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6. Exegetical Commentary on John 3


        [3 C To Jerusalem: the first Passover (2:13-3:36)]

          [1 D Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22)]

          [2 D A Public Response to Jesus: Trust without Trustworthiness (2:23-25)]

          3 D A Personal Response to Jesus: Nicodemus comes by night (3:1-21)

          4 D The final testimony of John the Baptist: “I was sent before him” (3:22-36)


Belleville, L. L., “Born of Water and Spirit: John 3:5,” Trinity Journal (1981): 125-41.

Borgen, P., “Some Jewish Exegetical Traditions as Background for Son of Man Sayings in John’s Gospel (Jn 3,13-14 and context),” in Lvangile de Jean: Sources, rdaction, thologie, ed. M. de Jonge (Louvain: University Press, 1977): 243-58.

Guthrie, D., “The Importance of Signs in the Fourth Gospel,” Vox evangelica 5 (1967): 72-83.

Hodges, Z. C., “Problem Passages in the Gospel of John, Part 3: Water and Spirit—John 3:5” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (1978): 206-20.

Jonge, M. de, “Nicodemus and Jesus: Some Observations on Misunderstanding and Understanding in the Fourth Gospel,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 53 (1971): 337-59.

Lindars, B., “Two Parables in John,” New Testament Studies 16 (1969/70): 318-24.

Moody, D., “‘God’s Only Son’: The Translation of John iii 16 in the RSV,” Journal of Bibilcal Liturature 72 (1953): 213-19.


        3 D A Personal Response to Jesus: Nicodemus comes by night (3:1-21).

This is perhaps the most well-known incident in the Gospel, at least at the popular level.

3:1 Note the phrase in verse 1, a[nqrwpo" ejk tw'n Farisaivwn—stylistically the word a[nqrwpo" suggests a tie with 2:25. Jesus knew what was in a man (and what follows with Nicodemus is a specific example). It is also instructive for our understanding of the previous paragraph, 2:23-25, to note that Jesus did not fully entrust himself to Nicodemus, i.e., he did not openly reveal his true identity and mission (note in this regard especially 3:12).

Nicodemus appears only in John’s Gospel (see also 7:50, 19:39). The name is Greek. The use of the term a[rcwn (“ruler”) denotes a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.

3:2 nuktov" Possibly Nicodemus came at night because was afraid of public association with Jesus, or he wanted a lengthy discussion without interruptions; no explanation for the timing of the interview is given by the Evangelist. But the timing is significant for John in terms of the light/darkness motif—compare 9:4, 11:10, 13:30 (especially), 19:39, and 21:3. Out of the darkness of his life and religiosity Nicodemus came to the Light of the World. John probably had multiple meanings or associations in mind here, as he often does.

oujdeiV" gaVr duvnatai tau'ta taV shmei'a a} suV poiei'" The reference to shmei'a forms an interesting link with 2:23-25. Those people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus because of the signs he performed. Nicodemus has apparently seen them too. But for Nicodemus all the signs have meant is that Jesus is a great teacher sent from God. His approach to Jesus is well-intentioned but theologically inadequate; he has failed to grasp the messianic implications of the sign-miracles.

3:3 Nicodemus’ greeting is answered by Jesus as if it were an inquiry about entering the kingdom of God. We may be dealing with an incomplete dialogue here (as in chapter 2 at Cana) but this does not have to be the case as suggested by Jesus’ reply introduced by ajpekrivqh.

a[nwqen The word has a double meaning, as pointed out by Z. C. Hodges.65 The word may mean either “again” (in which case it is synonymous with palivn) or “from above” (s.v., BAGD). This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. Think of the effect on the contemporary evangelical terminology of being “born again”!

John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above”. Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either but it seems that Hodges is right that the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above”. Nicodemus, it seems, understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” John the Evangelist often uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.

ouj duvnatai ijdei'n Jesus uses the term “see” in the sense of “experience, encounter, participate in”—e.g., “see death” (8:51), “see life” (3:36). Note also in v. 5 the use of eijselqei'n in reference to the kingdom of God, with the same meaning as the phrase here.

But what does Jesus’ statement about “seeing the kingdom of God” mean within the framework of John’s Gospel? John uses the word basileiva only 5 times—3:3, 5; 18:36 (3x). Only here is it qualified with the phrase tou' qeou'.

The fact that John does not stress the concept of the basileiva tou' qeou' does not mean it is absent from his theology, however. Remember the messianic implications found in chapter 2, both the wedding and miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the Temple.

For Nicodemus, the term must surely have brought to mind the messianic kingdom which Messiah was supposed to bring. But Nicodemus had missed precisely this point about who Jesus was! It was the Messiah himself with whom Nicodemus was speaking!

Whatever Nicodemus understood, it is clear (as I have already mentioned) that the point is this: he misunderstood Jesus’ words. He over-literalized them, and thought Jesus was talking about a second physical birth, when Jesus was in fact referring to new spiritual birth.

3:5 In reply, Jesus answers (verse 5): “Except one is begotten of water and wind [u{dato" kaiV pneuvmato"], he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The concepts of water and wind are linked to a[nwqen (v.3), because water and wind come from above. Isa 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10 are pertinent examples of water and wind as life-giving symbols of the Spirit of God in his work among men. Both occur in contexts that deal with the future restoration of Israel as a nation prior to the establishment of the messianic Kingdom! It is therefore particularly appropriate that Jesus should introduce them in a conversation about entering the kingdom of God.

Note that pneuvmato" is anarthrous in v. 5. We are not saying that pneuvmato" in the verse should be read as a direct reference to the Holy Spirit, but that both water and wind are figures which represent the regenerating work of the Spirit in the lives of men and women, a truth pointed to by the OT passages mentioned above. These were passages which should have been familiar to Nicodemus as “the teacher of Israel” (cf. 3:10).

3:6 But lest Nicodemus misunderstand again and take the figure literally (!) Jesus adds v. 6 [toV gegennhmevnon ejk th'" sarkoV" savrx ejstin, kaiV toV gegennhmevnon ejk tou' pneuvmato" pneu'mav ejstin] to clarify that what he has been talking about is, again, not physical but spiritual (the figures of water and wind being indicative of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit).

What is born of physical heritage is physical. What is begotten by the Spirit is spiritual. (It is interesting to compare this terminology with that of the dialogue in chapter 4, especially 4:23, 24.)

For John the “flesh” (savrx) emphasizes merely the weakness and mortality of the creature—a neutral term, not necessarily sinful as in Paul. This is confirmed by the reference in John 1:14 to the Lovgo" becoming savrx. Certainly John would not associate sinfulness with the incarnate Christ.

3:7 mhV qaumavsh/" This is a rabbinic formula according to Bultmann (loc. cit.).

3:8 Again, the physical illustrates the spiritual (although the force is heightened by the world-play here on wind-spirit). By the final usage of 3:8, however, pneuvmato" is intended to refer to the Holy Spirit.

3:9 Here we have Nicodemus’ answer. It is clear that at this time he has still not grasped what Jesus is saying.

Note also that this is the last appearance of Nicodemus in the dialogue (!). Having served the purpose of the Evangelist, at this point he “ disappears” from the scene.

3:10 There is irony in Jesus’ question here: “you are the teacher of Israel (a spiritual leader) and don’t know these things?”

This carries the implication (at least) that Nicodemus had enough information at his disposal from the Old Testament Scriptures to have understood Jesus’ statements about the necessity of being born from above by the regenerating work of the Spirit.

When we ask what passages Nicodemus might have known which would have given him insight into Jesus’ words, we could return to Isa 44:3-5 and Ezek 37:9-10. But even more astounding is the passage proposed by Z. C. Hodges as the “seed-bed” for the ideas in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus: Prov 30:4-5.66

“Who has ascended into heaven, and descended [John 3:13]? Who has gathered the wind [John 3:5, 8] in his fists? Who has wrapped the waters [John 3:5] in his garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, or his Son’s name [John 3:15-16]? Surely you know! Every word of God is tested; he is a shield to those who put their trust in him [John 3:15-16].”

3:11 “We speak what we know and we testify about what we have seen…” Note the remarkable similarity of Jesus’ words to the later testimony of the Apostle John himself in 1 John 1:2—”and we have seen and testify and report to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us”. It seems to me this is only one example of how thoroughly John’s own thoughts were saturated with the words of Jesus (and also how difficult it is to distinguish the words of Jesus from the words of the Evangelist in the Fourth Gospel!).

3:12 “If I speak to you the things of earth and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I speak to you the things of heaven?” Obviously, taV ejpivgeia and taV ejpouravnia are in contrast, but what is the contrast? What are the things of earth which Jesus has just spoken to Nicodemus? (And we might add, through him to others—this is not the first instance of the plural pronoun, see v. 7 above, uJma'". Since Nicodemus began with a plural (oi[damen, v.2) Jesus continues it, and through Nicodemus addresses a broader audience.)

It seems best to take this as a reference to the things Jesus has just said (and the things he is about to say, vss. 13ff.). If this is the case (and it seems the most natural explanation) then taV ejpivgeia are not necessarily strictly physical things, but are so called because they take place on earth, in contrast to things like v. 16, which take place in heaven.

Some have added the suggestion that the things are called ejpivgeia because physical analogies (birth, wind, water) are used to describe them. This is possible, but it seems more probable Jesus calls these things ejpivgeia because they happen on earth (even though they are spiritual things).

In the context, taking taV ejpivgeia as the words Jesus has just spoken fits with the fact that Nicodemus did not believe. And he would not, after hearing taV ejpouravnia, either, unless he first believed in taV ejpivgeia—which included the necessity of a regenerating work from above, by the Holy Spirit.

3:13 The major difficulty here is the perfect ajnabevbhken, which seems to look at a past, completed event. [Note: This is not as much of a problem for those who take Jesus’ words to end at v. 12, and these to be a comment by the Evangelist, looking back on the ascension.]

On the lips of Jesus, these words are a bit harder to explain. Note however, the lexical similarities with 1:51—”ascending,” “descending,” and “son of man”. Here, though, the ascent and descent is accomplished by the Son himself, not the angels as in 1:51. I see no need to limit this saying to the ascent following the resurrection, however; the point of the Jacob story (Gen 28) which seems to be the background for 1:51 is the freedom of communication and relationship between God and men [a major theme of the Gospel of John]. This communication comes through the angels in Gen 28 (and John 1:51); but here (most appropriately) it comes directly through the Son. Possibly Jesus could be referring to a prior ascent, after an appearance as the pre-incarnate Son of Man. More likely, he is simply pointing out that no one from earth has ever gone up to heaven and come down again; the Son, who has come down from heaven, is the only one who has been ‘up’ there. [In both Jewish intertestamental literature and later rabbinic accounts Moses is portrayed as ascending to heaven to receive the Torah and descending to distribute it to men (e.g. Targum Psalms 68:19). In contrast to these Jewish legends, the Son is the only one who has ever made the ascent and descent.]

The point is the heavenly origin of the Son of Man. And the descent, at least here, seems to refer to the incarnation (cf. 1:14).

3:14 uJywqh'nai dei' toVn uiJoVn tou' ajnqrwvtou This is ultimately a prediction of the crucifixion. Nicodemus could not have understood this in its full impact, but John’s readers, the audience for to whom the Gospel is addressed, certainly could have. This seems to constitute a basis for seeing the serpent as a type of Christ.

There is an interesting midrash on Num 21:9 ff in Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-7 (Compare with this John 12:32):

They were troubled for a little while as a warning, and had a symbol of salvation to remind them of the precept of your Law. For he who turned to it was saved, not by what he saw, but by you, the Savior of all.

3:15 The reading eij" aujton has somewhat better support. See the critical apparatus in Nestle-Aland 26th ed. or UBS 3rd ed.)

Compare Num 21:8—”that he who looks on it (the serpent) shall live”.

Note: This is the first use of the term zwhVn aijwvnion in the Gospel (although zwhv in chapter 1 is to be understood in the same way without the qualifying aijwvnio").

In these verses (14-15) Jesus really answers Nicodemus’ question of verse 9, “How can these things come about?” A person’s regeneration by the Holy Spirit (which enables that individual to enter the kingdom) can come about only through the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of the Son of Man.

The “lifting up” (uJywqh'nai), while it specifically refers to Jesus’ death on the cross, can also include the ascension. (This verb is used in Acts 2:33, 5:31 for the ascension of Jesus.)

A Note on the Johannine Descent-Ascent Schema:

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 Phil 2:5-11).

3:16 This is supposedly the most well-known verse in the Bible.

Compare Isaiah 53:12 (LXX):”He was given up (paradidonai) for their sins.”

Note: Here we have another typical Johannine double meaning: God “gave” the Son by sending him into the world, but also “gave” him on the cross.

Kovsmo" must, in context, refer to the entire world. Compare also 1 John 2:2.

The alternatives presented are only two [again, it is typical of Johannine thought for this to be presented in terms of polar opposites]: ajpovlhtai or e[ch/ zwhVn aijwvnion. In John the word ajpovllumi seems to mean either (1) to be lost (2) to perish or be destroyed, depending on the context.

3:17 ajpevsteilen corresponds to e[dwken in v. 16. Jesus did not come of himself; he was sent, by the Father, on a mission. This mission was the salvation of the world.

Compare vss. 16-19 with John 12:46-48 for similar words and phrases.

This paragraph provides an introduction to the (so-called) “realized” eschatology of the Fourth Gospel: judgment has come; eternal life may be possessed now, in the present life, as well as in the future.

A Note on Realized Eschatology and the Gospel of John:

The terminology “realized eschatology” was originally coined by E. Haenchen and used by J. Jeremias in discussion with C. H. Dodd, but is now characteristically used to describe Dodd’s own formulation.67

R. Brown summarizes the realized eschatology of the Gospel of John as follows:

In many ways John is the best example in the NT of realized eschatology. God has revealed Himself in Jesus in a definitive form, and seemingly no more can be asked. If one points to OT passages that seem to imply a coming of God in glory, the Prologue (i 14) answers, ‘We have seen his glory.’ If one asks where is the judgment that marks God’s final intervention, John iii 19 answers: ‘Now the judgment is this: the light has come into the world.’ In a figurative way Matt xxv 31 ff. describes the apocalyptic Son of Man coming in glory and sitting on the throne of judgment to separate the good and the bad. But for John the presence of Jesus in the world as the light separates men into those who are sons of darkness, hating the light, and those who come to the light. All through the Gospel Jesus provokes self-judgment as men line up for or against him; truly his coming is a crisis in the root sense of that word, where it reflects the Gr. krisis or “judgment.” Those who refuse to believe are already condemned (iii 18), while those who have faith do not come under condemnation (v 24…). Even the reward is realized. For the Synoptics “eternal life” is something that one receives at the final judgment or in a future age (Mark x 30, Matt xviii 8-9), but for John it is a present possibility for men: ‘The man who hears my words and has faith in Him who sent me possesses eternal life…he has passed from death to life’ (v 24). For Luke (vi 35, xx 36) divine sonship is a reward of the future life; for John (i 12) it is a gift granted here on earth.68

Especially important to note is the element of choice portrayed in John’s Gospel. If there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in John’s Gospel, it should be emphasized that that reaction is very much dependent on mans choice, a choice that is influenced by his way of life, whether his deeds are wicked or are done in God (vss. 20-21). For John there is virtually no trace of determinism at the surface. Only when one looks beneath the surface does one find statements like “no one can come to me, unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:33).

          4 D The final testimony of John the Baptist: “I was sent before him” (3:22-36)

3:22 This section is related loosely to the preceding by metaV tau'ta. This constitutes an indefinite temporal reference; the intervening time is not specified.

eij" thVn =Ioudaivan gh'n In the narrative Jesus has already been in Judean territory, in Jerusalem. In the context Bultmann (loc. cit.) argues that the meaning is that Jesus went out from the city into the country districts of Judea. This seems plausible because there is no real indication of longer amounts of elapsed time, or a departure from Judea back to Galilee followed by a return. It should be remembered, however, that this only a possibility, since the phrase metaV tau'ta specifies an indefinite amount of time.

3:23 Aijnwvn, Saleivm The precise locations of these places are unknown.

Three possibilities are suggested:

(1) In Perea, which is in Transjordan (cf. 1:28). Perea is just across the river from Judea.

(2) In the northern Jordan Valley, on the west bank some 8 miles [13 km] south of Scythopolis. But with the Jordan River so close, the reference to abundant water (3:23) seems superfluous.

(3) Thus Samaria has been suggested. 4 miles [6.6 km] east of Shechem is a town called Slim, and 8 miles [13 km] northeast of Slim lies modern inn. In the general vicinity are many springs.

Because of the meanings of the names [Aijnwvn = “springs” (Aramaic) and Saleivm = Salem, “peace”], some have attempted to allegorize here that John the Baptist is near salvation (!). Obviously there is no need for this. It is far more probable that the Evangelist has in mind real places, even if we cannot be absolutely sure of their locations.

3:24 ou[pw gaVr h beblhmevno" eij" thVn fulakhVn oJ =Iwavnnh" It seems best to understand this as a parenthetical note by the Evanglist.

3:25 First, there is a textual problem here: was the dispute between the Baptist’s disciples and an individual Jew (=Ioudaivou) or representatives of the Jewish authorities (=Ioudaivwn)? While Nestle-Aland 27th ed. and UBS 4th ed. opt for the singular =Ioudaivou as the more difficult reading, there is good external support for the plural =Ioudaivwn [66, a*, Q, 1, 13, 565, it, vg, and others]. In the final analysis it does not make a great deal of difference whether the dispute arose between the Baptist’s disciples and a single representative of the authorities or several.

More of a problem is that again we have incomplete information concerning the event. What was the controversy between John’s disciples and the Jewish authorities? It is not clear. Some have suggested that it was over the relative merits of the baptism of Jesus and John. But what about the “cleansing”?

There are so many unanswered questions here that even R. Brown (who does not usually resort to dislocations in the text as a solution to difficulties) proposes that this dialogue originally took place immediately after 1:19-34 and before the wedding at Cana. (Why else the puzzled hostility of the disciples over the crowds coming to Jesus?) Also, the synoptics imply John was imprisoned before Jesus began his Galilean ministry.

At any rate, I see no reason to rearrange the material here—I think it occurs in this place for a very good reason. As far as the Evangelist is concerned, it serves as a further continuation of the point made to Nicodemus, that is, the necessity of being born “from above”. Note that John the Baptist describes Jesus as “he who comes from above” [a[nwqen] (v. 31).

There is another lexical tie to preceding material: kaqarismou' (3:25)—the subject of the dispute—calls to mind the six stone jars of water changed to wine at the wedding feast in 2:6. I believe this section ultimately culminates and concludes ideas begun in chapter 2 and continued in chapter 3.

It seems to me that one of the major keys to the understanding of the passage lies in 3:25—what was the nature of the dispute over purification (cleansing) between the Jews and the Baptist’s disciples? Obviously, they disagreed over something. The word kaqarismou' suggests it was over the Jewish ritual of purification. But who said what? The Evangelist just doesn’t tell us.

However, I suggest this reconstruction: The disciples of John, perplexed after this disagreement with the Jewish authorities, come to John and ask about the fact that Jesus is baptizing and more and more are coming to him. John (we know from Lk 3:3, Mark 1:4) had been preaching a baptism of repentence for forgiveness of sin.

Possibly—and this is speculation—what the Jews reported to John’s disciples was that Jesus was now setting aside the Jewish purification rituals as unnecessary. To John’s disciples this might also be interpreted as:

  • a falling away from Judaism, and
  • a break with John’s own teaching.

That Jesus could have said this is very evident from many incidents in his ministry in all the gospels. The thrust would be that outward cleansing (that is, observance of purification rituals) is not what makes a person clean. A new heart within (that is, being born from above ) is what makes a person clean.

So John’s disciples come to him troubled about an apparent contradiction in doctrine though the explicit problem they mention is that Jesus was baptizing and multitudes were coming to him. (Whether Jesus was or was not baptizing really wasn’t the issue though, and John knew that because he didn’t mention it in his reply. In 4:2 we are told that Jesus was not baptizing, but his disciples. That reference would seem to cover this incident as well, and so the disciples of John are just reporting what they have heard, or think they heard.)

The real point at issue is the authority of Jesus to “overturn” the system of ritual purification within Judaism. John replies to this question of the authority of Jesus in vss. 27-36. In vss. 27-30 he reassures his disciples, reminding them that if more people are coming to Jesus, it does not threaten him at all, because “heaven” has ordained it to be so. After all, some of these very disciples of John had heard him tell the Jewish delegation that he was not the Messiah but was sent before him. Then John compares himself to the friend of the bridegroom who stands by and yet participates in the bridegroom’s joy. John is completely content in his own position as forerunner and preparer of the way.

Again with vss. 31-36 there is the problem of who is speaking: the Baptist or the Evangelist. Probably it is best to take these as the Evangelist’s words concerning the authority that Jesus has to do these things:

  • The one who comes from above is over all (31);
  • The one who receives Jesus’ testimony has set his seal that God is truthful (33);
  • The One God sent speaks God’s words (34);
  • believing in the Son is all-important (35).

3:34 ouj...ejk mevtrou Midrash Rabbah on Leviticus 15:2 states: “The Holy Spirit rested on the prophets by measure.” Jesus is contrasted to this. The Spirit rests upon him without measure.

This forms the perfect capstone to Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus. (Note the theme of ‘replacement’ that runs through the end of chapter 4). But it also does something else. It presents Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism (the whole purpose of ritual purification was the inner attitude of the heart, from the beginning, although by Jesus’ day this had been forgotten and emphasis was upon externals). Jesus turns the water into wine. He is the One who has come down from heaven to bring free communication between God and men. He came to save the entire world (3:16-17). But if so, he must reach out beyond the nationalistic and sectarian borders of Judaism. As the fulfillment of Judaism Jesus must fulfill the role Judaism had failed to carry out: to be a witness to the nations.

This, then, forms the transition to chapter 4 and Jesus’ conversation the woman of Samaria.

65 Zane C. Hodges, “Problem Passages in the Gospel of John—Part 3: Water and Spirit—John 3:5,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (1978): 206-20.

66 Hodges, “Problem Passages in the Gospel of John—Part 3: Water and Spirit—John 3:5,” BSac 135 (1978): 206-20.

67 See Leonhard Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 1:54, n. 10 for further discussion.

68 Brown, The Gospel According to John, cxvii-cxviii.

Related Topics: Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)

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