He wasn’t talking about the difference between natural birth and spiritual birth, but He was talking about how a man could be born “from above” or “born again.”
As we saw in chapter 2, water is symbolic of the Word of God. We will find later in this book that Jesus says, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17, italics mine). There is a cleansing, sanctifying power in the Word. In John 15:3 Jesus says, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (italics mine). The Word of God is likened unto water again and again. We believe that “born of water and of the Spirit” means that a person must be born again by the Holy Spirit using the Scripture. We believe, very definitely, that no one could be born again without the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God. One today is born from above by the use of water, which is the Word of God, and the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, making it real to the heart.
There are three outstanding conversions in the Book of Acts. They have been given to us, I think, primarily as illustrations. There is the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, the conversion of Cornelius, and the conversion of Paul. These three men are representatives of the three families of Noah: the son of Shem, the son of Ham, and the son of Japheth. In each of these three cases, the Word of God was used by the Spirit of God for their conversions. God’s method seems to be the Word of God, used by the Spirit of God, given through a man of God. I am confident that our Lord, saying that one must be born of water and of the Spirit, referred to the Spirit of God using the Word of God. Without this, Nicodemus could not enter into the kingdom of God.
3:6 God does not intend to change the flesh, meaning this old nature which you and I have. The fact of the matter is that it can’t be changed. The Word of God has much to say about this. The old nature is at war with God. “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7–8). God has no program for our old nature, to retrieve it or improve it or develop it or save it. That old nature is to go down into the grave with us. And, if the Lord comes before we go down into the grave, we are to be changed in the twinkling of an eye, which means we will get rid of that old nature. It can never be made obedient to God. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” That is an axiom. God does not intend to save the flesh at all. This old nature must be replaced by the new nature. The spiritual birth is necessary so that you and I may be given a new nature, friend.
Now notice that Nicodemus who had been hiding behind the mask, “ruler of the Jews,” will be losing it.
3:7-8 Jesus is saying, “You can’t tell where the wind comes from and you can’t tell where it is going.” The air currents and the winds are something that man still doesn’t control. The wind blows where it wills. We can’t detour it, and we can’t change it. There is an attempt being made to seed down the hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean area, but so far we haven’t tamed the wind.
Although we can’t control the wind, we surely can tell when it’s blowing. You and I can be standing out on the street and you can say to me, “The wind is blowing!” I answer, “How do you know?” You would reply, “Look at that tree up there, see how the leaves are blowing, and notice how the tree is bending over.” We can tell when the wind is blowing.
Now, friend, I don’t know how to explain to you the spiritual birth. I know there are a lot of books being published that claim to explain it, but the difference between the authors and me is that they don’t seem to know that they don’t know, while I am willing to admit that I don’t know. “The wind bloweth where it listeth … so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” Although we don’t quite understand it, it illustrates the way one is born of the Spirit. I can’t tell you exactly how the Spirit of God operates, but I can surely tell when He is moving in the lives and hearts of His people. That’s exactly what our Lord is saying here.
Our Lord has gotten rid of the two masks. The man who stands before Him is no longer the man of the Pharisees and he is no longer the ruler of the Jews. Who is he? Let’s see what the verse says.
3:9 Now he stands there, just plain, little old “Nicky.” He’s wondering how these things can be, and our Lord is going to talk to him very plainly. By the way, you and I can put up our masks before each other, and there are many people today who use them. When they are with a certain crowd, they act a certain way. The mask, friend, hides just what we really are. When we come to the Lord Jesus, we have to take off all our masks. We can’t use them there. You have to be the real “you.” You have to come just as you are; then Jesus will deal with you that way. And this is the way He will deal with this man Nicodemus.
3:10 That’s gentle satire that our Lord is using here. He is saying to this man, “You are a ruler in Israel and acting as if I were telling you something that couldn’t be true, because if it were true, you would have known about it.” And then Jesus asks, “Don’t you know these things, Nicodemus?”
3:11-13 He tells Nicodemus that he hasn’t received His witness even as it was spoken to him.
Then He goes on to show that there is a tremendous movement which is set forth here in the Gospel of John. I called attention in the Introduction to the saying of our Lord in John 16:28, “I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father.” And now He says, “No man hath ascended up to heaven.” That is the answer to those today who feel that Elijah and Enoch went to heaven when they were translated. I don’t think so because up to this point the Lord Jesus says that no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven. In other words, He is saying that He is the only One who can speak about heaven because He is the only One who has ascended up to heaven. Now it is true that there are a host of folk who have gone to heaven after Christ, but in the Old Testament when a saint of God died, one of God’s own, he went to a place that is called Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom—our Lord called it that (see Luke 16:22). It was not until after Christ died and ascended to heaven and led captivity captive that He took those who were in Paradise into the presence of God in heaven. Since then, for the child of God, it has always been “… absent from the body … present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). But when Jesus was here, no other man had ascended to heaven.
3:14-15 When Moses lifted up that brass serpent on a pole because of God’s judgment upon the sin of the people, all they had to do for healing was to look to it. As Moses lifted up the serpent, so Christ is going to be lifted up. That serpent, you see, represented the sin of the people. And Christ was made sin for us on the Cross because He bore our sin there. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
Now our Lord repeats to Nicodemus probably the most familiar words we have in the Bible:
3:16 There are two things that we need to note here. One is that we must be born again. The other is that the Son of Man must be lifted up. They are related. It takes the death of Christ and the resurrection of Christ—He must be lifted up. Since He has been lifted up, since He bore our penalty, the Spirit of God can regenerate us. And we must be born again—that is the only way God can receive us.
The motivation for all of this is that God so loved the world. God never saved the world by love, which is the mistaken thinking of today. It doesn’t say that God’s love saved the world, because the love of God could never save a sinner. God does not save by love, friends. God saves by grace! “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Now, how does God save? God saves by grace. But God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever (you can write your name in here and I can write mine) believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Notice that with the word believe is the little preposition in which means to believe in Christ. That is, we trust Him as the One who bore the penalty for our sins. This is a personal thing. We must each believe that He died in our place and in our stead. My friend, you must believe that He died for you.
3:17-18 We see here that, when Jesus came the first time, He was not a judge. He made that very clear to the man who wanted Him to give a judgment between himself and his brother. He said, “… Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (Luke 12:14). He didn’t come as a Judge the first time. He came as the Savior. He will come the next time as the Judge. But now He says that God didn’t send Him into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. Whoever does not believe in Him is condemned. Friend, if you don’t believe, you are already condemned. Why? Because “he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” That wonderful name is Jesus—His name is Jesus because He is the Savior of the world. Anyone who will believe in that name is no longer under condemnation but has everlasting life.
Remember that He is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee. The Pharisees believed that the Messiah, when He came, would be a judge. The Old Testament presented two aspects of the coming of the Messiah. One was His coming as a Savior, coming to die, coming to pay a penalty; the other was His coming as the Judge. They reasoned that the Messiah would be a judge when He came because the Old Testament presents that aspect. In Psalm 2:9 we read, “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron….” Daniel speaks of Him as a judge of the whole world (Dan. 7:13–14). Psalm 45 talks about His ruling the world in righteousness, and Isaiah 11 and Isaiah 42 speak of His judgments in righteousness. The Lord Jesus is making it very clear to Nicodemus that God sent not His Son this time to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. The “world” is the Greek word kosmos—God’s redemptive purpose embraces the entire world. He did not come to condemn or to judge the world but to save the world.
In Christ there is no condemnation. Those who are not in Christ are already condemned. There are a great many who feel that the world is on trial today. It is not. The world is lost. You and I live in a lost world, and we’ll not wait until the final judgment to see that we are lost. Our position is something like a man who is in prison being asked whether or not he will accept a pardon. That is the gospel. It is not telling a man that he is on trial. He is already condemned. He is already in prison waiting for execution. But the gospel tells him a pardon is offered to him. The point is, will you accept the pardon? How wonderfully clear that is. The gospel is to save those who are already lost.
3:19-21 This is the judgment, you see, of the world. The day that the world crucified Christ—on that day the world made a decision. It must now be judged by God. The condemnation, or the judgment, is that light is come into the world, but because men’s deeds were habitually evil, they loved the darkness. Rats always scurry for a dark corner when light enters a room. Today I received a letter from a girl who said that, before she was saved, she never cared for our Bible–teaching program. Naturally, she did not want the light at all. Only those who turn to Christ want the light.
Notice that in this verse our Lord approaches so many things from the negative point. “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” We hear today of the power of positive thinking. Believe me, friend, there is a lot of power in negative thinking and negative speaking. Listen to other things He said. “… I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” and “… the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 2:17; 10:45, italics mine). “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world.” And He says that every one that doeth evil hateth the light. In other words, whoever habitually practices what is wrong hates the light. “Light” and “truth” are used in the same way. “He that doeth truth cometh to the light.” Error and darkness are always in contrast to light and truth. This ends His interview with Nicodemus.
TESTIMONY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
3:22-24 At this time, John was still able to preach “… the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). It was after the Lord’s temptation that John was cast into prison. The other Gospels tell us that.
3:25-26 This is a very interesting statement. The disciples of John, I would assume, are jealous. They are suggesting that he should not mention the name of Jesus. They feel it would be best if he didn’t. And then they imply that he should not have borne witness to Him to begin with because all are going to Him—well, now, that is hyperbole—but it reveals they were jealous and were afraid John was going to lose all his followers.
Now this man John makes a very clear statement. There is not a jealous bone in the body of John.
3:27-30 One cannot escape the tremendous force of this, friend. John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets. He is actually not in the church. He makes it clear here: “He that hath the bride….” Who is the bride? The church. “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.” Then who is John? He is the friend of the Bridegroom. He will be present at the marriage supper of the Lamb, but he is not a part of the church by any means. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets who walks out of the Old Testament onto pages of the New Testament to announce the coming of the Messiah.
“A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.” Again and again this truth will come out. Jesus said, “No man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65). How tremendous these statements are! And then John says that Christ must increase but that John must decrease. His ministry is now coming to an end.
3:31-36 John makes it very clear that the Lord Jesus Christ is superior, and he gives them this wonderful testimony concerning the Lord Jesus.
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” You have it right now! Friend, you couldn’t have it any clearer than that. John the Baptist preached the gospel, as you can see. He told the message that men are lost without Christ, but they have everlasting life through faith in Christ. What a testimony this man had. What a tremendous witness to the Lord Jesus Christ!