How can these things be? – Nicodemus was still unwilling to admit the doctrine unless he understood it; and we have here an instance of a man of rank stumbling at one of the plainest doctrines of religion, and unwilling to admit a truth because he could not understand “how” it could be, when he daily admitted the truth of facts in other things which he could as little comprehend. And we may learn:
1. That people will often admit facts on other subjects, and be greatly perplexed by similar facts in religion.
2. That no small part of people’s difficulties are because they cannot understand how or why a thing is.
3. That people of rank and learning are as likely to be perplexed by these things as those in the obscurest and humblest walks of life.
4. That this is one reason why such men, particularly, so often reject the truths of the gospel.
5. That this is a very unwise treatment of truth, and a way which they do not apply to other things.
If the wind cools and refreshes me in summer if it prostrates the oak or lashes the sea into foam – if it destroys my house or my grain, it matters little how it does this; and so of the Spirit. If it renews my heart, humbles my pride, subdues my sin, and comforts my soul, it is a matter of little importance how it does all this. Sufficient for me is it to know that it is done, and to taste the blessings which flow from the renewing. and sanctifying grace of God.
Jesus answered and said to him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and perceivest thou not these things? The term “Israel” is used four times by John (Joh_1:31, Joh_1:49; Joh_12:13; and here). In each place the high dignity, calling, and glory of the nation chosen for the loftiest privilege and destiny are involved. Notice the article, “the Israel” of God. The article before διδάσκαλος gives a high distinction to Nicodemus. Schottgen and Lucke suppose some special office to be here referred to, either the president of the Sanhedrin, or the hakim, or chakam, “the wise man,” who sat on his left in the public sessions, or the “father of the house of judgment,” who sat on his right; but it may simply mean the teacher of Israel, who has come to me in representative fashion, and who is reminded that he should have been more intimately acquainted with the teaching of his own sacred books. Without doubt, the fact of human corruption, and the power of the Spirit of God to renovate, to change utterly down to the very core and heart of human nature, is a great dogma of the Old Testament (cf. Deu_10:16; Deu_30:6; 1Sa_10:9, where God gave Saul another heart; 1Sa_16:13, the
effect upon David; David’s own prayer, Psa_51:10; and the great promises of God by Ezekiel, Eze_11:19; Eze_18:31; Eze_36:26; Jer_4:4; Jer_31:33). Nicodemus, an illustrious man, a teacher of ethers, presumably acquainted with the teaching of the Scriptures, need not have been in such doubt and amazement at the searching words of Jesus.
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Joh_3:10. Jesus answered and said unto him, Thou art the teacher of Israel; and perceivest thou not these things? The question which expressed the bewilderment of Nicodemus is answered by another question. He has assumed the office of teacher, teacher of God’s people Israel, and yet he does not recognise these truths. ‘Israel’ is a word used only four times in this Gospel, and never without special meaning. We have seen its significance in Joh_1:31 and Joh_1:49; and chap. Joh_12:13 is similar. The only remaining passage is that before us. No word so clearly brings into view the nation of God’s special choice. The name carries us back from a time of degeneracy and decadence to past days of hope and promise. It was to Israel that God showed His statutes and His judgments (Psa_147:19), and this thought is very prominent here. Of Israel thus possessed of the very truths to which Jesus had made reference (see above, on Joh_3:5) Nicodemus is ‘the teacher.’ It is not simply ‘a teacher,’ though it is not very easy to say what the presence of the article denotes. It is possible that Nicodemus occupied a superior position, or was held in especial honour amongst the doctors of the law; or the words may merely imply that he magnified his office and was proud to be teacher of God’s people. Surely from him might have been expected such knowledge of the Scriptures and insight into their meaning that the truth of the words just spoken by Jesus would at once be recognised. For our Lord does not say ‘and knowest not;’ Nicodemus is not blamed for any want of previous knowledge of these things, but because he does not perceive the truth of the teaching when presented to him,—and presented, moreover, by One whose right to teach with authority he had himself confessed. It will be observed that Jesus does not answer the ‘How’ of the preceding question; that had been answered by anticipation. In Joh_3:8 Jesus had declared that the manner must be a mystery to man, whereas the fact was beyond all doubt. The fact was known to every one that had been born of the Spirit, but to such only. Hence in the following verse we have a renewed and more emphatic affirmation of the truth and certainty of what has been said. If Nicodemus would really know the fact, it must be by the knowledge of experience. He appears no further in this narrative. The last words have reduced him to silence,-thoughtful silence, we cannot doubt,-but have not brought him to complete belief.
11.We speak what we know. Some refer this to Christ and John the Baptist; others say that the plural number is used instead of the singular. For my own part, I have no doubt that Christ mentions himself in connection with all the prophets of God, and speaks generally in the person of all. Philosophers and other vain-glorious teachers frequently bring forward trifles which they have themselves invented; but Christ claims it as peculiar to himself and all the servants of God, that they deliver no doctrine but what is certain. For God does not send ministers to prattle about things that are unknown or doubtful, but trains them in his school, that what they have learned from himself they may afterwards deliver to others. Again, as Christ, by this testimony, recommends to us the certainty of his doctrine, so he enjoins on all his ministers a law of modesty, not to put forward their own dreams or conjectures — not to preach human inventions, which have no solidity in theme but to render a faithful and pure testimony to God. Let every man, therefore, see what the Lord has revealed to him, that no man may go beyond the bounds of his faith; and, lastly, that no man may allow himself to speak any thing but what he has heard from the Lord. It ought to be observed, likewise, that Christ here confirms his doctrine by an oath, that it may have full authority over us.
You receive not our testimony. This is added, that the Gospel may lose nothing on account of the ingratitude of men. For since few persons are to be found who exercise faith in the truth of God, and since the truth is everywhere rejected by the world, we ought to defend it against contempt, that its majesty may not be held in less estimation, because the whole world despises it, and obscures it by impiety. Now though the meaning of the words be simple and one, still we must draw from this passage a twofold doctrine. The first is, that our faith in the Gospel may not be weakened, if it have few disciples on the earth; as if Christ had said, Though you do not receive my doctrine, it remains nevertheless certain and durable; for the unbelief of men will never prevent God from remaining always true. The other is, that they who, in the present day, disbelieve the Gospel, will not escape with impunity, since the truth of God is holy and sacred. We ought to be fortified with this shield, that we may persevere in obedience to the Gospel in opposition to the obstinacy of men. True indeed, we must hold by this principle, that our faith be founded on God. But when we have God as our security, we ought, like persons elevated above the heavens, boldly to tread the whole world under our feet, or regard it with lofty disdain, rather than allow the unbelief of any persons whatever to fill us with alarm. As to the complaint which Christ makes, that his testimony is not received, we learn from it, that the word of God has, in all ages, been distinguished by this peculiar feature, that they who believed it were few; for the expression — you receive not — belongs to the greater number, and almost to the whole body of the people. There is no reason, therefore, that we should now be discouraged, if the number of those who believe be small.
Verily, verily, I say to thee, We speak that which we know, and testify that which we have seen. Lucke and Meyer think that our Lord here merely uses the pluralis majestaticus—uses it as St. Paul does, when clearly he was referring to himself alone. It is difficult to believe this in the curious and impressive change of person here adopted, and the return to the first person singular in Joh_3:12. There was some reason why Jesus, in making this particular saying, uses the plural.
(1) Luthardt says, “Christ and the Baptist.”
(2) Luther and Tholuck, “Christ and the whole prophetic company.”
(3) Stier, “The Three Persons of the blessed Trinity” (see Chrysostom, etc.).
(4) Hengstenberg, Godet, Westcott, Moulton, have in various ways recognized the fact that the company of the disciples already called into the spiritual kingdom, and alive to the mighty power of the Spirit in recreating humanity, were present at this interview. They stood there to affirm the reality of the truth of which their Lord was speaking. Nothing in this sentence is incongruous with the experience and practice of those who had appreciated and were already speaking of the necessity of radical change or spiritual regeneration and of genuine repentance. John in his First Epistle (Joh_1:1-4) uses some of the very phraseology of this solemn verse, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν … μαρτυροῦμεν. Our Lord, on this occasion, gave him permission to do so. The knowledge which he spake of, the vision to which he testified, was in its way and to a degree within the compass of any disciple who had been waked up by the Lord’s words to crave an entirely new beginning of his life, a birth of the Spirit. And ye receive not our testimony. This melancholy assertion proves that from the very first (as John said in his “prologue” concerning all the ministry of the Logos, and all the testimony of the prophetic Spirit to the reality of the light) “the darkness reeeiveth it not.” The first demand which the Divine Lord made was rejected, the first “testimony” was disbelieved. From the beginning the dark shadow of death fell on his path. Nicodemus, or those whom he represented, may have had their curiosity excited, but their entire attitude was non-admission of the fundamental principle, viz. the inward illumination and life he came to supply.
We speak – we know – we have seen
After the use of the singular number in Joh_3:3, Joh_3:5, Joh_3:7, Joh_3:12, the plural here is noteworthy. It is not merely rhetorical – “a plural of majesty” – but is explained by Joh_3:8, “every one that is born of the Spirit.” The new birth imparts a new vision. The man who is born of the Spirit hath eternal life (Joh_3:36); and life eternal is to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent (Joh_17:3). “Ye have an anointing from the Holy One, and ye know (οἴδατε) all things” (1Jo_2:20). He who is born of water and of the Spirit sees the kingdom of God. This we therefore includes, with Jesus, all who are truly born anew of the Spirit. Jesus meets the we know of Nicodemus (Joh_3:2), referring to the class to which he belonged, with another we know, referring to another class, of which He was the head and representative. We know (οἴδαμεν), absolutely. See on Joh_2:24.
Rev., better, bear witness of. See on Joh_1:7.
12.If I have told you earthly things. Christ concludes that it ought to be laid to the charge of Nicodemus and others, if they do not make progress in the doctrine of the Gospel; for he shows that the blame does not lie with him, that all are not properly instructed, since he comes down even to the earth, that he may raise us to heaven. It is too common a fault that men desire to be taught in an ingenious and witty style. Hence, the greater part of men are so delighted with lofty and abstruse speculations. Hence, too, many hold the Gospel in less estimation, because they do not find in it high-sounding words to fill their ears, and on this account do not deign to bestow their attention on a doctrine so low and mean. But it shows an extraordinary degree of wickedness, that we yield less reverence to God speaking to us, because he condescends to our ignorance; and, therefore, when God prattles to us in Scripture in a rough and popular style, let us know that this is done on account of the love which he bears to us. Whoever exclaims that he is offended by such meanness of language, or pleads it as an excuse for not subjecting himself to the word of God, speaks falsely; for he who cannot endure to embrace God, when he approaches to him, will still less fly to meet him above the clouds.
Earthly things. Some explain this to mean the elements of spiritual doctrine; for self-denial may be said to be the commencement of piety. But I rather agree with those who refer it to the form of instruction; for, though the whole of Christ’s discourse was heavenly, yet he spoke in a manner so familiar, that the style itself had some appearance of being earthly. Besides, these words must not be viewed as referring exclusively to a single sermon; for Christ’s ordinary method of teaching — that is, a popular simplicity of style — is here contrasted with the pompous and high-sounding phrases to which ambitious men are too strongly addicted.
If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how will ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things? Our Lord here drops the plural form of address, and returns to the singular. He is about to refer to matters in which the testimony of disciples was not available. It has sometimes been said that the “earthly” and “heavenly” things refer to the wind parable and its interpretation. But, on the supposition that there is a parable or metaphor in Joh_3:8, which we have seen reason to doubt, there would be no perplexity about the reception of the earthly illustration; none could in that day have made a moment’s question touching the invisibility and incomprehensibility of the motion of the wind. The birth from water has been supposed by others to be the (ἐπίγειον) “earthly” thing of which he had spoken, as contrasted with the heavenly thing, the birth anew from the Spirit. But this also is improbable, for of all the things of which Jesus spoke, that was the least likely to have been rejected by the Pharisaic party. The “earthly things” are the subject matter of the discourse as a whole, in apprehending which Nicodemus manifested such obtuseness. The change, renovation of human nature, the new beginning “from the Spirit” of each human life, was indeed operated on the ground of an earthly experience, and came fairly within the compass of common appreciation. Though produced by the Spirit, these things were enacted on earth. When Nicodemus asks the question “how?” he launches the inquiry into another region. There is wide difference between the question “what?” and the question “how?” The one in physical science refers to the whole range of phenomena, and the answer states the facts as they present themselves to the senses; the other question inquires into what Bacon called the latens processus—into verae causae, into the movements and method of the creative hand. So the answer to the question “what?” may be an “earthly thing,” the answer to the question “how?” a “heavenly thing.” If Christ answer the “how” of his listener, he raises his mind to the “heavenly” and transcendental realities which Nicodemus and we too will have to receive on an authority which entirely outsoars that of daily experience or temporal phenomena. Truly he does proceed to do so, but the difficulty of acceptance is indefinitely augmented. The answer of Christ to the matters of personal experience, verifiable by conscience and affirmed by Scripture, was difficult to the master of Israel. The answer of Jesus to the question “how?” may prove far more formidable. It involves the revelation of “the Son of man,” and the redemption by the cross, and the ascension of the Son of man into heaven, and the love of God to the world, and the gift of eternal life to faith.
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Joh_3:12. If I told you the earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you the heavenly things? Here our Lord returns to the singular, ‘I told;’ for He is not now speaking of the witness of experience, but of instruction which He Himself had personally given. It seems hardly possible, however, that our Lord simply refers to words just spoken. In saying ‘If I told you the earthly things, and ye believe not,’ He plainly refers to unbelief after instruction,-unbelief which instruction failed to remove. But if Nicodemus came alone (and there is no doubt that he did), he alone had received this last instruction. Others might be described as unbelievers, but not as remaining in unbelief after having heard the teaching concerning the new birth. We are compelled, therefore, to suppose that our Lord spoke generally of previous discourses to the Jews, and not specifically of these His latest words. But what are the earthly and the heavenly things? Many answers have been given which are Tittle more than arbitrary conjectures. Again the Evangelist must be his own interpreter. As in the next verse ‘heaven’ is not used figuratively, it cannot be maintained that heavenly is figurative here. The words ‘earthly’ and ‘heavenly’ must have their simple meaning, ‘what is upon earth,’ ‘what is in heaven.’ The things that are in heaven can only be made known by Him who has been in heaven; this is suggested by the connection between this verse and the next. When we come to the last section of the chapter, we shall find that it contains (in some degree) acomment upon these verses. Now there (in Joh_3:32) we read of Him ‘that cometh out of heaven, who’ bears witness of what He has seen and heard, who being sent from God ‘speaketh the words of God’ (Joh_3:34). But this same comment takes note of the converse also. Contrasted with Him who comes from heaven is he that is out of the earth ‘and’ speaketh out of the earth (Joh_3:31). Combining these explanatory words, we may surely say that ‘the heavenly things’ are those truths which He who cometh from heaven, and He alone, can reveal, which are the words of God revealing His counsels by the Divine Son now come. The things on earth, in like manner, are the truths whose home is earth, so to speak, which were known before God revealed Himself by Him who is in the bosom of the Father (chap. Joh_1:18). They are ‘earthly,’ not as belonging to the world of sin or the world of sense, but as being things which the prophet or teacher who has never ascended into heaven, but whose origin and home are the earth, can reach, though not necessarily by his own unaided powers. In His former discourses to the Jews, Jesus would seem not to have gone beyond the circle of truth already revealed. Even in His words to Nicodemus He mainly dwells on that which the Scriptures of the Old Testament had taught; and He reproves the teacher of Israel who did not at once recognise His words, thus founded on the Old Testament, as truth. The kingdom of God, the necessity of repentance and faith, the new heart, the holy life, the need at once of cleansing and of quickening-these and other truths, once indeed inhabitants of heaven, had long been naturalised on earth. Having been revealed, they belonged to men, whereas the secret things belong unto the Lord (Deu_29:29). Those of whom our Lord spoke had yielded a partial belief, but the ‘believing’ of which He here speaks is a perfect faith. Nicodemus was a believer, and yet not a believer. If some of the truths hitherto declared had been so imperfectly received, though those who were mighty in the Scriptures ought to have recognised them as already taught, almost as part of the law that was given through Moses (chap. Joh_1:17), how would it be when He spoke of the things hitherto secret, coming directly out of the heaven which He opens (comp. Joh_1:51), and for the first time revealed in Him,-part of the ‘truth’ that ‘came through Jesus Christ’? (chap. Joh_1:17).
It will beseen, then, that the truth of Joh_3:5 would seem tobeplaced by Jesus rather amongst the ‘earthly’ than amongst the ‘heavenly’ things. Of some of the heavenly things He proceeds to speak (Joh_3:14-15).
And. The simple copula is here fuller significance. Olshausen regards it as “adversative,” equivalent to “yet.” Meyer, as a simple continuation of the previous statement. The καὶ has more than a mere conjunctive force. Lance puts it thus: “And yet you must be told heavenly things by him who, being the Heavenly One, is himself the first subject of this revelation.” No one hath ascended into heaven. The past tense must be honestly considered. The word cannot refer to the future ascension of Jesus the Lord of glory to where he was before—to the glory which he had with the Father before the world was (Joh_17:5); nor can it refer, as the Socinian interpreters supposed, to a rapture into heaven of the Divine Man between his baptism and temptation, of which we have not the faintest trace either in Scripture or tradition; nor is it sufficient, with Hengstenberg and others, to regard it as a mere Hebraism for high and exalted intercourse with God and heavenly things. True, there have been many who have sought to climb the steep ascent (Gen_11:4; Isa_14:13); true also that rabbis spoke of Moses having “ascended into the heavens,” by which (says Whitby) they meant “admission to the Divine counsels.” The authority on which he depends is the late ‘Targum on Son_1:5, Son_1:11, Son_1:12,’ by which, however, all that is clear is that the Targnmist was referring to the ascent of Moses to the top of Sinai, i.e. above the multitude in the deserts, to the place whither Jehovah came to speak with him. But Exo_20:22, the canonical Scripture, makes it clear that it was “from the heavens” that Jehovah spoke with his servant. There are, however, other passages quoted by Schottgen from Jerusalem Targum on Deu_30:12, and from the ‘Mishna,’ in which Moses is said to have “ascended into heaven, and heard the voice of God;” but further inquiry leads us to judge that the Hebrew commentators were thinking of the going up to Sinai for his lofty revelations, and their followers have supposed that this process was a synonym of the revelations themselves. Many have thought to rise above the world to the beatific vision, but Jesus says none have done it in the only sense in which they would have been thereby fitted to discourse on the heavenly things. Two things are needed for this in the main—to be in heaven, and come thence charged with its Divine communications. Enoch, Elijah, may have been translated that they should not see death, but they are not so lifted into the abode of God that they might come thence charged with heavenly truth, and able to explain the “how” of Divine grace. No one hath ascended into heaven except he who has by living there as in his eternal home come down from heaven. Meyer, Luthardt, Westcott, etc., all call attention to other and analogous usage of εἰ μὴ, which fastens upon a part of the previous negative, not the whole assertion, and therefore here upon the idea of living in heaven and coming thence (Mat_12:4; Luk_4:26, Luk_4:27; Gal_1:7). Man, if he should presume to come with a full revelation of Divine and heavenly things, must come down from a height to which he had previously ascended; but no man has thus and for this purpose ascended, except he who has descended from heaven, having been there before his manifestation in the flesh, having been “in God.” “with God,” “in the bosom of the Father,” and having come thence, not losing his essential ego, his Divine personality, even though calling himself the Son of man. For any other to have come down from heaven, it was necessary that he should first have ascended thither; but the Son of man has descended without having ascended. He calls himself “Son of man,” and he claims to have come down from heaven without ceasing to be what he was before. Godet urges that, by the “ascended into heaven,” he meant such lofty communion with God and immediate knowledge of Divine things as to differentiate him from all others, but that the phrase, “come down from heaven,” implies previous existence in his native place, and that the Lord’s filial intimacy with God rests on his essential sonship. Still, he conceives that Jesus asserts his own ascension in the spiritual sense to the heart of God, and his descent with consequent resultant knowledge, and expounds both statements by the explanation that as Son of man he is living the twofold life in heaven and on earth at the same time. By using the term, “Son of man,” Christ emphasized the exalted dignity that is involved in the extent of his self-humiliation,, and complete sympathy with us. He was the second Adam, the Lord from heaven.” Who is (not was) in heaven. If this be only an early gloss, it throws light on the two previous clauses. It declares that, though he came down, and though his introduction to this world was an incarnation, yet that he is in the deepest sense still in heaven. Such language is a vindication of his claim to reveal heavenly things. Augustine says, “Ecce hic erat et in coelo erat, hic erat in carne, in coelo erat divinitate, natus de matre, non recedens a Patre.” Again, “Si Paulus ambulabat in carne in terra et conversabatur in coelo, Deus coeli et terrae poterat esse et in coelo et in terra.” Archdeacon Watkins says admirably, “If heaven is a state, a life, in which we are, which is in us, now in part, hereafter in its fulness, then we may understand, and with glad hearts hold to, the vital truth that the Son of man who came down from heaven was ever in heaven.”
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Joh_3:13.And no one hath ascended up into heaven, but he that came down out of heaven,the Son of man. The connection is this: ‘Howwill ye believe if I tell you the heavenly things? And it is from me alone that ye .can learn them. No one can tell the heavenly things unless he has been in heaven, and no one has been in heaven and come down to earth save myself.’ Repeatedly does our Lord in this Gospel speak ofHis coming down out of heaven (Joh_6:33; Joh_6:38, etc.), using thevery word that we meet with here; and hence itis impossible to give the phrase a merely figurative sense. He came forth from the Father, and cameinto the world (Joh_16:28), that He might declare the Father (chap. Joh_1:18) and speak unto the worldwhat He had heard from Him (chap. Joh_8:26). But this requires that we take the other verb ‘hath ascended up’ in its literal sense, and then the words seem to imply that Jesus had already ascended into heaven. ‘Hath ascended up’ cannot refer to His future ascension; and there is no foundation for the view held by some, that within the limits of His ministry on earth He was ever literally taken up into heaven. What, then, is the meaning? There are several passages in which the words ‘save’ or ‘except’ present the same difficulty. One of the most familiar is Luk_4:27, where it seems at first strange to read, ‘Many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed saving Naaman the Syrian,’—no leper of Israel cleansed except a leper who was not of Israel! The mind is so fixed on the lepers and their cleansing, that the other words ‘of them’ are not carried on in thought to the last clause: ‘none of them was cleansed,—indeed, no leper was cleansed save Naaman the Syrian.’ So also in the preceding verse (Luk_4:26). In other passages (such as Gal_2:16; Rev_21:27) the same peculiarity exists, but it is not apparent in the Authorised Version. The verse before us is exactly similar. The special thought is not the having gone up into heaven, but the having been in heaven. This was the qualification for revealing the truths which are here spoken of as heavenly things. But none (none, that is, of the sons of men; for this is a general maxim, the exception is not brought in till afterwards) could be in heaven without ascending from earth to heaven. No one has gone up into heaven, and by thus being in heaven obtained the knowledge of heavenly things; and, indeed, no one has been in heaven save He that came down out of heaven, the Son of man. Observe how insensibly our Lord has passed into the revelation of the heavenly things themselves. He could not speak of His power to reveal without speaking of that which is first and chief of all the heavenly things, viz. that He Himself came down out of heaven to be the Son of man (on the name ‘Son of man’ see chap. Joh_1:51). The reference to our Lord’s humanity is here strikingly in place. He came down from heaven and became the Son of man to reveal these heavenly truths and (Joh_3:14-15) to give the heavenly blessings unto man.
The weight of evidence compels us to believe that the concluding words of this verse, as it stands in the Authorised Version, were not written by John. We can only suppose that they were a very early comment on, or addition to, the text, first written in the margin, then by mistake joined to the text. Were they genuine, they would probably refer to the abiding presence of the Son with the Father; but in such a sense it is very improbable that ‘Son of man’ would have been the name chosen. At all events, we have no other example of the same kind.
But he that descended out of heaven (ei mē ho ek tou ouranou katabas). The Incarnation of the Pre-existent Son of God who was in heaven before he came down and so knows what he is telling about “the heavenly things.” There is no allusion to the Ascension which came later. This high conception of Christ runs all through the Gospel and is often in Christ’s own words as here.
Which is in heaven (ho ōn en tōi ouranōi). This phrase is added by some manuscripts, not by Aleph B L W 33, and, if genuine, would merely emphasize the timeless existence of God’s Son who is in heaven even while on earth. Probably a gloss. But “the Son of man” is genuine. He is the one who has come down out of heaven.
14.And as Moses lifted up the serpent. He explains more clearly why he said that it is he alone to whom heaven is opened; namely, that he brings to heaven all who are only willing to follow him as their guide; for he testifies that he will be openly and publicly manifested to all, that he may diffuse his power over men of every class. To be lifted up means to be placed in a lofty and elevated situation, so as to be exhibited to the view of all. This was done by the preaching of the Gospel; for the explanation of it which some give, as referring to the cross, neither agrees with the context nor is applicable to the present subject. The simple meaning of the words therefore is, that, by the preaching of the Gospel, Christ was to be raised on high, like a standard to which the eyes of all would be directed, as Isaiah had foretold, (Isa_2:2.) As a type of this lifting up, he refers to the brazen serpent, which was erected by Moses, the sight of which was a salutary remedy to those who had been wounded by the deadly bite of serpents. The history of that transaction is well known, and is detailed in Num_21:9. Christ introduces it in this passage, in order to show that he must be placed before the eyes of all by the doctrine of the Gospel, that all who look at him by faith may obtain salvation. Hence it ought to be inferred that Christ is clearly exhibited to us in the Gospel, in order that no man may complain of obscurity; and that this manifestation is common to all, and that faith has its own look, by which it perceives him as present; as Paul tells us that a lively portrait of Christ with his cross is exhibited, when he is truly preached, (Gal_3:1.)
The metaphor is not inappropriate or far-fetched. As it was only the outward appearance of a serpent, but contained nothing within that was pestilential or venomous, so Christ clothed himself with the form of sinful flesh, which yet was pure and free from all sin, that he might cure in us the deadly wound of sin. It was not in vain that, when the Jews were wounded by serpents, the Lord formerly prepared this kind of antidote; and it tended to confirm the discourse which Christ delivered. For when he saw that he was despised as a mean and unknown person, he could produce nothing more appropriate thanthe lifting up of the serpent, to tell them, that they ought not to think it strange, if, contrary to the expectation of men, he were lifted up on high from the very lowest condition, because this had already been shadowed out under the Law by the type of the serpent.
A question now arises: Does Christ compare himself to the serpent, because there is some resemblance; or, does he pronounce it to have been a sacrament, as the Manna was? For though the Manna was bodily food, intended for present use, yet Paul testifies that it was a spiritual mystery, (1Co_10:3.) I am led to think that this was also the case with the brazen serpent, both by this passage, and the fact of its being preserved for the future, until the superstition of the people had converted it into an idol, (2Kg_18:4.) If any one form a different opinion, I do not debate the point with him.
And as Moses – Jesus proceeds in this and the following verses to state the reason why he came into the world and, in order to this, he illustrates His design, and the efficacy of his coming, by a reference to the case of the brass serpent, recorded in Num_21:8-9. The people were bitten by flying fiery serpents. There was no cure for the bite. Moses was directed to make an image of the serpent, and place it in sight of the people, that they might look on it and be healed. There is no evidence that this was intended to be a type of the Messiah, but it is used by Jesus as strikingly illustrating his work. Men are sinners. There is no cure by human means for the maladies of the soul; and as the people who were bitten might look on the image of the serpent and be healed, so may sinners look to the Saviour and be cured of the moral maladies of our nature.
Lifted up – Erected on a pole. Placed on high, So that it might be seen by the people.
The serpent – The image of a serpent made of brass.
In the wilderness – Near the land of Edom. In the desert and desolate country to the south of Mount Hor, Num_21:4.
Even so – In a similar manner and with a similar design. He here refers, doubtless, to his own death. Compare Joh_12:32; Joh_8:28. The points of resemblance between his being lifted up and that of the brass serpent seem to be these:
1. In each case those who are to be benefited can he aided in no other way. The bite of the serpent was deadly, and could be healed only by looking on the brass serpent; and sin is deadly in its nature, and can be removed only by looking on the cross.
2. The mode of their being lifted up. The brass serpent was in the sight of the people. So Jesus was exalted from the earth raised on a tree or cross.
3. The design was similar. The one was to save the life, the other the soul; the one to save from temporal, the other from eternal death.
4. The manner of the cure was similar. The people of Israel were to look on the serpent and be healed, and so sinners are to look on the Lord Jesus that they may be saved.
Must – It is proper; necessary; indispensable, if men are saved. Compare Luk_24:26; Luk_22:42.
The Son of man – The Messiah.
And. Seeing that our Lord had claimed supreme right to speak of heavenly things, he proceeds at once to speak of them also. There may be many ways of taking the καὶ: supposing that it indicates a transition from the person of the Lord to his work. From his Divine and endowed humanity thus shown to be competent to explain and re veal heavenly things, he proceeds to his atoning sacrifice. These underlying links of connection are not mutually exclusive. Even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must also the Son of man be lifted up. The narrative of Num_21:8, etc., is one of the rest curious in Scripture, and it was a great puzzle to the Jewish commentators, who felt that it was in apparent violation of the second command of the Decalogue. Moreover, in the days of Hezekiah the reverence paid to the serpent led to disastrous consequences and puritanic removal of the idolatrous snare. The Jewish divines consulted by Trypho were unable to explain it. Philo regarded it as a designed contrast to the serpent of the Book of Genesis, but he supposed the antithesis to be that between pleasure and righteousness or prudence (‘De Leg. All.,’ Gen_2:1.80). The Book of Wisdom (Gen_16:6), “The murmuring people were troubled for a while for warning, having a symbol of salvation … he that turned to it was saved, not by reason of that which he beheld, but by reason of the Saviour of all.” Ferguson, in his ‘Tree and Serpent Worship,’ regards the narrative as an indication that within the bosom of Israel the worship of the serpent had been introduced and had left its traces. But the narrative itself shows that the serpent healing from the serpent bite was a Jehovistie symbol of Divine love and victory. The ‘Test. XII. Patr. Benj.,’ 9, refers to it as the type of the cross (cf. Php_2:9; Act_2:33). “Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” The fiery flying serpent, with its poisonous bite and its deadly malice, was the vivid type of the evil of disobedience to the Divine command, infusing its malign venom into the whole nature of its victim. The serpent of brass was not venomous, though it bore the likeness of the deadly plague. It was not flying, gliding from tent to tent, but captured, still, hoisted triumphantly upon the pole, a sign of its conquest. The serpent in Hebrew and Christian literature throughout was emblematic of evil, not as in many Oriental religions, of healing or deliverance (see Gen_3:1; 2Co_11:3; Rev_12:9; and, properly translated, Job_26:13, Revised version); and it is possible to see in this type an anticipation of the “lifting up” of Jesus on the cross. There are several interpretations of the ὑψωθῆναι. Paulus urged that Jesus by it referred to the final glorification of himself; but if so, why was not the word δοξασθῆναι used? It may mean, with Bleek, Lechler, Godet, the exaltation upon the cross as the steppingstone to his glory, the way, not only to David’s throne, but to the very throne of God—a conception profoundly different from the current Pharisaic notions concerning the Messiah. The word is used in Joh_8:28 and Joh_12:32, Joh_12:34 for the passion of the cross, although Peter (Act_2:33) and Paul (Php_2:9) used it for the glorification consequent upon the Passion. Surely the word does, if it is to correspond with Moses’ exaltation of the serpent of brass, point to the exaltation of the cross, but to that as to the very throne of his power and glory. Tholuck says, “A word must have been used in Aramaic which admitted both ideas, and the word כָקַזְ means in Chaldee and Syriac to ‘lift up’ and ‘crucify.’” Many striking relations thus present themselves.
(1) The Lord was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin.
(2) The evil of sin was seen in him conspicuously revealed, but conquered; not only conquered, but transformed into a remedy. The enemy of man, the world itself, was crucified on the cross of Christ. Sin was nailed to the cross when, in the likeness of sinful flesh, the eternal Son of God made flesh submitted to all the shame of the flesh. “The world is crucified unto me,” says Paul (“in the cross of Christ”), “and I to the world.” Jesus says, “Even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” The Son of man here on earth, but having always a Divine life in heaven, when revealed in human nature, subject to the laws and destiny of the flesh, “must” be lifted up. This pathway to his glory must pass through the blood and agony of the Passion. There was a needs be in the Divine counsel, in the purposes of Divine love, in the fall measure of the grace which was welling from the heart of God.
(3) The comparison, however, and relation between type and antitype is more conspicuous still in the fifteenth verse, where Jesus added: In order that whosoever believeth might have in him eternal life.£ Granting that the above is the true text, in our translation an instance occurs of the frequent absolute usage of πιστεύειν (πιστεύειν ἐν αὐτῷ is not a Johannine phrase, while we do find (Joh_5:39; Joh_16:33; Joh_20:31) that “life,” “peace,” are “in him”). On this ground, if we retain the ἐν αὐτῷ, we translate it as above. The object of faith is not specified; but he who believes, who looks with God-taught longing to the Christ, to the Son of man uplifted to save, sees God at his greatest, his best, and discerns the fullest revelation of the redeeming love. “Believing” corresponds with “looking” in the narrative of Num_21:1-35. Whosoever “looked, lived.” Such looking was an act of faith in the promise of Jehovah; the otherwise despairing, dying glance of poisoned men was a type of the possibility of a universal salvation for sin-envenomed, devil-bitten, perishing men. Let them believe, and there is life. Let them understand the meaning of the Son of man thus exhausting the curse, and enduring in love the burden and penalty of human transgression, and they have straightway a life that is spiritual, fundamentally and radically new, a life heavenly and eternal. Thus can this vast change of which he had spoken to Nicodemus supervene. “How,” asks Nicodemus, “can this be?” “Thus may it be,” answers the Son of man. It is not necessary that all the mystery of the cross should have been perceived by Nicodemus, yet the subsequent references to this man make it highly probable that, when he saw Jesus suspended on the cross, instead of giving way to unbelief and despair, he was stimulated to an act of lofty faith (Joh_19:39, and note). In this great utterance we have the answer which Paul addressed to the Philippian jailer, and we have the argument of Paul in Rom_1:1-32, Rom_2:1-29, and we infer that the sources of the Pauline doctrine were to be found in the known teaching of the Lord himself.
Many commentators, beginning with Erasmus, and followed by Neander, Tholuck, Lucke, Westcott, and Moulton, have supposed that our Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus ended with Rom_2:15, and that thenceforward we have the reflections in after times made by the evangelist, in harmony with the teachings which he had received from the Lord. This is urged on the ground that in Joh_1:18, and at the close of the present chapter (Joh_1:31-36), when reciting the testimony of the Baptist, it appears to the commentators that John has blended his own reflections with the words of the Baptist, adding them without break to the sentences which he does record (see notes). I am not prepared to admit the analogy; there is nothing in these words, if attributed to the Baptist, incompatible with the purely Old Testament position and transition standpoint to which he adhered. The argument drawn from the past tenses, ἠγάπησεν and ἔδωκεν, is not incompatible with the large view of the whole transaction which the Son of God adopted, as though in the fulness of its infinite love it had already been consummated. We are told that there are certain phrases which nowhere else are ascribed to Jesus himself, such as “only begotten Son”—a term which is found in the prologue (Joh_1:14, Joh_1:18) and First Epist. (1Jn_4:9), i.e. in John’s own composition. The reply is that John used this great word on the specified occasion because he had heard it on the lips of Jesus; that
he would not have dared to use it if he had not had the justification of such use, the like to which he here recounts. The believing εἰς τὸ ὄνομά—”on the name of”—does not occur, it is said, in the recorded words of Jesus, though it is found in the discourse of the evangelist himself in Joh_1:12; Joh_2:23; and 1Jn_5:13. The same criticism applies. John used it because he had heard our Lord thus deign to express himself. Moreover, the commencement of the paragraph, by the use of the particle γὰρ, shows that no break has occurred, that a richer and fuller and more triumphant reason is to be given for the obtaining of life eternal than that which had already been advanced. He passes from the Son of man (who is in heaven, and came from heaven and God) to the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father. He speaks in more practical and explanatory form of the Object of faith, and the Divine source of the arrangement and its issues. A flood of new thoughts and some terms occur here for the first time; but they are no more startling than other words of Jesus, whose awful weight of meaning and rich originality gave to the evangelist all his power to teach. It is quite unnecessary to find fault with the abruptness of the close of this discourse, or the sudden cessation of the dialogue, or the disappearance of Nicodemus, or of any lack of affectionateness in the style of address. Christ is often abrupt, and in numerous replies which he gave to his interlocutors he prolongs the remarks as though they were addressed to the concealed mind of the speakers rather than to their uttered words. If there had been any hint or indication that these were John’s reflections, we can only say that he who by the Holy Spirit penned the prologue was not incapable of these splendid and heart-searching generalizations of love, faith, judgment, and eternal life. But there does not appear to be any sufficient reason for such an hypothesis. Still, it must be admitted that we have not the whole of the former or the latter part of this wondrous discourse. Much has, without any doubt, been omitted. John has seized upon the most salient points and the loftiest thoughts. These stand out like mountain peaks above the glittering seas, indicating where the inner and hidden connections of their bases lie, but not unveiling them. We do not doubt that John’s mind, by long pondering on the thoughts of Jesus and his words of profound significance, had acquired to some extent the method of his speech, and do not doubt that a certain subjective colouring affects his condensation of the discourses of Jesus. He was not a shorthand reporter, photographically or telephonically reproducing all that passed. He was a beloved disciple, who knew his Lord and lost himself in his Master. He seized with inspired and intuitive accuracy the root ideas of the Son of man, and reproduced them with the power of the true artist. It is incredible, even if we regard the entire paragraph (verses 16-21) as the language of our Lord, that we have the whole of the discourse, or conversation, of the memorable night. Still less satisfactory is it to suppose that we have in it nothing more than an imaginary scone, an idealization of the bearing of Christian truth on Jewish prejudice. So vast a thought, though it be the burden of the New Testament, and because it is so, issued from the heart of Jesus.
Pop Comm Schaff
Joh_3:14-15. And as Moses lifted on high the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted on high, that every one that believeth may in him have eternal life. These verses continue the revelation of the heavenly things. The first truth is, that He who was in heaven came down to earth to be the Son of man. The next is, that the Son of man must beexalted, but in no such manner as the eager hopes ofNicodemus imagined. The secret counsel of heaven was, that He who was with God should as Son ofman be liftedon high, as the serpent was lifted on high by Moses in the wilderness. Thus, indeed, it must be, that He may become the Giver of eternal life.—The word rendered ‘lifted on high’ occurs fifteen times in other parts of the New Testament, sometimes in such proverbial sayings as Mat_23:12, sometimes in reference to the exaltation of our Lord (Act_2:33; Act_5:31). In this Gospel we find it in three verses besides the present. The general usage of the word in the New Testament and the Old is sufficient to show that it cannot here signify merely raising or lifting up. And yet John’s own explanation forbids us to exclude this thought. All the passages in his Gospel which connect the word with the Son of man must clearly be taken together; and chap. Joh_12:33 (see note there) declares that the word contains a reference to the mode of the Saviour’s death—the elevation on the cross. Nicodemus looked for the exaltation of the King in the coming kingdom of God. Exalted He shall be, not like me monarch sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, amid pomp and splendour, but receiving His true power and glory at the time when He hangs upon a tree an object of shame. The brazen serpent, made in the likeness of the destroyer, placed on a standard and held up to the gaze of all, might seem fitted only to call forth execration from those who were reminded of their peril, scorn and contempt from those who saw but a powerless symbol; but the dying Israelite looked thereon and lived. The looking was a type of faith—nay, it was itself an act of faith in the promise of God. The serpent was raised on high that all might look on it; the exaltation of the Son of man, which begins with the shame of the cross, has for its object the giving of life to all (compare chap. Joh_12:32, and also Heb_2:9).
‘That every one that believeth.’ At first our Lord closely follows the words spoken in Joh_3:12. As there we read, ‘Ye believe not,’ so here, He that believeth as yet no qualifying word is added to deepen the significance of the ‘belief.’ What is before us is the general thought of receiving the word of Jesus. In that all is in truth included; for he that truly receives His word finds that its first and chief requirement is faith in Jesus Himself. So here, the trust is first general, but the thought of fellowship and union, so characteristic of this Gospel, comes in immediately, ‘that every one that believeth may in Him have eternal life.’ These verses which reveal the heavenly truths contain the very first mention of ‘eternal life,’ the blessing of which John, echoing his Master’s words, is ever speaking. ‘Eternal life’ is a present possession for the believer (comp. Joh_3:36); its essence is union with God in Christ. See especially chap. Joh_17:3; 1Jn_1:2; 1Jn_5:11.
The result of the interview with Nicodemus is not recorded, but the subsequent mention of him in the Gospel can leave no doubt upon our mind that, whether at this moment or not, he eventually embraced the truth. It would seem that, as the humiliation of Jesus deepened, he yielded the more to that truth against which at the beginning of this conversation he would most have rebelled. It is the persecution of Jesus that draws him forward in His defence (Joh_7:51); it is when Jesus has been lifted up on the cross that he comes to pay Him honour (Joh_19:39). He is thus a trophy, not of the power of signs alone, but of the power of the heavenly things taught by Jesus.
At this point an important question arises. Are the next five verses a continuation of the preceding discourse? Are they words of Jesus or a reflection by the Evangelist himself upon his Master’s words? Most commentators have taken the former view. The latter was first suggested by Erasmus, and has found favour with many thoughtful writers on this Gospel. And with reason. The first suggestion of a sudden break in the discourse may be startling, but a close examination of the verses will show that they present distinct traces of belonging to John:—(1) Their general style and character remind us of the Prologue. (2) The past tenses ‘loved’ and ‘were’ in Joh_3:19 at once recall chap. Joh_1:10-11; and are generally more in harmony with the tone of the Evangelist’s later reflections than with that of the Redeemer’s discourse. (3) In Joh_3:11 Jesus says, ‘ye receive not our testimony:’ in Joh_3:19 the impression produced is not that of a present refusal, but rather of a past and continued rejection. (4) In no other place is the appellation’ only begotten used by Jesus Himself in regard to the Son, though it is used by the Evangelist in chap. Joh_1:14, Joh_1:18, and 1Jn_4:9. It cannot be fairly said that there is anything really strange in the introduction of these reflections. It is altogether in the manner of this writer to comment on what he has related (see especially Joh_12:37-41); and in at least one instance he passes suddenly, without any mark of transition, from the words of another to his own,—for very few will Suppose chap. Joh_1:16 to be a continuation of the Baptist’s testimony (Joh_3:15). The view now advocated will receive strong confirmation if we convince the reader that there is a similar break after Joh_3:30 in this chapter, the last six verses belonging to the author of the Gospel and not to the Baptist.
16.For God so loved the world. Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish. And this order ought to be carefully observed; for such is the wicked ambition which belongs to our nature, that when the question relates to the origin of our salvation, we quickly form diabolical imaginations about our own merits. Accordingly, we imagine that God is reconciled to us, because he has reckoned us worthy that he should look upon us. But Scripture everywhere extols his pure and unmingled mercy, which sets aside all merits.
And the words of Christ mean nothing else, when he declares the cause to be in the love of God. For if we wish to ascend higher, the Spirit shuts the door by the mouth of Paul, when he informs us that this love was founded on the purpose of his will, (Eph_1:5.) And, indeed, it is very evident that Christ spoke in this manner, in order to draw away men from the contemplation of themselves to look at the mercy of God alone. Nor does he say that God was moved to deliver us, because he perceived in us something that was worthy of so excellent a blessing, but ascribes the glory of our deliverance entirely to his love. And this is still more clear from what follows; for he adds, thatGod gave his Son to men, that they may not perish. Hence it follows that, until Christ bestow his aid in rescuing the lost, all are destined to eternal destruction. This is also demonstrated by Paul from a consideration of the time; for he loved us while we were still enemies by sin, (Rom_5:8.)
And, indeed, where sin reigns, we shall find nothing but the wrath of God, which draws death along with it. It is mercy, therefore, that reconciles us to God, that he may likewise restore us to life.
This mode of expression, however, may appear to be at variance with many passages of Scripture, which lay in Christ the first foundation of the love of God to us, and show that out of him we are hated by God. But we ought to remember — what I have already stated — that the secret love with which the Heavenly Father loved us in himself is higher than all other causes; but that the grace which he wishes to be made known to us, and by which we are excited to the hope of salvation, commences with the reconciliation which was procured through Christ. For since he necessarily hates sin, how shall we believe that we are loved by him, until atonement has been made for those sins on account of which he is justly offended at us? Thus, the love of Christ must intervene for the purpose of reconciling God to us, before we have any experience of his fatherly kindness. But as we are first informed that God, because he loved us, gave his Son to die for us, so it is immediately added, that it is Christ alone on whom, strictly speaking, faith ought to look.
He gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him may not perish. This, he says, is the proper look of faith, to be fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love: this is a firm and enduring support, to rely on the death of Christ as the only pledge of that love. The word only-begotten is emphatic, (ἐμφατικὸν) to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die. To this name Christ has a right, because he is by nature the only Son of God; and he communicates this honor to us by adoption, when we are engrafted into his body.
That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found inthe world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.
Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ.
Still it is not yet very evident why and how faith bestows life upon us. Is it because Christ renews us by his Spirit, that the righteousness of God may live and be vigorous in us; or is it because, having been cleansed by his blood, we are accounted righteous before God by a free pardon? It is indeed certain, that these two things are always joined together; but as the certainty of salvation is the subject now in hand, we ought chiefly to hold by this reason, that we live, because God loves us freely by not imputing to us our sins. For this reason sacrifice is expressly mentioned, by which, together with sins, the curse and death are destroyed. I have already explained the object of these two clauses, which is, to inform us that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves; for in this wretched condition of mankind, redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation.
For God so loved the world. The Divine love to the whole of humanity in its condition of supreme need, i.e. apart from himself and his grace, has been of such a commanding, exhaustless, immeasurable kind, that it was equal to any emergency, and able to secure for the worst and most degraded, for the outcast, the serpent-bitten and the dying, a means of unlimited deliverance and uplifting. The Divine love is the sublime source of the whole proceeding, and it has been lavished on “the world.” This world cannot be the limited “world” of the Augustinian, Calvinian interpreters—the world of the elect; it is that “whole world” of which St. John speaks in 1Jn_2:2. “God will have all men to be saved” (1Ti_2:4). Calvin himself says, “Christ brought life, because the heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.” Pharisaic interpretations of the Old Testament had left the outside world in judgment, to cursing and condign punishment, and had made Abrahamic descent and sacramental privilege the conditions of life and honour and royal freedom. Here the poor world is seen to be the object of such love, that he—the Father-God—gave, “delivered up,” we do not know certainly to “what,” but we may judge from the context that it was such a deliverance, or such giving up. as is involved in the uplifting of the Son of man upon his cross of humiliation and shame. But the Lord induces a more wonderful term to denote his own personality. This “Son of man” is none other than his only begotten Son (cf. notes, Joh_1:14, Joh_1:18). Just as Abraham had not kept back his only begotten son from God, so God has not withheld his perfect Image, his Well-beloved, his Eternal Logos, the perfect ideal of sonship. He gave him with the following view: that whosoever believeth in him (εἰς αὐτὸν) may not perish, but have eternal life. The previous saying is repeated as in a grand refrain for which a deeper reason and fuller explanation have been supplied. Perishing, ruin, the issues of poisonous corruption, might and would, by the force of natural law, work themselves out in the destinies of men. The awful curse was spreading, but it may be arrested. None need be excluded. Looking is living. Believing in this manifestation of Divine love is enough. This is the first, high, main condition. Appropriation of such a Divine gift unriddles the mysteries of the universe, emancipates from the agelong bondage, confers a life which is beyond the conditions or occasions of dissolution. This verse is infinite in its range, and, notwithstanding a certain vagueness and indefiniteness of expression, presents and enshrines the most central truth of Divine revelation. When the terms “gave,” “only begotten Son,” “believeth,” “life,” “perishing,” “God,” “the world,” are fully interpreted, then the words of this text gather an ever-augmenting force and fulness of meaning; and they may have been expanded to meet the prejudices of Nicodemus or the difficulties of disciples. The idea of gift and giver and the ends of the giving may have at once suggested to the Pharisaic mind the grand distinction between Israel and the world, and the inquiry may have been made—Is not Messiah, then, about to judge the world, to summon all the nations round to hear their doom? To some such heart-deadening query, to some such conscience-benumbing scepticism, our Lord continued—No; this love to the world on the part of God, this condition of faith on the side of man, thus laid down, is perfectly honest and sincere—
For God so loved – This does not mean that God approved the conduct of men, but that he had benevolent feelings toward them, or was “earnestly desirous” of their happiness. God hates wickedness, but he still desires the Happiness of those who are sinful. “He hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” A parent may love his child and desire his welfare, and yet be strongly opposed to the conduct of that child. When we approve the conduct of another, this is the love of complacency; when we desire simply their happiness, this is the love of benevolence.
The world – All mankind. It does not mean any particular part of the world, but man as man – the race that had rebelled and that deserved to die. See Joh_6:33; Joh_17:21. His love for the world, or for all mankind, in giving his Son, was shown by these circumstances:
1. All the world was in ruin, and exposed to the wrath of God.
2. All people were in a hopeless condition.
3. God gave his Son. Man had no claim on him; it was a gift – an undeserved gift.
4. He gave him up to extreme sufferings, even the bitter pains of death on the cross.
5. It was for all the world. He tasted “death for every man,” Heb_2:9. He “died for all,” 2Co_5:15. “He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world,” 1Jo_2:2.
That he gave – It was a free and unmerited gift. Man had no claim: and when there was no eye to pity or arm to save, it pleased God to give his Son into the hands of men to die in their stead, Gal_1:4; Rom_8:32; Luk_22:19. It was the mere movement of love; the expression of eternal compassion, and of a desire, that sinners should not perish forever.
His only-begotten Son – See the notes at Joh_1:14. This is the highest expression of love of which we can conceive. A parent who should give up his only son to die for others who are guilty if this could or might be done – would show higher love than could be manifested in any other way. So it shows the depth of the love of God, that he was willing. to give his only Son into the hands of sinful men that he might be slain, and thus redeem them from eternal sorrow.