Jesus dialogues with Nicodemus and says, “You must be born again.” Nicodemus does not understand. Then John, the author of the Gospel, says the most famous verse of all. John the Baptist says Jesus must increase, but John must decrease. Jesus comes from above and is over all.
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You Must Be Born Again (John 3:1-15)
1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs which you do, unless God was with him.” 3 In reply, Jesus said to him, “I tell you the firm truth: unless someone is born again, he will not see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person be born, when he is old? He cannot go into his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus replied: “I tell you the firm truth: Unless someone is born from water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 What is born of the body is bodily, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not wonder that I say to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it came from or where it is going. And it is this way for every person who has been born of the Spirit. 9 In reply, Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 In reply, Jesus said to him, “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not know these things?
11 “I tell you the firm truth: We speak of what we know, and what we see we testify to it, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 If I speak to you of earth-bound matters and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly matters? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, in this way the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Since the verb believe and the noun faith are so important in John’s Gospel, I would like to plant word studies at the beginning of each chapter. Then you can scroll back up here to read what the terms mean. This is cyberspace, so we don’t need to worry about the cost per printed page.
The verb believe (verb is pisteuō, pronounced pih-stew-oh) and the noun faith have to penetrate one’s whole being. Now let’s study them more formally. The noun faith is pistis (pronounced peace-teace or pis-tiss), and it is used 243 times. Its basic meaning is the “belief, trust, confidence,” and it can also mean “faithfulness” and “trustworthy” (Mounce p. 232). It is directional, and the best direction is faith in God (Mark 11:22; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:21; Heb. 6:1) and faith in Jesus (Acts 3:16; 20:21; 24:24; Gal. 3:26; Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4; 1 Tim. 3:13). Believing (verb) and faith (noun) is very important to God. It is the language of heaven. We live on earth and by faith see the invisible world where God is. We must believe he exists; then we must exercise our faith to believe he loves us and intends to save us.
A true acronym:
Forsaking All, I Trust Him
One has to surrender to the Lordship of Jesus.
The bottom line is that for John’s Gospel believing and faith must not get stuck in an intellectual assent. “I believe that God exists and Jesus lived.” Instead, everyone who believes or has faith must put their complete trust in God’s Son.
Now let’s move on.
First off, many commentators believe that v. 13 is when John takes over from Jesus’ speech and reflects and meditates on what Jesus just said, so v. 12 would end Jesus’s dialog or direct speech. So I could include vv. 13-15 in the next pericope (pronounced puh-RIH-koh-pea) or unit or section. Alternatively, some claim that John begins his meditation with v. 16, so vv. 13-15 should remain where I have it now.
Second, Jesus said that he did not need anyone’s testimony because he knew all men (John 2:24-25). Now, however, he goes into several conversations in which “he instantly gets into the hearts of individuals with highly diverse backgrounds and needs” (Carson, p. 185): Nicodemus (3:1-15, the Samaritan woman (4:1-26), the Gentile official (4:43-53), the man at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-15), and others.
John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, describes a poor reception of Jesus, but then follows it up with some exception (1:10-13; 3:19-21; 6:66-69).
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night probably because he feared his peers suspecting him of being a sympathizer (cf. Joseph of Arimathea who “feared” the Jews; 19:38). Another option: Rabbis often continued their dialogs into the night.
Nicodemus says that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, but the Jewish leader does not see the signs as yet pointing to Jesus’ Messiahship and Sonship. For Nicodemus, Jesus is not even the prophet Moses said would come (Deut. 18:15-18). Nicodemus calls him the collegial “Rabbi,” but this has not the same technical meaning, as it will after A.D. 70 and the destruction of the temple. For now it means “teacher.”
The signs Jesus performed indicates that at least the ruler of the Jews (Nicodemus belonged to the Sanhedrin) was not so fanatical that he concluded Jesus worked them by the power of Satan (8:48, 52).
Commentator Klink believes that Nicodemus was an antagonist, not a sincere seeker. This dialogue “is part of the larger conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, that is, between God and humanity” (p. 193; comment on 3:2). “Nicodemus embodies broken religion and broken humanity (p. 192). Nicodemus did see Jesus as “the Prophet” of Deut. 18, but only in a mocking way. It is possible that the member of the Sanhedrin was slightly antagonistic and a genuine seeker. People often have mixed motives.
Jesus is answering Nicodemus’s question, but not in the way he (or we) expects. Borchert: “Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is a vivid contrast to Nicodemus’s introductory words that no one is able (dunatai) to “perform the miraculous signs.” Jesus’ reply is a play on “ability”; namely, unless one is born from above, such a person is not able (ou dunatai) to “see the kingdom of God.” This contrast sets up a further series of statements about what is possible according to Nicodemus’s finite mind-set and what is actually possible according to Jesus (cf. also 3:4a, 4b, 5, 10)” (comment on v. 3).
Morris offers three standard interpretations for water: (1) water for purification, with a backward look at John’s baptism. (2) Water means procreation, as in a natural birth. (3) Water refers to Christian baptism, looking ahead. Morris favors the second interpretation.
“I tell you the firm truth”: it literally read, “amen, amen, I tell you.” Truth” comes from the word amēn (pronounced ah-main and comes into English as amen). In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus says amen only once, but in John he very often says the word twice, so I translate the double word as “firm truth.” It expresses the authority of the one who utters it. The Hebrew root ’mn means faithfulness, reliability and certainty. It could be translated as “Truly, truly I tell you” or I tell you with utmost certainty.” Jesus’s faith in his own words is remarkable and points to his unique calling. It means we must pay attention to it, for it is authoritative. He is about to declare an important and solemn message or statement. The clause appears only on the lips of Jesus in the NT.
The phrase “born again” (vv. 3 and 7) can definitely be translated as “born from above.” And the more I read vv. 12 and 31, the more I realize that the best translation is “born from above.” The Spirit comes from above. The Father sends the Spirit from heaven, not from earth. However, the adverb can also be translated again (Gal. 4:9). I decided to leave the translation as “born again,” because Nicodemus misunderstands it in this way. The Greek adverb is versatile enough to be understood in this way. It can have both meanings at the same time, so Jesus is toying with the ambiguity. It therefore means both “born again” and “born from above.” So far Nicodemus wants to find out how he can assess Jesus and his signs. God was with him, Nicodemus concludes, but he does not believe Jesus preexisted his birth. Instead of answering the question directly, Jesus exposes Nicodemus as missing the mark. Jesus goes right into spiritual matters—new birth.
We have two symbols in this passage. Let’s take them one at a time, as we use our uncomplicated diagram, reading from the bottom up.
Here is our uncomplicated diagram, starting from the bottom up:
2.. What Does It or He Symbolize?
1.. Physical Object or Person
Let’s fill it in:
2.. Born Again or Born from Above
1.. Physical Birth
So what does the second level, the most important one, mean? People are born into this world and are not neutral. When they hear the message and do not believe it, God’s wrath or judgment remains on them (v. 36). They need a rebirth, to be born a second time. Only the Spirit can produce the new life in those who believe in Jesus, the Son of Man. The result is that the believer, now born again, can enter the kingdom of God. Therefore, one enters the kingdom of God at the new birth.
Here are verses that speak of rebirth or new birth (all from the NIV):
Recall John 1:12-13:
12 But to all who received him, to the ones who believe in his name, he gave the authority to become children of God, 13 not the ones born from blood, neither by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of a husband, but from God. (John 1:12-13)
Peter must have heard Jesus teach on rebirth:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet. 1:3, emphasis added)
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Pet. 1:23)
Paul picks up the image of rebirth, so it must have circulated in the earliest Christian communities:
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior… (Titus 3:4-6, emphasis added)
John picks up the theme again:
If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. (1 John 2:29)
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9)
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)
1 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. … 4 or everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. … 18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. (1 John 5:1, 4, 18)
It seems, then, that the image of rebirth was strong and early in the Christian communities. I see no reason why the reality of new birth could not have begun with Jesus. Paul in his epistle to Titus connects washing with rebirth, similar to what Jesus does in the verses in John’s Gospel. This lends credence to my interpretation that water is symbolic, which must not be over-read. It’s the new birth that is salvific, not water in itself, even water that is prayed over and sanctified into a sacrament.
Jesus said, we will (not) “see” the kingdom of God. “See” in this context means to experience it; then people who have experienced being born again and entered the kingdom can speak of what they know. They can testify about it.
Here are some of my posts on a more formal doctrine of the Spirit (systematic theology):
Now let’s look a little deeper into the kingdom of God.
What is it? As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5).
Here it is the already and not-yet. The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming. Yet the kingdom of God is not exclusively in the future. Some of the kingdom can come down in our lives right now. And we must be born again to enter it.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
It is a startling fact that a major leader in Israel—a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest court and council in Judaism- the very Sanhedrin which will put Jesus to death–does not understand this symbol. He must have been too preoccupied with legalism, like ceremonial washing before dinner and the detailed discussions of what constituted working on the Sabbath. A man like Nicodemus would have understood the kingdom as coming in the next age, and God allows entry into it at that time, not now and not by this odd concept of being born again. Therefore, Nicodemus’s aim had to be lifted up to spiritual things, things that really mattered, like new birth and the kingdom of God. All the old ceremonies were about to be swept aside.
Mounce: “To see God’s kingdom means to enter into and have a part in the final establishment of God’s sovereign rule. As a Jew, Nicodemus would have understood the kingdom of God in the long-awaited age to come. To ‘see’ this kingdom would mean to experience resurrection life at the end of the age. What he did not understand was that to have a part in that kingdom required a second birth” (comment on v. 4, emphasis original).
“I tell you the truth”: see v. 3 for more comments.
What does “born of water” mean?
Let’s use the diagram for clarity:
2.. What Does It or He Symbolize?
1.. Physical Object or Person
Let’s fill it in:
2.. Spiritual Cleansing by the Spirit
1.. Physical water
Baptism in water, at a minimum, is a physical act. We can discuss whether it goes deeper, and it does. How could water–H2O–wash the soul without the Spirit? No, physical water has no effect or power to reach into a human’s inner being, so the Spirit has to wash the soul, and the water symbolizes this inner cleansing done by the Spirit.
We just read in the previous chapter that the master of the banquet knew about six stone water jars, which were used for ceremonial purification. However, Jesus himself transformed the water into wine, and this transformation leads to a new way, a new life. Jesus was enacting an action parable, which says he is now the master of the banquet, and his banquet is heavenly or kingdom-centered. Here in this pericope of Scripture, Jesus is calling Nicodemus to be born of water, but not by a ceremonial water imposed by Jewish rituals, but the water that will cleanse the inner being, not just the dirt off the body or food off the plate.
It is understandable that John would speak of the waters of baptism because in the earliest Christian communities, as soon as someone was converted or regenerated or born again, he got water baptized. So it is not clear that they made such fine-line distinctions as professional theologians do today.
The Samaritans were baptized as soon as they believed Philip’s message:
12 When they believed Philip who was preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. (Acts 8:12)
The Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized as soon as he believed Philip’s message, and they came across water:
36 As they were going along the road, they came on some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! Water!” What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 And he ordered the wagon to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36, 38)
Cornelius and his household were baptized immediately after the Spirit fell on them and empowered them:
Then Peter answered, 47 Who can refuse water to baptize these who have received the Holy Spirit, as we also have?” 48 He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:46-48)
Paul picks up the reality of cleansing (washing) through water and the Spirit:
4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior … (Titus 3:4-6, NIV)
So of course the earliest Christian communities would seemingly merge water baptism with conversion or at least see them closely connected.
The background is the Spirit being poured out in the OT:
These OT passages speak of an eschatological outpouring of the Spirit:
until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,
and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. (Is. 32:15, ESV)
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
and my blessing on your descendants. (Is. 44:3, ESV)
26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:26-27, ESV)
And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God. (Ezek. 39:29, ESV)
“And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit. (Joel 2:28-29, ESV)
In the previous three passages, the promise was given to Israel. In Joel’s prophecy, the Spirit is poured out in all flesh or all of humanity. Each of those above passages speak of obeying the law of God and living righteously. Now this obedience comes from the inside out and by the power of the indwelling Spirit. Don’t let any teacher tell you that you don’t have to worry about living righteously. You absolutely do. So does right believing always lead to right living? Maybe, but anyone who believes right could also live wrong. True, right living is done by the overflow and outflow of the Spirit in conformity to Scripture.
This passage from Ezekiel combines water and the outpouring of the Spirit:
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezek. 36:25-27, NIV)
No, John the Baptizer or Immerser did not sprinkle, but those verse do speak of an inward work by the Spirit—not by the water.
Klink notes that in the Gospel, water is about cleansing (9:7; 13:5) or restoration and newness or sustaining life by quenching thirst (4:10-14; 6:35; 7:37-38) and is even directly connected to the “Spirit” in 7:39. The Spirit can be the “life-giving Spirit (6:63) or the agent of purification (1:33) (Klink, comment on v. 5).
I like what Carson says: “What is emphasized is the need for radical transformation, the fulfillment of OT promises anticipating the outpouring of the Spirit, and not a particular rite. If baptism is associated in the readers’ minds with entrance into the Christian faith, and therefore with new birth, then they are being told in the strongest terms that it is the new birth itself that is essential, not the rite” (comment on v. 5, p. 194)
Nonetheless, we can still ask the question: is baptismal water a sacrament, such that the water, after being prayed over and consecrated, have a cleansing, saving power in itself? Does it regenerate (cause new birth)? For me, the answer is no because now we have turned a symbol back into something that is literally symbolic, or symbolically literal. For me, this does not make sense and complicates a simple symbol—water—which everyone understood because it was in their daily lives. Turning a symbol into a sacrament goes past what this pericope can allow, in its original Jewish context. We don’t need to add a third layer to the diagram. We read too much into the symbol of water; there is no doctrinal development in this verse. With that said, however, we Protestants, like most or all Renewal churches and standard Baptists, for example, must be careful not to treat baptism lightly. The Spirit can work in our hearts while we are immersed. So the Spirit through the symbol of water is real, and let’s not dismiss his work in our hearts.
And let’s not quarrel with churches who teach that the water of baptism is a sacrament, having salvific (salvational) power in it. This is their article of faith, and they may be closer to the truth than we are, though I personally agree with Carson, that it is rebirth, not the water that saves.
What is born of flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit simply means that human flesh and human spirit are a unit, but they are distinct. Humans reproduce a new human and the Spirit reproduces a new spirit in the human.
“must” in vv. 7 and 14 comes from the word dei (pronounced day). The Greek verb means: “it is necessary, one must … one ought or should … what one should do” (Shorter Lexicon). Additionally, it is often translated as “must” or “has to” or “it is necessary.” John uses the verb in an eschatological sense of inaugurating the kingdom by Jesus’s ministry, particularly in the saving work of Jesus (John 3:7, 14, 30; 4:4; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9). In other words, God is directing his Son on a mission, and there is a sense of “divine must” or divine necessity” in the direction, in order to invade the dark world (Klink, comment on 4:4).
Let’s look at yet another symbol.
Here is the same diagram filled in with the new symbol:
2.. Spirit’s Sovereignty
Before modern meteorology, people saw the leaves rustle, felt air blowing against their face, felt their hair get mussed up, saw the sails in the ship puff up, and concluded, simply enough, that the cause was the wind; they did not take the time to figure out where it came from and where it was going, as if it had a goal in mind. I like, though, how Jesus says the wind blows where it “wishes,” but let’s not make too much of the personification; the wind goes where it goes. The Spirit, pneuma in Greek (and ruach in Hebrew), can either mean wind or Spirit. Jesus is drawing the parallels between the two. We must allow the Spirit to blow in our hearts so he can cause new birth. We were born once, through our parents’ bodies, and so we too are bodies, but now we must be born of the Spirit, so our human spirit can come alive for God.
Jesus expresses his surprise that the teacher of Israel does not understand spiritual truths. Jesus expressed the same surprise in v. 4, and you can scroll back up to see the comments there. Nicodemus may have approached Jesus as a genuine seeker. Or he may have also—at the same time, with mixed motives—approached Jesus as an antagonist, to catch him in an error. Now Jesus turns the table on him. It is Nicodemus who is losing the challenge.
At this point the reader of John should be reminded of the importance of the questions Jesus asks of people. These questions are a significant feature in the Johannine repertoire of literary tools. Many of these questions come at decisive points in a story (cf. 1:50) and direct the reader to watch for important affirmations in a teaching segment (cf. 3:12). With the present question Nicodemus ceases in this story to be important to the evangelist, and the focus of attention shifts to Jesus and his personal witness. But the evangelist will return to Nicodemus and reveal his development toward believing in his quest for having a fair hearing in the Council concerning Jesus (7:50–51) and later in his willingness to provide a proper burial for Jesus after the unjust condemnation and death of Jesus (19:39–42). (comment on vv. 9-10)
“I tell you the firm truth”: see v. 3 for more comments.
Jesus shifts from the singular “you” to the plural “you.”
So here is a retranslation, using “y’all” to illustrate the shift to plural (y’all is a contraction of “you” and “all”):
11 “I tell you [singular] the firm truth: We speak of what we know and what we see we testify to it, and y’all do not accept our testimony. 12 If I speak to y’all of earth-bound matters and y’all do not believe, how will y’all believe if I speak to y’all of heavenly matters?
Evidently, Jesus is addressing the Jewish leadership through the one person of Nicodemus. They will soon not accept Jesus’s testimony. They speak of the law of Moses, while he speaks to them of things he has seen in the heavenly realm. They are law-bound; he is heaven-liberated. He can speak of what he knows.
Jesus shifts over to “we.” Who are they. “Our testimony” means the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
Once again, since the Spirit is so important in this chapter, please see these posts for further study:
“testify … testimony”: “The theme of witness … pervades the whole Gospel. The witness to the truth of God’s self-revelation in the Word is manifold: it comprises the witness of the Father (5:32, 37; 8:18), of the Son 8:14, 18), of the Spirit (15:26); the witness of the works of Christ (5:36; 10:25), the witness of the scriptures (5:39), the witness of the disciples (15:27), including the disciple whom Jesus loved (19:35; 21:24). The purpose of this manifold witness, as of John’s witness, is ‘that all might believe’: it is the purpose for which the Gospel itself was written (20:31)” (Bruce, comment on 1:6-8). The terms “witness” or “testimony” carries a legal meaning “of testifying or bearing witness to the true state of affairs by one who has sufficient knowledge or superior position” (Klink, comment on 1:7).
Jesus had along been talking of earthly things in the new birth, and the earthly birth from a woman is the starting point of illustrating spiritual birth. One is done by the flesh; the second birth is accomplished by the Spirit.
See the diagram under v. 5.
Jesus seems to imply that he ascended into heaven earlier. However, Carson is right again. It can be translated more expansively as “No one [else] has ascended into heaven and remained there [so as to be able to speak authoritatively about heavenly things] but only the one who has come down from heaven [is equipped to do so].” He gets the translation from the Greek contrasting terms ei mē (pronounced ay may), which we do not need to discuss here.
My interpretation: No, at a time unknown to us, Jesus had not ascended into heaven sometime before he launched his ministry. He is simply saying that only he who came down from heaven can speak authoritatively about heavenly things. No one else has ascended and come back down again, not even Enoch (Gen. 5:21-24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12). Both of them got the privilege of being taken into some version of heaven (or an unspecified afterlife of sorts) without dying, but they have not come down again to teach and reveal heavenly things. Only the Son of Man has his origins in heaven and has come down and is currently teaching heavenly truths. We should not separate “ascending” and “descending.” They go together and speak of his unique and divine authority to teach and deliver God’s word.
Now let’s look at other commentators, since Christians are concerned about the story of Enoch and Elijah contradicting Jesus’s claim that “no one has gone up to heaven.”
Beasley-Murray: who sees the ascent as going through the cross–being lifted up:
The descent is mentioned in v. 13 as the presupposition of the ascent (via the cross) for the salvation of humankind. This is the task of the Son of Man, who alone by virtue of his descent from heaven is authorized and empowered by the Father to achieve the salvation of the divine sovereignty. (p. 50)
Borchert reminds us that the coming down of the Son of Man is unlike the pagan myths because Jesus came down in history, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.
The descent of the Son of Man here (3:13), however, is not like the mythological journeys of the ancient Hellenistic heroes or the mythological formulations of the Gnostics. The text here is rooted in an affirmation that the heavenly realities (3:12) are being opened to humanity because the divine Son of Man descended […] into history! (comment on 3:13, emphasis original).
Carson: who places Jesus’s statement in his contemporary context of stories about OT saints:
Jesus insists that no-one has ascended to heaven in such a way as to return to talk about heavenly things. Only in heaven can true wisdom be found (cf. Pr. 30:4). But Jesus can speak of heavenly things, not because he ascended to heaven from a home on earth [as Jewish writings contemporary with Jesus say of bygone, OT saints] and then descended to tell others of his experiences, but because heaven was his home in the first place, and therefore he has “inherently the fulness of of heavenly knowledge” (Westcott, 1. 53). He is the one who came from heaven; he is the revelatory Son of Man. (pp. 200-01)
Keener: who sees v. 13 as a polemic against Jewish belief circulating in the first century that the Torah came down from heaven and Moses went up to heaven to receive it:
We should observe that, unlike Moses (cf. 6:32-33), Jesus did not merely witness heaven: he is “from heaven” (3:13, 31; 6:38, 41-42, 50-51, 58), from God’s realm (1:32; 3:27; 6:31-33; 12:28; 17:1). In this context, Jesus is not a Moses figure himself but the instrument through which Moses brought salvation (cf. also 1:17; 5:46; 6:32; 9:28-29), divine Wisdom itself […] [T]he central polemic probably exalts Jesus above Moses. Philo declares that the Sinai revelation worked in Moses a second birth which transformed him from an earthly to a heavenly man. Jesus, by contrast, came from above to begin with and grants others a new birth “from above” (3:3). (p. 563)
So John was not focused on Enoch and Elijah, but on Moses in widespread rabbinic Jewish belief, though v. 13 may also polemicize against popular belief about Enoch (p. 563).
Klink: who sees a merging or coalescence of the historical incarnation and the cosmological (perhaps timeless) Son of Man, as seen perhaps in 1:51, where the Son of Man unites heaven and earth:
The negative statement, “no one has gone up into heaven” […], reinforces the importance of “belief” in Jesus. Jesus is the authoritative one in both his position “with God” and in his person as God (1:1); he is “the way … the truth … and the life (14:6) Although Jesus’ language makes it sound as if he had already “gone up into heaven,” it need not be taken so mechanically; the solution is not found in appealing to the perspective of the evangelist [who was writing much later] or in the flexible use of “except” […] [see Carson above]. This is the voice of one who speaks of the historical and cosmological realities in a coalescing manner. Speaking historically, we would say that Jesus has not yet ascended; yet the moment we speak cosmologically, we are required to say that Jesus has always been and always be defined as one who was “in the beginning … with God” (1:1) and “from above” (v. 3). There is no need to pit them against one another, for the prologue has given us a vision of the things “unseen” that find the coalescent meaning in the incarnate Jesus. (p. 202)
Morris: who cites another scholar who paraphrases the meaning of the verse:
“No one has entered into communion with God and possesses thereby an intuitive knowledge of divine things, in order to reveal them to others, except He to whom heaven was opened and who dwells there at this very moment.” (p. 197, note 53)
Morris goes on to warn us that we should not see heaven as localized–too crass. Jesus has heavenly origins right now and is in constant contact with heaven. And thus Morris also comments on the prefect tense “has ascended”: “Perhaps the meaning is ‘no man gained the heights of heaven.’ There is the thought of continuing presence” (ibid.). Neither Enoch nor Elijah is said to gain the heights of heaven and possesses heaven and earth continuously.
Grant R. Osbourne: who believes that Jesus bridges heaven and earth uniquely and authoritatively right now:
This [v. 13] refers back to John 1:51, with its teaching regarding Jesus as the Son of Man who has united heaven and earth. This actually becomes a prominent theme in the first part of John, centering on the two Greek verbs anabainõ (“ascend”) and katabainō (“descend”). Jesus is the Son of Man who “descended” from heaven at his incarnation (3:31; 6:33, 50, 51, 58) and then will “ascend” back to heaven at his death and resurrection (6:62; 13:3; 16:5; 20:17). Moreover, he like the angels in Jacob’s ladder in 1:51 can ascend and descend between heaven and earth at will. No one else has ever or ever will have that access and authority to speak heavenly realities. Heaven is his origin, and a key element of John’s presentation of the Son of Man is that he is a heavenly being who came down from heaven and can thus speak of heavenly truths. (John: Verse by Verse, Lexham P, 2018, p. 82)
And so these commentators are right to steer us away from Jesus’s seemingly absolute claim that no one like Enoch and Elijah went up into some version of heaven or at least an unspecified afterlife. John’s aim is related to the first century and the Jewish belief that an earth-born man like Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah and descended from there to deliver it. No one has done this (and neither has Enoch and Elijah). Jesus is superior because he came down from heaven–unlike Moses, Enoch, or Elijah–and he will ascend to heaven through his death, resurrection and ascension. Further, he is bridging heaven and earth right now. He is the heaven-originated divine Son of Man, unlike any OT saint in the past. As I noted in my earlier comments, don’t separate the two verbs “has ascended” and “descended.” Only Jesus has done both but from heaven first. So the sequence has been switched: heaven first and then descent to earth second. Moses, Elijah, and Enoch cannot claim this.
“Son of Man”: It both means the powerful, divine Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the human son of man—Ezekiel himself—in the book of Ezekiel (numerous references). Jesus was and still is in heaven both divine and human.
John (or Jesus) says that that as the image of a snake in Num. 21:6-9 was lifted up on a pole to stop a plague of judgment, so also the Son will be lifted up to stop the judgment of God for those who believe in him.
“must”: see v. 7 for more comments.
First, let’s look at the passage in the OT.
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Num. 21:6-9, NIV)
John applies this story symbolically. We must not over-apply it (just as we must not over-apply water in being “born of water”).
Jesus being lifted up refers to his crucifixion and his exaltation—together.
We can diagram the symbolism again:
2.. Jesus’s cross and exaltation, and then his salvation, redemption, and healing
1.. Snake lifted on pole
Jesus is humanity’s Redeemer and Savior and Healer. He will stop the judgment of God.
“eternal life”: see v. 16 for more comments.
GrowApp for John 3:1-15
A.. Study Titus 3:5. Have you been born again? What does it mean biblically and to you personally? Tell your story.
God Loves the World, But Practitioners of Wickedness Hate the Light (John 3:16-21)
16 For God loved the world in this way: that he gave the unique Son, so that the one who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn it, but that the world may be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned; but the one who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the unique Son of God. 19 This is the judgment: light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light, for their works are evil. 20 Every person practicing bad things hates the light and does not come to the light, so that his works may not be exposed. 21 The one who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be manifest, namely, that they are done in God.
This passage probably carries on John’s reflections or meditation on who Jesus is, in view of God’s love and men’s hatred, and light and darkness, and judgment and life.
“perish” could be translated as “destroyed.”
This one may be the most famous verse in all of the Bible. Traditionally, it is translated as “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” …. But the Greek adverb houtōs (pronounced hoo-tohss) means “in this way” or “in this manner.” The traditional word “so” is a little weak. God demonstrates his love “in this way” or “in this manner.” “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, ESV).
“loved”: The DNTT says that the Septuagint or LXX, (third-to-second century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and pronounced sep-TOO-ah-gent) translated the Greek verb agapaō in a variety of ways and can stand in even for eraō “strong desire.” Jonathan and David expressed friendship love that went deeper than a man’s love for a woman (2 Sam. 1:26; 18:1, 3, 20; 20:17).
The noun agapē is divine. It starts with God, flows from him, and is offered back to him with our lives. We cannot ginger it up with our own efforts.
The noun agapē is sacrificial. Out of his agapē, God sacrificed his Son for us, and now we sacrifice our lives to him.
It means a total commitment. God is totally committed to his church and to the salvation of humankind. Surprisingly, however, total commitment can be seen in an unusual verse. Men loved darkness rather than light (v. 19), which just means they are totally committed to a dark path of life. Are we willing to be totally committed to God and to live in his light? Can we match an unbeliever’s commitment to bad things with our commitment to good things?
Agapē is demonstrative. It is not static or still. It moves and acts. We receive it, and then we show it with kind acts and good deeds. It is not an abstraction or a concept. It is real.
It is transferrable. God can pour and lavish it on us. And now we can transfer it to our fellow believers and people caught in the world.
“world”: The Greek noun is kosmos (pronounced coz-moss). It could refer to the physical universe (17:5; 21:25). Or it could refer to humanity as a group. What we call humanity or humankind is, in John, the world. This is why God invades the kosmos. “The ‘world’ is the place or realm where God is at work, the place that is the main focus of God’s attention. God’s saving light invades the dark world. Jesus came to the dark world to save as many as those who believe in him and in his name. In sum, “it appears that the personification of the ‘world’ in John is the portrait of a class of people.” It is the dimension of a relational encounter between God and people (Klink, comment on 1:10, pp. 100-01).
“Son”: Let’s look into some more systematic theology (as I do throughout this commentary). Jesus was the Son of the Father eternally, before creation. The Son has no beginning. He and the Father always were, together. The relationship is portrayed in this Father-Son way so we can understand who God is more clearly. Now he relates to us as his sons and daughters, though, surprisingly, in John’s Gospel we are not called “sons,” but “children.” Only Jesus is the Son. In any case, on our repentance and salvation and union with Christ, we are brought into his eternal family.
Now that we have opened up some systematic theology about the Son in relation to Father God, let’s discuss even a little more systematic theology: the Trinity. The Father in his role as the Father is over the Son; the Father guides the whole of creation and the plan of the ages. The Son carries out the plan, notably by being born as a man, humbling himself, taking on the form of a servant (Phil. 3:7-8). He humbled himself so deeply and thoroughly that he died a death on the cross, the instrument of the death penalty.
However, the Father and Son are equal in their essence or nature. The Father is fully God and the Son is fully God, in their essence. Phil. 2:6: Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to hold on to, but he surrendered the environment of heaven and took the form of a servant.
Function or role: the Father is over the Son in the Son’s incarnation and carrying out the plan of redemption
In their essence or essential natures: Father and Son are equal.
“eternal life”: this is more than mere existence. This is life of the next age, that age, which has broken into this age or right now. In other words, eternal life happens now, but we must be careful not to believe that everything in the new age, in everlasting life, is happening now. This is called over-realized eschatology (study of ends times and new ages). Not every new-age blessing becomes realized or accomplished right now. But let’s not remain negative. We get some benefits of the next age or new age right now. We get some benefits of eternal life, right now.
Let’s look at life by the book—by the prominent Greek lexicon.
It is the noun zoē (pronounced zoh-ay, and girls are named after it, e.g. Zoey). BDAG says that it has two senses, depending on the context: a physical life (e.g. life and breath) and a transcendent life. By physical life the editors mean the period from birth to death, human activity, a way or manner of living, a period of usefulness, earning a living. By transcendent life the lexicographers mean these four elements: first, God himself is life and offers us everlasting life. Second, Christ is life, who received life from God, and now we can receive life from Christ. Third, it is new life of holiness and righteousness and grace. God’s life filling us through Christ changes our behavior. Fourth, zoē means life in the age to come, or eschatological life. So our new life now will continue into the next age, which God fully and finally ushers in when Christ returns. We will never experience mere existence or death, but we will be fully and eternally alive in God.
Clearly, John means the fourth definition.
This verse, along with others (e.g. John 1:14), teach the incarnation, which literally means the act of becoming flesh. The Son of God took on human flesh.
Please see these posts for a systematic theological overview of Jesus’s life before, during, and after the incarnation.
Part seven is an easy-to-read list. There are many more parts in that series.
Finally, in v. 16 John, inspired by the Spirit to meditate on Jesus and his mission, says that God loved the world—the kosmos in Greek. God’s call of salvation, motived by love, goes out to the entire sea of humanity, God’s unredeemed creation. “Any attempt to restrict the word kosmos … to the elect ignores the clear use of the term throughout the NT. God gave the Son for the deliverance of all humanity (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19). This giving extends beyond the incarnation. God gave his Son in the sense of giving unto death as an offering for sin. The universal scope of God’s love would have appeared novel and quite unlikely to the Jewish reader of the first century … God’s love extends to every member of the human race. He died for all (cf. Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn 2:2)” (Mounce, comment on v. 16). I add one extra point: People hear the call of the Spirit-empowered gospel, which is efficacious in itself, but then they have to believe it and in Jesus’s name and person. “Whoever believes in him,” v. 16 adds. So the Spirit-empowered gospel is efficacious for those who believe it, because God graciously endowed humanity with sufficient free will to be able to resist it and not have faith in it (see vv. 17-18, below).
Klink: “In light of Jesus’s challenge with Nicodemus, such language rebukes an impotent religious system and offers a way beyond the darkness of humanity” (comment on v. 16).
I like how Borchert balances the Calvinist dogma and Arminian dogma:
The full perspective is that God is the initiator and principal actor in salvation, and we should never think that salvation originated with us (cf. 1 John 4:9–10). God, however, has given humanity a sense of freedom and requires us to make a choice. Accordingly, people are responsible for their believing. It is unproductive theological speculation, therefore, to minimize either the role of God or of humanity in the salvation process. The Bible and John 3:16 recognize the roles of both. (comment on 3:16)
In these two verses we have two contrasts. Condemnation and judgment—the Greek verb can be translated either “condemned” or “judged”—are not for those who are saved, but the one who does not believe. It is probably best to translate it as “judged,” but I chose “condemned” because that is the nuance of this context. And at this time God’s judgment is the result of not believing in his Son. So judgment and condemnation are brought on people by their own unbelief. It does not have to be activated aggressively by God. The perceptive reader will note that John 9:39 says that Jesus came to for judgment. However, in that later verse, the point is result rather than the purpose of his coming (Mounce, comment on v. 17). Then he cites two Greek words indicating purpose (hina) and result (eis). Excellent distinction.
“Son”: see v. 16 for more comments.
See v. 36 and comments there for more about judgment and condemnation. It is the natural outcome of refusing to believe in him.
Believing in his name means to believe in him, his person, his character, and his being—who he is, the Lord, the Son of God and the Messiah. The noun name stands in for the person—a living, real person. Let’s develop this thought, so it can apply to you.
What’s in a name?
You carry your earthly father’s name. If he is dysfunctional, his name is a disadvantage. If he is functional and impacting society for the better, then his name is an advantage. In Jesus’s case, he has the highest status in the universe, next to the Father (Col. 1:15-20). He is exalted above every principality and power (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 2:14; 1 John 3:8). His character is perfection itself. His authority and power are absolute, under the Father. In his name you are seated in the heavenly places with Christ (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Now down here on earth you walk and live as an ambassador in his name, in his stead, for he is no longer living on earth, so you have to represent him down here. We are his ambassadors who stand in for his name (2 Cor. 5:20). The good news is that he did not leave you without power and authority. He gave you his. Now you represent him in his name—his person, power and authority. Therefore under his authority we have his full authority to preach the gospel and set people free from bondages and satanic spirits and heal them of diseases.
Remember that believing in his name is more than just intellectual assent or agreement with a doctrine. Belief has to go from the head to the heart (see 1:6-8).
In these verses, John contrasts light and darkness with doing works for God (light) and doing wicked works (darkness).
“this is the judgment”: some translate it as “this is the verdict.” The world has been found lacking. Why? Jesus did not enter a neutral world. Generally, it was hostile and loved darkness more than light.
It may be difficult to believe but the same verb “love” in v. 16 (God loved the world) is the same word here in v. 19 (men loved darkness). It is the verb agapaō (pronounced ah-gah-pah-oh, and the noun is agapē, pronounced ah-gah-pay), and it goes a lot more deeply than a gooey feeling. It means total commitment or giving oneself over to something or someone.
So God gives his very best to the world, and doers of wickedness give themselves over to darkness. They don’t like the light because they do not want their darkness exposed. For give the blunt illustration, but cockroaches run from the light. No, I’m not saying humans are as low as cockroaches, but the idea is that bad things are done in darkness, and when the light is turned on, they run and hide. They choose darkness and refuse the light.
This happened at the origins of humanity:
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Gen. 3:8, NIV)
In the next verse, the god of this world (Satan) blinds people:
4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Cor. 4:4)
In contrast, I like the idea that God’s people want their works of light to be manifest or exposed, because they are done in God, not in themselves and for themselves. (I got the translation of the last phrase from Novakovic, p. 84. Excellent).
That verse reminds me of this one:
In this way, let your light shine before people, so that they see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:16)
No, we don’t do good works for self-promotion or boasting, but to glorify God. Good works are vehicle through which the light shines.
Once again, I really like Borchert here:
The close connection between doing and being—namely, between practicing good or evil works and the nature of a person—is an important theological concept in John because believing is not merely a matter of mental affirmation but of life commitment. The world hated Jesus and continues to do so not merely because of some intellectual reason but because the deeds of world-oriented people are evil (John 7:7; cf. Col 1:21).
The coordination of works and faith in Jas 2:14–26, which Luther found so difficult to accept, is an integral part of New Testament thought (e.g., Eph 2:8–10; Phil 2:12–13; Heb 9:14; 2 Pet 2:8). The latter text from 2 Peter reminds us that the New Testament writers perceived the contrast between the two as rooted in the Old Testament concepts of obedience and disobedience. It also was reflected in the connected ideas of evil deeds and darkness of works at Qumran (e.g., 1 QS 2:5–7; 5:10–11; 1 QH 1:27; 6:8–9; 1 QM 15:9). (comment on vv. 19-21)
“truth”: Let’s focus on the Greek noun. It is alētheia (pronounced ah-lay-thay-ah and is used 109 times). Truth is a major theme in the Johannine literature: 45 times.
BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek NT, and the lexicon defines the noun in these ways:
(1).. “The quality of being in accord with what is true, truthfulness, dependability, uprightness.”
(2).. “The content of what is true, truth.”
(3).. “An actual state or event, reality.”
So truth gained from the world around us is possible. Our beliefs must correspond to the outside world (outside of you and me). But it goes deeper than just the outside world. We must depend on God’s character and his Word. That is the meaning of the first definition. God is true or truthful or dependable, or upright. Everything else flows from him.
For good measure, let’s look at some definitions from the larger Greek world. The noun alētheia means I.. truth; 1.. truth as opposed to a lie; 2.. truth, reality as opposed to appearance. II.. truthfulness, sincerity, frankness, candor (Liddell and Scott). So I.2 says that truth goes more deeply than appearances. And the second definition (II) links truth with character. It is interesting, however, that frankness and candor is a synonym of truth. This fits the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. Maybe we could call it boldness and fearlessness.
GrowApp for John 3:16-21
A.. God loved the world, true, but how has this love been revealed to you personally? What does it mean to you?
B.. Have you ever run from God because you did not want your wicked deeds exposed?
C.. Have you ever done the works of light for God? What are they?
D.. What does practicing truth mean, biblically?
Jesus Must Increase, John Decrease (John 3:22-30)
22 Afterwards, Jesus, along with his disciples, went to the countryside of Judea and he remained there with them, and he was baptizing. 23 John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim because water was plentiful there. People came and were being baptized. 24 (For John had not yet thrown been thrown into prison.) 25 There was a discussion by the disciples of John with a Jew about purification. 26 They went to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, Look! He is baptizing and everyone is going to him!” 27 John replied and said, “A man is not able to receive one thing unless it had been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves testify about me that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 The one who has bride is the bridegroom. But the friend of the bridegroom stands by and listens to him and rejoices greatly because of bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been accomplished. 30 He must increase, I decrease.”
John was a mature preacher about the Messiah. Now Jesus came into the region of Jordan and was baptizing people. John 4:2 says that it was Jesus’s disciple who actually did the baptizing. However, Jesus oversaw this ministry.
Klink: “For this reason it is best to view the forthcoming comment in 4:2 not as an attempt to separate Jesus from the act of baptism but as an attempt to show the similarity between those who are doing the baptizing and the disciples of Jesus, is founded upon Jesus, who is authorizing true baptism on both accounts (John’s baptism and Jesus’s baptism). This is why ‘he was baptizing’ … had to be third-person singular, and why baptism is the church is always done in the name of Jesus (Acts 10:48; cf. Matt. 28:19)” (comment on v. 22).
Aenon’s and Salim’s locations are not clear. You can look them up in a google Bible map or another website. The point is that John moved away from Judea, and then Jesus took over the baptizing, through his disciples.
John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, includes an aside that John had not been thrown into prison. For the details of his unjust imprisonment, please see Matthew 14:1-12.
As I noted there, Herodias had married yet another son of Herod the Great, Herod Philip I, whose mother was Mariamne), but he did not rule. Herod Antipas talked Herodias into leaving Herod Philip I, and she did, while Herod Philip I was still living. Both Herod Antipas and Herod Philip I were her uncles. The girl who danced was named Salome and was Herodias’s and Herod Philip I’s daughter. So she was Herod Antipas’s stepdaughter and grandniece. Since this dance was at his birthday party and wine flowed, we can be sure that he was drunk, and her dance, no doubt sexual, pleased him, so he made a rash vow. Her mother knew the dance would please her drunk husband.
We don’t know what the discussion or dispute about purification was about, but it was probably about baptism, which soon came around to Jesus’s growing popularity, for they all agreed that more people are heading towards Jesus’s baptizing ministry.
“witness”: see v. 11 for more comments.
John then talks about ministry which had been given to him from heaven. Bruce is on target:
Each man, says John, has his allotted gift or ministry from God; his responsibility is to fulfil that. John was appointed to be a herald and witness of the Messiah; he might well be content to have fulfilled that commission. All gifts come from God, including the gift of serving him in this or that capacity … John is not disquieted at his disciple’s news as they themselves are: he reminds them that he had already made it plain that he was not the Messiah (John 1:20 but had come baptizing to make ready the way of the Coming One. The forerunner’s gifts and tasks were different from those of the Coming One, but both alike were bestowed ‘from heaven.’ (comments on vv. 27-28)
The verse about gifts and calling coming from heaven are not about initial salvation, but everyone on either side of the Calvinist – Arminian debate agree that God woos and calls people to come to him. Yet, John is referring to his commission, not salvation and conversion.
“testify”: see v. 11 for more comments.
What does the term Christ or Messiah mean? The term means the Anointed One. In Hebrew it is Messiah, and in Greek it is Christ. It means that the Father through the Spirit equipped Jesus with his special calling and the fulness of power to preach and minister to people, healing their diseases and expelling demons (though demon expulsion is not mentioned in John’s Gospel). The Messiah / Christ ushered in the kingdom of God by kingdom preaching and kingdom works.
John was proclaiming that he was not the Christ, but the forerunner of the Messiah.
The bridegroom is the man who is about to be married, and the friend of the bridegroom is his best man. The mature best man does not get upset when he hears the bridegroom’s voice as he comes for his bride. John is the friend of the bridegroom, and Jesus is the bridegroom. Who is the bride? Let’s not over-interpret it, but it could refer to Israel first (Is. 62:4-5; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 2:16-20), because Jesus came to call his own nation to repentance.
The whole idea is found in another teaching:
19 Jesus said to them, “The friends of the bridegroom, while the bridegroom is with them, cannot fast, can they? For as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the days shall come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and at that time they shall fast on that day. (Mark 2:19-20)
But Jesus continues his ministry now with the church, which is the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 21:2, 9, 22; 22:17). John the Baptist is the best man, and now that he sees the bridegroom coming, rather than getting sour or jealous, he celebrates it.
The “friend” was a highly honored position who had numerous, important functions at the wedding, including serving as witness, contributing financially, having a prominent place in festivities, and providing general oversight and arrangement for the ceremony. He possibly even served as the agent of the bridegroom, the role that John the Baptist performed for Jesus. … Unlike the disciples [of John], the Baptist knew his purpose and the role he played in wedding between God and Christ and his people, the church, among whom he was a fortunate benefactor and for whom he was a servant (comment on v. 29)
John’s willingness to decrease, while the Messiah decreases, reminds me of Simeon’s words:
28 He [Simeon] received him [baby Jesus] into his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Now you may release your servant in peace, Master, according to your word,
30 because my eyes have seen your salvation.
31 which you have prepared front and center before all the people,
32 a light of revelation for the Gentiles,
And the glory for your people Israel.”
Both Simeon and John were satisfied with their mission, when they saw the Messiah, Simeon when Jesus was a baby, and John when the Messiah was grown and already embarked on his mission. Both men were mature and grateful for witnessing this momentous event, from the Messiah’s birth to his ministry launch.
“Rather, to increase for Jesus means he becomes the one who gives, and to decrease for the Baptist means he becomes the one who receives” (Klink, comment on v. 30).
“must”: see v. 7 for further comments.
Yes, John was a mighty and mature man of God.
GrowApp for John 3:22-30
A.. It takes maturity to decrease, while your friend increases. Have you had to play “second fiddle”? Do you have a story about this?
B.. Do you support someone who has greater influence than you have?
The One Who Comes Down from Heaven (John 3:31-36)
31 “The one coming from above is over all. The one who is from the earth is of the earth and speaks from the earth; the one coming from heaven is over all. 32 What he sees and hears—he testifies to this, and no one accepts his testimony. 33 The one who accepted his testimony has certified that God is true. 34 God has sent the one who speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without limit. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given everything in his hands. 36 The one believing in the Son has eternal life, but the one disobeying the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
These verses present a sharp contrast between the one who comes down from heaven and the one who is earthly and who speaks in earthly terms. It extends the discussion John had with his disciples. Jesus came from heaven, and John is from the earth (Mounce, comment on v. 31). He does not have a heavenly origin, but Jesus does. John accepted Jesus’s testimony and certified that God is true. So once again, we see that the author of the Fourth Gospel begins with a bleak assessment (no one accepts Jesus’s testimony), but then here comes an alleviating exception (John accepted and certified it). “The point is not to declare the earthly as valueless but to show its subordination to the heavenly, both in origin and type. Whatever its value, that which is earthly is finite and limited” … (Klink, comment on v. 31).
“testify … testimony”: see v. 11 for more comments.
The one who comes down from above speaks the truth because God is his source and God is truth. God gives the Spirit to the Son without limit; the Spirit came on Jesus at his baptism and remained (John 1:32-33). “The fullness of the Spirit sets Jesus apart from the prophets through whom God had spoken from time to time (cf. Heb. 1:1)” Mounce, comment on v. 34). Therefore, the Son is over all. This means over all people and everything. The Son has authority over everyone and everything because God does, and God has sent his Son—the one who has come from above—and bestowed on him this authority.
These verses in 1 John reflect John’s theology:
Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12)
Jesus is the Logos (Word), and now he speaks the words (rhēma) of God. “It is as God that Jesus is given unlimited access to the Spirit, who is God” (Klink, comment on. v. 34).
“Son”: see v. 16 for more comments.
“eternal life”: see v. 16 for more comments.
The wrath of God is coming. Wrath means “judicial reckoning.” God does not fly off the handle and lose his temper. No, picture him as an English judge with a white wig on. Let’s learn a lesson. It took hundreds of years before God judged his people, the ancient Israelites. He sent numerous prophets to warn them about the coming judgment. But they refused to repent, except a remnant. His judgment-wrath came by deporting them, but he allowed a remnant to return to the land of Israel, seventy years later.
God’s wrath is judicial, implemented after he slooooowly evaluates all of the facts and thoughts and actions.
It is not like this:
But like this:
That is a picture of God in judgment. That is his wrath. He does not look like he is filled with uncontrollable rage.
So in other words, God does not compel people not to accept him, but humans out of their free will, can resist the call of the Spirit-empowered Gospel. Humans have enough free will to resist, but not enough free will to strut into God’s kingdom uninvited, unwooed. So when a human resists, the natural consequence is God’s judgment, which equals wrath. Jesus did not come into a neutral world, but a hostile one, generally speaking. Now it is under God’s wrath until individuals repent and then believe in Jesus’s name.
I like Mounce here: “By nature, people believe what suits them rather than what bears the marks of authenticity. The fall of the human race resulted in darkened minds that hear selectively. It is the Holy Spirit rather than logic that opens people’s minds to the truth” (comment on v. 32).
John sets in contrast to faith, not unbelief, but disobedience. “Saving faith involved obedience as well as believing, a point often overlooked by those for whom correct doctrine tends to eclipse the necessity of a changed life” (Mounce again, comment on v. 36).
However, some translators have “reject” and not “disobey” in v. 36.
Finally, to “see” life is to enter it and experience it.
GrowApp for John 3:31-36
A.. When did you believe in the Son and enter into eternal life? What moved you to make the final decision for Jesus? Tell your story.
Beasley-Murray George R. John. Word Biblical Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 1999.
Borchert, Gerald L. John 1-11. New American Commentary. Vol. 25a. Broadman and Holman, 1996.
Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Eerdmans, 1983.
Carson, D. A. The Gospel according to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Eerdmans, 1991.
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Vol. 1. Baker Academic, 2003.
Novakovic, Lidija. John 1-10: A Handbook on the Greek Text. A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor UP, 2020.
Klink, Edward W. John. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan, 2016.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to John. Rev. ed. Eerdmans, 1995.
Mounce, Robert H. John. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. Zondervan, 2007.