Tag Archives: D. A. Carson

Commentary on John 11 (Raising of Lazarus)

Jesus and his disciples have previously left Jerusalem to escape the hostility Jesus was facing there. Many scholars believe that they are staying in the region of Batanea, which is about one hundred miles northeast of Jerusalem. Jesus receives word that his friend, Lazarus, is ill. Lazarus lives with his two sisters, Mary and Martha, in a town called Bethany, which is about two miles east of Jerusalem. When Jesus hears about Lazarus, he assures his disciples that through Lazarus’ illness, God will be glorified.

Two days later, Jesus announces that he is going back to Judea, the province in which Jerusalem and Bethany are located. His disciples, fearful for his safety, ask him why he is returning. He answers that Lazarus is dead and Jesus wants to go to him. Jesus adds, mysteriously, that he is glad he wasn’t there with Lazarus before he died, so that his disciples might believe. Thomas (one of Jesus’ disciples), not understanding what Jesus is talking about, resigns himself to go with Jesus, even though he fears that all the disciples may be killed by the Jewish authorities.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he learns that Lazarus has been dead for four days. The fourth day after death is an important milestone for Jews at this time. Jews believed a person’s soul would hover over the dead body for three days, trying to return to the body. After three days, when decomposition had set in, the soul would depart. In other words, there was no question that Lazarus was dead four days after he was buried. If it had been one to three days, there would have been some doubt as to whether he was actually deceased.

Martha, one of Lazarus’ sisters comes to meet Jesus and bemoans the fact that Jesus did not arrive before Lazarus died. She has presumably seen Jesus heal sick people and she assumes he would have done the same for Lazarus.

Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again, but she thinks he is referring to the future resurrection of all believers when the messianic kingdom begins. Jesus responds by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Jesus asks Martha if she believes what he just said, and she replies, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Martha affirms her belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and as a man who has a unique relationship with God.

What does Jesus mean by saying he is the resurrection and the life? D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary , writes:

Jesus has repeatedly mentioned resurrection on the last day (5:21, 25–29; 6:39–40). In this he has been in line with mainstream Judaism. But these references have also insisted that he alone, under the express sanction of the Father, would raise the dead on the last day. The same truth is now repeated in the pithy claim, I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus’ concern is to divert Martha’s focus from an abstract belief in what takes place on the last day, to a personalized belief in him who alone can provide it. Just as he not only gives the bread from heaven (6:27) but is himself the bread of life (6:35), so also he not only raises the dead on the last day (5:21, 25ff.) but is himself the resurrection and the life. There is neither resurrection nor eternal life outside of him.

Note that as soon as a person believes in Jesus, eternal life begins. That is why Jesus can refer to a person physically dying, but yet still living. Eternal life does not start after death, but immediately upon believing in Jesus. The person who has eternal life will never experience a permanent death.

Martha then returns to her home to get Mary, her sister, and bring her to Jesus. The mourners who are comforting Mary rise and follow them. Apparently Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were wealthy because quite a few people had come from Jerusalem to mourn with Mary and Martha.

Mary repeats what Martha had said to Jesus, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus if Jesus had arrived while Lazarus was alive. This time, however, Jesus reacts to her weeping, and the weeping of the mourners, with indignation and then weeping of his own. Why did Jesus react with anger and indignation, and then weeping?

Carson offers two interpretations:

Some think that Jesus is moved by their grief, and is consequently angry with the sin, sickness and death in this fallen world that wreaks so much havoc and generates so much sorrow. Others think that the anger is directed at the unbelief itself. The men and women before him were grieving like pagans, like ‘the rest of men, who have no hope’ (1 Thes. 4:13). Profound grief at such bereavement is natural enough; grief that degenerates to despair, that pours out its loss as if there were no resurrection, is an implicit denial of that resurrection.

Notice that nobody, including Jesus’ disciples, Martha, Mary, or the Jewish mourners understand who Jesus is and what his mission is. They accept that he can heal, but they do not even consider that he can raise a man from the dead. They do not fully understand that he has been sent by God to conquer sin and death. Gerald Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary , agrees:

The other places in the Gospels where such a depth of Jesus’ emotions were expressed are specifically places related to his mission: the places where he groaned over the failure of Jerusalem to come to him (cf. Matt 23:37–39; Luke 13:34–35), where he prayed for his disciples’ safety and future (cf. John 17:9–26), and where he wrestled with his death and the disciples’ weaknesses (cf. Matt 26:37–41; Mark 13:33–37; Luke 22:40–46; John 12:27–28). Accordingly, I would maintain that Jesus’ weeping here is directly related to the failure of his followers to recognize his mission as the agent of God. God’s Son was in their midst. They really missed the point.

Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus and instructs the crowd to remove the stone which is covering the entrance to the tomb. Martha, not understanding what Jesus is about to do, warns Jesus that removing the stone is a mistake because Lazarus’ decaying body will stink.

Jesus reminds her that because she believes in him, she will see the glory of God. Jesus speaks a short prayer to God the Father, thanking Him for hearing Jesus. He then yells at the tomb, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus comes out of the tomb, and the onlookers unbind him from his graveclothes.

Carson explains that the

corpse was customarily laid on a sheet of linen, wide enough to envelop the body completely and more than twice the length of the corpse. The body was so placed on the sheet that the feet were at one end, and then the sheet was drawn over the head and back down to the feet. The feet were bound at the ankles, and the arms were tied to the body with linen strips. The face was bound with another cloth (soudarion, a loan-word from the Latin sudarium, ‘sweat-cloth’, often worn in life around the neck). Jesus’ body was apparently prepared for burial in the same way (cf. 19:40; 20:5, 7). A person so bound could hop and shuffle, but scarcely walk. Therefore when Jesus commanded Lazarus to come forth, and the dead man came out, Jesus promptly gave the order, Take off the grave clothes and let him go.

The Chronological Study Bible explains the significance of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is the turning point in John’s Gospel. Not only is this miracle the last of the ‘signs’ emphasized by John . . . , it is also the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. Repeatedly John mentions how this miracle revealed Jesus and led people to believe (11: 4, 15, 25– 27, 40, 42, 45). Raising Lazarus from the dead dramatically concluded Jesus’ public ministry among the Jews (11: 54). While some came to believe in Him because of this great miracle, His opponents, alarmed at Jesus’ growing popularity, resolved ‘to put Him to death’ (11: 53). A threat of execution had already hung over Jesus (11: 8, 16), but now the religious authorities decided that His popularity threatened to provoke intervention by the Roman military. The priest Caiaphas advised that Jesus must die so that the Romans would not take away the privileges of the Jewish nation (11: 48). But John interprets the priest’s political calculation as an indirect prophecy that Jesus would die for the salvation of the Jews and of people everywhere who would believe in Him (11: 51, 52).

Commentary on John 8 (Jesus Declares Himself Equal to God)

Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). While he is there, he is teaching in the temple complex. A large group of Pharisees are questioning him about his identity. Some appear to even accept what he has to say about himself.

Starting in verse 31, however, he speaks directly to the Pharisees who have believed what Jesus has said about himself so far. A true disciple of Jesus will obey his every word and follow him for the long-term. In fact, it is only through following Jesus that a person can be set free from spiritual slavery.

The Pharisees answer that they don’t need to be freed from slavery because they are descendants of Abraham, and thus already children of God. Gerald Borchert explains, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary,

In contrast to the Zealots, the Pharisees did not regard political liberty as the test of freedom. Being sons of God, a holy people, God’s possession, according to Deut 14:1–2, was for them the test of being free. So being circumcised, according to the rabbinic view, was the guarantee of escaping the bonds of Gehenna just as the people of Israel earlier escaped the bondage of Egypt (Exod. Rab. 19:81; 15:11). Or as the famed Rabbi Akiba reportedly stated concerning the Israelites, even the poor could be proud that they were ‘sons of kings’ because they were sons of the patriarchs (b. Šabb. 128).

Jesus corrects their understanding by pointing out that they are not children of God, but instead slaves to sin. In order for anyone to become a true child of God, they must be first freed from their slavery to sin. Only God’s Son, Jesus, has the power and authority to free them. Gerald Borchert adds:

He judged that they were slaves because they were sinners. Their confidence in their sense of internal liberty had been misplaced because being Jews and not Gentiles was no guarantee that they could avoid condemnation by God for their sinfulness. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which had just passed, should have reminded them that they too were sinners. In the presence of God both Jews and Gentiles stood condemned for sin (cf. Rom 3:23). Being sinful slaves before God, therefore, they were in need of a redeemer—one who could set them free. The Son who was personally sent by the Father was indeed capable of supplying them with such genuine freedom (John 8:36) because he was the Lamb who removed the sin of the world (1:29).

Knowing that some of the Pharisees are seeking to kill him, Jesus observes that his words to them are obviously not sinking in. In fact, the Pharisees are simply following the lead of their true spiritual father.

In verse 39 the Pharisees continue to argue with Jesus. They repeat that their true father is Abraham. Jesus responds that Abraham listened to God’s word and obeyed Him. The Pharisees are, instead, trying to kill a man whom God has sent, which again proves that their true father is not Abraham at all.

The Pharisees become incensed at Jesus’ accusation that they are not children of Abraham, and thus not children of God. Jesus explains that he knows this because God sent Jesus to the Jews, and they should therefore love Jesus because God sent him. Since the Pharisees don’t love Jesus, they cannot be children of God. Instead their true spiritual father is the devil!

Referring back to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, Jesus reminds his audience that Satan is a liar and a murderer. There is no truth in Satan. The reason the Pharisees are not accepting Jesus’ claims is because Jesus is speaking God’s truth. Those who have Satan as their spiritual father are incapable of hearing God’s truth and accepting it.

Jesus challenges their stubborn rejection of his words by asking a rhetorical question: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains Jesus’ purpose in asking this question:

If the best theological minds, however much they may dislike Jesus’ claims and dispute his teachings, find it impossible to marshall convincing reasons that would convict him of sin in (the heavenly) court, should they not begin to question themselves? Perhaps he is telling the truth, truth that is identified both with what Jesus says (v. 43) and with what God says (v. 47; cf. de la Potterie, 1. 61–64).

At this point in the dialogue, the Pharisees begin personal attacks. They accuse Jesus of belonging to the hated Samaritans and of being demon-possessed! Jesus denies being demon-possessed and reminds them that they dishonor God by dishonoring him.

In verse 51, Jesus proclaims, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Pharisees, thinking Jesus is referring to physical death, mock him by reminding him that Abraham died, not to mention all the other great prophets. Just who does he think he is? Does he think he’s greater than Abraham?

Jesus answers, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The Pharisees again ridicule Jesus by pointing out the obvious fact that Jesus could not have seen Abraham, who had lived roughly two thousand years before, given that Jesus was not even fifty years old.

Jesus responds with a shocking statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Upon hearing him, the crowd picks up stones to kill him, but Jesus slips away before they could stone him to death.

Why did the Jews want to kill him? Quite simply, Jesus was claiming to be equal to God. Gerald Borchert writes that Jesus’ pronouncement

was a reminder of the claims for God in the Old Testament over against creation (cf. Ps 90:2; Isa 42:3–9) and of the self-designation for the comforting God of Isaiah (41:4; 43:3, 13). The claim of Jesus, therefore, was clearly recognized from the Jews’ perspective to be a blasphemous statement they could not tolerate. Accordingly, they again made their judgment call, and their verdict implied death by stoning (John 8:59; cf. Lev 24:11–16; 1 Kgs 21:10–13).

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, also notes:

’I am’ was a title for God (Ex 3:14), which suggests that Jesus is claiming more than that he merely existed before Abraham. This title of God may have been fresh on the minds of Jesus’ hearers at the feast: during the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests were said to utter God’s words in Isaiah: ‘I am the Lord, I am he’ (Is 43:10, 13).

Commentary on John 5 (Jesus Heals at the Pool of Bethesda)

At the beginning of John chapter five, Jesus travels from Galilee to Jerusalem to attend a Jewish festival. We are not told which festival, but some scholars believe it to be the Feast of Tabernacles.

While in Jerusalem, Jesus visits the pool of Bethesda (see model below). The pool is where blind, lame, and paralyzed people would go to seek healing. At the pool, Jesus finds a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

pool

Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed and the man answers that he has nobody to help him get in the pool when the waters stir. The superstition surrounding the pool is that an angel would periodically stir up the waters and that the first one who entered the pool would be healed.

Ignoring the superstition, Jesus tells the man to get up off his mat, pick it up, and walk away with it. Miraculously healed by Jesus’s simple command, the man does indeed walk away with his mat.

As the man walks away with his mat, Jewish religious leaders (possibly members of the Sanhedrin) see the man and ask him why he is breaking the Sabbath rules about abstaining from work. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains:

The Old Testament had forbidden work on the Sabbath. But what is ‘work’? The assumption in the Scripture seems to be that ‘work’ refers to one’s customary employment; but judging by Mishnah (Shabbath 7:2; 10:5), dominant rabbinic opinion had analysed the prohibition into thirty-nine classes of work, including taking or carrying anything from one domain to another (except for cases of compassion, such as carrying a paralytic). By Old Testament standards, it is not clear the healed man was contravening the law, since he did not normally carry mats around for a living; according to the ‘tradition of the elders’ the man was breaking the law, since he was contravening one of the prohibited thirty-nine categories of work to which the law was understood to refer. It is not yet Jesus who is charged with breaking the law (e.g. for healing the man on a Sabbath, as in Mk. 3:1–6), though that will come (v. 18): for the moment, it is the healed man who must face the indignation of the Jews—here referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem (cf. notes on 1:19).

The man answers that he was simply doing what he was told. When the Jewish leaders ask who told him to carry his mat, the healed man says he does not know.

Jesus finds the healed invalid soon afterward in the temple complex and commands him to sin no more lest something worse would happen to him. What could Jesus be referring to? Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) argues:

The comment seems to imply that at least sometimes—including in the case of the invalid?—sickness may be a result of sin (e.g., 1 Kings 13:4; 2 Kings 1:4; 2 Chron. 16:12). Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries generally held that suffering was a direct result of sin (cf. John 9:2). Given expression already by the ‘miserable counselors’ in the book of Job, rabbinic literature states the principle succinctly: ‘There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity’ (b. Šabb. 55a with reference to Ezek. 18:20; attributed to R. Ammi [c. A.D. 300]). However, the Old Testament features several instances where suffering is transparently not a result of sin (e.g., 2 Sam. 4:4; 1 Kings 14:4; 2 Kings 13:14). Jesus himself, likewise, rejects simple cause-and-effect explanations (cf. Luke 13:1-5; John 9:3). Nevertheless, Jesus acknowledges that sin may well lead to suffering. In the present instance, the ‘something worse’ he threatens probably does not refer to a worse physical condition but rather to eternal judgment for sin (cf. 5:22-30).

The healed invalid then reports to the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who healed him. The Gospel author, John, then explains that the religious leaders start persecuting Jesus because “he was doing these things on the Sabbath.” Carson adds,

The Synoptic Gospels record a number of incidents in which Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath becomes the focus of controversy (Mk. 2:23–3:6; Lk. 13:10–17; 14:1–6; cf. Mt. 12:1–14). All the Gospels report that disputes between Jesus and the Jewish authorities over the Sabbath were so sharp that they figured prominently in the rising desire to kill Jesus.

Jesus responds to the religious leaders that if his Father, God, is working on the Sabbath, then Jesus, the Son, should likewise work on the Sabbath. Even though the Book of Genesis records that God rested on the seventh day, that rest has to do with the creation of the universe. God “works” to sustain the creation every day. Carson writes:

The consensus amongst the rabbis, too, was that God works on the Sabbath, for otherwise providence itself would weekly go into abeyance. About the end of the first century, four eminent rabbis (Rabban Gamaliel II, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar b. Azariah, and R. Akiba) discussed the point, and concluded that although God works constantly, he cannot rightly be charged with violating the Sabbath law, since (1) the entire universe is his domain (Is. 6:3), and therefore he never carries anything outside it; (2) otherwise put, God fills the whole world (Je. 23:24); and in any case (3) God lifts nothing to a height greater than his own stature (Exodus Rabbah 30:9; cf. Genesis Rabbah 11:10).

Jesus is saying that if God is excused from the ban of Sabbath work, then Jesus is likewise excused because the same rules that apply to God apply to Jesus, the Son. The Jewish leaders seek all the more to kill Jesus because he is not only commanding people to break Sabbath laws, he is making himself equal to God!

In verses 19-23, Jesus clarifies his relationship with God the Father. Let’s unpack each of these verses. In verse 19, we learn that Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing; he never does anything of his own accord. As Carson puts in, “The Father initiates, sends, commands, commissions, grants; the Son responds, obeys, performs his Father’s will, receives authority. In this sense, the Son is the Father’s agent (cf. Bühner), though, as John goes on to insist, much more than an agent.”

In verse 20, we learn that God the Father loves Jesus, His Son, and therefore shows Jesus everything He does. Carson writes, “The love of the Father for the Son is displayed in the continuous disclosure of all he does to the Son (here in v. 20); the love of the Son for the Father is displayed in the perfect obedience that issues in the cross (14:31).”

In verse 21, John writes that as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so too can Jesus give life to whomever he chooses. Carson reminds us:

The Old Testament writers presupposed that the raising of the dead was a prerogative belonging to God alone: ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life’ (2 Ki. 5:7). The same presupposition is amply attested in later Jewish tradition. Rabbi Johanan asserted that three keys remained in God’s hand and were not entrusted to representatives: the key of the rain cf. Dt. 28:12), the key of the womb (cf. Gn. 30:22), and the key of the resurrection of the dead (cf. Ezk. 37:13, SB 1. 523–524, 737, 895).

In verse 22, Jesus explains that he will also be given the prerogative to judge. Carson explains:

God had long been recognized as ‘the Judge of all the earth’ (Gn. 18:25). Throughout the pages of the Old Testament God had frequently exercised judgment in the lives of his covenant people and in the surrounding nations. But at the end of the age, there would be the last, great assize, when all would be judged, both small and great (cf. Rev. 20:11–15). Here, however, the Son insists that the office of judge, whether in the present or at the last day, has been entrusted to him. This does not mean Jesus will exercise judgment independently of the Father, for even the judgment he exercises is a reflection of his consistent determination to please the one who sent him (v. 30).

Finally, in verse 23, we learn the reason that the Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son. It is so that the Son will honored as the Father is honored. Carson summarizes how we should react to Jesus’s words:

Granted that the purpose of the Father is that all should honour the Son, it is but a small step to Jesus’ conclusion: He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him. In a theistic universe, such a statement belongs to one who is himself to be addressed as God (cf. 20:28), or to stark insanity. The one who utters such things is to be dismissed with pity or scorn, or worshipped as Lord. If with much current scholarship we retreat to seeing in such material less the claims of the Son than the beliefs and witness of the Evangelist and his church, the same options confront us. Either John is supremely deluded and must be dismissed as a fool, or his witness is true and Jesus is to be ascribed the honours due God alone. There is no rational middle ground.

What Does “Born of Water and Spirit” Mean in John 3:5?

In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There has historically been much scholarly debate over the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Was Jesus referring to two births or one birth? Was he referring to baptism?

D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, breaks down the different interpretations and then concludes with his preferred interpretation. Interpretation one:

Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen.

But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.

Interpretation two:

Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).

Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. . . .

The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).

Interpretation three:

A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).

The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.

Interpretation four:

Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).

Carson mentions other less popular interpretations and then proceeds to offer what he thinks is the most plausible interpretation:

The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind. . . .

Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8).

Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).

In short, born of water and spirit . . . signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.

Commentary on John 3 (Nicodemus Meets Jesus)

Jesus travels to Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration and while he is there, he receives a visitor during the night. The visitor is a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is also a member of the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains that the Sanhedrin is

[h]eadquartered in Jerusalem, [and] it was composed of Pharisees and Sadducees. When Judea became a Roman province in A.D. 6, the Sanhedrin became even more autonomous in handling internal Jewish matters. As John’s Gospel progresses, the Sanhedrin turns out to be the driving force in the plot against Jesus.

Nicodemus introduces himself by acknowledging Jesus as Rabbi (or teacher) and claims that he, and presumably a few other members of the Sanhedrin, recognize that Jesus is sent by God because of the miraculous signs Jesus has been performing in Jerusalem. Although Nicodemus offers restrained respect for Jesus, he clearly does not know who Jesus really is.

Jesus jumps straight to the heart of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. He does this by telling Nicodemus that anyone who wants to enter heaven (the kingdom of God inaugurated at the end of the age) must be “born again” or “born from above” (either translation is possible). In other words, a person must experience a spiritual rebirth.

Jews at that time had a particular understanding of the future kingdom of God. Kostenberger elaborates:

Jews expected a future kingdom ruled by the Son of David (Isa. 9:1-7; 11:1-5, 10-11; Ezek. 34:23-24; Zech. 9:9-10), the Lord’s Servant (Isa. 42:1 -7; 49:1-7), indeed, the Lord himself (Ezek. 34:11-16; 36:22-32; Zech. 14:9). While not everyone was to be included in this kingdom, Jews in Jesus’ day generally believed that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come, with the exception of those guilty of apostasy or some other blatant sin (m. Sanh. 10:1).

Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, so Jesus explains again that no human being enters heaven because of biology. Fragile and finite human nature only begets more fragile and finite human nature. The only way for a mortal human to enter heaven is for a spiritual intervention from God Himself. The fact that Nicodemus was born a Jew as a descendant of Abraham and Jacob, and is a devout member of the Pharisees, has no bearing on whether he will enter heaven. The effects of God’s spirit, like the wind, can be seen, but not controlled by human beings.

Nicodemus is shocked at what Jesus is saying, so Jesus asks how it is that a scholar of the Scriptures, a supposed expert on the Hebrew Bible, does not know about the activities of God’s Spirit. Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes,

The Old Testament prophets spoke of the new Age with its working of the Spirit (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:25–27; Joel 2:28–29). The nation’s outstanding teacher ought to understand how God by His sovereign grace can give someone a new heart (1 Sam. 10:6; Jer. 31:33).

Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not trusting Jesus’s witness about the necessity of spiritual rebirth (earthly things). If Nicodemus does not believe what Jesus tells him about the elementary requirement for entering heaven, then there is no point in Jesus expanding on the grandeur and glory of heaven (heavenly things).

Jesus stresses to Nicodemus that Jesus (the Son of Man) is the only one to ever descend from heaven and then return. He is the only one uniquely qualified to tell Nicodemus about the things of heaven, because that is where Jesus is from. Kostenberger provides further background:

Jesus here contrasts himself, the ‘Son of Man’ (cf. Dan. 7:13), with other human figures who allegedly entered heaven, such as Enoch (Gen. 5:24; cf. Heb. 11:5), Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-12; cf. 2 Chron. 21:12-15), Moses (Ex. 24:9-11; 34:29-30), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-3), or Ezekiel (Ezek. 1; 10). A whole cottage industry of intertestamental literature revolved around such figures and their heavenly exploits (e.g., 1 En.). While believers can expect to join Christ in heaven one day (cf. John 14:1-3; 17:24), only Jesus came down from heaven as well as ascended back up to heaven (cf. Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9; though note the similar ascent-descent pattern by angels in John 1:51).

Just as Moses lifted up a bronze snake to save the people of Israel from death (Numbers 21:4-9), Jesus will likewise be raised up (a reference to his future crucifixion and resurrection) and so that when people believe in him, they will enter heaven and have eternal life with God.

Verses 16-18 should be read as a unit. John explains, in verse 16, that God the Father loved the sinful world (not just Israel) so much that He sent His one and only Son, Jesus, to the cross, so that everyone who believes in him will go to heaven, and not perish. This verse should remind us of the Old Testament story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac.

Note that John 3:16 delineates both God’s and man’s role in salvation. Gerald Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, explains:

The full perspective is that God is the initiator and principal actor in salvation, and we should never think that salvation originated with us (cf. 1 John 4:9–10). God, however, has given humanity a sense of freedom and requires us to make a choice. Accordingly, people are responsible for their believing. It is unproductive theological speculation, therefore, to minimize either the role of God or of humanity in the salvation process. The Bible and John 3:16 recognize the roles of both.

Verse 17-18 make clear that God’s primary purpose in sending Jesus to the earth was to save people, not condemn them. We must remember that the entire world, because of the sin introduced by Adam and Eve, has been under a type of condemnation since the Fall. It’s not as if the world was morally neutral when Jesus arrived on the scene. This is why John stresses that whoever believes in Jesus is saved, but whoever rejects Jesus has already been condemned.

These verses do not settle the debate about what happens to those who never hear of Jesus, however, because John explicitly connects condemnation in this passage with the rejection of Jesus. But a person who has never heard of Jesus cannot reject Jesus. John is not concerned, in this passage, with those who never hear of Jesus; he is concerned about those who hear and turn away.

Why would anyone reject Jesus? In verses 19-21, John concludes that everyone who loves their sin (darkness) will shun Jesus (the light) because Jesus will expose their sins. They prefer to hide their sins in the dark. D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, writes:

As the light of the world (8:12), Jesus is the revelation of God and the objectification of divine holiness and purity. But men loved darkness instead of light: they preferred to live without such knowledge of God, without such brilliant purity. The reason was fundamentally moral: their deeds were evil. They were not willing to live by the truth; they valued their pride more than their integrity, their prejudice more than contrite faith. Worse, anyone in this camp hates the light and refuses to come to it for fear that his deeds will be exposed (elengchthē). The verb suggests not only exposure but shame and conviction (cf. notes on 16:8ff.).