The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on John 3:1-8

Posted by Dim Bulb on April 2, 2016

This post opens with Fr. MacEvilly’s brief analysis of John chapter 3, followed by his notes on verse 1-8. Text in red are my additions.


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 a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

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 and said to him: Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God; for no man can do these signs which thou dost, unless God be with him.

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 fellow rulers (John 7:1-11; 9:22), from a fear of incurring the displeasure and anger of the Sanhedrim, 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. John occasionally uses the term “Jews” to refer to the people as a whole and in positive fashion (Jn 4:22). However, he also uses the term to designate the people as being divided concerning Jesus, and of Jewish leaders who were hostile to Jesus. He also employs the term “multitude” or “crowd” to refer to the people (non-rulers) in general, often in contexts which emphasize their difference of opinions regarding Jesus.

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 and said to him: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

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. “Born again,” or “from above?”I strongly disagree with Fr. MacEvilly on this point. Nicodemus clearly understand ανωθεν (anothen) as meaning “born again.” but it is clearly the other meaning, “born from above,” that our Lord has in mind, especially in light of verses 6-15 (most notably verses 12-14). The concept of regeneration/rebirth is not absent here, but the emphasis is on its origin. Only by ascending back to the Father above can Jesus send the Spirit and thus give new life from above.

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 saith to him: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?

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 Jesus answered: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

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,” repeating the 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 is flesh: and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

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 Wonder not that I said to thee: You must be born again.

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 Spirit breatheth where he will and thou hearest his voice: but thou knowest not whence he cometh and whither he goeth. So is every one that is born of the Spirit.

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.


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