Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on John 3:7b-15
Posted by Dim Bulb on April 2, 2016
Verses 7-8 were covered in yesterday’s commentary. This post repeats the comments on 7b (i.e., the second half of verse 7) and verse 8. Text in red, if any, are my additions.
7b 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.
9 Nicodemus answered and said to him: How can these things be done?
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 Jesus answered and said to him: Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?
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 = ho didaskalos), 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 Amen, amen, I say to thee that we speak what we know and we testify what we have seen: and you receive not our testimony.
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 If I have spoken to you earthly things, and you believe not: how will you believe, if I shall speak to you heavenly things?
“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, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.
“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, so must the Son of man be lifted up:
“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 may not perish, but may have life everlasting.
“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.