A. John 3:36 summarizes and explains the narrative and discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus, and more importantly for us, the meaning of John 3:16.
1. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
2. Many translations hide the contrast between the believers and the disobedient by using terms such as disbelievers or those who refused to believe.
3. The Greek word for disobey in John 3:36 is “apeithon.” Nowhere in Greek writings is this word translated “disbelief.” Only among “Christian” translators do you find this very controversial translation. (See discussion under #3 Arndt and Gingrich, Lexicon) The problem is that most “Christians” have a mystical, non-Biblical, concept of the “faith” of the Gospel. If “disobedience” is the opposite of “believing,” then the Gospel concept of “believing” must be “obedience.”
4. We have debated the question of salvation “by faith only” for centuries. The Scriptures obviously do not teach such a concept of salvation unless you torture a few proof-texts and take them out of context or approach the entire Bible message with a blinding prejudice concerning grace, righteousness and obedience, a prejudice that diminishes the importance of faithfulness toward God through Jesus Christ.
B. Let us examine the teachings of Jesus in John 3 and other such texts that speak of faith and disobedience.
I. Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisee Jews
A. John 1:49. When Nathanael realized the Jesus had divine knowledge of him, he said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” He saw or perceived a great “sign” and Jesus assured him that he would see “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
B. John 2:23-25. When Jesus gave Jerusalem several signs during the first Passover of his ministry, “many believed in his name.” But Jesus did not “entrust himself to them.” The verb is “episteuen,” a form of the word “believe” (pisteuo). The reason given is that he knew all people, he himself knew what was in man. Jesus could see into their hearts and knew how shallow their feelings were toward his teachings. They believed in his name, but not enough yet to stand up to the onslaught of the Enemy.
C. John 3:1-2. Nicodemus was among those who believed in his name, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” So then what was the problem? Jesus knew instantly the problem. He knew the hearts of the Jerusalem Jews who knew the obvious truth that Jesus came from God but would not submit to his teachings.
D. John 3:3-9. Jesus answered Nicodemus before he could ask. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
1. The Greek word “anothen” is a word of location, the “top” as in Mark 15:38 (and Matthew 27:51), the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom, or as in John 19:23, Jesus’ outer garment was seamless “from the top.” It is used in the temporal sense, “from the beginning.” In both cases the force of the word is completeness. Jesus used the word with this double meaning on purpose because He expressed not only the completeness of the change necessary but also the origin of the teaching that would accomplish that new life or changed life. It is a beautiful and dramatic way of describing the repentance that both John the Baptist and He were proclaiming at the Israelites were called to the kingdom of God and her new King.
2. John 3:4. Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” He was clearly an intelligent man and would know that Jesus was using a dramatic metaphor. He was either prompting Jesus to explain the figure, or he was protesting that such a dramatic change the Jesus demanded for His kingdom was unreasonable to expect, maybe even impossible.
3. John 3:5. “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind[c] blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” As in verse 3, Jesus begins with a solemn invocation that Nicodemus listen carefully to the answer. The kingdom of God requires that one be (1) “born of water,” which is exactly what both John and Jesus were doing in John 1:28-34. In chapter 3:22-26, John’s disciples were discussing purification in the context of Jesus baptizing more disciples than John. Mark 1:4 describes John’s baptism as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The forgiveness of sins was undeniably a part of the context of the new birth, “born again” or “born from above” or “born anew from top to bottom.” Men had to start afresh, washed clean of the guilt of past sins in order to start the new life and become new creations of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-17; 1 Peter 1:20-23; Romans 6:1-4) The second part of the birth was to be (2) “born of the Spirit.” Once forgiven, kingdom of God required submission to the King. The laws of life commanded by the King were delivered by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the inspired word preached and recorded by the Apostles and prophets of Christ. The Gospel is the power of salvation, Romans 1:16-17, and it delivers us the instructions or laws of faith. It teaches us how to be faithful to our King. When we walk with Him in the light as He is in the light, we have life. We have the blood of Christ to cleanse us of sins and the fellowship with God which is eternal life. (1 John 1:7-10) “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (1 John 2:3-6)
E. John 3:9. “Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” It is hard to know what might have been in his mind, but he sounds like the Gnostics of that day and the “grace only” people of today. They cannot imagine a sinful fleshly man making such a change. We are sons of Adam and our flesh has been corrupted by his sin and we are unable to repent, they say. “How can these things be?” Jesus stings him for such a cynical remark coming from “the teacher of Israel.” The Jewish Gnostics “knew” for a fact that the flesh is material and hopelessly corrupt, but Jesus challenged their supposed knowledge. They actually knew nothing, and their lofty speculation was entirely wrong.
1. John 3:11-13. “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” If anyone truly knows the truth about heaven and earth, or the nature of man’s ability to be born again, it is the Son of God who is also Son of Man. The Son of God knows the heaven that he left to come to the earth. He knows the nature of God, what He can and cannot do, whether He is good or evil, just or unjust, and how He is going to judge men on this earth. He knows the mercy of God and He knows the wrath of God. He comes to the earth to give us hope and warns us of the consequences if we ignore His Gospel.
2. John 3:14-15. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The Apostle Paul late declared, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Again he writes, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:11) Then in Romans 1:4-5, he wrote, “and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” The apostles clearly preached the “obedience of faith” which was made possible by the power of the message preached, the message that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, and declared to be the Son of God. He was raised by divine power and we are raised with by that same divine power that is found in the message of the cross. “Eternal life” is the term that John used to describe the powerful change produced in the lives of Christians who surrendered their lives in living faith, the obedience of faith.
F. John 3:16-20. Having examined the context and the meaning of the words “believe” and “eternal life,” we can more faithfully explain and understand verse 16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus describes His crucifixion as God in love giving his only Son, that those who follow Him might escape the wrath of God (v36) and enjoy the life that is offered by walking with His Son in the light of His revealed will. Remember, in verses 3-15, Jesus’ message is about a changed behavior that He called “born again” or perhaps a complete transformation of a man’s life. That is not a mystical belief or ethereal knowledge, some feeling or thought of the heart. It is a life that is first born of water and cleansed of sin, and then educated by the teaching of the Holy Spirit, a birth of the Spirit. The power of putting off the old man and putting on the new man as Paul teaches in Ephesians 4 is the power that transforms the past sinful habits of lying, stealing, and violent quarrels into habits of honesty, integrity, giving, kindness and patience. The Holy Spirit teaches us all things in the context of the Lord’s glorious church, Ephesians 4:1-16, that works together, worships together, and helps one another in love overcome our every weakness and transforms us into the “stature of the fullness of Christ.” That my friends is “eternal life.” That is what saves the saved.
1. John 3:17-18 Jesus came to a world that was already condemned and corrupt to offer a path to escape that corruption. Men and women today who are ignorant of Jesus’ teachings are just as corrupt and destined for the wrath of God. They are perishing as sure as they live and breathe and continue in their sins, ignorance, and rebellion against their Creator and Lord. They are condemned because they have not accepted the lordship of Jesus, that is, they have not believed in the Name or authority of the only Son of God.
2. John 3:19. “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” Whether they believe in the mystical “faith-only” and refuse to obey the laws of Christ, or they summarily reject the Gospel on “philosophical grounds,” the real reason that anyone disregards the laws of Christ is that they love the darkness more that the light. They are rebellious and quite content to ignore the light of God’s truth that exposes their evil works. Our generation is shockingly profane, increasing coarse and cruel. God’s name and all things holy are words to drag through the filth of dirty jokes and angry political insults. Our churches are childless, our homes are broken, and we are too busy with our jobs, our sports and entertainment, and hobbies to notice that we have compromised nearly everything sacred in our lives. This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
3. John 3:21. “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Here is another statement that defines the belief of verse 16. “Whoever does what is true.” The word “faith” in the Hebrew of Habakkuk 2:4 (as quoted in Romans 1:17) is a form of the word “truth” and is otherwise translated at truthful or faithful. To do what is true is to do what is right or righteous. That is what Jesus is demanding from us when He offers everlasting life to those who believe in Him or in His Name. He demands loyalty or fidelity to God. When God spoke through Jesus and confirmed His words with signs and wonders, the faithful Jews like Nathanael said, “You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.” They bowed before and followed Him, obeying anything and everything that He might command. He leads us to eternal life, if we will follow Him.
II. The Final Testimony of John the Baptist
A. John 3:22-30. John declared to his disciples that Jesus, the Bridegroom, must increase and John, the friend of the Bridegroom, must himself decrease. John rejoiced at Jesus success. His testimony to Christ is undeniable and ironclad. How do you explain witnesses like John?
1. v26. John’s followers knew that he had born witness to Jesus.
2. v27. “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” John had received his commission as a prophet like Elijah, from God in heaven. His testimony was directly informed by heaven.
3. v28-30. Israel was the bride of God, Jeremiah 2:32, Isaiah 62:1-5. The prophecy of Hosea couches the offense of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Jehovah, in the language of adultery. Israel’s fall is cast as divorce: God putting away his wayward bride. Isaiah 62 is a prophecy of the Messiah-Christ who would become the Bridegroom and the new Israel His bride.
B. John 3:31-36.
1. “He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from above is above all.”
a. Earthly, worldly men do not think like God. Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Corinthians 2; John 15:18-26.
b. It was necessary that God reveal Himself. John 1:1-14.
c. Jesus is the heaven-sent Messenger, who is God Himself, high above all creation in honor and dignity. Colossians 1:15-20; Ephesians 1:20-23.
2. “He bears witness of what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.”
a. John 1:9-13, b. John 5:30-47, c. John 6:38-69, d. John 7:14-19, 28-29, 37-39, e. John 8:12-14, 23-30, 31-32, 54-58, f. John 10:10
3. “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for He gives the Spirit without measure.”
a. Receive the testimony: John 1:12, 16; Mark 4:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:18; 1 Cor. 15:1, 3; Romans 1:5; 5:11; 8:15; 1 Cor. 2:12; 11:23; Galatians 1:9, 12; 1 Thess.1:6; 2:13; 2 Thess. 2:10
b. Set his seal to this that God is true: Genesis 24:27; Psalm 25:10; 31:5; 57:3; 61:7; 85:10-13; 86:15; 89:14; 91:4; 98:3; 100:5; 117:2; 146:6.
c. Utters the words of God, for He gives the Spirit without measure. Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 16-21, 32-33. ("without measure" means without limits, Isaiah 5:14. See Ezekiel 4:11, 16. He said to the prophet, “And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. Judah “shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay.” Measured suggests scarcity. No measure means abundance.)
4. “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” Matthew 28:18; Genesis 41:37-44; Colossians 1:18-20; Ephesians 1:20-23; Revelation 19:11-16.
5. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
a. Believe in the Son: to the faithful to the Son by receiving His words, that is, obeying His teachings. The contrast in the first is “whoever does not obey the Son.” This is the essential meaning of the word faith in the Old Testament. As God is true and faithful, we must be true and faithful toward the Son of God to have the life that is offered by the Eternal Father. That life by its nature is eternal for those who walk in it and are faithful until death.
b. Shall not see life: those who do not obey the Son shall not live or experience the life that the Son gives through his teachings. He does not escape the death of the sins that he commits.
c. The wrath of God remains on him: God will punish all sin and sinners who do not escape His wrath by help of the Son. Matthew 10:28; 5:29-30; 25:30, 41, 46; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Revelation 20:11-15; 22:12-15, 18-20.