Conversation with Nicodemus, 1-22

3:1 Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, 3:2 came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Now there was a man… – It is important to see the account of the meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus as a case in point, illustrating Jn 2:23-25: many saw the miracles and believed; but Jesus would not entrust himself to them; for he knew all men, and knew what was in a man.

The Jewish ruling council – the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council, with 71 members (including Sadducees and Pharisees) and presided over by the high priest. The Sanhedrin had religious jurisdiction over every Jew throughout the world. It had the power to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.

He came to Jesus at night – the fear underlying this was perhaps not only fear of what others might say, (he is supposed to be Jesus’ enemy), but also fear of embarrassment (he is supposed to know all the answers). Few are prepared to admit they need help under such circumstances. Peer pressure still operates as a strong barrier preventing people from coming face to face with Christ. The nocturnal visit may also have been made in order to secure a private and uninterrupted audience. Are you prepared to make a special effort, and to set aside time, in order to sort out the most important thing in your life? In any case, it is a wonder that he came to Jesus at all, given the vast weight of prejudice and tradition he had to overcome in doing so.

As Matthew Henry comments, ‘when religion is out of fashion, there are many Nicodemites.’ We suppose he came at night, v2, out of fear. Yet Jesus welcomed him. We are thus taught to welcome timid or tentative approaches. And afterwards, he owned Christ publicly, Jn 7:50-51; 19:39. He talked about things concerning salvation.

The important thing is, he came to Jesus. Far better to come at night than not at all. He came in person, in order the meet Jesus face to face and to find out some answers for himself.

The probable scene has been described by Edersheim: the house where Jesus was staying may have belonged to John himself (or to Martha?). The guest-room was situated on the roof, and was reached by outside steps.

Perhaps the visit took place straight after Jesus had performed some notable miracles. Alternatively, Nicodemus may have been vacillating for some time before finally making his decision to visit Jesus. He may have worried lest the opportunity pass away. At any rate, his determination to find out for himself is notable. He had to overcome an enormous weight of tradition and prejudice in order to approach Jesus in this way, and it is no wonder that he shrouded his visit in secrecy. He was compromising himself terribly, for that first purging of the Temple had begun a bitter and deadly feud between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

“Rabbi” – the usual way to address a distinguished teacher, even though Jesus was not an officially-acknowledged Rabbi. Jesus, be it noted, was an extraordinary teacher by any standards. He was equally at home teaching in the synagogue or in the open air. He could debate with religious scholars and talk with simple”] villagers. He could hold the attention of a vast crowd, and he could hold intimate conversation with his inner circle of disciples. He could speak gentle words of forgiveness to needy sinners and words of stern rebuke to religious hypocrites. He was at ease with a Samaritan woman he met at a well, a weeping prostitute who approached him in a Pharisee’s house, a Roman governor like Pilate, and a secret enquirer like Nicodemus. (See Anderson, The Teaching of Jesus, 10)

“We know you are a teacher who has come from God” – The Pharisees, generally, were intensely jealous of Jesus because he challenged their authority and attacked their attitude and behaviour. But Nicodemus was an exception, and he seems to have been one of a number among the ruling elite who ‘believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken’ (Jn 2:22; cf. Lk 5:17).  (Note that he speaks for others, as well as himself, here – “We know…”).  His approach is respectful, open and direct. He is not content to hear about Jesus, or to hear his public teaching, but seeks personal instruction. So it is in the church: don’t be satisfied with the relative anonymity of public worship, but seek more personal help from small groups and individual counsel. However intelligent or well-educated you may be, you need to come to Jesus with an open mind and heart so that you can learn from him. Nicodemus does not boast about himself, his learning, piety or influence. He acknowledges that Jesus cannot be other than a divinely-appointed teacher. The same evidence – nay, more – is available to people today, and the same conclusion ought to be arrived at. This is precisely the purpose of true miracles: to act as signs, or pointers, to the divine person and work of Christ.

This is phrased as a statement, but in fact, of course, it is more of a question: ‘Teacher, it is obvious that you are different and special; are you really the Messiah whom God has promised?’

3:3 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?”

In a series of three answers to Nicodemus, Jesus asserts (a) the necessity, v3; (b) the possibility, vv5-8; and (c) the availability, vv10-15, of the new birth. (Ryken)

In reply – As always, Jesus does not deal so much with the stated question, but with the real need. He is impervious to flattery.  He does not peddle information for its own sake, but rather goes straight to the heart. He does not descend to his questioner’s standpoint, but lifts him up to his own.

The reaction of Jesus is remarkable. He is not over-elated by the prospect of making such an influential convert. There is no grovelling deference, no eager persuasiveness, and no easy compromise. Nor is there any reference to the miracles; for these were only ever intended to bring Nicodemus to this point, and to be signs of the spiritual truth Jesus is about to assert.

“…see the kingdom of God” – As a well-taught Jew, Nicodemus expected the arrival of God’s kingdom at the close of history. Few in Jerusalem had more impressive credentials assuring his place in the coming kingdom: a circumcised Jew, devout and orthodox, a religious professional, a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council. Yet Jesus tells him that he needs to be born anew.

“Born again” – The Gk underlying ‘again’ can mean (a) from the beginning, completely, radically; (b) again, for a second time; (c) from above, i.e. from God. The idea of a second birth was quite common in Judaism, where a proselyte was described as ‘like a new-born child’. The Greeks were also used to the idea through the Mystery Religions, when an initiate would achieve after long preparation a state of mystic union with some god and would be described as ‘twice-born’. The doctrine of regeneration permeates the NT, 1 Pet 1:3,22,23; Jas 1:18; Tit 3:5; Rom 6:1-11; 1 Cor 3:1,2; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 4:22-24; Heb 5:12-14 etc. Perhaps four features predominate: (a) spiritual re-birth; (b) entering the kingdom of God; (c) becoming a child of God; (d) receiving eternal life.

‘The Greek word translated “again” or “anew” can also be rendered “from above.” (cf. Jn 3:31; 19:11,23) In this case both senses contain truth, but the former translation is slightly better-suited to the context. Nicodemus’s response, “Surely one cannot go into the mother’s womb a second time and be born!” (Jn 3:4), suggests that he understood “again,” and this makes his baffled reaction more understandable. On the other hand, “from above” would give emphasis to the divine origin of this new birth-it is of God (cf. Jn 1:13) through the mysterious work of the Spirit (Jn 3:5-6, 8). To be born of God by the Spirit is not the natural state of men and women, implying that it must be a second birth (cf. Jn 3:6).’ (DJG)

‘Regeneration, or the new birth, is a subject to which the world is very averse; it is, however, the grand concern, in comparison with which everything else is but trifling. What does it signify though we have food to eat in plenty, and variety of raiment to put on, if we are not born again? if after a few mornings and evenings spent in unthinking mirth, carnal pleasure, and riot, we die in our sins, and lie down in sorrow? What does it signify though we are well able to act our parts in life, in every other respect, if at last we hear from the Supreme Judge, “Depart from me, I know you not, ye workers of iniquity?”‘ (M.Henry)

‘This was hardly the answer Nicodemus expected. He was there to examine Jesus, not to be examined by him. It is true that Nicodemus treated Jesus with respect. He recognised him as a teacher, praising him for his miracles and acknowledging that he was doing God’s work. He even called him Rabbi. But Nicodemus still wanted to retain the right to judge Jesus for himself, to evaluate his ministry by his own criteria. Jesus responded by turning the tables on Nicodemus. Rather than submitting himself to the judgement of a mere human being, he confronted the Pharisee with God’s requirements for salvation. The real question was not whether Jesus was the Saviour (obviously, he was), but whether Nicodemus was saved. This is a reminder that there is more to salvation than recognising Jesus as a good teacher and a miracle-worker. Jesus demands more than our respect: he demands our total spiritual transformation. No-one can see the kingdom of God unless he or she is born again.’ (Ryken)

‘It is a pity that ‘born-again’ has been debased in common speech; as a scornful description of an extreme sect or even referring to old ideas renewed or new versions of motor cars! It would be very unfortunate to allow ridicule to deprive us of a concept so vital and central to the Christian faith.’ (NBC)

This focus on the necessity of the new birth ‘stands as a warning to every religious person. It does not matter what family we come from, what church we attend, what doctrinal position we hold, how clever we are, or how much of the Bible we know, we must be born again.’ (Ryken)

Born again, or born from above?  ‘Was Jesus telling Nicodemus he had to be born again or born from above? Probably both. When Nicodemus spoke of a second birth, Jesus did not correct him because regeneration requires a new spiritual birth. Yet this new birth comes “from above” (this translation fits John’s usage elsewhere in his Gospel; see Jn 3:31; 19:11). Thus the ambiguity was probably deliberate. What Jesus said to Nicodemus had a double meaning: no-one can see the kingdom of God without being reborn from above.’ (Ryken)

Nicodemus’ response may be over-literal. The learned Pharisee is still in the infants’ class when it comes to spiritual insight. As Robertson slyly adds, ‘this is not an unheard of phenomenon.’ We need to ask ourselves if there is not some aspect of our belief which does not reflect similar naivety.

Carson, however, thinks that Nicodemus may not be so dim-witted as some have made him out to be.  When Jesus said that one must be ‘born again’ he probably understood him to mean that in order to enter the kingdom one must ‘start over’; begin life again.  Nicodemus knows that this is impossible: “How can a man be born when he is old?”  So Jesus expands on being ‘born again’ so that it becomes being ‘born of water and the Spirit’.  This expression does not (according to Carson) refer to two births – natural and spiritual (for that would be ‘unbearably trite’ – of course a person needs to have a natural birth!).  

This idea of a re-birth would seem to Nicodemus not only impossible, but unnecessary. As a Jew, he put great value on the dignity and privileges of his first birth. Cf Php 3:5. How could any second birth improve on such advantages? What could be better than to be born an Israelite? What other birth could better qualify a man for the kingdom of God?

3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ 3:8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

“Born of water and the Spirit” – As Michaels (NICNT) remarks, it is difficult to decide whether ‘Spirit’ should be capitalised or not.  He thinks that it should be, based on the present of the definite article in verses 6 and 8.

What is meant here?

1. Some think that the expression refers to water baptism and spiritual regeneration by the Spirit.  They might represent baptism (either John’s baptism or Christian baptism) as a means of regeneration, and the Spirit as the primary cause of regeneration.  Note that John’s baptism with water and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit are connected in Jn 1:33, and Christian baptism with water is connected with the reception of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:38.

According to Ryle, the dominant view up until his own day was that the text reflects an inseperable connection between water baptism and the new birth.  He himself regards this as ‘utterly unsatisfactory’.

Beasley-Murray cites Bengel: ‘Water denotes the baptism of John into (i.e., preparing for) Christ Jesus.’

According to Michaels (NICNT), this is the majority view, held by Westcott, Bernad, Hoskyns, Brown, Beasley-Murray, and Schnackenburg, among others.

2. Others think that what is being referred to is natural begetting (‘water’ = semen or amniotic fluid) and spiritual begetting.  This is the view of Morris and some others.  Note, in support of this view, that Jn 3:6 contrasts being born of the flesh (physical birth) with being born of the Spirit (spiritual regeneration).

In the view of Michaels, however,

‘the difficulty…is that while “water” is a possible metaphor for physical birth, it is not an obvious one. The Gospel writer already used a number of expressions for physical birth and “born of water” was not among them (see 1:13). He did this, moreover, in order to draw the sharpest possible contrast between physical and spiritual birth (“not” of blood lines, etc., “but” of God) rather than to point out analogies between them.’

2. Others think that ‘water’ and ‘spirit’ refer to one birth.  This is the view of Belleville, and has also been adopted by Carson.  According to the latter scholar, this makes vv3,5,6b and 7 all parallel statements.  Water is used in this Gospel as a metaphor for the Spirit in Jn 4:10, 13–15; 7:38.  The idea would be akin to that of Eze 36:25-27, which refers to cleansing and spiritual renewal as dual aspects of the work of the Spirit.

Among the older writers, Ryle cites Calvin, Bullinger, Poole, Hutcheson, and a number of others as holding this view.

The contributor to the New Commentary on the Bible writes:

‘The “water” of this verse could refer to the OT symbol for inner spiritual cleansing, (Eze 36:25-27) or to Holy Scripture as “the water of the Word,” (Eph 5:25,26) or to John the Baptist’s water of repentance. (Mt 3:11,12; Mk 1:4,5; Acts 13:24; 19:1-5) Most early Christian expositors held this last interpretation. But, according to the Greek, the new birth is said to be “of water and Spirit” (one experience with two aspects, as is designated by one preposition governing two nouns). Therefore, the “water” could very well signify the cleansing and life-imparting action of the Spirit (cf. Jn 7:37-39). Thus, the Spirit brings about regeneration and inward cleansing simultaneously-the idea of a “washing of regeneration”.’ (Tit 3:5)

Kruse supports this view, suggesting that the expression ‘water and the spirit’ is a ‘hendiadys‘, in which two different words are used for the same thing.  See the rather similar expression in Tit 3:5, which  refers to ‘the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.’  See also Jn 7:37-39.

In the opinion of Kruse,

‘This view is preferable because it is also supported by the fact that in this passage Jesus uses a number of parallel expressions which are all related to seeing and entering the kingdom: 3:3: ‘born again/from above’; 3:5: ‘born of water and the Spirit’; 3:7: ‘born again/from above’; 3:8: ‘born of the Spirit’. If all these expressions are in fact parallel and synonymous, then to be ‘born again/from above’ and to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ mean the same as to be ‘born of the Spirit’.’

Harris agrees, stating, linguistically, the two terms are bound closely together:

‘No contrast is intended between an external element of “water” and a separate inward renewal achieved by the Spirit. Also, the focus is on the personal Spirit, not the impersonal water, for only the Spirit is referred to in verses 6 and 8. The Spirit produces rebirth by means of “water.”’

(Exegetical Fallacies, p42)

Harris refers to Eze 36:25-27, where there is also a direct link between ‘water’ as the means of cleansing, and ‘spirit’ as the agent who creates a new responsive heart and a new spirit of obedience to the divine law.  Indeed, ‘by water and the spirit’ would be an apt summary of these verses:

‘Eze 36:25 I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be clean from all your impurities. I will purify you from all your idols. 36:26 I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. 36:27 I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes and carefully observe my regulations.’

Harris concludes:

‘On this understanding, “by water and the Spirit” refers to the cleansing and renewing role of the Spirit in producing the rebirth that is a prerequisite for entrance into the kingdom of God. The phrase expounds “being born again/from above” in John 3:3, 7, and “being born by God’s work” in John 1:13.’

For Michaels, the image evoked by the ‘water’ metaphor is that of rain, which comes ‘from above’, just as the Spirit comes ‘from above’ (Jn 1:32f).

Citing Jn 7:38f in part support, Lincoln says that

‘the best explanation is that the two terms are functional equivalents, with water serving as a symbol of the Spirit.’

Nicodemus knew about John’s water baptism. The danger would be that he, as a ceremonialist, would place his trust in the outward symbol. But John himself had said, Mt 3:11. John had indicated the negative aspect, the putting away of the old, in his water baptism. With regard to the positive aspect, he could only point to him whose baptism would impart the gift of spiritual life and power.

This view is advocated, in essence, by Klink.

‘Remember, that unless ye become children by a new birth, the Scripture plainly testifieth that ye shall never be able to recover your true Father, nor to enter his heavenly kingdom; for that is inaccessible to the stranger and the alien; and he alone who is enrolled and made free of that city, and hath regained his heavenly Father, shall there dwell in that Father’s house, receive his inheritance, and enjoy communion with his true and beloved Son. Such is the church of the first-begotten, written in the heavens, and rejoicing around the divine throne with myriads of angels. Does God freely offer so great salvation, and will you still blindly rush into destruction?’ (Clement of Alexandria)

The Holy Spirit essential

‘Spiritual life is not a natural achievement, but the result of an activity of the Holy Spirit. By nature we are “dead through (trespasses and sins,” Eph 2:1 “The mind of the flesh is death,” Rom 8:6. There is no point in bidding a physically dead man get up and live. Shout as you will, he will not hear. And there is a similar phenomenon in the realm of the Spirit. We would not even begin to be Christians without some work of the Spirit within us. The natural man likes to think that his salvation stems from his own strong right arm. The cross teaches us that this is not so…Left to ourselves, we would not wish to make even the motion of turning from sin. We would simply stay where we are. Every preacher of the gospel knows that his principal difficulty is that he is proclaiming a wonderful way of salvation to men who do not particularly want to be saved. It is not until the Spirit of God begins to work in their hearts that men are stirred enough to accept the gospel offer that is made to them.’ (Leon Morris, Spirit of the Living God, 71f)

“Flesh gives birth to flesh” – A person may have extraordinary natural endowments, but none of these can qualify for entrance to the kingdom of God, for they are of the flesh. He may set out on a life-long programme of arduous self-improvement, yet will never attain this goal. No, an endowment of a completely order is required: a spiritual re-birth. What Nicodemus needs, and what all of us need, is not a new start, but a new heart; not turning over a new leaf, but a new life.

Blocher (Original Sin, p30f) suggests that this and similar passages indicate (though with a restraint not always observed by biblical scholars) that original sin is inherited.  Certainly, a familial solidarity is to be noted in many OT passages (1 King 2:27; Hos 9:10; 10:9; 12:3ff; Amos 2:4,7; Isa 43:27; Jer 2:17; 11:6ff; Ezek 16:44ff.

The Spirit gives birth to spirit – ‘The grace which is in the hearts of the saints, is of the same nature with the divine holiness, as much as it is possible for that holiness to be, which is infinitely less in degree; as the brightness that is in a diamond which the sun shines upon, is of the same nature with the brightness of the sun, but only that it is as nothing to it in degree. Therefore Christ says, Jn 3:6, That which is born of the Spirit, is spirit; i.e., the grace that is begotten in the hearts of the saints, is something of the same nature with that Spirit, and so is properly called a spiritual nature; after the same manner as that which is born of the flesh is flesh, or that which is born of corrupt nature is corrupt nature.’ (Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections)

“You should not be surprised…” – ‘For when we consider the holiness of God, the depravity of our nature, and the happiness set before us, we shall not think it strange that so much stress is laid upon this’ (M.Henry).

“You must be born again” – The new birth is not optional, but imperative.  ‘At a time when religion is again generally in vogue, with ancient world faiths experiencing some resurgence, and new brands such as the New Age appearing on the market, the idea that religion cannot save is as startling to our ears today as it was to the ears of religious Nicodemus.’ (Milne, p79)

‘The wind blows…so it is’ – ‘Wind’ (Gk ‘pneuma‘) can mean either wind or spirit (similarly in Hebrew, Latin, and Syriac). ‘Blows’ (Gk ‘pnei‘) is always used of the wind. ‘Sound’ (Gk ‘phone‘) can also mean ‘voice’. So, this phrase can be taken either way, as referring to the wind (which may at that moment have swept through the narrow Jerusalem streets) or to the Spirit. The ambiguity is probably intentional, although the concluding reference in this verse to ‘the Spirit’ is direct.

The Spirit’s work is sovereign and beyond our control or comprehension. ‘The Spirit sends his influences where, and when, on whom, and in what measure and degree, he pleases. Though the causes are hidden, the effects are plain’ (M. Henry).

The privilege of regeneration is ours ‘because the Holy Spirit willed it and here all rests upon the Holy Spirit’s decision and action. He begets or bears when and where he pleases. Is this not the burden of Jn 3:8? Jesus there compares the action of the Spirit to the action of the wind. The wind blows-this serves to illustrate the factuality, the certainty, the efficacy of the Spirit’s action. The wind blows where it wills-this enforces the sovereignty of the Spirit’s action. The wind is not at our beck and call; neither is the regenerative operation of the Spirit.’ (John Murray)

3:9 Nicodemus replied, “How can these things be?” 3:10 Jesus answered, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you don’t understand these things? 3:11 I tell you the solemn truth, we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 3:12 If I have told you people about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.

“How can this be?” – Nicodemus cannot understand, for ‘the things of the Spirit are foolishness to the natural man’. There is no way of dressing up the gospel, or of toning it down, which will ensure that people will either understand or accept it. Yet Jesus did not give up, but gently chided Nicodemus and continued to press his case.

“Israel’s teacher” – lit. “the teacher of Israel” – trained, qualified, well-known and authorised as such. This expression might even imply that Nicodemus was the leading theologian of his day.

“You do not understand these things?” – ‘His Pharisaic theology had made him almost proof against spiritual apprehension. It was outside his groove (rote, rut, rot, the three terrible r’s of mere traditionalism)’ (Robertson).

This verse reminds us that knowledge is not salvation. It is possible to know a great deal about the Bible and still to have missed out on its central message.

“We speak…we testify” – Of whom is Jesus speaking here? He could be referring to the prophets and John the Baptist.

The truths of the Christian faith are absolutely sure. The teachings of Christ are faithful and true. We may put our trust in them, though we stand alone in doing so. The truths of the faith are not based on conjecture, wishful thinking or hearsay evidence. When Jesus spoke of God, of the invisible world, of heaven and hell, and of eternal life, he knew what he was talking about; he spoke with divine authority.

“Earthly things” – such as the kingdom of God. “Heavenly things” – such as the purposes of God in redemption, Jn 3:14. It has been pointed out that these two types of teaching roughly correspond to the difference between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John.

None but Jesus was able to reveal to us a teaching so divine, so heavenly.

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven” – It might be objected that Elijah (2 Kings 2:11), Enoch (Gen 5:24), and others had gone into heaven.  But the point is not that Jesus is denying that anyone is in heaven, but rather that no-one has ascended to heaven in order to bring down God’s message.  Not even Moses himself, although Jewish tradition indeed held that he had ascended into heaven itself, in order to bring his teaching to them. But he only ascended the mountain, not into heaven. The prophets spoke and wrote by divine inspiration, not out of their own knowledge. See Jn 1:18.

It might be objected that Jesus had not then ‘gone into heaven’ (i.e. ascended).  Pearson agrees that these words ‘imply that he had then ascended: yet even those concern not this ascension.  For that was therefore only true, because the Son of man, not yet conceived in the Virgin’s womb, was not in heaven, and after his conception by virtue of the hypostatical union was in heaven; from whence, speaking after the manner of men, he might well say that the had ascended into heaven, because whatsoever was first on earth and then in heaven, we say ascended into heaven.  Wherefore beside that grounded upon the hypostatical union, beside that glorious condition upon his resurrection, there was yet another and that more proper ascension; for after he had both those ways ascended, it was still true that he had not yet ascended to his Father.’ (on the Creed)

3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

By now, Nicodemus is no longer in the picture.  Indeed, some think that Jesus is no longer the speaker.  But the use of his favourite self-designation (‘Son of Man’) suggests that the quotation continues until at least the end of v15.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” – ‘Num 21:4-9 records the story of the rebellious Israelites, who murmured and complained. God sent fiery serpents into their midst to punish them. Then God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole, with the promise that whoever looked at it would live.’ (New Geneva)

Wrights notes that ‘the symbol of the snake has been used in many cultures over many thousands of years. From the snake in the Garden of Eden to the serpent Ananta in some branches of Hinduism, to the mythic serpent-ancestor of the Aztecs and the ‘old god of nature’ in parts of Africa to this day; from poetry to art and medicine, not least psychoanalysis; the figure of the serpent or snake has haunted human imagination from time immemorial.’

This saying recalls Mt 12:40 (cf. Lk 11:30) “As Jonah … so the Son of Man will be”.

‘Although Jesus did not elaborate the details of this allusion, it has several aspects applicable to the present situation.

  1. The ancient Israelites were guilty of disobedience and a grumbling and unthankful spirit.
  2. They were under the condemnation of God and were being punished for their sin.
  3. The object elevated before them was the emblem of their judgment.
  4. They were unable to rescue themselves.
  5. The poison of the serpents was deadly, and there was no antidote for it.
  6. They were urged to look at the serpent in order to receive life.’

(EBC, reformatted)

“…so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” – The must is emphatic: this is the sovereign purpose of God.  ‘It is not a remedy; it is the only possible remedy for sin.’ (Hendriksen)

Whitacre says that the passive be lifted up indicates divine action.

Jesus came to heal us, just as the children of Israel, bitten by the poisonous snakes, were healed by looking at the snake that Moses put up on a pole, Num 21:6-9. This teaches us the deadly nature of sin: however charming it seems, it bites like a deadly snake. But see here also the only remedy for our sin: the Son of Man must be ‘lifted up’ to die. We are to look with the eyes of faith to Christ crucified, and receive from him what we could never do for ourselves: the cure of our sin.

This reference to the ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man certainly includes a clear (if indirect) anticipation of the crucifixion.  However, it is probably more than that.  ‘In John, being “lifted up” refers to one continuous action of ascent, beginning with the cross but ending at the right hand of the Father. Step 1 is Jesus’ death; step 2 is his resurrection; and step 3 is the ascension back to heaven. It is the upward swing of the “pendulum” which began with the incarnation, the descent of the Word become flesh from heaven to earth (cf. Paul in Php 2:5-11).’ (Hall Harris)

On the other occasions when John uses the verb hypsoo (Jn 8:28; 12:32, 34), the idea of being lifted up on the cross is combined with the idea of exaltation. See also Isa 52:13.  The crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and exaltation are a unified act of salvation.  It would be wrong to distinguish too sharply between the different components.

‘Jesus’s own carefully selected term, “lifted up” (ὑψωθῆναι), conveys a rich duality of meaning. In the context of the cross (the historical strand of the plot), the verb is able to speak of death, suffering, and defeat. But in its larger context (the cosmological strand of the plot), the verb is also able to speak of exaltation in majesty and glorification (cf. Acts 2:33). In this one word, the message of the gospel is presented. It is only in his humiliation that Jesus can be exalted and glorified. And it is at the center of this irony that humanity receives eternal life “from above”—from Jesus. To look at Jesus is to understand the necessity of the exalted Son of Man on a cross, to understand how a crucified God can become for the world the greatest thing imaginable.’ (Klink)

“Everyone who believes in him” – ‘As the act of healing through the eyes of the Israelites and the brazen serpent went together; so, in the act of justifying, these two, faith and Christ, have a mutual relation, and must always concur – faith as the action which apprehendeth, Christ as the object which is apprehended; so that neither the passion of Christ saveth without faith, nor doth faith help unless it be in Christ, its object.’ (Daniel Cawdray)

The promise of healing to the Israelites was to everyone in the camp.  Here, the promise of eternal life is to everyone, everywhere.

“Eternal life” – Whereas the uplifted serpent conferred healing, the uplifted Son of Man gives eternal life.

This life ‘is more than endless, for it is sharing in the life of God in Christ’ (Robertson).

Carson renders it: ‘that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’. The construction is different from v16.

‘In 3:14–15…Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ The answer is, by believing in Jesus one is born again (cf. Jn 1:13) and receives eternal life.’ (Kruse)

“In him” – ‘These two words put Jesus in quite a different category from the bronze snake. Every reader of the Old Testament knew that eventually that snake had to be destroyed by King Hezekiah, because too many people treated it as if it had some inherent, magical power (2 Ki. 18:4). What spared the Israelites from the mortal threat of the desert snakes was God’s grace; the means was the bronze snake. But we must say more than that about Jesus. The Father has granted the Son to have life in himself (Jn 5:26); he is himself the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25), and those who believe have life in him.’ (Carson)

Hendriksen thinks that the resemblances between type and antitype are limited to the following:

  1. In both cases death threatens as a punishment for sin.
  2. In both cases it is God himself who, in his sovereign grace, provides a remedy.
  3. In both cases this remedy consists of something (or some One) which (who) must be lifted up, in public view.
  4. In both cases those who, with a believing heart, look unto that which (or: look unto the One who) is lifted up, are healed.

Hendriksen adds: ‘Here, as always, the Antitype far transcends the type. In Numbers the people are face to face with physical death; in John, mankind is viewed as exposed to eternal death because of sin. In Numbers it is the type that is lifted up. This type—the brazen serpent—has no power to heal. It points forward to the Antitype, Christ, who does have this power. In Numbers the emphasis is on physical healing: when a man fixed his eye upon the serpent of brass, he was restored to health. In John it is spiritual life—everlasting life—that is granted to him who reposes his trust in the One who is lifted up.’

3:16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Where does the quotation end?  Some (including NET, NIV [2011], Lexham, God’s Word, RSV) end it at v 15 (Good News Translation end it at v13).  Others (including NIV [1984], ESV, NASB, NRSV, NLT, NKJV, The Message, Today’s NIV) end it at v21.  (Incidentally, this is one problem – and not the only problem – with ‘Red-Letter Bibles’, which purport to print the very words of our Lord in red).

What is meant by 'the world'?

John 3:16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.

What is meant by ‘the world’?

(a) Some think that ‘the world’ here means all of God’s elect:-

Hutcheson – ‘The world, whereby we are not to understand all and every man…but only his own in the world among lost mankind.’

John Flavel – ‘This must respect the elect of God in the world; such as do or shall actually believe, as it is exegetically expressed in the next words, “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish.” Those whom he calls the world in that, he styles believers in this expression; these are the objects of his love.’

Gill – ‘not every man in the world is here meant, or all the individuals of human nature; for all are not the objects of God’s special love, which is here designed, as appears from the instance and evidence of it, the gift of his Son: nor is Christ God’s gift to every one; for to whomsoever he gives his Son, he gives all things freely with him; which is not the case of every man.

Turretin – ‘The love treated of in John 3:16. .. cannot be universal towards all and every one, but special towards a few… because the end of that love which God intends is the salvation of those whom He pursues with such love.. . If therefore God sent Christ for that end, that through Him the world might be saved, He must either have failed of His end, or the world must necessarily be saved in fact. But it is certain that not the whole world, but only those chosen out of the world are saved; therefore, to them properly has this love reference… Why then should not the world here be taken not universally for individuals, but indefinitely for anyone, Jews as well as Gentiles, without distinction of nation, language and condition. that He may be said to have loved the human race, inasmuch as He was unwilling to destroy it entirely but decreed to save some certain persons Out of it, not only from one people as before, but from all indiscriminately, although the effects of that love should not be extended to each individual, but only to some certain ones, viz, those chosen out of the world?’ (Theological Institutes)

(b) Others think that ‘the world’ here means ‘everyone without distinction‘:-

Calvin – ‘The outstanding thing about faith is that it delivers us from eternal destruction. For He especially wanted to say that although we seem to have been born for death sure deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ so that we must not fear the death which otherwise threatens us. And he has used a general term, both to invite indiscriminately all to share in life and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also significant in the term ‘world’ which he had used before. For although there is nothing in the world deserving of God’s favour, he nevertheless shows he is favourable to the whole world when he calls all without exception to the faith of Christ, which is indeed an entry into life.’

Matthew Henry – ‘Behold, and wonder, that the great God should love such a worthless world! That the holy God should love such a wicked world with a love of good will, when he could not look upon it with any complacency. This was a time of love indeed, Eze. 16:6, 8. The Jews vainly conceited that the Messiah should be sent only in love to their nation, and to advance them upon the ruins of their neighbours; but Christ tells them that he came in love to the whole world, Gentiles as well as Jews, 1 Jn. 2:2. Though many of the world of mankind perish, yet God’s giving his only-begotten Son was an instance of his love to the whole world, because through him there is a general offer of life and salvation made to all. It is love to the revolted rebellious province to issue out a proclamation of pardon and indemnity to all that will come in, plead it upon their knees, and return to their allegiance. So far God loved the apostate lapsed world that he sent his Son with this fair proposal, that whosoever believes in him, one or other, shall not perish’

Ryle – ‘The “world” means the whole race of mankind, both saints and sinners, without any exception. The word, in my opinion, is so used in John 1:10, 29; 6:33, 51; 8:12.—Rom. 3:19.—2 Cor. 5:19.—1 John 2:2; 4:14. The “love” spoken of is that love of pity and compassion with which God regards all His creatures, and specially regards mankind. It is the same feeling of “love” which appears in Psalm 145:9.—Ezek. 33:11.—John 6:32.—Titus.3:4.—1 John 4:10.—2 Pet. 3:9.—1 Tim. 2:4. It is a love unquestionably distinct and separate from the special love with which God regards His saints. It is a love of pity and not of approbation or complaisance. But it is not the less a real love. It is a love which clears God of injustice in judging the world.’

Hendriksen – ‘The term world, as here used, must mean mankind which, though sin-laden, exposed to the judgment, and in need of salvation (see verse 16b and verse 17), is still the object of his care.’  Hendriksen adds that the expression also includes the idea of ‘Gentiles’ as well as ‘Jews’.

John Piper – ‘It is the great mass of fallen humanity that needs salvation. It’s the countless number of perishing people from whom the “whoevers” come in the second part of the verse: “. . . that whoever believes in him should not perish.”’

D.A. Carson – ‘I know that some try to take kosmos (world) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness. In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God. In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such a wicked people. ..On the axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.’ (The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, p17)

Milne – ‘John’s readers would have been familiar with the thought of God’s special love for Israel, but in truth his love is (and always was) indiscriminate, embracing every man, woman and child. However astonishing this scope, John’s primary wonder is probably the gracious embrace of God’s love, for its object is the world, which John consistently sees as fallen and organized in rebellion against God. It is against the background of the wickedness of the world, even more than its vastness, that God’s love shines out most gloriously.’

I have little hesitation in supporting the second of these alternatives.

God so loved the word that he gave his one and only Sonthat whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life
the loving and giving are God's sidethe believing and having are your side

“God” – ‘When we pronounce the word we must see to it that our minds are flooded with some wondering sense of God’s infinitude, of his majesty, of his ineffable exaltation; of his holiness, of his righteousness, of his flaming purity and stainless perfection. This is the Lord God almighty whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, to whom the earth is less than the small dust on the balance. He has no need of aught, nor can his unsullied blessedness be in any way affected – whether by way of increase or decrease – by any act of the creatures of his hands. What we call infinite space is but a speck on the horizon of his contemplation: what we call infinite time is in his sight but as yesterday when it is past. Serene in his unapproachable glory, his will is the resistless law of all existences to which their every motion confirms. Apparelled in majesty and girded with strength, righteousness and judgement are the foundations of his throne. He sits in the heavens and does whatsoever he pleases. It is this God, a God of whom to say that he is the Lord of all the earth is to say so little that it is to say nothing at all, of whom our text speaks.’ (Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, 513)

God’s Gift of Love

  1. the World he loved
  2. the Son he gave
  3. the state from which he saves
  4. the life he bestows
  5. the condition he imposes

(Pickering, Subjects for Speakers and Students, adapted)

This is the way God loved the world – Often translated, ‘God so loved the world that he…’; but this suggests to the reader the meaning, ‘God loved the world so much that he…’.  The NET version clarifies that it is not the degree, but rather the manner, of the love that is being referred to.

“The world” – ‘The key to the passage lies…in the significance of the term “world.” It is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great deal of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it…And search the universe through and through – in all its recesses and through all its historical development – and you will find no marvel so great, no mystery so unfathomable, as this, that the great and good God, whose perfect righteousness flames in indignation at the sight of every iniquity and whose absolute holiness recoils in abhorrence in the presence of every impurity, yet loves this sinful world, – yes, has so loved it that he has given his only begotten Son to die for it.’ (Warfield)

‘This is a text of crucial importance because elsewhere in John it might appear that the love of God is solely for the disciples of Jesus; the truth is that God loves the world, but only those who respond to his love enjoy the fruits of it and enter into a loving relationship with him ‘ (ISBE)

“God so loved…that he gave…” – Cf. 1 Jn 4:9-10. The word agape was little used outside the NT. The usual word was eros, which speaks of love for a worthy object, whereas agape speaks of love for an unworthy object (the world). God’s love, as revealed in Scripture, is (a) a costly love, for it led him to give up what he loved most his only Son; (b) a merciful love, pardoning people’s transgressions (on this reflect on God’s love for Israel, Deut 7:7-8, and also on Hosea’s love for his adulterous wife, Hos 3:1-2; (c) a covenant love, in which God undertakes to deliver his people and be their God for ever (cf. the biblical expression ‘steadfast love’, and also 2 Tim 2:13).

To grasp God’s love is like a child trying to grasp a star. It cannot be done. But the child, in trying to grasp the star, can point to it, and so the preacher can point to the love of God.

‘God’s love is not lazy good nature, as a great many think it to be and so drag it in the mud; it is rigidly righteous, and therefore Christ died.’ (D.G. Barnhouse)

If God loves the world, then so must we. Not with a participating love, but with a rescuing love. See Mt 5:43-48.

“His one and only Son” – Gk. monogenes. The ‘literal’ translation – ‘only-begotten’ – suggests something more metaphysical that is actually meant. The word means ‘unique’; ‘only’, as the following references indicate, Ps 22:20; 25:16 (LXX); Lk 7:12; 8:42. The word is used of Isaac, Heb 11:17: this is interesting, since Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. But he was unique, and specially loved. So the reference here, although not necessarily indicating a metaphysical relationship, does show that Jesus is God’s Son in a uniquely special way. No-one else is God’s son in the way that Jesus is.

Many seem to pin their hope on one or other individual elements of this verse. For some, it is the idea of God, of ‘someone, somewhere who is in control. For others, it is God’s love: this is the lens through which everything else is made to pass. For yet others, it is ‘faith’: and it doesn’t matter who or what the faith is in, just so long as there is faith. But the verse must be taken in the round, as a whole.

So that everyone who believes in him – ‘The repetition of this glorious saying, “whosoever believeth,” is very instructive. For one thing it serves to show that mighty and broad as is the love of God, it will prove useless to every one who does not believe in Christ. God loves all the world, but God will save none in the world who refuse to believe in His only begotten Son.—For another thing it shows us the great point to which every Christian should direct his attention. He must gee to it that he believes on Christ. It is mere waste of time to be constantly asking ourselves whether God loves us, and whether Christ died for us; and it argues gross ignorance of Scripture to trouble ourselves with such questions. The Bible never tells men to look at these questions, but commands them to believe. Salvation, it always teaches, does not turn on the point, “did Christ die for me?” but on the point, “do I believe on Christ?” If men do not “have eternal life,” it is never because God did not love them, or because Christ was not given for them, but because they do not believe on Christ.’ (Ryle)

Concerning the word ‘whoever’, Calvin says: ‘And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the impact of the term world, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.’

What's it all about?
Professor Dorothy Lee notes that this verse has a long tradition of being used as a call to personal conversion.  ‘Yet,’ she says, ‘this common interpretation does not fairly represent the message of John 3. Indeed, it points to the problem of quoting isolated texts out of context.’  Unfortunately, Professor Lee does not explain why she thinks that this verse, whether viewed in context or out of it, is being misused if it is applied in this way.  Rather, she prefers to emphasise the ‘feminine’ nuances of the text, with its idea of being ‘born of the Spirit’.  Lee supposes that image of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side or ‘womb’ (Jn 19:34) is an extension of this birthing image.  She further points out that the disciples sadness at Jesus departure and subsequent joy at the coming of the Spirit is depicted in terms of childbirth (Jn 16:20-22).

Lee concludes:

Like the Spirit, the Jesus who becomes “flesh” in the incarnation takes on maternal and other unexpected aspects to reveal a God who, far from being all-powerful and judgmental, is vulnerable, self-giving and ultimately life-affirming (John 1:14). John 3:16 is neither a threat nor an individualistic guarantee of rescue beyond death, but rather it is an invitation to enter the living and loving community of God, whose reign extends to the whole creation.

The best that we can say of Lee’s interpretation is that it places in the background what should be in the foreground (i.e. the invitation to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ) and that it puts in the foreground what should be in the background (i.e. the use of maternal imagery).

3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.


The Jews expected the Messiah to come with great power and glory to punish the nations, but to spare Israel.  Amos 5:18-20 contains a severe rebuke against this assumption.  But the great work of his first coming was to save the world.  Judgement (or, rather, the public proclamation of a judgement which has taken place already, v18) will be the great work of his second coming.

Send – We are reminded nearly 40 times in this Gospel that Jesus is the one ‘whom God has sent’.  He is called elsewhere ‘the apostle’, Heb 3:1.  There are hints here of a divine commission, and echoes of the covenant of grace.  God in Christ deals with the world ‘not according to the rigours of the first covenant, but according to the riches of the second’ (M. Henry).  Such a divine purpose cannot be thwarted.

Was Christ already God’s Son when he was sent, or did he become God’s Son upon being sent?  ‘The obvious reading of texts such as John 3:17…is that the person sent was the Son when the Father sent him. True, such language could plausibly be anachronistic. If I say, “My wife was born in England several decades ago,” I do not imply that she was my wife when she was born. I have heard of robbing the cradle, but this is ridiculous. But such exceptions are normally clear from the context. In a book that has already introduced the preexistence of the Word (Jn 1:1, 14), the natural reading of 3:17 is that “the Son” is an alternative appellation for that Word, not that this is a tag only for his incarnational existence.’ (Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Lord of God)

Not…to condemn – Gk ‘krino‘ = to pick out, select, approve or condemn.  The Son does indeed judge the world, in the sense of showing it up for what it really is, Jn 9:39; also Jn 5:27; Mt 25:31-32.  But this was not the main purpose of his coming, any more than the purpose of the sun is to throw a shadow.  When he came, everything he did was with a view to the blessing and benefit of lost sinners.  This renders the previous offer of salvation sincere, and guaranteed for all who by faith accept it.

So, God sent his beloved Son into a guilty, rebellious, godless world not in order to condemn it, but in order to save it.  And he sent him not as he had sometimes sent his angels, as a visitor, but as a resident.  And this saving purpose in sending him is contrary to our religious instinct, which being conscious of sin is fearful of any visitation from heaven.  So Isaiah 6:5, “Woe is me, I am ruined!”  God might in all justice have condemned the world; he has angels at his command, able to pour out the vials of his wrath, a cherub with a flaming sword ready to do execution.  But Jesus comes on a mission of peace.

The world – not just Israel.

To save – Gk ‘sozo‘ = safe and sound; often used of physical health, Mar 5:28, but here of spiritual salvation as in Mk 5:34.  The word is, of course, related to ‘soter‘ (Saviour, Jn 4:22; 1 Jn 4:14) and ‘soteria‘ (salvation, Jn 4:22).  Jesus came that the door to eternal life might be swung open.

What encouragement there is in this verse for sinners to come to Christ, and be saved!  ‘Whenever our sins press us, whenever Satan would drive us to despair, we ought to hold out this shield, – that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because he has appointed his Son to be the salvation of the world.’  (Calvin)

‘There were but two things for which he, being what he was as the Son of God, could come into the world, being what it was: to judge the world or to save the world.  It was for the latter that he came…Not wrath, then, though wrath was due, but love was the impelling cause of the coming of the Son of God into this wicked world of ours.’ (Warfield)

3:18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.


Whoever believes in him is not condemned – knowing, as Paul knew, Rom 8:1.  He is pardoned, acquitted, forgiven.  Ryle draws attention to the present tense: it is not said that the believer will be acquitted on the last day, but that he is acquitted now.  ‘The vilest offender who truly believes/That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.’

Whoever does not believe stands condemned already… – How great the sin, and how great the misery, of those who continue in unbelief!  They do not need to wait to see what the verdict will be on them.  They stand condemned already; they have placed themselves under divine wrath.  ‘Unbelief is a sin against the remedy’ (M. Henry).  Such a person stands under divine condemnation while he yet lives.  He has already chosen his own fate.  Like a non-swimmer who jumps into deep water, and then refuses the offer of help, the unbeliever is twice condemned: he is condemned by the law, which declares that he has sinned against almighty God; he is condemned by the gospel, for he has refused the offer of salvation.  And all of this until and unless he comes to Christ to have the sentence repealed.

These verses (17-21) make it clear that Jesus is the watershed of the whole human race, and the whole of human history.

‘God’s wrath in the Bible is something which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which a person himself opts by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to himself…The decisive act of judgment upon the lost is the judgment which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ. In the last analysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action toward the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show him, and lead him into, the full implications of the choice he has made.’ (J.I. Packer, Knowing God)

Because he has not believed – ‘Has taken a permanent attitude of refusal’ (Robertson).  Unbelief is the ultimate sin; the greatest sin; the sin that condemns everlastingly.  Nothing is so offensive to God, as the refusal of the offer of grace.  Nothing is so suicidal to man, as the squandering of the opportunity of life.  How mad is the scramble for the National Lottery!  And yet of those who win a fortune by this means, which of them would not exchange it all for one year of good health?  How much more ought we to be prepared to trade everything we have for eternal life?  But all we are asked to do is to ‘believe’.  By our unbelief we set up our own blockage in the road to heaven.  It has been said that it was a greater sin in Judas, that he refused to come to Christ for forgiveness, after he had betrayed him, than that he betrayed him in the first place.

And consider who it is that the unbeliever is rejecting: God’s one and only Son.

Universalistic theologies fail to do justice to the biblical teaching that faith in Christ is an essential condition for salvation.  See Jn 3:18; 8:24; Rom 4:5.  ‘The cross is sufficient for all, but efficient only for those who will…make the necessary response of repentance and faith…The cross without faith is like a vaccine without a syringe.’  (Michael Griffiths)  The Bible insists that whereas Christ bore God’s wrath for our sin, those who do not believe are still under wrath, Rom 2:5-9; 2 Thess 1:7-9.

‘God’s wrath in the Bible is something which men choose for themselves.  Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which man himself opts, by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to himself…The decisive act of judgement upon the lost is the judgement which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ.  In the last analysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action towards the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show him, and lead him into, the full implications of the choices he has made.’ (Packer, Knowing God, 169)

3:19 Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 3:20 For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light, so that their deeds will not be exposed. 3:21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that it may be plainly evident that his deeds have been done in God.


When Jesus came to this world, there was not lacking evidence of his Messiahship.  But people did not want to give up their sins.  And this is true of people in all ages.  There is not lacking light to guide them to heaven.  There is no lack of willingness on God’s part that they should be saved.  But they love their sins too much, and so will not come to Christ for salvation.

Light has come into the world – That light was Jesus, Jn 1:4,5,9,11.  He is the only source of moral and spiritual light in the world, Jn 8:12.  Without, darkness reigns.  ‘The world without Christ lieth in darkness, void of spiritual light, and full of errors and of the works of darkness; God is withdrawn from the creatures, and they wander and stumble (as in the dark) upon Satan’s snares; their case is void of true peace and comfort, as men in a dark pit; their way tends to utter darkness; and yet, as men in the dark, their case and misery is not discerned in its own true colours’ (Hutcheson).  His light shone out by means of his divine teaching and his miraculous works.  His light show us up for what we really are; it dispels the darkness of error and sinful desire; it shows us the ways of life; it brings peace and comfort to the believing soul.

Men loved darkness – They are not simply in ignorance; they have shut their eyes, they have wilfully distanced themselves from truth and grace, lest their ways be reproved.  ‘Darkness’ is a frequent Johannine metaphor for the state of sinners, Jn 8:12; 12:35,46; 1 Jn 1:6; 2:8,9,11.  We recall that darkness is so often used as a cloak for evil.  ‘The pathos of it all is that men fall in love with the darkness of sin and rebel against the light like denizens of the underworld…When the light appears, they scatter to their holes and dens’ (Robertson’).  And, in the end, the god of this world blinds their eyes so that they do not even see the light, 2 Cor 4:4.  There is a certain fish which inhabits a dark cave, which no longer has any eyes, only sockets where eyes used to be.  I heard of a man who was kept in a dark dungeon so long that when they brought him out of it, he could not bear the light, and pleaded to be put back into his prison.  The Jews loved the darkness of their own man-made laws, and the ignorance of their own blind guides, rather than the teaching of Christ.  The Gentiles loved their superstitious idolatry and ignorant worship unknown gods, rather than the service of the one true and living God.  ‘Sinners that were wedded to their lusts loved their ignorance and mistakes, which supported them in their sins, rather than the truths of Christ, which would have parted them from their sins.  Man’s apostasy began in an affectation of forbidden knowledge, but is kept up by an affectation of forbidden ignorance.  Wretched man is in love with his sickness, in love with his slavery, and will not be made free, will not be made whole.’  (M. Henry)  Wilful ignorance will be no excuse in the day of judgement.  ‘We must account in the judgement, not only for the knowledge we had, and used not, but for the knowledge we might have had, and would not; not only for the knowledge we sinned against, but for the knowledge we sinned away.’ (M. Henry)

Because their deeds were evil – They were in love with their evil deeds, and therefore they hated and rejected the light that would have exposed them.

When the Bastille, a castle-like prison in Paris, was about to be destroyed in 1789, a convict was brought out who had been confined in one of its gloomy cells for many years.  But instead of joyfully welcoming his liberty, he begged to be taken back.  It had been such a long time since he had seen the sunshine that his eyes could not endure its brightness.  His only desire was to die in the murky dungeon where he had been a captive.  In the same way, some men continue to reject the Savior until they eventually become so hardened in their sin that they prefer the dark ways of eternal death.

‘The Bible makes it clear that the atheist’s problem is not merely intellectual deficiency but moral obtuseness.  So-called human “ignorance” is not excusable, it is culpable.  Men’s hearts are “darkened,” not because the light is not shining, but because they have deliberately drawn the blinds.’ (Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists? p490.

Everyone who does evil hates the light – ‘Evil’ = Gk phaulos – worthless, wicked. ‘Christ is hated, because sin is loved’ (M. Henry) Those who hate the light not only shun it, but speak against it, ridicule it. Thus do worldly people treat Christ, Christianity and the church. They do so with a supercilious air of superiority, yet in sheer ignorance. Note that Scripture defines as ‘evil’ those whom the world (and perhaps even the church) would regard as decent and sincere.

Will not come to the light – The light hurts his eyes, because it reveals to him his own wickedness and makes him feel uncomfortable. He shrinks from it. He will not read the Bible, come to church, pray, talk about spiritual things. He goes on in ever deeper darkness, keeping as far from the light as he can.

For fear that his deeds will be exposed i.e. reproved, or corrected. So, to avoid this unpleasant process, his cuts himself off from Christ. The sinner seeks concealment, for he senses his shame and fears punishment. The light of the gospel exposes the deeds of sinners, it makes them manifest, Eph 5:13. The gospel first convicts, that it may then console.

We might have expected some further response from Nicodemus, but there is none.  In such a case, ‘we the readers have to supply the meaning of the silence, which acts as a metaphor or parable.’ (DBI, art. ‘Silence’)


As a flower turns towards the sun, the renewed heart welcomes the light.  He desires to know the will of God, and even seeks to have his own remaining corruption exposed, Psa 139:23.  This can be a painful, but necessary process.  Notice that the emphasis falls here not on knowing truth, but on doing it; on living by it, cf Eph 4:15.  The mark of a Christian is not that he is sinless, but that he sincerely endeavours to live by the light of God’s word.

What he has done has been done through God – he has been ‘born again’; the love of God has been shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit; the truth and grace of God have become the commanding principles of his life.  Such a person is not perfect, but longs to be so, and is willing for God to examine and correct him, Psa 26:2.

So, sinner, will you come to the light?  Will you come, as Nicodemus did, to Christ, that he may dispel your darkness and give you life?

‘One of John’s major themes is the truth. He uses the word aletheia twenty-five times, compared with once in Matthew and three times each in Mark and Luke. Similarly he uses the adjective ajlhqh>v fourteen times (once each in Matthew and Mark, not at all in Luke), and ajlhqino<v nine times (not in Matthew or Mark, once in Luke). The very recital of these statistics shows that John is unusually interested in truth.  He sees truth not only as a quality of words, but also of actions for it is possible to do the truth (Jn 3:21). This idea is found also in the Old Testament, Genesis 32:10 (Hebrew, 32:11), Genesis 47:29 (see the Hebrew text). Moreover, John sees the truth as especially connected with .Jesus, who is called the3 truth (John 14:6). S. Aalen, in a very important article, sees Johns concept of truth as central (Truth, a Key Word in St. John’s Gospel, in SE II, pp. 3-24). It contrasts the true way to God with the false and inadequate ways outlined by other religions.  Consequently it constitutes both a rejection of those ways and an invitation to men to walk in the right path. The fact that truth is one of Johns key concepts should not be overlooked.  While it is true that he is more concerned to show us the consequences of seeing Jesus as the truth than with any other aspect of truth yet we cannot let the matter rest there. It would be extremely strange if a writer who placed unusual stress on the truth were to play loose with the truth in a book written about Jesus as the truth. This does not mean, of course, that it would be impossible for John to have put down anything that was not strictly true. But it does serve as a warning against seeing him as an incurable theological romancer. He does not see truth as comparatively unimportant, he sees it as critically important. Accordingly, it is unlikely that he will engage in a systematic distortion of the facts. No one could make truth a central concept in a writing like this Gospel if his conscience were not clear that his work expressed the truth as nearly as he could make it.’ (Morris, in Jesus of Nazareth, Saviour and Lord)

Further Testimony About Jesus by John the Baptist, 22-36

3:22 After this, Jesus and his disciples came into Judean territory, and there he spent time with them and was baptizing. 3:23 John was also baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming to him and being baptized. 3:24 (For John had not yet been thrown into prison.)

Some think they have found a discrepancy between this verse and Jn 4:2.

John also was baptizing at Aenon – ‘The statement in Jn 3:23 that he left the Jordan valley for a time and conducted a baptismal campaign (presumably of brief duration) ‘at Aenon near Salim’, where there was abundance of water, has implications which are easily overlooked. For W. F. Albright (The Archaeology of Palestine, 1956, p. 247) is probably right in locating this place NE of Nablus, near the sources of the Wadi Far’ah – that is to say, in territory which was then Samaritan. This could explain certain features of Samaritan religion attested for the early Christian centuries, but it also illuminates the words of Jesus to his disciples in Jn 4:35-38, spoken with regard to the people in this very area, and ending with the statement: ‘others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour’. The harvest which they reaped (Jn 4:39,41) had been sown by John.’ (NBD)

3:25 Now a dispute came about between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew concerning ceremonial washing. 3:26 So they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan River, about whom you testified—see, he is baptizing, and everyone is flocking to him!”
3:27 John replied, “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. 3:28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but rather, ‘I have been sent before him.’ 3:29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. This then is my joy, and it is complete. 3:30 He must become more important while I become less important.”

“Friend” = best man.

Becoming less

‘Pastors and other Christian leaders may be tempted to focus more on the success of their ministries than on Christ. Others may project a false humility or even a destructive self-hatred. Healthy humility, as modeled by John, defines itself in truthful comparison. John did not say he was nothing. He identified himself in relation to the most important person in his life. Because of John’s profound understanding of his purpose in life, he eagerly pointed to the greatness of Jesus. John welcomed the success of Jesus’ revelation as the Messiah even though he realized his own moment in the spotlight was passing. The more Jesus was recognized, the more John could enjoy his own success. Humility combines the persistence to do and be what God has called us to be, the wisdom to recognize those things we cannot do and be, and the vision to always see ourselves in relation to God’s greatness.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

More important – in what sense?

This section will provide a number of answers: (a) he is ‘from above’, v31, whereas as John’s origin is earthly.  Consequently, he is (b) ‘above all’, v31.  (c) He spoke from his own experience, and did not rely on the testimony of others, v32.  (d) When accepted, his testimony assures people ‘that God is truthful’, v33.  (e) He possessed the Spirit ‘without limit’, v34.  (f) The Father loves the Son and has entrusted everything to him, v35.

Peter Mead recommends that preachers adopt this ‘John the Baptist Principle’.  This would mean that rather than seeking to impress my listeners, I will seek (a) to communicate to them clearly and effectively; (b) to equip them to meet Jesus, and to find nourishment for their souls; (c) to point them to Jesus.

3:31 The one who comes from above is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. 3:32 He testifies about what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 3:33 The one who has accepted his testimony has confirmed clearly that God is truthful. 3:34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly. 3:35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things under his authority. 3:36 The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him.

God gives the Spirit without limit – This could mean, (a) God gives the Spirit to the Son without limit, since there is perfect communion between them; or, (b) God gives the Spirit to believers without limit.  The first of these interpretations is to be preferred, since no one else has the Spirit in any way comparable to Jesus, and a limitation is implied in respect of believers in Eph 4:7.

The Father loves the Son – ‘Agapao‘ is used here, whereas ‘phileo‘ is used in Jn 5:20.  No difference in meaning is detectable.

Rejects – lit. ‘disobeys’ (so NRSV).

God’s wrath remains on him – This is the only occurrence of the word ‘wrath’ in John’s Gospel.  However, the concepts of condemnation and judgement are found in Jn 3:17-21 and illuminate the mention of wrath here.  Those who believe in Jesus are not condemned; but those who do not believe are already condemned, because they have rejected God’s offer of life in his Son.  In the present verse, the sense is that God’s wrath hangs over all who reject the Son, but is removed for those who believe in him and receive eternal life.  For Paul, too, God’s wrath is already revealed, Rom 1:24-28.

Does God’s wrath ‘remain on him’ everlastingly?  Robert Yarbrough argues thus: ‘Virtually everyone agrees that “eternal life” refers to unending blessedness in God’s presence. But some wish to limit the duration of “God’s wrath” to a limited time or experience…The blessed state of eternal life is logically opposite to the condemned state of eternal destruction. If salvation and conscious bliss are everlasting, so are perdition and conscious torment.’ (in Morgan, Christopher W. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Kindle Locations 1659-1661). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)  This argument, however, is inconclusive.  The ‘logic’, put bluntly, could be put like this: the one who believes in the Son lives for ever; the one who rejects the Son dies for ever.

Imminent danger

Till you have believed, your danger is of the most imminent kind.  You are not in danger of something future only; you are in peril even now, for the wrath of God abideth on you.  You are not like a city which is to be attacked by troops yet at a distance.  The Judge is even at the door.  You are actually besieged.


A personal reality

‘The Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, take the wrath of God with an awesome seriousness. For Jesus, God’s wrath is not the outworking of some impersonal principle of retribution. It is a personal reality. God personally resists those who resist him. Further, God’s wrath, unlike our fitful and often uncontrolled emotion, is without sin or error in its exercise. The cleansing of the temple (2:12–17) gives some glimpse of the righteous wrath of him who comes from heaven and who testifies to what he has seen and heard (31–32, cf. Rev. 19:1–3, where ‘the wrath of the Lamb’, 6–16, is extolled by the host of heaven). God is not endlessly passive about the presence of evil in his world, or the despite it does to his great glory. If we are regularly able to express wrath in reaction to acts of extreme brutality or injustice, how much more is that felt by him whose love for the brutalized and oppressed is so much more than ours! God is not mocked—‘It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31; Gal. 6:7–8).’ (Milne)

The ‘already/not yet’ applies to judgement, as well as to salvation.  Carson explains that the present verse ‘does not collapse the notion of eschatological judgment into present, spiritual experience, since the future judgment remains (Jn 5:28–29). Rather, it is in line with the New Testament insistence that the age to come can no longer be set off absolutely from the present age, now that Jesus the Messiah has come. Believers already enjoy the eternal life that will be consummated in the resurrection of their bodies at the parousia; unbelievers stand under the looming wrath of God that will be consummated in their resurrection and condemnation.’