Category Archives: JOHN 3:1-21

Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus

JOHN 3:1-21

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NOTES ON JOHN 3:1-21

THE WORDS OF THE BIBLE, THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES, AS FOUND IN THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN CHAPTER 3, VERSES 1-21:

3:1  There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

3:2  The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with Him.

3:3  Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

3:4  Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

3:5  Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

3:6  That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

3:7  Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

3:8  The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

3:9  Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?

3:10  Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

3:11  Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.

3:12  If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

3:13  And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

3:14  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

3:15  That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

3:16  For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

3:17  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.

3:18  He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

3:19  And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

3:20  For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

3:21  But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

Introduction to the chapter

John chapter 2 concludes with the Lord Jesus not being prepared to commit Himself to those who believed on Him simply and only because He was able to do miracles.  By believing in Him in this way they did not distinguish Him from Moses, Elijah and Elisha, who all performed miracles in their day.  The difference between them and Christ is that they did the miracles as the agents of God, whereas, the Lord Jesus did the miracles as an expression of His equality with God, as will become clearer in chapter 5:19.  The people mentioned at the end of chapter 2 did not know this, however.  This is why the Lord referred to Himself as the Only begotten Son when He spoke with Nicodemus, thus distinguishing Himself from Elijah and Elisha.
Because He was not satisfied with this state of affairs, the Lord indicates to Nicodemus that it is not only as the Only-begotten Son that men must believe on Him, but also as one lifted up on a cross.  It is as one lifted up that He draws all to Himself; He does not draw some by one means, such as miracles,  and some by another, such as a death on a cross.  It is only the latter means, John 12:32.

Structure of the chapter

The chapter consists of two main sections, as follows:

SECTION 1 Verses 1-21 Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus.  “Ye must be born again”.
SECTION 2 Verses 22-36 John the Baptist’s conversation about Christ.  “I must decrease”.

There is a difference of opinion as to how much of the first section is the conversation of Christ with Nicodemus, and how much is the apostle John’s comment.  Views differ also as to how much of the second section is John’s conversation, and how much is the apostle John’s comment, or even whether the whole of the second section consists of the words of John the Baptist.  These differences do not affect the doctrine of the passage, however, since every word is inspired of God, and the question as to who said what, whilst interesting, is not vital.

Summary of the chapter

In the first section, down to verse 21, the conversation with Nicodemus sets out the principles on which a person may enter the kingdom of God, the sphere where God’s rule alone is exercised.  Nicodemus had preconceived ideas about entry into that kingdom, and he has to learn from Christ the true means of entering.  That means is bound up with a Messiah who is to be lifted up to die, not immediately lifted up on a throne to reign.
In the second section, the Lord Jesus deliberately positions Himself near to where John the Baptist was ministering, and special mention is made of Him baptizing too.  We know from 4:2 that Christ did not Himself baptize, but there is a convergence of persons and ministries here, before they diverge, and John is martyred.  Mark’s Gospel had begun with a comparison and contrast of John the Baptist and Christ, and now near the end of John’s ministry the same thing happens.  Just as when He came to be baptized of John, the Lord had sanctioned and authenticated John’s ministry, so the same is happening again, but this time so that John may recede with honour, in favour of Christ.

SECTION 1   Verses 1-21
Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus.  “Ye must be born again”.

3:1   There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:

There were those in Israel who were happy to simply believe on Him as a miracle-worker, and there were those, by contrast, who wanted to know more.  Nicodemus is one of these, and the Lord is prepared to educate him in the things of the kingdom, but on His terms.  In accordance with truth, He will not commit Himself to those merely impressed by miracles, but in grace He will lead those like Nicodemus on to better things.  As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would think himself assured of being in the kingdom of the Messiah.
John specifically calls Nicodemus a man, and hence he comes within the category of those whose hearts the Lord knows all about, for “He knew what was in man”, 2:24,25.  This becomes very evident in the conversation with him, and is also the leading thought in the sequel, where people’s responses to the light are dealt with.  John is free to name this man, for he was old when he came, and John is writing his gospel many years afterwards, when most likely Nicodemus was dead, and therefore safe from persecution.  This is possibly why others in the gospel records are named or not named, according to whether they were young or old at the time.  So, for instance, the younger Samaritan woman of chapter 4 is not named. 

3:2   The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with Him.

Even though he came by night, the heart of Nicodemus is brought out into the light, and the light of Christ’s holiness and righteousness penetrates it.  Those who do not come to the light are afraid of their deeds being exposed.  The Lord would afterwards call the Pharisees whited sepulchres, Matthew 23:27, for they were outwardly holy, but inwardly were full of corruption, being mere natural men.
No doubt Nicodemus was fearful of the reaction of his fellow Pharisees if it were discovered that he had visited the new teacher.  He seems to have been gradual in his progress in Divine things, but progress there was, as he took his stand before the Sanhedrin in 7:50-52, and then as he finally and boldly came out into the open when he begged the body of Jesus from Pilate, 19:39-42.
Notice Nicodemus gives Christ the title Rabbi, one of respect.  Even the prophets had not been called this.  The Jews believed that especially holy men of prayer were enabled to do mighty works by God.  Nicodemus sees the connection between the deeds and the teaching, but as yet does not discern the significance of the two.  Christ’s miracles and His teaching go together, so to believe He can work miracles, and yet not believe His teaching, is to miss the point of it all.  He would later say, “Believe Me that I am in My Father, and the Father in Me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake”, John 14:11.  The miracles He performed showed the truth that He and the Father were one, nonetheless to simply believe He was a miracle worker was not enough.  Nicodemus thought that God was “with Him”, which was true, but he must come to see that God as Father was “in” the Son, which is a claim to Deity.
Nicodemus has much to learn.  In fact we could divide the section up according to that idea of knowing:
Verses 1,2  We know Thou art a teacher come from God.
Verses 3-9  He cannot see (know, perceive) the kingdom of God.
Verse 10  Art thou a teacher in Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verses 11-17  We speak that we do know.

3:3   Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

The Lord, knowing Nicodemus’ heart, was able to answer the thought that lay behind the statement, which was that every Jew had right to the kingdom simply by being born a Jew, and from that position of advantage was able to assess those who made claims in their midst.  Nicodemus must learn that despite being born a Jew, and being a ruler in Israel, he is but a natural man, only born of the flesh, and therefore is not fit for a kingdom which is essentially spiritual.  The miracles performed by Christ were the powers of the age to come, Hebrews 6:5, giving clear indication that He was the true Messiah.  However, Nicodemus must recognise and believe who it is that does the miracles before that kingdom can be entered.  The “Verily, verily” that begins the sentence shows that it is Christ’s knowledge of things that is vital, not Nicodemus’.
Christ deliberately uses the word for see which has to do with knowing.  It is not just that Nicodemus’ eyes will not see the Messiah reigning, but also that he has no mental conception of what His kingdom really is.  This spiritual sight only comes when there is a spiritual birth.

 3:4   Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

So convinced is Nicodemus that birth naturally gives title to the kingdom, that he immediately relates the Lord’s words to another natural birth, hence the reference to being born of one’s mother.  John has already told us about the new birth in 1:12,13, (see notes on that passage), but Nicodemus is speaking with the Lord Jesus before those things were known.  Later on, in John 8:31-37, the Lord will indicate to the Jews that Ishmael was just as much the physical son of Abraham as Isaac was, so natural birth is not enough, even of Hebrew parents.  John the Baptist had taught the same thing in Matthew 3:9. 

3:5   Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

The repetition of the “Verily verily” shows that the teaching is advancing, with a fresh truth being made known.  This is always a feature of passages where “Verily verily” is repeated.  The fresh truth needs a fresh assent.  Before, the simple fact is stated about the impossibility of appreciating the kingdom without the new birth, now we have information as to how that new birth comes about.

IMPORTANT NOTE ON CHRISTENING

Those who teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration by christening say that by the sprinkling of holy water on an infant, he or she is made a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. This is a bold claim, which, if wrong, has deluded many into thinking that they are sure of heaven when they are not.  This idea supposes that the one who officiates at such a ceremony has a right to do so, and that which he does is valid before God.
To decide these two questions, a further one is necessary, namely, what the authority is for the ceremony in the first place?  Who is to say it is any different to bathing in the Ganges?  This is an important matter, for what is involved is the eternal destiny of the soul.  We ask then, where does the authority for this doctrine come from? Men, or God?  If from men, we may safely discard it, but if from God, we shall find it taught in His word, the Holy Scriptures.
We live in a day when relativism reigns, and the thoughts and opinions of the individual are paramount, and the views of others, however relevant and important to them, are not necessarily relevant and important to anyone else.  This is not a theory that works in practice, and is just an excuse for not accepting higher authorities than ourselves.  We are prepared to accept the higher authority of the bus timetable when we wish to travel by bus, but are not prepared to accept the higher authority of the Bible when it is a question of travelling to heaven.
In any case, the opposite of relativism is absolutism, the idea that there is authority other than our own, and which is unchanging, being rooted in the truth.  Those who deny this in effect say, “There is nothing absolute”; but this statement is an absolute one, and therefore contradicts their argument.  Any idea which involves a self-contradiction is not valid.  Since there are only two options, relativism and absolutism, and relativism is not valid, then absolutism is.
The only possible source of absolute authority is God Himself.
There are those who, realising that we need to have an authority higher than ourselves and outside of ourselves, feel that we may safely trust the teaching of “the church”.  But it is not envisaged that the church should teach, but rather should be taught.  It is the apostles and prophets who were charged with the responsibility of teaching, at the beginning.  The promise of the Lord Jesus to them was that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth, John 16:13.  This happened long ago, and they penned the New Testament under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that the Scriptures might be available for our guidance and instruction.
It may be objected, however, that this leaves us at the mercy of every supposed explainer of the Bible. Of course, if we were to accept without thinking everything that anyone said about the Bible, we would indeed be confused.  If, however, we were to pray that God would guide us to the truth, and be sincerely ready to respond to that truth when it is revealed to us, then we shall not be disappointed. The Lord Jesus said that “If any man will do His (God’s) will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of Myself”, John 7:17.
Another safeguard is the principle that no truth of Scripture contradicts another.  If it seems to do so, then our understanding of one or other, or both, of the verses in question is at fault.  The Lord Jesus said that “the Scripture cannot be broken”, John 10:35.  This means that the Word of God is one cohesive whole. Distort one part, and all others are affected; rightly understand one part, and all other parts will agree.  Wrench a verse of Scripture out of its context, and it can easily become the support of teaching which is contrary to the rest.  But if we consider every verse in the light of the whole, giving due regard to the setting in which it is found, then we shall be well on the way to a correct understanding of Scripture.
Proceeding, then, on the assumption (which is a very reasonable one), that the Holy Scriptures are sufficient to deal with the question before us at present, we proceed to look at John 3:1-17, which is the portion most often appealed to in connection with infant sprinkling.
We notice, first of all, that the Lord Jesus is speaking to one who is well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures. We see this in verse 10, where the Lord expresses surprise that he, a master of Israel, (that is, a teacher in Israel), is ignorant as to what is being spoken about.  We learn from this that Nicodemus should have recognised in what was said to him, connections with the Old Testament Scriptures with which he should have been familiar.
Nicodemus had come for an interview with Christ on the basis of His miracle-working, and declares in verse 2 that He must be a teacher come from God, for He combines teaching with miracles of remarkable power and indisputable genuineness.  This belief is not enough, however, to ensure entrance into God’s kingdom.  Only those who are born again shall enter there, verse 3. Nicodemus would have prided himself, as all in Israel would, on his descent from Abraham.  He would have thought that to be born once, if that birth was into the nation of Israel, was enough to guarantee him a place in Messiah’s kingdom.  The Lord is about to tell him that this is not enough, for he needs another birth, this time of water and of the Spirit, verse 5.  It is not at all a matter of being born naturally again, as Nicodemus thought in verse 4, (which in any case is not possible), but of being born spiritually.
Nicodemus should have been alerted to a reference to Old Testament Scripture by the Lord’s words linking water and Spirit.  He should have immediately gone in thought to Ezekiel chapters 36 and 37, where these two things are mentioned.  In Ezekiel 36, the prophet tells what needs to happen before Israelites can enter the kingdom of God after their wandering away from God, verses 21-24.  Then he speaks of God sprinkling clean water upon them, so that they may be cleansed from defilement.  To what does the prophet refer? To answer this question we must go back to Numbers 19, where the sacrifice of a red heifer is detailed.  This was God’s provision for the people of Israel when they contracted defilement.  The red heifer sacrifice was a once-for-all event, but the ashes left after it had been burnt as a sacrifice were kept.  When cleansing from defilement was needed, then clean water was taken, and some of the ashes were mixed with the water, and sprinkled over the defiled person to make him ceremonially clean.  And all this despite the fact that the man was an Israelite!
By this ceremony God was teaching His people lessons.  The main one was this, that if the value of a sin-offering was to be known, it was to be through the agency of the water.  And this water must be applied to the individual in question, for it was not enough that the water was available, but must be applied personally.
But all this was in the Old Testament.  Where are we to find water that has the ashes of a sin-offering mixed in it?  The answer of course, is that we shall not find literal water now which fulfils the requirements.  Yet unless we are born of water we cannot enter God’s kingdom!  Does the Lord Jesus hold out a hope to Nicodemus which cannot in fact be realised?  This He surely would not do.  So what is the answer?  It is found in the fact that whilst literal water is not available, its spiritual counterpart is, for it is the Word of God.  Even in Old Testament times the psalmist could ask the question, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way?  And the answer he gave to his own question was, “By taking heed thereto, according to Thy word”, Psalm 119:9  The apostle Paul agrees, for he speaks of Christ sanctifying and cleansing His people by “the washing of water by the word”, Ephesians 5:26.  The word of God, applied to the heart and mind, makes available the truth as to the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus for sin, and thus the defilement which prevents us from entering the kingdom of God is removed.
In close connection with the water, the Lord Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the Spirit, just as Ezekiel chapter 37, with its emphasis on the Spirit’s work, follows chapter 36, where the water of sprinkling is mentioned  Ezekiel saw a valley of dry bones, an illustration of the condition of the people, in unbelief.  The cure for the deadness was the blowing of the wind over them, Ezekiel 37:9,10.  When the wind, or breathe, breathed into them, they lived.  Now this is explained in verse 14 as the putting of God’s Spirit into them, so that they might live.  It is important to know that the Hebrew word for wind, breath, and spirit, is the same.  So in chapter 36 the water is figurative, and in chapter 37 the wind is figurative, and the Lord Jesus takes up both these figures in His conversation with Nicodemus. He is giving Nicodemus the clue to the understanding of His words by deliberately likening the action of the wind to the action of the Spirit of God.  This is why the Lord speaks of the wind blowing where it listeth, or willeth, verse 8.  Just as the wind seems to have a will of its own, blowing where it likes, so the Spirit of God, a Divine person, acts according to His own will.
When a person is born again, it is not a question of natural birth, for “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”.  We may educate and refine the flesh, (which is another term for our natural selves), and we may even make it religious, but it is still flesh nonetheless.  By contrast, “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”, verse 6.  When the Spirit of God does His unique work in a person, then that person is raised to a higher level than the natural as far as God is concerned, a level which makes it possible for the Spirit of God to indwell and govern him.  So it is that Romans 8:9 describes believers as not being in the flesh, but in the Spirit.  That which is produced in each case takes character from the agency which produced it.  Those born naturally are natural, and as such are not fit for God’s kingdom, but those who are born again, born of the Spirit, are fit for that kingdom.
Nicodemus has now learnt that if he is to enter the kingdom, he must have cleansing from his defilement, and be given life from God.  If he has these two things he will be a completely changed person, born again by the power of the Spirit of God, and possessing the life of God in his soul.

We now resume our consideration of the passage before us.

3:6    That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Notice it is “that which”, not “he who”.  It is a question of natures not persons in this verse.  The Lord is commenting on being born of the Spirit, and leaves the matter of the application of the water, (the truth of the death of Christ), to a later point.  The nature of a thing determines what it reproduces.  Man is best described as flesh, or fleshen, meaning not that he is only made of soft tissue, but that he is frail and mortal.  That which he reproduces is likewise flesh, and cannot be changed.  Even if a person were to be born like this twice, nothing would be changed.  But the Spirit of God, when He is infused into a man, produces that which is Spirit-like in character, for that which is born or produced is in harmony with the Spirit of God, who is equal with God.  In this way a mere mortal man, once born as the child of a father of flesh, is now begotten of a Father who is Spirit.  And this different birth, which is not a similar birth to the first, natural birth, is what is meant by being born again.  Such a person is so affected by the Spirit of God that he can be described as being “in the Spirit”, Romans 8:9. 

3:7    Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

Nicodemus is evidently surprised by this line of teaching.  It seems that he shared the carnal view of the kingdom that many had in Israel, that it was political in character, and involved the crushing of physical enemies and subsequent material prosperity for Israel.  However “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”, Romans 14:17, and this is true whether it is the heavenly or the earthly  aspect of the kingdom of God.

3:8     The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

To impress the other-ness of the kingdom on Nicodemus’ mind, the Lord takes up the figure of the wind that Ezekiel had used in his chapter 36.  First of all, it has a will of its own, as the Spirit of God does.  He is equally God with the Father and the Son, so that to lie to the Spirit is to lie to God, Acts 5:3,4.  He exercises His own will, as 1 Corinthians 12:11 indicates, but, like the other Persons of the Godhead, He ever acts in perfect harmony the Father and the Son.  When the Spirit comes to dwell, the Father and the Son come to dwell, John 14:23.
Whilst the word for wind used here is not the one of Acts 2:2, “a rushing mighty wind”, but is rather the soft breeze that perhaps was at that very moment gently sweeping past the housetop where Christ and Nicodemus might have been sitting, nevertheless, it makes its presence felt by its sound as it comes into contact with an object.  The Spirit of God always associates Himself with the sound of the Word of God.
Whilst we may judge the direction of the wind in relation to our position, we do not know where the wind started to blow from originally.  The same is true of its ultimate destination, for it may veer after it has passed us, and so completely change direction.  Solomon spoke of the circuits of the wind, Ecclesiastes 1:6. Such are the inexplicable workings of the Spirit of God.  We may not know the first way the Spirit of God influenced us for good, nor may we know what other purpose may be served by that influence after it has touched us, but all is under the supreme and Divine control of the Spirit of God.
“So is every one” means “such is the situation with regard to all those born of the Spirit”.  They could not influence the start of the process, could not control its exercise, nor could they alter His will, and the direction of that will.  Since the power, effect, origin and result of the working of the Spirit is totally beyond human control, the Lord is clearly placing the new birth totally outside of the realm of the natural man.  And since entry into the kingdom of God depends on the new birth, reaching that kingdom is also totally outside of the power of the natural man.  This is the Divine Sovereignty of God in the matter of the new birth.

Important note on sovereignty

We should be very cautious when dealing with the subject of the sovereignty of God, lest we begin to speak about it in terms that border on fatalism.  This is the mistake that the Calvinist makes, for he so emphasises the sovereignty of God at the expense of the fact that God gave man a free will, that his whole system degenerates into a mechanical process.  It is well to remember that Calvin, (insofar as he is responsible for Calvinism) adopted the views of Augustine, who himself was versed in the philosophy of Aristotle.  Given such a doubtful source, it is no surprise that human logic is used to explain Divine truth, with disastrous results.  We can do no better than to constantly ask ourselves the question that the apostle Paul asked, “what saith the scripture”, and give due breadth to all the statements of scripture, and not try to squeeze them into a straitjacket of our own devising.

3:9     Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?

This is a justifiable question in view of the content of verse 8.  The word for “be” is not a form of the verb to exist, but of the verb to become.  So Nicodemus is asking how these things can happen, given that the Spirit of God who brings them to pass is like the wind we cannot control or influence.  He is not suggesting that the things Christ speaks of may not actually exist, but rather, is enquiring how can they be brought about in his case. 

3:10    Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?

As one trained in the Old Testament scriptures, and as one who constantly searched them, John 5:39, Nicodemus should have been aware of the truth of the sovereignty of God.  The passages in Ezekiel 36 and 37 should have taught him it.  He had prided himself in verse 2 on what he knew, and now he is finding out that in fact he is ignorant of the most important things.

3:11    Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.

We do not know whether there were any disciples present at this interview.  In any case, they had not been sent forth to preach yet, so the reference is not to them.  The word “we” may be an expression of dignity, like the royal “we”, but in that case why does the Lord resort to “I” in the next verse?  It is the case that both John the Baptist and Christ had been preaching for a while, and Nicodemus may very well have listened to them both.  Note the use of the two words that had been used before, namely, “know” and “see” in connection with entry into the kingdom.  The Lord is claiming that John the Baptist is involved with the kingdom, as He is.  John is the herald of the King, whilst Christ is the King Himself.
As far as John was concerned, he knew the Old Testament scriptures, and testified in line with them.  He knew also because he had seen the dove descending on Christ, and this showed him that here was the Son, who would be given the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession, Psalm 2:7.  John the Apostle expressly says that when John the Baptist saw the dove descend, he saw and bare record that this was the Son of God, John 1:33.  John now knew what he did not know before.
As far as Christ was concerned, He knew because He is God, and He saw what His Father was doing in heaven, as he later explained, John 5:19.  Unhappily, the Pharisees whom Nicodemus represented, (note the plural “ye”), in general received neither the testimony of John or of Christ.  See Luke 7:29,30.

3:12    If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

The matters referred to in Ezekiel 36 and 37 were to do with the earthly kingdom of the Messiah, and even these Nicodemus, the “teacher in Israel” was ignorant about, and worse still, unbelieving.  How then would he believe if he were to be told about the heavenly things that would come in subsequent to the death of the Messiah?  Note the change from “we” to “I”, for whereas John the Baptist was able to prepare men to enter the earthly kingdom of the Messiah, he was not able to speak of the heavenly things of this present age.  He himself said, as he contrasted his ministry with that of Christ, that “he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: He that cometh from heaven is above all”, John 3:31.

3:13    And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

Christ’s competence to speak of heavenly things is seen in that He came down from heaven.  As it is His proper sphere, He is able to speak of heaven with authority.  He is “that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us”, 1 John 1:2.  As John the Baptist will say later, “He that cometh from heaven is above all”, John 3:31.  But the heavenly things will only be brought in after His return to heaven, hence the reference to His ascension here.  The Lord speaks as if this has already happened, and this He does because to one who is God, the future is as sure as the present.
There are three references to the ascension in John’s gospel, and they are all from the lips of the Lord Himself.  In John 6:62, the point is that He will ascend up to where He was before, in eternal fellowship with His Father.  In John 20:17 the thought is that He will ascend to one who is His Father and ours, His God and ours, and thus He is the link between His people and the Father.  He has ascended to represent His people in the Father’s presence.
The expression “the Son of Man which is in heaven” is a difficult one.
The possible explanations are as follows:
1. This is one of John’s asides, where he explains things that might not be clear to his readers, so that, writing late in the first century, John is able to assert that the Son of Man is in heaven.
2. They are the Lord’s words, speaking in anticipation of His return to heaven.  He spoke like this in John 17:11, when He said “And now I am no more in the world”.
3. They are an allusion to Daniel 7:13,14, where the prophet saw the Son of Man being brought to the throne of the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom, and then coming to earth to rule as the Son of Man upon the earth.  Hopefully Nicodemus would  be familiar with this, and therefore would  see that the Lord was claiming to be the one who would bring in the earthly Kingdom of God.  He now knows the terms of entry into the kingdom, and also the identity of the one who will rule.  But all this in the context of the fact that there are hitherto undisclosed heavenly things to be introduced consequent upon the ascension of Christ.  So that ascension guarantees both the heavenly and the earthly side of things being brought in.

3:14    And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up:

Nicodemus is now about to learn how to enter the kingdom.  He has been told that the new birth is totally the work of the Sovereign Spirit of God, and puzzled by this, has asked how this new birth can take place.  He must learn first of all that, despite his position in Israel as a teacher, he is outside at present, for it was in the wilderness, not in the land of Canaan, that Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.  Despite being for nearly forty years in the wilderness under the Law of God given at Sinai, the people still murmured at God.  As a judgement, fiery serpents were sent amongst them, to bring them to repentance., Numbers 21:4-9. Nicodemus is learning  that in order that the kingdom may be reached, repentance must be exercised.  And not only so, but faith also, for it was only those who looked expectantly to the serpent on the pole that were healed, and thus were able to enter the land.  Those who refused to look died, outside of the kingdom.
It must have been a surprise for Nicodemus to learn that the same Son of Man who would come to set up His kingdom, would also be lifted up in the same way as the brazen serpent was.

3:15    That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

The word “whosever” is another shock for Nicodemus.  He thought that the kingdom was exclusively for Israelites, but he was wrong, for the Lord Jesus introduced the present age of grace into the Divine Calendar, and during this time all may come if they will.  Another shock for Nicodemus is found in the introduction of the idea of perishing.  Just as many in Israel perished outside of the land, so there are many who will perish outside of the kingdom, whether that kingdom is on earth or heaven.
Eternal life is the same as everlasting life.  That life is not only for ever, but it is lasting and durable as well.  Both the quantity and quality of the life is contained in the word.  The word which is properly “eternal” is found but few times in the New Testament.

3:16    For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Clearly the Lord is presenting a parallel between what happened in Numbers 21, and what happened at Calvary.  We could set out the comparisons and contrasts as follows:

CONTRASTS BETWEEN LIVING SERPENTS AND BRASS SERPENTS

Living serpents God sent Lifeless serpent of brass
Harmful Harmless
Sign of Satan successful Sign of Satan powerless
Object of fear Object of faith


CONTRASTS BETWEEN SERPENT OF BRASS AND CHRIST LIFTED UP    

Harmless because made of brass Harmless yet living
Sign of Satan powerless Source of Satan’s powerlessness
Lifted up on a pole, (from word “to lift up”) Lifted up on a cross
Made like the cause of distress Made sin, the cause of the distress
Object of faith for the occasion Object of faith for all time
Subsequently made into an idol Subsequently wrongly preached


Verse 16 presents us with the love of God.  We should distinguish between God’s general love for all mankind as expressed on a special historical occasion at Calvary, and God’s personal love for His children.  We should also bear in mind that we have been given samples of the addresses the apostles gave to various audiences in the Book of Acts, but in none of them is the love of God mentioned.  Of course, the grace of God is an expression of His love, but the fact remains that the apostles did not mislead sinners into thinking that they had any claim upon God.  God’s love is active, for He gave; it is righteous, for He was dealing with the cause of our perishing, namely sin; it was purposeful, for it is so that whosoever believeth should not perish.
We also learn of the loss of the sinner.  To perish means to lose well-being, not loss of being.  The idea that at death a person goes into oblivion is contradicted in Scripture.  Hebrews 9:27 says that after death there is judgement, and the Lord Jesus taught that the rich man of whom He spoke, when he had died, lifted up his eyes in hell, Luke 16:23.  The loss of the sinner is not only expressed in his loss of well-being, but also the loss of the blessing he might have had if he had believed.  Not only did the Israelites lose their lives in the desert, but they also lost the enjoyment of the land of Canaan that was just ahead of them.
Then there is the look of faith.  That look is realistic, for the bite of the serpents was very real, and so was the Divine remedy.  The look was repentant, for the people confessed, “We have sinned”, Numbers 21:7.  The look was obedient, for we read, “when any looked…they lived, Numbers 21:9, and this result only came because God had said it would, there is no logical reason why looking at a lump of brass should heal a snakebite.  The look was dependant, too, for they looked away from self to the Divine remedy.  The look was also expectant, for that idea is enshrined in the word used for look.  They were not looking by chance, or in unbelief, but in confident expectation that God would heal them, and He did.
We should notice the way verses 14 and 15 parallel verse 16, so that we learn that the equivalent of being lifted up in the wilderness, is the giving by God of His only begotten Son.  In other words, the giving of the Son is when He is lifted up on the cross; it is not His birth but His death that is in view.  So it is not as Jesus of Nazareth the miracle worker that men are to believe in Him, but as the Only begotten Son of God lifted up on a cross to die for sin.                                                                                                                3:17   For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.

The serpents were sent from God as judgement, whereas Christ was sent in grace and mercy.  The “so loved” of verses 16 has to do with the end of the verse, “that whosoever believeth should not perish…”  The nature and purpose of the love is in view, not so much the intensity of it.
The word for condemn here is one which means to pronounce sentence.  If Christ had come to do this, then there would not have been salvation for men, but immediate execution of God’s just judgement against their sins.  It is otherwise, however, for Christ came in grace not judgement.  In the synagogue at Nazareth He stopped short after reading “the acceptable year of the Lord”, and sat down without reading what follows, “and the day of vengeance of our God”, Luke 4:19; Isaiah 61:2.

3:18   He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Notice the use of the full title here of “Only begotten Son of God”, emphasising the gravity of not believing in such a glorious person.   Such is the character of what the Son of God did when lifted up on the cross at Calvary, that every matter which could be laid against those who believe was fully and eternally dealt with.  How blessed to be in a position before God where we do not fear His condemnation!  How solemn to think that those who do not believe already know the terms of their final condemnation, as they are detailed in the next verse.  The wrath of God is said in verse 36 to abide on sinners, and here is the reason, for they stand condemned because of their sins.

3:19    And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

Having been assured in verse 18 that those who believe are not condemned, we now learn the basis upon which those who refuse to believe, and continue in that refusal until they die, will be condemned.  Chapter 1:9 has already informed us that the true light lighteth every man, and now we are told the light is come, not just into Israel, but into the world.   Either the light of the Christ’s creation, or that of conscience, or that of Christ in person, is the test for every man.  Note the past tense for “love”.  Looking back to the reaction of men to the Christ he companied with, John is forced to testify that man has shown his natural reaction to Christ when He was here.  And that same reaction is man’s still. 

3:20    For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

Since the fall of man, his natural tendency has been towards the darkness of sin, rather than the light of holiness.  And since that light of holiness is expressed in Christ, then man’s hatred is towards Him.  Just as when a stone is moved, and those creatures that live in the dark scurry for cover, so man shuns the light, lest he should be exposed as a sinner.  There is hatred of the light as a constant attitude, and resistance to coming to the light when the opportunity is given. These words were likely to startle Nicodemus, for he had come to speak with Christ by night.  Does this mean he hates the light, or does it mean he comes in the night of his sin to Christ, the only answer to his sin? By contrast, the apostle Paul can speak of believers as being made “meet” or fit, to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light”, Colossians 1:12. 

3:21    But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

If the unbeliever avoids examination, then the true believer welcomes manifestation, whether in the present, or at the judgement seat of Christ, when his works will be assessed.  The believer is not afraid of the scrutiny of the light of Christ’s holiness, since that which caused him to be condemned by that light has been dealt with.