John 2 focused on the new beginning brought about by Jesus' ministry. Both the turning of water into wine and the cleansing of the temple spoke of the radical newness of Jesus' person and ministry, especially compared to Judaism. As new wine Jesus did not fit into the old wineskins of Judaism. As the new temple Jesus himself was the purifier, the renewal of the ideals of Jewish worship. John 3 continues the emphasis on beginning new with the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus on the new birth.
One of the difficulties of working with John is knowing for sure when Jesus is speaking and when John is commenting on or interpreting the teaching of Jesus. The matter seems quite simple when we are working with a "red-letter edition" that prints the words of Jesus in red. However, those printing decisions are made by human editors whose judgment is not infallible.
Chapter 3 is a place where it is difficult to determine where the words of Jesus in conversation with Nicodemus end and where John's comments about Jesus begin. It is fairly clear that Nicodemus disappears after verse 10. Thus verses 1-10 record the dialogue with Nicodemus on the new birth. Verses 11-21 are a monologue - either by Jesus or by John (or a mixture of both) discussing the meaning of Jesus and believing in him. Though it seems strange, John the Baptist returns to the stage in verses 22-30. Verses 31-36 are another monologue (whether by Jesus or John the Baptist or John the Gospel Writer).
John 3:1-10 - The New Birth
The dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus continues the contrast between Jesus and Judaism begun in chapter two. The friendly conversation between Jesus and such a high-ranking Jew is very unusual when compared to the typical relationship between Jesus and Jewish leaders described in the gospels. The discussion of the new birth proves incomprehensible to a leading Jewish teacher and Jesus' understanding of the kingdom of God breaks completely with the Jewish expectation of the kingdom.
Nicodemus functions here both as an individual and as a representative. His name is a Greek name meaning "victory of the people" or "victorious people." However, the name was quite common among Jews and history reveals several prominent persons bearing the name Nicodemus in Jerusalem in the first century. He is said to be from the Pharisees and a "ruler" of the Jews, which suggests that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Judaism then. In verse 10 Jesus identifies Nicodemus as "the teacher of Israel." Thus as Pharisee, ruler (member of the Sanhedrin) and teacher Nicodemus represented the essence of Judaism at that time.
Nicodemus is also described in verse 1 as a "man." This appears to be a deliberate connection to the previous verse, 2:25, where it is said that Jesus did not need for anyone to witness to him about "man" for he knew what was in [the heart of] "man." Thus we see Nicodemus as a "man" whose heart Jesus was easily able to penetrate. That a person of Nicodemus' position should approach Jesus seems unusual. Many have been suspicious about Nicodemus' approach to Jesus. One writer suggested that coming at night is better than not coming at all. Others think it reflects cowardice. It is most likely that Nicodemus simply illustrates the Jewish custom of staying up at night to study the Torah, the Law. His opening statement reveals his lack of understanding of the true nature of Jesus.
Nicodemus begins by addressing Jesus as "rabbi." This represents an inadequate, though common, first impression of Jesus. His description of Jesus as a "teacher" is simply a repetition in Greek of the Aramaic "rabbi." The construction of the Greek text suggests that emphasis be placed on the words, "from God." Thus Nicodemus understood Jesus as more than a typical or ordinary teacher. His incomplete understanding is also revealed by his appeal to the signs of Jesus. In chapter 2 the signs led the disciples to believe in Jesus. In chapter 3 Nicodemus simply talks about the signs, but does not come to belief. The statement that God is with him places Jesus in the same category as such Old Testament persons as Moses and Jeremiah, both of whom hear God say, "I will be (or am) with you." These are noteworthy compliments to Jesus, but they do not reveal adequate understanding for discipleship.
One of the characteristics of John's gospel is Jesus responding to inadequate understanding with a puzzling statement. That puzzling statement then becomes the springboard for further teaching. Here the statement is, "Unless a person be born anew, that person can not see the kingdom of God." The word translated "anew" can have several meanings - which is precisely why John used the word. It can mean "from the beginning," or "again" in the sense of "for a second time," or "from above."
We have a play on words here between being born again - that is a second time - and being born from above - that is from God. It is impossible to capture both meanings in a single English word and thus modern translations must choose one of the two meanings in the Greek text. Nicodemus obviously chose to understand the meaning of "again" or "for a second time." Jesus' response is primarily in terms of being born "from above." In many ways their dialog seems like an exercise in talking past each other. In that way Jesus and Nicodemus are representatives of Christianity and Judaism at the time John wrote the fourth gospel. Though they used the same words, the two faiths were meaning different things.
It is important that being born anew is not an end in itself for Jesus. It is the condition for experiencing the kingdom of god. The phrase in verse 3, "to see the kingdom," and the phrase in verse 5, "to enter the kingdom," both mean to experience the kingdom. The kingdom was a present experience for John, not a future reference to heaven. Thus being born "again" was the entrance requirement for a relationship with God as sovereign ruler over Nicodemus' daily life. Jesus further describes this new birth as being born from the Spirit. Judaism expected the kingdom of God to be the Age of the Spirit.
The pouring out of the Spirit of God was an important part of Old Testament expectations for the Messianic Age. Joel 2:28-29 spoke of the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh with the resultant gift of prophecy. Isaiah 32:15-20 looked forward to a time when peace and righteousness would be restored on earth and the Spirit would be poured out from above. Ezekiel 36:25-29 spoke of God sprinkling Israel with clean water and putting a new spirit within them. That new spirit is defined as His Spirit. An intertestamental reference from Jubilees 1:25 says, "I will create in them a holy spirit and I will cleanse them . . . I will be their Father and they shall be my children." The Essenes of Qumran wrote in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that God would cleanse man, "of all wicked deeds by means of a holy spirit; like purifying waters He will sprinkle upon him the spirit of truth." Thus Judaism expected and Nicodemus should have understood a coming together of the Holy Spirit, being a child of God, and the kingdom of God.
However, the new birth is a new element not anticipated by Judaism. For Jews the kingdom of God and the Spirit would come based on the Israelite sonship established by human birth into the Jewish people. Jesus saw the kingdom coming on the basis of a spiritual rebirth. Thus for Jesus the kingdom was not the same as present life on earth with Jews ruling instead of Romans. For him the kingdom was a spiritual reality in which God ruled sovereignly over a person's life. And that reality would not and could not become a reality apart from a spiritual birth.
John 3:11-21 - A Monologue on Believing
A significant shift takes place in verse 11. Nicodemus disappears from the scene. The Greek text shows that the "you" words after verse 10 are plural instead of singular as before verse 10. The dialogue shifts to a monologue and the "I" of verse 11 shifts to a "we" and then to a third person discussion of Jesus. Several very important things are said about Jesus, but they are connected by frequent references to believing in these verses.
In verse 13 the ascension and descent of Jesus are introduced. This was apparently a common theme in the early church (cf. Eph. 4:8-10) but John uses it to shift to the idea of "lifting up" Jesus. He uses an allusion to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Jewish tradition was clear that the healing of Israel did not happen because people looked at the bronze serpent. Rather they understood that the act of lifting up the serpent lifted the attention of Israel above themselves and ultimately to God. It was their focus on God that healed them. John sees Jesus lifted up to raise the focus of mankind above themselves and to God the Father of Jesus. Healing will come out of that focus on God.
One of John's patterns is to combine two aspects of Jesus into one word. He uses "lifted up" to describe both the death of Jesus on the cross and the resurrection and glorification of Jesus. The word "lifted up" also means "exalted" and is used in the rest of the New Testament for Jesus being exalted to the right hand of the Father after his resurrection. For John it is the whole scope of the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus that focuses our attention on God the Father. Then everyone who believes can have life in Christ.
John defines that life as "eternal life." It has been the assumption of most of Christianity that "eternal life" means "everlasting life." However, for John, God is the "eternal" One, and thus "eternal life" is not "everlasting life" but the life of God. Furthermore, the word "eternal" was used to describe the Messianic Age, the Age of the Spirit, the Kingdom of God. Thus for John, "eternal life" is not something which is future and heavenly. Rather "eternal life" begins at the moment one believes in Jesus and enters into the Age of the Spirit or the Kingdom of God.
The "lifting up" of Christ made it possible for one to enter the Kingdom and thus to begin participating in "eternal life." That same "lifting up" also confronted the world with the need to respond to Jesus. The choice was to believe or not to believe. That choice forced a person to either receive or reject Jesus. John believed that God judged people on the basis of their decision about Jesus. A person could be condemned or acquitted. One could not choose the consequences of belief or unbelief - that was established. One could only choose whether or not to believe. Unbelief is a choice that automatically condemns a person. It is a choice for darkness rather than light. Why people choose the darkness rather than the light is as puzzling now as it was to John.
John 3:22-36 - John the Baptist's Final Witness
John 3:22-36 has often puzzled those who analyze the structure of the Fourth Gospel. Following the discourse to Nicodemus, 3:22-30 returns attention to John the Baptist. John's witness to Jesus resolves the competition between John the Baptist's disciples and Jesus' disciples. Then, with rather baffling language, verses 31-36 discuss the one from heaven and the one from earth. The section ends up sounding like 3:15-18. Then chapter 4 begins with a reference to the conflict between the followers of John the Baptist and the followers of Jesus again.
Several "solutions" have been proposed on the assumption that at least one paragraph is out of order in this section. The simplest suggestion is that of reversing the order of verses 22-30 and verses 31-36. That way, verses 31-36 would follow on the Nicodemus discourse. The conflict between disciples of John the Baptist and of Jesus mentioned in verses 22-30 would flow naturally into chapter 4. Others suggest inserting verses 31-36 between 3:12 and 3:13. A still more radical suggestion is to insert verses 31-36 between 2:12 and 2:13. However, none of these "solutions" is necessary if we can allow John to write his gospel using his logic and outline rather than ours.
If the reference to being born of water and Spirit in 3:5 has any baptismal overtones, then it was implying the inadequacy of John the Baptist's baptism. It is not surprising that when the Nicodemus discourse is concluded John will return to the issue of John the Baptist in verse 22. His treatment of John the Baptist seems to climax in verse 30 when John the Baptist affirms his decreasing ministry and the increase of Jesus. Verses 31-36 then are essentially a commentary or discourse on the superiority of Jesus. As often happens in John one is not sure whether the original speaker (here John the Baptist) makes the discourse or whether the gospel writer himself inserts the commentary. Actually which of the two is true is unimportant; verses 31-36 say about Jesus exactly what John wants said. Then having proven the superiority of Jesus, John is ready to demonstrate that superiority by recording Jesus' ministry to the Samaritan woman, which forms most of the content of chapter 4.
John 3:22-30 - The Friend of the Bridegroom
This section portrays Jesus and his disciples as baptizing persons who came to them. This is the first and (other than John 4:1-3) only reference to a baptizing ministry during Jesus' lifetime. Further, John points to an overlap of baptizing ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. During the overlap a dispute arises that will lead John the Baptist to reiterate his testimony of chapter 1 and to expand it. His ministry points to Jesus. It does not compete with Jesus.
Verse 22 describes Jesus' movement from Jerusalem into the countryside of Judea where he spent time with his disciples and was baptizing. The text gives no details as to where Jesus was at this time but the context suggests that he was somewhere along the Jordan River, perhaps near Jericho. The tense of the Greek verb indicates that Jesus' ministry of baptizing continued for some time. The meaning of Jesus' baptizing is uncertain. Though Jesus often spoke approvingly of John the Baptist's baptism it is not likely that he would simply baptize with the same meaning as that of John the Baptist. On the other hand the statement in John 7:39 that the Spirit had not yet been given suggests that the baptizing described here lacks that very essential element of all Christian baptism. However, the context suggests that some saw competition between Jesus and John the Baptist. If that was the case, perhaps John the gospel writer saw Jesus' baptizing as pointing to Christian baptism in its superiority to John the Baptist's baptism.
Verse 23 turns to the ministry of John the Baptist. Again the text leaves us with more questions. The location of Aenon near Salim is very uncertain. Traditionally, Salim has been located east of Shechem, in Samaria. Aenon appears to be a word derived from the Hebrew word for spring, which would be appropriate since there was much water. The best we can guess is that John the Baptist was working north, perhaps northwest, of Jesus. They were far enough apart that it was clear they were not working together.
The final clause of verse 23 states that people were coming and were being baptized. We assume that it means people were coming both to Jesus and John and were being baptized. Verse 24 notes that John the Baptist had not yet been imprisoned. The Synoptics imply that Jesus did not begin his ministry until John's imprisonment. The Synoptics also describe Jesus' ministry as taking place in Galilee and being a preaching ministry. The Fourth Gospel simply points out that prior to the Galilean ministry, while John the Baptist was still free, Jesus had a baptizing ministry in Judea.
Verse 25 mentions a dispute between the disciples of John the Baptist and a Jew over purification. The ancient manuscripts are divided among those that read Jew (singular) and Jews (plural). The intrinsic probability favors the singular reading (as the modern versions show). However, the uncertainty has led a few scholars to suggest that the original text read "Jesus" rather than "Jew(s)." This would make the dispute between Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist. Such an argument would fit in the following context, but it misses John's (the gospel writer) point. The disciples of John the Baptist argue with a Jew over Jewish purification. Thus John the Baptist's ministry - for all its good qualities - was still a part of Judaism. It is superceded by Jesus. The word for purification used here is the same word used in 2:6 describing the stone water jars.
Verse 26 finally brings the sense of competition out into the open. John the Baptist's disciples seem upset that "everyone" is going to Jesus. By implication that would mean that no one is coming to them. However, even John the Baptist's disciples use a significant phrase when they describe Jesus as "the one to whom you have borne witness." The tense of the Greek word for witness implies that John the Baptist had witnessed to Jesus in the past and was still witnessing to him. In fact, he will continue to witness to Jesus in verses 27-30.
In verse 27 John the Baptist acknowledges that his ministry is not his own. It has been a gift from God. Therefore it does not have ultimate importance. Verse 28 repeats the statement by John from 1:20 that he was not the Messiah. Verse 29 introduces a very important title for Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus is the bridegroom and he has the bride. This may be a reference to the church as the bride of Christ. John the Baptist is the friend of the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom was an agent for the groom making necessary preparations and arrangements. He was obviously a very important figure at a wedding. Just as obviously he was less important than the bridegroom. The friend of the groom does not rejoice in his own status but in the wedding of his friend, the groom.
There may have been a pun by John the Baptist in verse 29. The friend of the groom stands and "hears" him according to our versions. In Hebrew the word for hear (shema) means both to hear and to obey. The groom's friend obeys the groom in the arrangements and preparations. John the Baptist obeys Jesus - thus indicating Jesus' superiority to himself. John the Baptist then remarks that his joy is fulfilled. Again, the Greek tense suggests that John's joy was fulfilled at a point of time in the past and that it continues to be fulfilled. John the Baptist's joy was made full by his obedient witness to Jesus. Joy may be full for us in the same way.
The climatic statement in this section is verse 30. Literally it reads, "It is necessary for him to increase and for me to decrease." The phrase, "It is necessary," was a frequent expression in Judaism to describe God's will. It is sometimes referred to as divine necessity. It reflects John's remark in verse 27 that his ministry was a gift from God and he could not make it more than God intended it to be. The ministry of preparation always involves a time in which we decrease and Christ increases. The human heart has only a limited capacity for devotion. To the degree that devotion is given to the human witnesses of Jesus, the devotion given to Jesus decreases. For devotion to Christ to increase, devotion given to people must decrease. One of the great tragedies of our time is that many witnesses of Christ have attempted to increase both themselves and Jesus. It simply will not work.
John 3:31-36 - The Witness of Jesus
The subject shifts from the witness of John the Baptist to the witness of Jesus in these verses. Verse 31 begins the section by contrasting Jesus as the one from above and John the Baptist as the one from the earth. The contrast is similar to that mentioned by Jesus to Nicodemus in 3:6-12. The one who is from above has seen and heard this and he witnesses, but no one is accepting his witness. However, his very witness seals or certifies the fact that God is truthful. Thus Jesus' witness is a witness about the nature of God. This is a dramatic shift from John the Baptist's witness that pointed to God. To witness about something or someone, one must have seen and heard. Only Jesus is able to witness about God; only Jesus has seen and heard God in a such a way as to be able to certify that God is truthful.
Verse 34 makes a very important statement. The one whom God sent (Jesus) speaks the words of God for he gives the Spirit without measure. Here the word of God and the Spirit are brought together. The New Testament understood them to be inseparable. Contemporary Christianity is in error when it tries to have one without the other. Further, John states that Jesus gives the Spirit without measure. Three concepts are significant in this phrase.
First, Jesus gives the Spirit. The one on whom the Spirit remains according to 1:33 is the one who gives the Spirit as a gift to others. Christianity has always understood that the Spirit is mediated through Christ. That is to say that the Spirit does not operate independently, but operates in relationship to Christ.
Second, the Spirit is a gift given by Jesus. The Spirit cannot be bought, demanded, or seized. It can only be accepted as a gift. The presence of the Spirit in our life is at God's initiative through Christ. We would do well to remember that.
Third, in Christ the Spirit is given without measure. The Old Testament understood the Spirit to be given in limited measure. Only some people received the Spirit and only for a short time. Those limits are gone in Christ. The Spirit is available to all to abide in them as He remained on Christ.
The witness of John concludes in verse 36 by returning to the theme of life and believing. Failure to believe in Jesus meant failure to experience life. John describes the wrath of God as not experiencing life. We often think of the wrath of God only in terms of future judgement. Because eternal life begins at the moment a person believes, eternal death is happening as long a person does not believe. From John's point of view, the person who does not believe in Christ is experiencing eternal death in the present. The wrath of God remains on that person as long as they refuse to believe. What an awesome contrast it is to contemplate the wrath of God abiding, staying, remaining on a person when the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit is so easily available.
John 4:1-3 - Summary and Transition
The first two verses of chapter 4 return to the competition between Jesus and John the Baptist. These verses bring to a close the section that began in 3:22. Verse 3 then provides the transition verse to Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman described in chapter 4.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray for the Lord to speak to you through His Holy Spirit as you open yourself to His Word.
First Day: Read the notes on John 3:1-4:3. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a particular personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
Second Day: Read John 4:4-26. Now focus in on verses 4-15.
1. Why would it have been strange for Jesus to have asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water?
2. Who is called a fountain of living water in Jeremiah 2:13 and 17:13? What implications does that have for our verses?
3. How does the water of Jesus become a well of water springing up to eternal life? In what ways have you drunk from the water of Jesus?
Third Day: Read John 4:4-26. Now focus in on verses 16-24.
1. What causes the woman to call Jesus a prophet?
2. What does Jesus mean in verse 22 when he says "salvation is from the Jews?" Psalm 76:1 and Romans 1:16 may be helpful.
3. These verses emphasize worship, especially worship in Spirit and in truth. Define worship and describe the meaning of worship in Spirit and in truth.
Fourth Day: Read John 4:16-30. Focus in on verses 25-30.
1. What new title is applied to Jesus in these verses?
2. Jesus' reply in verse 26 is literally, "I AM, the one who is speaking." Compare this to Exodus 3:14. What conclusions can you draw about Jesus?
3. In verse 29 the woman describes Jesus as "a man who told me everything I have done." Imagine yourself in a conversation with Jesus as he tells you everything you have done. What areas of your life would you want to change as a result of such a conversation?
Fifth Day: Read John 4:25-42. Now focus in on verses 31-38.
1. Why did Jesus refuse the food the disciples brought?
2. What does the transition from verse 34 to verse 35 tell us about the will of God?
3. Verses 37-38 speak of us reaping what we have not sowed. What are the benefits that you have reaped from other people's labor? Is there labor that you are doing that will be harvested by others? Read 1 Corinthians 3:6-10.
Sixth Day: Read John 4:4-42. Focus on verses 39-42.
1. List the progression of titles applied to Jesus through this entire passage.
2. Describe the progression from the woman's testimony to the townspeople's confession of faith.
3. Verse 42 states an important truth. Faith cannot ultimately be based on what someone else says. It must come from a personal encounter with Jesus. Has your faith come from a personal encounter with Jesus? If so, write how you came to believe in Him.