Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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JOHN - Chapter 3

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John 3

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  THE PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS  1, 19 -- 12, 50 (continued)

1.  Christ Reveals His Mission and Divinity  1, 19 -- 4, 54 (continued)

3, 1-21:  Nicodemus gives an example of the imperfect faith just mentioned, showing how slow were even learned Jews to accept Christ's teaching.    1.  Nicodemus bore a Greek name, like many Jews of the time.  He was among the Pharisees . . . a teacher (10) or rabbi, and a ruler or magistrate, probably a member of the Sanhedrin (7, 50).    2.  At night: a caution implying the rise in Jerusalem even now of opposition to Christ, and perhaps also revealing a trait of Nicodemus' character.  The interview would take place in some "upper room."  Rabbi here expresses more than the conventional degree of reverence, since miracles are acknowledged as evidence of a teaching commission direct from God.  We have no account of these particular miracles, but Galileans also had been  impressed by them (4, 45).  Here John reflects the Synoptic traditions of Matt. 8, 16 f and parallels; again, in 7, 31 he is in accord with Matt. 4, 23 f and parallels.    3.  Born again: the adverb may also mean "from above," as usually in John (3, 31; 19, 11), but here it is not determined to a local application by the context as in the other instances.  The rebirth must come from God (Titus 3, 5; Jas. 1, 18; 1 Pet. 1, 23).    4-6.  As Nicodemus fails to see that the new birth is spiritual, Christ, in reaffirming its necessity to salvation, specifies birth by water and the Holy Spirit.  Without this rebirth man is excluded from the supernatural order (Council of Trent, Sess. VII, de  Baptismo, Can. 2: Denzinger 858).  Its necessity is finally emphasized in Mark 16, 16.  That Christ would baptize with the Holy Spirit had been foretold by John the Baptist, as Nicodemus might have recalled.    7 f.  Christ commends the mystery to belief by a comparison (cf. Eccles. 11, 5): if the operation of natural forces may be partly obscure, much more may that of supernatural powers.  The Greek word for "spirit" is the same as for "wind," giving the illustration force that is lost in English.  St. Augustine and other read it as "Spirit"; we, with St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas and many others, understand "wind."  The image suggests other properties of the regenerate soul, such as interior liberty with divine direction.  It seems to apply in part to the mission of Christ in 8, 14 and 9, 30.

9-15.  Nicodemus, still doubting what he cannot comprehend, is now instructed in the necessity and motives of belief: (a) As a teacher in Israel he should have expected that spiritual infusion of new life promised in Ezech. 11, 19; 36, 26 f; Joel 2, 28 f.  (b) Christ as a teacher from God merits belief as supreme witness (1 John 1, 1-5).  The plural we is that of solemn attestation.  (c) Even less would such be inclined to believe His revelation of still higher truths.  The rebirth, being an induction into the Kingdom in this life, might be called an earthly thing if compared with such heavenly things as the nature and attributes of God.  (d) Since no one has ascended into heaven, man must rely for divine truth on Him who alone descended from heaven.  (e) The required faith is the means of eternal life for man.  Here (as less explicitly in 8, 28 and 12, 32) the brazen serpent of the desert marches (Num. 21, 8 f) is appealed to as a type of the saving power of the Passion of Christ.

Vv. 16-21 may be understood as John's observations on the theme of the interview.    16.  Gave his only-begotten Son measures the divine love by the completeness of its offering, in pursuance of the thought of 14 f.    17.  To judge the world in these verses means to condemn it, since he who believes is not judged.    18.  To refuse belief is to bring judgment on oneself.    19-21.  The cause of unbelief (as in 1, 10-11) is opposition to the light.  One guilty of evil avoids the light as tending to expose him (1 John 1, 6), while the clear conscience welcomes its revelation.  Jesus thus becomes the occasion of a division of men into two groups, those whose belief in Him wins them eternal life, and those whose rejection of Him destines them to judgment.  Hereafter the Gospel keeps these two groups in view, and shows their gradual progress in opposite directions.

3, 22-36:  The Witness of John the Baptist.  This is the only record of a Judean ministry in the Gospels.  How long it lasted will depend upon our view of the duration of Christ's public activity.  This work in Judea probably extended from the Passover (2, 1) to the following autumn (cf. 4, 35).  Its omission by the Synoptics is explained by their primary interest in the Galilean ministry, while John's brevity on the subject is due to his exclusive use of features pertinent to his thesis.  Not Christ Himself, but His disciples were baptizing (4, 2).  As this baptizing is not mentioned by the Synoptics, it probably played no part in the Galilean ministry.  With St. John Chrysostom we should hold that it was merely the penitential rite employed by the Baptist.  St. Augustine, St. Bede, St. Thomas Aquinas, Maldonatus, a Lapide, Calmes, and others understand a baptism of sacramental efficacy, but this seems less probable (7, 39; 16, 7).

22.  The land of Judea: in distinction from Jerusalem, where Christ had just been preaching.  The disciples took part in this mission, probably by preaching the call to penance which they had learned from the Baptist.    23.  Aennon near Salim is in the Jordan valley, about eight miles south of Scythopolis.    24.  John here supposes Matt. 14, 3 ff; Mark 6, 17 ff; Luke 3, 19 f.  The arrest of John the Baptist probably occurred in the autumn of the year; there seems to be some relation of time between it and the matter recorded here.    25.  It is not clear what this dispute was about, except that it involved our Lord, as is evident from the sequel.  Most Greek manuscripts read "with a Jew."  It is evident that the disciples of John the Baptist (as later the disciples of Christ, cf. Luke 9, 49 f) were jealous of their master's mission and resentful of the fact that "all the people" were coming to Christ.  They had not weighed their master's previous testimony.    27-30.  His reply to their complaint touches first the cause of their envy: Jesus' influence over the people is given Him from God, and because He is the expected Christ.  He illustrates his personal relation to Christ by a custom connected with marriage: the friend of the bridegroom may take his place for a time, but gladly yields to the bridegroom on the latter's arrival; so, now that the Christ has come, it can be but a joy to His precursor to retire in His favor.

Again in 31-36, as in 16-21, probably the author takes up the thought, applying it to faith in Christ.    31.  Not the Baptist only, but all human teachers, in virtue of their earthly origin, are here contrasted with Christ, whose heavenly origin raises Him above them in nature and doctrine.    32.  Christ can speak as eyewitness (1, 18; 3, 11 ff), whence the rejection of His witness is matter for astonishment.    33-35.  His seal: cf. Est. 8, 8.  One cannot believe God without accepting Christ, His messenger (cf. 1 John 5, 12).  For not by measure recalls the Old Testament prophets who, as God's agents, were said to possess His Spirit.  As applied here to Christ it has been variously understood: (a) as if referring to the Spirit given to Christ; (b) as a contrast of Christ's plenary knowledge with the limited revelations to the prophets; (c) as meaning that God is not confined by any law in the bestowal of His gifts.  In any case, Christ's message is fully the message of God, and merits all the credence due to God Himself.    36.  The decisive reason for accepting Christ is that salvation rests with Him.  He who believes has life (cf. 1, 12); he who "is stubbornly disobedient" (Greek) will have instead of life the anger of God (cf. 17, 2).

Confraternity Bible:

Nicodemus  1 Now there was a certain man among the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a ruler of the Jews.  2 This man came to Jesus at night, and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that thou hast come a teacher from God, for no one can work these signs that thou workest unless God be with him."  3 Jesus answered and said to him, "Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born again?"

5 Jesus answered, "Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not wonder that I said to thee, 'You must be born again.'  8* The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its sound but dost not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, "How can these things be?"

10 Answering him, Jesus said, "Thou art a teacher in Israel and dost not now these things?  11 Amen, amen, I say to thee, we speak of what we know, and we bear witness to what we have seen; and our witness you do not receive.  12 If I have spoken of earthly things to you, and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?  13 And no one has ascended into heaven except him who has descended from heaven: the Son of Man who is in heaven.

14 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting."

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.  17* For God did not send his Son into the world in order to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  18 He who believes in him is not judged; but he who does not believe is already judged, because he does not believe in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.  19 Now this is the judgment: The light has come into the world, yet men have loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil.  20 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, that his deeds may not be exposed.  21 But he who does the truth comes to the light that his deeds may be made manifest, for they have been performed in God.

The Witness of John the Baptist  22 After these things Jesus and his disciples came into the land of Judea, and he stayed there with them and baptized.  23 Now John was also baptizing in Aennon, near Salim, for there was much water there.  And the people came and were baptized.  24 For John had not yet been put into prison.

25 Now there arose a discussion about purification between some of John's disciples and the Jews.  26 And they came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, he who was with thee beyond the Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold he baptizes and all are coming to him."

27 John answered and said, "No one can receive anything unless it is given to him from heaven.  28 You yourselves bear me witness that I said, 'I am not the Christ but have been sent before him.'  29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices exceedingly at the voice of the bridegroom.  This my joy, therefore, is made full.  30 He must increase, but I must decrease."

31* He who comes from above is over all.  He who is from the earth belongs to earth, and of the earth he speaks.  He who comes from heaven is over all.  32* And he bears witness to that which he has seen and heard, and his witness no one receives.  33* He who receives his witness has set his seal on this, that God is true.  34* For he whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for not by measure does God give the Spirit.  35* The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand.  36* He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; he who is unbelieving towards the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.


8: This brief parable indicates to Nicodemus that there are mysteries even in familiar natural forces.  Hence he need not be surprised if the truths of the supernatural order appear mysterious.

17: To judge: here in the sense of "to punish."

31-36: These verses most probably contain the reflections of the evangelist.