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Oh to have been a fly on the wall when the ecclesiastical discussions about devising the standard three-year Lectionary were taking place.

I am surprised to discover that these few, yet important, verses have been excluded.  They would have provided clergy the world around with material for a powerful sermon striking at the core of our sinful stubbornness.  These are verses we need to hear and understand, particularly in today’s world.

Their exclusion from the Lectionary makes them perfect for my ongoing series, Forbidden Bible Verses, which are also essential for our full understanding of the Bible.

Today’s reading is from the King James Version.  Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (‘Responding to the Divine Offer of Salvation’ and ‘From John to Jesus’).

John 3:18-22

18He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

 19And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

 20For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

 21But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.

 22After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.


Four of these five verses are the conclusion of Jesus’s rebuke of Nicodemus.  Consider that the quotation closes after verse 21.  Indeed, if you look at the English Standard Version, you will see the quotation mark there.

The earlier part of this chapter relates that Nicodemus, one of the Jewish leaders, acknowledges Jesus’s greatness on the basis of His miracles.  Jesus responds that acknowledgement is not enough; Nicodemus — and all of mankind — must be born again (John 3:5):

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus, however, fails to understand.  He asks whether this is a physical rebirth, yet Jesus speaks here of spiritual regeneration.  Some might find Jesus’s words a bit harsh, however, He knew that Nicodemus was a learned man, otherwise, he never would have been in his current leadership position, which was a powerful one.  Essentially, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he really isn’t a believer because he refuses to understand what He is saying.  If he truly believed the words of the Old Testament, he would recognise Jesus as the Messiah and heed what He has to say.  However, Nicodemus is blinded by ignorance and stubbornness which comes from sin.

So, Jesus, referring to Himself in the third person, says (verse 18) that those who believe in Him are not condemned to eternal damnation unlike those — Nicodemus — who refuse to believe.  Those people are already condemned.  Their wilful adherence to sin does it for them, the sin which blinds them to the light of Christ.

Matthew Henry says that there is actually more to this verse than may be apparent on first reading (emphases mine):

Though he has been a sinner, a great sinner, and stands convicted (habes confilentem reum-by his own confession), yet, upon his believing, process is stayed, judgment is arrested, and he is not condemned. This denotes more than a reprieve; he is not condemned, that is, he is acquitted; he stand upon his deliverance (as we say), and if he be not condemned he is discharged; ou krinetai-he is not judged, not dealt with in strict justice, according to the desert of his sins.

Many people today pride themselves on not believing in Christ.  In fact, next week, I am beginning a series on a Communist official in the United States who later rediscovered the Catholicism of her childhood.  Bella Dodd, who actively worked against Christ, admitted that her wilfulness prevented her from understanding the Scriptures.  They made no sense to her because she was so tied to her own sins of pride and destruction.  Of course, like many today, she said she was too intelligent and rational to believe in Jesus.  I recently had a discussion with a couple of people who say the same thing.  They were taken aback when I told them what He said in the New Testament.  They said that it was not very intelligent to be a Christian.  They then looked on me as if I were missing a few synapses.  Such is the blindness of the unbeliever.

And this is what Jesus says in verse 19.  People are so enthralled to sin that they prefer it (‘darkness’) to Him (‘light’).  He says, ‘[T]heir deeds were evil’.  Our own self-belief, the error that we are somehow divine, turns us against Him.  A hardened persistence in this way of thinking may cause God to leave some people to their own devices.  There might be no turning back.

Matthew Henry explains:

How great the misery of unbelievers is: they are condemned already; which bespeaks, First, A certain condemnation. They are as sure to be condemned in the judgment of the great day as if they were condemned already. Secondly, A present condemnation. The curse has already taken hold of them; the wrath of God now fastens upon them. They are condemned already, for their own hearts condemn them. Thirdly, A condemnation grounded upon their former guilt: He is condemned already, for he lies open to the law for all his sins; the obligation of the law is in full force, power, and virtue, against him, because he is not by faith interested in the gospel defeasance; he is condemned already, because he has not believed. Unbelief may truly be called the great damning sin, because it leaves us under the guilt of all our other sins; it is a sin against the remedy, against our appeal.

In verse 20, Jesus says that those who persist in sin ‘hate the light’ (refuse divine grace and redemption).  The more they are steeped in sin, the less likely they are to seek the light.  They do not want their sins to be exposed.  They do not wish to ask for God’s grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit which would bring them to a belief in Christ as Saviour, our only Mediator and Advocate with the Father.  Instead, they seek the temporal consolation of their sins.

Unbelievers are more comfortable with sin.  They don’t want their pride exposed, that which led them to sin in the first place.  After all, they might find out that pride and the wilfulness it engenders lead them to do evil things.  For those coming to the Church after many years of serious sin, it’s a mind-blower.  It is not unusual for these people to find themselves utterly broken — similar to Bella Dodd, as we shall see — and only at that point finally realise they need Christ.  Last year, I featured a powerful sermon from the Baptist pastor Voddie Baucham on brokenness with Psalm 51 for the text.  This is what diehard sinners go through when coming to Jesus.  They’ve been deeply involved in a lifetime of crime, the occult or persecution.  Then something happens whereby God takes them out of that situation;  Bella Dodd was drummed out of the Communist Party after many years and was truly all alone.  It was only then that, with God’s grace, she turned to Christ Jesus.  And that’s a difficult thing to do.  Most people would prefer to avoid it, so they keep rationalising their sin and clinging to it as if it were a lifejacket, when, in fact, it is a deadly millstone around their souls.

Matthew Henry writes:

The true reason why men love darkness rather than light is because their deeds are evil. They love darkness because they think it is an excuse for their evil deeds, and they hate the light because it robs them of the good opinion they had of themselves, by showing them their sinfulness and misery. Their case is sad, and, because they are resolved that they will not mend it, they are resolved that they will not see itWilful ignorance is so far from excusing sin that it will be found, at the great day, to aggravate the condemnation: This is the condemnation, this is what ruins souls, that they shut their eyes against the light, and will not so much as admit a parley with Christ and his gospel; they set God so much at defiance that they desire not the knowledge of his ways, Job 21:14. We must account in the judgment, not only for the knowledge we had, and used not, but for the knowledge we might have had, and would not; not only for the knowledge we sinned against, but for the knowledge we sinned away.

Evil-doers seek concealment, out of a sense of shame and fear of punishment … Thus the gospel is a terror to the wicked world: They come not to this light, but keep as far off it as they can, lest their deeds should be reproved. Note, 1. The light of the gospel is sent into the world to reprove the evil deeds of sinners; to make them manifest (Eph. 5:13), to show people their transgressions, to show that to be sin which was not thought to be so, and to show them the evil of their transgressions, that sin by the new commandment might appear exceeding sinful. The gospel has its convictions, to make way for its consolations. 2. It is for this reason that evil-doers hate the light of the gospel. There were those who had done evil and were sorry for it, who bade this light welcome, as the publicans and harlots. But he that does evil, that does it and resolves to go on in it, hateth the light, cannot bear to be told of his faults. All that opposition which the gospel of Christ has met with in the world comes from the wicked heart, influenced by the wicked one. Christ is hated because sin is loved. 3. They who do not come to the light thereby evidence a secret hatred of the light. If they had not an antipathy to saving knowledge, they would not sit down so contentedly in damning ignorance.

In verse 21, Jesus is saying that those who confess their sins and repent — ‘doeth truth’ — are essentially coming to Him, ‘the light’. They then become regenerate — born again — and, through grace by faith, begin a long process of sanctification.  The forgiveness they receive through Christ is an acquittal of their sins.  And this is the invitation which Jesus issues to Nicodemus.  It is the one which evangelists and pastors issue today to unbelievers.  And, like Nicodemus, some of these unbelievers will refuse it.

Also in verse 21 is the notion of the believer doing good deeds as the grace of God works through him.  This doesn’t mean that he will never sin again, but that he will pick up on his own sins (e.g. through examining his conscience at the end of the day), make amends with the person he has offended and pray for forgiveness.  He will be able to spot his own transgressions, own up to them and pray for the strength to overcome them in future.

Verse 22 tells us that Jesus and His disciples left Jerusalem for Judea, to be amongst the people there and to baptise.  An upcoming post on the first few verses of John 4 will explain that Jesus Himself was not performing the baptisms but directed the disciples to do so in His name.

We might wonder why Jesus chose to leave Jerusalem.  The rest of this chapter tells us that John the Baptist was already not far from where Jesus was going.  Yet, as verse 23 explains, water was plentiful in that region.  More importantly, was Jesus’s desire to be seen where John the Baptist was.  This was so that the people would see that his prophecy was immediately verifiable.  They first see and hear John the Baptist, then Jesus Himself.

John MacArthur unpacks this verse for us:

Christ retreats from Jerusalem. One Bible commentator said Jesus in complete frustration because He was not received as Messiah beat it out of town. Oh, no way… no way. Christ was not frustrated and did not run away from it because He had been mocked and not accepted. There were three reasons basically that I believe He went out to Judea. Number one, He wanted to be with His disciples. Number two, He wanted to preach and baptize. Number three, and this is really the key, He wanted to bring about a confrontation with John and Himself with some lasting results. He wanted to set up a ministry at the same time as John’s so that John could send people to Him and bring it to a head finally. And we’ll see how this works. He was really setting up a confrontation. And so He tarried and was baptizing. 

And incidentally, you say, “What kind of baptism was Jesus doing?” He wasn’t doing the Old Testament baptism of John, He wasn’t doing the Roman 6 baptism of the New Testament which is burying us, you know, symbolically in His death and in His resurrection, that couldn’t be because He hadn’t died and rose again. You say, “What kind of baptism is it?” Well it’s a little of everything. Baptism was simply a sign of cleansing. And as people came and Jesus preached and they believed, He merely baptized them as a symbol of cleansing. But beyond that it had a prophetic character. This was a prophetic baptism picturing the full Christian baptism that would come after His death and resurrection. And we see that first occur in Acts 2:41 when Peter and the disciples baptized those 3,000 people in one day. Did you ever figure that out? I know a guy who wrote his thesis on the mathematical possibility of baptizing 3,000 people in one day by 12 disciples. Anyway, that was the first real Christian baptism. Prior to that the baptism of Christ was prophetic, pointing toward that.

Next week: John 3:31-36

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