On the Gospel of John 3

John 3  •  46 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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Nicodemus comes to Jesus with the declaration of the same principle which had produced the conviction of those in whom Jesus had no confidence-the miracles were to him a demonstration that Jesus was a teacher sent from God. I even think that the others went further than Nicodemus; it is said they believed in His name (chap. 2: 23). As to Nicodemus, he was convinced that Christ's teaching must have God for its source, thus he was disposed to listen. The belief of the former did not produce any need in their souls; in this case conviction may go as far as you like, without the soul's being troubled, or any effect whatever being produced: it costs nothing-we often see this.
But in Nicodemus's case there was more, and it was a proof of the action of God; there was with him a need. The Holy Spirit of God always acts thus, even in the Christian. This feeling of need which He begets produces activity in the soul; this is what had happened to Nicodemus. More, when the Spirit of God acts in a soul, the word of God asserts its authority over it, and creates the desire to hear that word; this never fails. There are so many unsatisfied desires in the soul, that when it is awakened, the need to know what God has said is produced in it. The soul has the consciousness of having to do with Him; and the need of knowing what He has said becomes the spring of its activity, and characterizes it. It is not the reception of a system of doctrine, or of dogmas about a divine Person; it is the soul that hungers and thirst for what God has said; ignorant of everything but its need, it wishes to receive. It is a good thing for the soul to trust in God's word, in the source of truth (this is already implicit faith), without the truth being, as yet, communicated in fact; for it listens with confidence. Nicodemus was in this state; the Samaritan woman also, but, in her case the conscience was more in question; so also with the twelve; when several of His disciples abandoned Jesus, they would not leave Him, for He had the words of eternal life. When God acts, the link between God and the conscience and soul is not broken; I am not speaking of union, but of a moral work in the heart. But notice, as soon as ever the need is produced in Nicodemus's heart, he feels instinctively that the world, and the religious authorities-the worst part of the world-will be against him. There is fear; Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Poor human nature! If a soul puts itself in relationship with God, in recognizing His word, the world will not stand it. We know this. But Nicodemus's faith did not go farther than to recognize the authority of the Savior's word as a word which came from God, grace having produced in his heart the need of these communications from God.
It is a great 'thing to have a real need, feeble though it be morally; for here, in Nicodemus's case, there was little need in the conscience, and no knowledge of himself. He was cleaving to religious hopes, to doctrines, and a revelation given from God; he was seeking instruction from Jesus, but he had his part in the general conviction that the miracles of Jesus produced-a conviction strengthened by uprightness, and by personal need; Jesus was a teacher sent from God. But Jesus stops Nicodemus short; the resurrection and kingdom were not come, but in order to receive the revelation which had been given of it, there must be a divine operation, a new nature; it was necessary to partake of an entirely new life. The kingdom was not coming in a way to attract attention, but the King; with all the perfection that belonged to Him, was there present, and, consequently the kingdom itself, presented in His Person • only this kingdom, not being revealed in power, the rejection Of the King caused by the very perfection of His Person, as well as the work accomplished in His rejection, introduced a heavenly inheritance. Further this work, and this rejection, brought those who should be identified with a rejected Christ into those courts above where God displayed His glory, and this is far higher than the glory of the Messiah, if it had been then accomplished. It was already the dawn of the accomplishment of the counsels of God not yet revealed.
Two things are presented to us in the first half of the chapter before us: first of all, the kingdom, and what is needed to have part in it, and, in measure, the earthly things, and what is necessary to enjoy them with God, but also the kingdom, as it was then presented in its moral character. Then, secondly, heaven, eternal life; that which is essential to our most real and intimate relationships with God, namely, the possession of eternal life before Him, in contrast with the thought of perishing. Here it is no question of the kingdom, it is eternal life, such as Jesus, come from heaven, could reveal it to us. But this supposes the cross: it is no question of Messiah, but of the Son of man, and of the love which God has had for the world, not of His intentions with regard to the kingdom, and the promises connected with this kingdom, but of plans far more vast and exalted, heavenly in their character, in which God reveals what He is; and Jesus, rejected as Messiah, dies, and enters into glory as the Son of man who has suffered. No doubt this new birth is in any case necessary, subjectively, even that we may see the kingdom, and enjoy it, much more, that we may enjoy heavenly things in the presence of God. But as the passage speaks of the new birth, it does not treat of the heavenly glory; for this the cross must be brought in also. However it is well to remark that this whole passage, in its two parts, supposes the new order of things, where grace was acting, and that not limited to the Jews. It was an entirely new thing that was being brought in; the kingdom was not established in glory, but founded and received in the Person of the King, demanding a new nature to see it, and extending itself to every one whom grace could reach. It was morally and subjectively, the new thing; only in the first part, we have neither heavenly things, nor eternal life; in the second, we have not the kingdom.
The first thing the Lord does in stopping Nicodemus short- who only spoke of being instructed in the state in which he was, he, a child of the kingdom according to the flesh-is to tell him that it was not a question of that, but that he must be born entirely anew. We will look into the details in a moment; it is, however, important, first of all, to seize, that the Lord speaks of the two characters of blessing, that is, of the heavenly glory, and of the kingdom according to promise, but that He speaks of them according to the aspects they presented at that very time. We may say that He presents them, with regard to His Person in their spiritual character; on the one hand, the King despised, and that which was heavenly meeting with the cross in His Person; but, on the other hand, the new birth and life-giving power, the Son of man, the love of God, and consequently what concerned the world and man, not only dispensations and the Jews. For, faithful though God be to His promises, He cannot, when He reveals Himself, confine Himself to the Jews.
First of all then, the kingdom was being revealed in a way which did not attract attention, not by a power that should rule over the world, nor by its outward glory; a new nature was needed to perceive it. The King was there, and He gave proofs of a divine mission and of the presence of Him who was to come, but in humiliation; to the natural eye He was the carpenter's son. Nicodemus reasoned well in saying, in verse 2,
We know... for no one can do the miracles which thou doest, unless God be with him "; but God had His, " Except a man be born again "-born entirely anew. This life is a beginning again of life, of a new source, and of a new nature-a life that came from God. But Nicodemus still remained within the bounds and limits of the flesh, of the natural man They are the limits of what man is, of his intelligence. Man cannot be more than he is; he cannot get beyond his nature. But the class of infidels who boast of having made this immense discovery, show, on the one hand, the limit of the human understanding, so that they can discern nothing beyond what man is; and, on the other hand, the absence of solid reasoning in themselves; for, from what they have discovered, there is no proof that a more powerful Being cannot introduce something new. Their wisdom is a self-evident fact; man by himself cannot see beyond that which is in himself; their conclusion is absolutely without force. By their principle they can conclude nothing beyond the limits of humanity; but the limits of active power are not necessarily those of receptivity.
Let us return to our chapter, and seek to listen to and understand the Savior's words better than Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, as we have said, confines himself to the experience of what happens in man; Christ revealed that which was being accomplished on God's part-the key of all the Lord's history. He had spoken of that which was necessary to see, to discern the kingdom: one must be born of water and of the Spirit. It is the kingdom of God, in whatever state it may be, and one must be made meet for this kingdom, must have a nature fit to take part in it. Two things are found here, water and the Spirit-a nature thus characterized, morally and in its source. Water as a figure, is always the word applied by the Spirit; it brings the thoughts of God heavenly, divine, but adapted to man; it judges what is found in him, but it brings in these divine thoughts, and so purifies the heart. For water purifies what exists; but also it is the new man who drinks it, and this is not separated from that which is entirely new. " That which is born of the Spirit, is spirit," partakes of the nature of that of which it is born; this is, in truth, the new nature. The practical purification of our thoughts and hearts, of which we have spoken, is indeed the effect of that which this nature receives, of things for which the flesh has no desire. We could not say, " That which is born of water, is water." Water purifies that which exists; but we receive a new life, which is really Christ Himself in power of life in us, that which Adam innocent had not. We partake of the divine nature, as Peter expresses it; and where this expression is found, in the Second Epistle of Peter, it is connected with birth by water; we escape the corruption that is in the world by lust.
It is thus only that we enter the kingdom. The kingdom of God is more than a paradise for man, it is what is fitting for God, and it is necessary that we should have a nature that answers to it. Adam, in his state of innocence, had not this, his level was man, as God had created him. For the kingdom of God, he who finds himself there, must have that which-in man however-is suitable to God Himself. Notice, that the Lord goes outside all questions of dispensations, He has in view the moral nature, that which is born of the flesh, is flesh, has that nature; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, that is to say, corresponds to the divine nature, which is its source. But then it could not be a question only of the Jews; if any one had this nature, he was fit for the kingdom. It was not a question of a people already chosen of God, but of a nature suitable to God.
Two things are brought to light when these principles have been laid down; first of all, the necessity of this new birth, in order to enjoy the promises made to the Jews for the earth; and secondly, that this work was of God, who communicated this new nature. God could communicate it by His Spirit to whom He would, and this opened the door to the Gentiles. Nicodemus, Jesus told him, ought not to have been astonished at the Savior saying that the Jews must be born again; the prophets had announced this (see Ezek. 36:24-2824For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. 25Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. 26A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. 27And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. 28And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:24‑28)), and Nicodemus, as a master or teacher in Israel, ought to have known it. The wind, too, blew where it listed (v. 8); so was the operation of the Spirit. It was a work of God, and thus could be accomplished in any one.
There were still the heavenly things. Now if Nicodemus did not understand these earthly things of Israel's blessing, how would he understand if the Lord spoke to him of heavenly things? Now no one had ascended to heaven, so as to be able to bring word of what was there, and of what was necessary to be able to enjoy it, save He who had descended thence, who spoke of what He knew, and bore witness to what He had seen; not the Messiah-that had to do with the earth-but the Son of man, who, as to His divine nature, was in heaven.
Thus we have a revelation of heavenly things brought directly from heaven by Christ, and in His Person. He revealed them in all their freshness, a freshness which was found in Him, and which He, who was ever in heaven, enjoyed; He revealed them in the perfection of the Person of Him, who made the glory of heaven, whose nature is the atmosphere which all those who are found there breathe, and by which they live; He, the object of the affections which animate this holy place, from the Father Himself down to the last of the angels who fill heaven's courts with their praises, He the center of all the glory. Such is the Son of man, He who came down to reveal the Father-truth and grace-but who divinely remained in heaven in the essence of His divine nature, in His Person inseparable from the humanity with which He was clothed! The deity which filled this humanity was inseparable in His Person from all the divine perfection, but He never ceased to be man, really and truly man before God.
But we have another truth here: the Son of man was to re-enter heaven as Man, to be Head over all things. As Son of God He has been appointed Heir (Heb. 1); He is such as Creator (Col. 1), but also as Man and Son of man, according to God's counsels. (Psa. 8, quoted in Eph. 1, in 1 Cor. 15, in Heb. 2-passages which develop clearly His place in this respect.) Prov. 8 teaches us that He who was Jehovah's delight before the foundation of the world, rejoiced then in the habitable parts of the earth, and His delights were in the sons of men. The angels (Luke 2) recall this truth, or rather the proofs which His incarnation gave of the thoughts of God in this respect; they speak of this incarnation as the manifestation of God's good pleasure in men. As then He has been the manifestation of God upon earth, He enters as Man into the glory of God on high. He will reign over the earth as Head of the creation, gathering together all things under His authority1 (Col. 1); but here we speak of heavenly things. The Son of man takes His place on high to be Head over all things (1 Peter 3:2222Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him. (1 Peter 3:22); John 13:33Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; (John 13:3); ch. 16: 15). Man, in His Person, has entered heaven, into the presence of God Himself, without a veil, and all things are to be subjected under His feet. But will they be so, such as they are, and men who are to be His joint-heirs, will they be so, such as they are in sin, enemies of God by their wicked works? It is impossible. Another fundamental thing is necessary, redemption. Man, with a thousand times more sin than that which caused him to be driven irrevocably from the earthly paradise-man, who had gone so far as to have accumulated upon his head, the rejection of God, of grace, and of the Son of God-could not, such as he was, enter the heavenly paradise: it was impossible. If, then, Christ should as Man possess the glory which in the counsels of God was the portion of man, and if He was to have joint-heirs, and introduce them into His Father's house, He must redeem them and purify them according to the glory of God. He must also redeem creation from the yoke under which sin had placed it, and from Satan's dominion. Here it is a question only of the state of the heirs, and of their deliverance from death and condemnation. Now, when the Son of man is presented to us, His sufferings and death are constantly introduced. As
Messiah He was rejected upon earth by His people; but the only result of this was His passing into the wider sphere of Son of man, Head of the entire creation, and Head, in a special way, of those whom He is not ashamed to call His brethren. But for this, redemption was needed; we learn this in Matt. 16:20, 21,20Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ. 21From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. (Matthew 16:20‑21) and more definitely in Mark 8:29-31,29And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ. 30And he charged them that they should tell no man of him. 31And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:29‑31) and Luke 9:20-22,20He said unto them, But whom say ye that I am? Peter answering said, The Christ of God. 21And he straitly charged them, and commanded them to tell no man that thing; 22Saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day. (Luke 9:20‑22) with the consequences which result from it for us. In John's Gospel too, before He leaves the world, the Father would have a testimony borne to the titles of glory of Jesus. As Son of God, He was glorified by the resurrection of Lazarus; as Son of David, by His entry into Jerusalem on the ass's colt; finally, the Greeks, who had come up to worship at Jerusalem, having sought the disciples in their desire to see Jesus, and the disciples having communicated this to Him, the Lord says, " The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit," John 12:23, 2423And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. 24Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. (John 12:23‑24).
Thus, in all the Gospels, we find the Messiah giving place to the Son of man, but in each case the Son of man passing through death, in order to enter into His new and universal position of glory. He might have had twelve legions of angels, but then God's counsels, as revealed in the Scriptures, would not have been accomplished; Christ would have been without joint-heirs.
We have already remarked, and we recall the reader's attention to it, that in this chapter, the presentation whether it be of life, or of the work which procures it for us, is given in connection with its present and personal application; it is a presentation of what these two things are in their nature, not as to the extent of their result, but in their application to us as a means of having part whether in the kingdom, or in heavenly things. The lifting-up of the Son of man on the cross corresponds down here, both on the side of our need, and that of God, to the revelation of the heavenly things which the Son brought down-to that which is found in heaven. It is a question of being before God when He is fully revealed, not only when the Messiah promised to the Jews had been rejected (so that the right to the accomplishment of the promises was lost for those who possessed this right, after that the law had been broken), but when man's hatred against God-against a God revealed in goodness-had been clearly manifested. It was no longer merely sins, and the violation of the law, it was the rejection of grace, when sins and the violation of the law were already there. Man would not have God at any price (see John 15:22-2422If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. 23He that hateth me hateth my Father also. 24If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father. (John 15:22‑24)); how could he have part with Christ in God's presence, a part in heavenly glory? Still, the sin of man has not brought the grace of God to naught. But if, as Son of man, Christ had undertaken man's cause, He must undergo the consequences of this, since He had become responsible for it before God; Heb. 2: to. In order that we might have part in the heavenly things, it was necessary that the Son of man should be lifted up,2 and that according to God's glory, in connection with that which had so much dishonored Him; now it is, as made sin, Christ accomplished this, Himself also bearing our sins. Far from God, we must have perished in our sins; He came forward for us, receiving all, as Man, from the hand of His Father, and obeying Him ever; He took the form of a servant in a nature which He will never leave, and in this nature He has become, by right, according to the righteousness and according to the counsels of God, Lord of all things • He whom no one knows but the Father only, but who reveals the Father to us, He who came down close to us-who has touched us, so to speak-who took our nature, though He could say, " Before Abraham was, I am." He of whom our tongues and intelligence can speak but imperfectly is the Creator of everything; but His place as Man is at the head of the creation. He it is who came to reveal heavenly things to us, and to show their effect in His Person as Man, while living in the midst of heavenly things all the time; so that, being Man down here, He should reveal them in all their freshness, adapted at the same time to man, so that he should live by them, and enter in spirit with Him there, where that was which He revealed, and later on should enter there glorified and like Him.
The Son of man is then the One who, as Man, is to be Head over all things in heaven and earth, according to God's counsels. Already Messiah and Son of God when He was upon earth, and rejected as such (see Psa. 2), He must take the more extended position of Son of man, set over the works of God, all things being put under His feet; Psa. 8 We find Him also in Dan. 7, brought to the Ancient of days to receive the kingdom. The fact that He had created all things is given us in the Colossians as the motive for (in taking His place in the result of the counsels of God in His creation) being there as Firstborn, first, to bear the sorrow of it before God, to be the propitiation for our sins, and to blot them out forever, so that we should not perish. There it was that, in an absolute manner, He who had not known sin was made sin before God, it was there that absolute obedience was perfect; " That the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father hath commanded me, even so I do." He must be lifted up, the necessity for it was weighing upon us; righteousness-the very nature of God-demanded that our sin should be put away. But the sinner could not put away his own sin; burdened as he was already with this sin, what could he do to put it away? But the Son of man, rejected by men, has been lifted up before God, to be sin, without any other thing or person-alone before God. It was no longer any question here of Jew or of promise, but of satisfying God's glory in this place; it was the last Adam, not disobedient, when he was enjoying all the blessings of God, but obedient, there, even where He was enduring-He who had dwelt eternally in the Father's love, and in holiness itself-not only the suffering of death, but that of the curse and the forsaking of God. No one could fathom such a thing; nevertheless, we can even by this recognize that the suffering was infinite, but necessary on account of what we were, if God's glory was to be guarded, and if we were to be saved. The more we see who He was, the more we feel the depth of the abyss into which He descended; but in that very thing He could say, " Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again," John 10:1717Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. (John 10:17). The glory of God has been manifested as it never was, and never could have been known.
The Son of man had to be lifted up. In taking this place (which He took for us also in grace), He was free. " Then said I, Lo, I come." His sufferings were necessary for us. Oh, solemn word! But God having been there perfectly glorified, the work in all its value being perfectly accomplished, whosoever believes shall not perish, but has everlasting life. Our lot was to perish; to have eternal life, to be with Christ, and like Christ in glory, is the effect of the sufferings, of the work of the Savior for all who believe. This is one side of the truth: as Son of man Jesus went to meet the judgment which was about to fall upon us. The Son of man must be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. He that believes does not perish; but, much more, he possesses eternal life, now as life, soon as heavenly glory with Christ. Lifted up from the earth, Jesus draws all men unto Him. A living Messiah was for the lost sheep of the house of Israel; in the Son of man lifted up upon the cross, it is no longer a question of the promises, but of an accomplished work, available in God's sight for all those that believe. For God so loved the world, that He gave His Son; this is the source of all. Here the end is the same; " that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life." These are two aspects of the same Person; Son of man down here, but at the same time Son of God. God hath not spared His own Son. But it is a principle, a fact of all importance. The must of verses 14, 15, although it flows from God's very nature, and from man's state, bears the character of a requirement on God's part: it clothes God in our mind with the character of a judge. There is, doubtless, much more: God's holiness, His glory, that which becomes Him (Heb. 2:1010For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)), are to be found here too; but the thought of a judge is in effect connected with culpability. Now all this gives still a very imperfect idea of the truth. The work bears this character; it is a propitiation; without it we should perish, shut out from God's presence; one would perish necessarily, if this work were not accomplished, on man's side, by man. But where could be found one who could accomplish it? It must: Jesus could say this, for He came from heaven. God is not named in the passage, for Jesus speaks of the necessity in which man was, if he would enter into heaven. But God is sovereign, and God is love. Divine love is sovereign; it is above evil, although it rejects it by the necessity of its nature, and judges it with the authority of its righteousness. God is love; this is the sovereign liberty of His nature. This is why, according to Eph. 5, we ought to walk in love; but we are not love, we are light. God is love and light. Well, then, it is in this sovereign liberty that God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son (He who, in consequence, became the Son of man), so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (v. 16).
It is of all importance to understand this well, otherwise God must always bear for the heart the character of judge-a satisfied judge, it may be-and He who is love is not known; God is not known. As to that which relates to us, we have made Him a Judge in falling into sin; but in His supreme nature, God has risen above everything, and the result for us is a blessing answering to this supreme nature, a blessing infinitely higher than the blessing which we should enjoy as perfect creatures, a blessing given to us in His Son Jesus, as only-begotten Son of the Father. It is not, the Father so loved the world; it is, God as God, and we know Him as Father as a consequence of this grace. But He has revealed Himself, in this grace towards us.
What immense grace to be able to say, I know God; and again, I am known of Him: I know Him, Himself; not only, I am saved, however precious it may be to be able to say that, but, I know the One who has saved me! The thought of this salvation comes from Him; it is the revelation of what He is, even for the angels. His love is the source of it; His nature, the depth of His heart, is revealed in it; His glory and His own nature are revealed in it. Son of God, Son of man, Jesus meets man's need, and reveals what God is. He who hath seen Him, hath seen the Father. Blessed be God! we know Him.
The purpose and consequences of His coming are then established. God has not sent His Son into the world to judge the world-He will come back in glory to do this-but that the world might be saved through Him (v. 17). The world has rejected the Son of God, but such a manifestation of God in the Word made flesh, and such an accomplishment of the work which glorifies God, bear their consequences, and bear them necessarily. He who believeth in Him is not judged. All that concerned God's glory as to man's sin has been accomplished; the righteousness of God, His love, His holiness, His majesty-all that He is, has been clearly brought out, and that in the judgment which fell upon Christ, made sin for us, and bearing our sins in His body upon the tree. Thus the whole question of responsibility and the glory of God as to the believer is resolved and settled; there can be now no judgment for him, otherwise all would not be settled; it would be a denial of the efficacy of Christ's work. The soul would be placed upon another ground; a ground necessarily false if that of Christ be true, for nothing and no one can be what He has been.
He, then, that believes in Him shall not be judged, as it is said also in chapter 5 of this same Gospel. He who believes has everlasting life, and he shall not come into judgment. But he that believes not in Him is judged already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. The presentation of the Son of God, of the Word of God, made flesh, had already put man to the test; the question of his state had been resolved, he rejected God in the Person of His only-begotten Son, the full Light; and God is light, as He is love. It is not here sovereign love, but conscience and responsibility. The light has been in the world, and has shone clearly; the light of men, adapted to men. They loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. Conscience feels the light, but that does not change the will; and if the will remains perverse, conscience makes divine light insupportable. The state of the will, as to God manifested down here, when conscience recognizes the light, is that which forms the basis of an existing judgment, present, but final, there where Christ has been thus presented.
The end of the chapter determines the relative position of John the Baptist and of Christ. John's proper mission was an earthly one; he spoke of the Messiah to Israel, of the kingdom in connection with this people; as the immediate precursor of the Christ, the nearest of all those who, vessels of the testimony of God, had preceded him, he was, by this fact, greater than all the prophets: but he did not come up to the manifestation of that which is heavenly. Those who have believed since Christ's ascension enjoy this; the least even in the kingdom of God is greater than John. In the Person of the Christ, the Baptist glimpsed the glory which belonged to Him, and which, by grace, belongs to His own also; but the veil was not rent, and there was not a man in heaven. Personally, Jesus had brought that which was heavenly; He revealed the Father, He spoke the words of God; but the grain of wheat remained alone, redemption was not accomplished, although He who came from above was there, and spoke that which He had seen and heard in words which were the words of God. No one received His testimony.
Verse 29 is rather a figure, and the bride he speaks of is not a particular bride. If one wished to apply it, it would indicate the earthly bride.
This difference between the prophetic testimony, which, although divine, is an earthly testimony, and the revelation of heavenly things, of God Himself, and the portion we have in the glory, is of all importance; it corresponds to the essential difference between Christianity and all that preceded it. Man glorified in heaven, the veil rent, the Holy Ghost come down here, and dwelling in us, to put us in living and actual relationship with heavenly things-all this differs entirely from the promises, and even from the prophecies of the coming of Messiah upon earth. That which relates to the personal history of the Christ, up to His session at the right hand of God, is found as prophecy in the Old Testament; but all that the accomplishment of these things reveals to us morally of man and of God, all that is the consequence of the Holy Ghost's presence in believers down here, could not exist before Christ, as Mediator, had accomplished His work and had gone up on high. John the Baptist was evidently, of all the prophets, the nearest to these things, having seen the Savior; still, the work was not yet accomplished, and John could not enter into the heavenly things, although he knew, as an inspired witness, that Christ had come down from heaven, and as such was above all.
Let us see how John presents the difference of which I speak. He could not do it as possessing these things, for they were not yet; but his testimony as to the rights of the Person of Christ, goes a long way in this passage, where he is speaking to his disciples. His joy was to have seen the Bridegroom, and that in the character of a friend: this is the first difference. He to whom all belonged by right was there: He had the bride, perhaps here the earthly bride, I have already spoken of it, but He was the Bridegroom. John's joy was to see Him. It was a great thing even to compare himself to Him who was come from heaven, although he accepted the disappearing of his own importance with unfeigned piety and joy, because He who eclipsed the brightness of John's testimony, by the presence of the object itself of that testimony was there. John's piety shines out in its clearest light as he thus goes into the shade, in order to exalt the One who, although unknown, was the true divine light, and who made His forerunner disappear by His divine brightness. Truth in the inner man manifested itself by the effect which the truth he announced should produce; his soul was at the height of the testimony he bore. This is much to say of a man; but this was the fair fruit of grace in this honored witness of the Savior.
The divine, heavenly Person of the Savior is then put in contrast with the testimony of John, inspired as he was; his testimony was only a testimony, and a prophetic and earthly testimony: Christ came from heaven, and spoke of what He Himself had seen and heard, not as a prophet, whether, of future things, recalling the law of Moses, the servant of God, or of a Messiah to come, and even upon the earth; no, Jesus spoke of the actual things which existed there whence He had come. No one received His testimony, for these were heavenly things, things which existed in God's presence, of which He spoke: man did not understand them, and did not want them. But the nature of the testimony was nevertheless divine; it was no longer the Spirit " by measure," a " Thus saith the Lord," where the prophet, having finished, all was said-perfect truth, but truth limited to that which was expressed-and again, it was of earthly things, the veil not being rent. The truth itself was there, the Spirit without measure (up to that time upon Him alone), filling Him with the things that were found there whence He was. He whom God had sent always spoke the words of God Himself in all that He said, and that in a man, and by a man, but who was the Son of God, and by the Spirit without measure.
It is very possible that the last two verses of the chapter are by the evangelist, and not by John the Baptist, as it has been thought; but I see no peremptory reason why they should not be by the latter. Up to the end of verse 34, it seems clear to me that they are the words of John the Baptist; and John mingles his testimony with the things he relates, the whole being of God. The last verse might make one think that the words are those of the evangelist, as they contain a testimony so often repeated in his writings. There is also in the testimony a change analogous to what we have seen in verses 16-18 of chapter 1, as to the use of the name of God, and of that of Father. We must here notice carefully this fact, that the thing in question is not to know whether the testimony of the two verses is of God, but that it is only for our instruction, and as an interesting subject for our hearts, that we may take into account the person who was the vessel of this testimony. The Spirit of God committed the word to John the Baptist; the same Spirit directed the evangelist, whether in bringing to our memory that which John the Baptist said, or in the words which he himself pronounces. The last two verses, however, seem rather the expression of a reality that the evangelist knew and possessed by the Holy Ghost, as a present and actual thing, than a prophetic testimony, however high it might be.
The difference between the names of God and of Father is always distinctly maintained in John's Gospel. When it is a question of the nature, and of the acting of God according to that nature, as the origin of redemption, and of the responsibility of man, the word God is employed; when it is a question of the grace which acts in Christianity, and by Christ in us, it is the name of Father. Thus " God so loved the world "; and in chapter 4, " God is a Spirit, and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth "; but, in grace, " the Father seeketh such to worship him "; and here, " the Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hands." (Compare chapter 13: 3.) The Father has been revealed in the Son, and we have received the Spirit of adoption; the little children in Christ have known the Father. " The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath revealed him "; and on the other side, " No one hath seen God at any time." Thus the Person of the Son come into the world, and for us, the exaltation of Jesus, after He had accomplished the work which the Father had given Him to do, then the descent of the Holy Ghost, in a word, the grace which operates in the Person, and for us, by means of the work of Jesus-there is where we find the Father revealed. Jesus revealed this name to His disciples, although they had understood nothing of it (John 17:2626And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:26)); and now that the work which purifies us and justifies us has been accomplished, we have received the Spirit, by whom we cry, " Abba, Father." The name of Father is a name of relationship, revealed by the presence of Christ, and which one knows and enjoys individually by the Holy Ghost. This is what characterizes Christianity, and we may say, Christ Himself. God is what God is in His nature and His authority, the name of a Being, not of a relationship, except in the rights of absolute authority that belong to Him; but of a Being who, being supreme, enters into relationship with us, in grace. We see the importance of this distinction in the words of Christ Himself. During the whole of His life He does not say, " my God," but, " my Father," even in Gethsemane; and the enjoyment of this relationship is perfect. " I am not alone, for the Father is with me." He says again, " Father," when He explains what it is for Him to drink the cup. On the cross He said, " My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? " Made sin for us, He felt what it was to be it before God, God being what He is. After His resurrection He employs the two names of God and of Father, when He introduces His disciples into the position into which He entered, from that time forth, as Man, according to the righteousness of God. " I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, unto my God, and your God." His own were, by grace, as Himself, in their relationship with God as Father; they were, by His work, before God such as He is in His nature, and that in righteousness, according to the value of the work that He had accomplished, and according to their acceptance in His Person, well pleasing in the Beloved. But what a wonderful privilege to know what the Father's affections are set upon, and to know Him who is the object of them, and who is worthy of them-who suffices for these affections! What happiness to know the Lord, for the Father wills that there where He finds His delight we should find ours. What perfect, infinite happiness!
Finally, all things are given to Him, and set under His feet; it is to Him they will be subjected, although they are not yet, as far as the accomplishment of God's ways are concerned (Heb. 2); but He has all power in heaven and on earth.
It is well to remark here, that it is always the Word made flesh,3 He who emptied Himself, and took the form of a servant, as a man down here, who is before the eyes of John. Consequently, although the divinity, or rather the deity, of the Savior appears on every page of the Gospel, Christ is presented to us in it as receiving everything from His Father. He is God, He is one with the Father; men should honor Him as they honor the Father; He can say, " Before Abraham was, I am "; but He never goes out of the place He has taken, and while speaking to the Father as to an equal, everything, glory, and all things, are given to Him. No one knows the Son, but it is very beautiful to see the perfect faithfulness of Jesus, in that He does not glorify Himself, but remains, without effort, in the place He has taken. Blessed be God, it is always a Man!
We have already said that this third chapter lays the foundations, and does not develop the results. We find there the possession of that which enables us to enjoy these results, that is, the new birth and the cross. This is the subjective side of the thing for us. And so we find again here at the end, whosoever believes in the Son, whom the Father loves, has eternal life. (Compare 1 John 5:11, 1211And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. (1 John 5:11‑12).) He who does not believe on Him, who does not receive the witness He bears (compare chap. 5: 21), shall never see life, but the wrath of God abides upon him (v. 36). The Son of God, Jesus, in His Person, is the touchstone of every soul, precious to those who believe; He is it as the manifestation of God Himself, adapting Himself to man in grace. We can see here also how the change of the name of Father to that of God is found again, when the Holy Ghost passes from grace to responsibility. When the Father is brought in, it is always grace acting by the Son, and in the Son who reveals Him.
Let us notice here, that in these first three chapters we have a preface to the Gospel, before the public ministry of the Savior. The fact is established in chapter 3: 24, compared with Matt. 4:12, 17,12Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; (Matthew 4:12)
17From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 4:17)
and Mark 1:14, 1514Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. (Mark 1:14‑15). John 4 confirms this appreciation of the facts. No doubt Jesus had already taught and performed miracles, but He had not yet publicly presented Himself, so as to say, " The time is fulfilled." He announces Himself thus in Luke 4:1818The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, (Luke 4:18) and following verses, although His preaching then in the synagogue at Nazareth was not His first, as verses 15 and 23 testify. But this preface of the first three chapters is really an introduction to the whole of Christianity, at least in its great and divine roots. It begins with what Christ was in His essential nature, and what man, alas! was also. It is not yet a question of God's acting in grace. It was the light; man was darkness; it was necessary to be born of God in order to receive Him who was it. Then we find that which He became; the Word was made flesh, and the only-begotten Son revealed God, being Himself in the bosom of the Father; it is grace in His Person. Then we have His work in all the extent of its effect, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, so that we may enjoy it now. And then the work of gathering, but this latter carried on on the side of the ways of God more upon earth, but in general according to the rights of the Person of Christ, the Jews, except the remnant, being set aside. Christ, recognized by this remnant according to Psa. 2, passes on, and presents His place, according to Psa. 8, as far as that regards His Person; after which the espousals and their joy, as well as the judgment, are brought in. But it is by resurrection, in raising Himself from the dead, in raising His own body, God's true temple, that the demonstration of His title and power will be given. That which is subjective in us, and the work for us, follows; His reception, according to human conviction, founded upon miracles, was worth nothing; it was what was in man; whilst, to see the kingdom, and to enter into it in its earthly and Jewish form, one must be born entirely anew. But there were also the heavenly things which Jesus revealed. He came from heaven, He was there- He alone could announce the heavenly things. And the natural man, too, was not fit to enter in; it needed that He who had undertaken his cause, whether for the glory of God, or for man's guilt (for the new birth does not purify the conscience), it needed that the Son of man, unless He should remain alone, should be lifted up. But then it was not merely entrance into the kingdom, and the enjoyment of the promises, which were thus found, but eternal life, that which is in Christ Himself. The blessed source of all is given to us after that; God so loved the world, that He gave His Son, that we might live eternally. Thus we find, first of all, the righteous necessity, that which the nature and rights of God over man demanded, accomplished by the Son of man, then God's infinite love revealed. The Son of God had become Son of man, but the Son of man could take this place, because He was Son of God. At the end of chapter 3 we find the testimony of John the Baptist carried to its highest point, a witness of the deep and perfect personal piety of him who bore it. Still, he was of the earth-more than a prophet, yet always earthly; of dust, and speaking as being of the earth, belonging to that which was outside the veil, not yet rent. Christ came from within the veil, and His flesh was this veil. He spoke of that which He knew thus, and no one received His testimony. John had the joy of hearing the voice of the Bridegroom; he was not that; that which he said was given of God as testimony, but the testimony being borne, all on his part was accomplished.
Christ was Himself the subject of the testimony, and, more than this, the words He spoke were God's words, for God did not give the Spirit by measure. All His words were God's words; He was above all. Finally, we find still one thing remaining to complete this revelation of Christ, and of God Himself, in the great elements which were in connection with Christ's Person and our state: the Father and the Son are presented to us. This is the crowning point of all in grace; He was the satisfying object of all the Father's divine affections, He in whom the infinite and perfect love of the Father found its delight: also to Him He had given all. As Son, come down here, Jesus receives all from the Father. But the Father and the Son do not remain alone in the plenitude of their perfection; we are brought into it to enjoy it, although, in a certain sense, they remain necessarily alone in their perfection. But he who believes in the Son has eternal life already, although down here in weakness; he possesses subjectively that which, later on, will be his glory with Christ. (Compare the first verses of chapter 1.) Now this revelation of the Father in the Son became the definitive test of man: he who did not receive this testimony, who did not submit to Him by faith, should never see life, but the wrath of God abode upon him That which refers to the Holy Ghost, whom those only who had believed in Jesus should receive, is already found in verses 32-34 of chapter 1. The development of the subject is found in the Savior's last discourses; the history of His presence is to be found in the Acts and the Epistles, and in the consciousness of His presence which believers possess.
Having completed the review of the three introductory chapters, it may be well perhaps to give a kind of index of the chapters of the whole Gospel; for there is much order and system in John's writings.
The rejection of the Messiah by the Jews is already stated in chapter 1; the judgment of the people, which results from this, shows itself clearly in the course of the Gospel, and in many of the chapters. The doctrine of each chapter is often in contrast with Jewish things, this contrast furnishing the occasion and basis of the doctrine. Another characteristic feature flows from it; the judgment bears on all the world (chap. 1) that had not known Him, and upon His own, the Jews, who had not received Him; it opens the way for the establishing and development of sovereign grace which alone produces the divine life in us. This implies the admission of the Gentiles into the enjoyment of the blessings of grace, and then the important fact that these blessings would be found in a world, and also in a state, altogether new, into which one enters by the resurrection. In the synoptical Gospels Christ is presented in His three characters of Jesus Emmanuel, the Messiah; of Prophet; and of Son of man; His history being traced in these three points of view, with the account of His rejection and death. In John, who shows us God manifest in flesh, His rejection is established at the beginning; for, being light, the darkness did not receive Him. The result is, that, unlike the three other Gospels, where Christ is presented historically to be received, and where His rejection is recounted to us, but in connection with man's responsibility, John though he affirms this responsibility as doctrine, presents to us the sovereign grace which, we have already seen, sought His sheep among Jews and among Gentiles, for life eternal. Finally, we must not let pass without notice, the feature, that in John all is individual; he never speaks of the church.
1. As to the earth, see Psalm 80: 17, where it is in relation with Israel.
2. The final result is, that sin will be taken away from heaven and earth, as we have already remarked. Three other motives are given in Heb. 2 for the sufferings of Christ. (See verse 9.) The destruction of Satan's power; the expiation of sins; the ability to sympathize with us.
3. We may except the first four verses of the first chapter. Compare for what is said in the text, 1 John 1; there, too, we find again the difference between the names of God and of Father.