§ 5. Jesus and Nicodemus

Critique of the Gospel of John
by Bruno Bauer



§ 5. Jesus and Nicodemus.

2:23 – 3:21


1) The behaviour of Jesus against the miracle believers.


Through the signs that Jesus performed during the Passover many were brought to faith; but, the report adds, the Lord did not confide in these people because He knew all of them. When a historical circumstance is substantiated, it is not without reason that both the reason and the thing substantiated should have an internal relationship, i.e. that both should have the same essential content. It will therefore not be called an unreasonable imposition if we expect the evangelist to explain to us this inner relationship and to say why Jesus did not want to give himself unreservedly to such people who were moved to faith by signs. For if the author wants to reflect and give pragmatic reasons, we might expect him to introduce us to the centre and true reason of the matter. But he does the opposite: instead of sticking to the matter at hand, he loses himself in remarks that he cannot even bend back to the matter at hand. For he completely departs from the matter when, instead of explaining to us the inner reason for Jesus’ restrained behaviour, he only goes on to say that the Lord has always known what is in a man, even if no one else taught him about it. If only he had said at least the one thing, that Jesus had seen through the faith of those people as an unreliable one! But in this way the impropriety and intentionality of that remark becomes all the more apparent to us: for that those people only believed for the sake of miracles and were therefore not reliable, the Lord could know even without that wonderful insight. Every person who is not quite limited knows how to distinguish true and thorough devotion from a mere momentary and superficial excitement, even without a miraculous gift.


If we now leave aside the description of the miraculous knowledge of Jesus, in which the pragmatic remark of the evangelist gets lost far too much, and turn back to his starting point, this consists in the distinction between two kinds of faith, one of which is based on the impression of the miracles, the other – – yes, if we could only say what the other is to be based on! Our evangelist at any rate does not remain consistent in this distinction. For example, in his account of the miracle at Cana, he emphasises that the faith of the disciples only became real faith through the impression of the miracle.


Elsewhere, for example, in the meeting of Jesus with Nathanael, we see that the evangelist does not regard signs as the deepest motive of faith, but the total vision of the “revelation of the heavenly” in the person of Jesus; but on the other hand, we can again recall other things, for example, how the Lord leads the Samaritan woman to acknowledge His dignity through a sign. In short, we see in the author’s account the beginnings of a theory which he would like to impose on Jesus’ behaviour as a general norm, but which he has not yet consistently carried out, since he still allows the Lord to perform signs far too often in order to bring forth a faith which, according to this theory, would still have to be a very unreliable one.

The following conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus is, according to the evangelist, a single case in which Jesus’ knowledge of man was revealed, namely in relation to that faith which was first awakened by miracles. For the first word with which this man comes to Jesus is the confession: we know that you have come from God, for no one can do such signs as you unless God is with him. We must therefore consider this conversation from the point of view of whether Jesus’ profound knowledge of human nature and his prudent treatment of the beginners in the faith were really demonstrated in it.

2) The conversation with Nicodemus.


Nicodemus has hardly said that Jesus must be from God, as His miracles show, when the Lord immediately answers him: whoever is not born from above cannot see the Kingdom of God (v. 3). So the Lord demands a second birth, but with the expression “from above” he at the same time designates the sphere from which it proceeds as the higher one in contrast to the place of the first birth. But the conversation could not be so aphoristic, at least Jesus could not so suddenly, without an explanatory transition, confront the miracle-believing Pharisee with his demand; for if Nicodemus, as we shall soon hear, did not understand the word of regeneration, he will not have been able to grasp the sudden transition to this speech of regeneration. First the intermediate elements had to be properly discussed, then Jesus would have had to say: that you believe because of signs is not enough, it does not open the gate of the kingdom of heaven for you, first you have to be born from above. The evangelist excludes such middle links; he wants to give a complete account of the conversation and demands of us that we look at the matter as if he had left nothing out. Rather, we are to admire the penetrating gaze with which the Lord saw through the noble Pharisee and knew at once that he had come to him to be taught about the kingdom of heaven, but that for now he had only arrived at a weak faith through the signs *). But was it a matter of Jesus knowing for himself how things stood with Nicodemus, and being able to put the case at hand straight through his marvellous insight? Was it not rather a matter of his enlightening the Pharisee about his inner being, telling him what he was discovering there, and now preparing him for the highest demand? But we can even refrain from this difficulty, for the clash already reaches the point where it is insoluble, even if we only direct our attention to the presupposed wonderful depth of vision of Jesus. Nicodemus answers the Lord like a child who does not yet know how to deal with general concepts and who does not understand how to grasp spiritually the determinations that are expressed in the way of the imagination with a symbolic epithet. He declares the He declares the demand for rebirth to be a complete contradiction because he understands it from a sensory point of view and considers this understanding to be the only possible one. But if Jesus really knew Nicodemus’ inner being, he should also have known how weak his spiritual capacity was, how childish his powers of comprehension were; rather, if he considered it possible and worth the effort under these circumstances, he should have lifted him up to the idea of rebirth, but not blindly assaulted him with such an incomprehensible demand.

*) This is how the apologists view the matter and then, like Tholuck and Lücke, attribute to Nicodemus a true treasure of “receptivity and disposition to faith”.


Perhaps everything could still have been done well, if only the Lord had now, when Nicodemus had shown himself to be so limited, removed this barrier through a clear understanding. He really wants to explain to him in his answer what seems difficult, even impossible, wants to show him how to understand it spiritually – but how does he begin the matter? In a way that only a later apostle could do, if he wanted to state the conditions for entering the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus was told, “Whoever is not born of water and the Spirit cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). Every unprejudiced person who sees water and the Spirit together in a Gospel will immediately recognise that the water is not the ordinary water, but the water of baptism. The Lord cannot refer his apprentice to the baptism of John, for he refers to water and the Spirit as belonging directly together, but the baptism of John is otherwise always contrasted with the baptism with the Spirit, which the Messiah administers, and in such a way that both types of baptism are historically separated.


Thus, only the view remains that Christian baptism is to be understood by the water, and this is challenge enough for the apologist to seek a solution. For how can the Lord speak of baptism as a sacrament, which he is said to have instituted only after his resurrection? Olshausen acknowledges “the relation to baptism”, but – “it only proceeds from the idea of baptism”. *). But then Nicodemus would already have to know Christian baptism – which is impossible – he would already have to know how to distinguish dialectically between idea and appearance, i.e. he would not only have to be a Christian, but also a quite enlightened one. And how could Jesus, if he only wanted to speak of the idea, mention the material alone and describe it as necessary? He could only do so if he wished to be misunderstood. “Only an allusion to the symbolic meaning of water in baptism,” which Lücke sees in the Lord’s saying, cannot be found in it either, for as little as the Spirit is mentioned here merely in the manner of an allusion, so little is the water mentioned either. But when Lücke says **) that Jesus “did not refer Nicodemus to baptism as such, neither to the Johannine nor to the Christian baptism,” then all these ideas disappear and one can no longer understand how the Lord could demand of Nicodemus to grasp as a symbol what was not a symbol, or to think of a symbolic meaning for which no specific background was given.

*) Comm. II, 89.

**) Comm. I, 455.


But Nicodemus could not think of baptism in an enlightened way as a mere idea, nor of baptism itself as necessary as it is referred to in this passage, since it is the Christian baptism that was only later closely linked with the gift of the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s departure, as it is in this saying of the Lord. In other words, the words of Jesus are spoken by a member of the later community from their later standpoint.

After a general reflection that cannot deny its late origin, the Lord says to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel.” Actually, we should expect that what I have said about the necessity of being born of water and the Spirit would follow, as that would be what Nicodemus would have had the most reason to marvel at, since it must have been the most incomprehensible to him. In any case, this birth of water and the Spirit was the last thing the Lord had spoken of. However, the Evangelist felt involuntarily that he had strayed too far from Jesus’ standpoint with this latter determination, so he has the Lord go back further and say to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I have called rebirth necessary.” (V. 7.)

Obviously, with this turn of phrase, the Lord’s speech begins to develop and justify this necessity. But not only does nothing follow from this (v. 8), but the speech, which is supposed to justify the assertion of this necessity [to be born again], suddenly turns into a strange turn and describes the unwillingness of the spirit to follow its own laws when it wants to embrace someone. So it is natural that Nicodemus gives up all hope of understanding and asks with the calmness of resignation: how can this happen? Or rather, the evangelist lets the conversation end with this weariness of the distinguished Pharisee, because he has now sufficiently exposed him in his ignorance, because he can now rightly let the Lord call out to him: You, the Master of Israel, do not understand this? and – what is the final motive – because he wants to let the Lord’s speech flow freely and unhindered; for an opponent who has reached the limit of his understanding can no longer express any objections. *).

*) Nicodemus is a chosen protégé of the apologists. Even when he raises the first senseless objection, how a man, who is also an old man, can return to the bosom of his mother and be born again, Lücke (1, 452) wants to “divide fairly between the understanding and the lack of understanding of Nicodemus”, i.e. to surpass in fairness the evangelist who portrays the Pharisee purely as lacking understanding. Afterwards Lücke (1, 457) divides in such a way that he lets Nicodemus understand the “words” but not “the inner sense” – it is only incomprehensible how someone can understand words if he does not grasp their sense. Under Tholuck’s instruction, the old Pharisee becomes much more docile, only the apologist still finds fault with the strength of his mind. At the same moment that the Lord says: You, as the Master of Israel, do not understand this, Tholuck knows the inner life of Nicodemus much more thoroughly and reveals to us behind the Lord’s back that the matter is quite different. (Comm. p. 99) “Nicodemus grasps more and more clearly what the Lord means, but he does not feel the strength in himself to make the required change.” Then the Lord has looked at the matter very wrongly, if he thinks that it is only due to the weak mind of the Pharisee, then he should have said more correctly: Thou wilt not let these matters be known to thee? Even Nicodemus did not know himself as well as Tholuck knows him: he doubts the possibility of the matter theoretically, but he should have rather said that he feels no inclination to be transformed in the way the Lord demands. Hase (Life of Jesus, Chapter 41, 42) tries to explain the striking turns of the conversation through the method of Jesus’ teaching. “It is peculiar to it to boldly refute an objection by expressing the very idea against whose lesser power the objection was made in its fullness, so that the contrast against the lesser is cancelled out by the contrast against the higher, and the latter overwhelms the mind in its full force.” However, it is only the method of the fourth Evangelist to let the Lord speak so ruthlessly to his listeners that they do not become overwhelmed but have to give up all understanding. That method could only be worthy of the Lord and be part of his teaching plan if the listener, after being “overwhelmed,” is at the point where he understands the lower potency of the thought because of the higher potency. But in the end, Nicodemus not only does not see the necessity of rebirth, but as if that “overwhelming” attack had not happened at all, he still doesn’t know what else to say than what he asked at the beginning: “How can this happen?”


Now that the opponent has been thrown to the ground, the Lord continues in a coherent speech: what we know, we speak of; what we have seen, we testify of; but you do not accept our testimony. First of all, it is striking how Jesus can speak in the majority when he only wants to speak of himself. Nowhere else do we find that the Lord used the phrase of the plural majesty. De Wette thinks he finds an example of this usage in Matt. 3:15, when the Lord says: it behoves us to fulfil all righteousness, but John, who first resisted baptising the Lord, is included in the “us”. Tholuck says that “the speech describes the general relationship of God’s messengers to men. From his historical point of view, however, the Lord could only have said of the prophets that they saw in the same way as he did, for these were the only messengers of God of whose effectiveness he could speak to Nicodemus. But the prophets were denied real sight (Matt. 13:17), and in John 3:32 the Baptist said: only Jesus had seen and testified of what he had seen and heard, but no one had accepted his testimony.


Also the other majority: “you do not accept our testimony” contradicts the situation that the Lord speaks to Nicodemus. The words sound as if a crowd of unbelievers were standing there, a crowd of those to whom the testimony of the truth had been presented in vain after long labours. But the Lord has only just made his public appearance in Jerusalem and now he should complain so bitterly about the unreceptiveness of the people? Only repeated experiences of malicious resistance could lead to such harshness.

Jesus ties his further speech to the complaint about such bitter experiences. If, he says in v. 12, the earthly things which I spoke to you were not accepted by you, how will you believe when I speak the heavenly things to you? Although the accusation is directed against several, it must nevertheless be of such a nature that it can also affect Nicodemus. But did he prove to be unbelieving and not rather behave like a man who does not understand what another speaks to him? Furthermore, the fact that Jesus has so far spoken of the earthly must also fit what he said in the conversation with Nicodemus, otherwise the latter could not possibly know what is meant by the earthly. So we would have to regard the birth that is supposed to come “from above,” that is supposed to come “from the Spirit,” as the earthly, to which something higher than the heavenly stands in contrast?

Before we subject all this to the final acid test of criticism, we must go a few steps further, in order to have all the difficulties together.

The Lord now wants to say what the heavenly things are, for he first explains that he was able to see them and that he alone was able to attain to this view. V. 13 says that no one has ascended to heaven except the one who has descended from heaven, who is in heaven. How is this ascent to heaven to be understood? Well, if it could cause offence, figuratively! *) But the descent from heaven is not to be understood figuratively, but seriously-locally, since it is to designate the supernatural starting-point of the personality of Jesus: for as the Logos, who was eternally with God, he must really descend from heaven if he is to come to earth. Now even de Wette **), in agreement with Lücke, says that “because of the connection” the ascending must also be understood figuratively as the descending is to be understood figuratively – the matter becomes too extreme, the apologist becomes presumptuous out of fear, and one must intervene and reverse the matter precisely because of the connection. It is not the ascending that can explain the descending, but rather the other way around: that the Lord has descended ***) should now also prove the possibility of ascending. But as the descent is the historical descent, in a literal sense, of Him who was in heaven from eternity, so the ascent is to be understood in the same strict literal sense. Of course, all the anguish of the commentators came only from the fact that the ascension is described as already past and accomplished *): but we must leave them in torment; for as the action and movement of the ascension is physical, and the expression literal, so now it is also the indication of the time that the action took place, that the Lord ascended into heaven. Yes, we must increase the agony of the apologists and call out to them: as all the provisions in this context are driven by their starting point to be understood literally, so also the provision that the Lord is in heaven. **) The actual existence of the Lord in heaven is to be understood by this, as the congregation later thought of it, when the Lord, after the completion of fine earthly activity, was raised into the glory which he had with the Father before the world stood. In short, we have before us the most extreme anachronism: the Lord speaks of his later destinies as if he had experienced them long ago, and he could speak in this way because the evangelist lends him his later view. For he is familiar with the idea that the Lord had to return to the Father, where he had been before, in order that the disciples’ knowledge might be completed. This at least implies that the knowledge of heavenly things can only be truly communicated when the Lord has ascended to heaven. Since the evangelist wants to proceed to the revelation of heavenly things, the reminiscence of the condition that makes it possible comes to his mind; he lets the Lord express this condition directly, as it stood in his later formed conception, because he cannot separate himself from the type of language once formed, and does not notice how he confuses everything down to the time determinations.

*) De Wette, who follows this explanation, must not refer to Deut. 30:11. For here the wisdom of the law is already presupposed as given, and the forbidden ascent to heaven, which the law only wanted to bring about, is to be grasped literally and sensually locally, because the contrast to the given, the near, the local must also be local. The question “who ascends to heaven and descends” is also to be answered literally in Prov. 30:4, because it refers to that which is impossible for human beings.

**) Explanation of the Gospel of John, p. 46.

***) De Wette has discovered two sides to the descent: on the one hand it is figurative, “on the other hand it signifies the permanent revelation of God in Christ.” No, it signifies that which has become historical, that which was given in the descent of the Logos.

*) Bengel understands the shortest way of avoiding this torment when he says: Praeterito tempore verbi (‘αναβενηκεν) in futurum mutata subaudi ‘αναβησεται. translated into plain German: If the words of the sacred Scriptures anger thee. Scripture vex thee, strangle them and cast them from thee.

**) De Wette freely says: “to divert from the materialistic-real conception of the καταβας serves the added οων εν τω ουρανω.” But what kind of materialism is this from which we should be distracted here? We do not know it, it would have to be the tendency of the ecclesiastical view, which the fourth evangelist has already expressed in its basic features, according to which the divine principle of the church came to it from the beyond. The καταβας, however, is not explained by its environment, but is the foundation of it, dominates all that follows, and determines it by its seriously meant local definiteness.


The heavenly things themselves are now revealed in vv. 14, 15: namely, the necessity, based on divine counsel, that the Lord must be exalted. But this exaltation, as the comparison with the exalted serpent proves, is the glorification which is not won without the death of the cross.

Now we have come to the point where we can conclude and examine the previous sentences step by step. We start from the end, in order to look for the true starting point and the historical basis. Jesus is said not only to have predicted to Nicodemus the future suffering of his death on the cross, but even to have opened up the necessity of it – but no! not opened it up, but only hinted at it in a typical way. All those highly exalted sayings of apologetics, that it is surely possible that the Lord could have spoken of his death so early, that he had wise intentions in doing so, beats back alone the question whether it is appropriate to the teaching wisdom of Jesus to develop an idea and yet to do it so vaguely that only he who already knew that idea thoroughly was able to understand him. The image of the brazen serpent is far-fetched, had not yet become the generally used type of messianic suffering at the time of Jesus, it agrees with the matter in question only to the extent that Jesus did not suffer death on the ground but high up on the cross, and even originally that serpent was not supposed to be the type of messianic suffering, since it had fulfilled its purpose when the Jews in the desert were healed bodily by the sight of it. The understanding of this type is therefore only possible if the knowledge of the depicted facts already exists, i.e. only a later man, after Jesus had suffered the death of the cross, could regard the bronze serpent as the type of the Lord’s atoning suffering and present it as this type to others who likewise already knew the sacred story. In general, this typology dealing with individual coincidences is only possible to the consciousness which already has both the image and the thing before it in its coincidental particularities.


And what could have moved Jesus to reveal the heavenly secret of his death on the cross to a man who had proved himself so incapable and childishly clumsy when he was supposed to receive the knowledge of earthly things? De Wette himself says that the Lord “had already given up trying to make Nicodemus understand” and now the Lord is supposed to “try to make an impression” by “higher revelations”? *) There was even less to hope for, especially if the “higher revelations” were only typological hints. Under Lücke’s hands Nicodemus has become a “receptive man” **), we are left without sources when we look for evidence of this receptivity, for so far the evangelist has only given us an example of how the Lord struggles in vain to make the elements of the order of salvation clear to a master of Israel. However, Lücke does not fail to bring up the apologetic remark, which is taken only from the fourth Gospel, that it was also Jesus’ practice “to express even the more difficult things, although he knows that he will not be understood, in order to provoke the mind/spirit.” *). But then he would at least have to be certain that something definite would stick in the soul of the listeners, but this certainty was completely cut off by the success of his efforts so far. And if he wanted to seize the soul, he could not speak in unclear typological terms, but had to present the matter in its striking simplicity.

*) Erkl. des Ev. Joh. p. 44.

**) Comm, I, 476.

*) Ibid. p. 477.


Further back we come to the contrast between the earthly and the heavenly. Here it will always alienate us to see rebirth as something lower than anything else, no matter how high it may be, for it is itself something so infinitely high that we can never find ourselves in it, even if it is only relatively called lower **). It does not help when Olshausen says, for example, that the rebirth is something earthly because it “takes place in the people who walk on earth”. ***), for the death of Jesus takes place there. But de Wette thinks that this explanation, which he also follows, does not collapse, because the death of Jesus on the cross is “founded in the divine action in history and with it man behaves in a receptive-believing way, but with the rebirth he behaves in a receptive-active way “*). And yet Jesus (v. 8) describes regeneration as something that depends solely on the will of the spirit and is a matter in which human power and determination cannot intervene. The figurative expression, however, also excludes human will from regeneration and describes it as a divine work to which human self-determination contributes as little as man contributes to his bodily birth. The Lord could not make this distinction, since he did not speak to Nicodocus of his death on the cross. But the evangelist, who in this conversation wants to let a teacher of Israel feel the whole distance between Jewish narrowness and the depth of the divine counsel, and who lets him be moved by ever deeper insights from the Lord into helpless and incomprehensible amazement, – in doing so, he proceeds from the awareness that to the Jewish point of view the thought of the necessity of the Messianic suffering was the greatest annoyance, and so he now presents it as the mystery that is superior to all other provisions that apply in the divine household. The contrast between the earthly and the heavenly is therefore not only meant to juxtapose the easily comprehensible and the difficult to understand **). The evangelist does not have this merely formal contrast in mind, but he wants to establish an essential contrast of content. But it is also natural that he must hold back this contrast only in the form of an unclear, undefined feeling, but cannot develop it intelligibly. In the first attempt to develop it, it would immediately become apparent that rebirth cannot be excluded from the sphere of the heavenly world either. It was enough for the author if the conversation only ran out into the mysterious, and he did not notice the difficulties into which he entangled himself in this endeavour, because he only went for that conclusion.

**) Benqel felt that – but the scriptural word stands there once, so help! coelesti sensui Jesu Christi sunt ‘επιγεια, quae in terris peragenda, nobis humi repentibus maxime videntur coelestia. Totus scripturae stilus est συγκαταβασεως plenus. Delicious ! Then the condescension should have been proved by calling celestial what the poor children of men call celestial, but not by the more noble usage of the upper language, which was allowed to prevail so ruthlessly.

***) Comm. I, 91.

*) Briefly. Explan. p. 45.

**) So explains Lücke, Comm. I, 466.


The question of whether the core of the conversation can be declared historical is closer to the question of whether Nicodemus, when the Lord spoke to him of the new birth, was really able to prove himself as limited as the evangelist depicts. Echoes of the idea of regeneration are, of course, found in the OT, but Jewish consciousness before the time of Jesus did not bring it to full definition, and as little as it reflected on its meaning, so little did it summarise the idea in a simple, striking word. But because of these echoes, this thought must have been understandable to Nicodemus, as it was certainly offered to him? The misunderstandings of which Nicodemus was guilty could be explained by the fact that the step from preparation to result was an infinitely difficult one and could not be taken by everyone. Yes! But once it has been done by an outstanding spirit, it is easy and simple for anyone else to do it. In fact, the new principle of life which Jesus took from his self-awareness and revealed was so simple that it was immediately comprehensible, and through its inner healthy power so victorious that it had to seize everyone whom it touched. It could be fought, rejected, but not dragged down into the silly, childish. The unbelievable narrowness of the learned Pharisee is only a work of the evangelist; he delights in the contrast of the unfathomable wisdom of his Master and the inability of the finite intellect to comprehend it, but he especially intended to portray the wisdom of Israel as unable to grasp the new. Admittedly, the author has translated it in such a way that at the very moment when he wants to emphasise the majesty of Jesus’ spirit, he puts the Lord in an unfavourable light, for now it seems as if the Lord did not know how to influence the most noble spirits of his people.


From the later point of view of the evangelist, the saying about the necessity of baptism is also made, the baptism, -which, as we have seen, can only be the Christian one. The evangelist also lets the Lord express his later and at the same time the still later experiences of the apostles, when he lets him complain about the insensitivity of the world. And from the words of Jesus, we bear witness to what we have seen, the apostle also speaks of one, for these have seen what none of the prophets have seen (Matt. 13:17 ).

Also the beginning of the conversation is made pure: when Nicodemus refers to the miracles that prove the divine mission of Jesus, the evangelist only wants to indicate that the Master of Israel was one of those unreliable believers in miracles of whom he had spoken before in general. In the few days of the feast of the Passover, however, Jesus would not have performed so many signs that could have given Nicodemus cause for this remark. That the Lord assaults the stranger immediately after his first words with the demand of regeneration is only natural for the evangelist, because he wants to report a conversation about regeneration. Finally, he wants to give us an example of the Lord’s wonderful knowledge of human nature and his wise restraint; but he has only given us an example of how one would have to offer a man the deepest truths and speak to him without regard to his childish powers of comprehension, if one did not want to get anywhere with them on the spot.


As the last core of the report, nothing remains but that Jesus once spoke with a Pharisaic ruler about the necessity of rebirth. But if everything unctuous in this conversation is the work of reflection, why should it we not be able to separate out its core idea? If Nicodemus appears so childishly limited only for the sake of a certain contrast, why should not his whole personality and existence be the product of a mere poem or hypothesis? The character of our reporter prevents us from resolving even the core. Even if the author is clumsy in his portrayal, even if he weaves into the speeches of Jesus views that could only be formed from the later standpoint of the community, he still cannot form a historical character out of imagination. He is not that creative and his reflections can only be linked to a given point. His reflection is a weak, though abundantly proliferating creeper, which can certainly cover a trunk, but cannot form such a trunk itself.

3) Jesus’ speech to Nicodemus.

3:16 -2l.

Since Nicodemus is at the limit of his understanding, where he cannot even express doubts, and has already had to keep quiet when the stream of higher insights flows over him, the Lord uses this favourable opportunity to give him a detailed discussion of the work of salvation. Following on from the thought of the necessity of the death on the cross, the Lord now says: “It is truly so, (v. 16) for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for the salvation of the believers. The same idea, in the form of negating the opposite, is expressed in verse 17, stating that God did not send His Son to judge the world, but to grant it the gift of eternal life. Both ideas are then summarized in verse 18: the believer will not be judged, but the unbeliever has already been judged as such. For the judgment is already present in the manifestation of the light, which the wicked flee from (verse 19). This behavior is entirely natural (verse 20), as they fear that their evil deeds will be exposed by the light. Whereas the one who does what is true (verse 21) comes to the light freely, so that his deeds done in God may be revealed.


The Lord did not give this speech either. The expression “the firstborn Son of God” was attributed to Christian doctrine through reflection only when Jesus’ personality was removed from immediate, sensual perception and became the subject of theory. The thought of judgment, as it appears here, cannot at least have been expressed in this context in the conversation with Nicodemus. For the fact that the unbeliever as such is already judged, betrays the fact that the thought, as it is developed here, belongs in a quite different context, namely, in such a context where the idea is to be eliminated, as if it depended only on a future judgment, so that everyone will receive their due. But this contradiction does not precede, does not lie in the previous conversation with Nicodemus, is entirely at home elsewhere. Furthermore, the determination of the time, that God gave his Incarnate Son into the world, presupposes the work of salvation as already completed, and comes from the reflection which saw it thoroughly accomplished. In the context in which the Saviour’s death on the cross is to be justified by divine love, the giving of oneself is the giving of oneself into the sufferings of this world and into death: but if Jesus did not speak of His necessary death to the Master of Israel, He cannot even think of justifying or developing this necessity any further. Finally (v. 19), that the people did not love the light that had come into the world, is again a reflection on a past time and on a judgement of the crisis[?], which the congregation, but not the Lord, had behind them at the moment when he spoke to Nicodemus. So there are thoughts everywhere that the Lord could never have expressed, or at least not here as far as the idea of judgement is concerned.


In addition, the whole account where the Lord is spoken of is in the third person. The Lord could not use this way of speaking either, if he wanted to speak of his present and past effectiveness in a larger context. It is a different matter in the longer speeches of the Synoptics when Jesus describes the future judgement and speaks of the glory of the coming Son of Man. It is a different matter in the longer speeches of the Synoptics when Jesus describes the future judgement and speaks of the glory of the coming Son of Man. For in the coming time of glory, he refers to a revelation of prophecy that has not yet appeared, he stands before himself as an ideal object of vision and can speak of himself in the third person. But he could not do so in this way, and even in such detail and extension, when he spoke of his present appearance. The apologists have noticed at least some of the difficulties mentioned, but because they do not know how to get at the heart of the matter, the substance, they consider the statement “that the Lord could not have spoken these words” to be an offence against Holy Scripture. If the content does not cause them any difficulty, they nevertheless take offence at the form and now help themselves with the assertion that it is not Jesus who speaks in the passages v. 16-21, but the evangelist *). “What, asks Tholuck, could one reasonably object to, that the evangelist, from v. 16 on, should consciously give an exposition of the thought previously given by the Saviour?” Well, the thing is that he does not indicate that he was commenting but that he was in good faith indicating what the Lord spoke — but he was really only writing what the later church had theorized? [loose “translation”]

*) Thus Olshausen: Comm. II, 96. Tholuck Comm. p. 35.


Even de Wette and Lücke do not reflect on the difficulties of the content, the latter even thinks “that v. 16 – 21 do not contain any thought which in itself contradicts the coherence and the purpose of the conversation”! – but with regard to the form, they find it remarkable that “no boundary mark” can be discovered that separates the author’s reflection from the preceding conversation. Since, then, the coherence of the contents is the most agreeable, all that is needed is a middle way, a “middle opinion,” which properly blends the two assumptions that Jesus’ speech continues and that the evangelist also intervenes. Thus it is said that Jesus’ speech continues in that section, but that the evangelist “now lets himself go more freely” **) or that “the explanatory and expanding hand of the speaker now intervenes much more strongly than before”. ***). But even with this emergency help, the section v. 16 – 21 cannot be separated from the previous one and the complete unity of both halves must remain. For as far as the letting oneself go freely is concerned, the account has long before done the utmost in this, and not only before vv. 13-15, as de Wette thinks, he has done it, he has also not only “lent Jesus his words”, as the same commentator assumes, but the content of the views, and that not only vv. 13-15 but from the moment when he (v. 5) let Jesus speak of the necessity of baptism. But when it is said that the evangelist lets himself go more freely from v. 16 onward, the idea is still at the bottom of it that he does it with the consciousness that from then on he gives thoughts and words that were not completely presented in this way by Jesus. But where does he show this consciousness and how can he have it at all, since he could not let the Lord speak otherwise than from the point of view of the later church?

**De Wette’s explanation of the Gospel of John, p. 48.

***) Lücke Comm. I, 479.


All these apologetic turns, however, will be put into their necessary confusion and driven back by the following remark. If we present the statements of another, we can and may without further ado also link our reflections to the presentation, justify what has been reported, and introduce our continued consideration with the formula “for”, i.e. “it is really so”. But we cannot, may not and will not do this unless 1) the statements of another are before us in writing and are only combined by us into a whole. This is how we proceed, for example, in the presentation of a philosophical system, or in a work on the history of dogma, or in the development of a biblical doctrine. Or 2) we must have before us a self-contained saying of another, which in this self-contained form forms a whole and is thus known to everyone *). But also 3) we must not report an interchange, but only the totality of a spiritual standpoint in its pure generality. Since none of these conditions is given here, since the author wants to report an exchange, a conversation that is not yet in written form in other passages, since he does not even give it in summary indirect speech, he also wants to render in vv. 16 – 21 what he wanted to render before – the words of Jesus; but he also gives them here with as little success as before.

*) With this, Tholuck’s question (op. cit.): “Would not every preacher in our country in a similar way (namely, as the evangelist does according to Tholuck’s presupposition) link his own exposition to a biblical text?



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Neil Godfrey

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