John 3

by H L Heijkoop

The Lord's words concerning the heavenly blessings we receive is a special feature of John's Gospel. John's Gospel does not speak of heaven as such, instead it speaks of things on or over this earth. It speaks also of Him who was on this earth but who is the centre of heaven and the centre of all the blessings of those who are heavenly in character.

In chapter 1 we see that the Lord came down to this earth, "The Word [who was God and who was with God - v.1] became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we have contemplated his glory, a glory as of an only-begotten with a father), full of grace and truth" (v.14). We see the glory of the only-begotten Son of God revealed in flesh on this earth. That is the great truth of the Gospel of John.

We see God, and the glory of God, but we see them here on this earth and adapted to our condition, that is, the Lord took account of the capacity that we as creatures have, in revealing them to us.

"And when he was in Jerusalem, at the passover, at the feast, many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he wrought. But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men, and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man.

But there was a man from among the Pharisees, his name Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, he came to him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art come a teacher from God, for none can do these signs that thou doest unless God be with him. Jesus answered and said to him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus says to him, How can a man be born being old? can he enter a second time into the womb of his mother and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not wonder that I said to thee, It is needful that ye should be born anew. The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it comes and where it goes: thus is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said to him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said to him, Thou art the teacher of Israel and knowest not these things! Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen, and ye receive not our witness. If I have said the earthly things to you, and ye believe not, how, if I say the heavenly things to you, will ye believe? And no one has gone up into heaven, save he who came down out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, that every one who believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal."  

(John 2:23-3:16)

In the last verses of chapter 2 and the first few verses of chapter 3 we have the condition of men on this earth, not men who were godless and openly enemies of God, but men who were in the most favoured position, men who belonged to the people of God on this earth, Jews, and those of whom we read "received him" and whom He "gave the right to be children of God, to those that believe on his name" (1:12). But although these people here spoke as if they were in that position we find that "Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men, and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man". Although these people believed on His name and confessed that they were the people of God and served God the Lord did not trust Himself to them. This is the background to the visit of Nicodemus to the Lord Jesus.

In Nicodemus we find a man who was in an even more favoured position, he was one of the people of God who had a special place, he was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a group of people from among the Jews who were most zealous for the law and who were the teachers of the law to the people, yet in the last verses of chapter 7 this group, who did not know the Lord, are themselves shown to be accursed. The Pharisees thought that they were the best part of the people, and outwardly they were as their judgment of their fellow people of Israel showed, yet these very people whom the Lord did not know, were themselves accursed.

Now one of these people, Nicodemus, came to the Lord. Nicodemus means 'conqueror of the people' and the word used always means the people of God. Here was a man who was an overcomer (if we use the language of Revelation 2 and 3), one who had a special place in the midst of the people of God, a teacher of Israel, one who taught the people what the word of God told them, how they had to live and what they had to believe.

What a wonderful testimony Nicodemus gave to the Lord. Could there be a man on this earth who was nearer to God than Nicodemus here? He gave Him glory and honour in saying He was more than a prophet (a prophet being one who is sent of God), he gave the Lord more honour than a man can receive (v.3). But then we see what the condition of man really is, for to a representative of man in his most favoured position, one who was nearest to the kingdom of God, the Lord could say, "It is needful that ye should be born anew". The Lord did not speak of sins or the works that he did, He spoke of his condition, neither was he able to "see the kingdom of God" (v.3) nor to "enter into the kingdom of God" (v.5). That shows us the real condition of man. The most favoured man, the man who believed what God had said, the man who gave the Lord the highest glory a man can give to another man, to him the Lord said that he could neither see nor enter, not only heaven, but the place of blessing here on this earth, the kingdom of God. What a terrible condition!

If the kingdom of God was there then the King was there, and in Nicodemas saying to Him "thou art come a teacher from God" there is proof that he did not see the kingdom, and that he did not really know who the Lord was, that He was the King. The kingdom of God was there but he did not see it, so the Lord said what was needful for him to have part in or even to see the kingdom of God, "Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God" and "Except any one be born of water and of Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God". That is also the condition of every other man on this earth, to enter into the blessings on this earth in the millennium they have to be born anew.

In verse 11 the Lord said,

"We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen, and ye receive not our witness. If I have said the earthly things to you, and ye believe not, how, if I say the heavenly things to you, will ye believe?"

The Lord spoke of two groups of blessing, he spoke of earthly things and heavenly things, being born again is an earthly thing, but there are other things that are heavenly, and He was competent to speak of both because He could say, "We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen". The earthly things Nicodemus could understand from the word of God, the Old Testament speaks very clearly of new birth and of cleansing through water. He could find these earthly things in Ezekiel and Isaiah for example, but then the Lord spoke of the heavenly things, these are things which 1 Corinthians 2 describes as "Things which eye has not seen, and ear not heard, and which have not come into man's heart, which God has prepared for them that love him, but God has revealed to us by his Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God" (vv.9-10).

How can we know these things? This passage is a quotation out of Isaiah (64:4) where the prophet also said that God had something prepared for those who loved Him but that he did not know what it was and he could not know it at that time. How then can we know what is in the heart of God and what God has prepared for men if eye has not seen it and the ear not heard it and it did not enter into men's hearts? We find the answer in the Lord's words in John 3, "We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen" - the heavenly things are thus revealed.

These are the wonderful truths of the Gospel of John, for here we have the words of One from heaven telling people on this earth what heaven is and what is in heaven. There came One on this earth not only to give eternal life to men, not only to die for sinners on the cross of Calvary that there should be no judgment for them, but to reveal to them what was in the heart of God and what their portion was in heaven if they accepted Him. This He could only do because "no one has gone up into heaven, save he who came down out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven".

The Lord Jesus is here seen as the eternal Son of God. This is not a matter of time but a matter of character, a matter of what and who He is. There was a relationship between heaven and Him. The Lord said to Nathaniel, "Verily, verily, I say to you, Henceforth ye shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man" (John 1:51). The angels of God were not first descending on the Son of man, they were first ascending from Him and then descending on Him. He was the point where the angels went from and returned to. He is One who knew what He said and could bear witness of what He had seen. No one in the true meaning of these words could say this except God.

When a man is born he knows nothing and everything he subsequently learns is from others, or is learnt from his own intellect, and consequently he cannot be sure of whether it is correct or not. There is but One who knows everything, One of whom Isaiah was capable of saying "declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done" (46:10). The Son of God knows all things, He only has knowledge in the full meaning of the word and He came down to this earth to tell men the truth. He could tell them earthly things, that their condition was such that they were not fit to see the blessing of God and that it was impossible to receive it without being born anew, but He could also tell them the things that were in heaven that God had prepared for everyone that should believe in Him, the Son. There we have our testimony. He Himself is the truth and He came down on this earth to tell us what was true. There in Jerusalem He told Nicodemus what was the truth of God. What a wonderful thing! This is the gospel.

Many times in the preaching of the gospel we simply say that man is lost but that God has sent the means through which he can be saved from hell and that there will be no judgment for him to face, but here we see that that was not what was really in the heart of God, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal" (v.16). We often misinterpret this to mean "...that whosoever believes on him may not perish, nor have condemnation or judgment", but it does not read like that. The gospel of John does not primarily speak of sins that we did or of judgment, rather it speaks of the position of men and of God's revelation of eternal life and of what was in His heart and this was to give this eternal life to men who were in that sinful condition out of the fullness of His grace. We see this in the first verses, "Except any one be born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God".

Can any man do anything in relation to himself being born anew? No, no more than he can do something about his natural birth. It is not a question of what men can do, but of what God can do. Man can do nothing but God can and will do it because it is in His heart to bless men. What is the highest blessing for a man? Our sins are forgiven and consequently there is no judgment for us and we will go to heaven, and truly these are wonderful blessings. Considering all the blessings that God gives, how wonderful must He Himself be! Yet there is a greater blessing than these.

When we look at the universe, the heavens, we say, 'How beautiful it all is', and so how wonderful must He be that created all these things. "In the beginning God created heaven and earth" (Gen.1:1), and Psalm 33:9 tells us "he spoke, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast". He created all, but can the creature understand what the Creator is? No, that is impossible, God dwells "in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen, nor is able to see; to whom be honour and eternal might" (1 Tim.6:16). So how can a creature see God? How can a creature come into the presence of the Creator, the eternal God and know Him? The creature would have to be God Himself, because only God can know God. So what is the position of the creature? He can see the majesty of God in the creation and He can enjoy this, He can receive some blessings from God and He can conclude that the Giver of that blessing must be a wonderful Person, but it is not possible that he can understand or see God.

God created man and He created the earth for him, but then man became an enemy of God. Man came to know that his condition was not only that he could not have fellowship with God but he could not even see God's blessings. Then we find that God, in His infinite grace, willed that man be not only saved from the curse, from the consequences of his deeds and his sinful condition, but that He would reveal Himself to man and that he would be brought up to a position that he could see God, a position that would be higher than that of the angels, and that he would enjoy what was the enjoyment of God Himself.

The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son, was the joy of the Father in eternity and the enjoyment of the Son was the Father, the heart of the Trinity was satisfied in this, and now God in His grace has willed and purposed that those who had been sinful men would come into that position and would enjoy what He Himself enjoyed in eternity. The Father ever saw the glory of the Person of the Lord, the eternal Son of God, and the Father said, 'That which fills My heart I want others to share'.

In Leviticus 3, in relation to the peace offering, a part of it is called the food (or 'the bread') of God (v.11, v.16). Every one of the people of God could eat from the same sacrifice and have the same food as God (7:15-21), and then Aaron (a type of the Lord Jesus Himself) could eat also from the same sacrifice (7:31,34-35). Thus the peace offering was a meal from which God had His part, the Lord Jesus had His part and every one of the people of God who was clean had his part also. This is what we have in principle here. How wonderful it is that the Son of God not only came to go to the cross to die for you and me and to save us from hell, "The Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me" (Gal.2:20) (however wonderful that is), but what is much higher, He came to this earth that we should enjoy what He enjoyed in eternity. The Father sent Him that we should enjoy in eternity what in eternity was His food, that is, the glory of the Son. What a wonderful thing! The Son is the centre of the heavenly glory, He Himself is the heavenly glory (Rev.5:4-5), the Creator and the Lamb, and all is centred in Him. The whole heaven is filled with Him and His glory, and He Himself came down to this earth to tell man what was in heaven and what should be the part of those that believe in Him.

Natural man, lost as he is, cannot understand these things and so the Lord has first to speak of "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" because first a man has to receive a new life, a new understanding and a capacity to understand the things of God. "The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him; and he cannot know them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor.2:14), but the born again believer can say "we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding that we should know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life" (1 John 5:20). So after He had spoken to Nicodemus about that new life that everyone has that is born anew and that has the character of the One who worked it, the Holy Spirit, the Lord spoke to him of the heavenly things. He could believe the words that He spoke because the Lord knew and testified of what He had seen. These are wonderful things.

The Lord said to Nicodemus "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" but in verses 14 and 16 He went further and spoke of life eternal. Life eternal is not the same as life. The new life in verse 5 is the divine life and so saints of the Old Testament were born anew and had a divine life also. Without divine life it is impossible for man to receive any blessings from God. All therefore who are born anew after the rapture will also have a divine life but here the Lord spoke of eternal life and this is more than divine life. In principle it is the same life but the Lord spoke later of life and life in abundance (John 10:10) and He defined divine life in the richest and highest form and said it brings those who possess it into a personal relation with Himself, the eternal Son of God. We read in verse 5 that He is the true God and eternal life, as though He Himself is the eternal life, and now He says that everyone of this dispensation who believes in Him shall receive eternal life, he receives the Lord Himself as His life and that life is though Him.

This means that we are in a special relationship with Him, and we find in John 17 what that means for there the Lord spoke to the Father saying, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (v.3).

In verse 11 the Lord spoke in the plural,

"I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen, and ye receive not our witness".

The key to understanding this is found in 1 Corinthians 2, only God knows these things in the real meaning of the words so we can say, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit know. God the Father did not come to reveal Himself, God the Son came to reveal the Father, to tell what He knew and God the Holy Spirit came later to reveal the Son. The Holy Spirit who knows all things, even the depths of the thoughts of God, has revealed them to the apostle who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote them in the word of God. So we have two divine Persons who tell us the thoughts of God. The Lord Jesus, the Son came from heaven to speak eternal things on this earth, and in chapter 16 He told His disciples that He could not tell them everything because they were not fit at that moment to understand all things but He would later send the Holy Spirit who would then tell them the other things.

The result of receiving eternal life, the life of Christ Himself, is that we can understand Christ, we can understand the Father, and we can understand God. We have received a divine nature and we have received it in the richest form. Now in 1 Corinthians 2 Paul explains that the Holy Spirit knows all things and searches the depths of God. He can reveal them to us, and, if we have the life of Christ as all Christians have (Col.3:3-4), we can understand what the Holy Spirit reveals of the depths of God.

Now in John 1:18 we read, "No one has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him". It is not "the only-begotten Son hath declared him", but "the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him". God has partly revealed Himself in creation where we see His majesty and almighty power (Psalm 19:1, for example, "the heavens declare the glory of God"), but the only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father has fully declared Him. The Son has not declared the Father from the outside, the Son, as He told of what the Father was, did not start at the outside, with creation, but He started with the heart of God, with His bosom, the place of feelings, the place where love dwells, that is the starting point.

Creation revealed God from the outside, it could not go farther, but the Lord started with the heart of the Father, that He is love. From that point the Lord declared the Father.

It is true that God dwells in an unapproachable light, and no man has seen Him nor could see Him, and so God revealed Himself in flesh, "the Word (meaning not only what a Person said but the expression of what One is) became flesh". Thus His thoughts are revealed. The Word of God in order to reveal God became flesh that we could understand this. The glory of God was on this earth, "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we have contemplated his glory, a glory as of an only-begotten with the father), full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).

Why could John see Him so? Why could he contemplate His glory, the glory of an only-begotten with the Father? He could because the Word became flesh and dwelt as such in the midst of men. No man had seen God before that time, neither had angels. The first time that angels fully saw the Creator was as the baby in the manger. Before then angels had not seen Him. Angels are also creatures and no creature can see God as He is. So what wonderful grace, God became flesh, not only to die for us (although it was needful that He did), but also that we should know Him, that we should contemplate His glory and that we should see Him as He is. He came to give us an understanding that we should know Him, and, as we find in chapter 17, "that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (v.3), this was in the heart of God. This is also what we find in 3:16, God gave His Son.

Nicodemus thought he was an instructed man, but the One He visited could speak of what He saw in heaven because He was at the same time in heaven. How great is the love of the Son of God and the Father for us, how great is the love of God for His creation that He would give His Son. We see this pictured in the Old Testament many times. In the first chapters of Genesis Adam's food was what grew on the earth, but then, after man had become a sinner and after the judgment of God in the flood, God gave Noah the animals to eat as his food, flesh was to be his food, that is, God gave sinful man flesh to eat that he should learn that he could only live through the death of another (Gen.9:2-5). In picture this is the death of Christ, but secondly that he should live and that he should eat the same 'food' that God had in eternity, the Lord Jesus Christ. We can trust the earthly and heavenly words of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only One who knows and makes no mistakes. He testified also of what He saw and heard at the very same moment.

John testified of Him, "we have contemplated his glory, a glory as of an only-begotten with a father", but the brethren of the Lord did not believe in Him (7:5), they had seen Him from the early days of His life on earth, they were sons of Joseph and Mary and yet they did not see His glory, they did not believe on Him. In Mark we find that they thought He was out of his mind (Mark 3:21), so terrible was their disbelief. How was it that they could not see Him? As with Nicodemus their spiritual condition was bad and so the Lord became flesh in order to reveal God that man (who by nature was not fit to understand that he was not fit to see God in His glory) might see God, and to do this he must first receive a new, divine nature. He has to receive eternal life.

But how can man come into the presence of God? How can man be in rest in heaven as long as he is a sinner? The condition of an unbeliever is to be in darkness (Eph.5:8). Heaven is light, for "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). What would an unbeliever feel if he were to enter heaven? The thoughts of the heart of an unbeliever are all wrong, they are at enmity with God, the only things he would desire are the things which are against God, so what would an unbeliever do in heaven where there is no sin, where all speaks of the glory of God? Even if it were possible (which it is not) that an unbeliever should come into heaven it would be a hell for him, he would leave there as soon as possible. Heaven would be the most terrible place for a man who was not born anew and so if God purposed (as He has) in His heart to take man into His presence in that glory in the place of sons in the Father's house there to enjoy what is His enjoyment and what is the enjoyment of the Son, first He has to give man a new nature, a nature that is fit to be in His presence and, secondly, He has to take away all that would be a hindrance to that. So the Lord not only became man He became the Son of man and as the Son of man He had to be lifted up. The Son of man had to pay all the debts of man. The Son is the heir of all the promises of the Father, but also all the debts, and so the Lord became man.

There was no must that He become the Son of man, it was His free will, but as the Son of man He must be lifted up. It was impossible that any other man could have life eternal unless He gave Himself up and died on the cross of Calvary to take away all that should be a hindrance for perfect enjoyment in heaven or that should be a hindrance to our being fit to have part in the portion of the saints in light (Col.1:12). So He did. What wonderful grace! We see our Lord, the eternal Son of God, the Creator of heaven and earth, coming down to this earth to give us all the blessings that He had in eternity, "the glory which thou hast given me I have given them" (17:22). What glory was that? "Glorify me, thou Father, along with thyself, with the glory which I had along with thee before the world was" (v.5). The glory which He had from eternity as the eternal Son of God He now received after the cross as the reward for the work He did on the cross, this glory He gave to those men who believed in Him, but he not only gave them His place, not only did He bring them to one place with Him to be united in the place where He is in the centre of heaven, but He would also give them the same enjoyment He had in that place. If I can speak with the words of the Old Testament, the same food that was His food in eternity, the same love that filled His heart which made His joy perfect is ours.

Many believers do not receive the full gospel, they see the Lord as the Saviour, and they see Him as the passover lamb slain for the Israelites in Exodus 12 and they understand that the blood of the Lamb hides us from the judgment of God because the Lamb is their Saviour, but as to their thoughts about God they see Him as a terrible Judge who would slay every firstborn who was not protected by the blood. We should not think of the Son of God who died for us as a terrible Judge, He cannot judge us because He died for us, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal". There was in the heart of God the desire to reveal Himself and to give eternal life to everyone who should believe in the Son, He is the truth, and everyone who believes in Him that is true shall receive eternal life and never perish.

We are on this earth, we are not in heaven (although "in Christ" we are), we are on our journey to our heavenly home, we are free to go to heaven since our blessed Lord arose. We know what our true place is and where we belong and it is not on this earth but in heaven. It will be a wonderful time in the millennium when the Lord reigns over the earth and people here will receive all the blessings of the kingdom, we will see it, we will be the tools through which the Lord will bring His blessings here but our place is in heaven, not on the new earth. It will be wonderful to dwell here where all are born anew but our place will be in the Father's house, we will be where He is, we will be leaning on His breast as it were, we will be there where the Son is, the centre of all the glory of heaven, of all the glory of the dwelling place of God Himself, in the Father's house where all speaks of the love of God as Father, where all is according to the relationship between the Father and the Son.

There we will enjoy all that there is; we will know God. The only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father has declared Him and He has given us an understanding so that we know God. May we treasure more these great revelations for His name's sake.

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