THE EARLY JUDEAN MINISTRY
John alone gives us the record of this period of our Lord’s ministry. After His brief stay in Capernaum Jesus went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. When He entered the Temple He found stalls set up for selling sheep and oxen and doves and money changers doing business. Making a whip out of rope, He drove them all out of the temple, the animals as well as the dealers, and overturned the tables of the money changers along with their coins, and cried out to them: “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house a house of merchandise.” Whereupon the Jews asked Jesus for a sign which would give Him authority to do such things. The sign He gave was: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews reasoned that it had taken 46 years to build the temple: how then could He raise it up in three days. After the death and resurrection of Jesus the disciples remembered this saying of Jesus and understood that He was talking about the raising up of His body from the dead: not the temple of Herod.
Beholding the signs which Jesus did, many in Jerusalem believed on His name, but He did not trust Himself unto them, for He knew all men and what was in man. There was a particular man by the name of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews who came to Jesus by night, confessing that Jesus was a teacher coming from God, since no man could do the signs that Jesus did except God be with Him. Jesus immediately got down to basics and told him he had to be born again of the Spirit of God in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus seemed incapable of understanding spiritual truths. He replied: “How can these things be?” The discourse ended with a reference to the brazen serpent which Moses set up, and the familiar John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” and the conflict between light and darkness.
After this Jesus left Jerusalem and went to the northern area of Judea with His disciples, where John was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim. A discussion arose about baptism, during which a man came with a report that Jesus was baptizing more disciples than John, which gave John the opportunity to give another witness about Jesus.
When Jesus knew that the Pharisees had heard that He was making more disciples than John He left Judea and headed north for Galilee. To get to Galilee He had to go through Samaria and there He encountered the woman at the well. Through her conversion the whole city of Sychar turned out and many believed on His name, not because of the woman’s words, but because they heard Him personally and were persuaded that this is indeed the Savior of the world.
1. The First Passover and Cleansing of the Temple
(Reference: John 2:13-23)
The First Passover of His Ministry. As far as the Biblical record goes, this is the first Passover Jesus attended since He was 12 years old. We are certain that He must have attended others, since Joseph and Mary are said to have gone to Jerusalem every year for the Passover. All Jews everywhere tried to get back to Jerusalem for this important feast. Jesus, however, did not assert His authority until He became of age and began His public ministry. The Passover is mentioned 9 times in John (2:13,23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1; 18:28,39; 19:14). Thus, Jesus observed three Passovers during His ministry: this one, one in the middle; and one at the very end of His ministry. It is significant that He began and ended with the Passover, for He was to fulfill the Passover type, and thus become our Passover (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7).
A. Cleansing the Temple. In spite of the fact that the Jews had made the Temple a den of thieves, Jesus still recognized it as His Father’s house. The original temple built by Solomon had been utterly destroyed by the Babylonians. It was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah, but with much less grandeur (Hag. 2:3). Finally, Herod became King in Jerusalem in 37 B.C. He decided to rebuild the temple, and first collected all of the materials before dismantling the old one. The new building was started 20 – 19 B.C. The disciples later on must have been impressed by the grandeur of the temple, for they undertook to show off the buildings of the temple to Jesus (Matt. 24:1,2), but He foretold how this beautiful structure would also be destroyed and left desolate because Jerusalem did not know the time of her visitation.
This action of Jesus of driving out the merchants and money changers and overturning their tables seems out of character for those who think only of Jesus as “meek and mild.” What will they think when they see Him coming in flaming fire to take vengeance upon those that know not God and obey not the Gospel? God’s attributes of love and mercy are balanced against His attributes of holiness and justice.
B. The Sign of His Resurrection. When the Jews asked for a sign of His authority He replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” There were many things which Jesus said which the disciples did not at the time understand, but later, after they had received the Holy Spirit they remembered the sayings and understood. Here they understood He was speaking of His human body. The Jews remembered this saying too and perverted it and tried to use it against Him at His trial (Matt. 26:61). The disciples remembered it and were profited by it: they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.
C. Incomplete Faith. The people believed in His name when they saw the miracles He did. This kind of belief is inadequate and does not result in salvation. The word “believe” has in it the idea of commitment. The statement in vs. 24, “Jesus did not commit himself unto these believers,” contains the same Greek word used in vs. 23 and translated “believed” but here translated “commit.” Scriptural belief involves the element of committal, entrusting one’s self to God. To see a miracle worker and believe he has divine powers involved no sense of acknowledging one’s own sin and no element of committal. This fact is born out in the next section which deals with one of these men who had seen Jesus’ miracles and believed because of the miracles. Belief even caused him to seek out Jesus by night, apparently to avoid detection by other Jews, but Nicodemus was not saved by this kind of believing.
2. Discourse With Nicodemus
(Reference: John 2:23-3:21)
A. What Was in Man. Jesus knew what was in man. We can tell that from the way He dealt with Nicodemus. We don’t know why Nicodemus came to Jesus that night. As a ruler of the Jews he was surely interested in any religious developments. Perhaps he just wanted to check up on Jesus. Perhaps he had some questions. Perhaps he wanted to know how Jesus performed His miracles. Or perhaps it was just plain curiosity. It does not seem he was driven to Jesus by a sense of lostness, or by a desire to improve his relationship with God. As a Pharisee he would boast of being better than other men, of keeping the law in a blameless fashion. He was probably much like Saul of Tarsus, as Paul describes his situation before he met Christ (cf. Phil. 3:4-6). But Jesus knew what was in Nicodemus. Later on in some of His teaching He tells us what is in man. He knew that within every man is a nature of sin. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies; these are the things that defile a man; but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man” (Matt. 15:19,20). Nicodemus got something that night he was not looking for.
B. What Christ Came to Put In Man. Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed not more religion but a new birth, which would give him a new nature. He needed to be born again. This was something that he couldn’t understand, for this was foreign to his way of thinking. What ridiculous ideas this Jesus had. How could a man enter into his mother’s womb and be born again? Jesus has to explain the most elementary truths to this one who was a notable teacher in Israel.
The flesh and the Spirit are two separate realms. That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of Spirit is Spirit. The flesh cannot evolve into spirit any more than a rock can evolve into an animal. A man must have spiritual life to enter God’s kingdom; therefore, Nicodemus, you must be born of the Spirit. But Nicodemus wants to know how can these things be? Jesus used an illustration from the wind. The word wind and the word spirit are identical. When the wind blows, you can hear the sound it makes but you can’t tell where it came from and where it is going because it is invisible. So also is the Spirit. You can’t see how the Spirit operates any more than you can see how the wind blows. But you can see the effects of both the wind and the Spirit. The Spirit imparts new life and brings forth fruit of God. The song writer probably had this passage in mind when he wrote: “I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in Him; but I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.”
Three times Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again, but the second time He added something. He said, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit.. .” What does He mean by being born of water? Is this something different from just being born of the Spirit? Sacramentarians argue from this verse baptismal regeneration. Inserting such an argument in this context seems strange indeed, for if Jesus is saying anything at all He is saying that the physical, material world cannot in any way produce this new birth. How then could material water which can be seen, felt, and analyzed produce spiritual life?
Others take the water to be the water in which the fetus lives in its mother’s womb and therefore being born of water refers to our natural birth. The Living New Testament gives this as an alternate reading: “Physical birth is not enough. You must also be born spiritually.” We seriously doubt that Scripture ever uses water with this meaning. But the Scripture, and especially the Gospel of John, does often use water in a figurative sense. What did Christ mean when He told the woman at the well He would give her living water (John 4:10-14)? Or what did He mean by the rivers of living water which would flow out of man (ch. 7:38)?
In the very next verse John plainly states what He meant by water: “But this he spake of the Spirit.” Water and Spirit are both without the definite article and are connected by the conjunction “kai” (and). If this figure is used here the sense would be: Except a man be born of water, even spiritual water.
Water is also used to represent the operation of the Word of God, as in Eph. 5:26: “cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word.” And Peter speaks of being born again, not of corruptible seed, but by the Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23). Therefore, we prefer to believe this is the correct meaning of this passage. It is true that water baptism was being preached and practiced both by John and Jesus, and that baptism was required, just as animal sacrifices were, but water is never presented as a procuring cause of regeneration in Scripture. If the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin and make one a member of God’s family, surely water could not do so.
Nicodemus started out by telling Jesus what he knew, and Jesus ended up telling Nicodemus he was ignorant: “Are you a master teacher in Israel and knowest not these things?” If Nicodemus didn’t believe the earthly things Jesus told him, how could he believe the heavenly things? Jesus knew whereof He spoke, for He had come down from heaven. (Some ancient Greek texts omit the last clause of vs. 13, “which is in heaven .”) Jesus at that time as the Son of man was not in heaven but on earth. As God, of course, He is omnipresent.
Not only was it necessary for Nicodemus to be born again, it was necessary for the Son of man to be lifted up on the Cross to make it possible for man to be born again. The Lord had sent fiery serpents into the camp of Israel because of their murmurings and many died from being bitten (Num. 21:6-9). Moses was commanded to make a serpent of brass and place it upon a pole. Every one that looked upon it was healed of his bite. In like manner Jesus had to be lifted up on the Cross, to be made the condemned serpent in our stead, that condemned sinners might be made the righteousness of God in Him.
From the illustration of the brazen serpent it is certain that the expression in the next verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” refers to giving Him in the sense of the Cross, and not merely in incarnation as a Teacher. Because the verb here is in the past tense, indicating a finished past action, it appears that the discourse with Nicodemus ends with vs. 15, if not sooner. Not only are “loved” and “gave” in the past tense, but there are a couple of phrases in vs. 16 that are never used by Christ Himself, “only begotten Son,” and “believe on the name of.” John has a way of injecting explanatory words of his own, so that it is sometimes difficult to know where a break should be made. For example, see ch. 1:16-18 and 12:37-41.
The words “condemn” and “condemned” in vs. 17 and 18, and “condemnation” in vs. 19, should be rendered “judge, judged, and judgment.” The unbeliever has been judged already: judged by virtue of his unbelief. Their judgment resides in the fact that light has come into the world, and men as a class loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were (imperfect tense) habitually evil.
We are beginning to see several of the most important and most often used words’ in John: “believe” – 99 times, “world” – 79 times, “Father” – 156 times, “know” – 107 times, “abide” – 41 times.
(Main Source: Understanding The Gospels – A Different Approach – Charles F. Baker)