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John 3:1-21 - Bible Commentary for Preaching

John 3:1-21 - Bible Commentary for Preaching

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07/21/2014

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John 3:1-21: You Must Be Born Again

3:1

Now there was [3S Impf Act Indic eimi] a man from the Pharisees, Nicodemus his name, a leader of the Jews. 2This one came [3S 2 Aor Mid Indic erchomai] to him by night and he said [3S 2 Aor Act Indic lego] to him, “Rabbi, we know [1P Perf Act Indic eido] that from God you have come [2S Perf Mid Indic erchomai] as a teacher, for no one is able [3S Pres Mid Indic dunamai] these signs to do [Pres Act Inf poieo] that you are doing [2S Pres Act Indic poieo], except if God is with him. 3Jesus answered [3S 1 Aor Pass Indic apokrinomai] and said [3S 2 Aor Act Indic lego] to him, “Amen, amen I say [1S Pres Act Indic lego] to you, unless1 someone be born [3S 1 Aor Pass Subj gennao] again,2 he cannot [3S Pres Mid Indic dunamai] see [Pres Act Inf eido] the Kingdom of God.” 4Nicodemus says [3S Pres Act Indic lego] to him, “How can [3S Pres Mid Indic dunamai] a man be born [1 Aor Pass Inf gennao] being [Nom MS Pres Act Part eimi] old? Can [3S Pres Mid Indic dunamai] he into the womb of his mother a second time enter into [Pres Mid Inf eiserchomai] and be born [1 Aor Pass Inf gennao]?” 5Jesus answered [3S 1 Aor Pass Indic apokrinomai], “Amen, amen I say [3S Pres Act Indic lego] to you, unless someone be born [3S 1 Aor Pass Subj gennao] from water and Spirit, he cannot [3S Pres Mid Indic dunamai] enter into [3S 2 Aor Mid Indic eiserchomai] the Kingdom of God. 6The having-been-born-one [Nom NS Perf Pass Part gennao] of the flesh is [3S Pres Act Indic eimi] flesh, but the having-been-born-one [Nom NS Perf Pass Part gennao] of Spirit is [3S Pres Act Indic eimi] spirit. 7Do not marvel [2S 1 Aor Act Pass thaumazo] that I said [1S 2 Aor Act Indic lego] to you, 'You must [dei humas] be born [1 Aor Pass Inf gennao] again.' 8 The Spirit where he wishes [3S Pres Act Indic thelo] blows [3S Pres Act Indic pneo], and his sound you hear [2S Pres Act Indic akoutheo], but you do not know [2S Perf Act Indic eido] whence he comes [3S Pres Mid Indic erchomai] and where he goes [3S Pres Act Indic hupago]. So is [3S Pres Act Indic eimi] every having-been-born-one [Nom MS Perf Pass Part gennao] of the Spirit.”
9

Nicodemus answered [3S 1 Aor Pass Indic apokrinomai] and said [3S 2 Aor Act Indic lego] to him, “How can [3S Pres Mid Indic dunamai] these things be [2 Aor Mid Inf ginomai]?” 10Jesus answered [3S 1 Aor Pass Indic apokrinomai] and said [3S 2 Aor Act Indic lego] to him, “You are [2S Pres Act Indic eimi] the teacher of Israel and these things you do not know [2S Pres Act Indic ginosko]? 11Amen, amen I say [1S Pres Act Indic lego] to you that what we know [1P Perf Act Indic eido] we speak [1P Pres Act Indic laleo], and what we have seen [1P Perf Act Indic horao] we testify [1P Pres Act Indic martureo], and our testimony you do not receive [2P Pres Act Indic lambano].3 12If the on-earth-things I said [1S 2 Aor Act Indic lego] to you and you do not believe [2P Pres Act Indic pisteuo], how then, were I to tell [1S 2 Aor Act Subj lego] you the in-heaven-things, will you believe [2P Fut Act Indic pisteuo]? 13And no one has ascended [3S Perf Act Indic anabaino] into heaven, except the from heaven descended-one [Nom MS 2 Aor Act Part katabaino], the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up [3S 1 Aor Act Indic hupsoo] the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up [1 Aor Pass Inf hupsoo], 15in order that every believing-on-him-one [Nom MS Pres Act Part pisteuo] might have [3S Pres Act Subj echo] eternal life.
16

For God so loved [3S 1 Aor Act Indic agapao] the world, that his only-begotten Son he gave [3S 1 Aor Act Indic didomi], in order that every believing-one [Nom MS Pres Act Part pisteuo] in him might now perish [3S 2 Aor Mid Subj apollumi], but have [3S Pres Act Subj echo] eternal life. 17For God did not send [3S 1 Aor Act Indic apostello] his Son into the world in order to condemn [3S Pres Act Subj krino] the world, but in order that the world might be saved [3S 1 Aor Pass Subj sozo] through him. 18The believing-one [Nom MS Pres Act Part pisteuo] in him is not condemned [3S Pres Pass Indic krino], but the not-believing-one [Nom MS Pres Act Part pisteuo] already has been condemned [3S Perf Pass Indic
1 Same phrase here (ean me) as in v. 2: “except if God is with him.” Also in v. 5. 2 Could also be translated, “from above/heaven.” See <http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm? Strongs=G509&t=KJV>. 3 Beginning with “you do not receive” in v. 11, the verbs at in the 2nd person plural form through 12.

krino], because he has not believed [3S Perf Act Indic pisteuo] in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. 19But this is [3S Pres Act Indic eimi] the condemnation, that the light has come [3S Perf Act Indic erchomai] into the world and the men loved [3P 1 Aor Act Indic agapao] more the darkness than the light, for their works were [3S Impf Act Indic eimi] evil. 20For every the evil-doing-one [Nom MS Pres Act Indic prasso] hates [3S Pres Act Indic miseo] the light, and he does not come [3S Pres Mid Indic erchomai] into the light, in order that his deeds not be punished [3S 1 Aor Pass Subj elegcho]. 21But the doing-the-truth-one [Nom MS Pres Act Part poieo] comes [3S Pres Mid Indic erchomai] into the light, in order that his works might be manifested [3S Pres Pass Subj phaneroo], so that in God is [3S Pres Act Indic eimi] he has been wrought [Nom NP Perf Pass Part ergazomai].

Comment: Again, Lenski's context is always helpful, confirming my take (below) concerning how Nicodemus fits in as a part of the many who believe when they see the signs of Jesus: This conversation connects naturally with 2:23, 24, Nicodemus being one of the “many” there mentioned as believing because of the signs, to whom Jesus would not entrust himself. Yet the conversation with Jesus did not yet bring this man to faith. But the story of Nicodemus is not John's real concern. As far as that is concerned, the sequel appears in 7:15 and 19:39. Here John's interest is in the teaching of Jesus as the counterpart to the signs (2:23). Though it is conducted in private, this conversation was a part of Jesus' public ministry, just as was the conversation with the Samaritan woman. John records this conversation because it really constitutes a summary of Jesus' teaching, dealing, as it does, with the kingdom, regeneration, faith, the Son of man, God's love and the plan of salvation, judgment and unbelief. The observation is correct that, as in the forefront of Matthew's Gospel the Sermon on the Mount presents a grand summary of Christ's teaching on the law as related to the gospel, so here in the opening chapters of John's Gospel this conversation with Nicodemus presents a grand summary of the gospel itself.4 Here is how Calvin introduces the section: 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.5 “You Must Be Born Again” – John 3:1-8 3:1: The context of Nicodemus's visit is the immediately preceding passage, John 2:23-25:
23

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

4 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 227. 5 John Calvin, Commentary on John, vol. I <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.ix.i.html>.

As Jesus begins to do “signs,” many begin to believe in his name. John doesn't completely dismiss the faith of these who believed in his name, as their “faith” is contrasted with the unbelief of the Jews who demand in v. 18: “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” The sense seems to be that these “believers” do indeed believe on some level; however, they do not have the kind of genuine, saving faith that will keep them from abandoning Jesus as soon as chapter 6.6 Nicodemus is among this group of people who believe on account of Jesus' signs, for he says that he knows Jesus has come from God “for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus could be someone who “believes,” but yet on a superficial level; or, he may be someone who believes without understanding all of the theology behind his faith. We do know that eventually Nicodemus's faith leads him to assist Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus (John 19:39). Regardless, he is a ruler of the Jews who desires a private conversation with Jesus to learn more about him and from him. 3:2: Wiersbe has always pointed out the significance of the fact that Nicodemus came “by night” as an indicator of the spiritual condition of Nicodemus. When Judas went out to betray Jesus, we are told that it was also “night” (John 13:30). Obviously, the night has different significances for the two people, but it might be similar the English expression that both were “in the dark.” Lenski also makes a good point about the practicality of Nicodemus's visit happening during the night: The fact that Nicodemus came “at night” was, of course, due to fear lest he be seen, and thus his standing be compromised. Yet this is not cowardice but rather careful caution, for, although Jesus had made an impression on Nicodemus, the man was not sure about this young Rabbi from Galilee who might turn out a disappointment after all. So he cautiously investigates. The fact that Nicodemus “came to him,” taking the risk involved, shows his seriousness, shows how deeply Jesus had gripped his heart. He did not ignore or [page] wipe out the impression made on him. He took a step that was certainly decisive. In the study of conversion Nicodemus, like the Samaritan woman, will always stand out as an illuminating example.7 Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” which is significant for a Pharisee. The Pharisees never gave even the slightest deference to Jesus as a teacher, so Nicodemus's respect for Jesus is unique. Moreover, Nicodemus acknowledges that “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” It is difficult to tell how many Pharisees Nicodemus might be including in the “we” that he uses here, but at the very least, Nicodemus believes that Jesus is from God. 3:3: Rather than basking in flattery, Jesus answers Nicodemus with a statement that presses in on Nicodemus's confession of faith: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In other words, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he cannot know such a thing unless he has been born again. Jesus is the master of asking questions that do not deny the truthfulness of someone's statement, but yet dissect why a person might actually think such a thing. For example, when the rich young ruler called Jesus “Good Teacher,” Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Jesus did not deny that he is good, but he simply pressed in on how the rich young ruler could make such a claim, inviting him to see that he was, in fact, God!

6 For a complex glimpse into “faith,” see the contrast in John 6:60-71 between the “disciples” who leave Jesus, the faith of Simon Peter (who refuses to leave), and the recognition that the disciple Judas is a “devil.” 7 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 229-30.

So, in the case of Nicodemus, Jesus is not necessarily saying that Nicodemus has not been born again— by this logic, Jesus would have been denying to the rich young ruler that he was God. Jesus simply asks a question that opens a discussion into the nature of the new birth. Lenski notes that, while Nicodemus had believed the signs, he did not understand how the signs connected with Jesus' teaching, even though he addressed Jesus as “Rabbi.” Therefore: Jesus saw what was in the man (2:25) and thus told him what he needed; and the two verbs show that this is highly important. When Jesus “takes the word” (apekrithe) he does not begin with his own person although Nicodemus had put this forward. In due time Jesus will cover that point. Jesus begins with the kingdom of God and the entrance into that kingdom. And we must note that this kingdom and the coming of the Messiah belong together, for he is the King, and only where he is the kingdom is.8 Concerning the kingdom, Lenski writes: This grand concept he basileia tou Theou must not be defined by generalizing from the kingdoms of earth. These are only imperfect shadows of God's kingdom. God makes his own kingdom, and where he is with his power and his grace there his kingdom is; whereas earthly kingdoms make their kings, often also unmake them, and their kings are nothing apart from what their kingdoms make them. So also we are not really subjects in God's kingdom but partakers of it, i.e., of God's rule and kingship; earthly kingdoms have only subjects. In God's kingdom we already bear the title “kings unto God,” and eventually the kingdom, raised to the nth degree, shall consist of nothing but kings in glorious array, each with his crown, and Christ thus being “the King of kings,” a kingdom that has no subjects at all. This divine kingdom goes back to the beginning and rules the world and shall so rule until the consummation of the kingdom at the end of time. All that is in the world, even every hostile force, is subservient to the plans of God. The children and sons of God, as heirs of the kingdom in whom God's grace is displayed, constitute the kingdom in its specific sense. And this kingdom is divided by the coming of Christ, the King, in the flesh to effect the redemption of grace by which this specific kingdom is really established among men. Hence we have the kingdom before [page] Christ, looking toward his coming, and the kingdom after Christ, looking back to his coming—the promise and the fulfillment to be followed by the consumation—the kingdom as it was in Irasel, as it is now in the Christian Church, the Una Sancta in all the world, and as it will be at the end forever. It is called “God's” kingdom and “Christ's” kingdom (Eph. 5:5; II Tim. 4:1; II Pet. 1:11) because the power and the grace that produce this kingdom are theirs; also the kingdom “of heaven” or “of the heavens” because the power and the grace are wholly from heaven and not in any way of the earth. The Baptist preached the coming of this kingdom as it centers in the incarnate Son and his redemptive work.9 Concerning the new birth as the only means for entry into the kingdom of God, Lenski writes: Jesus' word regarding the new birth shatters once for all every supposed excellence of man's attainment, all merit of human deeds, all prerogatives of natural birth of station. Spiritual birth is something one undergoes not something he produces. As our efforts had nothing to do with our natural conception and birth, so, in an analogous way but on a far higher plane, regeneration is not a work of ours. What a blow for Nicodemus! His being a Jew gave him no [page] part in the kingdom; his being a Pharisee, esteemed holier than other people, availed him nothing; his
8 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 231. 9 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 232-33.

membership in the Sanhedrin and his fame as one of its scribes went for nought [sic]. This Rabbi from Galilee calmly tells him that he is not yet in the kingdom! All on which he had built his hopes throughout a long arduous life here sank into ruin and became a little worthless heap of ashes. Unless he attains this mysterious new birth, even he shall not “see” (idein) the kingdom, i.e., have an experience of it. This verb is chosen to indicate the first activity of one who has passed through the door of the kingdom.10 3:4: Not surprisingly, Nicodemus struggles to understand what Jesus is talking about. Comprehending only physical birth, he asks rhetorically whether a man needs to enter into his mother's womb again to accomplish what Jesus is suggestion. Lenski sees the beginning of a conversion taking place here, though: Although Jesus' word must have struck Nicodemus hard, being uttered, as it was, by a young man to one grown old and gray as an established “teacher” (v. 10), Nicodemus shows no trace of resentment. He neither contradicts nor treats Jesus' statement as extravagant and ridiculous. He takes no offense although he feels the personal force of what Jesus says. He does not rise and leave saying, “I have made a mistake in coming.” He quietly submits to the Word. This attitude and conduct, however, is due to the Word itself and to its gracious saving power. Changes were gradually going on in this man's heart, some of them unconsciously; not he but a higher power was active in producing these changes. He was not as yet reborn, nor do we know when that moment came. Enough that Jesus was leading him forward, and Nicodemus did not run away.11 3:5-8: Jesus contrasts physical birth with spiritual birth:
5

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Again, Jesus insists that this new birth is a necessary prerequisite to entering the kingdom of God: “unless one if born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” To be born again is not something weird that quirky evangelicals talk about—it is the sine qua non of salvation. Lenski gives a helpful exegetical and theological explanation of being “born of water and the Spirit”: The preposition ek denotes origin and source. The exegesis which separates ex hudatos kai Pneumatos, as though Jesus said ex hudatos kai ek Pneumatos is not based on linguistic grounds; for the one preposition has as its one object the concept “water and Spirit,” which describes Baptism, its earthly element and its divine agency. The absence of the Greek articles with the two nouns makes their unity more apparent.12 Calvin refuses to see the “water” as a reference to baptism, but only because he sees the water as being only a synonym for Spirit baptism, just as “fire” is used as a synonym for the Spirit elsewhere:

10 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 234-35. 11 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 236. 12 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 237.

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, (Matthew 3:11; Luke 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.13 I understand Calvin's concern, for I do not agree with those (Lutherans, Catholics, Church of Christ, etc.) who make water baptism a prerequisite for salvation, as though you must be born of water (water baptized) just as much as you must be born of Spirit (Spirit baptized). Reformed theology, however, has no problem seeing the sign of water baptism as having a sacramental union with the spiritual reality of Holy Spirit baptism. Here are the relevant sections of the Westminster Confession: I. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him: as also to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the Church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word. II. There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.14 So, while I reject any idea that the power of baptism is somehow contained in or conferred by the water itself, I nevertheless see Jesus' statements as speaking to a spiritual reality wherein the water has a spiritual relation and a sacramental union to Spirit baptism. Just as John the Baptist insisted in chapter 1 of John's Gospel, the water baptism is not the important thing—rather the important thing is that one is
13 John Calvin, Commentary on John, vol. I <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom34.ix.i.html>. 14 Westminster Confession of Faith, 27:1-3 (1646).

coming who will baptize with the Spirit. Nevertheless, the water baptism accurately points to, portrays, and confirms to us through a physical sign the realize that Christ promises us when he sends his Spirit. The major takeaway from this is that the new birth is absolutely not something that can be accomplished in our flesh. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Unless our new birth is brought about by the Holy Spirit, it is not actual new birth. In other words, unless God himself causes us to be born again, we cannot claim it for ourselves. Lenski expands: Any birth from flesh produces only flesh. A stream never rises higher than its sourced. The fact is axiomatic. Its statement is its own proof. There is a contrast between sarx and pneuma, and this determines that the former does not refer merely to the human body or to nature, or to this with its connotation of weakness and mortality, but to “the flesh” in its full opposition to “the spirit”: our sinful human nature. Thus sarx includes also the human soul, the human psuche and the human pneuma, for sin has its real seat in the immaterial part of our nature which uses the gross material part as its instrument. A hundred rebirths from sinful flesh, whether one be old or young, would produce nothing but the same sinful flesh and leave one as far as ever from the kingdom.15 The emphasis of preaching this passage must fall on our utter dependence on God, the necessity of God's work in us, and our inability to give ourselves this new birth. This may be controversial theologically, but it is nevertheless biblical. Concerning this point, Lenski (a Lutheran, and therefore not a 5-point Calvinist) has a helpful caution: Sometimes this illustration [comparing the work of the Spirit to the wind] has been misapplied by commentators because they fail to discover the point of comparison. They find three such points, whereas every true comparison has but one. This is also done by those who stress the clause, “wherever it will,” and then speak of the free and unrestricted working of the Spirit. This misconception often becomes serious, for it easily leads to the false dogmatical idea that the Spirit regenerates this or that man at random, passing over the rest. It may also lead to the error that the Spirit works without means, suddenly seizing a man to convert and regenerate (or sanctify) him, whereas the Scriptures teach that the Spirit always and only works to save through his chosen means, the Word and the Sacraments, and through these means equally upon all men whenever and wherever these means reach men. The fact that all who are thus reached by the Spirit are not reborn is not due to a lack of saving will on the part of the Spirit, or to a lack and deficiency in the means the Spirit employs, but to the wicked and permanent resistance of those who remain unregenerate.16 While I affirm that Jesus teaches that the responsibility for an unregenerate heart lies with those who love darkness and hate the light (see John 3:18-20, below), I think Lenski might be flattening this passage out a bit on the basis of his own theology of the sacraments. The means are equally as effective to everyone wherever those means reach men? If this is the case, then the responsibility for responding to God does lie in part with man, and not with God. The new birth does require our willingness, rather than being something that we undergo merely by the grace of God. We can neither flatten divine sovereignty nor human responsibility, for Jesus teaches and affirms both. Jesus cautions us not to “marvel” at his statement that “You must be born again.” He then explains, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it
15 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 239. 16 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 243.

goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” There is a wordplay between “wind” and “Spirit,” since the same Greek word is used for both ideas: pneuma. Hebrew works the same way with the word ruach. In this explanation, Jesus is forbidding us from thinking that we can control this process. Only as the Spirit blows—where we do not know where he comes from or where he goes—are men and women born again. We notice the effects of the new birth (“you hear its sound”), but you cannot explain and define how to bring it about (“but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”). “The Son of Man Must be Lifted Up” – John 3:9-15 Nicodemus is dumbfounded: “How can these things be?” (3:9). Jesus gently chides him: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10). Lenski sees in this exchange an issue where Nicodemus is largely missing the point, focusing on the how rather than being content with the what in regard to the work of the Holy Spirit. Lenski writes: He is like a man who is told that he must eat yet holds back from eating because he cannot see “how” the food will be digested and assimilated. The fact that the Spirit works the rebirth somehow, and that it is enough for the Spirit to know just how, is not enough for Nicodemus—he, too, must know and thus does [page] not come to faith....Could “these things” still be hidden from Nicodemus, that the fact and reality of the Spirit's work in its results is the essential and not the manner in which he brings the results about?17 At this point, Jesus begins to address the nature of the testimony that he offers. The logic of Jesus' statement in 3:11-15 runs like this: 1. Only someone with direct knowledge of these realities may legitimately bear witness to them. 2. Those who do not have direct knowledge of these realities should believe the testimony of the one who does have direct knowledge—namely, the Son of man who has descended from heaven. 3. The chief testimony that the Son of Man will provide is through being “lifted up” just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. In v. 11, Jesus insists that “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness of what we have seen....” Jesus has direct knowledge of the spiritual reality of the new birth. He speaks of what he knows, and he bears witness to what he has seen. Interestingly, he uses the first person plural form, “we,” to make his case, signifying that he is bearing witness along with the Spirit (who blows where he will) and the Father (who has sent him to descend from heaven). The implication of this is that everyone to whom Jesus speaks ought to take him at his word, for he speaks as someone with authority. As to the other member(s) of the “we,” Lenski takes this not as a reference to the Trinity, but to John the Baptist: The plural “we” refers to Jesus and the Baptist. By thus combining himself with the Baptist Jesus acknowledges and honors him. Jesus never uses the majestic plural, and in v. 12, where he refers to himself alone, he uses the singular. The disciples had not yet testified publicly, and the prophets are too far removed from the context. The Baptist was still in full activity, and Nicodemus knew a great deal concerning him; so he at once understood this “we.” The two great witnesses to Israel at this moment were Jesus and the Baptist....The Baptist knew and [page] had seen this even as he told and testified of it in preaching and in Baptism; Jesus likewise, even now
17 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 244-45.

telling and testifying to Nicodemus. Both knew and even had seen the Spirit who works the new birth. Both, too, were sent to tell and even to testify which includes, of course, that God who sent them intends that they who hear shall believe and thus receive the saving grace which is the content of this testimony.18 Yet, this faith does not happen. Jesus continues, “...but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” It is very important to understand that Jesus is not directly addressing Nicodemus—at least not to single him out. The words “you” in these verses are plural, so that Jesus is not so much indicting Nicodemus personally as he is indicting the Pharisees corporately, Nicodemus being a representative of the Pharisees. When Jesus insisted that he would raise the destroyed “temple” in three days (John 2:19), the Pharisees refused to believe him. If they did not believe the earthly things that Jesus had told them, how would they believe the heavenly things concerning the new birth? Jesus—the Son of Man—has himself descended from heaven, and he has every authority to declare his testimony. Why do they not believe him? Jesus then hints at the fact that he will offer a key piece of evidence to support his claims: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15). Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up in a manner similar to Moses's bronze serpent, bringing eternal life to whoever believes in him. Just as those who looked upon the bronze serpent were restored to life from their poisonous snake bites, so those who look upon Jesus will gain eternal life (i.e., the new birth) to be healed from the poisonous venom of the serpent who struck Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But Jesus will not be lifted up on a pedestal or a throne—he will instead be lifted up on a cross to suffer, bleed, and die in our place. The evidence he offers is his own broken body and shed blood. Whoever looks upon Jesus will be saved, but our salvation will come through looking upon his condemnation. You Must Turn from Darkness and Come into the Light – John 3:16-21 John 3:16 is, of course, one of the most important verses in the Bible: God loved the world to such a great degree that he gave his only begotten Son, in order that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Standing alone, this verse is precious; in the context of the following verses, there is even a bit more going on than at first meets the eye. In 3:17-21, Jesus states:
17

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. The contextual backdrop of John 3:16 is the judgment that Jesus addresses in 3:17-21. God loved the world and sent his Son to save anyone in the world who believes in him. To emphasize the point, Jesus

18 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 246-47.

says in v. 17 that God sent his Son not for condemning the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, and in v. 18 Jesus again states that whoever believes will be saved. But there will be judgment and condemnation—just not exactly what we would expect. Jesus states in 3:18 that “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” At first, we think that Jesus is stating that anyone who does not believe in Jesus is a “dead man walking”: still alive, but under the sentence of death. In 3:19, Jesus clarifies his statement: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” The judgment does not come as a result of the fact that people loved darkness rather than the light; in fact, the judgment is itself that people loved darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil. It is the wrath of God itself to be doomed to remain in your sin when the Son of God has come to save the world. This is an important insight into the role of Jesus. He did not come to judge, whether to acquit or condemn; he came only to save. God's judgment is poured out on the world, then, whenever someone refuses to believe upon Jesus for salvation. And it is vital to understand that people refuse to believe upon Jesus for salvation—this is not a matter of ignorance or of completely honest disagreement, but rather sin. Jesus explains in 3:20: “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” There is a fear in sin that keeps people from wanting to be “exposed.” The word exposed means a bit more than just laid out in the open, but more along the lines of “exposed and therefore brought to shame.” There will, however, be some who do end up walking in the light: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (3:21). The word “exposed” in v. 20 is contrasted with “clearly seen” or “manifested” (phaneroo) in v. 21. “Manifest” is one of John's favorite words in the Johannine Letters, and his use in those letters is consistent with his use here—the idea of “exposed and therefore awarded with honor.” Jesus then says that these works will be manifested in order for everyone to see that they have been wrought in God. There is much to say concerning the contrast of those who do wicked deeds, and therefore hate the light, from those who do what is true, and therefore walk in the light. One is that this is how sin works, and therefore how our accountability with one another ought to run. When we sin, we need to bring our sin into the light. Perhaps not with absolutely every last person we know, but with a group of people appropriate to the nature of the sin. We need to expose our sin, in order that we can continue to walk in the light. It is judgment and condemnation, NOT safety, to continue to walk in the darkness and to keep our sinfulness hidden. Furthermore, we need to feel the weight of the contrast between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. On the one hand, new birth is completely a work of God—so much so that if we claim to have done it in ourselves, then it is no new birth at all. “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” Yet those who reject Jesus do so because of their own wickedness—they do not want to come into his light, lest their deeds be exposed. But for whoever does walk in the light, God himself works in him to create “true works” that will be made manifest as having their origin fully in God. God is sovereign, and we are responsible.

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