1.Now there was a man of the Pharisees. In the person of Nicodemus the Evangelist now exhibits to our view how vain and fleeting was the faith of those who, having been excited by miracles, suddenly professed to be the disciples of Christ. For since this man was of the order of the Pharisees, and held the rank of a ruler in his nation, he must have been far more excellent than others. The common people, for the most part, are light and unsteady; but who would not have thought that he who had learning and experience was also a wise and prudent man? Yet from Christ’s reply it is evident, that nothing was farther from his design in coming than a desire to learn the first principles of religion. If he who was a ruler among men is less than a child, what ought we to think of the multitude at large? Now though the design of the Evangelist was, to exhibit, as in a mirror, how few there were in Jerusalem who were properly disposed to receive the Gospel, yet, for other reasons, this narrative is highly useful to us; and especially because it instructs us concerning the depraved nature of mankind, what is the proper entrance into the school of Christ, and what must be the commencement of our training to make progress in the heavenly doctrine. For the sum of Christ’s discourse is, that, in order that we may be his true disciples, we must become new men. But, before proceeding farther, we must ascertain from the circumstances which are here detailed by the Evangelist, what were the obstacles which prevented Nicodemus from giving himself unreservedly to Christ.
Of the Pharisees. This designation was, no doubt, regarded by his countrymen as honorable to Nicodemus; but it is not for the sake of honor that it is given to him by the Evangelist, who, on the contrary, draws our attention to it as having prevented him from coming freely and cheerfully to Christ. Hence we are reminded that they who occupy a lofty station in the world are, for the most part, entangled by very dangerous snares; nay, we see many of them held so firmly bound, that not even the slightest wish or prayer arises from them towards heaven throughout their whole life. Why they were called Pharisees we have elsewhere explained; for they boasted of being the only expounders of the Law, as if they were in possession, of the marrow and hidden meaning of Scripture; and for that reason they called themselves פרושים (Perushim.) Though the Essenes led a more austere life, which gained them a high reputation for holiness; yet because, like hermits, they forsook the ordinary life and custom of men, the sect of the Pharisees was on that account held in higher estimation. Besides, the Evangelist mentions not only that Nicodemus was of the order of the Pharisees, but that he was one of the rulers of his nation.
Cambridge Bible Plummer
1. There was a man] Better, Now there was a man. The conjunction shows the connexion with what precedes: Nicodemus was one of the ‘many’ who ‘believed in His name,’ when they beheld His signs (Joh_2:23).
Nicodemus] He is mentioned only by S. John. It is impossible to say whether he is identical with the Nicodemus of the Talmud, also called Bunai, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem. The name was common both among Greeks and Jews. Love of truth and fear of man, candour and hesitation, seem to be combined in his character. Comp. Joh_7:50, Joh_19:39. In Joh_19:39 his timidity is again noted and illustrated.
a ruler of the Jews] A member of the Sanhedrin, Joh_7:50. Comp. Joh_12:42; Luk_23:13; Luk_24:20. His coming by night is to avoid the hostility of his colleagues: the Sanhedrin was opposed to Jesus. Whether or no S. John was present at the interview we cannot be certain: probably he was. Nicodemus would not fear the presence of the disciples.
3:1. Nicodemus appears three times in the Fourth Gospel (see on 7:50, 19:39), but is not mentioned by any other evangelist, unless we may equate him with the ἄρχων of Luk_18:18 (see below on v. 3). The attempt to identify him with Joseph of Arimathæa has no plausibility (see on 19:39); and the suggestion that he is a fictitious character invented by Jn. to serve a literary purpose is arbitrary and improbable (see Introd., p. lxxxiii f.). Νικόδημος is a Greek name borrowed by the Jews, and appears in Josephus (Antt. xiv. iii. 2) as that of an ambassador from Aristobulus to Pompey. In the Talmud (Taanith, 20. 1) mention is made of one Bunai, commonly called Nicodemus ben Gorion, and it is possible (but there is no evidence) that he was the Nicodemus of Jn. He lived until the destruction of Jerusalem, which would accord very well with the idea that Jn. has the “young ruler” of Luk_18:18 in his mind, although in that case γέρων of v. 4 must not be taken to indicate that the person in question was really “old” at the time of speaking. All that can be said with certainty of the Nicodemus of the text is that he was a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrim (7:50), and apparently a wealthy man (19:39). He seems to have been constitutionally cautious and timid (see on 7:50).
Some points in the narrative of 3:1-15 would suggest that the incident here recorded did not happen (as the traditional text gives it) at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. First, at v. 2, mention is made of σημεῖα at Jerusalem which had attracted the attention of Nicodemus; but we have already noted on 2:23 that no σημεῖον in that city has yet been recorded. On the other hand, the “signs” which had been wrought at Jerusalem during the weeks before the end had excited much curiosity. That Nicodemus should have come secretly during the later period would have been natural, for the hostility of the Sanhedrim to Jesus had already been aroused (7:50); but that there should have been any danger in conversing with the new Teacher in the early days of His ministry does not appear. Again, at v. 14 (where see note), Jesus predicts His Passion; but if this prediction be placed in the early days of His ministry, we are in conflict with the Synoptists,who place the first announcement of His Death after the Confession of Peter. No doubt, Jn. is often in disagreement with the earlier Gospels, but upon a point so significant as this we should expect his record to agree with theirs.
However, there is not sufficient evidence to justify us in transposing the text here; and we leave the story of Nicodemus in its traditional position, although with a suspicion that the original author of the Gospel did not intend it to come so early.1
Pop Commentary Schaff
Joh_3:1.And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. That this verse does not begin a new section is clearly shown by the first word ‘And,’ which links it with the last chapter; another indication of the same kind is seen when the true reading is restored in Joh_3:2 (‘to Him ‘for’ to Jesus’). A closer examination will show that the connection thus suggested is really very close and important. In chap. Joh_2:24-25, a very marked emphasis is laid on ‘man;’ the same word and thought are taken up in this verse. Joh_3:2 of this chapter brings before us a belief agreeing in nature and ground with that spoken of in chap. Joh_2:23-24. The last thought of chap. 2 is powerfully illustrated by the answers which Jesus returns to the thoughts of Nicodemus. Clearly, then, John means us to understand that out of the many who ‘believed in the name’ of Jesus was one deserving of special attention, not merely as representing a higher class and special culture, but chiefly because, brought by the signs to adegree of faith, he was desirous of knowing more; and our Lord’s dealings with Nicodemus show how He sought to lead all who were so prepared to a deeper knowledge and higher faith. The name Nicodemus is found in the Talmud, as a Hebrew surname borne by aJew, a disciple of Jesus, whose true name was Bonai. There is nothing to show that the persons are identical, and on the whole it is more probable that they are not. It is most natural to regard the name Nicodemus as Greek, not Hebrew; compare ‘Philip’ (chap. Joh_1:43). Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee (see notes on chaps, Joh_1:24, Joh_7:32), and as ‘a ruler of the Jews,’—i.e., a member of the Sanhedrin (comp. chap. Joh_7:50), the great council of seventy-one which held supreme power over the whole nation. In other passages John uses ‘ruler’ in this sense (see Joh_7:26; Joh_7:48, Joh_12:42); here only does he join with it the words ‘of the Jews.’ The added words (see chap. Joh_1:19) show that Nicodemus stood connected with that body which was ever present to John’s thought as the assemblage of those who represented the self-seeking and formalism which Jesus came to subvert. The elements of hostility already existed, though the open conflict had not yet begun (see chap. Joh_2:18). It is not easy always to define the relation between ‘the Pharisees ‘and’ the Jews,’ as the two terms are used by John; for under the latter designation the leaders of the Pharisees would certainly be included. The former perhaps usually brings into prominence teaching and principles; the latter points rather to external action. The Pharisees took alarm at the new doctrine, the Jews resented the new authority. Nicodemus is not free from the externalism and prejudices of his class, but his candour and his faith stand out in wonderful contrast to the general spirit evinced by the Pharisees and the Jews.
2.He came to Jesus by night. From the circumstance of his coming by night we infer that his timidity was excessive; for his eyes were dazzled, as it were, by the splendor of his own greatness and reputation. Perhaps too he was hindered by shame, for ambitious men think that their reputation is utterly ruined, if they have once descended from the dignity of teachers to the rank of scholars; and he was unquestionably puffed up with a foolish opinion of his knowledge. In short, as he had a high opinion of himself, he was unwilling to lose any part of his elevation. And yet there appears in him some seed of piety; for hearing that a Prophet of God had appeared, he does not despise or spurn the doctrine which has been brought from heaven, and is moved by some desire to obtain it, — a desire which sprung from nothing else than fear and reverence for God. Many are tickled by an idle curiosity to inquire eagerly about any thing that is new, but there is no reason to doubt that it was religious principle and conscientious feeling that excited in Nicodemus the desire to gain a more intimate knowledge of the doctrine of Christ. And although that seed remained long concealed and apparently dead, yet after the death of Christ it yielded fruit, such as no man would ever have expected, (Joh_19:39.)
Rabbi, we know. The meaning of these words is, “Master, we know that thou art come to be a teacher. ” But as learned men, at that time, were generally called Masters, Nicodemus first salutes Christ according to custom, and gives him the ordinary designation, Rabbi, (which means Master) and afterwards declares that he was sent by God to perform the office of a Master. And on this principle depends all the authority of the teachers in the Church; for as it is only from the word of God that we must learn wisdom, we ought not to listen to any other persons than those by whose mouth God speaks. And it ought to be observed, that though religion was greatly corrupted and almost destroyed among the Jews, still they always held this principle, that no man was a lawful teacher, unless he had been sent by God. But as there are none who more haughtily and more daringly boast of having been sent by God than the false prophets do, we need discernment in this case for trying the spirits. Accordingly Nicodemus adds:
For no man can do the signs which thou doest, unless God be with him. It is evident, he says, that Christ has been sent by God, because God displays his power in him so illustriously, that it cannot be denied that God is with him He takes for granted that God is not accustomed to work but by his ministers, so as to seal the office which he has entrusted to them. And he had good grounds for thinking so, because God always intended that miracles should be seals of his doctrine. Justly therefore does he make God the sole Author of miracles, when he says that no man can do these signs, unless God be with him; for what he says amounts to a declaration that miracles are not performed by the arm of man, but that the power of God reigns, and is illustriously displayed in them. In a word, as miracles have a twofold advantage, to prepare the mind for faith, and, when it has been formed by the word, to confirm it still more, Nicodemus had profited aright in the former part, because by miracles he recognizes Christ as a true prophet of God.
Yet his argument appears not to be conclusive; for since the false prophets deceive the ignorant by their impostures as fully as if they had proved by true signs that they are the ministers of God, what difference will there be between truth and falsehood, if faith depends on miracles? Nay, Moses expressly says that God employs this method to try if we love him, (Deu_13:3.) We know also, the warning of Christ, (Mat_24:14,) and of Paul, (2Th_2:9,) that believers ought to beware of lying signs, by which Anti-Christ dazzles the eyes of many. I answer, God may justly permit this to be done, that those who deserve it may be deceived by the enchantments of Satan. But I say that this does not hinder the elect from perceiving in miracles the power of God, which is to them an undoubted confirmation of true and sound doctrine. Thus, Paul boasts that his apostleship was confirmed by signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds, (2Co_12:12.) To whatever extent Satan may, like an ape, counterfeit the works of God in the dark, yet when the eyes are opened and the light of spiritual wisdom shines, miracles are a sufficiently powerful attestation of the presence of God, as Nicodemus here declares it to be.
The same (houtos). “This one.”
By night (nuktos). Genitive of time. That he came at all is remarkable, not because there was any danger as was true at a later period, but because of his own prominence. He wished to avoid comment by other members of the Sanhedrin and others. Jesus had already provoked the opposition of the ecclesiastics by his assumption of Messianic authority over the temple. There is no ground for assigning this incident to a later period, for it suits perfectly here. Jesus was already in the public eye (Joh_2:23) and the interest of Nicodemus was real and yet he wished to be cautious.
Rabbi (Rabbei). See note on Joh_1:38. Technically Jesus was not an acknowledged Rabbi of the schools, but Nicodemus does recognize him as such and calls him “My Master” just as Andrew and John did (Joh_1:38). It was a long step for Nicodemus as a Pharisee to take, for the Pharisees had closely scrutinized the credentials of the Baptist in Joh_1:19-24 (Milligan and Moulton’s Comm.).
We know (oidamen). Second perfect indicative first person plural. He seems to speak for others of his class as the blind man does in Joh_9:31. Westcott thinks that Nicodemus has been influenced partly by the report of the commission sent to the Baptist (Joh_1:19-27).
Thou art a teacher come from God (apo theou elēluthas didaskalos). “Thou hast come from God as a teacher.” Second perfect active indicative of erchomai and predicative nominative didaskalos. This is the explanation of Nicodemus for coming to Jesus, obscure Galilean peasant as he seemed, evidence that satisfied one of the leaders in Pharisaism.
Can do (dunatai poiein). “Can go on doing” (present active infinitive of poieō and so linear).
These signs that thou doest (tauta ta sēmeia ha su poieis). Those mentioned in Joh_2:23 that convinced so many in the crowd and that now appeal to the scholar. Note su (thou) as quite out of the ordinary. The scorn of Jesus by the rulers held many back to the end (Joh_12:42), but Nicodemus dares to feel his way.
Except God be with him (ean mē ēi ho theos met’ autou). Condition of the third class, presented as a probability, not as a definite fact. He wanted to know more of the teaching accredited thus by God. Jesus went about doing good because God was with him, Peter says (Act_10:38).
The same came to Jesus – The design of his coming seems to have been to inquire more fully of Jesus what was the doctrine which he came to teach. He seems to have been convinced that he was the Messiah, and desired to be further instructed in private respecting his doctrine, It was not usual for a man of rank, power, and riches to come to inquire of Jesus in this manner; yet we may learn that the most favorable opportunity for teaching such men the nature of personal religion is when they are alone. Scarcely any man, of any rank, will refuse to converse on this subject when addressed respectfully and tenderly in private. In the midst of their companions, or engaged in business, they may refuse to listen or may cavil. When alone, they will hear the voice of entreaty and persuasion, and be willing to converse on the great subjects of judgment and eternity. Thus Paul says Gal_2:2, “privately to them which are of reputation,” evincing his consummate prudence, and his profound knowledge of human nature.
By night – It is not mentioned why he came by night. It might have been that, being a member of the Sanhedrin, he was engaged all the day; or it may have been because the Lord Jesus was occupied all the day in teaching publicly and in working miracles, and that there was no opportunity for conversing with him as freely as he desired; or it may have been that he was afraid of the ridicule and contempt of those in power, and fearful that it might involve him in danger if publicly known; or it may have been that he was afraid that if it were publicly known that he was disposed to favor the Lord Jesus, it might provoke more opposition against him and endanger his life. Since no bad motive is imputed to him, it is most in accordance with Christian charity to suppose that his motives were such as God would approve, especially as the Saviour did not reprove him. We should not be disposed to blame men where Jesus did not, and we should desire to find goodness in every man rather than be ever on the search for evil motives. See 1Co_13:4-7. We may learn here:
1. That our Saviour, though engaged during the day, did nor refuse to converse with an inquiring sinner at night. Ministers of the gospel at all times should welcome those who are asking the way to life.
2. That it is proper for men, even those of elevated rank, to inquire on the subject of religion. Nothing is so important as religion, and no temper of mind is more lovely than a disposition to ask the way to heaven. At all times men should seek the way of salvation, and especially in times of great religions excitement they should make inquiry. At Jerusalem, at the time referred to here, there was great solicitude. Many believed on Jesus. He performed miracles, and preached, and many were converted. There was what would now be called a revival of religion, having all the features of a work of grace. At such a season it was proper, as it is now, that not only the poor, but the rich and great, should inquire the path to life.
Rabbi – This was a title of respect conferred on distinguished Jewish teachers, somewhat in the way that the title “Doctor of Divinity” is now conferred. See the notes at Joh_1:38. Our Saviour forbade his disciples to wear that title (see the notes at Mat_23:8), though it was proper for Him to do it, as being the great Teacher of mankind. It literally signifies great, and was given by Nicodemus, doubtless, because Jesus gave distinguished proofs that he came as a teacher from God.
We know – I know, and those with whom I am connected. Perhaps he was acquainted with some of the Pharisees who entertained the same opinion about Jesus that he did, and he came to be more fully confirmed in the belief.
Come from God – Sent by God. This implies his readiness to hear him, and his desire to be instructed. He acknowledges the divine mission of Jesus, and delicately asks him to instruct him in the truth of religion. When we read the words of Jesus in the Bible, it should be with a belief that he came from God, and was therefore qualified and authorized to teach us the way of life.
These miracles – The miracles which he performed in the Temple and at Jerusalem, Joh_2:23.
Except God be with him – Except God aid him, and except his instructions are approved by God. Miracles show that a prophet or religious teacher comes from God, because God would nor work a miracle in attestation of a falsehood or to give countenance to a false teacher. If God gives a man power to work a miracle, it is proof that he approves the teaching of that man, and the miracle is the proof or the credential that he came from God.
3.Verily, verily, I say to thee. The word Verily (ἀμὴν) is twice repeated, and this is done for the purpose of arousing him to more earnest attention. For when he was about to speak of the most important and weighty of all subjects, he found it necessary to awaken the attention of Nicodemus, who might otherwise have passed by this whole discourse in a light or careless manner. Such, then, is the design of the double affirmation.
Though this discourse appears to be far-fetched and almost inappropriate, yet it was with the utmost propriety that Christ opened his discourse in this manner. For as it is useless to sow seed in a field which has not been prepared by the labors of the husbandman, so it is to no purpose to scatter the doctrine of the Gospel, if the mind has not been previously subdued and duly prepared for docility and obedience. Christ saw that the mind of Nicodemus was filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs, so that there was scarcely any room for spiritual doctrine. This exhortation, therefore, resembled a ploughing to purify him, that nothing might prevent him from profiting by the doctrine. Let us, therefore, remember that this was spoken to one individual, in such a manner that the Son of God addresses all of us daily in the same language. For which of us will say that he is so free from sinful affections that he does not need such a purification? If, therefore, we wish to make good and useful progress in the school of Christ, let us learn to begin at this point.
Unless a man be born again. That is, So long as thou art destitute of that which is of the highest importance in the kingdom of God, I care little about your calling me Master; for the first entrance into the kingdom of God is, to become a new man. But as this is a remarkable passage, it will be proper to survey every part of it minutely.
To SEE the kingdom of God is of the same meaning as to enter into the kingdom of God, as we shall immediately perceive from the context. But they are mistaken who suppose that the kingdom of God means Heaven; for it rather means the spiritual life, which is begun by faith in this world, and gradually increases every day according to the continued progress of faith. So the meaning is, that no man can be truly united to the Church, so as to be reckoned among the children of God, until he has been previously renewed. This expression shows briefly what is the beginning of Christianity, and at the same time teaches us, that we are born exiles and utterly alienated from the kingdom of God, and that there is a perpetual state of variance between God and us, until he makes us altogether different by our being born again; for the statement is general, and comprehends the whole human race. If Christ had said to one person, or to a few individuals, that they could not enter into heaven, unless they had been previously born again, we might have supposed that it was only certain characters that were pointed out, but he speaks of all without exception; for the language is unlimited, and is of the same import with such universal terms as these: Whosoever shall not be born again cannot enter into the kingdom of God
By the phraseborn again is expressed not the correction of one part, but the renovation of the whole nature. Hence it follows, that there is nothing in us that is not sinful; for if reformation is necessary in the whole and in each part, corruption must have been spread throughout. On this point we shall soon have occasion to speak more largely. Erasmus, adopting the opinion of Cyril, has improperly translated the adverb ἄνωθεν, from above, and renders the clause thus: unless a man be born from above. The Greek word, I own, is ambiguous; but we know that Christ conversed with Nicodemus in the Hebrew language. There would then have been no room for the ambiguity which occasioned the mistake of Nicodemus and led him into childish scruples about a second birth of the flesh. He therefore understood Christ to have said nothing else than that a man must be born again, before he is admitted into the kingdom of God.
Many explanations have been offered of the link of connection between the suggestion of Nicodemus and the reply of Jesus. Many expansions or additions have been conjectured, such as the following, suggested by Christ’s own language elsewhere: “You, by the finger of God, are casting out devils; then the kingdom of God has come nigh unto us. How may we enter upon its further proofs?”—a view which would demand a deeper knowledge of the mind of Christ than we have any reason to suppose diffused at this period. Others (Baumlein) have supposed Nicodemus to have said, “Does the baptism of John suffice for admission into the kingdom?”—a suggestion which would be most strange for a Pharisaic Sanhedrist to have extemporized. At the same time, it may be proved that the rabbis regarded proselytism as a “new birth,” and one produced or brought about by circumcision and baptism. Others, again, have put further words into the reply of Jesus, such as, “The kingdom of God is not in the miracles which I am working; it is in a state of things which can only be appreciated by a radical spiritual change” (Lucke). Similarly Luthardt. Nicodemus was thinking of the kingdom of God evinced by miraculous signs; and Jesus points him to the inner reality rather than to the outer manifestation. Godet sees the Pharisaic position in the question of Nicodemus, “Art thou the Messiah? is the kingdom of God near, as thy miracles seem to indicate?” He was assuming that, as a Pharisee, he had nothing to do but walk in the light, the dawn of which was revealed to him in the signs of a divinely sent Teacher. All these views embrace a large amount of possible conjectural truth; but they ignore the play upon the words of Nicodemus, which the answer of Jesus involves, showing that a sharp, clean retort followed the speech of the former. “We know that NO MAN IS ABLE to do these signs which thou art working EXCEPT GOD, BE WITH HIM. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, EXCEPT ONE be born anew, HE IS NOT ABLE to see the kingdom of God.” The form of both protasis and apodosis in each sentence closely corresponds, and this correspondence suggests the fact of an immediate repartee. adopting even the form of the question or assertion of the ruler of the Jews. To the “we know” of Nicodemus, comes the “I say unto thee” of Jesus. To the general sentiment of Nicodemus Christ gives a personal application. In place of speculation concerning his own relation to God and to the kingdom, Christ searches in the heart of his questioner for spiritual susceptibility. Over against the general proposition about God being with the Worker of these signs Christ sets the practical truth and Divine possibility of any man seeing the kingdom of God. To the suspicion of Jesus being the Messenger and Minister of God, he opposes the supposition of being born from heaven, or anew. From ancient times commentators have been divided as to the meaning of the word ἄνωθεν—whether it should be rendered “from above” or “anew,” “again.” The first was favoured by Origen and many others down to Bengel, Lucke, Meyer, Baur, Wordsworth, Lange, based on the local meaning of the word in numerous places; e.g. “from the top” (Mat_27:51), “from heaven above” (Jas_3:15, Jas_3:17; Joh_3:31; Joh_19:11). Moreover, John uses the idea of birth from God, or by his will supervening on the life of man, and the consequent conference upon it of a new beginning (Joh_1:13; 1Jn_3:9; 1Jn_4:7; 1Jn_5:1, 1Jn_5:4, 1Jn_5:18). The great point on which our Lord insists is the Divine spiritual origin of the life of which he has so much to say. Several of the English versions, Coverdale’s—and second edition of the Bishops’ Bible—have adopted this rendering, with the Armenian and Gothic versions. The Revised version has placed it in the margin. Against it is to be brought the use of the verb ἀναγεννᾶσθαι (1Pe_1:3, 33, and in Justin, ‘Apol.,’ 1Pe_1:6)—a word which corresponds with this clause, ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι, and yet could scarcely be translated “to be born from above,” but, “to be born again.” The second rendering, giving a temporal value to ἄνωθεν, was adopted by Augustine, Chrysostom (who uses both views), the vulgate, Luther, Calvin, Tholuck, Godet, Westcott, Moulton, Weiss, and Luthardt, and is sustained by the fact that Nicodemus was led by it to an inquiry about (δεύτερον γεννηθῆναι) a second birth. If the expression had had no ambiguity about it, and merely conveyed the idea of a heavenly birth, his mistake would have been greater than it was. There are, moreover, numerous passages confirming the temporal sense of ἄνωθεν (Wettstein and Grimm both quote from Josephus, ‘Ant.,’ Joh_1:18. 3; and Artemidorus, ‘Oneiroc.,’ Joh_1:13); and the παλιγγενεσία of Tit_3:5 points in the same direction. The Jewish rabbi ought to have been familiar with the idea of the “new heart” and “right spirit,” and the marvellous and mighty change wrought in men by the Holy Spirit; but the spiritual idea had been overlaid by rabbinic ritualism, and all the hopeless entanglements of ceremonial purity which had been reacts to do duty for spiritual conformity with the Divine will. Archdeacon Watkins reminds us that the Syriac version here gives the rendering “from the beginning,” or “anew,” and lays great stress on this solution of the ambiguity in the Greek word. The statement of Christ is very remarkable. A man must be born anew, must undergo a radical change, even to see the kingdom of God (cf. Mat_18:3). The true kingdom is not a Divine government of outward, visible magnificence, sustained by miraculous aid—a physical sovereignty which shall rival and eclipse the majesty of Caesar. When the kingdom shall come in its genuine power, the carnal eye will not discover its presence. The man born anew will alone be able to appreciate it. The Jews boasted that they were born of God (Joh_8:41), but could not understand that they needed vital, fundamental, moral renewal—a second birth, a new beginning. Let the opening of Christ’s Galilaean ministry be compared with this bold utterance. There in public discourse he called upon all men everywhere to “repent,” to undergo a radical change of mind, and that because the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Μετάνοια portrays the same change as παλιγγενεσία; but one term denotes thai; change as a human experience and effort, the other as a Divine operation. Neither repentance nor regeneration commended itself to the rabbinic mind as a necessity for one who was exalted by privilege and ennobled by obedience. The phrase, “kingdom of God,” is not a mode of representing truth to which this Gospel calls frequent attention. Still our Lord to Pilate (Joh_18:36) admits that be is himself the Head of kingdom which is “not from hence”—not resting on this world as its foundation or source. In Matthew the whole of the mission of Christ among men is repeatedly portrayed as “the kingdom of heaven.” And from the time when the Lord ascended until now, various efforts have been made to realize, to discover, to embody, to emblazon, to crush, to ignore, that kingdom and its King. This great utterance is a key to much of the history of the Church, and an explanation of its numberless mistakes. Moreover, it supplies an invaluable hint of the true nature of the kingdom of God. Thoma insists on the other rendering of ἄνωθεν, and compares it with the Philonic doctrine, “that the substance of the νοῦς is not attributed to that which is created, but is breathed into the flesh from above (ἄνωθεν) by God …Aim, O soul, at the bodiless essence of the spirit world as thy inheritance.” These ideas, he thinks, John has placed into the lips of Jesus. The two classes of ideas are fundamentally distinct. Philo contrasts the sensuous and the intellectual; Christ is contrasting nature and grace.
Pop Comm Schaff
Joh_3:3.Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one have been born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Jesus answers his thoughts rather than his words, but the connection between the address and the answer is not hard to find. John the Baptist had familiarised all with the thought that the kingdom of God was at hand, that the reign of the Messiah, so long expected, would soon begin. Whatever meaning may be assigned to the words of Joh_3:2, we may certainly say that every thoughtful Jew who believed what Nicodemus believed was ‘waiting for the kingdom of God.’ But the Pharisee’s conception of the Messianic promise was false. In great measure, at least, his ‘kingdom of God’ was outward and carnal, not inward and spiritual,—a privilege of birth, belonging of right to Israel. This false conception Jesus would at once correct, and the gravity of the error is reflected in the solemnity of the language, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee.’—‘Any one.’ This more literal rendering is necessary here because of the next verse. Our Lord says simply any one. Nicodemus brings in the word ‘man,’ to give more expressiveness to his reply.
‘Have been born anew.’ It has been, and still is, a much controverted question whether the Greek word here used should be rendered again, or anew, or from above. ‘Again’ is certainly inadequate; for, though the word may denote beginning over again, commencing the action afresh, it cannot express mere repetition. Much may be said in favour of the third rendering, ‘from above.’ This is the undoubted meaning of the same word as used below (Joh_3:31); and a similar idea is expressed in the passages of the Gospel (chap. Joh_1:13) and First Epistle of John (chap. 1Jn_2:29, 1Jn_5:1, etc.) which speak of those who are begotten of God. It may also be urged that, as Christ is ‘He that cometh from above’ (Joh_3:31), those who through faith are one with Christ must derive their being from the same source, and may well be spoken of as ‘born from above.’ Notwithstanding these arguments, it is probable that anew is the true rendering. Had the other thought been intended, we might surely have expected ‘of God’ instead of ‘from above.’ The correspondence between the two members of the sentence would then have been complete; only those who have been born of God can see the kingdom of God. Further, born (or begotten) of God is a very easy and natural expression, but this can hardly be said of born (or begotten) from above: ‘coming from above’ is perfectly clear; ‘born from above’ is not so. The chief argument, however, is afforded by the next verse, which clearly shows that Nicodemus understood a second birth to be intended. But the words ‘except any one have been born from above’ would not necessarily imply a second birth. The Jews maintained that they were born of God (see chap. Joh_8:41), and would have had no difficulty whatever in believing that those only who received their being from above could inherit the blessings of Messiah’s kingdom. Our Lord’s words, then, teach the fundamental truth, that not natural birth, descent from the stock of Israel, but a second birth, the being begotten anew, a complete spiritual change (see Joh_3:5), admits into the kingdom of God.
On the general expectation of a king and a kingdom, see chap. Joh_1:49. It is remarkable that the kingdom of God is expressly mentioned by John in this chapter only (compare, however, chap. Joh_18:36).-‘Cannot’ is by no means the same as ‘shall not.’ It expresses an impossibility in the very nature of things. To a state of outward earthly privilege rights of natural birth might give admittance. In declaring that without a complete inward change none can possibly see (have a true perception of) ‘the kingdom of God,’ Jesus declares the spiritual character of His kingdom. In it none but the spiritual can have any part.
Answered and said
See on Joh_2:18.
See on Joh_1:51.
Be born again (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν)
See on Luk_1:3. Literally, from the top (Mat_27:51). Expositors are divided on the rendering of ἄνωθεν, some translating, from above, and others, again or anew. The word is used in the following senses in the New Testament, where it occurs thirteen times:
1. From the top: Mat_27:51; Mar_15:38; Joh_19:23.
2. From above: Joh_3:31; Joh_19:11; Jam_1:17; Jam_3:15, Jam_3:17.
3. From the beginning: Luk_1:3; Act_26:5.
4. Again: Gal_4:9, but accompanied by πάλιν, again.
In favor of the rendering from above, it is urged that it corresponds to John’s habitual method of describing the work of spiritual regeneration as a birth from God (Joh_1:13; 1Jo_3:9; 1Jo_4:7; 1Jo_5:1, 1Jo_5:4, 1Jo_5:8); and further, that it is Paul, and not John, who describes it as a new birth. In favor of the other rendering, again, it may be said: 1. that from above does not describe the fact but the nature of the new birth, which in the logical order would be stated after the fact, but which is first announced if we render from above. If we translate anew or again, the logical order is preserved, the nature of the birth being described in Joh_3:5. 2. That Nicodemus clearly understood the word as meaning again, since, in Joh_3:4, he translated it into a second time. 3. That it seems strange that Nicodemus should have been startled by the idea of a birth from heaven.
Canon Westcott calls attention to the traditional form of the saying in which the word ἀναγεννᾶσθαι, which can only mean reborn, is used as its equivalent. Again, however, does not give the exact force of the word, which is rather as Rev., anew, or afresh. Render, therefore, as Rev., except a man be born anew. The phrase occurs only in John’s Gospel.
The things of God’s kingdom are not apparent to the natural vision. A new power of sight is required, which attaches only to the new man. Compare 1Co_2:14.
Kingdom of God
See on Luk_6:20.
Verily, verily – An expression of strong affirmation, denoting the certainty and the importance of what he was about to say. Jesus proceeds to state one of the fundamental and indispensable doctrines of his religion. It may seem remarkable that he should introduce this subject in this manner; but it should be remembered that Nicodemus acknowledged that he was a teacher come from God; that he implied by that his readiness and desire to receive instruction; and that it is not wonderful, therefore, that Jesus should commence with one of the fundamental truths of his religion. It is no part of Christianity to conceal anything. Jesus declared to every man, high or low, rich or poor, the most humbling truths of the gospel. Nothing was kept back for fear of offending men of wealth or power; and for them, as well as the most poor and lowly, it was declared to be indispensable to experience, as the first thing in religion, a change of heart and of life.
Except a man – This is a universal form of expression designed to include all mankind. Of “each and every man” it is certain that unless he is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. It includes, therefore, men of every character and rank, and nation, moral and immoral, rich and poor, in office and out of office, old and young, bond and free, the slave and his master, Jew and Gentile. It is clear that our Saviour intended to convey to Nicodemus the idea, also, that “he” must be born again. It was not sufficient to be a Jew, or to acknowledge him to be a teacher sent by God that is, the Messiah; it was necessary, in addition to this, to experience in his own soul that great change called the “new birth” or regeneration.
Be born again – The word translated here “again” means also “from above,” and is so rendered in the margin. It is evident, however, that Nicodemus understood, it not as referring to a birth “from above,” for if he had he would not have asked the question in Joh_3:4. It is probable that in the language which he used there was not the same ambiguity that there is in the Greek. The ancient versions all understood it as meaning “again,” or the “second time.” Our natural birth introduces us to light, is the commencement of life, throws us amid the works of God, and is the beginning of our existence; but it also introduces us to a world of sin. We early go astray. All men transgress. The imagination of the thoughts of the heart is evil from the youth up. We are conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity, and there is none that doeth good, no, not one. The carnal mind is enmity against God, and by nature we are dead in trespasses and sins, Gen_8:21; Psa_14:2-3; Psa_51:5; Rom_1:29-32; Rom_3:10-20; Rom_8:7.
All sin exposes men to misery here and hereafter. To escape from sin, to be happy in the world to come, it is necessary that man should be changed in his principles, his feelings, and his manner of life. This change, or the beginning of this new life, is called the “new birth,” or “regeneration.” It is so called because in many respects it has a striking analogy to the natural birth. It is the beginning of spiritual life. It introduces us to the light of the gospel. It is the moment when we really begin to live to any purpose. It is the moment when God reveals himself to us as our reconciled Father, and we are adopted into his family as his sons. And as every man is a sinner, it is necessary that each one should experience this change, or he cannot be happy or saved. This doctrine was not unknown to the Jews, and was particularly predicted as a doctrine that would be taught in the times of the Messiah. See Deu_10:16; Jer_4:4; Jer_31:33; Eze_11:19; Eze_36:25; Psa_51:12. The change in the New Testament is elsewhere called the “new creation” 2Co_5:17; Gal_6:15, and “life from the dead,” or a resurrection, Eph_2:1; Joh_5:21, Joh_5:24.
He cannot see – To “see,” here, is put evidently for enjoying – or he cannot be fitted for it and partake of it.
The kingdom of God – Either in this world or in that which is to come – that is, heaven. See the notes at Mat_3:2. The meaning is, that the kingdom which Jesus was about to set up was so pure and holy that it was indispensable that every man should experience this change, or he could not partake of its blessings. This is solemnly declared by the Son of God by an affirmation equivalent to an oath, and there can be no possibility, therefore, of entering heaven without experiencing the change which the Saviour contemplated by the “new birth.” And it becomes every man, as in the presence of a holy God before whom he must soon appear, to ask himself whether he has experienced this change, and if he has not, to give no rest to his eyes until he has sought the mercy of God, and implored the aid of his Spirit that his heart may be renewed.
Cambridge Bible Plummer
4. when he is old] He purposely puts the most impossible case; the words do not imply that he was an old man himself. It is difficult to believe that Nicodemus really supposed Christ to be speaking of ordinary birth; the metaphor of ‘new birth’ for spiritual regeneration cannot have been unfamiliar to him. Either he purposely misunderstands, in order to reduce Christ’s words to an absurdity; or, more probably, not knowing what to say, he asks what he knew to be a foolish question.
the second time] This expression has contributed to the word which probably means ‘from above,’ being translated ‘again.’ But ‘to enter a second time into his mother’s womb’ is simply a periphrasis for ‘to be born’ in the case of an adult. The word which means ‘from above’ is not included in the periphrasis. It is precisely that which perplexes Nicodemus; so he leaves it out.
Nicodemus saith to him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? The numerous endeavours to interpret the motive or mind of Nicodemus show almost as much misunderstanding of the naiveté of his amazement, as Nicodemus did of the deepest significance of this solemn utterance of the Lord. Two things are perfectly clear:
(1) Nicodemus saw a grave and amazing difficulty in the idea of a second birth of a man old, like himself, in years, prepossessions, habits of thought, ways of acting, social ties, ancestral and traditional customs, and in venerable ideas consecrated by long usage. He might have known the language of the prophets concerning circumcision of heart (Deu_30:6; Jer_4:4) and concerning a new heart and right spirit (Eze_36:26, Eze_36:27; Psa_51:10; Psa_86:4); but the full bearing of these prophetic ideas were beyond and different to the almost drastic form of Christ’s call for spiritual change and “birth from the beginning.” There is no necessity for us to accuse him either of “narrowness” (Meyer) or of imbecility (Reuss, Lucke), or to make such a charge react upon the spirit or temper of the evangelist in delineating him. It is enough that Nicodemus should have seen a grave difficulty; and Thoma here is justified in referring to the language of the apostles, when the narrow entrance into the kingdom was set forth under the image of the camel and the needle’s eye; and to Mary, when she cried, “How can this thing be?” Moreover, the same perplexity, after eighteen hundred years of Christian experience, still encumbers this utterance of the Master.
(2) Nicodemus did not, by the form of his question, put such query to the Lord in any literal baldness or insolent worldliness. Surely such a view ignores all the tropical methods of speech current in the rabbinical schools. He virtually said,” Birth such as you speak of is as impossible as the second physical birth of an old man, as preposterous as would be re-entrance into the womb of his mother for the purpose of a second birth.” Christ had spoken of a fundamental change—one going right down to the very sources and beginnings of life. The Lord had used this difficult image, and propounded his view in a term capable of various interpretation. Nicodemus simply expresses his alarm and incredulity in terms of the image itself. It is little more than the language of the prophet, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin, or a leopard his spots?” Are you not proposing a natural impessibility? Must not the kingdom of God, which we thought we saw in thy advent and mighty deeds, be on this understanding hopelessly veiled from human vision? The “being old” shows that Nicodemus had gone through the metaphor to the condition of mind of which it was the subject. There was no greater physical difficulty in an old man re-entering his mother’s womb than for a boy of twelve to do so; but being probably, not necessarily, an old man, and belonging to a society of grave, reverend elders, with the inveterate habits, practices, traditions, of long lives behind them, how impracticable and impossible does the notion of so complete a change appear to him! Hence his question. Westcott says admirably, “The great mystery of religion is not the punishment, but the forgiveness of sins; not the natural permanence of character, but spiritual regeneration.”
5.Unless a man be born of water. This passage has been explained in various ways. Some have thought that the two parts of regeneration are distinctly pointed out, and that by the word Water is denoted the renunciation of the old man, while by the Spirit they have understood the new life. Others think that there is an implied contrast, as if Christ intended to contrast Water and Spirit, which are pure and liquid elements, with the earthly and gross nature of man. Thus they view the language as allegorical, and suppose Christ to have taught that we ought to lay aside the heavy and ponderous mass of the flesh, and to become like water and air, that we may move upwards, or, at least, may not be so much weighed down to the earth. But both opinions appear to me to be at variance with the meaning of Christ.
Chrysostom, with whom the greater part of expounders agree, makes the word Water refer to baptism. The meaning would then be, that by baptism we enter into the kingdom of God, because in baptism we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Hence arose the belief of the absolute necessity of baptism, in order to the hope of eternal life. But though we were to admit that Christ here speaks of baptism, yet we ought not to press his words so closely as to imagine that he confines salvation to the outward sign; but, on the contrary, he connects the Water with the Spirit, because under that visible symbol he attests and seals that newness of life which God alone produces in us by his Spirit. It is true that, by neglecting baptism, we are excluded from salvation; and in this sense I acknowledge that it is necessary; but it is absurd to speak of the hope of salvation as confined to the sign. So far as relates to this passage, I cannot bring myself to believe that Christ speaks of baptism; for it would have been inappropriate.
We must always keep in remembrance the design of Christ, which we have already explained; namely, that he intended to exhort Nicodemus to newness of life, because he was not capable of receiving the Gospel, until he began to be a new man. It is, therefore, a simple statement, that we must be born again, in order that we may be the children of God, and that the Holy Spirit is the Author of this second birth. For while Nicodemus was dreaming of the regeneration (παλιγγενεσία) or transmigration taught by Pythagoras, who imagined that souls, after the death of their bodies, passed into other bodies, Christ, in order to cure him of this error, added, by way of explanation, that it is not in a natural way that men are born a second time, and that it is not necessary for them to be clothed with a new body, but that they are born when they are renewed in mind and heart by the grace of the Spirit.
Accordingly, he employed the words Spirit and water to mean the same thing, and this ought not to be regarded as a harsh or forced interpretation; for it is a frequent and common way of speaking in Scripture, when the Spirit is mentioned, to add the word Water or Fire, expressing his power. We sometimes meet with the statement, that it is Christ who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost and with fire, (Mat_3:11; Luk_3:16,) where fire means nothing different from the Spirit, but only shows what is his efficacy in us. As to the word water being placed first, it is of little consequence; or rather, this mode of speaking flows more naturally than the other, because the metaphor is followed by a plain and direct statement, as if Christ had said that no man is a son of God until he has been renewed by water, and that this water is the Spirit who cleanseth us anew and who, by spreading his energy over us, imparts to us the rigor of the heavenly life, though by nature we are utterly dry. And most properly does Christ, in order to reprove Nicodemus for his ignorance, employ a form of expression which is common in Scripture; for Nicodemus ought at length to have acknowledged, that what Christ had said was taken from the ordinary doctrine of the Prophets.
By water, therefore, is meant nothing more than the inward purification and invigoration which is produced by the Holy Spirit. Besides, it is not unusual to employ the word and instead of that is, when the latter clause is intended to explain the former. And the view which I have taken is supported by what follows; for when Christ immediately proceeds to assign the reason why we must be born again, without mentioning the water, he shows that the newness of life which he requires is produced by the Spirit alone; whence it follows, that water must not be separated from the Spirit
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man (any one) have been born (out) of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. This memorable utterance has been the occasion of much controversy, arising from the contested sanction thus supposed to be given to the opus operatura of baptism, and to the identification of water baptism with Spirit baptism. Expositors have asserted that the rite of water baptism is not merely regarded as the expressive symbol and prophecy of the spiritual change which is declared to be indispensable to admission into the kingdom, but the veritable means by which that baptism of the Spirit is effected. Now, in the first place, we observe that the sentence is a reply to Nicodemus, who had just expressed his blank astonishment at the idea that a fundamental change must pass over a man, in any sense equivalent to a second birth, before he can see the kingdom of God. Our Lord modifies the last clause, and speaks of entering into the kingdom of God rather than perceiving or discerning the features of the kingdom. Some have urged that ἰδει ͂ν of Joh_3:3 is equivalent to εἰσελθεῖν εἰς of Joh_3:5. The vision, say they, is only possible to those who partake of the privileges of the kingdom. But the latter phrase does certainly express a further idea—a richer and fuller appreciation of the authority and glory of the King; just as the “birth of water and of the Spirit” conveys deeper and further thought to Nicodemus, than did the previously used expression, γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν. The first expression was dark in the extreme; the latter pours light upon it. “Birth of water” points at once to the method so frequently adopted in Jewish ceremonial, by which a complete change of state and right before God was instituted by water. Thus, a man who had not gone through the appropriate and commanded lustrations was unfit to present his offering, to receive the benediction sought by his sacrificial presentment; the priest was not in a fit state to carry the blood of the covenant into the holy place without frequent washings, which indicated the extent and defilement of his birth stain. Nicodemus for probably thirty years had seen priests and men thus qualifying themselves for solemn functions. So great was the urgency of these ideas that, as he must have known, the Essenes had formed separate communities, with the view of carrying out to the full consummation the idea of ritual purity. More than this, it is not improbable that proselytes from heathen nations, when brought into covenant relation with the theocratic people, were, at the very time of this conversation, admitted by baptismal rites into this privilege. To the entire confusion of Pharisee and Sadducee, John the Baptist had demanded of every class of the holy people “repentance unto remission of sins,” a demand which was accepted on the part of the multitudes by submitting to the rite of baptism. The vastly important question then arises’—Did John by this baptism, or by any power he wielded, give to the people repentance or remission of sins? Certainly not, if we may conclude from the repeated judgment pronounced by him self and by the apostles after him. Nothing but the blood and Spirit of Christ could convey either remission or repentance to the souls of men. John preached the baptism of repentance unto remission, but could confer neither. He taught the people to look to One who should come after him. He sharply discriminated the baptism with water from the baptism of the Spirit and fire. This discrimination has been repeatedly referred to already in this Gospel. Thus the Fathers of the Church saw distinctly that there was no regenerating efficacy in the water baptism of John, and the Council of Trent elevated this position into a canonical dogma. It is most melancholy that they did not also perceive that this judgment of theirs about the baptism of John applied to water baptism altogether. Christ’s disciples baptized (not Christ himself, Joh_4:2) with water unto repentance and remission; but even up to the day of Pentecost there is no hint of this process being more than stimulus to that repentance which is the gift of God, and to the consequent pardon which was the condition of still further communication of the Holy Spirit. The great baptism which Christ would administer was the baptism of Spirit and fire. The references to the baptism of the early Church are not numerous in the New Testament, but they are given as if for the very purpose of showing that the water baptism was not a necessary or indispensable condition to the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius and his friends received the sacred bestowment before baptism. The language of the Ethiopian ennuch shows that he had received the holy and best gift of Divine illumination and faith before baptism. Simon Magus was baptized with water by Philip, but was in the gall of bitterness and un-spirituality. There is no proof at all that the apostles of Christ (with the exception of Paul) wore ever baptized with water, unless it were at the hands of John. Consequently, we cannot believe, with this entire group of facts before us, that our Lord was making any ceremonial rite whatsoever indispensable to entrance into the kingdom. His own reception and forgiveness of the woman that was a sinner, of the paralytic, and of the dying brigand, his breathing over his disciples as symbolic of the great spiritual gift they were afterwards to receive, is the startling and impressive repudiation of the idea that Christian baptism in his own name, or, still less, that that ordinance treated as a supernaturally endowed and divinely enriched sacrament, was even so much as referred to in this great utterance. But the entire system of Jewish, proselyte, and Johannine baptisms was in the mind of both Nicodemus and Christ. These were all symbolic of the confession and repentance, which are the universal human conditions of pardon, and, as a ritual, were allowed to his disciples before and after Pentecost, as anticipatory of the great gift of the Holy Spirit. No baptism, no “birth out of water,” can give repentance or enforce confession; but the familiar process may indicate the imperative necessity for both, and prove still more a prophecy of the vital, spiritual transformation which, in the following verse, is dissociated from the water altogether. Calvin, while admitting the general necessity for baptism, repudiates the idea that the rite is indispensable to salvation, and maintains that “water” here means nothing different or other than “the Spirit,” as descriptive of one of its great methods of operation, just as “Holy Spirit and fire” are elsewhere conjoined.
Of water and the Spirit (ex hudatos kai pneumatos). Nicodemus had failed utterly to grasp the idea of the spiritual birth as essential to entrance into the Kingdom of God. He knew only Jews as members of that kingdom, the political kingdom of Pharisaic hope which was to make all the world Jewish (Pharisaic) under the King Messiah. Why does Jesus add ex hudatos here? In Joh_3:3 we have “anōthen” (from above) which is repeated in Joh_3:7, while in Joh_3:8 we have only ek tou pneumatos (of the Spirit) in the best manuscripts. Many theories exist. One view makes baptism, referred to by ex hudatos (coming up out of water), essential to the birth of the Spirit, as the means of obtaining the new birth of the Spirit. If so, why is water mentioned only once in the three demands of Jesus (Joh_3:3, Joh_3:5, Joh_3:7)? Calvin makes water and Spirit refer to the one act (the cleansing work of the Spirit). Some insist on the language in Joh_3:6 as meaning the birth of the flesh coming in a sac of water in contrast to the birth of the Spirit. One wonders after all what was the precise purpose of Jesus with Nicodemus, the Pharisaic ceremonialist, who had failed to grasp the idea of spiritual birth which is a commonplace to us. By using water (the symbol before the thing signified) first and adding Spirit, he may have hoped to turn the mind of Nicodemus away from mere physical birth and, by pointing to the baptism of John on confession of sin which the Pharisees had rejected, to turn his attention to the birth from above by the Spirit. That is to say the mention of “water” here may have been for the purpose of helping Nicodemus without laying down a fundamental principle of salvation as being by means of baptism. Bernard holds that the words hudatos kai (water and) do not belong to the words of Jesus, but “are a gloss, added to bring the saying of Jesus into harmony with the belief and practice of a later generation.” Here Jesus uses eiselthein (enter) instead of idein (see) of Joh_3:3, but with the same essential idea (participation in the kingdom).
Pop Comm Schaff
Joh_3:5.Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one have been born of water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. The answer is a stronger affirmation of the same truth, with some changes of expression which made the words no easier of acceptance, save as the new terms might awaken echoes of Old Testament language, and lead the hearer from the external to an inward and spiritual interpretation.
The first words have given rise to warm and continued controversy. Many have held that the birth ‘of water and spirit; can only refer to Christian baptism; others have denied that Christian baptism is alluded to at all. The subject is very important and very difficult. Our only safety lies in making the Evangelist his own interpreter. We shall repeatedly find, when a difficulty occurs, that some word of his own in the context or in some parallel passage brings us light. (1) First, then, as to the very peculiar expression,’ of water and spirit.’ We cannot doubt that this is the true rendering; no direct reference is made as yet to the personal Holy Spirit. The words ‘water and spirit’ are most closely joined, and placed under the government of the same preposition. A little earlier in the Gospel (chap. Joh_1:33) we find the same words—not, indeed, joined together as here, but yet placed in exact parallelism, each word, too, receiving emphasis from the context. Three times between chap. Joh_1:19 and chap. Joh_1:33. John speaks of his baptism with water; twice there is a reference to the Spirit (Joh_1:32-33); and in Joh_3:33. John’s baptizing with water and our Lord’s baptizing with ‘holy spirit’ (see the note) stand explicitly contrasted. It is very possible that this testimony was well known to others besides John’s disciples, to all indeed in Judea who were roused to inquiry respecting the Baptist and his relation to Jesus. (2) It is possible that the Jews of that age may have been familiar with the figure of a new birth in connection with baptism. It is confessedly difficult accurately to ascertain Jewish usages and modes of thought in the time of our Lord. The Talmud indeed contains copious stores of information, but it is not easy to distinguish between what belongs to an earlier and what to a later age. We know that converts to the Jewish religion were admitted by baptism to fellowship with the sacred people. The whole tenor of the law would suggest such a washing when the uncleanness of heathenism was put off, and hence no rite could be more natural. Yet we have no certain knowledge that this was practised so early as the time of our Lord. There is no doubt that, at a later date, the proselyte thus washed or baptized was spoken of as born again. Here again, therefore, we have some confirmation of the view that in the words before us there is in some sort areference to baptism,—at all events, to the baptism of John. (3) But what was John’s baptism? We see from chap. Joh_1:25 how peculiar his action appeared to the rulers of the people. Even if proselytes were in that age baptized, a baptism that invited all, publican and Pharisee alike, would but seem the more strange. John’s action was new and startling; and from chap. Joh_1:21-25 it appears that the leaders of Jewish thought beheld in it an immediate reference to the time of Messiah. It seems very probable that John’s baptism was directly symbolic, a translation into visible symbol of such promises as Eze_36:25, which looked forward to the new spiritual order of which he was the herald. To the sprinkling with clean water, the cleansing from all filthiness, of which Ezekiel speaks, answers closely John’s ‘baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (compare also Eze_36:31). To the promise which follows, ‘A new spirit will I put within you. … I will put my spirit within you,’ answers just as closely John’s testimony to Jesus, ‘He it is that baptizeth with holy spirit.’ (4) The two contrasted elements in the baptisms of chap. Joh_1:33 are—(a) the covering and removal of past sin; and (b) the inbreathing of a new life. In that verse ‘holy spirit’ is the gift and not the Giver. The Giver is the Holy Spirit; but the gift, that which is the essential element in the new baptism, is the bestowal of ‘holy spirit,’ the seed and the principle of a holy spiritual life. (5) These two elements were conjoined in the Christian baptism instituted afterwards: the cleansing of forgiveness through Christ’s death and the holiness of the new life in Christ are alike symbolized in it. Here, therefore, our Lord says that no man can enter into the kingdom of God unless he have been born anew, the elements of the new birth being the removal by cleansing of the old sinful life, and the impartation by the Holy Spirit of a new holy principle of life.—If this view of the words is correct, there is error in both extremes of which mention has been made. There is no direct reference here to Christian baptism; but the reference to the truths which that baptism expresses is distinct and clear.
6.That which is born of the flesh. By reasoning from contraries, he argues that the kingdom of God is shut against us, unless an entrance be opened to us by a new birth, (παλιγγενεσία) For he takes for granted, that we cannot enter into the kingdom of God unless we are spiritual. But we bring nothing from the womb but a carnal nature. Therefore it follows, that we are naturally banished from the kingdom of God, and, having been deprived of the heavenly life, remain under the yoke of death. Besides, when Christ argues here, that men must be born again, because they are only flesh, he undoubtedly comprehends all mankind under the term flesh. By the flesh, therefore, is meant in this place not the body, but the soul also, and consequently every part of it. When the Popish divines restrict the word to that part which they call sensual, they do so in utter ignorance of its meaning; for Christ must in that case have used an inconclusive argument, that we need a second birth, because part of us is corrupt. But if the flesh is contrasted with the Spirit, as a corrupt thing is contrasted with what is uncorrupted, a crooked thing with what is straight, a polluted thing with what is holy, a contaminated thing with what is pure, we may readily conclude that the whole nature of man is condemned by a single word. Christ therefore declares that our understanding and reason is corrupted, because it is carnal, and that all the affections of the heart are wicked and reprobate, because they too are carnal.
But here it may be objected, that since the soul is not begotten by human generation, we are notborn of the flesh, as to the chief part of our nature. This led many persons to imagine that not only our bodies, but our souls also, descend to us from our parents; for they thought it absurd that original sin, which has its peculiar habitation in the soul, should be conveyed from one man to all his posterity, unless all our souls proceeded from his soul as their source. And certainly, at first sight, the words of Christ appear to convey the idea, that we are flesh, because we are born of flesh. I answer, so far as relates to the words of Christ, they mean nothing else than that we are all carnal when we are born; and that as we come into this world mortal men, our nature relishes nothing but what is flesh. He simply distinguishes here between nature and the supernatural gift; for the corruption of all mankind in the person of Adam alone did not proceed from generation, but from the appointment of God, who in one man had adorned us all, and who has in him also deprived us of his gifts. Instead of saying, therefore, that each of us draws vice and corruption from his parents, it would be more correct to say that we are all alike corrupted in Adam alone, because immediately after his revolt God took away from human nature what He had bestowed upon it.
Here another question arises; for it is certain that in this degenerate and corrupted nature some remnant of the gifts of God still lingers; and hence it follows that we are not in every respect corrupted. The reply is easy. The gifts which God hath left to us since the fall, if they are judged by themselves, are indeed worthy of praise; but as the contagion of wickedness is spread through every part, there will be found in us nothing that is pure and free from every defilement. That we naturally possess some knowledge of God, that some distinction between good and evil is engraven on our conscience, that our faculties are sufficient for the maintenance of the present life, that — in short — we are in so many ways superior to the brute beasts, that is excellent in itself, so far as it proceeds from God; but in us all these things are completely polluted, in the same manner as the wine which has been wholly infected and corrupted by the offensive taste of the vessel loses the pleasantness of its good flavor, and acquires a bitter and pernicious taste. For such knowledge of God as now remains in men is nothing else than a frightful source of idolatry and of all superstitions; the judgment exercised in choosing and distinguishing things is partly blind and foolish, partly imperfect and confused; all the industry that we possess flows into vanity and trifles; and the will itself, with furious impetuosity, rushes headlong to what is evil. Thus in the whole of our nature there remains not a drop of uprightness. Hence it is evident that we must be formed by the second birth, that we may be fitted for the kingdom of God; and the meaning of Christ’s words is, that as a man is born only carnal from the womb of his mother; he must be formed anew by the Spirit, that he may begin to be spiritual.
The word Spirit is used here in two senses, namely, for grace, and the effect of grace. For in the first place, Christ informs us that the Spirit of God is the only Author of a pure and upright nature, and afterwards he states, that we are spiritual, because we have been renewed by his power.
That which hath been born of the flesh, is flesh. Σάρξ is not the physical as opposed to the spiritual or immaterial. nor is σάρξ necessarily sinful, as we see from Joh_1:14, but as it often appears in John’s writing and Paul’s, σάρξ is the constituent element of humanity as apart from grace—humanity (body, intellect, heart, conscience, soul, spirit) viewed on its own side and merits and capacity, without the Divine life, or the Divine supernatural inbreathing. The being born of the flesh is the being born into this world, with all the privations and depravations, evil tendencies and passions of a fallen humanity. Birth into the theocracy, birth into national or ecclesiastical privilege, birth that has no higher quality than flesh, no better germ or graft upon it. simply produces flesh, humanity over again. When the Logos “became flesh,” something more than and different from ordinary traduction of humanity took place.
Destitute of any higher birth than the birth of flesh, man is fleshly, psychical, earthly, σαρκικός ψυχικός χοΐκός (Rom_7:14-25), and, more than that, positively opposed to the will and grace of God, lashed with passions, defiled with debasing ideas, in enmity against God. Hence the birth “from the Spirit” is entirely antithetic to the birth from the flesh. That which hath been born of the Spirit, is spirit. There is a birth which supervenes on the flesh-be-gotten man, and it is supernaturally wrought by the Spirit of God. As in the first instance, at man’s creation, God breathed into man the breath of life, and by that operation man became a living soul; so now the new birth of man is wrought in him by the Spirit, and there is a new life, a new mode of being, a new bias and predomimating impulse. “A spiritual mind which is life and peace” has taken the place of the old carnal mind. He is “spiritual,” no longer “psychical,” or “carnal,” but able to discern the things that are freely given to him. The eye of the spirit is opened, unsealed, the τὰ τοῦ πνεύματος are revealed to him (1Co_2:12-16; 1Co_3:1-5). The reference to “birth of water” is not repeated, because the birth from water is relatively unimportant, and of no value apart from the Spirit-change of which it may be a picture, or even a synonym. More than that, the Spirit-birth, the Divine operation, is the efficient cause of that which, under the form of a human experience, is called μετάνοια. The human metanoia, rather than the new birth, is the great burden of our Lord’s public address, as recorded in the synoptic Gospels. In both representations the same fact, the same condition and state of the human consciousness, is referred to. In “repentance,” however, and in the moral characters which are the several preliminaries to the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, a change is declared necessary for the constitution and inauguration of the kingdom of heaven. This change is there viewed from the standpoint of human experience, and urged in the form of a direct appeal to conscience. In this discourse to Nicodcmus the same change is exhibited on its Divine side, and as one produced by the Spirit of God. In the Sermon on the Mount “meekness,” “poverty of spirit,” “mourning,” “hunger after righteousness,” “purity of heart,” the spirit of forgiveness and long suffering, are the moral conditions of those minds and hearts which would become the city of God and the light of the world (Mat_5:1-12). On this occasion, when addressing the learned rabbi, Christ sums all up in the demand for a birth from the Spirit—a new and spiritual recommencement of life from the Spirit of God. The clause found in the vetus Itala and the Syriac, quia Deus spiritus est, et de Deo natus est, is a gloss sustained by no Greek manuscript authority. Thorns here quotes two interesting passages from Philo, 1:533, 599, where the νοῦς is spoken of as given to man from above, and where the supremacy of the spiritual over the fleshly is made the only guarantee of admission into the world of spirit. But Philo obviously meant the intellectual rather than the moral element in human nature, and prized the ascetic process rather than the supernatural regeneration.
Pop Comm Schaff
Joh_3:6.That which hath been born of the flesh is flesh, and that which hath been born of the Spirit is spirit. In the last verse was implied the law that like is produced from like, since the pure and spiritual members of God’s kingdom must be born of water and spirit. Here this law is expressly stated. Flesh produces flesh. Spirit produces spirit. Thus the necessity of a new birth is enforced, and the ‘cannot’ of Joh_3:3 explained. It is not easy to say whether ‘flesh,’ as here used, definitely indicates the sinful principles of human nature, or only that which is outward, material, not spiritual but merely natural. The latter seems more likely, both from the context (where the contrast is between the natural and the spiritual birth) and from John’s usage elsewhere. Though the word occurs as many as thirteen times in this Gospel (chap. Joh_1:13-14, Joh_6:51-52, etc., Joh_8:15, Joh_17:2), in no passage does it express the thought of sinfulness, as it does in Paul’s Epistles and in 1Jn_2:16. Another difficulty meets us in the second clause. Are we to read ‘born of the Spirit’ or ‘of the spirit’? Is the reference to the Holy Spirit Himself, who imparts the principle of the new life, or to the principle which He imparts,-the principle just spoken of in Joh_3:5, ‘of water and spirit’ It is hard to say, and the difference in meaning is extremely small; but when we consider the analogy of the two clauses, the latter seems more likely.—There is no reference here to ‘water;’ but, as we have seen, the water has reference to the past alone,-the state which gives place to the new life. To speak of this would be beside the point of the verse now before us, which teaches that the spiritual life of the kingdom of God can only come from the new spiritual principle.
That which is born of the flesh – To show the necessity of this change, the Saviour directs the attention of Nicodemus to the natural condition of man. By “that which is born of the flesh” he evidently intends man as he is by nature, in the circumstances of his natural birth. Perhaps, also, he alludes to the question asked by Nicodemus, whether a man could be born when he was old? Jesus tells him that if this could be, it would not answer any valuable purpose; he would still have the same propensities and passions. Another change was therefore indispensable.
Is flesh – Partakes of the nature of the parent. Compare Gen_5:3. As the parents are corrupt and sinful, so will be their descendants. See Job_14:4. And as the parents are wholly corrupt by nature, so their children will be the same. The word “flesh” here is used as meaning “corrupt, defiled, sinful.” The “flesh” in the Scriptures is often used to denote the sinful propensities and passions of our nature, as those propensities are supposed to have their seat in the animal nature. “The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,” etc., Gal_5:19-20. See also Eph_2:3; 1Pe_3:21; 1Pe_2:18; 1Jo_2:16; Rom_8:5.
Is born of the Spirit – Of the Spirit of God, or by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Is spirit – Is spiritual, “like” the spirit, that is, holy, pure. Here we learn:
1. That all men are by nature sinful.
2. That none are renewed but by the Spirit of God. If man did the work himself, it would he still carnal and impure.
3. That the effect of the new birth is to make men holy.
4. And, that no man can have evidence that he is born again who is not holy, and just in proportion as he becomes pure in his life will be the evidence that he is born of the Spirit.
7.Wonder not. This passage has been tortured by commentators in various ways. Some think that Christ reproves the gross ignorance of Nicodemus and other persons of the same class, by saying thatit is not wonderful, if they do not comprehend that heavenly mystery of regeneration, since even in the order of nature they do not perceive the reason of those things which fall under the cognizance of the senses. Others contrive a meaning which, though ingenious, is too much forced: that, “as the wind blows freely, so by the regeneration of the Spirit we are set at liberty, and, having been freed from the yoke of sin, run voluntarily to God. Equally removed from Christ’s meaning is the exposition given by Augustine, that the Spirit of God exerts his power according to his own pleasure. A better view is given by Chrysostom and Cyril, who say that the comparison is taken from the wind, and apply it thus to the present passage: though its power be felt, we know not its source and cause.” While I do not differ greatly from their opinion, I shall endeavor to explain the meaning of Christ with greater clearness and certainty.
I hold by this principle, that Christ borrows a comparison from the order of nature. Nicodemus reckoned that what he had heard about regeneration and a new life was incredible, because the manner of this regeneration exceeded his capacity. To prevent him from entertaining any scruple of this sort, Christ shows that even in the bodily life there is displayed an amazing power of God, the reason of which is concealed. For all draw from the air their vital breath; we perceive the agitation of the air, but know not whence it comes to us or whither it departs. If in this frail and transitory life God acts so powerfully that we are constrained to admire his power, what folly is it to attempt to measure by the perception of our own mind his secret work in the heavenly and supernatural life, so as to believe no more than what we see? Thus Paul, when he breaks out into indignation against those who reject the doctrine of the resurrection, on the ground of its being impossible that the body which is now subject to putrefaction, after having been reduced to dust and to nothing, should be clothed with a blessed immortality, reproaches them for stupidity in not considering that a similar display of the power of God may be seen in a grain of wheat; for the seed does not spring until it; has been putrefied, (1Co_15:36.) This is the astonishing wisdom of which David exclaims, O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all, (Psa_104:24)
They are therefore excessively stupid who, having been warned by the common order of nature, do not rise higher, so as to acknowledge that the hand of God is far more powerful in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. When Christ says to Nicodemus that he ought not to wonder, we must not understand it in such a manner as if he intended that we should despise a work of God, which is so illustrious, and which is worthy of the highest admiration; but he means that we ought not to wonder with that kind of admiration which hinders our faith. For many reject as fabulous what they think too lofty and difficult. In a word, let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are formed again and made new men, though his manner of doing this be concealed from us.
8.The wind bloweth where it pleaseth. Not that, strictly speaking, there is will in the blowing, but because the agitation is free, and uncertain, and variable; for the air is carried sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another. How this applies to the case in hand; for if it flowed in a uniform motion like water, it would be less miraculous.
So is every one that is born of the Spirit. Christ means that the movement and operation of the Spirit of God is not less perceptible in the renewal of man than the motion of the air in this earthly and outward life, but that the manner of it is concealed; and that, therefore, we are ungrateful and malicious, if we do not adore the inconceivable power of God in the heavenly life, of which we behold so striking an exhibition in this world, and if we ascribe to him less in restoring the salvation of our soul than in upholding the bodily frame. The application will be somewhat more evident, if you turn the sentence in this manner: Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed man
Cambridge Bible Plummer
8. The wind bloweth, &c.] This verse is sometimes taken very differently: the Spirit breatheth where He willeth, and thou hearest His voice, but canst not tell whence He cometh and whither He goeth; so is every one (born) who is born of the Spirit. The advantages of this rendering are (1) that it gives to Pneuma the meaning which it almost invariably has in more than 350 passages in N.T. in which it occurs, of which more than 20 are in this Gospel. Although pneuma may mean ‘the breath of the wind,’ yet its almost invariable use in N.T. is ‘spirit’ or ‘the Spirit,’ while anemos is used for ‘wind:’ (2) that it gives a better meaning to ‘willeth,’ a word more appropriate to a person than to anything inanimate: (3) that it gives to phônê the meaning which it has in 14 other passages in this Gospel, viz., ‘articulate voice,’ and not ‘inarticulate sound.’ On the other hand this rendering (1) gives to pnei the meaning ‘breathes,’ a meaning quite unknown in N.T.: (2) uses the expression ‘the voice of the Spirit,’ also unknown to Scripture: (3) requires the insertion of ‘born’ in the last clause, in order to make sense. For the usual rendering may be pleaded (1) that it gives to pnei the meaning which it has everywhere else in N.T., viz. in Joh_6:18 and five other passages. Although pnei may mean ‘breathes,’ yet its invariable use in N.T. is of the ‘blowing’ of the wind, while another word (Joh_20:22) is used for ‘breathe:’ (2) that it gives the most literal meaning to ‘hearest:’ (3) that the last clause makes excellent sense without any repetition of ‘born.’ The Aramaic word probably used by our Lord has both meanings, ‘wind’ and ‘spirit,’ so that it is not impossible that both meanings are meant to run concurrently through the passage. “It was late at night when our Lord had this interview with the Jewish teacher. At the pauses in the conversation, we may conjecture, they heard the wind without, as it moaned along the narrow streets of Jerusalem; and our Lord, as was His wont, took His creature into His service—the service of spiritual truth. The wind was a figure of the Spirit. Our Lord would have used the same word for both.” (Liddon.) There is a clear reference to this passage in the Ignatian Epistles, Philad. vii. Thus we have evidence of the Gospel being known certainly as early as a.d. 150, and probably a.d. 115.
so is every one] i.e. such is the case of every one: he feels the spiritual influence, but finds it incomprehensible in its origin, which is from above, and in its end, which is eternal life.
born of the Spirit] The Sinaitic MS. and two ancient versions read, born of water and of the Spirit. The inserted words are a gloss.
The wind bloweth where it willeth, and thou hearest (his voice) the sound thereof, but thou knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. Vulgate (followed by Wickliffe and the Rheims versions) is, Spiritus ubi vult spirat et vocem ejus audis, sed nescis unde veniat, aut quo vadat: sic est omnis qui natus est ex Spiritu. Augustine, though acquainted with the other rendering, approves of this; so Origen, Bengel. The great majority of commentators and versions have held that the former of the two translations is correct; that the first time the word Πνεῦμα is used, it refers to the wind, “the unseen similitude of God the Spirit—his most meet and mightiest sign;” and that, since the same word is used for the two things, Spirit and wind, the Lord, after the parabolic manner which he adopted (in the synoptic Gospels), took advantage of some gusts of roaring wind then audible, to call attention to the mystery and incomprehensibility of its origin or end, and to see a parallel between the unknown ways of the wind and the unknown points of application to the human spirit of the mighty energy of the living God. The passage, Ecc_11:5, may have been in his mind (though there “Spirit” is as likely to be the reference as is the motion of the “wind,” and our ignorance of the way of the Spirit is akin to our ignorance of the formation of bones in the womb of her who is with child), and the adoption of the unusual word πνεῖ (cf. Joh_6:18; Rev_7:1; Mat_7:25; Act_27:40) is in support of the comparison between “wind” and the “Spirit;” while the φωνή, the “voice” or sound of the wind in trees or against any barriers, and the other effects that the rapid motion of the air produces, gives a lively illustration of the method in which the Spirit of God works in human minds, revealing, not itself, but its effects. The parallel is not peculiar to Scripture. It is further urged that the following clause, So is every one that hath been born of the Spirit—meaning, So doth it happen to every one who is born of the Spirit—suggests the analogy between πνεῦμα in its material sense, and πνεῦμα in its customary and deeper sense. Now, on the other hand, it appears to me that this latter clause is compatible with the older translation and application. There is a comparison, but it may be between the mysterious working, breathing of the Divine Spirit, whose “voice” or “word” may be heard, whose effects are present to our senses and consciousness, but the beginnings and endings of which are always lost in God,—and the special operations of Divine grace in the birth of the Spirit. There are numberless operations of the Spirit referred to in the Old Testament, from the first brooding of the Spirit on the formless abyss, to all the special and mighty effects wrought in creation, all the heightening and quickening of human faculty, all the conference of special strength upon men—their intellectual energies and Divine inspirations. Over and above all these, there is all the supernatural change wrought in souls by the Holy Spirit. Christ calls this a “birth of the Spirit,” and declares that, according to all the mysterious comings and departings of the Spirit, leaving only manifold effects, so is the special Divine work which morally and spiritually recreates humanity. Pneuma is used three hundred and fifty times in the New Testament, and twenty times in this Gospel for “the Spirit;” and if the usage is reversed here, this is the solitary occasion. The word θέλει, is, moreover, more appropriate to a living Being than to the wind. There is another way which suggests itself by which the word Πνεῦμα may mean the same in both clauses: The breath of God bloweth where it listeth, etc., so is every one born of the breath of God. If this be possible, the form of the expression supplies a cooperating similitude drawn from the unknown origin and mighty effects of the unseen breath of heaven; and on this translation the comparison is drawn between all the ways of the Spirit and the special work of the Spirit in regeneration. An inference is deducible from either interpretation of this verse, incompatible with the theory that “birth from water” is equivalent to “regeneration in baptism.” If the rite of baptism provided the moment and occasion of the spiritual result, we should know whence it came and whither it went. We might not know “how,” but we should know “when” and “whence” the spiritual change took place. But this knowledge is distinctly negatived by Christ, who herein declares the moment of the spiritual birth to be lost or hidden in God. Physical birth is a deep mystery, both whence the “spirit” comes and whither it goes; the signs of the presence of life are abundant, but there is an infinite difference between the stillborn or dead child and the living one. Similarly, the commencement of the Spirit’s creation within our nature is lost in mystery. We discern its presence by its effects, by consciousness of a new life and sense of a new world all around the newly born, but the Spirit-birth, like all the other operations of the Spirit, is hidden in God.
Pop Comm Schaff
Joh_3:8. The words of this verse point out to Nicodemus why he must not thus ‘marvel’ at the new teaching,—must not cast it away with incredulous surprise. Nature itself may teach him. In nature there is an agent whose working is experienced and acknowledged by all, while at the same time it is full of mystery; yet the mystery makes no man doubt the reality of the working.
The wind breatheth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh and whither it goeth. Fromthe beginning the wind seems to have been the divinely-intended witness and emblem in the natural world of the Spirit of God. Ever present, it bore a constant witness. A commentator (Tholuck) has conjectured that, whilst Jesus spoke, there was heard the sound of the wind as it swept through the narrow street of the city, thus furnishing an occasion for the comparison here. It may well have been so; every reader of the Gospels may see how willingly our Lorddrew lessons from natural objects around Him. Such a conjecture might help to explain the abruptness with which the meaning of the word is changed, the very same word which in Joh_3:5-6 was rendered spirit being now used in the sense of wind. Nothing but the abruptness of this transition needs any explanation. The appointed emblem teaches the lesson for which it was appointed. The choice of terms (breatheth, listeth, voice) shows that the wind is personified. It is perhaps of the gentle breeze rather than of the violent blast that the words speak (for the word pneuma is used with much more latitude in the Greek Bible than in classical Greek); in the breath of wind there is even more mystery than in the blast. Thou hearest its voice, it is present though invisible; thou feelest its power, for thou art in its course; but where the course begins, what produces the breath,—whither the course is tending, what is the object of the breath,-thou knowest not. Nicodemus, unable to question this, would remember Old Testament words which spoke of man’s not knowing ‘the way of the wind’ as illustrating man’s ignorance of the Creator’s works (Ecc_11:5).
So is every one that hath been born of the Spirit. As in the natural, so is it in the spiritual world. The wind breatheth where it listeth; the Spirit breatheth where He will. Thou hearest the sound of the wind, but canst not fix the limits ofthis course, experiencing only that thou thyself art in that course: every one that hath been born of the Spirit knows that His influence is real, experiencing that influence in himself, but can trace His working no farther,—knows not the beginning or the end of His course. Our Lord does not speak of the birth itself, but of the resulting state. The birth itself belongs to a region beyond the outward and the sensible, just as none can tell whence the breath of wind has come.
It ought perhaps to be noted before leaving this verse, that many take the first part of the verse as having reference to the Spirit, not the wind: ‘The Spirit breatheth where He will, and thou hearest His voice, but knowest not whence He cometh and whither He goeth; so is every one that hath been born of the Spirit.’ The chief arguments in favour of this translation are the following:—(1) It does not involve a sudden transition from one meaning to another of the same Greek word. (2) On the ordinary view there is some confusion in the comparison: the words are not, ‘The wind breatheth where … so is the Spirit;’ but, ‘The wind breatheth where . . . so is every one that hath been born of the Spirit.’ These two arguments have substantially been dealt with above. As to the first point—the sudden transition from the thought of spirit to that of its emblem in nature-perhaps no more need be said. The second argument has not much real weight. The language is condensed, it is true, and the words corresponding to the first clause ( The wind bloweth where it listeth’) are not directly expressed, but have to be supplied in thought. The chief comparison, however, is between the ‘thou’ of the first member and the ‘every one’ of the second, as we have already seen. On the other hand, the difficulties presented by the new translation are serious, but we cannot here follow them in detail.
The wind (τὸ πνεῦμα)
Some hold by the translation spirit, as Wyc., the spirit breatheth where it will. In Hebrew the words spirit and wind are identical. Πνεῦμα is from πνέω to breathe or blow, the verb used in this verse (bloweth), and everywhere in the New Testament of the blowing of the wind (Mat_7:25, Mat_7:27; Luk_12:55; Joh_6:18). It frequently occurs in the classics in the sense of wind. Thus Aristophanes, τὸ πνεῦμ’ ἔλαττον γίγνεται, the wind is dying away (“Knights,” 441), also in the New Testament, Heb_1:7, where the proper translation is, “who maketh His angels winds,” quoted from Psalms 103:4 (Sept.). In the Septuagint, 1Ki_18:45; 1Ki_19:11; 2Ki_3:17; Job_1:19. In the New Testament, in the sense of breath, 2Th_2:8; Rev_11:11. The usual rendering, wind, is confirmed here by the use of the kindred verb πνεῖ, bloweth, and by φωνὴν, sound, voice. Tholuck thinks that the figure may have been suggested to Jesus by the sound of the night-wind sweeping through the narrow street.
Where it listeth (ὅπου θέλει)
On the verb θέλω, to will or determine, see on Mat_1:19. Listeth is old English for pleasure or willeth, from the Anglo-Saxon lust, meaning pleasure. Chaucer has the forms leste, lust, and list.
“Strong was the wyn, and wel to drynke us leste (pleased).”
“Canterbury Tales,” 752.
“Love if thee lust.”
“Canterbury Tales,” 1185.
“She walketh up and down wher as hire list (wherever she pleases).”
“Canterbury Tales,” 1054.
“A wretch by fear, not force, like Hannibal,
Drives back our troops, and conquers as she lists.”
Shakespeare, “Henry VI.,” Pt. I., i., v., 22.
Hence listless is devoid of desire. The statement of Jesus is not meant to be scientifically precise, but is rather thrown into a poetic mold, akin to the familiar expression “free as the wind.” Compare 1Co_12:11; and for the more prosaic description of the course of the wind, see Ecc_1:6.
Rev., voice. Used both of articulate and inarticulate utterances, as of the words from heaven at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Mat_3:17; 2Pe_1:17, 2Pe_1:18); of the trumpet (Mat_24:31; 1Co_14:8), and of inanimate things in general (1Co_14:17). John the Baptist calls himself φωνή, a voice, and the word is used of the wind, as here, in Act_2:6. Of thunder, often in the Revelation (Rev_6:1; Rev_14:2, etc.).
Canst not tell (οὐκ οἶδας)
Better, as Rev., knowest not. Socrates, (Xenophon’s “Memorabilia”), says, “The instruments of the deities you will likewise find imperceptible; for the thunder-bolt, for instance, though it is plain that it is sent from above, and works its will with everything with which it comes in contact, is yet never seen either approaching, or striking, or retreating; the winds, too, are themselves invisible, though their effects are evident to us, and we perceive their course” (iv. 3, 14). Compare Ecc_11:5.
So the subject of the Spirit’s invisible influence gives visible evidence of its power.
The wind bloweth … – Nicodemus had objected to the doctrine because he did not understand how it could be. Jesus shows him that he ought not to reject it on that account, for he constantly believed things quite as difficult. It might appear incomprehensible, but it was to be judged of by its effects. As in this case of the wind, the effects were seen, the sound was heard, important changes were produced by it, trees and clouds were moved, yet the wind is not seen, nor do we know whence it comes, nor by what laws it is governed; so it is with the operations of the Spirit. We see the changes produced. Men just now sinful become holy; the thoughtless become serious; the licentious become pure; the vicious, moral; the moral, religious; the prayerless, prayerful; the rebellious and obstinate, meek, and mild, and gentle. When we see such changes, we ought no more to doubt that they are produced by some cause – by some mighty agent, than when we see the trees moved, or the waters of the ocean piled on heaps, or feet the cooling effects of a summer’s breeze. In those cases we attribute it to the “wind,” though we see it not, and though we do not understand its operations. We may learn, hence:
1. That the proper evidence of conversion is the effect on the life.
2. That we are not too curiously to search for the cause or manner of the change.
3. That God has power over the most hardened sinner to change him, as he has power over the loftiest oak, to bring it down by a sweeping blast.
4. That there may be great variety in the modes of the operation of the Spirit. As the “wind” sometimes sweeps with a tempest, and prostrates all before it, and sometimes breathes upon us in a mild evening zephyr, so it is with the operations of the Spirit. The sinner sometimes trembles and is prostrate before the truth, and sometimes is sweetly and gently drawn to the cross of Jesus.
Where it listeth – Where it “wills” or “pleases.”
So is every one … – Everyone that is born of the Spirit is, in some respects, like the effects of the wind. You see it not, you cannot discern its laws, but you see its effects,” and you know therefore that it does exist and operate. Nicodemus’ objection was, that he could not “see” this change, or perceive “how” it could be. Jesus tells him that he should not reject a doctrine merely because he could not understand it. Neither could the “wind” be seen, but its effects were well known, and no one doubted the existence or the power of the agent. Compare Ecc_11:5.