|CATHOLIC SAINTS INDEX
An Exposition Of The Gospels by The Most Rev. John Macevilly D.D.
In this chapter, the Evangelist records our Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus, in which he instructs him in the doctrine of spiritual regeneration—the absolute necessity, by the decree of God, to be born again spiritually, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He replies to Nicodemus’s doubts by adducing several illustrations (1–13).
He next records our Lord’s teaching on the subject of faith, its necessity, and the heavy judgment in store for such as wilfully closing their eyes against Divine truth, refuse to believe (14–21).
He next records our Lord’s ministry of baptizing simultaneously with John (22–24).
We have next an account of the jealousy which the disciples of John entertained in regard to our Lord. John’s mild reproof, and his humble testimony in favour of our Lord’s Divinity, whom he proclaimed, as infinitely exalted above himself (25–36).
1. “And there was,” etc. Among those who believed in our Lord, on seeing the miracles He performed at the Paschal Festival (c. 2:23), was a certain man named Nicodemus, of whom the Evangelist makes special mention, both on account of his religious profession—he belonged to the sect of the “Pharisees”—as well as his high repute among the Jews, and his elevated rank. He was “a ruler of the Jews.” He was a member of the Sanhedrim, or Supreme Council (c. 7:45–50).
2. “This man came to Jesus by night.” Some say he came by night, because, our Lord, owing to His labours by day, was accessible only by night for private instruction. The more probable opinion, however, is that he did so from shame. He felt ashamed, that one so exalted in rank and distinguished for learning, should publicly place himself at the feet of the humble Jesus, to receive instruction; and also, like many of the Rulers, who would not publicly confess Him from fear of the Jews (John 12:19–39), from a fear of incurring the displeasure and anger of his own sect, whom he knew to be the deadly enemies of our Lord. His faith in our Lord and his love were, evidently, very imperfect. He believed Him to be “a teacher come from God,” or possibly, the Messiah. But, it is clear he did not believe Him to be the Son of God. The slave of human respect with his love of our Lord, he wished to unite the love of the world: and achieve what was impossible, viz., the serving of two masters, God and the world. He, then, came by night, from human respect and fear of his colleagues.
“Rabbi”—my master. A title of honour and eminence among the Jews.
“We know,” both myself and several others, that Thou art sent by God, as a teacher, to instruct men in the true principles of religion. In proof of this, thou dost exhibit God’s own credentials.
“For no man can do these things,” etc. While Nicodemus does not seem to have believed in our Lord, as the Son of God—had he believed it, he would have said so—he believes Him, however, to be a true teacher. He regards the works performed by Him, as true miracles, beyond the power of natural or diabolical agency, both from their number, variety, and mode of operation. He may have regarded Him as the Messiah also.
“Unless God be with Him,” unless he be aided by Divine power. Our Redeemer’s miracles, such as raising the dead, giving instantaneous sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, etc., were of such a nature, as to be the result of the Divine Power only. Their avowed end and object was, to prove Jesus to be the Son of God; and as God could not, consistently with His own veracity, set the seal of miracles on what was false; hence, they proved Our Lord’s Divinity. Moreover, these miracles were predicted, as special marks of the Messiah (Isaias 35:2–6). None among the Prophets performed miracles like those of our Divine Redeemer. Nicodemus, as Doctor of the Jews, could easily have known, that these were predicted of the Messiah (Isaias 35:2–6), and that the Messiah was God and Son of God. (Isaias 9:6, etc.) Hence, Nicodemus’s faith and love, though laudable, were still imperfect.
3. “Jesus answered him,” etc. It may be, that the words of our Lord here, are but an answer to some question put by Nicodemus, as to what was necessary for entering the Kingdom of God; or, our Lord seeing what was in his mind, may have answered him, by anticipation. Far from reproaching him for his weakness and timidity in coming at night, our Lord mercifully pities his weakness.
“Unless a man,” no matter what his rank, learning, age, country or respectability—no exception made in the Divine decree regarding the mode of entering God’s Kingdom. Neither Nicodemus nor anyone else could claim exemption.
“Be born again.” The Greek word, ανωθεν, could be also rendered, from above. But, “again,” is the more probable rendering, and in this sense, it was understood by Nicodemus. This spiritual regeneration, afterwards explained by our Lord, was the indispensable means decreed by God, for every child born of Adam and sinning in him, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, viz., God’s Church here and His eternal Kingdom of Glory hereafter. Whoever was born of Adam, should be re-born or spiritually regenerated, in order to be cleaned from the stain of original sin.
“Cannot see,” that is, cannot enter into “the Kingdom of God,” as above explained. Nicodemus’s object being, to know how he was to obtain the Kingdom of God; hence, our Lord opens His instructions with this point.
4. Nicodemus, whose ideas on spiritual things were imperfect, like the sensual man who “cannot perceive the things of the Spirit of God,” understands our Lord’s words literally, of carnal regeneration; and asks, how can it be possible for one grown old like himself and sincerely anxious for his salvation, to be born again of a mother now possibly resting in her grave? Our Lord spoke obscurely, in order to humble the pride of the Pharisee, by showing him his ignorance, and wishes to raise his mind thus humbled, from carnal to spiritual conceptions.
5. Our Lord seeing that Nicodemus came to Him with good dispositions, and a sincere desire of learning what was necessary for salvation, far from being offended at the question rather bluntly put, mercifully condescends to enlighten him, by explaining in clear terms, that He spoke, not of carnal generation, as Nicodemus fancied; but, of spiritual regeneration through “water and the Holy Ghost,” repeatingthe same truth in clearer terms.
“Holy Ghost.” In the Greek “Holy” is omitted. It is, however, read by some ancient Fathers, Cyril. Chrysostom, etc. It is admitted on all hands to mean, the “Holy Spirit.”
This is certain from the words of the Baptist (Matthew 3:11), and the form of Baptism given by our Lord Himself—“Unless a man be born again of water”—the instrumental cause, the matter employed in this process of spiritual regeneration, signifying the spiritual cleansing of the soul by sanctifying grace, which it at the same time produces.
“And the Holy Ghost”—the efficient cause, which imparts this spiritual efficacy to the rite through water, of cleansing and purifying the soul.
“He cannot enter,” etc. The word “enter” clearly conveys the same idea as “see” in preceding verse.
Almost all the Catholic Commentators agree in interpreting this verse of the Sacrament of Baptism. The Council of Trent SS. vii. c. 2, de Baptismo, defines it, as de fide, that true and natural water is necessary for baptism, and condemns such as would distort the words of this verse, “unless a man be born again,” etc., to any methaphorical meaning.
The word, “born again,” or regenerated, signifies a new existence, in which we are fit to become Sons of God, by a twofold process or effect. 1st, by the remission of our sins, through the instrumentality of water after due penance (Acts 2:28), when the old man of sin for ever destroyed, is buried in the waters of baptism (Rom. 6:4–6). 2ndly, by the infusion of sanctifying grace, which is effected by one and the same process, “et accipietis donum Spiritus Sancti,” of which our Lord’s Resurrection was a type. This is effected by “the Holy Ghost.” The rite or sacrament instituted by our Lord was proclaimed as essential for salvation (Mark 16:16); here, too, it is said, no one without it, can enter the Kingdom of God. This Baptism was to be in water. (See Acts 8:36; also the words of the Eunuch to Philip), and of St. Peter to the family of Cornelius (Acts 10:47). It is clear from the complaints of the disciples of John, that our Lord Himself baptized in water (John 3:22–26).
Our Lord’s Baptism was in the Holy Ghost. For (Acts 2:38), the receiving of the Holy Ghost is attributed to Baptism. Hence, called the “laver of regeneration and renovation of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5).
Commentators remark, that, as in carnal generation, a twofold principle is necessary; so, is it also in spiritual regeneration. Water and the Holy Ghost, both are needed. As in our Lord’s own Incarnation, the Holy Ghost was the principal agent; so also does it happen in the spiritual regeneration of all the Sons of God, in the Sacrament of Baptism.
Whether Baptism was instituted here, to be of obligation only after the promulgation of the New Law at Pentecost, or whether it was only promised here and afterwards instituted, as in the case of the Holy Eucharist, is disputed.
6. “That which is born of the flesh,” etc. This second birth will not necessitate, what is impossible, as you suppose. It shall be a spiritual birth, whereby man will receive a new spiritual existence, superadded to his natural, human existence. In this new birth, he will not be born of man. For, so, he would receive a new human natural existence, because, the new being will be assimilated to the principle of generation. Hence, what is born of man, by natural human process of generation, is man. But what is “born of the Spirit is spirit,” or receives not a new natural, but a new spiritual existence.
7. Possibly, our Lord saw, either as searcher of hearts, or from Nicodemus’s manner, that from a feeling of incredulity, he was astonished at what he heard. Hence, He tells him not to be surprised, that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which flesh and blood can never possess, a man must receive a new spiritual existence, superadded to his natural being—a thing quite possible, not requiring a second human birth.
8. The leading interpretations of the verse are reduced to two, founded chiefly on the meaning attached to the word “spirit.” Some understand it to mean “the wind,” as if our Lord meant to illustrate His teachings by a sensible matter, the operations and effects of the wind, which blows as “it wills,” according to its natural tendency; and one knows not whence it comes or where it spends itself. But, its voice or sound is heard, either in the hurricane or the gentle breeze rustling through the trees; and then, applying the comparison, our Lord adds: “so is every one that is born of the Spirit,” as if to say, the operation of the Divine Spirit, in the work of spiritual regeneration is invisible and imperceptible by the senses. You cannot know how it commences or how it terminates. But you only hear it in its effects, in its external operations. No wonder, then, if you cannot understand it. This is the interpretation of SS. Cyril, Chrysostom. etc. The comparison instituted by our Lord between the operations of this power denoted by “spirit,” whatever it means, and the Holy Ghost favors this interpretation. “sic est omnis qui natus est de spiritu.” The words of our Lord in v. 12, are in favor of it, “If I have spoken to you earthly things.” etc. The allusion to the wind here would be the only earthly thing referred to by our Lord in His conversation with Nicodemus. All the other illustrations are of a purely spiritual and heavenly character. Against it, the chief difficulties are, that it can hardly be said we know not, whence the wind goes or whither it cometh. Again, it is hard to attribute personal operations to it, “as it wills,” not to speak of the confusion, the use of the same word “spirit” (το πνενμα) in different meanings, in the same sentence, would be apt to engender in the mind of Nicodemus, to whom our Lord was explaining the process and effects of spiritual regeneration.
Others—SS. Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, etc., understand the words, “the spirit breathes,” etc., of the Holy Ghost, who breathes and infuses the impulses of faith, penance and grace just as He pleases, “singulis dividens, prout vult” (1 Cor. 12:4–11). The voice of this Holy Spirit is heard in the wonderful effects and conversions brought about by His invisible grace and secret inspirations, in the preaching of His ministers, in the utterances of the Prophets, in the total change effected in the heroes of the Old and New Testaments, Samson, Gideon, Paul, etc., who were transformed into new men, through the operations and impulses of the Holy Ghost, of which Nicodemus, so learned, could not be ignorant.
These Expositors say, that, in the words, “so is every one that is born of the Spirit,” there is no application of a comparison; that the words are merely illustrative of the preceding operations of the Holy Ghost in general, as if He said: such, too, is His action or operation, in the case of every one spiritually born of Him in Baptism.
Maldonatus holds a peculiar view of his own, not shared in by any other Commentator of note. He understands “spirit” of the human soul, whose entrance into the body or existence in it, or exit from same, no one can understand, although its power is proved from external operations and effects; and, then. the connexion would be: as you cannot understand, or account for, the operations and effects of corporal existence; so, it is not a matter of surprise, if you cannot understand what relates to the spiritual nativity in the Holy Ghost.
9. Nicodemus, after being instructed by our Lord, no longer thinks of carnal regeneration; still, not clearly perceiving the meaning of our Redeemer’s words relative to spiritual regeneration, unable to understand how a man can become a spirit or spiritual being, asks for further information.
“How?” a favourite exclamation with infidels and unbelievers in all ages, though, indeed, hardly applicable to Nicodemus here, in its full perverse sense.
10. Our Lord reproaches him for his ignorance, on a subject in which he ought to be well versed, considering his position and repute for learning.
“A master in Israel.” The Greek article prefixed (ὅ διδασκαλος), shows, that the word denotes a distinguished doctor among the the Jews.
“And knowest not these things?” ignorant of what one learned in the Law ought to know, and able to comprehend when explained. For, the Prophets, with whom He was, or should be, conversant, had predicted spiritual regeneration through water (Ezechiel 36:24; Zacharias 13:1). Hence, while perplexed regarding the mystery or mode of operation, he should unhesitatingly believe it, as regards the fact.
11. Our Lord had, in the preceding, gently alluded to Nicodemus’s ignorance without any asperity, however on account of his good dispositions. In the same spirit of gentleness. He now points to his incredulity. Nicodemus himself had borne testimony to our Lord’s veracity and Divine mission. Our Lord now, in order to attach greater weight to His statements, declares in the most solemn way, as the words, “Amen, amen,” indicate, that He only stated, what was most certain and most true as He stated only what He “had seen.” He thus conveys to Nicodemus. that He ought to believe firmly on His testimony, what was stated without further reasoning or questioning, although the mode of its existence might be incomprehensible. He uses the plural, “we know.” etc., either for greater solemnity sake; or, because the Father and the Holy Ghost testified along with Him; so that the legal number of witnesses were forthcoming. As God, our Lord had the knowledge of all things, of Himself, and by His Divine Omniscience. As man, through the Beatific Vision and infused science.
“And you”—referring to Nicodemus and the bulk of the incredulous Jews—“receive not our testimony.”
12. “Earthly things,” are understood by some of the comparison regarding the wind, to which the word, “spirit,” according to them, refers; “and heavenly things,” of the spiritual regeneration through water.
Others, by “earthly things,” understand the spiritual regeneration of man termed, earthly; because, it regards an earthly being, man; and by “heavenly things,” the more sublime mysteries relating to the eternal generation of the Son of God—a heavenly and Divine Person—to the Trinity, God’s attributes, etc. Our Lord here reproaches Nicodemus and the unbelieving Jews, who heard His discourses, with their slowness of belief; and He insinuates, that they should believe what He proposed, without further questioning, if they meant to deserve the communication of more exalted truths of faith, and not to be deprived of the precious gift of faith altogether.
13. “And no man hath ascended into heaven,” etc. “And,” meaning, and yet, as if to say, you are slow in believing Me, and yet, you can learn these abstruse heavenly truths from no one else. For, no one else ever “ascended into heaven,” not even the Prophets, in whom you believe, which is the same as, ever was in heaven, to learn and contemplate and fully comprehend these things, but Myself, who am always there, the only-begotten Son, “who is in the bosom of the Father” (1–18), who came down from heaven to assume human nature and appear visibly in human flesh. Our Lord here very significantly conveys to Nicodemus, that He was God, being always in heaven, “who is in heaven,” and man at the same time, by descending from heaven; thus becoming “the Son of man,” in virtue of human nature assumed by Him on earth, still retaining the nature and Personality of the Divine Word. “He descended from heaven” without leaving it; since in His Divine nature he fills heaven and earth, nay, all space, by His glorious, Divine Immensity.
The words, then, mean, that our Lord alone could fully enlighten Nicodemus, on heavenly subjects. For, no one could securely do so, except one who mounted up to heaven and was in heaven, and no one else was in heaven, so as fully to become acquainted with heavenly things and come down to earth to teach mankind these heavenly mysteries, save “the Son of man,” our Lord Himself, who is always in heaven, in virtue of His Divinity, and never leaving it, came down by assuming nature, to teach mankind.
Our Lord is said to be “in heaven” as “Son of man,” by, what is theologically termed, the communication of Idioms, which means; that, as our Lord had two natures and one Person, to which Person the actions of both natures are attributed (actiones sunt suppositorum), we can predicate of one nature of Christ what peculiarly belongs to the other, on account of His unity of Person. The words, “ascending” and “descending,” in reference to our Lord, are used by way of accommodation; and, strictly speaking, do not apply to Him at all; but are used in reference to all other men. “Descended,” and “is in heaven,” express our Lord’s twofold nature and unity of Person.
14. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.” The desert refers to the desolate district south of Mount Horeb, near Edom. In the preceding verse, our Lord instructs Nicodemus regarding His Divinity. Here, He speaks of His humanity.
Allusion is made to Numbers (21:9, etc.), where it is recorded that Moses, by the command of God, raised up, on an elevated pole, to be visible to all, a brazen serpent, so that such as would look upon it, would be cured of the effects of the bite of the poisonous serpent; and such as would refuse doing so, would be left to perish.
“So the Son of man must be lifted up.” By the Divine decree, our Lord must be raised aloft on the cross and put to death. This is the meaning of the words, “lifted up,” in several passages of this Gospel (8:28; 12:32–34). Those who will look upon Him by faith, will be saved from the effects of the bite of the infernal serpent, from sin and its consequences, temporal and everlasting. But, as in the case of those bitten by the fiery serpent, such as either refused or neglected looking on the brazen serpent were sure to die of the effects of this bite; so, those who refuse or neglect to look up to our Lord hanging on the cross, and believe in Him, will, surely, be lost for ever.
15. “That whosoever believeth in Him,” etc., looks up to Him suspended on the cross, by faith in His Divinity and humanity “may not perish,” etc. This faith, in order to secure, “life everlasting,” must be animated by charity and good works; since, our Lord declares elsewhere, that, in order to gain eternal life, we must keep the Commandments. The proposition, “faith saves us,” like every other affirmative proposition, has its attribute taken, as logicians term it, particularly, implying, that other essential conditions are present or attended to.
16. In this verse our Lord, as if answering an objection which might present itself to Nicodemus, viz., why should the Son of God be suspended on an ignominious gibbet, assigns the true, efficient cause, viz., the boundless love of God for man. Every word is expressive and suggestive. “So,” to such a boundless extent, with such mighty effort and vehemence, “did God,” not a king or emperor, but, God, this Infinite Being—Infinite in all perfections—“love” freely and gratuitously. without any claim on Him, “the world,” all mankind, His enemy by sin (Rom. 5:6–9), “as to give,” deliver over to torture and punishment, not for His own, but for their outrages and sins, “His only begotten (His natural) Son.” What a mystery of godliness. God becoming man. The Highest and the lowest united. The Great Creator showing His love for a wretched, sinful worm of the earth, by submitting to excruciating, ignominious tortures. “Laudetur in eternum Summa Dei Majestas. Venite, adoremus et procidamus ante Deum.”
The cause of the Incarnation and death of the Son of God was the boundless and incomprehensible love of God for the world.
The end was, not to exercise justice in condemning, but mercy in saving.
The fruit, was the saving of man from perishing eternally, and bestowing on him life eternal through faith, accompanied by the observance of God’s commandments.
17. This is explanatory of the last verse in regard to God’s object in sending His Son, which was to bestow on them “everlasting life.” For, although looking to God’s justice, the world would deserve condemnation for its sins; still, it was not to display His justice, in judging and condemning the world that God sent His Son in the first instance, but to exercise His mercy, which is over all His works, “that the world may be saved by Him,” by rescuing them from everlasting death, and bestowing on them, everlasting life. Hence, God wills, by a sincere antecedent will, the salvation of all mankind. Such of them as are lost, are lost through their own fault. No doubt, at His second coming on the day of judgment, the Son of God will display His justice, rewarding and punishing men, according to their deserts, judging every man, according to his works.
18. In this verse is proved by a kind of implied dilemma, that God did not send His Son “to judge the world.” For, either a man believes in Him, or refuses to do so. If he believes; then, he is not judged; but is rescued and saved by the mercy of God and the superabundant merits of our Saviour, from the general condemnation, in which all men would be involved, and receives abundance of grace.
If he believes not; then, no further sentence is needed. He remains in the state of damnation, in which all men are involved, as “children of wrath.” He is condemned by the original decree of God and his own determined obstinacy of will to persevere in his unbelief, “because he believeth not in the name of the only begotten Son of God,” thus rejecting the only means instituted by God, to save and rescue him from damnation.
St. Augustine (Tract 12), illustrates this by the example of a physician who comes to cure all the infirm. Such as refuse his ministrations, die; not on account of the physician, as if he came to cause their death; but, on account of the infirmities already contracted by them, which they refuse to have cured by the physician.
19. “This is the judgment.” The cause of judgment or condemnation, “because the light,” which is our Lord Himself, who enlightens every man, whether naturally or supernaturally, “is come into the world” to dissipate, by the diffusion of true doctrine, the darkness of infidelity and sin. “He was the light of the world” (8:12), “and men,” wallowing in the mire of corruption, culpably, “loved the darkness” of infidelity, in which they were enveloped, “rather than the light,” which, by a little inquiry, they might easily ascertain to be the true light. They then acted perversely. For, had they embraced the light and true teaching of Christ, they would be compelled to abandon their present evil courses, which they were determined on pursuing. “Their works are evil.” They shun the light, lest they should be convicted by the light, which the teaching of Christ would shed upon them.
Moral perversity is, ordinarily, the cause, why men persevere in rejecting the teachings of truth.
The words of the verse may also mean: the judgment of condemnation which they pass on themselves consists in this; that, having a full opportunity of walking in the light, performing the works of light, they prefer remaining in darkness, “for, their deeds,” in which they glory and mean to persevere, “are evil.”
20. “For every one that doth evil,” and perversely means to persevere in its commission, “hateth the light, and cometh not,” etc., because the effect of the light would be, to expose his wicked works, which he would fain conceal. They would show him to be deserving of reprehension, “that his works be not reproved,” not to speak of their generating remorse of conscience (Eph. 5:11–13).
21. “Doth truth.” There is question of practical truth, of actions or works done in accordance with the law of rectitude and justice—“doth,” sincerely intends and purposes to do good works, to do what is right and true. Such a man, unlike him who means to persevere in his perversity, far from flying and shunning the light, “cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest,” that his future works, which he means to perform in the new course of life which the light will point out to him, may “be done in God,” done in accordance with the will and commands of God.
The words may also have reference to his past works, done in grace, before embracing the light of faith. Pagans may do good works, aided by grace, before embracing the faith. The proposition, “Faith is the first grace,” was condemned by Pius VI. in the Bull, AUCTOREM FIDEI, as put forward in the Schismatical Council of Pistoia, under its Bishop, Scipio Ricci.
22. “Came into the land of Judea.” The Evangelist records this circumstance, as an introduction to the following incident relative to the jealousy of John’s disciples and the testimony borne to our Lord by John.
23. “Near Salem,” to distinguish it from another Ennon, near Damascus (Ezechiel 47:17). Likely, John selected this place preferably to Bethania, or Bethabara, where our Lord baptized, in order to traverse the entire country, baptizing and preaching, and thus be enabled to witness to our Lord, through every part of the country. Some infer from this, that immersion was the form of Baptism employed by John. But this does not clearly follow, as John would select a place well supplied with water to accommodate the multitudes flocking to his Baptism, in whatever form administered.
24. From reading the other Evangelists, one would be apt to suppose (Matthew 4:12, etc.) that John was cast into prison immediately after baptizing our Lord. Hence, the Evangelist here states that our Lord had entered on His ministry soon before John’s imprisonment; that some interval occurred, during which the Baptist continued to baptize and bear testimony to our Lord. St. John alone, of the four Evangelists, records what our Lord did after His Baptism, and before the Baptist was cast into prison.
25. “And there arose a question,” etc. The Greek for, “and,” is (ουν), therefore, as if he meant to say, that from the circumstance of our Lord and John baptizing at the same time, there arose, in consequence, a discussion, to which the simultaneous administration of both Baptisms gave rise between “some of John’s disciples,” and some “Jews,” who, without being numbered among our Lord’s disciples and constant followers, probably came to His Baptism in preference to John’s. It may refer to certain leading men among the Jews, members of the Sanhedrim. “Concerning purification,” or the relative merits and excellence of the Baptism of John and the Baptism of our Lord, which has the effect of purifying and cleansing the body as well as the soul; hence, termed “purification.” The complaint made, out of jealousy and envy, by John’s disciples, as in next verse, favours this interpretation. In many Greek MSS. the reading for “Jews” is, a certain Jew, who, no doubt, belonged to the class already referred to.
26. “And they”—the disciples of John probably worsted in the discussion—“came to John,” out of feelings of envy—a state of mental infirmity to which the saints of old were not wholly strangers—(see history of Joseph’s brethren, Genesis 37., etc.), and also from a feeling of undue jealousy for the honour and celebrity of their master, relate the affair to John, in the hope, that he might suggest new grounds for a successful discussion, and possibly, retract the exalted testimony he gave of Jesus, whom they regarded not as the Messiah, but as the rival of their master.
“And said to him: Rabbi, He that was with thee beyond the Jordan.” They would not mention any particular good quality or epithet applied to Him—“Lamb of God,” etc.—“and to whom thou gavest testimony,” for which He should manifest due feelings of gratitude, as it exalted Him so much in public estimation. Far from that, He seeks to lower you, by Himself assuming your office of baptizing, thus attracting vast multitudes, whom He withdraws from thee and attracts to His own Baptism. This causes you to be deserted. “And all men come to Him,” that is, great numbers. For many still had recourse to the Baptism of John. He should, therefore, be restrained.
27. Far from encouraging, the Baptist vigorously represses their feelings of jealousy, saying that neither he nor any other man should claim any prerogatives or dignity or elevated position, save in as far as it was granted him by God; and, therefore, he should not contend with Him whom God had sent as His Eternal Son, whose precursor and minister only he was.
Others, with St. Chrysostom, explain the words thus: If Christ claims pre-eminence and superiority, and attracts, as is meet, all men to Him, He is only carrying out the will of Heaven, and displaying the gifts and powers bestowed on Him by Heaven. He should not, therefore, be impeded or obstructed. The former interpretation, which understands it of the Baptist himself, is more in accordance with the following verse.
28. Out of their own mouth, he convicts them. I call yourselves to witness, that on a former occasion, I declared I was not the Christ.
This “was not given me from Heaven” (v. 27). “But that I am sent before him,” as His minister and precursor, to prepare His ways. Why should I now contradict my former truthful testimony, and exceeding the measures given me from Heaven, claim to be what I am not? Why should you tempt me to contend with Him for superiority or equality, who is infinitely my superior? Before whom, my Creator and my God, I, a mere creature, the work of His hands, should humble myself to the very dust; to whom, therefore, you and I should transfer all our homage and services.
29. By a familiar illustration, the Baptist conveys to them, that far from being chagrined at seeing all men come to Him (Christ) he is rather rejoiced at it, just as the friend of the bridegroom, the bridesman, who is in attendance at the nuptials, is delighted at seeing all the honours transferred to the party to be principally honoured, viz., the bridegroom; is rejoiced at hearing his voice, his conversation with the spouse and the language of affection interchanged between them, without himself aspiring to any share in the affection bestowed. The application of the example, though not given, is, however, quite obvious. Our Lord is the bridegroom; the Church or assembly of the Faithful, the bride; John, the brideman or friend of our Lord, standing humbly to attend; as His friend, rejoices on hearing His voice on occasion of His Baptism, and when in prison hearing of His miracles and preaching, he sent his disciples to witness His miracles in order that they would become His followers. Hence, far from feeling jealous, he was rejoiced, while acting a subordinate part, as His precursor appointed to prepare His ways, at seeing the people in crowds attach themselves to Him.
“This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled,” filled up and perfected, on seeing the end and object of my baptizing and preaching fully realized, when He is now acknowledged and followed by the people. John calls himself as our Lord’s friend, as he really was; the term “friend,” being better suited to the occasion. For, the comparison was one of joy; and John, as our Lord’s friend, would rejoice, with peculiar great joy, on hearing Him converse with the bride, His Church and His people.
30 By the decree of God’s Providence in regard to our Lord and the Baptist, our Lord “must increase,” not in Himself, not in merit or virtue; but, in the estimation of the people, by the external manifestation of His power, “and I must decrease,” in public estimation. I must pass out of public observation and give up the exercise of my ministry, its end being now accomplished in the public manifestation and reception of Christ. He is the SUN; I, the morning star, to announce His near rising. The more He mounts in His course through the heavens, the more must my feeble light be dimmed. I was regarded as the Messiah. He, as a Prophet. He must now be regarded as the true Messiah, the Eternal Son of God, as He really is. I, as His servant and precursor.
31. “He that cometh from above,” from the bosom of the Eternal Father, having a Divine origin, as the only begotten Son of God, “is above all.” Therefore, above me, above all angels and men. Hence, it is fit He should increase, and be devoutly reverenced and received by all.
“He that is of the earth, of the earth he is,” etc. In this, the Baptist shows the superiority of our Lord’s person and doctrine beyond himself and his doctrine. The Baptist and all other men are formed from the slime of the earth, mere earthly beings; and their teaching, earthly, derived from human knowledge and human principles. This is true of man, considered in himself, abstracting from revelation and the knowledge derived from God. If he speaks Divine things, it is owing to the illumination communicated from above. “He that cometh from Heaven,” essentially participating in the Divine nature, is heavenly, and above all.
32. “And what He hath seen,” etc., a form of expression accommodated to our conceptions, the senses of seeing and hearing being the means, through which men acquire knowledge. The words mean, in relation to our Lord, what He knows by Divine Omniscience and intuition, that He testifies to us on earth in His assumed nature, wherein He converses with us.
“And no one,” but very few—In next verse, it is stated there were some exceptions—“receiveth His testimony.” In this the Baptist reproaches his own envious disciples. They tell the Baptist, that all men come to Christ. He says, but very few, comparatively, embrace His heavenly doctrines, not excepting John’s own disciples.
33. “Receiveth His testimony,” by giving the assent of faith to what He says, “hath set to His seal,” etc. By the very fact of believing the words of our Lord, such a person, like a man who puts his seal to a document, to a bond or deed, in testimony of his conviction regarding the truth of its contents, has shown his conviction, by his firm belief openly professed, “that God”—who has spoken—“is true,” the primary and infallible truth, who speaks through the mouth of His Son. Such a man honours God’s veracity.
34. He sets his seal to the truth of God; because, He whom God sent into the world to teach mankind, speaks not from Himself, but the words of the Father who sent Him. He, therefore, who believes the Son, believes the Father, whose words the Son utters.
“For God doth not give His Spirit by measure,” to His Son. This proves that the Son speaks the words of God; because, as He has the Spirit without measure, He, therefore, always acts and speaks under the influence of the Spirit, and so speaks the words of God; unlike the men who receiving it in measure, sometimes speak from themselves.
If there be question of our Lord, as God, then, by communicating the Divine substance in His first birth from eternity, the Father communicated His Spirit and the gifts of His Spirit in an infinite degree. If there be question of Him as man, at His second birth; then, the Spirit was given abundantly, most copiously. The whole plenitude of the Divinity dwelt in Him corporally (Coll. 2:9), as man. In Him, as man, were concealed all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Coll. 2:3), and God poured forth on Him the whole plenitude of the gifts of His Spirit without stint or measure. So that none of them was wanting to Him in all perfection. He unceasingly possessed them all at once, to the greatest extent of which human nature is capable, unlike men, who possess them partially and successively, one having one gift; another, another. To give a thing “by measure,” implies, sparingly, as is done by those who give a thing by measuring or weighing it. Without measure, conveys, abundantly, copiously.
35. Here is assigned a reason why the Spirit is not given by measure, because the love of the Father for His Son was infinite, without measure; and hence, He handed over to His control and without measure, “into His hand,” as man, “all things” in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, to distribute them at will. But He has especially granted to Him, as man, to bestow all the gifts of the Spirit necessary for the salvation of the human race. The words of this and the following verses are almost identical with the words of our Lord (v. 16). “God so loved the world … may have life everlasting.”
36. As the Father hath handed over all things for dispensation and distribution into the hands of His Son, whoever, therefore, wishes to have eternal life, which God alone can give, must receive it from the hands of His Son. This can be only through faith, our only way for approaching Him—faith accompanied with good works.
“Hath life everlasting,” in an inchoate state, at present, through justification, which gives a claim to it, and is an earnest of it; and in its full enjoyment and possession hereafter, provided he persevere in grace and in the performance of good works.
“Believeth not … shall not see life.” The future is used to denote the privation of all present and future hope. He shall be excluded not only from the possession or enjoyment of eternal life; but, he shall not even taste it or get a glimpse of it.
“But the wrath of God,” the vengeance of God in inflicting punishment, “abideth in him,” shall abide in him for all eternity in hell’s torments. Similar are the words (v. 18), “Qui non credit, jam judicatus est.” They were in a state of sin and damnation before our Lord came, “natura, filii irœ” (Eph. 2:3), and by refusing to adopt the means decreed by God to rescue them from this state of damnation, viz., faith, “that worketh by charity” (Gal. 5:6), they continue under it, and the wrath of God and judgment of damnation always abides with them.
The Baptist discloses all these mysteries of God to his disciples—the Trinity, Incarnation, necessity of faith, etc.—in order that they should become detached from himself, and attached to Christ, to whose Divinity he bore such unequivocal testimony, whose faith they must embrace—the end of John’s preaching and baptism—if they wish to secure eternal life; otherwise they shall be the victims of God’s everlasting wrath.
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