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John has focused our attention on the enigmatic confrontation at the temple, but he mentions that Jesus also performed a number of miraculous signs at this time. In response many people believed in his name (v. 23), but Jesus did not entrust himself to them (v. 24). The problem is not that their faith is based on Jesus' deeds, for these do provide grounds for belief (Jn 10:38; 12:37; 14:11; 20:30-31; cf. Brown 1966:525-29). Rather, it seems to be due in part to the nature of faith. All faith is immature until after the glorification (that is, the climactic revelation in the cross, resurrection and ascension) and the coming of the Spirit. The signs of sovereign love and power throughout Jesus' ministry cannot be adequately understood and responded to until after Easter Sunday. Jesus does not trust even the disciples' profession of faith late in his ministry (16:29-32); how much less would he trust this faith at the outset.
Jesus' reason for not entrusting himself to these people goes deeper still. The events in Cana made it clear that Jesus only takes his cues from his Father. In this sense Jesus does not entrust himself to anyone. He is present to all with God's love, but he is also detached from all in his attachment to God. Jesus' inner disposition is not shared by these believers. What he sees in them stands in contrast to what he found in Nathanael, for in him he saw nothing false (1:47). Nathanael heard something that seemed questionable, but he came and began to see more deeply. These people see something attractive and remain on that level, thereby missing the whole point. That which is in them is not trustworthy because it is not open to God, as is made clear in the story of Nicodemus that follows.
Nicodemus is one of these who have an untrustworthy faith. John signals this connection by his repetition of the word man (2:25; 3:1) and by the fact that Nicodemus's assessment of Jesus is based on the signs he had seen (3:2; cf. 2:23). Later in the story we find him defending Jesus among his fellow Pharisees (7:50-52) and assisting Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus (19:38-42). He will end the story as a disciple, but here at the beginning he is something less.
He comes to Jesus under cover of night and makes a grand statement of faith (3:2). He is identified with the Pharisees, so we understand that when he says we know, his assessment of Jesus is more than his own private opinion. This makes it clear that there is not yet a settled opposition to Jesus, though his coming by night suggests, as we would expect, that not all share his positive view of Jesus after what took place in the temple. Within the group at the heart of the opposition to Jesus in this Gospel, there is at least one who is attracted to him. This shows that John, despite his strongly dualistic language, recognizes the grayness of life. Only Jesus and the devil are absolutes; all other characters are in motion either toward the light or away from it.
In response to Nicodemus' profession of faith Jesus once again expresses a cryptic saying that tests the heart (3:3; cf. 1:49-51). How uncomfortable it must have been to be around Jesus! He has been approached as a spiritual master, and he responds as one. He has been recognized as a teacher who has come from God (v. 2), and he responds by speaking of the kingdom of God (v. 3). Nicodemus may think he is talking to a rabbi, but in fact Jesus is the King of Israel (1:49). The kingdom of God is his own kingdom, but it is not of this world (18:36). One must be born from above even to see it (v. 3), let alone enter it (v. 5).
Thus, in his response to Nicodemus, Jesus is giving Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize who it is that stands before him. But Nicodemus gets confused. When Jesus says one must be born from above (anothen), Nicodemus takes it as being born again (cf. NIV text and note). Jesus is speaking of the spiritual realm, but Nicodemus thinks he is referring to the physical. Such a mistake need not be an absolute barrier to understanding Jesus. The Samaritan woman will have the same problem, and yet Jesus will use her misunderstandings to reveal himself to her (4:1-26). But Nicodemus is unable to pick up on the additional clues Jesus gives.
Jesus explains being born from above in terms of being born of water and the Spirit (3:5). The water of baptism and the coming of the Spirit have already been associated in this Gospel (1:31-33), and cleansing by water and new life from the Spirit were already associated with one another in the Old Testament, especially in Ezekiel 36:25-28:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
What follows in Ezekiel is the vision of the valley of dry bones in which the Spirit's restoration of the people is described as bringing the dead to life (chap. 37). What is needed is a new heart and a new life; that is, the Spirit must give birth to spirit (Jn 3:7). Only those alive in the realm of the spirit by the Spirit will be able to recognize and enter that realm.
The fundamental point is God's initiative in bringing spiritual life, which is reinforced by an illustration from nature (3:8). One can see the effects of the presence of the wind, but one cannot see the wind itself nor map out where it comes from nor where it goes (at least before modern technology). So also in the spiritual realm people can see the effects (cf. 3:2), but they cannot map out nor control the activity of the Spirit. It is God alone who initiates and produces this birth from above (cf. 1:13). Thus, once again we are back to the theme of God's grace, for this begetting is an act of sovereign gracious love initiated by God, not by us.
The image of begetting is not very common in the Old Testament (cf. Brown 1966:138-39), though there are texts that link the metaphor of childbirth with God's new life for his people (for example, Is 26:17-19; 66:7-14; Hos 13:13-14). But this fundamental point of the divine initiative of God's grace is central to Old Testament religion. No wonder Jesus reproves Nicodemus' obtuseness (3:10). A teacher of Israel should have recognized such a vital theme, especially as it is conveyed so clearly in imagery from Ezekiel. Instead, we leave Nicodemus stammering his question, How? His problem, as Jesus points out, is precisely one of receptivity (3:11). Although it was acceptable for a student to question his rabbi (cf. note on 2:20), if Nicodemus really believes that God is with Jesus, then he should receive what Jesus says. But he does not, and thereby his heart is revealed. The signs have shown him that Jesus has come from God, yet he does not receive Jesus' teaching as teaching come from God.
As Nicodemus fades from view we have Jesus' first monologue. He begins by referring to his testimony: I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony (3:11). These words echo what the Johannine Christians say to their Jewish opponents in John's own day. The striking use of I and we seems to be an example of the voice of the risen Christ speaking as the head of the community of those who have received the Spirit and bear witness (cf. 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11). The we know of a ruler of the Jews (3:2) is countered by the we know of the Lord of the Christians.
Jesus distinguishes teaching about earthly things from teaching about heavenly things (3:12). It seems strange to call the topics of divine begetting and entrance into the kingdom of God earthly! But they are earthly in the sense that they refer to the effects of divine activity here on earth. He immediately goes on to speak of the heavenly things, that is, the heavenly source behind this divine activity on earth. These heavenly things have to do with Jesus himself as the Son of Man who came from heaven (3:13). In the Synoptics Son of Man is used of Jesus as a human being on earth, as the future judge and as the one coming in glory. In John, Jesus is indeed on earth and is certainly human (1:14); but the future has entered the present, and already on earth judgment takes place through the presence and revelation of the Son of Man. Already he is glorified, though it is on the cross. Therefore the Son of Man sayings in John refer to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. Schnackenburg 1980a:529-42; Moloney 1978; Lindars 1983:145-57). The term itself obviously speaks of a human, perhaps even of a representative human (cf. Pamment 1985), yet because the Son of Man comes from heaven and exercises divine prerogatives (cf. comment on 5:27) he also shares in divinity. Thus the term is a complex one, speaking to Jesus' deity and his humanity (cf. Marshall 1992:780-81).
Jesus' strong denial that anyone else has ascended into heaven (3:13) has in mind the claims of the Jewish mystics (cf. Odeberg 1968:72-98), in particular the traditions concerning Moses' ascension (cf. Borgen 1968; Meeks 1967). Moses did not ascend into heaven; he only lifted up the serpent, which was a figure of Christ (3:14). Moses is indeed a source of revelation, but he is so through his witness to Jesus (cf. 5:39, 45-47). Thus, John does not simply reject the claims of the Jewish mystics; he also shows that what they were after is available in Jesus. Among those who pursued heavenly journeys some "sought to find an answer to the question of what would follow death" and "others desired the vision of God which could bring with it eternal life" (Grese 1988:688). In our passage, as well as throughout the Gospel, John is speaking to these desires (see comments on 1:18; 6:46; 14:8-10).
When Jesus says the Son of Man must be lifted up (3:14) he means it is God who lifts him up, since must (dei) often refers to God's plan (cf. Grundmann 1964:22-24), and be lifted (hypsothenai) is an example of a passive verb used to refer to God's action, a common form of expression in the New Testament. In this way Moses has a role analogous to that which God plays, but the older revelation is now fulfilled in Jesus (cf. 6:32).
The lifting up of the Son of Man points us to the center of his revelation, the cross. The cross itself is a heavenly thing for it reveals the life of heaven that Jesus has come to offer us (3:15). Since God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and love is the laying down of one's life (1 Jn 3:16), it is precisely in the cross that we see God most clearly. Jesus humbles himself to the point of crucifixion because he is God, not despite it (cf. Phil 2:6, reading hyparchon as causal). That God is love is the good news—this revelation is the gospel.
The heart of John's message is summed up in the justly famous sixteenth verse, which declares that the Son of Man's coming down from heaven and being lifted on the cross is the activity of God himself, of his gracious love, the love that gives. As Jesus will declare clearly at the end of his teaching, summing up his revelation, "the Father himself loves you" (16:27).
Thus in these verses we hear of the agent from heaven and the act whereby he reveals the reality of heaven, the heart of the Father. To believe that Jesus is the Son of Man from heaven and that his revelation of God is true gives one eternal life, that is, a share in God's own life (3:15). This message is clear enough to John's readers, including us, but within the story verses 13-15 contain a very cryptic message that, Jesus says, Nicodemus and those like him (the you in vv. 11-12 is plural) cannot receive.
With verse 16 we have not only the core of the revelation but also the beginning of a commentary on the different responses to this revelation. Since Greek does not use quotation marks it is sometimes unclear, as it is here, where a quotation ends (see NIV note to v. 21). This section reads like a commentary on what precedes it, but as there is no indication of a change of speaker, it could be either Jesus or the Evangelist. Since the voice of the earthly Jesus and the voice of the risen Jesus through John are so interwoven in this book, there is no great difference between putting the quotation mark at verse 15 or verse 21. However, a similar commentary occurs in 3:31-36, and there it is likely that we have the Evangelist (see comment on 3:31). Accordingly, it may be likely that here also John is stepping back to summarize and reflect on what has just been narrated.
God's purpose is clearly stated: not condemnation but salvation for the whole world (vv. 16-17). Jesus has come not just for the Jews or the elect, but for the world. He has come not to save some and to condemn others, but solely for salvation. Nevertheless, condemnation does take place—not through God's rejection of some, but by their rejection of him (v. 18). Judgment is a matter of what people do with the light, as Jesus emphasizes at the end of the first half of the Gospel (12:46-48). One's response to Jesus is one's judgment because Jesus is the revelation of God himself (12:49-50).
Why is it that some come to the light and some do not? John does not unravel this mystery entirely, but verses 19-21 shed some light. At first glance this passage seems to say that one's response to the light is determined by one's moral behavior prior to encountering the light. This cannot be correct, however, since John describes people living immoral lifestyles, such as the Samaritan woman, who come to the light. The key is in the terms be exposed (elencho, v. 20) and be seen plainly (phaneroo, v. 21). It is sometimes assumed that the image in verse 20 is of someone working under cover of darkness so no one will know what is taking place. That person does not come into the light lest his or her activity, which is obviously wrong, be seen. But a preferable image is of a person involved in some activity that is morally neutral or even virtuous. This person does not come to the light because it would expose that what was considered virtuous is actually evil. This latter interpretation best fits this context, and we know it was held very early because some manuscripts, including p66 (from about A.D. 200), read, "He does not come to the light lest his deeds be exposed, that they are evil" (hina me elenchthe ta erga autou hoti ponera estin).
But whoever lives by the truth (ho de poion ten aletheian, literally, "but whoever does the truth") seems to refer to specific deeds, thus suggesting moral activity and raising again the interpretation ruled out by the context. The only other use of this phrase (1 Jn 1:6) is instructive. The letter is speaking of Christians, so the Gospel's concern with coming to the light is here changed to walking in the light. But the basic meaning of the phrase is the same. In the letter, not to do the truth is equivalent to lying, in particular, to saying one has fellowship with God and yet walking in darkness. This is exactly the problem of the Jewish opponents in the Gospel. They claim to be children of God, yet they reject the Son of God; they are self-deceived and, according to Jesus, liars (8:42-47, 55). Thus "doing the truth" is not just a matter of morality—it involves not being deceived, having a right evaluation of oneself in relation to God. Truth, for John, has to do with reality, and here the issue is the reality of one's claim to have fellowship with God.
But what does it mean that a deed is evil? In 1 John an evil deed is one that is of the evil one (3:12). John seems to be working with the same idea here, for in the parallel clause (3:21) that which is seen plainly about the deeds of those who come to the light is not that they do the truth, but that their actions are done through God. Both verses indicate there is something about the deeds that is not obvious on the surface. As the true deeds are seen to have been done through God, the evil deeds are revealed as evil; that is, they are of the evil one, which is to say they have not been done through God.
This interpretation finds confirmation as the story unfolds, for what is said to this representative of the Jews is worked out further throughout the story. The problem with the Jewish opponents is their self-deception (9:39-41). They are self-satisfied, thinking they know God's ways, and they are, in fact, his children. But they only receive glory from one another, and this keeps them from believing in Jesus (5:44). When Jesus, the Son of God, comes he shows up the opponents' alienation from God. It is this alienation that the opponents cannot stand to have exposed, and so they hate this light that shows them up. Jesus reveals that their virtue is not of God but of their father the devil (8:44). The problem is at the level of their wills—what they love and hate, as our passage puts it. They claim to love God, but they have set their wills against Jesus (5:40), thereby revealing that God's love is not in their hearts (5:42) and that it is not their will to do God's will (7:17).
So the judgment that comes as the light shines reveals the terrible possibility, already recognized in Jewish thought, that even though one may be virtuous and have the Scriptures of God it is still possible to be alienated from God and closed to him. In this passage the issue is not that their deeds were morally wrong, but that these Jewish opponents hate the light, which is to say they share the character of the evil one. No matter how good their deeds may have appeared to be, these deeds separated them from God, and therefore the deeds were evil. This evil, which is the source of hatred of the light, is the pride and self-satisfaction of religious people who think they know God and yet are far from him.
This does not mean that John is a libertine who thinks morality is unimportant. In fact, in 1 John the question of believers' behavior is explicitly addressed, and there one's behavior indicates something about one's relation to God. But the emphasis in the Gospel is on the initial response to Jesus in Israel. One's response to Jesus is connected to one's openness to God, no matter how morally pure or impure one may be.
Thus we again find the antinomies of divine sovereignty and human responsibility woven together. This passage undermines the point of view held by many that everyone is a child of God and that all we have to do is get to work and then we will achieve eternal life. Instead, we learn that we lack life and do not have it within ourselves to cause our spiritual birth. We are utterly dependent on God, whose Spirit blows where he will. A second view is also clearly condemned, namely the self-satisfaction of religious folk who have made idols even out of the teachings in the Bible. This is a difficult area because we are to hold fast to what God has revealed. The point is that we must hold fast to the living God himself and realize that our understanding of him will continue to develop. In Christ we have the full and perfect revelation of God, as John insists, but that does not mean our grasp of him is perfect. We, like Paul, "see but a poor reflection as in a mirror" (1 Cor 13:12) and have need of the Spirit to lead us into all truth (1 Cor 2:6-16). When Paul met the risen Christ he had to rethink things. He did so in the light of the Scriptures, for God's further revelation unfolds his earlier revelation rather than destroys it (cf. 1:16-17; Mt 5:17). Thus, we should test everything by Scripture, in keeping with the guidance the Spirit has given the church (14:26; 15:26), and expect our personal understanding of Christ to be deepened.
A third lesson is at the heart of this passage—indeed, of the whole Gospel. For here is proclaimed the incredibly good news that what we need is a birth from above by the Spirit and that it is God's desire for us to have precisely this. If we are to be saved God must take the initiative, and he has taken the initiative, for he has sent his Son. In the Son we see heaven opened and the heart of God, which is love, revealed.