Not Enough

1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:1-15 ESV

After recording Jesus’ less-than-flattering address to the religious leaders, John picks up the story with Jesus leaving Jerusalem and traveling back to the region of Galilee. As is clear from a reading of the other gospels, John chooses to skip a lot of other important events in Jesus’ life and picks up his narrative with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. It was not that John was unaware of these other details of Jesus’ life because he would have been an eyewitness to all of them. It is that he was purposefully piecing together key events that provided further evidence to support his theme of Jesus’ deity. For John, the whole point of his gospel was to prove that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh.

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

Throughout his gospel, John concentrates his attention on those events surrounding the life of Jesus that help support his thesis. He intentionally chooses the stories that he feels best illustrate the point he is trying to make. John is not so much interested in providing a day-by-day account of the life of Jesus as he is in demonstrating and proving the deity of Jesus.

So, he picks up the story with Jesus arriving at “the other side of the Sea of Galilee” (John 6:1 ESV). We know from Luke’s gospel that the scene for this miracle was near a town called Bethsaida, located on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Luke 9:10). According to Matthew’s account, upon hearing the news of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13 ESV). But when He returned to shore, Jesus found a large crowd had gathered to see Him. Mark adds that Jesus viewed the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 ESV) and His compassion led Him to heal many of those who were sick among them. According to John, Jesus’ actions attracted an even larger crowd, filled with people from the neighboring towns who were anxious to see this miracle worker for themselves. 

John describes Jesus gathering His 12 disciples and taking them to the crest of a local hillside. They had just returned from their first official missionary assignment (Mark 6:30-32; Luke 9:10) and Jesus knew they needed rest and a time to debrief from their experience.

The scene is set. John the Baptist is dead. The disciples of Jesus have returned from their assignment, tired and hungry, but anxious to share about all the miracles they had performed (Luke 9:6). A large crowd has gathered, drawn by news of the miracles of Jesus. And John adds the somewhat random note that the Feast of the Passover was just around the corner. That reference will become more important as his story unfolds.

John, in his recollection of the day’s events, describes Jesus as turning to Philip and asking, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” (John 6:5 ESV). None of the other gospel accounts include this conversation between Jesus and Philip. It may be that John was the only one of the disciples who overheard this exchange. It is significant because Philip was the only disciple who was from Bethsaida (John 1:44). He would have had firsthand knowledge of the area and known where bread could be purchased. But John indicates that Jesus’ question was really just a test.

Philip and his companions had just returned from the assignment given to them by Jesus, and Luke provides the instructions they had received.

One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. “Take nothing for your journey,” he instructed them. “Don’t take a walking stick, a traveler’s bag, food, money, or even a change of clothes. Wherever you go, stay in the same house until you leave town. And if a town refuses to welcome you, shake its dust from your feet as you leave to show that you have abandoned those people to their fate.”– Luke 9:1-5 ESV

And Luke adds that they had followed Jesus’ instructions, traveling from village to village, “preaching the Good News and healing the sick” (Luke 9:6 ESV). These men had been given “power and authority” by Jesus so that they had been able to cast out demons and heal the sick, just as He did. And when they returned to Jesus, they told Him all that they had done.

Now, Jesus gave His disciples a test. He wanted to see how they were going to handle this particular moment in time. Had their faith been strengthened by their recent experience? Did they believe that the power and authority given to them by Jesus was enough to handle any circumstance they might encounter?  Jesus wasn’t interested in knowing whether Philip had a source for the purchase of bread. He wanted to know if His disciples were convinced that He was the source of all things. He had given them power and authority, and they had seen it in action. But now, when faced with what appeared to be an overwhelming physical problem, would their faith fail them?

Philip’s response to Jesus’ question provides the answer:

“Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” – John 6:7 ESV

From Philip’s perspective, the problem was greater than their capacity to solve it. There were just too many people to feed. And Andrew reveals just how dire the situation really was: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (John 6:9 ESV). The other gospel writers indicate that the disciples concluded that the best solution was to let the people fend for themselves.

“…send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” – Matthew 14:15 ESV

“Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” – Mark 6:36 ESVC

“Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” – Luke 9:12 ESV

They failed the test. Their personal experience wielding the power and authority given to them by Jesus had been real, but its effect had been shortlived. They were unable to look at their current situation and see that the solution was well within their reach. But Jesus knew that nothing was impossible. So, He instructed the disciples to gather the crowd (the sheep without a shepherd) and seat them on the grassy hillside. Then John records that Jesus “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted” (John 6:11 ESV).

Jesus, with the power and authority given to Him by God the Father, fed the sheep. He shepherded the flock of God, miraculously meeting their need in full. This amazing event should bring to mind the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name’s sake. – Psalm 23:1-3 ESV

John points out that the people “ate their fill.” They were completely satisfied. No one went without and there was no one who failed to have their need fully met. The Shepherd fully satisfied the needs of His flock. In fact, there were 12 baskets of leftovers gathered by the disciples. Each of them held in his hands a basket full of tangible proof that with the Lord as their shepherd, they would never have a single unmet need.

But it is interesting to note that John describes the reaction of the people, but not of the disciples.

“This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” – John 6:14 ESV

The people were amazed by what they had seen and experienced. But John portrays the disciples as strangely silent. Jesus had just displayed His divine power and authority yet again, yet the disciples had nothing to say. But the people were ready to crown Jesus as their king. And John concludes the story with a telling comment:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:15 ESV

Jesus withdrew. He left the crowds and His disciples behind, choosing instead to seek time alone. And Mark tells us that Jesus went up on the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:46 ESV). Escaping the craving crowds and His disconcerted disciples, Jesus sought the companionship of His Heavenly Father. The Son of God returned to the source of His power and authority, seeking to hear from the one who knew Him best.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Proof Positive

30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me. 31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. 33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. 35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. 36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. – John 5:30-36 ESV

Despite what the religious leaders believed, Jesus was not some independent agent acting on his own behalf. He was the Son of God and had been sent on a divinely-sanctioned mission by His Heavenly Father. All that He said and did was in keeping with and in full submission to the will of the Father. In fact, Jesus has already stated that, “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19 ESV).

Now, He repeats that same thought but ties it to His claim to have God-given authority to act as judge over mankind.

I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30 ESV).

As the Son of God, Jesus was operating under the authority of His Heavenly Father. Though a co-equal with God, Jesus had willingly submitted Himself to do His Father’s will. He had come to earth, taken on human flesh, and was doing and saying only what His Father had instructed Him to do. And part of the responsibility God had given His Son was to judge or discern between those who truly believed in Him and those who were standing in opposition to His ministry and mission. Because of His direct access to the Father, Jesus knew exactly what God knew and was able to pass judgment on the words and actions of others.

It was His relationship with the Father that gave Jesus the authority for all that He said and did. And Jesus made it clear that without His Father’s approval, His claims would be of no value. Anyone could say they had been sent by God, but only Jesus could back up His words with tangible proof.

“If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true.” – John 5:31-32 ESV

The very fact that Jesus could cause a paralyzed man to walk was evidence of God’s power over His life. Every miraculous sign He performed was further proof that He had God’s divine seal of approval over His ministry. It is highly likely that the religious leaders had heard the rumors concerning Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Some of them may have been there to witness what had happened. Matthew records in his gospel that when Jesus had come up out of the water “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV).

It is not clear whether anyone else heard the testimony of God that day, but Jesus did. He knew who He was and what He had been sent to do. And all that He did from that point forward was in keeping with the will of His Father.

Jesus reminds the religious leaders that they had sent a team of priests and Levites to interrogate John the Baptist in order to determine who he was and what he was up to in the wilderness. They had heard the rumors that he might be the long-awaited Messiah. And when these men had confronted John the Baptist and demanded to know who he was, he had been very blunt in his reponse.

He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” – John 1:20-23 ESV

Even John had witnessed to the fact that he was only the forerunner for the one who was to come. His job had been to prepare the way for someone greater and more significant than himself. And he had told his interrogators: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27 ESV).

And Jesus accuses the religious leaders of having been caught up in the fervor and excitement surrounding John the Baptist’s ministry. His declaration that the kingdom of God was near at hand had gotten their attention. So much so, that some of them had shown up at the Jordan River to watch John baptize. They were curious and wanted to make sure they were not missing out on something important. But John had seen them in the crowd and called them out.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? – Matthew 3:7 ESV

They had heard the testimony of John and seen the crowds of people seeking baptism for the repentance of their sins, but they had still refused to believe. And John had warned these self-righteous men that they would face certain judgment at the hands of the one who was to come.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:11-12 ESV

John the Baptist had been painfully clear in his testimony regarding Jesus. He had held nothing back, declaring in no uncertain terms that the Messiah had come and the judgment had begun.

But Jesus admits that John’s testimony, while true, was superseded by a greater and more compelling testimony: The evidence of His divinity as revealed by His miracles.

“…the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.” – John 5:36 ESV

But there is more to Jesus’ statement than His claim to perform supernatural signs and wonders. There had been others in Israel’s history who had been given the divine ability to do miraculous signs, including Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. The miracles Jesus performed were just a portion of the “work” that He did. Every aspect of His earthly life was a witness to His divine calling and commission. His life of perfect obedience gave evidence of who He was. His powerful words, spoken with an authority the people had never heard before (John 7:46), were further proof of His identity.

This entire scene portrays the conflict between Jesus, the Son of God, and the religious leaders of His day. These men were experts in the law and avid students of the Hebrew scriptures. They were knowledgable and well-informed. If anyone should have understood the identity of the coming Messiah, it should have been them. But here was the Messiah standing right in front of them, but they were blind to the reality of His identity and stubbornly resistant to any evidence that might support His claim to be the anointed one of God.

And Jesus is about to use His God-given authority as the judge of all mankind to condemn them for their willful refusal to accept the overwhelming evidence of His identity. They were without excuse and their fate was sealed. It was just as Jesus had told Nicodemus, another curious but unconvinced member of the Pharisees.

God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.” – John 3:17-18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Believe It Or Not

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. – John 5:25-29 ESV

The Jewish leaders have deemed Jesus as worthy of death. His claim of equality with God has left them no other choice. According to the law, He has blasphemed and the prescribed penalty for that crime was death. But Jesus, fully aware of their plans for Him, has decided to address their concern by further emphasizing His claim to be the Son of God. Even when facing the threat of death, He refuses to deny His identity. In fact, Jesus only escalates the tension between He and His adversaries by establishing Himself as the judge of all mankind.

For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son…” – John 4:22 ESV

To the Pharisees and Sadducees, this bold claim would have sounded not only blasphemous but highly offensive. Who was this uneducated Rabbi from Nazareth to think that He could stand in judgment over them? They represented the religious elite of Israel and considered themselves to be the epitome of righteousness and holiness. Yet, here was Jesus telling them that He, not God, would be their ultimate judge and the determiner of their eternal fate.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” – John 5:24 ESV

It seems quite apparent that the Pharisees and Sadducees failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ claim. And all His talk about future judgment and eternal life would have caused a major rift within their ranks. These two religious sects, while united in their hatred of Jesus, were divided over several key doctrines, and one of them was the idea of the bodily resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected this doctrine along with the concept of any kind of afterlife. They preferred to believe that, upon death, the soul simply perished. But the Pharisees fully embraced the idea of an afterlife that would be preceded by a physical resurrection of the body and include a judgment by God that would be followed by either reward or punishment according to the deeds done in this life.

So, you can imagine how the words of Jesus must have created an uncomfortable tension between these two disparate factions within His audience. For the Sadducees, just the mention of eternal life would have left them shaking their heads in disbelief and disgust. But the Pharisees, while fully on board with the idea of an afterlife and a future judgment, would have been appalled by Jesus’ claim that He would be their judge.

And Jesus refuses to let up. He continues to expand on this controversial topic, throwing additional fuel on the fire of their anger.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” – John 5:25 ESV

With this statement, Jesus brings the timeline back into the present. With the minds of the Pharisees and Sadducees firmly fixed on the idea of the resurrection and the future judgment, Jesus adroitly shifts the focus to the here-and-now. He is letting them know that the key to securing a reward in the future judgment is to be found in the present. While the Pharisees were convinced that their acts of righteousness were enough to secure their eternal state in God’s kingdom, Jesus is debunking that myth.

He had come to bring new life to the spiritually dead. All who stood in His presence that day were dead in their trespasses and sins, including the Pharisees and Sadducees (Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13). They were totally incapable of earning their way into God’s good graces because, according to the prophet Isaiah, all their works were no better than filthy rags in the eyes of God (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

But Jesus is announcing that the spiritually dead can receive new life in this life, if they will only “hear the voice of the Son of God.” He promises that all who hear and believe will live. This claim would have been radical and heretical to the Pharisees. That Jesus would dare to hold the key to eternal life was one thing, but for Him to seemingly negate the need for doing works of righteousness to earn that reward was unthinkable and unacceptable.

But as difficult as it was for them to accept Jesus’ claim, He assures them that this was all part of the Father’s plan. God had granted His Son the divine authority to bestow the gift of eternal life.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” – John 5:26 ESV

Later on in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus, when He claims to be the door through which all must go if they want to find access to the Father and enjoy the promise of abundant life.

“I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:9-10 ESV

The key to eternal life is to be found in this life, but only through belief in the giver of life. John opened up his gospel with the bold claim concerning Jesus:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. – John 1:4 ESV

And John went on to declare that “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).

According to Jesus, the Father has not only given Him the authority to bestow eternal life but to also execute future judgment.

“And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” – John 5:27 ESV

Jesus has the right to execute judgment, not just because He is the Son of God, but because He is the Son of Man. Jesus was God incarnate, deity in the form of humanity. The Son of God had humbled Himself by becoming one of us and choosing to dwell among us. And He would live His earthly life in complete obedience to His Heavenly Father, without sin and in full compliance with every command given by God to Moses. And it would be His sinless perfection that made Him the acceptable sacrifice to pay for the sins of men. That is why John the Baptist had referred to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

Jesus would eventually “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). He would pour out His blood “as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many” (Matthew 26:28 NLT). And because He would willingly give His life as payment for the sins of man, He would become the ultimate judge of all mankind. And the future judgment that all mankind must face will be based on belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is the point Jesus had tried to make with Nicodemus.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:16-18 ESV

The key to eternal life is to believe in Jesus as the giver of life. It is to believe that His sacrificial death satisfied the just demands of a holy God and paid in full the debt owed by the sinner. But that belief must take place in this life. The guarantee of eternal life comes when we place our faith in Jesus in this life. And Jesus assures the confused and consternated religious leaders standing before Him that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a future judgment.

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” – John 5:28-29 ESV

But the key to earning entrance into the Kingdom of God will be based on belief in the Son of God. This final statement from Jesus could easily leave the impression that He is tying eternal life to good works. After all, He seems to state that eternal life is reserved for “those who have done good.” But Jesus will later clarify the only “work” that will earn anyone entrance into God’s Kingdom.

This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV

Belief. It’s as simple as that. But for the Pharisees and Sadducees, the content of this message from Jesus was anything but simple and it would prove far from acceptable. And Jesus, aware of their stubborn refusal to believe in who He is and what He is claiming to offer, will go on to expose them for their disbelief and inform them of their future fate.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Working On the Sabbath

13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:13-18 ESV

A man, who had been paralyzed for 38 years, suddenly found himself physically whole and able to walk. In a rather bizarre encounter by the Pool of Bethesda, a complete stranger had approached him and asked if he wished to be healed. This rather blunt question had only reminded the man of his complete inability to enter the pool when the waters were stirred. He was an invalid, with no one to assist him in his time of need. But to his complete surprise, the stranger demanded. “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (John 5:8 ESV). And John records that “at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (John 5:8 ESV).   

One of the significant facts concerning this story is that the man who was restored to health was totally ignorant of the identity of the one who had healed him. He had no idea who Jesus was and, from John’s description of the event, it would appear that the man didn’t really care. His only concern was that he had once been lame but now he could walk.

And when the Pharisees confronted him for carrying his bedroll and breaking the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath, he had blamed the stranger.

But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’ – John 5:11 ESV

In a sense, the man was excusing his actions by saying, “I was just doing what I was told to do.” And when the religious leaders demanded to know the name of the one who had told him to violate the Sabbath, the man pleaded ignorance. Jesus had simply disappeared into the crowd, having never identified Himself to the man.

This entire miracle appears to have been done in secret. No one seems to have witnessed what had taken place. The religious leaders make no reference to the healing. John mentions no reaction from the crowd. And the man who was healed had no idea that he had just met the Messiah.

While the miracle had been significant, John’s real emphasis seems to be that it had occurred on the Sabbath. This entire encounter has less to do with belief or faith than it has to do with Jesus’ divine authority. By healing the man’s long-term illness, Jesus displayed His authority over the physical world. But by performing this miracle on the Sabbath, Jesus proved His divine authority over even the law. Jesus was not in violation of the law because, as God, He was its author. He knew the true intent behind each commandment found in the law. And while the religious leaders were guilty of turning God’s law into a legalistic and restrictive set of regulations based on their own interpretations, the Son of God was fully aware of its original meaning and purpose.

Jesus would later condemn the religious leaders of Israel for demanding strict adherence to the law while neglecting and ignoring the very heart behind the law.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” – Matthew 23:23 NLT

The religious leaders had made the law all about earning favor with God through outward expressions of obedience. But, in doing so, they had missed the point. As the apostle Paul later pointed out, the law had been given not just to regulate man’s behavior, but to expose his problem with sin.

Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions… – Galatians 3:19 BSB

Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the law. For the law merely brings awareness of sin. – Romans 3:20 BSB

This entire encounter between Jesus and the paralyzed man had been intended as a lesson about sin and man’s need of a Savior. Remember, when Jesus had first found the man, he had been lying by the pool, paralyzed and totally incapable of bringing about his own healing. His illness had left him incapacitated and unable to follow the rules required to experience the healing qualities found in the waters of the pool. He needed help. And Jesus had appeared on the scene, offering him the help he so desperately needed. But notice that Jesus did not help the man get into the pool. The water would not be the source of the man’s healing. It would come from Jesus Himself.

And when Jesus later encountered the man in the temple, Jesus gave him some interesting instructions.

“Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” – John 5:14 NET

Jesus seems to link the man’s illness to sin. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was inferring that the man had been paralyzed as a form of divine punishment for some past sin he had committed. Jesus’ point seems to be that a life of sin has consequences. The very existence of sickness, disease, and suffering in the world is due to the pervasive presence of sin. And by demanding that the man abstain from committing any further sins, Jesus was requiring the impossible. This unredeemed man could no more refrain from sinning than he could have helped himself enter the waters of the Pool of Bethesda. He was in need of a Savior.

While this man had been freed from his physical paralysis, he still remained spiritually paralyzed by the debilitating presence of sin. He could walk, but he still lacked the capacity to walk in newness of life. He remained condemned by sin, even though he had met “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

This man seems to have been completely satisfied with what He had received from Jesus: His physical healing. He shows no interest in who Jesus was or how He had pulled off his healing. Receiving the ability to walk had been his life-long dream. It had been the reason for his presence at the Pool of Bethesda that day. Yet, while he had received his heart’s desire, he was still missing what he really needed: Salvation from sin and release from the condemnation of death.

Eventually, the man discovered Jesus’ name and reported it to the religious authorities. And John makes it clear that these men had no interest in the miracle Jesus had performed. The man’s healing meant nothing to them. They were only concerned with the fact that Jesus had violated the Sabbath prohibition against work. From their legalistic perspective, He was nothing more than a common law-breaker.

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” – John 5:17 ESV

This rather enigmatic statement from Jesus did nothing to pacify their anger with Him. It only infuriated them further. In their minds, by declaring Himself to be the Son of God, Jesus was claiming to be divine. And that was the unpardonable sin of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death.

Yet, Jesus was simply stating that His actions were in keeping with the will of God. He was only doing what He had been sent to do. To the Pharisees, the Sabbath was all about rest or cessation from work. But for Jesus, even the Sabbath was a day reserved for doing the will and the work of God. There was no rest when it came to accomplishing God’s plan of redemption. The original intent of the Sabbath had been to remind the people of Israel of their complete dependence upon God. By taking one day out of seven and ceasing from any form of labor, they would recognize that God was their provider. He would meet all their needs, even when they were restricted from providing any assistance.

But the Jews had turned the day of rest into a day of duty and a form of works. Rather than resting in the providence and provision of God, they put their hope in their ability to “work” at resting. By fastidiously keeping God’s command to cease from all labor on the Sabbath, they were earning their way into His good graces. They were not looking to God to provide for their needs. They were depending upon their own acts of righteousness as demonstrated by their strict, over-the-top adherence to His law.

And sadly, John reveals that the religious leaders failed to recognize that the Lord of Sabbath was standing in their midst. They firmly and angrily rejected Jesus’ claim to be on equal standing with God. And their frustration with Jesus turned into a firm resolve to see Him put to death.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Savior of the World

39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

43 After the two days he departed for Galilee. 44 (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) 45 So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast. – John 4:39-45 ESV

Like the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, a prominent Jewish religious leader, had enjoyed a personal, one-on-one encounter with Jesus. He had heard with his own ears how Jesus described the requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God:

“…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

Jesus had gone on to explain the need for spiritual new birth – a birth from above – made possible by God and accessible only through belief in His Son.

“…whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:15 ESV

But Nicodemus had simply walked away from that late-night discussion with Jesus. There was no indication by John that this prominent member of the Pharisees had accepted what Jesus had said and believed in Him for eternal life. But John had opened his gospel with the sad, but accurate news that Jesus would find few among His own people who would receive Him as their Messiah and Savior.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:11-13 ESV

Yet in the case of the Samaritan woman (who was considered a non-Jew), she had literally run away from her encounter with Jesus, leaving her water jar behind, and making her way into her village so that she could tell them about her experience.

“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” – John 4:29 ESV

And John indicates that many of her fellow villagers “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39 ESV). When they had heard her story of how Jesus had somehow known all about her five former husbands and had exposed the truth behind her current adulterous relationship, they had believed. Their belief was based on her words and nothing else. It was on the basis of the woman’s personal testimony that they made their way to the well to see Jesus for themselves. Their curiosity was piqued and they wanted to see if Jesus just might be the Christ, the Messiah.

As Samaritans, they worshiped the same God as the Jews and shared a common belief with them concerning the Messiah. So, when their neighbor had come to them with her story about an encounter with a strange Jewish man who had revealed hidden secrets concerning her life, they had wanted to know more. According to John, they were so intrigued by Jesus that they convinced Him to remain with them for two more days. And the result was that “many more believed because of his word” (John 4:41 ESV).

John makes it clear that the nature of their belief had changed. They had gone from believing what the woman had said about Jesus to believing in Jesus.

They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” – John 4:42 ESV

Her story had led them to believe that Jesus just might be the Christ. But, now that they had heard Him for themselves, they were convinced that He was the Savior of the world. This designation concerning Jesus is unique to the writings of John. It appears here and in one other place: 1 John 4:13-14.

By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

It coincides with the message the angel gave to Joseph concerning his betrothed’s unexpected pregnancy.

“do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” – Matthew 1:20-21 NLT

In Greek, the word “save” is sōzō and it means “to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction.” It is the root word from which the designation “Savior” is derived. This was a common term among the Greeks and Romans and used to refer not only to their deities but to men of great distinction.

But the Samaritans were using this term to describe Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. Like the Jews, they believed He would come to redeem God’s people from their oppression at the hands of foreign powers. The Samaritans, as half-Jews, were just as anxious to see the arrival of the Messiah because they believed He would restore order to the entire world by establishing His kingdom and righting all wrongs.

It’s interesting that these verses contain no mention of the disciples. But it seems obvious that they would have remained with Jesus throughout His two-day stay among the Samaritans. And it seems equally clear that they would have been appalled at the idea of spending an additional 48 hours among a people whom they believed to be unclean and unacceptable to God. Yet, here was their Rabbi and teacher spending extended time with these unworthy “dogs” and sharing with them His message of new birth from above and the promise of eternal life.

John would have been one of the ones who stood by in amazement as he watched Jesus interact with the Samaritans. And his emphasis on their “belief” in Jesus is intended to drive home the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus: “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 NLT).

Jesus had made it perfectly clear to Nicodemus that the Son of God had come to offer salvation to “the world,” not just the Jews.

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” – John 3:16-17 NLT

And the Samaritan woman and her neighbors were evidence that the Son was no respecter of persons. His message of salvation, while offered to the Jews, was not reserved for them alone. He had come to provide salvation to all who would believe in Him, regardless of their country of origin, economic status, religious affiliation, or educational background.

It was the prophet Isaiah who wrote concerning the coming Messiah:

God, the Lord, created the heavens and stretched them out.
    He created the earth and everything in it.
He gives breath to everyone,
    life to everyone who walks the earth.
And it is he who says,
“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
   You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:5-7 NLT

Jesus had come to fulfill the words of that prophecy and the Samaritans were living proof that He was a light to guide to the nations, opening the eyes of the spiritually blind, setting free those held captive by sin, and bringing release to all those sitting on death row, condemned to suffer the consequences of their rebellion against God. Jesus was the Savior of the world. And while not everyone living in the world would accept His offer of salvation, He made it available to all, and “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

In Spirit and Truth

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:16-26 ESV

The woman wanted what Jesus had to offer. The thought of a source of freely flowing water that would eliminate her constant need to draw water from the well of Jacob was more than appealing to her. But, like Nicodemus, she was missing the point of Jesus’ words. She had come to the well to meet a physical need. Her mission had been to draw water from the well for use in drinking, bathing, and cleaning. Water was a daily necessity that made living in that arid region possible. Without it, life would be impossible.

But even water has its limitations. It can be consumed to quench thirst, but in time, the thirst will return. Water can be used to wash away the dirt and grime of life, but it can’t prevent one from becoming filthy again. That’s why the woman was forced to return to the well on a daily basis. Her need for water was insatiable.

Yet Jesus had piqued the woman’s interest with His mention of  “living water.” But don’t miss how He had opened His conversation with her.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” – John 4:10 ESV

The woman was clueless as to Jesus’ identity. When she had arrived at the well, she was surprised to find an unknown Jewish man waiting there. And her surprise turned to shock when this stranger dared to speak to her – “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). Yet Jesus assured her that, had she known who He was and the nature of the gift He had to offer, she would have been the first to speak that day.

Jesus, in need of water to satisfy His thirst, had stopped at the well. But as the woman pointed out, He had “nothing to draw water with” (John 4:11 ESV). So He had asked her for help because she was the only one who had the means by which to satisfy His need. Yet, the inference behind the story is that the woman had a need for something far greater than water. And if she had only known the true identity of the stranger at the well and what He was capable of offering her, she would have been begging Him for the gift of God. 

It is easy to overlook the fact that both Nicodemus and this woman were worshipers of Yahweh. He was an orthodox member of the sect of the Pharisees. She was a Samaritan. He worshiped the God of Abraham at the temple in Jerusalem. Her people chose to worship Him at Mount Gerizim. Nicodemus prided Himself on his identity as a purebred Jew and a strict adherent to the Mosaic Law. The Samaritan woman, though viewed as a half-breed by the Jews, believed that her people were worshiping Yahweh in the manner prescribed by Moses. But what both failed to take into account was their need for a Savior. While the Jews and the Samaritans believed in the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, they were clueless as to His real mission. 

The primary message found in chapters 3 and 4 is that of need, and Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had the same need in common. The need for eternal life. But in order to have eternal life, they would have to experience cleansing from their sin. Jesus had described it to Nicodemus as birth from above. He described it to the woman at the well as living water. Both of these individuals, despite their obvious differences, would be denied access into God’s kingdom for the very same reason: Sin.

Nicodemus, while outwardly righteous in appearance, was guilty of hypocrisy, just like the rest of his fellow members of the Pharisees. Jesus would have some harsh words of indictment against these well-respected members of Israel’s religious elite.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” – Matthew 23:27 NLT

But the woman at the well had her own set of issues. Not only was she a Samaritan and, therefore, guilty of practicing idolatry, but she was also guilty of violating the law of God. As Jesus was about to point out, she was an adulteress. When he asked her to go get her husband, she confessed that she was unmarried. But Jesus knew more about her than she could have ever imagined, and He revealed to her the true nature of her need.

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” – John 4:17-18 ESV

Suddenly, Jesus shifted the topic of conversation away from water to sin. He made it painfully personal. And while the woman’s statement had been anything but a confession, Jesus declared that what she had said was more true than she realized. She had no husband because she was in an adulterous relationship. She was guilty of sin.

But in a somewhat awkward attempt to change the subject, the woman declared, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19 ESV). She desperately wanted to talk about something other than her five failed marriages and her current live-in relationship. So, sensing that Jesus had some kind of prophetic powers, she decided to ask Him about an important point of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” – John 4:20 ESV

By refocusing the topic of conversation, she was hoping to divert attention away from her own personal problems. But Jesus was not going to allow that to happen. He addressed her question, but in a way that brought the focus right back on her. In essence, Jesus let her know that the issue had less to do about where God should be worshiped, but the motive behind the worship. The Jews and Samaritans were busy debating about location, but Jesus was far more interested in motivation. Why were they worshiping God?

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on her that must have left her reeling.

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. – John 4:21 ESV

The worship of God wasn’t about a temple in Jerusalem or a shrine on Mount Gerizim. It was a matter of the heart. While the Jews had a more accurate understanding of God, they were guilty of worshiping Him falsely. Jesus would later declare of the Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:8-9 NLT).

And He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22 ESV). The Samaritans practiced a form of syncretism that blended the worship of Yahweh with that of false gods. Their doctrine was polluted and filled with pagan ideas that rendered Yahweh virtually unrecognizable.

Jesus fast-forwarded the conversation to the future, revealing that a day would come when “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23 ESV). Worship will no longer be about location and the ritual observation of rules and regulations. It will be about a relationship with God based on spirit and truth. And Jesus informed the woman that the future hour to which He referred was actually “now here.” It had arrived. And He had been the one to usher it in.

But what did He mean by “spirit and truth?” And how had His arrival changed the nature of man’s worship of God? The two terms “spirit and truth” are actually meant to convey one idea. Jesus is attempting to define worship that which is “truly spiritual.” In other words, it is not some physical activity practiced in a particular place and according to some man-made set of governing rules. It is a matter of the heart, not the head. It is spiritual in nature and not physical. Going through the religious motions either in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim was not going to cut it. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had been guilty of worshiping the one true God falsely and unfaithfully.

But Jesus had come to make the true worship of God possible, by restoring sinful men and women to a right relationship with Him. To do so, they would have to be born of the Spirit, just as He had told Nicodemus. They would have to have their spiritual thirst quenched by the living water Jesus would provide. And just a few chapters later, John will describe Jesus standing in the temple courtyard, shouting:

Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”(When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.).” – John 7:38-39 NLT

The true worship of God would be made possible by the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. And to receive the Spirit, one would have to accept the gracious gift of salvation made possible through the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

These words left the woman in a state of confusion. She was having a difficult time following what Jesus had to say. But she proclaimed her belief in the coming of the Messiah and her hope that He would clear up all the confusion regarding where to worship God. And that’s when Jesus boldly proclaimed to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26 ESV). The not-yet had become the now. The long-awaited Messiah had shown up and He was talking to her. The answer to her question regarding the true worship of God was standing right in front of her.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Is True

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. 33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. 34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. – John 3:31-36 ESV

These closing verses of chapter 3 act as a kind of closing statement that summarizes all that has taken place since the initial encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. It appears that the apostle John is the one providing this summary, in an attempt to reinforce his overarching theme of Jesus’ divine nature. John takes various aspects of the chapter 3 chronology and uses them to support his premise that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah of Israel.

John the Baptist had clearly stated, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him” (John 3:28 ESV). He knew his role as the precursor to the coming Messiah. And with the Messiah’s arrival, John the Baptist knew that his role would naturally diminish.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30 ESV

He would be little more than a friend of the bridegroom, a spectator watching as his friend took center stage. And John the Baptist found great joy in accepting his diminished importance because the one for whom the nation had long waited had finally appeared.

And John points out that the appearance of the Messiah was not an everyday occurrence. He had come “from above.” The Greek word John used is anōthen, and it is the very same word Jesus used when speaking to Nicodemus about the new birth.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

Jesus had been trying to let Nicodemus know that entrance into the kingdom of God would require something other than physical birth into the family of Israel. It would require a spiritual birth – from above. That’s why Jesus informed Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Entrance into God’s eternal kingdom was going to require that all men be “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 ESV), and Jesus had come to make that possible.

John goes on to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature by dispelling the long-held belief among the Jews that the Messiah would simply be a man, after the likeness of King David. Their expectation was like that of their ancient ancestors, who had demanded of the prophet Samuel, “Give us a king to judge us like all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5 NLT).

Even after centuries of lousy leadership under a long line of human kings, the Israelites were still hoping for someone to show up who would follow in the footsteps of David. But John is emphasizing that Jesus, the Messiah, was from above and not of the earth. He had not only been sent by God, but He was actually God in human flesh. This further supports the opening statement of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 ESV).

Two times in verse 31, John asserts that “He who comes from heaven is above all” (John 3:31 ESV). In other words, Jesus, because of His divinity, is superior to anything and everyone that is of this earth. He is the Word of God. He speaks on behalf of God and as God, and “He bears witness to what he has seen and heard” (John 3:32 ESV). Jesus was revealing divine truth, received directly from the throne room of God in heaven. He was not a mere mortal speaking man-made words, but He was the Son of God speaking the words of God. He would later claim: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10 ESV).  And Jesus would later expand on His divine authority to speak His Father’s words.

“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” – John 12:49-50 ESV

And yet, John sadly notes that “no one receives his testimony” (John 3:32 ESV). Jesus was the incarnate Word of God, speaking on behalf of His Heavenly Father. And the gist of His message was the gracious offer of eternal life that would be made available through His death and resurrection. But the people did not believe His testimony. They refused to accept that He spoke for God.

But John counted himself among the few who had chosen to believe the testimony of Jesus. And, writing long after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and having experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, John’s early belief in Jesus had been fully justified and proven well-founded. That is why he was able to say, “Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true” (John 3:33 ESV).

Verse 34 seems to be John’s personal testimony that his belief in Jesus had resulted in his anointing by the Holy Spirit.

For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. – John 3:34 ESV

The indwelling presence of the Spirit was all the proof John needed to believe that Jesus had been sent by God and had spoken on His behalf. John remembered the promise that Jesus had made to His disciples.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father.” – John 14:12 NLT

Jesus rather obliquely refers to His ascension, indicating that His departure would be necessary in order for the Spirit of God to come. And just a few verses later, John records the further promise of Jesus that would be the key to accomplishing greater works than He had done.

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth.” – John 14:16 NLT

For John, this was all about authority. Jesus had been sent by God. He spoke on behalf of God. And all that He said was the truth of God. John is trying to get his readers to understand that Jesus was divine, which is why he states, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35 ESV). Jesus possessed divine authority over the wind, waves, disease, and demons. His word was greater than that of kings, religious councils, or political parties. God loved Jesus so much that He imbued Him with all His divine authority. And Jesus would later tell His followers that they would experience that same love of God and have access to the full authority of God.

“When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” – John 14:20-21 NLT

Having received the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, John was fully convinced that Jesus was exactly who He had claimed to be. John knew the full extent of God’s love because He had been filled with God’s Spirit, just as Jesus had promised. God the Father and God the Son had taken up permanent residence in John’s life in the form of indwelling Holy Spirit (John 14:23). And it had all begun when John had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God sent from above. So, he reminds his readers that it all begins with belief.

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. – John 3:36 ESV

His emphasis is on eternal life, which will be experienced within the coming kingdom of God. Jesus had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. He had not come to sit on a throne but to die on a cross. He had come “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT). And John had witnessed that selfless, sacrificial act with his own eyes. He had seen Jesus crucified and buried. But he had also seen Him in His resurrected state and had stood by as Jesus ascended back into heaven where He was restored to His rightful place at His Father’s side.

John wants his readers to believe. He wants them to have the same remarkable experience he has had. And he warns them that, if they refuse to believe, they will remain under the righteous wrath of God. There was only one way to escape God’s pending judgment and that was through faith in Jesus Christ, His Son.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Heavenly Calling

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).

25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:22-30 ESV

Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus ended somewhat abruptly, with John providing no details concerning the Pharisee’s final reaction to all that he had heard. The next time John mentions Nicodemus is in chapter 7, in reference to a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, of which Nicodemus was a member. They had called a meeting in order to discuss the disturbing reactions of the people regarding Jesus.

…some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” – John 7:40-41 ESV

Even the high priest’s personal guard, who had heard Jesus speak, reported, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46 ESV). But Pharisees reacted angrily, shouting, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:47-49 ESV). These men, who prided themselves in their superior knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures believed themselves to be too astute to be fooled by this charlatan from Nazareth. But the people were fools and easily deceived. But John adds an interesting note concerning Nicodemus, “who had gone to him before, and who was one of them” (John 7:50 ESV). Nicodemus risked his reputation by speaking up on the behalf of Jesus.

“Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” –John 7:51 ESV  

It seems clear that Nicodemus’ nighttime discussion with Jesus had made an impression on him. The words of Jesus had been bouncing around in his head and he was wrestling with what he believed about this man from Galilee. The next time we hear about Nicodemus is in chapter 19, in reference to the death and burial of Jesus. John records that Joseph of Arimathea, who he describes as a disciple of Jesus, had sought permission from Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. And John adds that Nicodemus, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight” (John 19:39 ESV). This prominent member of the Pharisees took the risk of bringing spices and oils to anoint the body of Jesus. This does not prove that Nicodemus believed Jesus to be his Messiah and Savior, but it is hard to imagine that Nicodemus did not have the following words of Jesus in mind.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV

After his late-night encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus had returned to his life as a Pharisee, but with much to think about. But John describes Jesus as returning to the Judean wilderness, where He had been baptized by John the Baptist.

John sets up another contrast between these two men. He describes both Jesus and John the Baptist as baptizing all those who came. In the very next chapter, John points out that Jesus “was making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:2 ESV), but adds the following point of clarification:although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (John 4:3 ESV).

John the Baptist had appeared on the scene first and he had garnered his fair share of disciples. But with the arrival of Jesus, things began to change. The disciples who had chosen to follow John the Baptist were confused by the notoriety of Jesus and had begun to see Him as competition. And they brought their concern to John the Baptist.

“Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” – John 3:26 ESV

With the arrival of Jesus, John the Baptist had not shut down his ministry and sought early retirement. He had continued to preach his message that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and he baptized all those who were willing to repent and seek forgiveness for their sins. But further down the Jordan River, Jesus and His disciples were doing the same thing.

The disciples of John the Baptist have just had a discussion with a Jew concerning the exact nature of the baptisms they were performing. The Greek word John uses is katharismos, and it refers to the practice of ceremonial cleansing or washing with water. It seems likely that the debate or discussion between John the Baptist’s disciples and the unnamed Jews had centered around a question of just what kind of baptism Jesus and His disciples were performing. John the Baptist had made it clear, “I baptize you with water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But what was the nature of the baptism or ceremonial washing that Jesus and His disciples offered?

The real issue seems to be the practice of ritual and completely external ceremonial cleansing. Jesus had come offering something completely different. He had told Nicodemus that entrance into the kingdom of God would require birth from above. His ministry was focused on heart purification, not some form of external and temporary physical cleansing. And what Jesus was saying and doing could have been seen as contradictory to the accepted teachings of Judaism. So, this could be what motivated John the Baptist’s disciples to bring their concerns to him.

But he responded by reminding his disciples that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27 ESV). As far as John the Baptist was concerned, Jesus was doing what He was doing by the sovereign will of God. And if God wanted to make the ministry of Jesus more impactful and successful, so be it.

John the Baptist reminded his disciples that he had never claimed to be the Messiah. He had simply been the faithful witness, preparing the way for the one “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27 ESV). He wanted his followers to know that his star was fading because the one he had been proclaiming had finally appeared. The focus was shifting away from John the Baptist and onto the ministry of Jesus, and he was perfectly at peace with that transition.

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30 ESV

John the Baptist was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Which is why he told his disciples, “It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success” (John 3:29 NLT). He had never been the star of this show. He had simply been the first act, preparing the way for the principal protagonist in God’s divine play. And now that Jesus had appeared on the scene, John the Baptist was willing to fade into the background, having played his part and completed his divine task.

But it’s interesting to note that, a short time later, John the Baptist would seem to have a change of heart. His confidence in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah would be put to the test by an unexpected change in his own circumstances. He would find himself arrested and imprisoned for having accused King Herod of committing adultery with his deceased brother’s widow. Suddenly, his optimistic outlook began to fade and he sent two of his disciples with a question for Jesus that reveals his growing doubt.

“Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Luke 7:19 NLT

His less-than-satisfactory circumstances were causing him to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah. You can sense that John the Baptist had been expecting Jesus to fulfill the commonly held view that the Messiah would restore the Davidic kingdom. Things would get better, not worse. And with his arrest, he had questions as to whether Jesus really was the one they had been expecting.

But Jesus had an interesting answer to John the Baptist’s inquiry.

“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” – Luke 7:22-23 NLT

In a sense, Jesus told His imprisoned friend to take his eyes off his own circumstances and to look closely at what was happening all around him. Jesus used prophetic terminology to describe His earthly ministry. He was doing the very works that the prophets had ascribed to the coming Messiah.

“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
    I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
    as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
   You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
    releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:6-7 NT

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed. – Isaiah 61:1 NLT

Jesus was pointing to the evidence of His works. He was doing the very ministry that the prophets had predicted the Messiah would do. But notice that Jesus leaves something out. He does not stress that He will “free the captives from prison” or release “those who sin in dark dungeons.” He doesn’t tell John the Baptist that  the “captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” Because John the Baptist would never experience freedom from his imprisonment. He would be beheaded by Herod.

Jesus had come to bring spiritual healing to people who were spiritually blind, lame, poor, and imprisoned by sin. He had come to provide something far more significant than ceremonial cleansing from sin. His ministry was from above and His miracles were intended to point to a form of healing that would be eternal and not temporal in nature.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Believe It, Or Not

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.– John 3:9-18 ESV

This section contains one of the most well-known verses in the entire Bible: John 3:16. But we rarely view this beloved verse within the context of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Yet, it is a continuation of a theme that begins in chapter two.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. – John 2:23 ESV

The entire conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was based on the topic of belief. Nicodemus had come to Jesus, believing Him to be “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2 ESV). And based on the fact that Jesus immediately directed the conversation toward a discussion of the kingdom of God, it seems clear that He knew Nicodemus believed Him to be the Messiah. At least, this learned Pharisee had hopes that Jesus might be the Anointed One of Israel.

But Jesus surprised Nicodemus by announcing that entrance into God’s kingdom was going to require a “new birth” – a birth from above made possible by the Spirit of God. Only those who are born of the Spirit will receive the cleansing necessary to enter into God’s kingdom. And this unexpected news left Nicodemus exclaiming, ““How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).

He was nonplused and totally perplexed by the words of Jesus. None of it made any sense. Nicodemus was having a difficult time believing what he was hearing. And this led Jesus to explain the kind of belief necessary to experience the new birth. It was not going to be enough to simply believe in His miracles. Even a strong belief that He might be the long-awaited Messiah would prove insufficient. The presence of belief was not the issue. Even the object of one’s belief was not what really mattered.

Nicodemus believed himself to be a righteous man. But he was wrong. The Jews believed themselves to be the children of God, and deserving of a permanent place in His kingdom. But they too were sorely mistaken. Their faith was misplaced. Their belief was mistaken. The apostle James provides a sobering statement regarding insufficient or unbelieving faith.

You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. – James 2:19 NLT

The people had seen Jesus perform miracles and believed in His name. But they had no idea who He really was. Nicodemus had witnessed the same supernatural signs and believed Jesus to be someone special, a teacher sent from God. But he was totally unaware of Jesus’ true identity or the purpose behind His earthly ministry.

Of all people, Nicodemus, as a teacher of the law and an expert in the Hebrew scriptures, should have understood that no one comes to God without cleansing. The whole sacrificial system was based on this idea. The high priest could not enter into the presence of God ad offer atonement for the sins of the people until he had been thoroughly cleansed himself. The rite of purification was a central theme within the Mosaic law. Yet, Nicodemus was having a difficult time accepting Jesus’ words concerning the necessity of the new birth.

This led Jesus to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony” (John 3:11 ESV). He accused Nicodemus of refusing to believe. And Jesus, in using the plural pronoun “we” is speaking on behalf of the Godhead. Jesus had been anointed by the Spirit and verbally endorsed by His Father at His baptism. And Jesus had performed signs that clearly evidenced His divine mandate. He was the Son of God.

Nicodemus was having a difficult time believing what Jesus had to say about the new birth. And Jesus stated, “if you don’t believe me when I tell you about earthly things, how can you possibly believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven” (John 3:12-13 NLT). Jesus refers to the new birth as an “earthly thing” because it is designed to take place on this earth. It is a supernatural event that takes place within this temporal plain and yet has eternal ramifications. It is the key to our entrance into God’s eternal kingdom.

But this is where Jesus dropped a major truth bomb on the unsuspecting Nicodemus. He states, “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned. But the Son of Man has come down from heaven” (John 3:13 NLT). With this rather cryptic statement, Jesus was associating Himself with the prophecy found in Daniel 7:13-14.

As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed.

Jesus was proclaiming Himself to be the Messiah. But He was also going to explain that there was a vital aspect to the Messiah’s mission that was missing in Nicodemus’ understanding. This is where Jesus begins to explain to Nicodemus what was missing in His messianic doctrine. And He uses a story from Scripture with which any Jew would have been familiar.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV

This verse contains the key to understanding the new birth. Jesus was announcing the necessity of His substitutionary death on behalf of sinful men, and their obligation to look to Him for salvation. The story to which Jesus refers to an actual event in Israelite history when the people were traveling from Egypt to the promised land. They found themselves weary and worn out from the journey and, in their impatience, they “spoke against God and against Moses” (Numbers 21:5 ESV). As a result of their rebellion against Him, God sent poisonous snakes among them “and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6 ESV). When Moses interceded on behalf of the people, God instructed him to “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live” (Numbers 21:9 ESV).

The people, when bitten, had to believe the word of God and look at the serpent in order to receive healing for their sin. The bronze serpent on the pole was a representation of their rebellion against God. They had to look and believe that this substitute for their sin could bring them forgiveness and healing. And Jesus uses this story to reveal that He too will be “lifted up” and “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15 ESV). Jesus was speaking of His crucifixion. The day was coming when He would be nailed to a cross so that He might take on the sins of the world. He would bear the sins of mankind, becoming the substitutionary atonement that would provide forgiveness and healing to all those who looked on Him and believed.

And this is where John 3:16 takes on a whole new depth of meaning. When kept in the context of chapter 3 and Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, this verse becomes so much more meaningful. In it, Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus the key to the new birth and eternal life in the kingdom of God.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV

Jesus makes it clear that all humanity stands condemned before God. They have all been bitten by the serpent of sin and are doomed to experience the pain of death – eternal separation from God. But Jesus had good news for Nicodemus.

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” – John 3:18 ESV

Nicodemus, though a Pharisee, stood before God as condemned and worthy of death. His status as a descendant of Abraham was not going to save him from the wrath to come. Every one of those people who had been bitten by a poisonous snake in the wilderness had been one of the chosen people of God. Yet when they refused to look on and believe in God’s plan for their salvation, they had died. They had believed that their status as the descendants of Abraham made them invincible and untouchable. But they were wrong. Deadly wrong.

And Jesus is trying to let Nicodemus know that everything he believed about the righteousness of man, the role of the Messiah, and the kingdom of God, was wrong. Jesus was the Messiah, just as Nicodemus suspected Him to be, but He had not come to rule and reign, but to suffer and die. And as Jesus would later say of Himself, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

The day was coming when Nicodemus and all those who had believed in Jesus’ name were going to have to decide whether they believed in His sacrificial death on the cross on their behalf. They would have to look upon the One who was lifted up in their place and believe that His death had paid for their sins. If they did, they would experience the new birth, a Spirit-empowered purification from their sinful state and a transformation into a new creation, covered by the righteousness of Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Misguided Belief

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 2:23-3:2 ESV

As someone who seems obsessed with providing evidence for the identity of Jesus, John can be maddeningly stingy when it comes to the details. Even when describing Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, John cuts to the chase, providing the basic facts about what happened but leaving a great deal up to the reader’s imagination. He does the same thing in verse 23, where he makes an almost cursory allusion to the signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. – John 2:23 ESV

It’s difficult to read that verse without wanting to ask, “What signs?” But John appears to have no interest in explaining the nature of miracles Jesus performed. It’s not that the signs were unimportant to John because they will become the basis for what he describes in chapter three. It’s almost as if he assumes his audience is already familiar with the topic and he has more important matters to discuss.

The miracles performed by Jesus were an essential facet of His ministry, and, as John alludes to, they produced a certain measure of belief in Jesus. And that seems to be the primary point John wants to make. For John, the details concerning the signs Jesus did were irrelevant, but the belief they produced was not. It is likely that Jesus healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, and cast out demons. And when He did, the people marveled at His indisputable supernatural powers. Not only that, they believed in His name. But what does that mean? What was the nature of their belief and why does John state that their belief was in “the name” of Jesus?

To understand what’s going on, you have to go back to verse 20 of chapter one. The priests and Levites had sent a delegation to make inquiries about John the Baptist. His activities in the Judean wilderness had stirred up a lot of attention and resulted in much speculation as to his identity. And one of the first assumptions people made was that John the Baptist must be the long-awaited Messiah. This seems quite clear because when the delegation asked John the Baptist who he was, he declared, “I am not the Christ.” He knew what the people were saying about him. His call to repentance and his declaration that the kingdom of heaven was at hand had caused people to speculate that the Messiah had finally arrived.

Messiah-fever had begun to spread. And so had the news of Jesus’ miracle at Cana. So, when He had shown up in Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and started performing miracles, the people believed in His name: Jesus Christ – Jesus the Messiah. Remember what Andrew told his brother Simon.

“We have found the Messiah” (which means “Christ”). – John 1:41 ESV

Philip had told Nathanael:

“We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” – John 1:45 ESV

And upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael had confessed:

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!” – John 1:49 ESV

This news had spread. Word had gotten out that the Messiah had come. So, when Jesus performed signs and wonders, the people took it as evidence that He truly was the Messiah.

But John’s primary concern is in the object of their faith or belief. The people were believing Jesus to be the Messiah, but their understanding of what that meant would prove to be inaccurate. They were expecting the Messiah to be a conquering king and a mighty military leader like King David had been. They were looking for a deliverer, a political savior of sorts, who would lead them against the Roman occupying forces and set them free from the centuries-long misery of subjugation and suffering they had experienced since the Babylonian invasion.

And John points out that Jesus was aware of their misguided and misunderstood belief in Him.

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. – John 2:24 ESV

Jesus was not fooled by their expressions of faith. He knew their belief in Him was solely based on their deeply held desire that He deliver them from Roman rule. If they had their way, they would take Jesus by force and attempt to thrust Him into their preconceived idea of a super-savior. You see this same fanatical fervor in John’s account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:14-15 ESV

Jesus had not come to be their earthly king. He would lead no armies against the Romans. There would be no battles waged, rebellions launched, or earthly kingdom established – at least, not yet. And that is the point John is attempting to make.

Chapter three opens with an encounter between Jesus and a member of the Pharisees. This highly revered religious leader schedules a somewhat clandestine meeting with Jesus, choosing to meet with Him under the cover of darkness. Due to his prestigious role as a Pharisee and his standing within the community, he wants his meeting to remain a secret.

John is going to use this Pharisee to illustrate the stark difference between what the people believed about Jesus and what Jesus would reveal to be the true nature of His incarnation. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, would have been well-educated and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, and would have been highly familiar with the many Messianic prophecies they contained. So, when he meets Jesus, he states his own belief that Jesus is a God-ordained messenger from God.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:2 ESV

His use of the terms “rabbi” and “teacher” indicate his respect and professional admiration for Jesus. He admired Jesus for His obvious divine anointing. He was intrigued by Jesus’ works and words. But he also knew that any association with Jesus could prove detrimental to his role as a Pharisee. Even at this early stage in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders were beginning to see Jesus as a potential threat. These men were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, that was comprised of the high priest and 70 members who represented the various sects within Judaism, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.

They held sway over the people of Israel, functioning as a kind of supreme court or religious council. Their authority was second only to that of the Roman government. And they took exception to anyone who might attempt to disrupt or displace their sovereign rule over the people. Even the thought of a Messiah would have been threatening to their authority. Someone claiming to be the “chosen one” of God could cause all kinds of trouble, promoting political unrest, stirring up the common people, and, ultimately, angering the Roman government. And, if that happened, the Romans would step in, putting a swift end to any rebellion and holding the Sanhedrin responsible for allowing it to happen.

So, Nicodemus shows up at night, but his presence and his words indicate that he believes Jesus just might be the one for whom they have been waiting. Even he, as a member of the Pharisees, longs to see the Messiah. He greatly desires to see the kingdom of God reestablished on earth in the form of a revitalized Jewish state. But he is about to get a personal lesson from the Messiah Himself that will reveal just how misguided and misinformed he really was about God’s plans for Israel’s future.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson