John 1 Verse 19 through Chapter 4, Part 3
by Karl Kemp
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We continue this verse-by-verse study of John 1:19-4:54 here in Part 3, starting with John 3:1.
JOHN CHAPTER 3.
"Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus [cf. John 7:50-52; 19:39], a ruler of the Jews [There is widespread agreement that the words "a ruler of the Jews" mean that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin (cf. John 7:45-52, 26; Luke 23:13).]; (2) this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, 'Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do [see John 2:11, but especially 2:23] unless God is with him [cf., e.g., John 9:33; 10:38; 14:10, 11; Acts 2:22; and 10:38].' [[Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee, undoubtedly came by night because he didn't want it known that he had come to Jesus (he could have gotten into trouble with some of the rulers of the Jews, for one thing), but he clearly had a positive interest in Jesus, and John 19:39, 40 show that he eventually demonstrated his commitment to Christ by being directly involved in His burial. Some Pharisees accused Jesus of doing supernatural works by the power of Satan (Matt. 9:32-34; 12:22-32; Mark 3:22-30; and Luke 11:14-26).]] (3) Jesus answered and said to him, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again [or "born from above (from God/heaven)"] he cannot see the kingdom of God.' [[These words were undoubtedly more dramatic and challenging than anything Nicodemus expected to hear from Jesus. Jesus spoke of the need for people - very much including "righteous" Jews and the Pharisees and rulers of the Jews - to repent and be born again/born from above if they want to have a place in God's never-ending kingdom. Jesus speaks more of this all-important birth as He continues. This birth wasn't available until after Jesus had overthrown sin, Satan, and death (spiritual death and physical death) through His all-important atoning death and resurrection. Nicodemus must understand that this new birth comes only through repentance (see under verse 5; cf., e.g., Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; and Luke 13:1-5) and submission (in faith) to the Lord Jesus Christ and the One who sent Him. The only way to be born again/from above is through submission to and union with Christ Jesus (by grace through faith).
The apostle John has already spoken of the new birth/birth from above in this Gospel: See John 1:12, 13, 33 (as we discussed under John 1:33, baptism in the Spirit includes the new birth/birth from above), and this glorious birth (and eternal life) is spoken of further as John continues (John 3:5-8, 15, 16, 36; cf. 4:10-15, 23, 24, 36; 5:21-29; 6:33-58, 63; 7:37-39; 8:12, 51; 10:10; 11:25-27; 14:19, 20; 17:2, 3; and 20:31) and other places in the New Testament (cf. James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3, 23-25; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; and 5:1, 4, 18).
I don't believe there is a substantial difference between seeing the kingdom of God (here in verse 3) and entering that kingdom in verse 5. Only those who enter the kingdom through being born again/from above can see the kingdom. Seeing the kingdom includes participating in the kingdom.
The kingdom of God comes in two stages. When we are born again/from above by the Holy Spirit through Christ Jesus (when we become Christians), we enter the kingdom (cf., e.g., Matt. 11:11, 12; Luke 9:27; Rom. 14:17; and Col. 1:13), but only the first/preliminary stage of the kingdom. When Christ returns we will enter the kingdom in its fully glorified dimension (cf., e.g., Luke 19:11-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 15:50-57; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Tim. 4:18; James 2:5; Rev 11:15-18; and 12:10). The Bible also speaks, on occasion, of our entering that future, fully glorified dimension of the kingdom by a birth into the fullness of eternal life (cf. Rev. 12: 5 with Psalm 2:7; Isa. 66:7, 8; Mic. 5:3; and Rom. 8:29 [These verses and the birth into the fullness of eternal life are discussed in some detail in my book "The Mid-Week Rapture." Start with Rev. 12:5 on page 314. These verses are also discussed to some extent in my series titled "The Mid-Week Rapture #1," and so on, on this Christian article site. See my article, "Introduction to and Contents of My Twenty-Four Articles Titled 'The Mid-Week Rapture' " on this site.]). The second line of John 3:6, "and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit," seems to focus on the birth into the fullness of eternal life at the end of this age (see under John 3:6).]] (4) Nicodemus said to Him, 'How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?' [Nicodemus' answer missed the mark: Jesus was speaking of a spiritual birth by the Spirit (from God/heaven).] (5) Jesus answered, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water [[I believe (in agreement with a large number of commentators) that the words "of water" refer to water baptism, which was quite prominent in that setting. John the Baptist was baptizing in water - even Jesus was baptized by him - and Jesus (through His disciples) was on the verge of baptizing in water (see John 1:25-34; 3:22-26; and 4:1, 2). The baptism in water of John 3:5 is a baptism of repentance and faith (if it isn't a baptism preceded and accompanied by true repentance and faith it isn't a valid baptism), and (typically in the New Testament) it is a preliminary step to being born of (receiving, being baptized in) the Spirit ((cf., e.g., Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:21, 22 [I had a footnote: The first three references refer to Jesus' being baptized in water and then (shortly afterward) receiving the Spirit. This sequence established a pattern. Jesus wasn't spiritually dead, so He didn't need to be born again as we do, but He did need to receive the Spirit in order to become the Anointed One/the Christ/the Messiah.]; Ezek. 36:25-27; Acts 2:38, 39; 8:14-17; 19:5, 6; and Titus 3:5, 6)). ((I had a footnote: There is room for exceptions to this sequence (baptism in water before the life-giving, sanctifying, gift-dispensing Spirit comes), as Acts 10:44-48 demonstrate, but it is easy to see why God gave the Spirit to those Gentile believers before they were baptized in water. If God had not demonstrated His acceptance of those Gentiles by giving them the Spirit, Peter would have been very reluctant to baptize them. He got in trouble with the Jews as it was (Acts 11:1-18). Acts 2:38, 39; Titus 3:5, 6; and other verses are discussed in the references mentioned in the first paragraph of the next footnote.)) I am not suggesting that people cannot be born of the Spirit before, or apart from, water baptism (in our day large numbers of people are), but I am saying that in the typical New Testament pattern water baptism precedes being born of the Spirit.
((I had a lengthy footnote and I'm adding to that footnote here: See my discussion on water baptism under 1 Cor. 15:29 in my paper on 1 Corinthians chapter 15 on this Christian article site and the discussion in my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin" cited in that paper. WATER BAPTISM IS THE MOST APPROPRIATE OCCASION (ACCORDING TO THE NEW TESTAMENT) TO COMPLETE THE TRANSACTIONS OF REPENTING AND BEING FORGIVEN/WASHING AWAY SINS (cf. Acts 2:38; 22:16); OF BECOMNG UNITED WITH CHRIST AND APPROPRIATING HIS ATONING DEATH AS OUR DEATH, SINCE HE DIED IN OUR PLACE (cf. Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3); and OF DYING TO THE OLD MAN AND BURYING THE OLD MAN (Rom. 6:3, 4; Col. 2:11, 12); also cf. 1 Pet. 3:21.
It is very important to see that there are other things that are much more important than water baptism, without which water baptism is another dead ritual. We must hear the gospel; we must understand it (we must at least understand the basics); we must repent and be submitted to the gospel in our hearts by faith; and we must have all of the necessary work of the Holy Spirit, who draws, convicts, enlightens, teaches, reveals, and transmits the life, righteousness, and holiness of God.
After being baptized in water (in the typical New Testament pattern), it is time to be baptized in/to receive the life-giving, sanctifying, gift-dispensing Spirit (cf., e.g., Acts 2:38, 39; 19:5, 6). I have spent a lot of time seeking God for the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches about water baptism and baptism in the Spirit (and many other topics). We desperately need the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches. The more we hold the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches, the more God can bless us and use us, and the more Christians can unite around God's Word. I should mention that the problems we have with water baptism are not the most important problems we need to deal with in the body of Christ in our day.
Many Christian groups have formed their viewpoint on water baptism (to some extent) in reaction to what other groups were doing (like the Baptist reaction against the view of baptismal regeneration, including the baptizing of infants, and the fact that many baptized "Christians" didn't believe the gospel); the Baptist viewpoint, which is followed by large numbers of Pentecostals, charismatics, and others, is that believers are forgiven, born of the Spirit, etc. and then baptized in water). Reacting against viewpoints out of balance very often leads to being out of balance in the other direction.
What about the Baptist viewpoint? Most of the Christians I have fellowshipped with hold that viewpoint, that our sins have been taken away; we have been born again; etc.; now we will be baptized in water in obedience to God's Word. I held that viewpoint until I spent some time studying what the New Testament has to say on the topic. I am confident that we can be solid, born-again Christians and hold the Baptist viewpoint on water baptism. For one thing, God has been very generous with us in many ways, even if we didn't fully line up with the Bible in every area. I am also confident that it will work for good if we switch to a viewpoint that doesn't teach that essentially everything is done before we are baptized in water.
What I am saying about water baptism here I am saying for one primary reason: The New Testament seems to me to be quite clear in its teaching on water baptism (as I mentioned above). I haven't had some special revelation or some special experience, and I don't owe loyalty to any particular viewpoint. I simply want to please God and be a blessing to the body of Christ by teaching the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches.
On baptism in the Spirit, start with pages 17-20 (including the footnotes) in my paper, "Charismatic Gifts and Charismatic Chaos," dated May 2001. That paper is not available on the internet, but I could send you a copy. I dealt with that topic rather extensively in my verse-by-verse study of 1 Corinthians chapter 12 that is available on this Christian article site (see under verse 13 and at the end of the study of that chapter. The lengthy study at the end of the study of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, which is contained in Part 3 of the study of 1 Corinthians chapter 12 on this Christian article site, deals with the topic of water baptism too, including some important quotations.))
It should be obvious that it is the Spirit (not water baptism) that gives Christians spiritual life (starting with the new birth/birth from above) through Christ Jesus. Why did Jesus include the words "of water" here in verse 5? For one thing, Christian water baptism is important; baptizing in water, including the baptizing of John the Baptist, came from God; it is something He said to do - that makes it important! The New Testament doesn't speak of water baptism as something optional. It is quite possible (even probable) that Jesus included this reference to water baptism when speaking with Nicodemus because he was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees rejected the baptism of John the Baptist (Luke 7:30).
By mentioning the need to be "born of water and the Spirit" here, Jesus put some emphasis on the need to be baptized in water, with the emphasis on genuine repentance and submission in faith to God, His Messiah, and His new-covenant plan of salvation. First came the baptism of John the Baptist, but before long it would be Christian baptism. John's baptism was transitional between the time of the old and new covenants. The baptizing that Jesus was doing (through His disciples; John 3:22; 4:1, 2) before the new covenant was ratified through His atoning death was also transitional. John the Baptist called people to a baptism of repentance and pointed them to Christ Jesus; Jesus (through His disciples) began to baptize His disciples in water (a baptism that included repentance); and before long (after Jesus' atoning death, His resurrection, and His pouring forth the promised gift of the life-giving, sanctifying, gift-dispensing Spirit, starting on the day of Pentecost), Christian water baptism in the full new-covenant sense would be practiced. Believers couldn't be born of the Spirit before the Spirit was given, starting on the day of Pentecost.]] and the Spirit [[Being born of the Spirit (the Holy Spirit) yields the first stage of the birth (the new birth/birth from above) spoken of in verse 3. We have a spirit before we are born again/from above, but we are spiritually dead, which means that we don't have a life-flowing relationship with God by His Spirit. God (the triune God) is the only source of life (spiritual life and physical life) and everything else that is good (e.g., truth, righteousness, holiness, light, divine order, and health). Mankind died spiritually when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden (cf., e.g., Gen. 2:17; 3:1-19; Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-5; and Col. 2:13).]] he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [We cannot enter the kingdom of God (or see the kingdom of God) until we are born again/from above, because God's kingdom is a kingdom of life, righteousness, holiness, light, divine order, etc. God (through Christ and by the Holy Spirit) must transfer us out of the kingdom of sin, death, darkness, and Satan and into His kingdom (cf., e.g., Col. 1:13).] (6) That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. [[First I'll mention and briefly discuss the popular (but wrong) view regarding the meaning of the second half of this verse, the interpretation that you most often hear from pastors and other Christians. (You almost never hear this wrong view from Christian scholars, the ones writing the commentaries, etc.) That wrong view understands these words to mean that the Spirit gives birth to our spirit (that it is our spirit that is born again). For one thing, the New Testament speaks of our being born again, not just our spirits. And it isn't true, as you frequently hear it said, that after we are born again, our spirits are perfect and if we sin our perfect spirits aren't involved. 2 Corinthians 7:1, by itself suffices to show that that view is wrong, "Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh AND SPIRIT [my emphasis], perfecting holiness in the fear of God." Our spirits are not automatically made perfect, or kept perfect, because we have been born again. See pages 181, 182 of my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin: Full Salvation Through the Atoning Death of the Lord Jesus Christ." See my paper titled, "Some Things We Should Know about the Meaning of the Words 'Spirit' and 'Soul' " on this Christian article site.
What Jesus was saying in the first half of this verse is that man in the flesh (man having a spirit, soul, and body, but being in spiritual death, separated from God, and without the Holy Spirit) can only give birth to man in the flesh (man having a spirit, soul, and body, but being in spiritual death, separated from God, and without the Spirit). In the second half of this verse, He was saying that it is only that which is born of the Spirit that becomes spirit, using the word spirit here of that which can see and enter the spiritual kingdom of God. I'll quote the NAB translation for this verse, "Flesh begets flesh, Spirit begets spirit." The NIV has, "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit."
When we become Christians and are born of the Spirit (born again/from above), we become spirit in the sense spoken of in the second half of verse 6 (but we become spirit only in a preliminary sense), and we are able to enter the first stage of the kingdom of God that I mentioned above. But, as I mentioned, these words in the second half of verse 6 seem to focus on the end of this age when we will be enabled to enter the kingdom in its fully glorified sense. Then we will have a body (we won't be disembodied spirits), but it will be a spiritual body, which means that it will be a body designed for life in the heavenly, glorified dimension. (We will have a real body, but it will not consist of the physical elements of this present world; it will consist of the elements of the dimension of heaven.) The apostle Paul speaks of this spiritual body in 1 Cor. 15:43-57. The unusual use of the adjective spiritual (Greek "pneumatikos, e, on") in 1 Cor. 15:44, 46 is comparable with the unusual use of the noun spirit (Greek "pneuma") here at the end of John 3:6.
Nicodemus could/should have known something about this birth from heaven (cf. John 3:10). For one thing, God's spokesmen in the Old Testament had frequently prophesied of the time that God would pour forth His life-giving, sanctifying, gift-dispensing Spirit (cf., e.g., Isa. 32:15-18; 44:3-5; Ezek. 36:25-27; 37:14; 39:29; and Joel 2:28, 29).]] (7) Do not be amazed that I said to you ["You" is singular in the Greek, referring to Nicodemus.], "You [This "you" is plural in the Greek, not being limited to Nicodemus; it applies to every person who wants to have a place in God's kingdom.] must be born again [or, "born from above"]." (8) The wind blows where it wishes and you [This "you" is singular.] hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.' [[Compare Psalm 135:7; Eccl. 11:5; and Ezek. 37:1-14. To appreciate what Jesus was saying here it is necessary to know that the Greek noun behind "wind" is "pneuma," which is the noun translated "Spirit" here in verse 8 (and in verses 5, 6) and translated "spirit" in verse 6. I suppose Jesus' main point here in verse 8 was that we are not able to fully explain or understand a birth that comes from heaven by the Spirit. We can, however, understand as much as we need to understand to be born of the Spirit. God always does what He has promised to do when we do what He requires of us (when we respond to His grace with repentance and faith). God gives birth/makes alive (and righteous and holy) by His Spirit those who repent and submit (in faith) to Christ and the gospel of salvation (cf., e.g., John 1:12, 13; 3:15-18, 36; 4:10-14, 23-26; and 5:24).]] (9) Nicodemus said to Him, 'How can these things be?' (10) Jesus answered and said to him, 'Are you the teacher of Israel [Compare Luke 2:46; 5:17; and Acts 5:34. Nicodemus must have been one of the more respected teachers of Israel.] and do not understand these things? [See the last paragraph under verse 6.] (11) Truly, truly, I say to you [This "you" is singular in the Greek, referring to Nicodemus.], we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen [cf. John 3:12, 13, 31-36; 5:19, 20, 30; 8:26-29, 40; and 12:50], and you [This "you" is plural in the Greek.] do not accept our testimony. [[There are quite a few different opinions regarding why Jesus used the plurals "we," and "our" here. I prefer the view that He was referring to Himself and John the Baptist, referring to John's testimony regarding Him (cf. John 1:6-8, 15, 19-37; and 3:25-30), which included his testimony that Jesus would baptize/immerse (His disciples) in the Holy Spirit (which includes the new birth/birth from above by the Spirit). John the Baptist testified based on what had been revealed to him (including what he learned from his parents) and having seen the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove and remain upon Him (cf. John 1:32-34); he also undoubtedly heard the Father audibly speak from heaven regarding His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased (see Matt. 3:17; Luke 3:21, 22; cf. 2 Pet. 1:16-18). It is possible that Jesus was referring to Himself and His disciples (some of them could have been with Him on that occasion), but His disciples were quite limited in what they could testify about Jesus at that early date. Anyway, it's clear that Jesus Himself was the One in the spotlight, and He switches to the singular "I" as He continues in verse 12.]] (12) If I told you [All four uses of "you" in this verse are plural in the Greek.], earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? [[In this context the "earthly things" (things that take place on the earth) undoubtedly include the need to repent and be born of the Spirit (even though it is true, of course, that being born of the Spirit is a birth that comes from heaven). Jesus was certainly qualified to tell of "heavenly things" in that He (God the Son) had come (been sent) from heaven. One of the things that Nicodemus most needed to learn was that Jesus was much more than just a man sent by God. He was the God-man (deity with God the Father and God the Spirit), and the Lamb of God, the only Savior from sin and death (spiritual and physical death). (On God the Father and God the Son, see my papers, "The Name Yahweh and God the Father and God the Son"; "Who Do We Worship?"; "Who Do We Pray To?"; and "More on the Trinity" on this Christian article site.)
The fact that Jesus was God the Son, who had been sent from heaven by God the Father, was a super-important revelation and an essential part of the gospel of the new covenant, but it would have been extremely controversial, especially at first. For one thing, the Jews were not (and they still are not) expecting the Messiah/Christ to be deity (God the Son). (The Jews, like the Muslims, make no room for the Trinity; they believe that doctrine proves Christianity is not true.) John has already informed us that John the Baptist spoke of Christ in exalted terms that were fully compatible with His being deity with God the Father (and the Holy Spirit) and His coming from heaven. ((John the Baptist said, for example, that Christ existed before him, even though he was born before Christ (1:30), that He was "the Son of God" (1:34), that He would baptize in the Holy Spirit (1:33); and that He would judge the world (Matt. 3:11, 12).)) The apostle John has already clearly spoken regarding the deity of Christ in John 1:1-18, but that information wasn't fully understood by Christ's disciples until after Jesus was resurrected and they had received the Spirit. They even doubted His resurrection until after He was resurrected (cf., e.g., John 20:8, 9).]] (13) No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven [[It is difficult to explain these words if John was quoting Jesus speaking to Nicodemus a few years before He ascended into heaven, but these words fit perfectly if the apostle John begins to comment here, speaking from the perspective that Jesus has already ascended into heaven when he writes his Gospel. I believe that the words of Jesus ended with verse 12 and that the apostle John is the one speaking (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) in verses 13-21. John wasn't trying to deceive; he expected his readers to understand that he stopped quoting Jesus at the end of verse 12. A large number of commentators (probably the majority) agree that Jesus didn't speak all the words contained in verses 10-21, but most such commentators believe that John stopped quoting Jesus at the end of verse 15, not at the end of verse 12. ((I had a lengthy footnote, I would have the closing quotation mark at the end of verse 12. The quotation marks in the NASB continue from verse 10 through 21; so too for the NIV; NKJV; and although the KJV doesn't use quotation marks, my red-letter edition of the KJV shows the words of Jesus continuing through verse 21. The Greek, however, didn't include quotation marks, and it seems that it was a mistake to extend this quotation through verse 21. We must understand, of course, that if John the apostle was speaking (starting with verse 13), what he said he got from Jesus either directly or indirectly; it is significant that he was chosen by God to write this Gospel and was anointed by the Spirit of God for the task.
The commentary by George R. Beasley-Murray is the only one I have looked at that takes a clear stand for the viewpoint that Jesus' words stopped with verse 12. Raymond E. Brown in his commentary on John mentions Schnackenburg, Tillman, and Belser as other commentators who take this viewpoint.))
Jesus spoke much of His all-important ascension into heaven and the fact that after that ascension He would send the all-important life-giving, sanctifying, gift-dispensing Spirit to them and that He (from heaven) would work for them, and through them (see, for example, John 13:1, 3, 31-36; 14:1-6, 12-14, 18-23, 26-28; 15:1-11, 16, 26; 16:5-28; and 17:1-26 [John chapters 13-17 are discussed verse-by-verse in a paper on my internet site. Hopefully those chapters will be included on this Christian article site in the near future. Those chapters all deal with things spoken the last night Jesus was with His apostles, before He was crucified.]).
God the Son had to descend from heaven (cf. John 3:31; 6:38, 42; and 8:23) to become a man (the God-man); to live a sinless life; to minister as the Christ and call and prepare His disciples (especially the apostles); to die on the cross (thereby solving the sin, spiritual death, and Satan problem once for all); but He also had to go back to heaven and continue His work (very much including His receiving from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and then pouring forth the Holy Spirit [cf., e.g., Acts 2:33]) or new-covenant salvation wouldn't have become a reality.]]: the Son of Man.
We will continue this verse-by-verse study of John 1:19-4:54 in Part 4, discussing the meaning of the words at the end of John 3:13, "the Son of Man."
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