The worthlessness of believing on Christ because of evidence we have seen. But in the crowd of such there might be souls who had the sense of wants awakened which led them to Jesus personally. And in Him was life: not merely all things brought into being through Him, and signs wrought and things done by Jesus, which, if written one by one in books, would be beyond the world’s power to contain, but, beyond all, life in the Son for the believer. And such is the fact which is here recorded in detail.
“But there was a man of the Pharisees, his name Nicodemus,62b a ruler of the Jews. He came to Him by night,63 and said to Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art come a teacher from God, for none can do these signs which Thou doest, unless God be with him. Jesus answered and said to him, Verily, verily, I say to thee, Except one be born anew,64 he cannot see the kingdom of God.”65 It was a chief man from among the most orthodox in the chosen people; sufficiently in earnest to seek Jesus for truth, and still valuing the world enough to fear its condemnation and scorn. So he came by night to Jesus; yet did he take the ground of a persuasion he shared in common with his fellows because of the signs wrought by the Lord. He knew not that a deeper work was going on within, which drew him, not them, to Jesus. He, the teacher of Israel, recognised in Jesus One come a teacher from God, and God with Him: for any others born of woman a signal honour; for Jesus the proof that His true glory was unknown. As yet then Nicodemus was astray as to himself, as to the Jews, and as to Jesus. In short, the true God was unknown.
The Lord accordingly stops him at once with the declaration that man, any one, needs to be born from the outset and origin. Not teaching is wanted but a new nature, a new source of being spiritually, in order to see the kingdom of God. No inference, however logical, is faith. It is not even a conviction of conscience. It may be a conclusion fairly drawn from sound premisses, from sensible facts of the weightiest kind before the mind; but neither God is known nor itself yet judged. The new character of life which suits the kingdom of God does not yet exist for the soul. In such a state teaching would but aggravate the danger or expose to fresh evil. The Word of God has never penetrated the heart of Nicodemus. He knew not himself utterly defiled, spiritually dead in sins. What he wanted was to be quickened, not to have fresh aliment for the exercise of his mind. And Jesus, instead of commenting on his words, answered his true need, which he too would have sought himself, had he but known it.
If Nicodemus then took for granted his own capacity, as he then stood, to profit by the truth and serve God and inherit His kingdom, the Lord, with incomparable solemnity, assures him that the new birth is indispensable to seeing the kingdom. For God is not teaching or improving human nature. He had already tried it patiently; and the trial would ere long be absolutely complete.
The kingdom of God is in question, and not anything in fallen man. It was not yet established or displayed in power over the earth, as it will be at the appearance of Jesus. It was not yet preached to the Gentiles as it was after the cross. But it was come for faith in the Person of Christ, the pledge that it will be set up by and by in all its extent, its “earthly” and its “heavenly things.” The kingdom of God was among them in Christ, Who demonstrated its power, the enemies themselves seen or unseen being judges. Why, then, did not Nicodemus see it? From no defect in the object of faith or in His testimony, by general conviction and confession, from no lack of signs attesting the presence and power of God. Alas! the defect is in man, and to man it is incurable, for who can change his nature? In fact, if it were possible, it could avail nothing. “Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” God only can give a new nature, and a nature suited to His kingdom. Without this none can as much as see it.
“Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into the womb of his mother and be born?” (verse 4). We learn hence that the intimation was the birth, not from above, but again; else the difficulty expressed in reply could have had no place. The truth is, however, that even if the fabled conversion of an old man into youth again could be true-yea, if the strange case suggested by the astonished Pharisee could have been turned by miracle into fact (as Jonah came forth alive from the great fish that swallowed him)-it would fail to meet the requirements of the kingdom of God, as we shall see expressly in the further explanation of our Lord. For it would be human nature still, let it be renewed in its youth or repeated in its birth ever so far or so often. A clean thing cannot come out of an unclean; and such is man’s nature since the fall. Nor is aught God’s way of renewal, but by giving a nature wholly fresh from its source; for the believer is born of God, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible by the living and abiding word of God.
“Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say to thee, Except one be born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.26 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (verses 5, 6). Words of incalculable moment to man, of deep blessing where grace gives him ear to hear, and heart to receive and keep. Yet I scarce know a Scripture more widely perverted than this has been to baptism, nor one where tradition is more dangerously false, though quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus be as true of this as of any interpretation of Scripture that could be named. A double result would follow, that not a soul could enter the kingdom of God save such as are baptized; and, secondly, as the context would prove, that, the new nature being identified with eternal life, none of the baptized could perish-a statement which all but the most grossly ignorant or prejudiced must confess to be in both its parts opposed to other and clear Scriptures, and to notorious fact.
Christian baptism (and this is what it is traditionally conceived to mean, not that of John or of the disciples) was not instituted, nor did the facts exist which it symbolizes, till the Lord died and rose. How, then, could Nicodemus by any possibility anticipate them or understand what the Lord gives as the clearing up of his difficulty as to being born anew? Yet the Lord reproaches him as “the teacher of Israel” with his slowness of intelligence. That is, he should (even as teaching Jews) have known these things, which he could not possibly know if the Lord alluded to a Christian institution as yet undivulged.66
The reasoning of Hooker27 (“Works,” ii. 262, etc., Keble’s ed. 5), as of others before and since, is beside the mark, and simply proves inattention to Scripture, and superficial acquaintance with the truth. It is not true that “born of water and Spirit,” if literally construed, means baptism. Never is that rite set out as figuring life, but death, as in Rom. 6, Col. 2, and 1 Peter 3 “Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized unto Jesus Christ were baptized unto His death?” It is never the sign of quickening, but rather of identifying those quickened with the death of Christ; that they in virtue of Him might take the place of men dead to sin, but alive to God, and so reckon themselves by grace, for under this we are, not under law. Such is the apostolic doctrine. The words of our Lord do not, and cannot, teach otherwise, as they must if John 3:5 be applied to baptism. Take water here as figurative of the word which the Spirit uses to quicken, and all is clear, consistent, and true. Were it said in the Scripture that we are born of the Spirit by means of water, we should have some approach to what the Fathers drew from it, and what is necessary to bear the construction put on it in the Anglican and other formularies that apply it to baptism. Their dealing with it seems to be really “licentious,” “deluding,” and “dangerous,” at issue with what our Lord says even in verse 5, still more with His omission of “water” in verse 6, most of all if it be possible with the place of baptism everywhere else given in Scripture. Baptism may be the formal expression of washing away sins, never of communicating life, which is unequivocally false teaching.
So it is in John 13 and John 15, not to speak of John 4 and John 7. Compare for the figure Eph. 5:26, for the truth couched under it 1 Cor. 4:15, James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23. It is not a rite giving honour to an official class, but the word of God applied by His Spirit, bringing death on nature that we might live to God in Christ.
For Christ came by water and blood; He purifies and expiates (1 John 5). He is the truth, which the word of God applies in the power of the Spirit, judging the old nature and introducing the new. “I live, no longer I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). One is the same person, but a life is communicated which he had not before, not of Adam, but of Christ, the Second Man. He is begotten of God, made a partaker of the Divine nature through the greatest and precious promises, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. Such is it to be born of water and of Spirit-an incomparably deeper thing than any form of truth, however it be prized in its place and for the object the Lord Who instituted it had in view. Baptism was the formal admission; it was the confession of Christ on the ground of His death and resurrection, not of quickening, which was true of all saints before Christ, when there was no Christian baptism. If baptism were really the sign and means of quickening, consistency would deny life to the Old Testament saints, or they ought to have been so baptized, which they were not. But this is clearly false ground. There is no reason to infer that the twelve were baptized with Christian baptism; they baptized others, but, it would seem, were not themselves. Were they not, then, born again? Nor did circumcision mean life, and so we know that souls were born anew even before it was imposed on Abraham already justified by faith.
Hence, too, it is important to observe that he who is thus born again is said to be born of the Spirit, omitting water, in verse 6. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The word (or water, emblematically) can do nothing toward quickening without the Spirit, Who is the efficient agent in communicating the life of Christ. Water cleanses, but of itself it is not capable of quickening; it is death to the flesh. There had been only flesh before; now, as believing in Christ, the man is born of God (1 John 5); and each nature retains its own characteristic. As flesh never becomes spirit, so spirit never degenerates into flesh. The natures abide distinct, and the practical business of the believer is to hold himself for dead to the one that he may live in the other by the faith of the Son of God, Who loved him and gave Himself for him.
Nor was Nicodemus to wonder that he and other Jews (not pagans merely, to which they would have assented at once) needed to be born afresh. “Wonder not that I said to thee, Ye must be born anew” (verse 7). But if sovereign grace met that need, could it, would it, stop there? Certainly not. It would breathe the blessing as widely as the ravages of sin, according to the choice of God. “The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it cometh, and where it goeth: so is every one that is born28 of the Spirit” (verse 8). Thus “every one” leaves room for any fallen man, a Gentile no less than a Jew. Whatever might be their distinction after the flesh, the Spirit thus freely flowing can bless those who are most distant, while the nearest is nothing without Him.
It has been already remarked, moreover, that in all this was no such special privilege as should have been beyond the ken of an intelligent Jew. Hence when “Nicodemus answered and said to Him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said to him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (verses 9, 10). Had he never read the promise to Israel in one prophet?-”I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit upon thy seed, and My blessing upon thine offspring.” (Isa. 44:3.) Had he forgotten the words of another prophet?-”Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your uncleanness and from all your idols will I cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and will put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and keep Mine ordinances, and ye shall do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be My people, and I will be your God.” (Ezek. 36:25-28.)
There can be no mistake that Israel will require the new birth in order to receive and enjoy aright even the earthly blessings of God’s kingdom by and by, and that God will of His grace impart it to them for this end. Nicodemus, then, need not be surprised at the universal need of the new birth, even for the Jew, proclaimed by the Lord; but as the blessing is not of flesh, but of Spirit, grace will not restrain it from any on grounds that give weight to man. The Gentile will not be left out of such rich mercy, indispensable to the kingdom of God, which is of grace, not of law or flesh, as the Jew was apt to assume. “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money, come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isa. 55:1.) Is not this grace, and so expressed as to open the door to any of the nations, to sense of need, resourceless need, wherever found? Yet who did, who could, draw it out from the prophets and give the principle its absolute shape, as here, to Nicodemus, but the One Who spoke? Others inspired of the Spirit were soon to follow; and of them all none more distinctly than the Apostle Paul.
Thus far, then, Nicodemus as a Jew, as the teacher of Israel, should have known the nature as well as the necessity of the new birth. The ancient prophets were not silent about its application to Israel, even for the days when blessings shall be shed abundantly on them from God according to His promise. Not the heathen only, but His people (whatever might be their present self-complacency and the pride which wraps itself up in ignorance), are described as unclean, till He sprinkle clean water upon them, and put His Spirit within them. Undoubtedly, the Lord, as was due to His personal glory, presents the truth with incomparably greater clearness and depth, as well as with an all-embracing comprehensiveness; but what was presented ought not to have been strange to Nicodemus on his own ground. The new thing follows the cross, whether in statement or in fact, as we see it implied in chapter 4.
But even here the Lord intimates a knowledge to be communicated, as, in fact, it was, first by Himself in Person, then by the Holy Ghost through chosen witnesses, transcending that of the prophets and of a character, not measure only, quite different. “Verily, verily, I say to thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our testimony” (verse 11). It is no vision of things out of the ordinary sphere of him who was inspired to be a prophet, nor a message founded on the authority of Him Who sent His servant with a “Thus saith Jehovah.” Jesus only, true man among men, could none the less say, because He was none the less God, We speak that which We know, and bear witness of that which We have seen.67 He knew what was in man, needing no testimony about man (John 2); He knew what was in God, and alone of men could testify of Him without testimony about Him (John 3). I have known Thee, says Himself to the Father later on in this Gospel (John 17:25). But the world knew not the Father; least of all were the Father and the Son known by those who, in persecuting the disciples, thought to do God’s service. But, blessed be His name, if none knew the Father but the Son, there were not lacking those to whom the Son reveals Him; and so the Holy Ghost, Who searches all things-yea, the depths of God-reveals what was previously hidden even from prophets, and gives to Christians the mind, or intelligence, of Christ.
For a Divine Person knows in Himself all things in themselves; not as the prophets-from One without and above, Who gives the commission, vision, and message. These, therefore, might often speak that which they knew not, and learn on searching that “not unto themselves but unto us they did minister the things which are now reported by those that have preached the Gospel by (
ἐν) the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.” (1 Peter1:12.) But Jesus spoke what He knew. Coming from God, and being Himself God, He knew the Divine nature perfectly, and was here a man to reveal it to men. If none had seen God at any time, the Only-begotten Son Who is in the bosom of the Father has declared Him; He alone of woman born had this competency, both as Son and as the image of the invisible God, in a sense not only pre-eminent, but exclusive, as the Epistles to the Colossians (Col.1:18.) and the Hebrews (Heb.1:3.) formally teach. And this He spoke in ineffable grace, expressing the grace and truth of Him Who is God and Father through a man’s heart to the hearts of men. Of the glory, too, familiar to Him with the Father before the world was, He testified. For what was Divine love keeping back from those about to share with Him the glory in which both will be displayed to the world, and to behold His glory as none else will see it? In heaven-yea, in its brightest glory-He was at home; and as He was about to prepare a place in the Father’s house for His own, so He bears witness of what He alone had seen to those whom sovereign grace would call and fit to be with Him there.
And what a testimony is this twofold knowledge, to the Person of Jesus, absolute yet in relation! He is, indeed, the true God, but withal eternal life. It was not empirical, but intrinsic. As a Divine Person alone could, He knew both man and God; and, after He has urged the indispensable need of being born anew, He speaks of God known above in nature and glory, as before it we had His knowledge of what was in man. How blessed to have such a knowledge communicated to us as now in Christ and Christianity! Would not man, needy, ignorant, blind, welcome such a boon? Alas! no: not even when grace brings it down and tells all out in the tones of human speech. “And ye receive not our testimony.” It declares God, and reveals the Father. It leaves no room for receiving glory one of another. It condemns man as he is, self-willed and proud, not only without heart for God, but unwilling to believe what is in His heart for man expressed in every word and way of Jesus. As the Apostle tells us, “The things of God knoweth no one but the Spirit of God. The natural man is far from receiving them, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:11, 14.)
There is a natural repugnance in man’s mind to Divine testimony. The judgment depends on the affections, and the affections of man are estranged from God. Privileges do not alter this, nor the responsibility which flows from the relation in which one may stand to God. He must be born again. A Divine nature cleaves to God; the life which comes from Him as its source goes up to Him in desire, if not always (till redemption is known) in confidence of heart.
Yet the Lord had not in this solemn declaration gone beyond the universal necessity of man for the kingdom of God, and therefore it was inexcusable in the Jewish teacher so to have overlooked its truth as to feel amazement at the Lord’s assertion of it. He ought to have known from the ancient Scriptures, from the Psalms and Prophets especially, that Israel must be renewed in order to enter and enjoy their promised portion on the earth. “Truly God is good to Israel,” as the Messiah’s kingdom will manifest; but the assurance is restricted. It is “to such as are of a clean heart” (Ps. 73). So far will the mass of the Jews be from fitness for the kingdom, that the Spirit of Christ in the pious remnant does not hesitate to ask God’s judgment and pleading of their cause against an ungodly or unmerciful nation (Ps. 43). They were no better, but guiltier, than the Gentiles. There were enemies within as well as without. “And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away, and be at rest. Behold, I would flee afar off; I would lodge in the wilderness. Selah. I would hasten my escape from the stormy wind, from the tempest. Swallow [them] up, Lord; divide their tongue: for I have seen violence and strife in the city. Day and night they go about it upon the walls thereof, and iniquity and mischief are in the midst of it. Perversities are in the midst thereof, and oppression and deceit depart not from its streets. For it is not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither is it he that hateth me that hath magnified (himself) against me; then I would have hidden myself from him. But it was thou, a man, mine equal, mine intimate, my familiar friend. We who held sweet intercourse together. To the house of God we walked amid the throng” (Ps. 55:6-14). Thus to the saint’s mind the city (the holy city in title-in fact, most unholy) is worse than the wilderness, dreary as it may be. Not Gentiles only, but Jews, need to be born afresh, otherwise the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through them, as it is written (Rom. 2:24).
But it is striking to notice that the chapter of Ezekiel, already cited in part, which is naturally brought to illustrate these words of the Apostle Paul, declares in the plainest and most unconditional terms that God will sanctify His great name which was blasphemed among the heathen, “Which ye have profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I (am) Jehovah, saith the Lord Jehovah, when I shall be hallowed in you before their eyes. And I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your uncleannesses and from all your idols will I cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and keep Mine ordinances, and ye shall do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be My people, and I will be your God. And I will save you from all your uncleannesses; and I will call for the corn and will multiply it, and lay no famine upon you. And I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field, so that ye may receive no more the reproach of famine among the nations. And ye shall remember your evil ways, and your doings which were not good, and shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and for your abominations. Not for your sakes do I this, saith the Lord Jehovah, be it known unto you: be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, In the day that I shall cleanse you from all your iniquities I will also cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be builded. And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereas it was a desolation in the sight of all that passed by. And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities (are) fortified (and) inhabited. And the nations that shall be left round about you shall know that I Jehovah build the ruined places (and) plant that which was desolate; I Jehovah have spoken, and I will do (it).” (Ezek. 36:23-36.)
Further, these words of the prophet illustrate “the earthly things” in our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus. “If I told you the earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you the heavenly things?” (verse 12). In speaking as He had of the necessity to be born afresh- born of water and of Spirit-the Lord had not gone beyond “ the earthly things.” The kingdom of God could not be entered or seen without that new birth. Of course, it is indispensable for heaven; but the Lord goes farther, and insists on it as essential even for the lower province of God’s kingdom. Even the Jew must be born again, and for millennial blessings, too, as well as for eternity. So true is it that they are not all Israel which are of Israel, neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children.
We shall see, too, when our Lord proceeds in His discourse to touch on His cross and the love of God in giving His Son, that to be born anew does not adequately describe what is given to the believer, but life eternal. Substantially, no doubt, it is the same new nature which every saint has, and must have; but, now that the glory and work of Christ are revealed, its full character shines out. There is yet more, as we know, and the next chapter shows-the Spirit given, and the relationship of children of God enjoyed, and the results of the death and resurrection and ascension of Christ our portion even now. But I enlarge no more on this as yet. Only we here learn that the kingdom of God has its “heavenly things,” no less than “the earthly things” of which the prophets spoke. Jesus the Son could have opened the heavenly things, but the condition of such as Nicodemus did not admit of it for the present. The Spirit revealed all these and other depths of God amply after the shed blood vindicated God and purged their consciences. Then were the disciples free to learn all in the power of Christ’s resurrection and in the light of heaven. Such is Christian knowledge.
But even while Christ was here He intimated distinctly the Father’s kingdom as a heavenly sphere where the risen saints are to shine as the sun, contra-distinguished from the Son of man’s kingdom, which is clearly the world, out of which at His coming the angels shall be sent to clear away all offences and those that practise lawlessness (Matt. 13:41-43). Nay, in the prayer given to the disciples we may recognise a similar distinction, though not so sharply drawn out, for He bade them pray for their Father’s kingdom to come, where they and all the risen saints would be glorified; and then, that His will be done as in heaven so on earth, which will only be secured at the completion of the age, when the Son of man comes in His kingdom (Matt. 6:10). These together constitute the kingdom of God, which comprises, therefore, as the Lord here assumes, “the heavenly things” and “the earthly things.” The reader will find abundant confirmation in Eph. 1:10, Col. 1:20, and Heb. 12:22-24.
We are next given to learn Who it is that could speak with competent knowledge and authority of heavenly things. It is the Son of man, the same Person, doubtless, Who deigned to be born of the virgin, the Son of David, the Messiah. But as Messiah He is to judge Jehovah’s people in righteousness, and to reign with a power which cannot be disputed, save to the ruin of every rebel. For “the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jehovah. And His delight will be in the fear of Jehovah; and He shall not judge after the sight of His eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness shall He judge the poor, and reprove with equity the meek of the earth.” (Isa. 11:2-4.) As such He presented Himself to Israel, but was rejected; and, as we know, they reject Him to this day. For man, being lost, proves himself wholly blind, and of men none more than Israel against their truest glory and best treasure- Christ the Lord. And thus we have seen it from the first in the Gospel of John, who was given to treat things as they are, and as they are in presence of grace and truth in His Person Who reveals the Father.
Here, accordingly, it is not a prophet revealing the future of the kingdom of Jehovah over the earth, or of the judgments which will introduce it, or of the evils which must be judged before the establishment of blessing in that day. It is more than a prophet who gives out what he receives responsibly to communicate from God to man. Jesus knows not merely what is in man on earth as none ever knew, as the Word made flesh alone did know, but what is in God above as only a Divine Person could, yet now as man also. No prophet ever did, ever could, so speak as He; none but He so knew and so testified. He, therefore, could speak of things heavenly, as well as of the earthly, not as one inspired to tell of what was before unknown, but of that which He knew and saw in the communion of the Godhead. His becoming man in no way detracted from His Divine capacity or rights; it was unspeakable grace to those for whose sakes He was come from God and went to God, not only the truth and witness of it, as He alone could be, but about to die atoningly, as we shall see shortly in this very context, that the believer might live eternally and righteously.
What could man, angel, or any other creature avail? It was His glory, His work. The man, Adam, whom Jehovah Elohim formed, He put in Eden, chief of all creatures around him which God had pronounced very good. But the heaven is Jehovah’s throne, though neither it nor the heaven of heavens can contain Him. “And no one hath gone up to heaven but He that came down from heaven, the Son of man that is29 in heaven.” Men have been, and will be, caught up to heaven; angels have been sent down from heaven. To Jesus only it belonged to go up,68 as He only came down. For He was a Divine Person, and He came in love; and love is ever free as well as holy. “Lo! I am come to do Thy will, O God.” In the volume of the Book it was written of Him alone. And He Who was thus pleased to be found in fashion as a man, taking the body God prepared Him, rejoiced ever to speak of Himself as the Sent One, the man Christ Jesus, Who came down from heaven to do, not His own will, but the will of Him that sent Him. He became servant, but did not, could not, cease to be God. But He is man withal, as truly as Adam; yea, He is what Adam was not-Son of man, come of woman.
And so it is that in the form of the expression used He is stamped as having ascended to heaven, He only that descended from heaven:
ἀναβέβηκεν 30 . .
. ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς. For, as the Apostle asks, “That He ascended, what is it but that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. “Only, as the Apostle Paul tells us, it is in connection with His work and the counsels of God, so John presents it in our Lord’s words as connected with the truth of His Person-”the Son of man that is in heaven.” And an astonishing truth it is. To have said the Son of God that was in heaven would have been true; but what an infinite truth is that which is said, “the Son of man that is in heaven!” Impossible to be said if He had not been God, the Son of the Father, yet, what was of the deepest moment, said of Him as man, the rejected Messiah, “the Son of man that is in heaven.” The Incarnation was no mere emanation of divinity, neither was it a Person once Divine Who ceased to be so by becoming man (in itself an impossible absurdity), but One Who, to glorify the Father, and in accomplishment of the purposes of grace to the glory of God, took humanity into union with Godhead in His Person. Therefore it is that He could say, and of Him alone could it be said, “the Son of man that is in heaven,” even as He is the Only-begotten Son that is (not merely that was31) in the bosom of the Father. He it is Who met, and more than met, the challenge of Agur (Prov. 30), speaking prophetically to Ithiel and Ucal, “Who hath ascended up into the heavens and descended? Who hath gathered the wind in His fists? Who hath bound the waters in a mantle? Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name, if thou knowest?” It is God, not man, Who can take up the challenge; but it is God become man-yea, the Son of man. How suited as well as competent is He to unfold all things, heavenly, earthly, human, and Divine! He is, indeed, the Truth.
We saw that the ascension of the Lord is grounded on His descent from heaven, and that both flow from and belong to His Person as the Son of man that is in heaven. But the Lord follows this up by setting out the mighty work He came to do for sinners, that they might have life eternal-by grace, indeed, but on the footing of Divine righteousness.
“And even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that every one that believeth on32 Him should (not perish, but33) have life eternal.69 For God so loved the world that He gave His34 Only-begotten Son, that every one that believeth on Him should not perish but have life eternal” (verses 14-16).
The new birth had been already insisted on for man to see or enter the kingdom of God. But so is the cross also a necessity, if guilty man was to receive pardon from God whilst living to Him. They are alike indispensable. Compare 1 John 4:9, 10. And Christ as He alone could be, so was He sent a propitiation for our sins. The Lord here illustrates the latter truth by the well-known scene in the wilderness, where God directed Moses, in his distress for the guilty Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents and dying in all quarters, to set a serpent of brass on a pole, that whoever looked might live. It was the figure of Himself, Who knew no sin, for us made sin, identified in Divine dealing with the consequences of our evil in judgment on the cross. Impossible that sin could otherwise be expiated adequately. It must be by God’s judging it in One capable of bearing what it deserved at His hands, and it must be in man, in the Son of man, to be available for man. Yet, had it been any other than Jesus, it had been offensive to God, and not efficacious for man, for He only was the Holy One, and in no offering was there more jealous care that it should be without blemish. “It is most holy,” says the law of the sin-offering. Adam fell, and all other men were shapen in iniquity, and in sin conceived.
In Him only of woman-born was no sin, not only no sins committed, but no sin in Him. Therefore was a body prepared for Him as for no one else when the Holy Ghost came on the Virgin Mary, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her. Therefore also that Holy thing which was born was called the Son of God; not only the Son of God before He was sent of the Father, but, when in grace the Word thus became flesh, perfect man, yet not the less truly God. For there was none other way, if the desperate case of man was to be remedied before God. It could only be righteously through atonement, and the Son of man was the only fitting victim. For blood of bulls and goats is incapable of taking away sins, however such sacrifices might be beforehand instructive of man’s need and of God’s way. “Wherefore, when He cometh into the world, He saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body didst thou prepare Me. In burnt-offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hadst no pleasure. Then said I, Lo I am come (in the volume of the Book it is written of me) to do Thy will, O God.” (Heb. 10:5-7, quoting Ps. 40:6f.)
Thus did the man Christ Jesus, Son of God withal, yea, God over all blessed for ever, deign to suffer once for sins, Just for unjust, that He might bring us to God. Only so could it be, for God could not make light of sin, however surely He can and does pardon sinners; but even He could not pardon consistently with Himself or His Word, or the creature’s real blessing, but through the blood of the cross. And therefore did the Lord say here to Nicodemus, who knew the law, if he had little known the Prophets, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Thus did He redeem out of the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. It is not a living Messiah reigning over His people on earth, but He, rejected by them, sinners and lost as they were now proved to be; it is Jesus Christ and He crucified, in that character or title which connects Him with the one object for a sinful man: or, as He says Himself here, “that every one that believeth on Him may not perish, but have life eternal.” By Him only thus presented one comes to God, all his sins being judged and borne in His cross. Hence it is by believing on Him that one has life eternal. The believer looks out of himself to the Lord Jesus.
But this alone might leave the soul, though looking to Christ by faith, without liberty or peace, however truly blessed thus far. Hence the Lord reveals another truth. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that every one that believeth on Him should not perish but have life eternal.”70 It is no longer the abject and absolute need of guilty man, be he Jew or any other. There is now revealed the sovereign love of God, which confines not itself to any limits such as the law, or man under it, had contemplated, but goes out freely and fully to the world, where He was unknown and hated, and this, not in creation or providential mercies, but in such sort as to give His Son, His Only-begotten, “that every one that believeth on Him may not perish but have eternal life.” It is grace to the uttermost. It is no question here of a needs be. There was no moral necessity that God should give His Son; it was His love, not obligation on His part, nor claim on man’s. Whatever need there was in man’s state was amply met in the cross of the Son of man, and therein was accomplished the atonement or propitiation for the sins of those who believe. But there is incomparably more in the Only-begotten Son given by the God of love, not to the elect nation, but to the world. Thus Divine love is manifested as perfectly as His just and holy requirement in judging sin; and this in Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God, the suffering but now glorified Son of man, both too displayed in and enjoyed by that life eternal which the believer has in Him.
The great truth has been cleared: not only that man, sinful man, needed an adequate atonement as well as new birth, but that God loved the world, the guilty, lost world of Gentiles no less than Jews, and loved it so that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that every one who believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life. It is in the Son of God that both lines of the truth meet, for He is incarnate and crucified. Accordingly the true light shines, life eternal is given, God’s love is known, redemption is accomplished, salvation is come. There is more in and by Him now than if the kingdom were set up in power, for which those waited whose expectations were formed and bounded by the Old Testament. “Loving kindness and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other”; and, though one could not say perhaps till “that day” that “truth shall spring out of the earth, and righteousness shall look down from the heavens,” (Ps. 85:10 f.) yet one knows assuredly that “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ,” and that righteousness is established and displayed in Him exalted on the throne and glorified in God Himself above. In the bright days of heaven upon the earth He is to judge His people and the world righteously, and will early cut off the wicked; for the quick must be judged by Him at His coming, as well as the dead at last, ere He gives up the kingdom to God.
But deeper purposes were in hand now that the Messiah is viewed as rejected by the Jews: eternal life in, and salvation by, the Son of God, Who dies atoningly on the cross. “For God sent not His35 Son into the world that He should judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (verse 17). And as a work beyond comparison deeper and with everlasting consequences was before God, so the objects of His grace are no longer within the circumscribed limits of the land of Israel. If He is to manifest Himself now as a Saviour God in His Son, it suits His love to send out the good news to the world as a whole. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them. Granted that Christ thus present was rejected; but the errand of love was in no way abandoned; rather did it enter on a new ground whence it could go forth in the power of the Spirit. For Him Who knew no sin God made sin for us (that is, in the cross), that we might become God’s righteousness in Him.
Thus Christ as Saviour, not as Judge, expresses the characteristic testimony of God now made known to man and here declared by our Lord, in contradistinction from His predicted glory as Messiah and Son of man, ruling as He will over the earth by and by in the age to come. This is followed up by the result for him who receives Christ now. “He that believeth on Him is not judged; but36 he that believeth not hath been already judged, because he hath not believed on the name of the Only-begotten Son of God” (verse 18). Not only is the believer not condemned, but he is not an object of judgment. He will give account, but is never put on his trial. This is explicitly taught in John 5, where the twofold issue is connected with the mystery of Christ’s Person. As He is Son of God and Son of man, so He gives life and will exercise judgment, the one for the blessing of believers as owning His glory, the other for His vindication on such as have dishonoured Him.
Thus, as His stooping to become man exposed Him to unbelief, it is as Son of man that He will judge His despisers, which clearly does not apply to the believer, whose joy is even now and ever to honour Him as the Father. And as in this later chapter of John the believer is declared to have life eternal, and not to come into judgment, but to have passed out of death into life, so here “He that believeth not hath been already judged, because he hath not believed on the name of the Only-begotten Son of God.” For John presents the Lord as declaring all decided by the test of His own Person received in faith or unbelievingly rejected. Good or evil in all other respects turns on this, as He shows soon after. There is no such touchstone, not even the law of God, weighty and incisive as it is. Hence we see the fallacy of the older divines, who drag in the law here as everywhere, and thus make it only a question of moral condemnation; whereas the very point of instruction is that it is Christ Himself believed or disbelieved, though no doubt conduct follows accordingly.
But here it is not death for not doing God’s commandments, but the unbeliever already judged by Him Who sees the end from the beginning, and pronounces on all persons and things as they are before God. Only One can avail him who is dead in trespasses and sins; in nowise the law, which can simply condemn him whose walk is opposed to itself, but the Son, Who is life and gives life to the believer. But the unbeliever refuses the Son of God: carelessly or deliberately, in haughty pride or in cowardly clinging to other trusts, pleasures, or interests, it is only a difference of form or degree. For he has not believed on the name of the Only-begotten Son of God, Whose name is not hidden but preached. There is the fullest declaration of what He is, and is to sinners: so that all excuse is vain and can only add sin to sin. His very name implies, yea asserts, that He is the Saviour, a Divine Saviour, yet a Man, and so for men. Nor can it be truthfully urged that there is any doubt as to God’s feeling and mind; for it had just been said that God sent Him into the world to this end, whatever must be the character of His coming another day, when He will reckon with those who would have none of Him. But what is it to God that wretched, guilty, ruined sinners should despise and reject Him Who is at once the only Saviour of man, and the Only-begotten Son of God! When those who most need mercy least feel it, when they in their utter degradation refuse the Highest, Who comes down to them in the fullest love to bless, what remains but judgment for those who thus render God’s grace null as to themselves, heightened as it is by the glory of Him Who in love came for their sakes, and deepened by the humiliation in which He deigned to come?
I am aware that the Puritan divines drag in the law even here, and will have it that Christ, in illustrating the certainty of salvation for those that believe in Him, shows on the contrary the condemnation of unbelievers to be twofold, one by the law and the other by the Gospel. Their idea is that the unbelievers are here declared to be condemned already by the sentence of the law, which they still lie under, and have it confirmed by the Gospel, since they do not by faith lay hold on the offered and only remedy in Christ.
But there is no trace of such a scheme either here or anywhere else in Scripture, which teaches expressly that “as many as sinned without law shall also perish without law, and as many as sinned in the law shall be judged by the law . . . in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:12-16). St. Paul’s doctrine therefore excludes the assumption that every unbeliever is already under the law, which would intelligibly involve his being condemned by it, law affecting only those under it, whilst those who have it not are dealt with on their own ground. With this entirely agrees the language of our Gospel, which does not say a word about the law, even where a teacher of it was before the Lord inquiring into life eternal and salvation. It is solely a question of Christ. “And this is the judgment, that the light hath come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not unto the light lest his works should be convicted; but he that practiseth the truth cometh unto the light, that his works may be manifested that they have been wrought in God” (verses 19-21).
Inasmuch as the true light now shines-no longer the law in Israel, but the light come into the world, a criterion is in force which decides for every man. There is a far deeper question than a man’s own state or conduct. Indeed, this, too, is already decided; man is no longer under probation, as the Jew was under law. He is lost: be he Jew or Gentile, he is alike lost. It is, therefore, a question of believing on Jesus, Son of God and Son of man, Who (as we saw before) has been sent of God, not as He will be shortly to judge the quick and the dead, but that the world (not the elect nation now, but the world, spite of its ruin, in His grace) may be saved through Him. This tests to the core. All thus depends on believing on Him. If one believes not, one has been already judged. It is not merely to fail in duty, but to fight against the grace and truth come by Jesus Christ. It is to reject life eternal, and the perfect love of God, in the Only-begotten Son of God, Whose name one disbelieves or makes light of.
It is wholly vain to complain of lack of light. The very reverse is true. “This is the judgment, that the light hath come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil.” Terrible revelation of their state! Alas! it was our state, our affections so utterly corrupt as to prefer the darkness to the light, and this from the guiltiest reason, and a bad conscience. For our deeds were evil. Assuredly the trumpet gives no uncertain sound. Have we heard its clear warning above, beneath, the din of this world? Have we submitted to the sentence of Him Who knows what is in man, no less than what is in God? Or are we unbroken still in self-righteousness and self-conceit? Do we dare to dispute the words of the Lord, solemn and plain-too plain to be mistaken? Would we put off the decision till the great white throne? And what will He then judge of the unbelief which thus virtually gives Him the lie? For no man that believed these words of His now would put off till then, but surely cast his soul on Him Who, if the Judge then, is Saviour, and nothing but a Saviour, to the lost one that now believes on His name.
But when eternal judgment does come, it is not true that then it is a question simply of man’s unbelief. From the Divine account given to us, we learn that the dead are judged according to their works. There is no such thing at any time as salvation according to our works; for all who reject Christ there will be judgment according to their works. They had refused the Saviour, they had despised the grace of God through religiousness or irreligiousness, through opposition or indifference. They are not found written in the book of life, they are judged out of the things written in the book according to their works. They are cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire, the end of all who loved71 the darkness rather than the light. For their works were evil: is not their judgment just? What is the Lord’s moral analysis? “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not unto the light, lest his works should be convicted.” How could such a one suit the portion of the saints in light? He hates the light which has come here: would he suit it or love it better on high? He is inwardly false and dishonest, deliberately and decidedly preferring to go on in his sins, instead of submitting to their complete detection by the light, that they might be blotted out and forgiven by the faith of Christ’s blood. Is this truth in the inner man? Does it not rather prove that such as refuse Christ are of the devil as their father, and desire to do their lusts, instead of hearing the word of God and being subject to His Son?
On the other hand, “he that practiseth the truth cometh unto the light, that his works may be manifested that they have been wrought in God.” For the faith that is of God’s elect is never powerless but living, not only productive of results seen among men, but such as savour of their Divine source and sphere. None makes more of the truth or of knowing God than John; none has a deeper horror of Gnosticism. It is life, life eternal, that one should know the Father, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He sent; but His commandment is life everlasting, as our Lord could say of Him Who gave to Himself what He should say and what He should speak.
If we know these things, we are blessed if we do them. Unblessed is the forgetful hearer, who does not practise the truth nor come unto the light, but is rather gone away after considering himself, and straightway loses all remembrance of what he was like. Is it not too plain that his works are at best impulsive and natural? But he that practises the truth comes unto the light; walking therein he seeks to walk according to the light, trying by it his inward thoughts and feelings, motives and objects, words and ways. The realised presence of God imparts its colour to his works. They were manifestly wrought in God. They bear His image and superscription. Hence when all that are in the tombs hear the Lord’s voice and go forth, it is for those that have practised good to a life-resurrection, for those that have done evil to a judgment-resurrection.72 There was life in the one case, not in the other. He that heard the Saviour’s word and believed the God Who sent Him has life eternal, and hence practises good. He who rejects the Son of God has no ground but man, and can have no power but Satan’s; he has refused Him Who is God’s wisdom and God’s power. He might not like to be lost and judged; but he despises the only way of salvation open to any, the crucified Son of man, the life-giving Son of God. He will not be able to refuse or despise His judgment by and by.
The next paragraph has for its object the homage rendered by the Baptist to the Lord. This the Spirit of God introduces by telling us the occasion of it.73 The conversation with Nicodemus was in Jerusalem, and in this was unfolded the absolute need of both the new birth and the cross. Only that when the Lord speaks of these things, He could not but let us know that it is life eternal which the believer receives, and that He Himself was not more surely the Son of man Who must be lifted up for man’s desperate case than He is the Only-begotten Son of God given to the world in Divine love. Salvation was in His mind, not judgment, though the unbeliever in Him must be, yea is, judged already; and this on the deepest of all grounds, the preference of darkness, that they might do their wicked works at ease, to the Light come into the world in Christ. The case, then, of every rejector of Him is thus solemnly decided.
It is evident that the Person of Christ is the key to all, and shines out more and more in the secret scene with Nicodemus. Still it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, Who gave a yet fuller witness to His glory by John at a critical moment, to reproduce this permanently for us with the circumstances which led to it. The thought might enter some minds that the Lord only used His predecessor to continue the work and outdo it. It was fitting, therefore, that John the Baptist should give a final testimony to Him where human nature is apt to be most grudging.
“After these things came Jesus and His disciples into the land of Judæa, and there he was tarrying with them and baptizing.74 And John also was baptizing at Ænon near Salim, because much water was there; and they were coming there and being baptized: for John was not yet cast into prison.” We have thus a view of what was going on previous to the public Galilean ministry of our Lord in the three Synoptic Gospels. They do not touch on any work of His before John’s imprisonment, whilst the early chapters of the fourth Gospel are devoted to this, after the revelation of His Person and glories at the beginning.75
“There arose then a dispute on the part of the disciples of John with a Jew37 about purification. And they came unto John and said to him, Rabbi, He who was with thee across the Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, behold, He is baptizing and all come unto Him” (verses 25, 26). A Jew’s reasoning did not ruffle them, for their souls could not but feel the moral superiority of John’s call and baptism to repentance in the faith of the coming Messiah; but the nearness of Jesus and the fact of His attractive power, veiled as it then might be, was a fact that disconcerted them, though the appeal to their master took the shape of zeal for one who had been prompt to own the dignity of Jesus when He came to John for baptism. But now He was baptizing, and all were flocking to Him: so complained John’s disciples.76
Let us well weigh the reply. “John answered and said, A man can receive nothing unless it have been given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me38 witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him” (verses 27, 28). It was lowly yet wise withal; it put, as truth always does, both God and ourselves in the right place, thus securing a like recognition of His sovereign disposal of all and the contentedness of each with his own lot, and, it may be added, quiet firmness in the discharge of the duty which flows from it. For there is no greater error than the thought that our own will is really strong. Be it ever so, obedience is stronger still. “He that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” (1 John 2:17.) Out of this spirit of dependence and happy submission to God did John answer his disciples. If he were eclipsed as the morning star by the dawn of day, it was to fulfil, not to fail in, his mission. He, the servant and forerunner, had never set up to be the Master, as they could all attest, if they would.
Then John applies to himself a figure taken from the circumstance of a bridal feast to illustrate his relation to the Lord, in beautiful harmony with the Lord’s own use of it elsewhere. Here, of course, all is connected with Israel, though, when the church took the place of that nation, the Holy Spirit applies it freely to the new relationship constantly before us in the Epistles and the Revelation. “He that hath the bride is (the) Bridegroom; but the friend of the Bridegroom that standeth and heareth Him rejoiceth with joy because of the voice of the bridegroom: this my joy then is fulfilled. He must increase, but I decrease” (verses 29, 30). John was indeed the most favoured servant-yea, “the friend” of the Bridegroom. It was his joy, therefore, that the bride should be Christ’s, not his, whose highest distinction was to be His immediate herald, seeing those days which king and prophets had so ardently desired to see, seeing Him Who gave those days their brightness. It was his chiefest joy to hear His voice of love and satisfaction in those He deigned to love as His bride. His own mission was closed. If Simeon could depart in peace, John could say that his joy was fulfilled. It was right, it was necessary, that He should increase and himself decrease, though no greater was born of woman. Instead of feeling a pang, his heart bowed and delighted in it. By and by when Christ comes in power and glory, and sits on the throne of David as well as of the yet larger dominion of the Son of man, “there will be no end of the increase of His government,” as the prophet declares. (Isa. 9:7.) But John could say it now in the days of His humiliation, as his soul rests on the glory of His Person, and the Spirit leads him on in the sense of what was due to Him.
The glory of the Person of Christ shines with rich lustre here. It is not merely His nearness of relation to His people as distinguished from John, nor His increase while the greatest of woman-born decreases. He is superior to all comparison. “He that cometh from above is above all” (verse 31). Neither Adam nor Abraham, Enoch nor Elijah, could take such a ground. They, like John, did not come from above, nor could any one of them be said to be above all. Nor could our blessed Lord Himself be so described, as born of Mary, and heir of David, had He not been God-the great theme of our Gospel. But this it has been the grand aim to show He is: a truth of the deepest moment, we can say boldly, not only to us the children, but to God the Father. For thus and now are to be solved all the questions that had ever risen between God and man, insoluble till He appeared, and appeared a true man, Who is no less truly God, and thus both “from above” and “above all.”
And it was fitting that John the Baptist’s own lips77 should give utterance to the incontestable supremacy of the Lord Jesus in presence of his own disciples, jealous of their leader’s honour. Hence follows the explanation: “he that is of the earth is of the earth, and speaketh (as) of the earth; He that cometh of the heaven is above all” (verse 31).39 The Lord may vindicate John; but John asserts the glory of Jesus, Who had lost none of His intrinsic and supreme dignity by deigning in Divine love to become man. Like all other men, John could not claim to have any other origin naturally than the earth. Jesus alone is out of heaven; for such is the virtue of His Person that He raises up humanity into union with His Divine nature, instead of being dragged down by humanity into its degradation by sin as some have vainly and evilly dreamt.
Nor is it of His person only that we are here taught. His testimony is invested with kindred value. “And what He hath seen and heard, this He testifieth; and no one receiveth His testimony” (verse 32). His is the perfection of testimony; for what was there of God, of the Father, and this in heaven, that the Son had not seen and heard? There could be no conceivable defect here in the glory whence He came, and in the grace with which He made all known to man. How withering, therefore, the sad result! For surely beforehand it must have been universally anticipated that all but the most besotted would eagerly welcome such a witness of things Divine, heavenly, and eternal. But such is man’s estate through sin, not only the savage and the brutal, not only the idolater or the sceptic, but those who pique themselves on their religion, whether it be theory or practice, ordinances or tradition, effort, ecstasy, or experience-”no one receiveth His testimony.” How solemn the sentence! and the more so as being the unimpassioned utterance of holiness. Doubtless they knew not what they did in their dislike of, or indifference to, His testimony; but what a state man must be in, to have the heavenly and Divine Saviour thus bearing witness of things most deeply needed by himself in relation to God and heaven end forever, without ever finding out the worth of the Testifier or of the testimony! It is not that grace did not open some hearts, here and there, now and then; but the point here noted is the rejection of His testimony by man, not the reserve of sovereign mercy when all was lost in sin and ruin.
Faith is in no way a growth natural to the heart of sinful man. Without faith it is impossible to please God; and without His grace faith is impossible, such faith at least as pleases Him. For they that are in flesh cannot please God; but who are not in flesh till brought to God? Man conscious of sin and shrinking from Divine judgment dislikes the God Whose punishment he dreads. His grace he sees no reason, as far as he is concerned, for believing; and no wonder he sees none, for it would not be God’s grace if there were a ground for it in himself. Grace excludes the desert of him to whom it is shown, and this is as offensive to his own self-sufficiency as it supposes love in Him Whose displeasure he knows he deserves. Thus there is no disposition in his heart to believe in God’s grace, ample to make him doubt; and the more, as he reasons on what God must be, and on what he himself has been toward God. Christ is not seen to change all, as the manifestation of love, and His death the ground of the righteousness of God which justifies the believer, spite of past sins and ungodliness.
His testimony therefore puts the heart thoroughly to the test; for it tells the truth of the sinner as decidedly as it announces the grace of God, and the heart resists the one and distrusts the other. The last thing submitted to is to think ill of oneself, and well of God. But this is just the effect of receiving the testimony of Christ. We then begin to take God’s side against ourselves; for if there be genuine faith, there is genuine repentance, without which, indeed, the faith is human and worthless, as in John 2, where men believed beholding the signs wrought, and Jesus did not trust Himself to them. Such faith is not of God’s Spirit, but merely of the mind drawing a conclusion from the probabilities of the case.78 In it man judges, which pleases him, instead of his being morally judged, which is humbling and offensive. He sees no sufficient reason to reject the evidence, and, his will going along with it, he believes accordingly. As this was the case with many in Jerusalem at the Passover, so it is with multitudes throughout Christendom now and ever since. The vague creed which prevails generally awakens enough neither of interest nor of opposition to put men to the test. But when any great truth, even of that creed, is pressed on the conscience or comes distinctly before the heart, it will then be seen how little men believe what they in words accredit, only because they never seriously apply it to their souls before God.
Take the simple truth, for instance, of our Gospel, the Word, Who was God become flesh and dwelling among us; or, again, remission of sins in His name, the message to every soul, the possession of every believer: who doubts either as long as they are preached abstractedly in the pulpit? But the moment a man receives them for his own soul, and, though feeling and owning his sins more than ever, blesses God for forgiveness and rejoices in Christ-while he worships God and the Lamb, others shrink back and cry presumption! As if such truths were never intended for the heart and life and lips of every day, but only as a religious service, or, rather, a form for the multitude keeping holiday.
The fact is, however, that the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ (being perfect in themselves and in Him Whose glory is adequate to display and make them good, as well as perfectly adapted to man, sinful and lost as he is) test him absolutely, “and no one receiveth His testimony.” Where the quickening power of the Spirit acts, it is far otherwise. So proper is it to win the heart, that he who is not won shows that his will is against God and His grace and truth in Christ, hatred naturally and soon following. He who bows, being begotten by the word of truth, judges himself. He has received not man’s word, but, as it truly is, God’s word, which effectually works in the believer; or, as it is put here, “he that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true” (verse 33).
This is the essential character of real, living faith. His testimony is received because He gives it: nothing more simple, but we are not simple; nothing more right and due to Him, but we have been all wrong, and. most wrong to Him. It is received because He says it, not because it seems reasonable, or wise, or good, or for evidence of any kind; though one need not say there are the fullest evidences, and the testimony is that which alone could suit God or man, if one be a sinner, the other a Saviour where His testimony is received. A Divine faith is due to a Divine testimony; but the faith which is grounded on human motives is not Divine: only that which is founded on God’s word truly searches heart and conscience. When a man is broken down to feel his own state of sin, as well as what he has done against such a God, the heart desires that the good news of the Gospel should be the truth, instead of yielding to the indifference or active repugnance natural to it; and this is to believe with the heart (Rom. 10:9, 10).
Further, the ground of confidence is laid plainly and expressed fully. We are not left to inference. “For He Whom God sent speaketh the words of God; for God40 giveth not the Spirit by measure” (verse 34). To receive the words of Jesus, then, is to receive those of God. What possible ground is there for hesitation? To faith alone belongs absolute certainty. And of this the Spirit is the power, as in Him perfectly, so in and by us as far as flesh is judged. He was the holy vessel of the Spirit, so that the testimony was poured out as pure as it was poured in, or, rather, as it is in Him Who is Himself the truth. As for what inspired men have written, it is just the same. “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandment of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). In all others, whatever the power, there is no such guarantee against infirmity or mistake, though one may be perfectly kept and guided, where only and simply dependent, so real is the connection between the truth and the Spirit.
John 35 f. We have had the supremacy of Jesus, and His testimony, so thoroughly marking Him off from all others. But there is more. He is “the Son,” and the especial object of Divine affection and honour. This follows; and here, accordingly, we rise far above His position either as the Messiah, the Bridegroom on the one hand, or the heavenly prophet on the other, Whose testimony absolutely detected every child of Adam, while it brought him that received it to the knowledge of God and His mind with Divine certainty. Hence we hear of the Father and the Son. “The Father41 loveth the Son, and hath put (lit. ‘given’) all things in His hand” (verse 35). Jesus is the Heir of all, as the Son of the Father in a sense peculiar to Himself, the true Isaac Who abides ever, the beloved Son Who has all that He Himself has, and has all given to be in His (the Son’s) hand.
Consequently it is no question here of blessing for any measured time or for glory on earth under His reign as King. All things come to the point at once and for ever before Him, Who is the object of testimony, and not the testifier merely. “He that believeth on the Son hath life eternal.” One need not thus wait for the blessing in the days of the kingdom. Then, no doubt, Jehovah will command blessing, even life for evermore. But he that believes in the Son has eternal life now. For the same reason it is of all things the most fatal to refuse subjection to His Person now. Therefore is it added, “and he that believeth not on the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (verse 36). If disobedience is intended, it is to Himself as well as to His words, as, indeed, by the obedience of faith the Apostle Paul meant not practical obedience, however important in its place and season, but subjection79 to Himself-to the truth revealed in Him. He that refuses Him in unbelief abides in unremoved death and under the wrath of God, Who cannot but resent such insult of heart to His Son.
25 Cf. “Introductory Lectures,” pp. 431-440.
26 [So most Edd., with majority of copies. Blass: “heaven,” as in pm. The Syrr. support “God,” for which internal evidence is decisive. As to the “kingdom” here, cf. “Lectures on the Gospel of Matthew”: “He appears to speak of a kingdom which we do enter now” (chapter 17, p. 366.)]
27 Cartwright had said that irregular baptism had grown out of a false interpretation of John 3:5, “where certain do interpret the word water for (of) the material and elemental water, when as (whereas) our Saviour Christ taketh water there by a borrowed speech for the Spirit.” This the reader will see to be imperfect; for water here is the figure of the word bringing the sentence of death on the flesh; and so is sinful man cleansed by Him out of Whose side flowed blood and water, as John testifies. On the general point says Hooker, “I hold it for a most infallible truth in exposition of sacred scripture, that where a literal construction will stand, the furthest from the letter is commonly the worst. There is nothing more dangerous than this licentious and deluding art, which changeth the meaning of words, as alchymy doth or would do the substance of metals, making of anything what it listeth, and bringeth in the end all truth to nothing.... To hide the general course of antiquity agreeing in the literal interpretation’ they cunningly affirm that ‘certain’ have taken those words as meant of material water, when they know that of all the ancients there is not one to be named that ever did otherwise either expound or allege the place than as implying external baptism” (E. P., V. lix. 2, 3). Antiquity was perhaps as unanimous in applying John 6 to the Lord’s Supper with as little solid reason. In neither case is it a literal construction, but a mere catching at a superficial resemblance; and in both cases the consequence is heterodoxy most perilous to souls, which has enormously helped on the ruin of Christendom as well as of deluded individuals. To deny that the Lord often elsewhere employed water figuratively is impossible; to maintain that He meant it literally here is to lower the sense immensely and to involve the worst consequences, as of an ordinance saving ex opere operato. It is remarkable, I would add, that the Gospel of John omits even the institution of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper, dwelling beyond all others on life and the Spirit.
28 [ , Syrch sin have, as some Old Lat., “of water and of the Spirit.”]
29 The Alexandrian (pr. m.) and a cursive of the Gospels (4949 in the Br. Museum) omit
ὤν. Still more serious is the omission
ὁ ὤν ἐν τῳ οὐρανῳ in the Sinai, Vatican, two other uncials [L,T.], a valuable Paris cursive , etc. There need be no hesitation, however, in accepting the mass of authorities [including Latt. and Syrr.] against these testimonies; which illustrate the danger of being carried away by a few favourites, be they over so venerable and in general trustworthy. I am glad to see that Dr. Tregelles [as Tischendorf] inserts the clause; but it is hard to understand with what consistency it is done in his system of recension. [See W. and H., “Select Readings,” p. 75. Weiss and Blass omit the words; but Syrsin has “the S. of M. who is from heaven.”]
30 We are not to suppose
ἀναβήσεται here. The futurity of the ascension is perfectly right in John 6. But here it is a proleptic character attached to the Person of the Lord; and hence to express this no tense was so proper as the perfect, the present continuance of a past act. The seeming anomalies of Scripture are most instructive when understood.
31 It is surprising that Bengel should follow Raphelius in preferring “qui erat” to “qui est,” as almost all the ancients, Greeks and Latins rightly insist.
32 The Sinai MS. and the great mass of the uncials and cursives have
εἰς here, as in verse 16; but the Vatican (B) and the St. Petersburg uncial of the sixth century (T) read
ἐν αὐτῳ , supported by many Latin copies [besides Syrsin, and followed by Edd.]; as the Paris L has here in verse 16
ἐπ᾽ αὐτῳ the Alexandrian
ἐπ᾽ αὐτὸν here only, though Tb reads it in verse 16. A Bodleian cursive (47) omits the phrase in both cases.
33 The clause
μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ here is wanting in four uncials of the highest character, seven cursives, and many versions, etc. [not Syrsin]; but almost all read it in verse 16.
34 The Sinai and the Vatican (B) omit
35 The word
αὐτοῦ (“his”) is omitted by BLTb, five cursives and some Fathers, but read by all other authorities [rejected by Edd.].
36 B, etc., omit
δέ (“but”), which all else read [rejected by Edd.].
37 There is equally good evidence from the most ancient and excellent witnesses for the plural form ( pmG
Λ2 Π2 1. 13. 69. 124. etc. It. Vulg. Syrcu. Cop. Armusc Æth. Goth. Orig. ) in the common text as for the singular ( corr ABEFHKLMSUV
Πpm, many cursives, Syrsin pesch et phil. and Armzoh Chrys. Nonn.) preferred by most critics, partly as being the less common of the two, and so more likely to be changed.
38 The witnesses for omitting
μοι include EFHMV
Γ, many cursives, etc., and are scarcely inferior, therefore, to those [including Syrsin] in favour of the ordinary text.
39 [Lachm., Treg., W. and H., Weiss: “is above all,” from corr. ABL
ΓΔΛΠ, etc., Vulg. Syrsin pesch hcl hier Memph. Æth. Goth. Chrys. Cyr. Alex-Tischendorf, followed by Blass, omits the words according to pmD and a few cursives, some old Latt. Syrcu Arm., Tertullian.]
40 [“God”: so Lachm., Treg., after ACcorrD
ΓΛΠ, etc., Vulg. Syrpesch hcl Memph. Æth., Orig. Chrys. Tisch., W. and H., and Weiss omit, as Bcorr CpmLT, 1, 33, Cyr. Alex.-Blass: “the Father,” omitting “the Spirit,” as Bpm Syrsin.]
41 [Syrsin has “But He,” followed by Blass.]