John 3:14-21


John 3:1-21 comprises the well-known conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It has rightly been said that John 3:1-21 contains the whole of Christ's teaching. If we had nothing except these twenty one verses, we would know the way of salvation. Ylvisaker divides these verses thus: In verses 1-10 we have a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. Verses 11-21, beginning with "verily, verily" (the second in this Gospel, the first at 1:51), we have a discourse by Jesus:
  1. Verses 11-13, Who Jesus is;
  2. Verses 14-17, What He has come to accomplish;
  3. Verses 18-21, What the result of His coming will be to men.

Note that the Nestle/Aland Greek text begins verse 14 as a subparagraph. They do this because there are those who consider verses 14-21 an exposition by the Evangelist John, not the words of Jesus spoken to Nicodemus. We do not agree with this idea. With Ylvisaker, Stoeckhardt, Kretzmann, Hendriksen and Lenski we maintain that Jesus spoke the words, recorded in verses 14-21, to Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is again mentioned at John 7:50-52 and 19:39-42. His bold actions on both occasions are a reflection of John 3:21, an argument in favor of considering verses 14-21 as the words of Jesus to Nicodemus on this occasion. Did Nicodemus become a child of God on this occasion?

Fahling says: Nicodemus came seeking and left believing.
Stoeckhardt: As one born again, as a believing disciple of Jesus, Nicodemus leaves. Where we find him again in the Gospel accounts, he appears as a disciple of the Lord.
Lenski: What did Nicodemus say or think? John is not making this a story about this man but a report of the testimony of Jesus to himself. . . We may well say, however, that Jesus' words must have made an indelible impression upon the old Pharisee and must have shaken him profoundly. In due time he came to faith.
Bengel: Even Nicodemus subsequently acted more openly.

Evidently he is referring to John 7:50-52 and 19:39-42, and is implying that Nicodemus became a child of God.

John 3:14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,

Jesus had made a statement in verses 11-12, where He introduced the subject of heavenly things. Verse 13 introduces the first heavenly truth, as to Christ's person. He is both divine and human. Verse 14 introduces the second heavenly truth, as to the work of the incarnate Christ. Note that in both cases He refers to Himself as "the Son of man."  (By the way, we are assuming that the words  "Who is in heaven" are textual and should not be relegated to the apparatus).

"Lifted up" are correlative adverbs of manner, indicating a precise comparison. What they have in common is the verb "lift." The Old Testament account is found at Numbers 21:8ff. This verse reminds us immediately of John 12:32-34 where the same verb is found.

Bengel: Where there was no other remedy.
True. What he is implying is that there is no remedy except in the uplifted Son of man. The impersonal verb does not denote compulsion or fate but the necessary willing obedience of the Son of man. For it was for this purpose that He became incarnate. Lenski insists that the point of comparison should not be pressed beyond the idea of "being lifted up." After due consideration we prefer the interpretation of Kretzmann:
The act of Moses in the wilderness, in erecting the brazen serpent before the eyes of the stricken people, was typical, symbolical, Numbers 21: 1-9. . . Jesus is the antitype of the brazen serpent. . . There are three points of similarity between type and antitype in this story. 1) The brazen serpent of Moses had the form and appearance of the poisonous reptiles after which it was modeled, just as Jesus was revealed in the form of our sinful flesh, had the needs and ways of an ordinary human being, was finally punished as a criminal; 2) Just as the brazen serpent, however, had no poison, was altogether harmless, so Jesus, though in appearance like unto sinful men, was without sin, holy, harmless, undefiled. A strange curse was resting upon Him, He hung upon the cross; 3) And finally, just as he that looked at the brazen serpent in faith remained alive, so also every sinner that has been poisoned by sin in its various forms, but now looks up to Jesus the Savior, in simple, trusting faith, shall not perish, shall not be punished with everlasting destruction, but have eternal life.

Hendriksen has a good exposition of type and anti type at this point, but ruins it completely when he adds:

Though Christ is lifted up in the sight of all, he does not save all.

He believes in a limited atonement and his interpretations are very often synergistic. More on this later.

Lenski: The Book of Wisdom 16:6 calls this serpent the symbol of salvation, and in church decorations it is constantly used to picture Jesus.

The brazen serpent on the pole is very prominent on the official seal of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN.

John 3:15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

All the "that" clauses in this section (15,16,17,20,21) denote purpose. In this instance the word "that" hangs on "eternal life." By the way, the passive infinitive denotes what was done to Jesus, what He suffered on the cross. There is no such thing as faith in Christ unless it be in the crucified Christ. Compare Galatians 2:20. The Son of God loved me by giving Himself in my stead. That is the only way in which the love of God is revealed to us.

That word "everyone" does not denote limitation but open invitation. Just as the serpent was lifted up for all on the occasion, so Jesus was lifted up for all. Furthermore, "who believes" does not mean that man must do something first to make the atonement an actuality but rather that God Himself causes the hearers to believe in what has already been done for all.

That is the whole point of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in verses 1-10. Faith in Christ is always the God-given modus of salvation, not the man-generated causa of salvation.

Note that both participle and verb, are in the present tense. Being in possession of life eternal is a present reality for the believer. For him there is no such thing as judgment.

Bengel: The cross is the ladder to heaven. Eternal death, because of the poison of sin. Eternal life, by regeneration and faith. This mention of eternal life is made at the earliest opportunity in each instance in the discourses of the Savior, and occurs in this passage first (in the Gospel of John).

Note that Bengel considered the words "should not perish" textual. They are found in the Koine text and therefore in KJV and NKJV. This difference should not be passed over lightly. By the way, the term "everlasting life" occurs seventeen times in the Gospel of John and six times in 1 John.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Perhaps the best-known verse in the Bible. In verse 14 "so" meant "thus" in the sense of "in the same way." But here in verse 16 it means "to such an extent." "For" is an explanatory particle, used here to elucidate verses 14-15 further. This example is the clearest in the New Testament as to what God's love means. It does not say that God "liked" the world. He did not. But He loved the whole world in all its misery and sin, loved it to redeem it.

"The world" must mean the entire world of people. The Reformed limit it to the elect from every nation. Compare Lenski and Hendriksen on this point. Parallel passages here are John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Romans 5:12-21. More could be mentioned but these are sufficient.

Again and again the Scriptures stress the fact that IN CHRIST, in His suffering, death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, redemption, justification, eternal salvation FOR ALL MEN is an accomplished fact. Because of their twin false teaching of a limited atonement and synergism, the Reformed (and those like them) teach that forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, justification are merely potential, merely making it possible for all to be saved. Read Article IV of the Apology and Article II of the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration) where again and again reconciliation, justification, forgiveness, redemption are used synonymously and interchangeably as accomplished facts for all men, posited in the means of grace for all.

Even some Lutherans claim that although John 3:16 is universal, 2 Corinthians 5:19 and Romans 4:25 are merely potential. That won't do. To deny the universality of the justification of all men, in Christ, at Romans 4:25 or the universality of reconciliation of all men, in Christ, at 2 Corinthians 5:19, means to deny the universal atonement per se.

Back to verse 16: "so that" with the indicative, to denote actual result, is found only here and at Galatians 2:13. (It can be used with the infinitive to denote actual result). Note that  "so much-so that" are correlative. The first "His" is relational denoting the divinity of Jesus. "One and only" makes that even clearer. KJV, NKJV, NASB, and AAT (2nd ed.) translate "only-begotten" denoting the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. All other translations have "only" which is surely wrong.

By the way, some commentators feel that verses 14-21 are the words of the Evangelist not those of Jesus, for only in this passage Jesus calls Himself by this term. But if Jesus gave the word John at 1:18, why couldn't He use it of Himself? It is powerful in the mouth of Jesus. He knew that He proceeded from all eternity from the Father and yet He was willing to become man to die for us.

God gives, gives, gives. That's the story of the Gospel. "That" introduces another purpose clause, repeating and amplifying the one in verse 15. There it was stressed from the point of view of the Father sending and giving His eternal Son.  "Whoever believes," not restrictive but invitational, for all. "Not perish," death and destruction, for the believer, are gone, abolished. For him death is not dying but the beginning of eternal life. "But" following a negative is very strong: "quite to the contrary." We know nothing quite so antithetical as eternal death and eternal life.

Again, the believer has life now. 

John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

As noted above, verses 14-17 tell us what Christ accomplished for us. This verse is the last in this section. "For" is explanatory, emphatically elucidating verse 16. It tells us why God DID NOT and why He DID send His Son. Mankind has a bad conscience because of sinfulness and sin. According to his flesh he is always listening to Satan who pictures God as enemy, not as friend. Even Christians, insofar as they still have a flesh, all too often think of God as enemy and judge rather than as Savior and Friend in Christ.

Jesus says: "God did NOT send His Son into the world in order to judge (condemn) the world, but, quite to the contrary, in order through Him (Christ) the world be saved." Compare John 12:47 and then His words to His enemies at 5:34.

The Church of Rome, because of its worksrighteousness, was constantly presenting God as Judge. Over and over Luther said that the Gospel presents God as Savior, not as Judge. Compare Galatians 4:4.5 and Galatians 3:13.14. The "so that" clauses in Galatians 4:5 and 3:14 (two sets of them) respectively denote what we call objective and subjective justification. In Christ, the blessing of Abraham (justification) became effective for all nations. Christ redeemed all the condemned, all human beings. And in Galatians 4:5 we are told that Christ came to redeem the condemned, all human beings. The Gospel portrays Christ as Savior, not as Judge.

"Sent with a commission." Note that "all people -- the world" is used thrice in this verse: to denote Christ's incarnation, becoming a man, for all; again, for all people;and again, all people. Christ came to condemn no one, not even Judas. That should never be forgotten. Mix no Law into the Gospel.

John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.

For the first clause read Romans 8:1; John 3:36a; 5:24; Mark 16:16a. The believer is judged neither now nor on Judgment Day. He will hear only: "Come, ye blessed of My Father." Well, then, why are the majority lost? Jesus answers that with "but, however." 
Kretzmann: The unbeliever refuses to believe in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. And therefore this unbelief condemns him. . . Unbelief is thus the sin of sins, for it rejects the salvation which has been gained and is offered for all sins. . . Their sin is no longer the result of ignorance, but of deliberate choice and preference.

Now read John 12:47.48. Jesus does not judge the rejecter. His Word of Law, which warns against rejection of the Gospel, will judge that man. Note the tense of the dejection verbs. The first denotes that judgment sets in at the time of refusal to believe. The second makes that refusal plain. Judgment begins with and is caused by man's refusal in the face of clear knowledge. The text is making plain that the unbeliever rejects God's plain revelation. "In the name of God's one and only Son," is adjectival, the specific revelation about Jesus Christ, God's only-begotten Son. The judgment on the last day will be only the public announcement of what was already true in this life and finalized at the time of death.

John 3:19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

"This is" is like the English "now."  The English colon is inferred. Look at John 1:1-5. Jesus is the only source of true spiritual light. Compare John 8:12 and 1 John 2:18. This Light shines in all the Messianic promises beginning with Genesis 3:15. He is the comforting Light of forgiveness, reconciliation, justification, redemption. "Has come," has come with permanent results (perfect tense). This refers to His incarnation. The implication is that this Light shines on all men. John 1:9.

"But," is "and yet, but." Here we have sharp contrast between a malevolent love of deliberate purpose in comparison with the redeeming and saving love of God also of deliberate purpose, verse 16. "Men," means people in general, a somber thought. The love associated with "darkness" is a love of darkness and sin. The love associated with "light" is the love of redemption, forgiveness, everlasting life.

Note that "loved" is aorist. The aorist is not so permanent as is the perfect. Many of the lovers of darkness are converted.

The last clause in this verse is introduced by "for," giving us the reason why they loved as they did. Note the order of words in Greek. First the possessive genitive; then the predicate adjective, meaning "actively evil," then the subject.

The cause of the condemnation lies in the rejecters of the Gospel, not in God. And Lenski aptly remarks:  "If all men believed, no verdict like this would be necessary." 

On this verse look at John 5:44 and 12:43. Rejecters of the Gospel are of their father, the devil, John 8:44, and must be told so, as Jesus told his enemies.

John 3:20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

On verses 20 and 21 Stoeckhardt says:

Jesus here sheds light on the contrast between faith and unbelief, which also becomes evident in the works and conduct of man, because he who does not believe shies away from the light, hiding from others his evil works, of which he must be ashamed. However, he who believes in Christ, doing what is right before God, confidently stepping before God and man, with his good works, which are done in God.

Man can judge another man only by his works. Verse 20 elucidates and explains what was said in verses 18 and 19 chiastically. Verse 18 speaks of the believer, verse 19 of the unbeliever. But in verses 20 and 21 this is reversed. Note the contrasting words in verses 20 and 21. Look at John 5:29 where the same distinction of verbs is made: "worthless -- genuine;" "hatred opposed to attraction;" "exposed as opposed to made plain."  Note what the two verses have in common. In the former, shame is involved whereas in the latter, forthright openness is stressed. We translate the two verses literally to bring out the utter contrast and the meaning of crucial words: "You see, everyone who constantly practices worthless deeds hates the Light, and therefore does not approach the Light, lest his deeds be exposed. But the one who is constantly producing the true and genuine works approaches the Light in order that his works may be made plain as to the fact that they have been worked by God Himself." 

The unbeliever loves the works of darkness but is ashamed of them. That is proved by the fact that he refuses to approach Christ, for if he did, his works would be exposed for what they are, worthless and actively evil. However, the believer, who by faith in Jesus does the will of God (third use of the Law), gladly approaches Christ so that everyone can see that God and God alone "works in him both to will and to do of His good pleasure." Compare 1 John 1:5-10; Ephesians 2:8-10; John 1:13.

The unbeliever, dead in his trespasses and sins, is a man of dead and worthless works and is actually ashamed of these works, though he glories in them. The believer, alive unto God by faith in Christ, forgiven and reconciled, is a man of living and genuine works of which he is not ashamed. He gladly acknowledges that God is the author not only of his salvation but also of his new life in Christ. Read Matthew 5:16. The Christian wants people to see his works, not himself. His works glorify the heavenly Father.

In conclusion we mention that the Book of Concord quotes from John 3:1-21 at least eight times. We quote pertinent passages from the various books: On John 3:5:
If we must be born again through the Holy Spirit, then the righteousness of reason does not justify us before God, it does not keep the law.

On verses

We obtain the forgiveness of sins only by faith in Christ.

On verse 16:

It is not God's will that anyone be damned but that all men should turn to Him and be saved forever.

With reference to the Lord's Supper:

This most venerable sacrament was instituted and ordained primarily for communicants like this (distressed sinners), as Christ says in John 3:16.
There is only one kind of unworthy guest, namely, those who do not believe, John 3:16.

Concerning election:

We should accordingly consider God's eternal election in Christ, and not outside of or apart from Christ. John 3:16.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series B, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1981, pp. 72-76. Used with permission.

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