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John 3


Jesus and Nicodemus The New Birth Jesus and Official Judaism Jesus and Nicodemus The Conversation with Nicodemus
3:1-15 3:1-21 3:1-10 3:1-2 3:1-8
      3:9 3:9-21
3:16-21   3:16    
Jesus and John the Baptist John the Baptist Exalts Christ Further Testimony of John Jesus and John John Bears Witness for the First Time
3:22-30 3:22-36 3:22-24 3:22-24 3:22-24
    3:25-30 3:25-26 3:25-36
He Who Comes From Heaven     He Who Comes from Heaven  
3:31-36   3:31-36 3:31-36  



This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five modern translations. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



  1Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." 3Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."

3:1 "Pharisees" The roots of this political/religious party go back to the Maccabean period. Their name possibly means "the separated ones." They were sincere and committed to keeping God's laws as defined and explained in the oral tradition (Talmud). Just as today some of them were truly covenant people (Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea), but some were self-righteous, legalistic, judgmental, "apparent" covenant people (cf. Isa. 6:9-10; 29:13). The heart is the key! The "new covenant" (Jer. 31:31-34) focuses on internal motivation (i.e., new heart, new mind, law written on the heart). Human performance has been shown to be inadequate, as it always has. The heart circumcision of Deut. 10:16; 30:6 is a metaphor for personal trust/faith which issues in obedience and a life of gratitude!

Religious conservatism and/or liberalism can be ugly things. Theology must issue from love and faith. See SPECIAL TOPIC: PHARISEES at John 1:24.

▣ "Nicodemus" It is surprising for a Jew in Palestine to have only a Greek name (as do Philip and Andrew, cf. John 1:40,43), which meant "conqueror of the people" (cf. John 7:50;19:39).

NASB, NKJV"a ruler of the Jews"
NRSV, NJB"a leader of the Jews"
TEV"a Jewish leader"

In this context, this is a technical phrase for members of the Sanhedrin (in other contexts it could mean a leader of a local synagogue), the seventy-member high court of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Its authority had been quietly limited by the Romans, but it still had great symbolic significance to the Jewish people. See Special Topic below.

It seems probable that John uses Nicodemus as a representative of the orthodox Judaism of the first century. Those who thought they had arrived spiritually were told they had to begin again. Faith in Jesus, not adherence to rules (even godly rules, cf. Col. 2:16-23), nor racial background (cf. John 8:31-59), determines one's citizenship in the Kingdom. God's gift in Christ, not sincere, aggressive human religiosity, is the door to divine acceptance. Nicodemus' acknowledgment of Jesus as a teacher from God, though true, was not adequate. Personal trust, exclusive trust, ultimate trust in Jesus as the Messiah is fallen mankind's only hope (cf. John 1:12)!


3:2 "by night" The rabbis said that night was the best time to study the Law because there were no interruptions. Possibly Nicodemus did not want to be seen with Jesus so he (and possibly others with him) came to Him at night.

One always wonders in John's writings how often an interpreter should assume a double meaning. John is characterized by a recurring contrast between light and dark (see NET Bible, p. 1898, #7 sn).

▣ "Rabbi" In John this means "teacher" (cf. John 1:38; 4:31; Mark 9:5; 11:21). One of the things that bothered the Jewish leaders was that Jesus had not attended one of the rabbinical theological schools. He had no Talmudic study after local synagogue study in Nazareth.

▣ "You have come from God" This clause is placed first in the sentence for emphasis. This possibly alludes to the prophecy of Deut. 18:15, 18. Nicodemus recognized the power of Jesus' works and words, but this did not mean he was spiritually right with God.

▣ "unless God is with Him" This is a third class conditional sentence which means potential reality.

3:3,5,11 "truly, truly" This is literally "Amen, amen." It is from the OT word for "faith." It is from the root "to be firm" or "to be sure." Jesus used it to preface significant statements. It was also later used as a way of affirming truthful statements. The initial doubling is unique to John's Gospel. These repeated doublings of the term "amen" reveal the stages in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. See SPECIAL TOPIC: AMEN at John 1:51.

3:3 "unless one is" This is also a third class conditional sentence, like Nicodemus' statement in John 3:2.

TEV"born again"
NRSV, NJB"born from above"

This is aorist passive subjunctive. The word (anōthen) can mean

1. "physically born a second time"

2. "born from the beginning" (cf. Acts 26:4)

3. "born from above," which fits this context (cf. John 3:7,31; 19:11)

This is probably another example of John's use of terms that have two meanings (double entendre), both of which are true (cf. Bauer, Arndt, Gengrich and Danker's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 77). As is obvious from John 3:4, Nicodemus understood it as option # 1. John and Peter (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23) use this familial metaphor for salvation as Paul uses the term adoption. The focus is on the Father's acts in begetting (cf. John 1:13). Salvation is a gift and act of God (cf. John 1:12-13; Rom. 3:21-24; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9).

▣ "he cannot see" This idiomatic phrase is paralleled in John 3:5 with "cannot enter."

▣ "the kingdom of God" This phrase is used only twice in John (cf. John 3:5). This is such a key phrase in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus' first and last sermons, and most of His parables, dealt with this topic. It refers to the reign of God in human hearts now! It is surprising that John uses this phrase only twice (and never in Jesus' parables). See Special Topic below. For John "eternal life" is a key term and metaphor.

The phrase relates to the eschatological (end-time) thrust of Jesus' teachings. This "already, but not yet" theological paradox relates to the Jewish concept of two ages, the current evil age and the righteous age to come which will be inaugurated by the Messiah. The Jews expected only one coming of a Sprit-empowered military leader (like the Judges in the OT). The two comings of Jesus caused an overlapping of the two ages. The Kingdom of God has broken into human history with the incarnation at Bethlehem. However, Jesus came not as the military conqueror of Revelation 19, but as the Suffering Servant (cf. Isaiah 53) and humble leader (cf. Zech. 9:9). The Kingdom, therefore, is inaugurated (cf. Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 11:12; 12:28; Mark 1:15; Luke 9:2,11; 11:20; 21:31-32) but not consummated (cf. Matt. 6:10; 16:28; 26:64).

Believers live in the tension between these two ages. They have resurrection life, but they still are dying physically. They are freed from the power of sin, yet they still sin. They live in the eschatological tension of the already and the not yet!

A helpful expression of the tension of the already-but-not-yet in John is found in Frank Stagg's New Testament Theology:

"The Gospel of John is emphatic about a future coming (14:3,18 f.,28; 16:16,22) and it speaks clearly of the resurrection and final judgment 'in the last day' (5:28 f.; 6:39 f., 44,54; 11:24; 12:48); yet throughout this Fourth Gospel, eternal life, judgment, and resurrection are present realities (3:18 f.; 4:23; 5:25; 6:54; 11:23 ff.; 12:28,31; 13:31 f.; 14:17; 17:26)" (p. 311).


 4Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" 5Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into 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 be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again. 8The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.'"

3:5 "unless one is born of water and the Spirit" This is another third class conditional sentence. There may be a contrast (so typical of John's writings) between

1. the physical versus the spiritual (no article with "spirit")

2. the earthly versus the heavenly

This contrast is implied in John 3:6.

The theories for the meaning of "water" are

1. the rabbis use it of male semen

2. the water of child birth

3. John's baptism symbolizing repentance (cf. John 1:26; 3:23)

4. the OT background meaning ceremonial sprinkling by the Spirit (cf. Ezek. 36:25-27)

5. Christian baptism (although Nicodemus could not have understood it that way, first mentioned by Justin and Irenaeus)

In context theory #3-John's water baptism and John's statement about the Messiah's baptizing with the Holy Spirit-must be the most obvious meanings. Birth, in this context, is metaphorical and we must not let Nicodemus' misunderstanding of the terms dominate the interpretation. Therefore, theory #1 is inappropriate. Although Nicodemus would not have understood Jesus' words as referring to later Christian baptism, John the Apostle often interjects his theology into the historical words of Jesus (cf. John 3:14-21). Theory #2 would fit John's dualism of above and below, God's realm and the earthly realm. In defining these terms one must determine whether they are contrasting (#1 or #2) or complementary (#4).

D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, mentions another option: that both words refer to one birth, an eschatological birth following Ezek. 36:25-27, which describes the "new covenant" of Jer. 31:31-34 (p. 42).

F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, also sees Ezekiel as the OT allusion behind Jesus' words. It may even have been a reference to proselyte baptism, which Nicodemus, a noted rabbinical teacher, must also do! (p. 67).

▣ "the kingdom of God" One ancient Greek manuscript (i.e., MS א) and many church fathers, have the phrase "the kingdom of heaven," which is common in Matthew's Gospel. However, the phrase "the kingdom of God" occurs in John 3:3 (John 3:3 and 5 are the only places this phrase appears in John). John, writing to Gentiles (as do Mark and Luke), does not use the Jewish circumlocutions for God's name.

3:6 This again is the vertical dualism (above vs. below) so common in John (cf. John 3:11).

3:7 "you. . .You" The first is singular, referring to Nicodemus, but the second is plural, referring to a general principle applicable to all human beings (same play on singular and plural in John 3:11).

One is tempted to interpret this in light of the Jewish tendency to trust in their racial descent (cf. John 4:12; 8:53). John, writing toward the end of the first century, obviously confronts Gnosticism, and also Jewish racial arrogance.

▣ "must" The Greek verb dei (lit. "it is necessary," (BAGD 172), present active indicative) is used three times in chapter 3 (John 3:7,14,30). It denotes things that must occur for the plan of God to move forward (cf. John 4:24; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9)

3:8 There is a play on the Hebrew (and Aramaic) word (ruach) and the Greek word (pneuma) which means both "wind," "breath," and "spirit." The point is that the wind has freedom, as does the Spirit. One cannot see the wind, but rather its effects; so, too the Spirit. Mankind's salvation is not in his control, but is in the Spirit's control (cf. Ezekiel 37). It is possible that John 3:5-7 also reflect this same truth. Salvation is a combination of the initiation of the Spirit (cf. John 6:44,65) and the faith/repentance response of the individual person (cf. John 1:12; 3:16,18).

John's Gospel uniquely focuses on the person and work of the Spirit (cf. John 14:17,25-26; 16:7-15). He sees the new age of righteousness as the age of the Spirit of God.

Verse 8 stresses the enigma of why some people believe when they hear/see the gospel and others do not. John asserts that no one can believe unless touched by the Spirit (cf. John 1:13; 6:44,65). This verse reinforces that theology. However, the question of covenant response (i.e., human acceptance of a divine offer) still assumes the Spirit touches everyone. Why some refuse to believe is the great mystery of iniquity (i.e., the self-centeredness of the Fall). The older I get, the more I study my Bible, the more I minister to God's people, the more I write "mystery" across life. We all live in the dark fog (i.e., 1 Cor. 13:12) of human rebellion! Being able to explain or to put it another way, developing a systematic theology, is not as important as trusting God in Christ. Job was never told "why"!


  9Nicodemus said to Him, "How can these things be?" 10Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. 14As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.

3:9-10 Nicodemus should have understood Jesus' symbolic terminology in light of (1) Judaism's proselyte baptism and (2) John the Baptist's preaching.

This may have been a purposeful downplaying of human knowledge; even someone like Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, did not fully understand spiritual things. John's Gospel was written to combat incipient Gnosticism, a heresy that emphasized human knowledge as a means of salvation. Only Jesus is the true light (cf. John 3:19) for all, not just an elite group.

3:11 "we speak of what we know" These plural pronouns refer to Jesus and John the Apostle (cf. John 3:11) or Jesus and the Father, which fits the context better (John 3:12). The gospel is not speculation, but divine revelation!

▣ "you do not accept our testimony" John often uses the terms accept/receive (lambanō) and its prepositional compounds in a theological sense.

1.  of receiving Jesus

a. negatively (John 1:11; 3:11, 32; 5:43, 47)

b. positively (John 1:12; 3:11,33; 5:43; 13:20)

2. of receiving the Spirit

a. negatively (John 14:17)

b. positively (John 7:39)

3. of receiving Jesus' words

a. negatively (John 12:48)

b. positively (John 17:8)



3:12 "If. . .if" The first one is a first class conditional sentence, which is assumed to be true from the author's perspective or for his literary purposes. The second one is a third class conditional sentence which meant potential action.

▣ "you" The pronoun and the verbs are plural. Nicodemus may have had students or other Pharisees with him as he came to Jesus, or this could be a general statement (i.e., Nicodemus as a representative of a group) to all unbelieving Jews like John 3:7 and 11.

3:13 This verse is intended to confirm Jesus' revelation of the Father as true, complete, firsthand, and unique (cf. John 1:1-14). This is another example of the vertical dualism in John: heaven versus earth, physical versus spiritual, Nicodemus' origin versus Jesus' origin (cf. John 1:51; 6:33,38,41,50,51,58,62). This verse asserts (1) the deity; (2) the pre-existence; and (3) the incarnation of the eternal Second Person of the Trinity (for Trinity see Special Topic at John 14:26).

▣ "the Son of Man" This is Jesus' self-designation; it had no nationalistic, militaristic, Messianic implications in first century Judaism. The term comes from Ezek. 2:1 and Ps. 8:4 ,where it meant "human being" and Dan. 7:13 where it implied deity. The term combines the paradox of Jesus' person, fully God and fully man (cf. 1 John 4:1-3).

3:14-21 It is difficult to know for certain where Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus stops and Jesus' or John the Apostle's later comments begin. It is possible that the Synoptic Gospels record Jesus' public teaching ministry, while John records His private sessions with His disciples. Verses 14-21 can be outlined as follows.

1. vv. 14-15 relate to Jesus

2. vv. 16-17 relate to the Father

3. vv. 18-21 relate to mankind

Remember that whether it is Jesus or John does not affect the truth of the statements!

3:14 "As Moses lifted up the serpent" This is a reference to Num. 21:4-9 which narrates an experience of judgment during the Wilderness Wandering Period. The central truth is that humans must trust and obey God's word, even when they do not fully understand it. God provided a way for the Israelites to be saved from the snake bites if they would only believe. This belief was evidenced by their obedience to His word/promise (cf. Num. 21:8).

▣ "lifted" This Greek word (cf. John 8:28; 12:32,34) was often translated "highly exalted" (cf. Acts 2:33; 5:31; Phil. 2:9) and is another term John uses in two senses (double entendre, cf. John 1:5; 3:3,8). As God promised deliverance from death by snake bite to those who believed God's word and looked at the bronze serpent, so, too those who believe God's word (the gospel about Christ, the One lifted up on the cross) and trust in Jesus will be delivered (saved) from the snake (Devil, sin) bite of evil (cf. John 12:31-32).

3:15-18 "whoever" (John 3:15) "whoever" (John 3:16) "He who" (John 3:18) God's love is an invitation to all mankind (cf. Isa. 55:1-3; Ezek. 18:23,32; John 1:29; 3:16; 6:33,51; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2; 4:14). The offer of salvation is universal, but its acceptance is not!

3:15 "believes" This is a present active participle. Belief is an ongoing trust. See note at John 1:12 and Special Topics at John 1:7 and 2:23.

▣ "in Him" This refers not only to facts (theological truths) about Jesus, but to a personal relationship with Him. Salvation is (1) a message to be believed; (2) a person to be received and obeyed; and (3) a life like that person to live!

The grammatical form here is unusual. It is the pronoun with the preposition en which is only found here in John; usually it is the preposition eis. It is just possible that it should be related to "may have eternal life" (cf. The New Testament in Basic English by Harold Greenlee).

3:15,16 "eternal life" This Greek term (zoē ) referred to quality and quantity (cf. John 5:24). In Matt. 25:46 the same word is used for eternal separation. In John zoē (used 33 times, mostly in chapters 5 and 6) usually (the verb used of physical life, i.e., 4:50,51,53) refers to resurrection, eschatological life, or the life of the New Age, the life of God Himself.

John is unique among the Gospels in his emphasis on "eternal life." It is a major theme and goal of his Gospel (cf. John 3:15; 4:36; 5:39; 6:54,68; 10:28; 12:25; 17:2,3).

  16For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.

3:16 "God so loved" This is an aorist active indicative (as is the verb "gave"), which here speaks of a completed act in the past time (God sent Jesus). Verses 16-17 deal primarily with the Father's love (cf. 1 John 4:7-21, esp. John 3:9-10). "Loved" is the term agapaō. It was not used much in Classical Greek. The early church took it and filled it with specific meaning. In certain contexts it relates to the Father's or Son's love, however, it is used negatively of human love (cf. John 3:19; 12:43; 1 John 2:15). It is theologically synonymous with hesed in the OT, which meant God's covenant loyalty and love. In Koine Greek of John's day, the terms agapaō and phileō are basically synonymous (compare John 3:35 with 5:20).

Interpreters must keep in mind that all words used to describe God carry human (anthropomorphic) baggage. We must use words that describe our world, our feelings, our historical perspective in an attempt to describe an eternal, holy, unique, spiritual Being (God). All human vocabulary is to some extent analogous or metaphorical. What has been revealed is surely true, but not ultimate. Fallen, temporal, finite mankind cannot grasp ultimate reality.


▣ "so" This is literally "in such a manner" (i.e., John 7:46; 11:48; 18:22). It expresses method, not emotion! God demonstrated His love (cf. Rom. 5:8) by giving (John 3:16) and sending (John 3:17, both are aorist active indicatives) His Son to die on mankind's behalf (cf. Isaiah 53; Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:2).

▣ "world" John used this Greek term kosmos in several senses (see note at John 1:10 and Special Topic at John 14:17).

This verse also refuted the Gnostic dualism between spirit (God) and matter. The Greeks tended to attribute evil to matter. For them matter (i.e., human body) was the prison house of the divine spark in all humans. John does not assume the evil of matter or flesh. God loves the world (planet, cf. Rom. 8:18-22) and human beings (flesh, cf. Rom. 8:23). This may be another intentional ambiguity (double entendre) so common in John (cf. John 1:5; 3:3,8).

▣ "only begotten Son" This means "unique, one of a kind." It should not be understood as "only begotten" in (1) a sexual sense or (2) the sense that there are no other children. There are just no other children like Jesus. See fuller note at John 1:14.

▣ "whoever believes in Him" This is a present active participle, which emphasizes initial and continuing belief. See Special Topics at John 1:14 and 2:23. This affirmation is repeated from John 3:15 for emphasis. Thank God for the "whosoever"! This must balance any overemphasis on a special group (racial, intellectual, or theological). It is not that "God's sovereignty" and "human freewill" are mutually exclusive; they are both true! God always initiates the response and sets the agenda (cf. John 6:44,65), but He has structured His relationship with humans by means of covenant. They must respond and continue to respond to His offer and conditions!


▣ "shall not perish" The implication is that some will perish (aorist middle subjunctive). Their perishing (amollumi, aorist middle subjunctive) is directly related to their lack of a faith response to Jesus (cf. John 11:25). God does not cause, direct, or will their unbelief (cf. Ezek. 18:23,32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).

Many have attempted to take this term literally and thereby suggest an annihilation of the wicked. This would contradict Dan. 12:2 and Matt. 25:46. This is a good example of sincere believers forcing the Eastern highly figurative literature into a Western interpretive format (literal and logical). For a good discussion of this term see Robert B. Girdlestone's Synonyms of the Old Testament, pp. 275-277. See Special Topic: Destruction (apolummi) at John 10:10.

Again, note how John thinks and writes in dualistic categories (i.e., perish vs. eternal life). The vocabulary and theological structuring of Jesus' teachings are very different between the Synoptic Gospels and John. One wonders how much freedom (under divine guidance, i.e., inspiration) the Gospel writers had in preparing their evangelistic presentation of Jesus to their selected audiences. See Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth, pp. 127-148.

3:17 "to judge the world" There are several passages in John that assert that Jesus came as Savior, not Judge (cf. John 3:17-21; 8:15; 12:47). However, there are other passages in John that assert that Jesus came to judge, will judge (cf. John 5:22-23,27; 9:39; as well as other parts of the NT, Acts 10:42; 17:31; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5).

Several theological comments are in order.

1. God gave judgment to Jesus as He did creation and redemption as a sign of honor (cf. John 5:23)

2. Jesus did not come the first time to judge, but to save (cf. John 3:17), but by the fact that people reject Him, they judge themselves

3. Jesus will return as King of Kings and Judge (cf. John 9:39)


3:18 This verse repeats the theme of a free salvation through Christ versus a self inflicted judgment. God does not send people to hell. They send themselves. Belief has continuing results ("believing," present active participle) and so does unbelief ("has been judged," perfect passive indicative and "has not believed," perfect active indicative). See Special Topics at John 2:23 and 9:7.

3:19-21 "men loved the darkness rather than the light" Many people who have heard the gospel reject it, not for intellectual or cultural reasons, but primarily for moral ones (cf. Job 24:13). The Light refers to Christ (cf. John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46) and His message of God's love, mankind's need, Christ's provision, and the required response. This is a recurring motif from John 1:1-18.

3:19 "This is the judgment" Judgment, like salvation, is both a present reality (cf. John 3:19; 9:39) and a future consummation (cf. John 5:27-29; 12:31,48). Believers live in the already (realized eschatology) and the not yet (consummated eschatology). The Christian life is a joy and a terrible struggle; it is victory after a series of defeats; assurance yet a series of warnings about perseverance!

3:21 "practices the truth" Since "the Light" (cf. John 3:19,20[twice],21) is an obvious reference to Jesus, it is possible that "the truth" should also be capitalized. Robert Hanna in A Grammatical Aid to the Greek New Testament quotes N. Turner in his Grammatical Insights into the New Testament, who translates it as "the man who is a disciple of the Truth" (p. 144).

Theologically this verse expresses the same truth as Matthew 7. Eternal life has observable characteristics. A person cannot truly encounter God in Christ, be filled by the Holy Spirit, and remain the same. The parable of the soils focuses on fruit-bearing, not germination (cf. Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 8. Also note John's discussion in John 15:1-11). Works do not earn salvation, but they are the evidence of it (cf. Eph. 2:8-9,10).


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. What is the meaning of the phrase "born again"?

2. What do you think "water" refers to in verse 5 and why?

3. What does "believe" (saving faith) involve?

4. Is John 3:16 a passage about Jesus' love for mankind or the Father's?

5. How is Calvinism related to John 3:16?

6. Does "perish" mean annihilation?

7. Define "the light."



A. John's emphasis on the full deity of Jesus Christ is communicated from the very beginning of the Gospel through dialogue and personal encounters. This chapter continues that format.


B. John, writing his Gospel toward the end of the first century, deals with some of the questions that had developed since the Synoptic Gospels were written. One of them has to do with the large following and apparent early heresies connected with John the Baptist (cf. Acts 18:24-19:7). It is significant that in John 1:6-8, 19-36 and 3:22-36 John the Baptist affirms his inferior relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and asserts Jesus' Messianic role.



  22After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. 23John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized- 24for John had not yet been thrown into prison.

3:22 "came into the land of Judea" This early ministry in both Judea and Galilee is not discussed in the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospels are not chronological biographies of Christ. See Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, pp. 127-148.

▣ "He was spending time with them" Jesus preached to the crowds but dialogued extensively with His disciples. He poured Himself into them. This methodology is the focus of two wonderful books by Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism and The Master Plan of Discipleship, both of which emphasize Jesus' personal involvement with a small group!

 ▣ "and baptizing" We learn from 4:2 that Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples did. Jesus' message was initially very similar to the message of John the Baptist. It was an OT message of repentance and preparation. The baptism mentioned here is not Christian baptism but a baptism symbolizing repentance and spiritual receptivity.

3:23 "John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim" The location of this site is uncertain.

1. some believe it was in Perea in the transJordan area

2. some believe it was in northeast Samaria

3. some believe it was three miles east of the city of Shechem

Because "aenon" seems to mean "stream," #3 fits best. Whatever the exact location, Jesus was ministering in Judea and John was somewhere a short distance to the north of Him.

3:24 "for John had not yet been thrown into prison" It is uncertain why this chronological item is added at this point. Some say it is an attempt to synchronize John's chronology with that of the Synoptics (cf. Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29). It functions as a means of dating this encounter in the life of Christ.

  25Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew about purification. 26And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him." 27John answered and said, "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. 28"You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent ahead of Him.' 29"He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. 30"He must increase, but I must decrease.

3:25 "there arose a discussion on the part of John's disciples with a Jew" "Discussion" (NASB, NRSV, NJB) is a strong term for "controversy" or "confrontation." Some Greek manuscripts have the plural "Jews." The ancient Greek manuscripts are equally divided. Because the singular is more unusual (i.e., MSS P25, א2, A, B, L, W), it is probably original. UBS4 gives it a "B" rating (almost certain). The tendency of the ancient scribes was to harmonize and smooth out the text. It is also interesting to note that John's disciples probably instigated this argument.

NRSV, NJB"about purification"
TEV"the matter of ritual washing"

There have been several theories about the focus of this dispute (NKJV).

1. it is possible that John's followers were discussing the relationship between the baptisms of John and Jesus as they related to the Jewish tradition of washings; the same term is used in John 2:6.

2. some believe it relates to the immediate context where Jesus was teaching that His life and ministry totally fulfilled Judaism

a. John 2:1-12, the wedding feast of Cana

b. John 2:13-22, the cleansing of the temple

c. John 3:1-21, the discussion with Nicodemus, the ruler of the Jews

d. John 3:22-36, the washings of the Jews and the baptisms of John the Baptist and Jesus.

The fact that the context does not expand specifically on this particular discussion highlights the fact that it gave another opportunity for John the Baptist to witness about the supremacy of Jesus of Nazareth.

3:26 "to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him" The disciples remembered John's earlier testimony about the Lamb of God (cf. John 1:19-36), and they are apparently a little envious over the success (hyperbole) of Jesus. Jesus was also sensitive to any spirit of competition (cf. John 4:1).

3:27 "A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven" This is a very straightforward affirmation that there is no competition in spiritual matters. Everything believers have is given to them by the grace of God. However, there has been much discussion as to the meaning of "it" and "him."

1. some say "him" refers to the believer and "it" refers to one coming to Christ for salvation (God initiates, humans can only respond, cf. John 6:44,65)

2. others believe the "him" refers to Jesus and the "it" refers to believers (cf. John 6:39; 10:29; 17:2,9,11,24)

The difference between these two views would be that the term "given" refers either to the salvation of the individual believer or that all believers themselves are a gift from God to Jesus (cf. John 17:2).

3:28 "I am not the Christ" John the Baptist affirms specifically, as he did in John 1:20, that he is not the Messiah, but the forerunner. This is an obvious allusion to the prophetic passages of Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6, combined with Isaiah 40 (cf. John 1:23). See note on "Messiah" at John 1:20 and Special Topic at John 4:25.

3:29 "He who has the bride is the bridegroom" It is striking that there are so many OT allusions to this marriage metaphor describing the relationship between God and Israel (cf. Isa. 54:5; 62:4,5; Jer. 2:2; 3:20; Ezek. 16:8; 23:4; Hos. 2:21). Paul also uses it in Eph. 5:22ff. Christian marriage may be the best modern example of a covenant relationship.

▣ "So this joy of mine has been made full" The noun "joy" and verb "rejoice" are used three times in this verse. Instead of having a competitive spirit, John the Baptist obviously recognized his place and rejoiced in Jesus.

3:30 "He must increase, but I must decrease" The term "must" (dei) here is significant. It has already been used in John 3:14 and 4:4. It is a strong affirmation of John's understanding of himself as simply a forerunner of the greater and more significant ministry of Jesus.

  31"He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32"What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. 33"He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. 34"For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. 35"The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. 36He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."

3:31-36 There has been much discussion among commentators over whether these verses are

1. John the Baptist's continuing verbal affirmations

2. the words of Jesus (cf. John 3:11-12)

3. of John the Apostle

These verses return to the themes of John 3:16-21.

3:31 "He who comes from above" It is significant that the two titles used for the Messiah emphasize His pre-existence and full deity (implied in John 3:31), and His incarnation and God-given mission (implied in John 3:34). The term "from above" is the same term used in the phrase "born again" or "born from above" in John 3:3.

This dualism of above and below, of God's realm and mankind's earthly realm, is characteristic of John. It is different from the eschatological dualism of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is also different from the Gnostic dualism of spirit and matter. In John creation itself and the human body are not in and of themselves evil or sinful.

▣ "above all. . .above all" The first part of this verse alludes to Jesus' deity and pre-existence, coming from heaven (cf. John 1:1-18; 3:11-12). The second part of the verse affirms that He is over God's creation. It is uncertain from the Greek text whether "all" is masculine or neuter, referring to all mankind or all things. The second "above all" is missing in some Greek texts. The UBS4 cannot decide on its inclusion, but textual criticisms presuppositions (see Appendix Two) would prefer its inclusion.

NASB"he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth"
NKJV"he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth"
NRSV"The one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things"
TEV"he who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things"
NJB"he who is of the earth is earthly himself and speaks in an earthly way"

This is not a negative statement about John. The term for earth here (, John 12:32; 17:4; 1 John 5:8, but 76 times in Revelation) is not the same as the term "world" (kosmos), which is often used negatively by John. This is simply an affirmation that Jesus spoke out of that which He knows, heaven, while all human beings speak out of that which they know, earth. Therefore, the testimony of Jesus is far greater than that of any earthly prophet or preacher (cf. Heb. 1:1-4).

3:32 "What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies" There is a play on the verb tenses in this verse: (1) "seen" is perfect tense; (2) "heard" is aorist tense; and (3) "testifies" is present tense. Jesus is God's ultimate revelation (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:13-20; Heb. 1:2-3). He speaks out of (1) His personal experience with God the Father and (2) His own Deity.

▣ "and no one receives His testimony" This is an Oriental overstatement because John 3:23-26 indicate that many were coming to Him. This phrase refers to Judaism as a whole (cf. John 3:11), not just the immediate context.

3:33 "He who" This shows God's universal, unlimited love for all human beings. There are no barriers connected to God's gospel; one must repent and believe (cf. Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21), but the offer is open to all (cf. John 1:12; 3:16-18; 4:42; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:1; 4:14).

▣ "has received His testimony" Verse 33 is an aorist participle, while John 3:36 is a present participle. This shows that trusting in God for salvation is not only an initial decision, but it is also a life of discipleship. This same affirmation of the need for acceptance has been previously stated both in John 1:12 and 3:16-18. Notice the dichotomy between accepting the testimony (John 3:33) and continuing to walk in it (John 3:36). The term "accepting," like the term "faith," has two connotations in the NT.

1. personally receiving Christ and walking in Him

2. accepting the truths and doctrines involved in the Gospel (cf. Jude, 3,20)


NASB"has set his seal to this, that God is true"
NKJV, NRSV"has certified that God is true"
TEV"confirms by this that God is truthful"
NJB"is attesting that God is true"

When believers put their personal trust in Christ, they affirm that God's message about Himself, the world, mankind, and His Son, is true (cf. Rom. 3:4). This is a recurrent theme in John (cf. John 3:33; 7:28; 8:26; 17:3; 1 John 5:20). Jesus is true because He ultimately reveals the one true God (cf. John 3:7,14; 19:11).

For the verb "seal" (aorist active indicative) see Special Topic following.


3:34 "He whom God has sent speaks the words of God" There are two parallel statements in John 3:34 which show that Jesus' authority comes from God

1. God has sent Him

2. He has the fulness of the Spirit


▣ "for He gives the Spirit without measure" This statement is literally in a negated form, but for English readers the positive form captures the meaning. There are two different ways of understanding this fulness of the Spirit: some believe that

1. Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit to believers (cf. John 4:10-14; 7:37-39)

2. that the fulness of the Spirit refers to God's gift of the Messiah (cf. John 3:35)

The rabbis used the term "measure" to describe God's inspiring the prophets. The rabbis also added that no prophet had a full measure of the Spirit. Therefore, Jesus is superior to the prophets (cf. Heb. 1:1-2) and is, thereby, God's full revelation.

3:35 "The Father loves the Son" This affirmation is repeated in John 5:20 and 17:23-26. Believers' relationship to God is founded on His love for the Messiah (the unique Son, cf. Heb. 1:2; 3:5-6; 5:8; 7:28). Note the number of reasons stated in this context why humans should trust Jesus as the Messiah.

1. because He is from above and above all others (John 3:31)

2. because He was sent from God on a mission of redemptions (John 3:34)

3. because God continues to give Him the fulness of the Spirit (John 3:34)

4. because God loves Him (John 3:35)

5. because God has put everything in His hands (John 3:35)

There are several Greek words for "love" which denote different human relationships. Agapaō and phileō have a semantic overlap. Both are used to describe the Father's love for the Son.

1. John 3:35; 17:23,24,26 - agapaō

2. John 5:20 - phileō

There does seems to be a contextual distinction in Jesus' dialog with Peter in John 21:15-17. Remember, "context, context, context," not lexicons/dictionaries, determines word meanings!

▣ "has given all things into His hand" This is a perfect active indicative. This is a Hebrew idiom for power or authority over another (i.e., John 10:28; 13:3; Acts 4:28; 13:11). This is an extremely interesting phrase and has numerous parallels (cf. John 17:2; Matt. 11:27; 28:18; Eph. 1:20-22; Col. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:22).


NASB"He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life"
NKJV"He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life"
NRSV"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life"
TEV"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not have life"
NJB"Anyone who believes in the Son has eternal life, but anyone who refuses to believe in the Son will never see life"

These verbals are all present active which speak of ongoing action. Belief is more than a one time decision no matter how sincere or emotional it may have been (cf. Matt. 13:20). This affirms that without knowing Jesus, one cannot know the Father (cf. John 12:44-50 and 1 John 5:10). Salvation only comes through a continuing relationship with Jesus, the Son (cf. John 10:1-18; 14:6).

The present tense not only speaks of ongoing action, but the present reality of salvation. It is something believers have now, but it is not fully consummated. It is the dualism of the "already" vs. "not yet" of the two ages (see Special Topic: This Age and the Age to come at 1 John 2:17). See Special Topic: Verb Tenses Used for Salvation at John 9:7.

It is also interesting to note the contrast of "believe" and "obey" in this verse. The Gospel is not only a person whom we receive and a truth that we accept, but it is also a life that we live (cf. Luke 6:46; Eph. 2:8-10).

▣ "but the wrath of God abides on him" This is the only place in John's writings (except 5 times in Revelation) where the term "wrath" (orgē) appears. The concept is common and is usually related to the term "judgment." This is a present active indicative. "Belief," "obedience," and "wrath" are ongoing present realities that will be consummated in the future. This is the same tension that exists between the "already" and the "not yet" of the Kingdom of God. For a full biblical discussion on the wrath of God read Rom. 1:18-3:20.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

 1. How is Jesus' early message like that of John the Baptist?
2. Is this baptism the same as Christian baptism?
3. Why are the words of John the Baptist emphasized so much in the opening chapters of John?
4. Describe the number and kinds of contrasts that John the author uses to describe the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus?
5. How is the term "accept" in John 3:33 related to the term "believe" in John 3:36? How does the term "disobeying" in John 3:36 relate to this discussion?
6. List the number of reasons mentioned why people should trust Jesus of Nazareth as their only hope of salvation? (verses 31-36)
7. Explain why the term "wrath" in verse 36 is a present tense verb.


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