The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ

By Johann Peter Lange

Edited by Rev. Marcus Dods






Section VI

the conversation by night with nicodemus

(Joh 3:1-21)

Among the many men in Jerusalem who received the first impulses to faith through the miracles of Jesus, were already some persons of distinction, Pharisees, and even members of the Sanhedrim. Nicodemus is a representative of these friends of Jesus, and his visit by night to the Lord is a proof how much reason Jesus had not altogether to trust Himself to believers at this stage.

As the noblest mystics proceeded from the monks of the Catholic Church, from the Dominicans especially, and the great Reformer Luther from the Augustinians, so two great witnesses of the most living Christian faith, Paul and Nicodemus, were supplied to the kingdom of God by the Pharisees, a party noted for their sanctimoniousness and bondage to the letter. In the person of Nicodemus, Christ at the very outset of His ministry conquered not only a Pharisee, but a ruler of the Jews, a member of the Sanhedrim. It has been a very common hypothesis in schools of theology, but without any foundation, to regard him as a spy, who at first came to Jesus with a sinister design. The sincerity of his inclination towards Jesus is, from the first, decided; a genuine germ of faith already begins to combat his own pretensions and prejudices; otherwise he, an old man, could not resort to a young man, and, though a distinguished member of the council, ask questions of the Galilean Rabbi as a scholar, thus putting his whole reputation in peril. We also see how this germ gradually increased in power, till perfected in the ripe fruit of faith, after passing in its development through distinct stages. But that the germ in its first form was feeble, Nicodemus plainly indicates, not only by his coming to Jesus by night, to which, no doubt, considerations of fear determined him, but also by the tenor of his language.

In general, it has been assumed that John has not fully reported the conversation of Christ with Nicodemus. But if we grant this, it cannot be admitted that he has given only a fragmentary abstract, so that we cannot fully depend on the connection of the separate parts. The abstract must preserve the connection equally as well as the discourse in its full extent.

Nicodemus salutes the Lord in terms of reverence which seem to include, and which in a certain sense do include, a perfect recognition of His divine mission and prophetic dignity. ‘Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that Thou dost, except God be with him.’ This salutation appears altogether so suited to form a point of connection for the teaching of Christ, that it has often excited astonishment that Christ’s answer so entirely passes it over, or rather appears to treat it as quite unsatisfactory. With powerful pathos the Lord replies to this courteous and honest salutation by the momentous declaration, which has become the fundamental maxim of His Church, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born from above,1 he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Between the salutation of the guest and this counter-salutation of the Lord there is evidently a chasm;—but the chasm is obviously an original one, it is an element of the transaction. This absolute contrariety is indeed the most important feature of our history, positively designed by Jesus, and of decided efficiency.

Nicodemus met Him with a homage in which the consciousness of his high position was not concealed, so that it almost assumed a patronizing character. ‘Rabbi, we know what we have to think of Thee,’ he said, as if he wished to assure Him of the favour of a powerful party. But, along with this patronizing language, which lay in the indefinite plural ‘we know,’ the acknowledgment seemed to be uttered in a lower key, ‘Thou art a teacher come from God.’ But this conviction Nicodemus grounded altogether on an inference from the Old Testament orthodoxy-Thy great miracles are the proof of Thy higher mission. And how feeble the conviction was that was so grounded, but which Nicodemus seemed to regard as a great acknowledgment, is proved by the choice of night for his visit. There was an unconscious contradiction between the pathos of his recognition and the expressions of reflection and fear which alternated with it.

The great Master of the human heart saw at once that He could not win this aged man, who by honours and dignities, by the views and habit of his outward and inward religious life, was firmly rooted in the soil of legal worldliness, by the tedious method of theological controversy; but that he must be won by the shattering stroke of His first rejoinder—that He must loosen him by a wrench in his position, though not pull him from it compulsorily. Nicodemus presented himself to Him, as if he were a trustworthy member of the kingdom of heaven. He wished already to know who Christ was, and the design of His mission. His theology of the new age was, as he imagined, complete in the main outlines, and with it the commencement of the new age itself. And thus he was willing to guarantee for many that they were already adherents of Jesus. This disclosure of his views made the Lord feel the deep contrast between the old world-view of Nicodemus and the fundamental principles of His own new world, and He suddenly placed this contrast before the mind of the theologian. With a solemn asseveration, He gave him the assurance that the new world He announced, the Messianic kingdom, was a completely hidden mystery for all who were not thoroughly transformed, new-born again from above; that no one was in a condition even to see this kingdom, to say nothing of entering it, unless such a new birth had given him new eyes for this new world. The Lord knew that He must risk and could risk the future of Nicodemus on the agitating operation of this announcement.

The answer of Nicodemus proved that the words of Jesus had, in fact, moved him in his inmost soul. Nicodemus knew indeed the language of the prophets respecting circumcision and the renewal of the heart;2 he might also be familiar with the circumcision of the Jewish proselytes as new-born children.3 This, therefore, was certainly clear to him, that Jesus, by His requirement, could not literally mean a second bodily birth. But it was also evident from the words of Jesus, that He did not recognize the being a Jew or the passing over to Judaism as a new birth; nor even the pharisaic righteousness by which Nicodemus assuredly believed he had gained the renewal of the heart, like thousands on his legal stand-point. And since Nicodemus could not at once sacrifice his distinguished position in life and his honoured old age to the assurance that they contributed nothing to his understanding the kingdom of God, that he needed a new birth, therefore he could not or would not admit that Christ’s words could have for him an allowable spiritual meaning. He therefore wilfully took them in a literal sense, not from contractedness of mind,4 but from irritated sensibility. In order, by a manœuvre of rabbinical logomachy, to hold up Christ’s requirement as extravagant, he answered, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Christ would not allow Himself to be moved from the composure of His sacerdotal dignity. He repeated the solemn asseveration, and set a second time the might of His heart against the rabbinical dialectics of the aged man. But He at once wrests from him the objection he had made, by the distinct requirement, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ It is evident that Jesus here opposes as the second birth, the birth of the Spirit, to the first natural birth of the human mother. When in this sense He joins water with Spirit, we are led to think of the connection, so frequent in the Gospel, of water-baptism and Spirit-baptism. John met the Pharisees with the condition, ‘If ye would enter the kingdom of heaven, after submitting to my water-baptism, ye must also receive the Spirit-baptism of the Messiah.’ Christ again insists on this condition; with the necessity of His Spirit-baptism He also asserts that of John, or at least of the water-baptism introduced by John. But this requirement has been thought strange in the mouth of Jesus, since it has been supposed that His Spirit-baptism would be sufficient. In order to remove this impression, water-baptism must be regarded as the symbol of repentance, while Spirit-baptism represents the life of faith.5 But the water signifies not only individual, but also social repentance,—the entrance into the true theocratic society. And this society was constituted by Christ to be the historical foundation and main condition of the operations of His Spirit. Thus, as the first natural world was formed under the movement of the Spirit which hovered over the waters, so also must the second world, that of the new life, emerge from the water of baptism to repentance, which forms the new sacred community, and from the administration of the Spirit in this Church. No one is born again simply of the Spirit, for the Spirit presupposes in His operation the historical community which has been collected round the name of Christ, acknowledges His word, and is distinguished from the impure world by its public common repentance or purification. A man must first become a historical Christian before he can become a spiritual Christian. With his entrance into the new society by baptism, he dies to the old world and renounces its worldly mind, devotes his old life to death, and enters into the historical conditions which must confirm the new life in him. Thus he is born of water. But this birth is not a special birth per se; it is not completed till he becomes a new man in his whole inward being and life-principle, through the Holy Spirit, who is the life-element of the new community; he becomes a child of God because the life of Christ becomes his own, a free fountain of life in his breast. But the reason why this renewal must be a total, and therefore a new birth, Christ explains by the canon, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ Kind never ceases to be kind. (Art lässt nicht von Art.) From the stock of the old humanity, whose life has the predominant characteristic of carnality, the preponderance of sensuousness and of carnal desires above the free life of the Spirit, in which all the affections of the senses should rise up pure, only carnally-disposed men can proceed-only such in whom the dark nature-side of life predominates in a destructive manner, morbidly, and contrary to their destiny, over the luminous Spirit-side. Therefore, if the adamically constituted man is to be truly a new creature, he must become new in his kind of life, and be born of the Spirit.

Since Christ represents this new birth as indispensable, in doing so He marks the relation in which the man who is not yet filled with the life of Christ stands to the kingdom of God. He attains it not by his theological science, nor by his logical deductions; he has it not in his religious energy. It is a new creation from heaven, which must bury his old life in its consecrated stream in order to give him a new life—a mystery of life, in which he must become a subject of the formative power of divine grace, like an unborn child. The more he anticipates this creative power, yearns for it, and humbly receives it into his life, so much nearer is he to the kingdom of God.

After the requirement has been positively laid down, the Lord proceeds to explain the possibility of its fulfilment by an analogy. Wind is akin to spirit—a natural symbol of its existence and action. And perhaps at that very time, while they were thus conversing together, the night-wind might be making itself perceptible by its murmurs. At all events, the Lord took His comparison most appropriately from the nearest, freshest life. ‘Marvel not,’ He therefore said to him, ‘that I said unto thee, Ye must be born from above. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth!’ Here, then, is a powerful, actual life, which goes beyond your knowledge. Thou canst not deny the existence of the wind, nor its irresistible action, nor its omnipresent movement round the globe. For it rushes sometimes here, sometimes there; it makes itself known to thee by its loud tone, its voice. And yet it is to thee a twofold mystery,—first in its origin, then in its movements. ‘So is it,’ said the Lord, ‘with every one who is born of the Spirit.’ He might have said, ‘So is it with the Spirit;’ but since he who is born of the Spirit is one with the life of the Spirit, the expression actually chosen is equally correct, while at the same time it is more full of meaning.6 The life of the Spirit comes out from a depth, and length, and height which human intelligence cannot fathom; and thus, even in the man whom it apprehends, it appears as a holy divine mystery! The same life of the Spirit goes to an immeasurable distance over land and sea; and so is the child of the Spirit with his destiny. His way goes upwards (Pro 15:24). But however full of mystery is the life of the Spirit and the spiritual life, it makes itself known in the most powerful facts, and its attributes are—Freedom; manifestation of power in all degrees, even to irresistible might; infinite fulness; and vivifying operation. The wind everywhere is begotten from a life full of mystery, as if from itself; so is the Spirit, it is free. The Holy Spirit also begins its operations with the gentlest whisper; but this can become the mightiest tempest. But in its fulness it is as immeasurable as the atmosphere, for it is the life of God moving itself. And as the wind is an indispensable principle of life in the material world, so is the Spirit in the spiritual world. The moving winds form the vital element of the globe; the moving currents of the Spirit are the vital element of the kingdom of God. But as the wind places itself in opposition to the water, in order to form a world, and as without the antagonism of a solid world it would only be an enormous hurricane; so the Spirit manifests itself in living reciprocal action with man’s definite life, and with the divine word as the life of history; and those persons who turn history into unsubstantial shadows, make the Spirit to be No-spirit (Ungeist).

Nicodemus indeed had at first doubted the necessity of his new birth; but now he had received an obscure impression that so it must be. Christ’s first address had impressed upon him the difference between the legal righteousness of one outwardly circumcised and the new life of one born again from heaven, and his own capability for the kingdom of heaven. The delineation of that glorious spiritual life brings gradually to his consciousness his own painful deficiency, which moves him as an obscure aspiration has distinguished him from the common Pharisees, and driven him to Jesus. But he trembles at the thought, whether it be possible that such a spring-storm of an awakening spiritual life could pass through his aged breast, and exclaims, ‘How can these things be?’ Then Christ answers him, ‘Art thou a teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?’ He was not only a teacher in Israel, but the teacher of Israel, since he now wished to instruct Israel respecting the divine mission of Christ, and placed himself at the head of those who were cognizant of the Messiah.7 He wished to know the fundamental relations of the kingdom of God; and now it became evident that he did not even know the doctrine of regeneration, and therefore not thoroughly the spiritual meaning of circumcision. Now Christ confronts the bewilderment of Nicodemus with His own divine certainty; the right relation between Himself and Nicodemus is firmly settled. The solemn asseveration, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto thee,’ is repeated a third time, and then follows the declaration, ‘We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen, and ye receive not our witness.’ The plural of Christ is opposed to the plural of Nicodemus; He also has those who share in His knowledge. Perhaps He had in His thoughts not merely John the Baptist, but rather His disciples and the whole world of future believers.8 Nicodemus stands answerable for a visible party, which subsequently was for the most part dissolved; Christ for an invisible party, which is ever coming more powerfully into life. And with Him and those who belong to Him it is not a matter merely of intellectual knowledge, but of spiritual intuition, of experience; therefore they are not merely speakers concerning eternal things, but witnesses out of eternity. This certainty with which we meet you, and which you must feel in our testimony, will you deny it? Thus Christ introduces the disclosures which He wishes to make to him respecting the kingdom of God. He continues His gentle censure with an expression which probably means, If I have told you truths already naturalized on earth (in the Israelitish community), and ye believe Me not, how will ye believe if I tell you the new revelations of heaven?9 The doctrine of regeneration is a truth which, as we have seen, was brought forward with sufficient distinctness in the Old Testament to be regarded as one already naturalized in this world; it is, besides, a mystery that concerns the earth, for regeneration has to do with earthly-minded men, with earthly humanity and earth. And this a heathen ought painfully to surmise—not to say that a teacher in Israel ought to know, at least believe when it is announced to him. But if he will not believe when it is announced most solemnly by an acknowledged Prophet, how can he receive those heavenly mysteries embracing earth, but not yet naturalized on earth, which become first intelligible in the light of regeneration, since they are the causes and effects of regeneration? How can he become acquainted with the concealed side of the spiritual life, the ultimate whence and whither of the spiritual wind, when he will not understand the manifest side of the same life, the sound of that wind? This reproof of Christ excites the curiosity of His aged scholar for the announcement which He has yet to make to him. To these heavenly doctrines belongs, first of all, the doctrine of the Son of God; next, that of atonement; then that of redemption; and, lastly, that of the judgment.

‘No one hath ascended up to heaven but He that (continually) cometh down from heaven, the Son of man, who is at home in heaven (as His native place).’ These mysterious words express the divine glory of Christ as it is exhibited in His threefold relation to heaven. But these relations are spoken of because He wishes to announce to Nicodemus those heavenly things which no one else can announce to him. And the reason why no one else can announce them is, because Jesus alone has attained the heavenly stand-point and range of vision, the elevation required for looking into all the depths of the divine counsels. But He has attained it, because in heavenly love and condescension He continually descends from the heaven of His divine blessedness and glory, into all the depths of human misery, and even goes down into hell. By His descending in love He has His heavenly elevation in knowledge. And thus His Spirit floats upwards and downwards between heaven and earth, since according to His heavenly nature and His consciousness He is continually in heaven, and since in the identity of His consciousness of God and of the world He has the eternal consciousness of heaven.10 The first clause, therefore, marks His heavenly intuition and knowledge; the second, His heavenly loving, suffering, and doing; the third, His heavenly being and inner life. His heavenly being is an eternal present;11 His heavenly loving, suffering, and doing, is a constant constructing and administrating12 throughout His whole history; His heavenly intuition is a decided acquisition, resulting from that life and administration.13 This was the first profound heavenly truth of the New Covenant which Nicodemus needed to learn: that the fulness of divine revelation and knowledge is laid up in Jesus; that it proceeds from His divine existence, and His heavenly self-sacrifice and work; and that He is the Christ. The second great truth had been already announced by the declaration that Christ descended from heaven. It is the doctrine of His atoning sufferings.

‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ Under this image He represents the atonement, since it strikingly marks the nature of the atonement, in the mysterious lifting up (ὑψωθῆναι) represents the descending and ascending of the heavenly Lord in their unity.14 Moses, by Jehovah’s command, erected a sign of deliverance for the Israelites who had been bitten in their march through the wilderness by poisonous serpents.15 It is remarkable that the sign of deliverance was the serpent itself; the brazen image of a serpent, hung upon a pole. The looking at this serpent, which was no real serpent, but one without life, and yet lifted up on high, saved the terror-struck people.16 Thus the human race are to be saved. It has been troubled by poisonous serpents, harassed to death by seducers, slanderers, corrupters. But it must be saved by beholding the elevated image of that spiritual serpent, by the operation of the great transgressor nailed to the tree, the Crucified, whom the world has cast out as the curse, or even as the evil demon himself. That serpent-image was no serpent, but the reverse of all serpents, the banner of sanctification. So is this image of a transgressor no transgressor, not the demon of the curse, but living salvation against all the destructive and satanic existences on earth—the Saviour. With the believing contemplation of the brazen serpent, the terror-struck lost all their fatal alarm, became death-defying and calm in spirit. By the contemplation of the Crucified, men are freed from the fatal dread of death, and are ready to surrender themselves to the judgment of God. But with the surrender to judgment, faith in the atonement is gained. There, the serpent-image was to express the fact, that God, by the faith of Moses, destroyed the rage of the serpent’s brood; here, the image of the Crucified expresses the truth, that God in His death has cancelled the sins of the world. And as there God’s help had descended so low as to operate under the form of a poisonous reptile, so here everlasting salvation had condescended to reconcile the world under the most accursed form, that of the Crucified. And this is indeed the central point of the type. The Israelite bitten by the serpent obtained, by the contemplation of the sanative serpent-image, a presage of the deliverance which the glory of God provided from the deadly evil, and thereby gained a miraculous vital energy; the man bitten by the serpent of sin and of satanic evil, obtained, by the contemplation of the redeeming holy image of the transgressor, the confidence that God condemns sin through sin, and in its condemnation establishes deliverance and reconciliation. So rich are the relations between the brazen serpent and the crucified Saviour. Nicodemus was, indeed, by no means in a condition to understand clearly the language of Christ; but this language might convey to him a strong intimation, that Christ could only bring the salvation to the people which he expected from Him under a form of dreadful suffering.

Thus he received in an obscure form, but more exciting to his reflection, the second revelation of heaven. We learn in the next place how the atonement is exhibited in its more general form as redemption. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.’ Thus the whole work of atonement appears in the light of redeeming love;—God as the most Merciful One in His love; Christ as the given and self-surrendering Redeemer; the world as the object of love to be purchased at the highest price; the believer as one who is redeemed for the blessedness of love, and who in believing gains the principle of an imperishable, blessed life. By means of this third revelation of heavenly things, Nicodemus would learn the extent of redemption; how it proceeds from a love of God embracing the whole world; that it embraces all men, and not merely the Jews, as the pharisaic spirit might imagine.

But as redemption does not reject believing Gentiles, so judgment does not spare unbelieving Jews. Judgment makes no difference between Jews and Gentiles, but between believers and unbelievers. This is the last great heavenly truth which he has to learn.

Christ therefore came into the world, not to condemn the world, at least not in the sense in which the Jews expected Him to be a rigorous judge of the Gentile world. Rather the world is to be saved by Him; and whosoever truly believes in Him is not condemned. He has in Christ received the life of righteousness, and incorporated it in his inmost soul; therefore sin is ever more condemned in him and expelled, while he himself is purified and redeemed in his own being. But a man can refuse to believe in Christ; and if he does so, judgment has already been passed upon him in his unbelief. In its principle, the unfolding of his condemnation has already begun, since he has excluded himself from the kingdom of light, love, and reconciliation. He has not believed;—that means, in the solemn perfect form: he has chosen, he has made up his mind. But he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God, that is, not in the highest perfect revelation of God to the human race,-not in the highest act of love,-not in the light principle of the ideality and glorification of the whole world, and of the ideality of his own being, nor in the expression of the eternal personality of God and of humanity, in that personality which makes heaven and earth one.

Therefore this faith, as well as this unbelief, is throughout of an ethical nature, determining the worth of a man in God’s sight. Faith in Christ has the worth of righteousness in judgment, because it consists in the surrender to righteousness which verifies itself in judgment. Unbelief towards Christ, on the other hand, is the judgment of man respecting himself, that he cannot lay hold of and accept the heavenly moral system in its clearest expression and principle in the life of Christ. By it a man rejects his citizenship in the ideal world of Christ, and adjudges himself to an entirely opposite system full of condemnation. Hence unbelief has the demerit of all the bad qualities which it contains dynamically in itself and can originate. But how can this fearful decision be formed in a man? It is at all events the result of a persistence in evil-doing. Thus there arises ‘the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.’ Condemnation therefore proceeds from aversion to the light, and this is perfectly identical with aversion to Christ. It is an aversion to the ideal clearness of the intuition of the world (Weltanschauung), to the apprehension of life in its pure eternal relations. Now light is this ideality of the world, and Christ is the light, because in Him the world discloses itself as the kingdom of spirit. This aversion could not be formed in man if he did not really hold fast the darkness, the confusion of the world in his consciousness and of consciousness in the world,—if he did not seek in religious and moral self-bewilderment a protection for his evil works, his outward deeds, and the deeds of his heart. This therefore is the condemnation: it is already there: its commencement has been made. But all men do not prefer the darkness to the light. Respecting this contrast, the Lord finally lays down a general canon: ‘Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.’ He who does evil is bewildered himself and bewilders others, and therefore cannot love the principle which would extricate him, that is, the light. So when the clearness of the light meets him, his life appears in its criminality as a perversion of life. Thus the light punishes him; therefore he hates the light, and chooses darkness. But it is altogether different with the man who does the truth as it manifests itself to his inmost soul. He follows the impulse of eternal clearness, and therefore cannot help coming to the light. His works are children of the light; they must enter into their element, into the light. Good is itself a part of eternal revelation: it is done in God; therefore it cannot remain hid, it must become manifest. This close is thoroughly suited to form the last words with which Jesus dismissed Nicodemus. If we imagine that the Lord went with Nicodemus to the door when he left, and uttered these last words to him under the darkness of the evening sky, we shall probably feel what a striking, powerful, and admonitory farewell they contain. Nicodemus by his nocturnal visit had apparently ranked himself with those who, with an evil conscience, seek the darkness for their evil deeds. For this the Lord rebuked him; but He also blessed the thirst of his upright soul for light, and therefore dismissed him with words of most distinct hope and promise, as if He had said to him, ‘Thou art nevertheless a child of the light, and wilt surely be led into the light by the impulse of thy uprightness. Yes, thy present act of feeble faith, which the night conceals, shall become manifest in the light, because it is wrought in God, when thou thyself shalt one day come to the light, both in the clear day of the Spirit, of revelation, and in the clear day of the world, of publicity. We shall meet again in the light!’

When at a later period Christ hung on the cross, Nicodemus with his faith and work of faith came decidedly to the light. Christ’s promise then obtained its complete fulfilment. But here Nicodemus, on his leaving, took it with him as a fruitful seed-corn in his heart.



1. ‘The whole scene with Nicodemus is treated by Strauss as a fiction which owed its origin to the reproach that the success of the Gospel was confined to the lower classes, which left a sting behind in the souls of the first Christians. But Neander has shown, with historical as well as Christian penetration, that the Christians of that first age rather gloried in the fact that the common people were exalted to such dignity by Christ.’ Thus Tholuck, p. 124. The explanation of Strauss (i. 661) belongs to his peculiar view of the poverty-stricken character of man, and especially of the Christian, and proceeds on the assumption that the poor primitive Church, which was unable to win any proselytes from the higher classes, created imaginary proselytes, though certainly on a less noble principle than that which instigated the poor schoolmaster, in Jean Paul, to write a Klopstock’s Messiah because he was too poor to buy one. The only place where one really misses the mention of Nicodemus is Mat 27:57. Why, it is asked, is not Nicodemus mentioned here as the helper of Joseph of Arimathea? But it is at once evident that the reason of this special mention of Joseph alone is, that it was he who begged the body of Jesus from Pilate, and he who had made ready the tomb for its reception.

2. According to Baur, in his Essay on the Composition and Character of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is to be regarded as the representative of unbelieving Judaism even in his faith, and on the other hand, the woman of Samaria as the representative of such Gentiles as were susceptible of faith. A person must read this statement of Baur’s, to be convinced how far the passion for making an allegorical scheme out of the living reality of the Gospel history can lead to the most unfortunate distortions of that history. Not to say that we are here offered nothing but the moonshine of spiritualistic fictions for the sunshine of the highest ideal reality, the allegorist never once reaches the pure realization of the living poetical contents of these evangelic representations, but covers them all over with his stiff rationalist constructions, with much the same effect as covering a beautiful painting with large dull patches of one colour. We do not meet with even the ordinary freshness of colouring of the simplest kind on the tablet of Nicodemus, but only a dirty grey. ‘Faith on account of σημεῖα, such as is ascribed to Nicodemus, it is said, is related to true faith as the outward to the inward, or the carnal to the spiritual; and hence it is nothing but a further description of the faith that relies on σημεῖα, when Nicodemus, however fairly we may estimate his want of understanding, appears as a teacher in Israel, to whom, in his incapacity of rising above sensuous experience to spiritual conceptions, all susceptibility for true faith in Jesus was wanting.’ Here at last the author of the fourth Gospel must be allowed to justify himself. He unquestionably places Nicodemus among the friends of light; our critic places him on the side of darkness. On the other hand, the poor Samaritan woman is to represent the whole Gentile world though she refers to ‘our father Jacob;’ and moreover is to exemplify the susceptibility for faith which asks not after signs, though her faith originates entirely from the wonderful insight of the Lord into her life.

3. The section from vers. 16-21 has been considered, after the example of Erasmus, by most theologians in modern times as a carrying out of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, which we are to ascribe to the Evangelist himself (compare Lücke, i. 543; Tholuck, p. 123; Adalb. Maier, p. 302). In the first place, it favours this view, that the conversational style is entirely dropped from ver. 16. Moreover the expression μονογενής occurs only in discourse that is strictly John’s own-for example, 1:14, 18,—not in the discourses of Jesus. Besides, many expressions betray the later consciousness of the writer which look back to the completed history of Jesus; such as the past tenses, and among these, especially ἠγάπησαν and ἦν, ver. 19. But the first reason alleged would lead to the supposition that the conversation communicated by John must be artistically carried out, but could not merge into an explicatory discourse of the Lord. But this assumption would be arbitrary and false, since it is rather in accordance with the character of Christ’s ministry for vivid developments of His teaching to arise out of conversations immediately preceding. As to the expression μονογενής, and the Evangelist’s colouring of the representation, there is no reason for denying that this expression might have been formed by the apostle in reporting his recollections. Yet neither is it inconceivable that John might have taken this expression as originally used by Christ on this occasion, and incorporated it with his theology. The passage in ver. 19, apparently, may be referred most decidedly to a later stand-point. According to the common conception of the evangelic history, it seems as if at the time of this conversation no such decision, involving condemnation, as Christ here characterizes it, had taken place. But if we contemplate the history of the temptation according to our view of it, and likewise take into account the unfavourable attitude which a part of the Sanhedrim must have already taken openly in reference to Jesus—since only such an attitude can explain the visit by night of Nicodemus,—the condemnation had already begun. The light had already manifested itself in the world; it had already called forth a decision and a separation, though at first only as germinant. On the one hand, the majority of the Jewish rulers, who as the deciding authorities are called οἱ ἄνθρωποι, had already chosen the darkness. On the other hand, the upright had begun, although timidly like Nicodemus, to come to the light. Christ could therefore point to the condemnation as a fact already existing. Therefore the reasons on account of which some would separate this section from the conversation itself, are not decisive; while we, on the contrary, have cogent reasons for maintaining the unity of the two parts. Lücke remarks, that everything is wanting by which the transition from the conversation to John’s own reflections would be outwardly marked; on the other hand, the γὰρ (ver. 16) seems to mark most distinctly the continuation of the conversation. Besides, it is to be observed that the conversation would be in its structure a fragment if it ended with ver. 15, and that it would break off just where it had begun, and announced an important conclusion. The ἐπουράνια, namely, which are announced in ver. 12, are partially communicated in vers. 13 and 14; the continuation follows from ver. 16 to the close. This complement belongs, therefore, altogether to the conversation. But one most decisive circumstance has been altogether overlooked. In the 15th verse there is no special reference to Nicodemus—no farewell; it is all general. On the other hand, vers. 20 and 21 contain a most touching farewell; which marks distinctly the relation of this man to Jesus, as we have already noticed above; since Jesus rebukes with a gentle censure his coming by night, and invites him to come to Him for the future in clear daylight.



1) It is a much agitated question, whether ἄνωθεν is to be translated from above or again, Compare especially Lücke, i, 516, and Tholuck, p. 114. Lücke urges that John uses ἄνωθεν elsewhere only in iii, 81 and xix, 11, 23, and in the two first passages unquestionably for ἐκ τοῦ όὑρανοῦ, or ἐκ τοῦ Οεοῦ, and in the last, in the sense of from above or from the top,—never therefore for πάλιν. Moreover John, the same writer remarks, never speaks of being born again, but of being born of God: chap. i, 13; 1 John ii, 29, iii. 9, iv. 7. He declares himself therefore in favour of the first interpretation, and understands it as more exactly expressed by—born of God. 'Tholuck, on the other hand, draws attention to the expression in the rejoinder of Nicodemus, δεύτερον γεννηθῆναι,, and to the phrases ἁναγεννηθῆναι, 1 Peter i, 3, 23; παλιγγενεσία, Titus iii, 5; καινὴ κτίσις, Gal. vi. 153 and accordingly adopts the second interpretation, yet so that ἄνωθεν is not exactly equivalent to πάλιν, but denotes anew, afresh, But it is more accordant with hermeneutics to interpret (with Lücke) a word in John’s Gospel from John’s usual phraseology, than (with Tholuck) from that of Peter and Paul, But, taken strictly, it is wrong to discuss the word ἄνωθεν merely for itself, Let the phrase ἄνωθεν γεννηθῆναι be considered as a contrast to ἐκ τῆς γῆς γεννηθῆναι,, and with the idea, born from above, there will arise the idea, born again; the word comprehends the rich thought—to be first rightly born from renovating heavenly principles.

2) Deut. x. 16, xxx. 6 ; Jer. iv. 4 ; Ezek. xi. 19, 20, xxxvi. 27, 23.

3) Compare Lücke, i. 520.

4) Compare Schwuizer. d. Eu. Joh, p. 32.

5) [Alford asserts that it is mere doctrinal prejudice which has determined Calvin's interpretation of these words : ‘Spiritun qui nos repurgat,’ and Grotius’ ‘Spiritum aquie instar emundantem,’ But Matt. iii, 11 speaks strongly for this interpretation ; and we were not aware that, among the very numerous and diverse doctrinal prejudices aseribed to Calvin, a low sacramentarian theory could find place. In consistency with what Alford says on this passage, we wight have expected his remarks on John vi, 51 to be somewhat different. The sacrament is quite as easily found in the one place as in the other, The doctrinal bearing of the expression is shown by Turretin, loc, xix. quest. 13, 19. He too interprets it, ‘Spiritus lavans et mundaus corda,.’—ED. ]

6) The same remark is applicable to the parables, Matt. xiii. 20, He that received the seed into stony places, &c.

7) According to Scholl (see Lücke, i. 527), three persons stood at the head of the Sanhedrim: (i) the President (הַנָּשִֺיא) (ii.) the Vice-President, or pater domus judicii sire Synedrii אֲבִי בֵית דִּין; and (iii.) sitting on the left, next to the President, a distinguished member of the Sanhedrim called the wise man, חָכָם. Scholl supposes that Nicodemus occupied the place of the last-mentioned, and hence is called the teacher of Israel. But, apart from the fact that these official distinctions are doubtful, the designations wise man and teacher of Israel are not synonymons. According to Lücke, the explanation of Erasmus is the true one, that the definite article is used rhetorically,—Ille dector, cujus tam celebris est opinio, According to our view, the expression is not rhetorical, but sharply definite.

8) [It will be remembered, however, that the use of the plural by one person addressing is by no means so uncommon that it requires special explanation of this kind, The Greek interpreter in Cramer’s Catena, after conjecturing of whom the plural can be used, concludes, ‘ἢ περὶ ἑαυτοῦ μόνον.’ Alford’s explanation, ‘a proverbial saying,’ is also quite admissible, and probably the best.— ED.]

9) Lücke understands τὰ ἐπίγεια, like Wisd, x. 16, τὰ ἐπὶ γῆς, to be synonymous with τὰ ἐν χερσὶν, things intelligible and close at hand ; and by τὰ ἐν οὐρανοῖς, things unsearchable, at a distance, and concealed from man.

10) Lücke and Tholuck are mistaken in regarding these expressions as metaphorical or figurative, Rather, the inner life of Christ in heaven is altogether literal and real. [‘To explain such expressions as mere Hebrew metaphors, is no more than saying that Hebrew metaphors are founded on deep insight into divine truth’—Alford. Augustin says on these words, ‘Ecce hic erat, et in cœlo erat: hic erat carne, in cœlo erat divinitate” Calvin, with greater exactness, remarks that the ‘being in heaven’ is predicated of the humanity also, by the communicatio idiomatum,—ED.]

11) Hence the present ὁ ὤν. It is characteristic that since Erasmus it has been the practice to change ὁ ὤν into ὂς ἦν. If generally one part of exegesis consists in rendering shallow the deep meaning of Scripture, this is generally most conspicuous in reference to passages like this, of unfathomable depth.

12) Hence the aorist ὁ καταβάς.

13) Hence the perfect ἀναβέβηκεν. This tense is decisive against those who would refer the word to the ascension.

14) John viii, 28. xii, 82, 34. In the first passage, in the same expression the reference to the crucifixion apparently predominates, and in the second, to the glorification, although here the reference to His death is not wanting. Lücke would only allow a reference to the crucifixion (i, 535), Yet the symbolic serpent-image was so far glorified as to be made an image of salvation.

15) Nun, xxi, 4-9.

16) The closer consideration of that Old Testament history does not belong to this place. On the different explanation, see Winer's R. W. B. The religious gist of that miraculous cure consisted in this, that the image of the deadly evil was changed into the image of the restorative salvation—a divine institution which by its boldness awakened’ the highest confidence. With the horror of those who looked on the serpent-image as an image of salvation, the fear vanished which in a thousand ways the serpents themselves excited, and raised the effect of the serpent’s bite into a deadly terror in the host.