Father Lapide’s Commentary on John 3:1-8
Posted by Dim Bulb on April 3, 2016
Joh 3:1 And there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
There was a man, &c. Nicodemus means in Greek the conqueror of the people. Such was this man; who, overcoming the fear of the people, the Pharisees, and the priests, believed in Christ. Wherefore Lucian thus writes concerning him in “The Invention of the Body of S. Stephen,” from the mouth of Gamaliel: “The Jews, knowing that Nicodemus was a Christian, removed him from his office and cursed him, and drove him out of the city. Then I Gamaliel, inasmuch as he had suffered persecution for Christ’s sake, took him to my estate, and fed and clothed him to the end of his life; and when he died I buried him honourably beside the loved Stephen.”
Wherefore Nicodemus is enrolled among the saints in the Roman Martyrology on the 3d of August; where we read as follows, “Invention of the body of S. Stephen, Protomartyr; also of the bodies of SS. Gamaliel, Nicodemus, Abibo, &c., in the reign of Honorius.
Joh 3:2 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, for he was ashamed to approach the lowly Jesus by day, in the presence of others, and to become His disciple. For he was a master in Israel: and such a thing seemed beneath his authority and dignity. Another reason was that he might not incur the hatred of the Pharisees, who despised Christ. However, he found the light which he sought by night, as Ruperti says, and drank of the great sacraments of salvation. He seems to have come alone, without servant or companion, by night, to Christ, to have spoken with Him face to face, and to have imbibed His spirit and doctrine.
Thou are come a Teacher: Syriac, that Thou mayest be a Teacher, i.e., of the Jews. He does not say, Thou hast come that Thou mayest be the Messias, because about this he as yet felt no certainty. For Christ did not wish to enunciate this at the beginning of His preaching, but made it known by degrees.
These signs (Vulg.), these wonderful works which we have seen and heard that Thou hast done at the recent Passover, in the Temple; as, for instance, that Thou alone didst drive out of it all that bought and sold in it.
Unless God be with him: except he be supported by the authority and omnipotence of God. For miracles are the works of God. They are not wrought by the power of men, or angels, but by God alone working supernaturally.
Joh 3:3 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, &c., Amen, Amen. John on many occasions doubles the Amen, when the other Evangelists have only one. Why was this? I answer (1.) because he had above the rest the most lofty revelations, and knew the deepest mysteries of the Deity. This was especially the case in his exile at Patmos, where he wrote the Apocalypse, which has, says S. Jerome, as many mysteries as it has words. And after this he wrote his Gospel when he was very old, and the sole survivor of the Apostolic College. Wherefore he was thenceforth the mouthpiece and oracle of the Church, the foundation and pillar of the faith, the patriarch of patriarchs. He saith therefore, as it were with plenary authority, as it were the Elder of elders, Amen, Amen. It is as though he said, “I announce to you, with the utmost weight and confidence, things most lofty and sublime, which surpass all human understanding and belief, but which Christ has revealed to me, which are therefore most certain, and most salutary for you. For Christ really used this twofold Amen, to indicate the sublimity and certainty of what He said. But the other Evangelists, studying conciseness, included two under one: but I, John, because I, beyond the others, have weighed and penetrated both the words of Christ and their meaning, say, Amen, Amen, as Christ Himself spoke.”
2. Because Amen is the same as Verily. S. John was delighted with the name of Truth. And this he calls Christ, because He was The Word, that is, the Truth of the Father.
3. Because Amen is either a word signifying true, or else an adverb meaning truly. Wherefore we may explain thus – He who is the Amen, i.e., Christ, whose name is True, and the Truth, saith Amen, i.e., in truth, or most truly. Thus it is said in the Apocalypse (Rev 3:14), “Thus saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness,” (Greek, ό ̉Αμὴν), i.e., He who is the Amen; He who is steadfast, true, constant, faithful; who is steadfastness itself, Truth itself, Faithfulness itself.
4. Amen, Amen, denotes the perfect truth and certainty of the matter and the things which are recorded by S. John The things which I say are most true and certain, more true than all other truths, more certain than all other certainty.
5. By Amen, Amen, he intimates a twofold manner of certainty, viz., that S. John knew the things which he wrote by means of a twofold knowledge, natural and Divine; that is, by experience and revelation. For with his eyes he saw these things, and with his ears he heard them, and by Christ’s revelation, when he lay upon His breast, he understood them. Wherefore in his first Epistle he thus writes, “What we have seen and heard, and our hands have handled . . . we make known unto you.”
Unless a man be born again. Observe that John leaves us to gather from this answer that Nicodemus, either tacitly or expressly, asked Christ to teach him the way to the kingdom of heaven which He preached. For Christ answers by saying that baptism was the way to heaven.
Again: Greek, άνωθεν (anothen), which has a twofold meaning. 1. From above, from heaven, meaning, Except any one be born again by a heavenly and Divine regeneration, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 2. άνωθεν signifies again, a second time. And it is plain that it is so to be understood here from the answer of Nocodemus, Joh 3:4. So S. Chrysostom and others. The Syriac translates from the beginning. And the meaning is, man has two births, one which is natural and carnal, in which he is brought forth under the bond of original sin. Wherefore this birth does not give a man a title to heaven, but to hell. In order therefore that a man may be freed from this sin contracted through his natural birth, a second and spiritual birth must be experienced, by which he must in baptism be born again of water and of the Spirit, and so be cleansed and sanctified from sin. In my opinion άνωθεν (anothen) should be understood according to the first sense given above, i.e., from above. 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, i.e., possess, enjoy.
Joh 3:4 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 saith, &c. “He knew,” says S. Augustine, “but of one birth, that from Adam and Eve.”
Joh 3:5 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.
Jesus answered, &c. Calvin, in order to detract from the effect of justification by baptism, and therefore from the necessity of baptism (for he maintains that the children of believers are justified in the womb simply because they are the children of believers), denies that baptism is here spoken of. He says that by water is to be understood, but the Holy Ghost, who, through faith, cleanses like water those who believe in Christ. He explains as follows, “unless any one be born again of water, and (that is, of) the Holy Ghost.” Thus he says it is similarly spoken (S. Mat 3:11), He shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire, i.e., with the Holy Spirit, who, like fire, shall inflame you with the love of God. But all this is absurd and perverse, and condemned by the Church as heretical.
For, in the first place, why does Christ here make mention of water, if not men, but only fishes, are born again of water? Why did He not say briefly and simply to Nicodemus, who was ignorant of Christian doctrines (whom He here catechises and instructs like a child), unless a man be born again of the Holy Ghost?
2. Because in a similar way S. Paul, alluding to this conversation, (Tit 3:5), calls baptism the laver of regeneration. There in this spiritual birth we are born again of water, and are made sons of God, who before were children of the devil and wrath (Eph 2:3).
3. If it be lawful with Calvin to wrest this passage, then we may do the same with every other passage, and so pervert the whole of Scripture. No commandment will survive, not even the institution of baptism itself.
4. Calvin and his followers cannot possibly prove against the Anabaptists that infants, who are devoid of the exercise of reason and faith, ought to be baptized, from any other passage of Holy Scripture but this. Therefore, since they do not allow of tradition, they must needs prove infant baptism from this passage, unless they are willing to confess themselves vanquished by the Anabaptists.
5. All the Fathers and orthodox interpreters explain the passage in the same way as the Council of Trent (Sess. 7, Can. 2). Nor are the words in S. Matthew, “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire,” any contradiction. For there real fire is to be understood, as here true water. For there the day of Pentecost was referred to, when the Holy Ghost came down upon the apostles in the likeness of tongues of fire.
Very appropriately, moreover, was water ordained by Christ in baptism for this spiritual regeneration. 1. Because water excellently represents inward regeneration. For out of water at the beginning of the world were the whole heavens and all other things born and produced. 2. Because moisture, such as is in water, is a chief agent in the production of offspring, as physicists teach. Again, because justification is a cleansing of the soul from the filth of sin it is well figured by water. As S. Chrysostom says upon this passage, “Like as it were in a tomb our heads are submerged beneath the water: our old man being buried is hidden beneath the water, and then the new man ariseth in its stead.” Lastly, the commonness and abundance of water makes it to be convenient matter for the necessity of this sacrament. For it is everywhere easily procurable.
You may ask why Christ says, except a man be born of water and the Holy Ghost, and did not rather say, of water and the form of baptism? For water is the matter of baptism, but the form is, I baptize thee in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. For the sacrament of baptism consists of its matter and form, as its essential parts. I reply, because Christ wished to describe to Nicodemus, a prejudiced old man, the new teaching of spiritual life and generation, by means of the analogy and similitude of natural generation, in which a father and mother concur. So in like manner to spiritual regeneration, which takes place in baptism, water as it were the mother concurs, and the Holy Ghost as the Father. For He is the chief agent and producer of grace and holiness, by which the children of God are born again in baptism.
From this passage S. Augustine (lib. 1, de peccat. c. 10) proves, against Pelagius, that infants are born in original sin. For that is the reason why they must be born again in baptism, that they may be cleansed from that sin. And he exposes the folly of the Pelagians, who, in order to elude the force of this passage, said that infants dying without baptism would enter into the kingdom of heaven and eternal life, but not into the kingdom of God; as if the kingdom of God were something different from the kingdom of heaven.
Lastly, born of water ought here to be understood either in actual fact, or by desire. For he who repents of his sins, and desires to be baptized, but either from want of water, or lack of a minister, is not able to receive it, is born again through (ex) the desire and wish for baptism. So the Council of Trent fully explains this passage (Sess. 7, Can. 4).
Some are of opinion that the sacrament of baptism was at this time instituted by Christ. But it is not probable that Christ secretly, in the presence of only Nicodemus, instituted the universal sacrament of baptism. Rather, He publicly instituted it at His own baptism in the river Jordan. Baptism, however, although it had been publicly instituted by Christ, was not binding upon the Jews and other men until after Christ’s death, at Pentecost. For then the promulgation of the Evangelical Law took place, whose beginning is baptism. Of this time Christ here speaks. As though He said, “The time for the obligation of the Law of the Gospel is close at hand. When that shall have come, the ancient Law, and circumcision, will cease, and in its place the new Law will succeed, and baptism, in which none save those who are born again of water and of the Holy Ghost will be able to enter into the kingdom of God.” Wherefore this precept of Christ has rather reference to the time after Pentecost, than the present.
Moreover, the expression, unless a man beborn again, intimates that baptism had been already a short time previously instituted by Christ. For Christ spake these words to Nicodemus shortly after His own baptism. And He would not have told him that baptism was necessary for salvation, unless He had already instituted it.
Joh 3:6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh: and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
That which is born (produced), &c. Christ says this both to show the necessity of regeneration by water and the Holy Ghost, and at the same time to declare the reason for it, its excellence and its profit. His argument then is as follows: Flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God, for they are carnal, but the kingdom of God is spiritual. Since therefore of carnal generation only flesh is born, that is, the animal and carnal man, bound under sin, and prone to sin, and so unfitted for the kingdom of God, it follows that if such an one would enter into God’s spiritual kingdom, he must be spiritually born again of water and the Spirit, that he may become a spirit, that is, spiritual, and so fitted for the kingdom of God. Wherefore you have no cause for wonder, 0 Nicodemus, at what I said, that thou must be born again of water and the Holy Ghost. For as flesh generates flesh, that is, corporeal and carnal substance, so does the Spirit generate spirit, that is, spiritual substance: for like generates like. The Holy Spirit transmits His own substance into that which He begets, so far as it can be transmitted. For the Holy Spirit cannot transmit, or transfuse His own substance, or His Deity, into the baptized, for that would be to make them really and truly gods, as He Himself is really and truly God, which would be impossible. Therefore He transfuses Himself into them as far as is possible, by His grace and spiritual gifts, by which He makes the baptized like unto Himself, that is, spiritual, holy, heavenly, and divine. So SS. Cyril, Chrysostom, and others. Let us add that the Holy Spirit gives Himself with His sevenfold gifts to the soul which He sanctifies, and adopts for His child; and therefore that His justification is truly spiritual regeneration, by which we are born again as sons, and partakers of the Divine nature, as I have shown at large in Hos 1:10, on the words, “Ye shall be called the sons of the living God.”
Joh 3:7 Wonder not that I said to thee: You must be born again.
Wonder not, &c. As S. Chrysostom says, “We are not disputing concerning flesh, but concerning spirit. Do not think either that the Spirit begets flesh, or flesh the Spirit.” Therefore it is necessary to be born again of the Spirit, if thou seekest to become spirit or spiritual, and a candidate for heaven.
Joh 3:8 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 Spirit breatheth where he will, &c Christ proceeds to unfold to Nicodemus the reason and nature of spiritual regeneration, and to take away his wonder how such a thing could be possible.
You will ask what spirit is here to be understood. 1. Plainly and simply wind is the spirit. For He compares the Holy Spirit to the wind, as is plain from what follows, So is every one that is born of the Spirit. The meaning is, As the wind blows where its own will, that is, its natural propensity to blow, leads it, and yet you can see neither it, nor its determined place, but only its effects, and voice, or sound; so much more neither thou, nor any one else, however clever and sharp-sighted, can perceive by natural understanding this spiritual regeneration, its end and term. They can only be known by the revelation and inspiration of the Holy Ghost, even though the outward symbols of water and the washing in baptism may be seen with the body’s eyes. Thus S. Chrysostom says, If thou knowest not the way of the wind which thou feelest, how canst thou search out the operation of the Divine Spirit? Christ here plays upon the analogica1 meaning of the word spirit. For first He takes spirit for wind; then He takes it as the Holy Spirit. For wind is the index and symbol of the Holy Ghost. This is clear from the 2d chapter of the Acts, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles as a “rushing mighty wind.”
2. and more sublimely. S. Augustine, Nazianzen, S. Ambrose, S. Gregory, whom Toletus cites and follows, understand by spirit (the wind), the Holy Ghost. They expound thus, “The Holy Ghost bloweth where He willeth, and breathes His own influences of faith, repentance and grace into whomsoever He willeth.” And thou hearest His voice (Vulg.), by the preaching of Myself and My preachers, say S. Augustine, 0rigen, Bede, and Rupertus. Or by voice, efficacy and effects are meant, says Ammon. But thou knowst not whence it cometh, or whither it goeth. Thou knowest not how He enters into a man, or how He returns, say Alcuin and Bede, because His nature is invisible. Again, thou knowest not how He leads believers to faith, nor how He draws the faithful to hope, charity, and the other virtues. Neither dost thou know how He regenerates men to be the sons of God, and leads them to the kingdom of God. Lastly, thou knowest not how He changes the soul of a man, renews and sanctifies it. Thou knowest not to what a height of perfection He can lead him who is born of Himself, says the Gloss.
So is every one, &c. The expression so in this sense does not denote comparison, but confirmation: meaning, “thus, entirely as I have said, is it with every creature who is born again in baptism of the Holy Ghost.” It is a similar expression to that in Mark, So is the kingdom of God (Mar 4:26). There is an allusion to the ancient heroes who, impelled by the Spirit of God, wrought deeds of heroic virtue and fortitude. For when Samson did any mighty deed, it is said, “The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him” (Vulg.) So also the Spirit is said to have clothed Gideon (Jdg 6:34, Vulg.)
3. Maldonatus understands the soul by spirit. “What marvel, O Nicodemus, if thou understandest not how a man can be regenerated by the Holy Ghost, when thou canst not understand how generated of that natural spirit by which he liveth. For the animal spirit bloweth where it listeth, i.e., it animates such bodies as it willeth, and makes them alive from the death. It willeth not all the things that men will, but only those which are so disposed that they can be animated by it.” And thou hearest its voice: “thou hearest a man speaking, or a lion roaring. Thou also in some sense hearest the soul speak, by which means thou understandest that a man is alive, ‘for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and speech is a spark for moving our heart’ (Wis 2:2). But thou knowest not whence it cometh, or whither it goeth, because thou art ignorant how the soul enters into the body, how it goeth out of the body, how it is produced, or what is its destiny. If therefore thou art ignorant of the spirit, i.e., the soul, which animates what body it willeth, and by it speaks, is born, and dies, knowing neither its generation, nor the way in which it comes and goes, what wonder that thou canst not understand the way of spiritual regeneration, whereby a Christian is born anew of the Spirit in baptism?” This meaning is new, but apposite and connected. It draws the argument from the natural generation of the soul to the supernatural generation of grace which is brought about by the power of the Holy Ghost. And it shows from the fact of the one being unsearchable how much more unsearchable must be the other. So in like manner most unsearchable are the things which God works in the soul which He illuminates by the rays of His light which He consoles, strengthens, inflows, and as it were transforms unto Himself. For as S. Dionysius says, Divine love causes ecstasy, so that a man feels not earthly good or ill, but being lifted up above them, all, he receives and tastes only the things of God.