Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman
Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)
One of the rulers of the Jews, most likely a man sitting on the Sanhedrin council, came to Jesus by night while he was in Jerusalem. Interestingly, Jewish writings do mention a man named Nicodemus, son of Gorion, who lived in the time of Vespasian, and was reported to be very wealthy [Adam Clarke’s Commentary, notes on John chapter 3]. We also know he was a Jewish rabbi (John 3:10). He is mentioned two more times in the Scriptures (John 7:50 and John 19:39) taking favorable positions toward Jesus. Yet it appears that he was not willing to jeopardize his position by making a firm public stand in regards to Jesus. Such is hinted for several of the leaders in John 12:42-43. The Jews were probably still upset with Jesus for cleansing the temple and it won’t be politically seemly for a member of the Sanhedrin to be seen with this unpopular fellow.
However, there are other equally credible possibilities which should be considered. It is possible that Nicodemus, in respect for Jesus and his work, did not want to interrupt Jesus public ministry with his own private question and so he waited until evening to seek a private audience. Too, Nicodemus was also a busy man and might not have easily gotten away until evening to see Jesus. Another possibility is that Nicodemus was disturbed by what he has heard and seen. In his desire for answers he went immediately to Jesus without waiting for daylight to come. We might not know the true reason Nicodemus chose to come to Jesus at night, so it is best not to latch on to one reason above all others.
Nicodemus politely calls Jesus a rabbi. He acknowledges that the signs Jesus was doing (John 2:23) had convinced at least several of the Sanhedrin that Jesus was a teacher from God. This becomes a telling point as the Sanhedrin makes moves against Jesus in the future.
Jesus’ response seems oddly abrupt after Nicodemus’ flattering introduction. After all, Nicodemus had not yet gotten to his question. The abruptness tells us that, as with Simon and Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus, Jesus knew the hearts of men. From Jesus’ response, we can guess that Nicodemus was going to ask a question about the Messiah’s kingdom. Where Jesus’ seeing character and thoughts of a man brought strong belief in the disciples, Nicodemus seems to take the matter in stride.
Jesus begins his statement with “Amen, amen;” a phrase which meant that what follows is an absolutely true statement. “Unless one is born again,” Jesus said, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We cannot fully grasp how confusing this statement would have been to Nicodemus because we have the advantage of the remainder of the New Testament explaining it to us. Nicodemus grasped that Jesus could not have been talking about a second physical birth, but he was unable to see the true implication – that Jesus was speaking of a spiritual rebirth.
The idea of a spiritual rebirth is presented many times in the New Testament. We born again through the resurrection of Jesus (I Peter 1:3). We are also born again by love (I John 4:7) and through a promise (Galatians 4:23). These passages tell us why we have an opportunity to be born again. Yet in speaking with Nicodemus, Jesus answers his question as to how a person can be born again. It takes two elements: being born of water and of the spirit.
The water cannot refer to physical birth because this was something Nicodemus needed to do (future), but his birth was a past event. To say that someone needs to be physically born to enter the kingdom would be a redundant statement. I could just as easily say that you must be physically born to believe -- true, but it is a given. So what are the two elements?
Just after this conversation, we find "After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized" (John 3:22). This upset John's disciples. "Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified--behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!" (John 3:26). It got to the point that "Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John" (John 4:1). The baptism was in water. Paul tells us plainly that baptism brings new life (rebirth) in Romans 6:4.
But what about born of the Spirit? In John 3 again, John explained why Jesus would become greater. "What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:32-36). The word for "does not obey" is an interesting one because it actually combines the idea of disbelief and disobedience in one word. However, notice the need to receive Jesus' testimony because Jesus speaks the words of God and those words give the Spirit. Hence, we have the idea as presented in I Peter 1:22-25 that Christians are born of the word of God. Or, as James stated, "Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (James 1:21). James then follows this with the urging to obey the word and not merely listen to it (James 1:22-25).
The same combination of two elements is seen in Titus, “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). Here it is referred to as the washing of regeneration, where “regeneration” is just another word for being born again and “washing” is a reference to baptism in water (Ephesians 5:26). “Renewal” refers to the transformation of the person involved (Romans 12:2), which is what being born again is all about.
Without a spiritual transformation, becoming someone different and new, a person cannot become a part of Jesus’ kingdom, which is the church (II Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Jesus’s statements indicate the absolute necessity that only by the combination of these two elements, which bring about a transformation in the believer, can a person enter the Christ’s kingdom. None are exempted from this charge. John 3:6 makes it very clear that Jesus is not talking about a physical birth, but a spiritual change.
In the natural world, we might not see the wind, but we can hear and see its effect on the world. This is the same in the spiritual world. We do not see the Spirit of God, but we can see His effect through his message (I Corinthians 2:11-13; Romans 10:17) and by the impact of change the Spirit makes on the believers’ life (I John 4:13; Galatians 4:6).
Though Nicodemus heard what Jesus said, he was unable to grasp what was meant; he was unable to understand that a person could be so dramatically changed. Jesus, in turn, asked how he could be a teacher of the Law and not understand. The Law does speak of people changing in spirit (I Samuel 10:9; Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 18:31).
Jesus told him another absolute truth, “We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness” (John 3:11). Jesus divided the world into two camps. He and those who would follow him speak of this as they are. They would not indulge in speculations but teach the facts as they knew them first-hand (I John 1:1-4). The Jews, represented by Nicodemus, would refuse to accept these eye-witness accounts – a troubling indictment toward one who sat on Israel’s highest court.
Though the conversion of believers originates in heaven, it takes place in this world. If Nicodemus cannot understand things of this world, Jesus states he certainly would not understand Jesus talking about heavenly matters. Only someone with the proper background, someone who is from heaven, can understand and explain heavenly concepts – that someone is Jesus himself. A visitor to heaven could not explain the realm as well as a native of heaven. Implicit in this statement is that Jesus existed prior to his coming to earth and that his true home is in heaven (Philippians 2:6-7). Though he is physically on earth, Jesus states that he is presently in heaven or, in other words, he is in communications with heaven even at this time (John 8:29).
Jesus proceeds to explain why he left heaven to come to this earth: he came down to be lifted up. By this, Jesus is alluding to his eventual death upon the cross. He makes a parallel to his death with the serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8-9). The people of Israel because of their sins were being stricken by serpents from whose bit there was no cure. But God provided a cure, if the people would accept it by looking upon it. In the same way men have sinned are plagued with eternal death, a death they cannot avoid. But God is providing a cure by sending His Son, if people will accept the gift and believe on him. No one needs to perish and God does not wish for any to perish. Jesus’ purpose is not to bring final judgment against the world, but to rescue people from the consequences of their own sins.
This is not to say that Jesus does not judge, but that it is not his primary mission. The fact that he came does result in judgment as people decide whether to believe on him or not (John 9:39; Luke 2:35). The presence of Jesus forces people to make a decision. Disbelief doesn’t make a person condemned – he is already in a condemned state by his own sins. Belief brings a person out of condemnation and into salvation.
Thus, the reason men fall under judgment, or condemnation, is because God’s light has come into the world (Isaiah 9:2; 49:6; 60:1), but they preferred the darkness of sin. The fault is not the light, but the preference of man for evil deeds. He avoids the light because it shows him as he truly exists (Ephesians 5:13). However, the righteous have nothing to hide and they are willing to come to God’s light.
Jesus Begins Baptizing Followers (John 3:22-4:2)
An often overlooked passage is the mention that, prior to the beginning of the church, Jesus and his disciples were baptizing. Once in a while someone will ask where it is mentioned that the apostles were baptized and John 3:22 and John 4:1-2 are the passages that I turn to for an answer. John 4:1-2 tells us that while the disciples were baptizing by the authority of Jesus, Jesus himself was not personally baptizing people.
Jesus and his followers have left Jerusalem and are now in the region of Judea. It appears he spent about eight months in the countryside of Judea because the Passover was in April and John 4:35 mentions that it was four months until harvest, which would be about December. Meanwhile, John continues to baptize in the Jordan near Aenon and Salim. Even though Jesus had began his teaching and baptizing there was still work for John in preparing the people for Jesus in the early part of Jesus’ ministry. The emphasis that area of Aenon was selected for its quantity of water serves as a reminder that baptism was done by immersion.
During this time a dispute arose between John’s disciples and the Jews. Some versions have “a Jew” but whether it was one or more makes little difference to the following discussion. The exact nature of the question is not known. It dealt with the concept of purification and since John brings up the topic just after mentioned baptism, we can assume it had to do with purification in relation to baptism. We can also assume that Jesus and his disciples were also apart of the conversation because of the question John’s disciples ask of John.
John’s disciples are upset that Jesus is pulling more people toward himself with his baptism than John was drawing (see also John 4:2). In their eyes John was the greater teacher because John had baptized him and not the other way around and it was John who testified that he was the Messiah. Notice that more emphasis was being placed on who was doing the deeds than what the deeds meant. They were complaining that the king was outshining the herald.
John’s answer was that a man can only have what God has given to him (I Corinthians 4:7). The statement is both a commentary on Jesus’ growing following as well has his own work. John has what God has given him. He reminds his followers that he told them that wasn’t the Christ, but the one preparing the way for the Christ. Jesus is the bridegroom and his followers will become his bride (Ephesians 5:23, 25, 29), but John is just the friend at the wedding who is happy that the two are coming together and to him that is the only important thing. It must be the case that Jesus increase as John fades out of the picture.
The plain fact of the matter is that Jesus is from heaven and is above all earthly men, including John (Isaiah 52:13; Ephesians 1:19-23; Hebrews 1). Even though Jesus is gaining a great following and his teaching comes from his own personal knowledge, few are accepting his teaching (John 3:11). Jesus is teaching the words of God and God did not give him only a part of His Spirit. Jesus has the fullness of God (Colossians 1:19; 2:9). Everything has been given into the Son’s hands (John 17:2; Matthew 28:18; Hebrews 2:8).
A choice must be made either you believe in God’s son or you do not. Notice the contrast in the two clauses between belief and not obeying. The belief under discussion is not one of mere words but one that generates a response of obedience. The consequences logically follow from that choice. There is no middle ground.
The Samaritan Woman (John 4:3-26)
Jesus eventually moves on from Judea, heading toward Galilee. To do so, Jesus and his disciples move through the region of Samaria, stopping for a moment in the town of Sychar, which is in the same area as the ancient town of Shechem (Genesis 33:19; Joshua 24:32). Jacob’s Well is not mentioned prior to this point, but the well is easily placed even to this day.
Jesus had been traveling all day and at noon time (the sixth hour of the day) he stopped besides the well. Noon time was the common time for a meal among the Jews and so the disciples went into the town to purchase food. The mention that Jesus was tired from the journey reminds us that though he was God, he still was in the form of man and feel the discomforts of the body as we do.
While the disciples were gone, a woman comes to the well to fetch water and Jesus asked her for a drink. This surprises the woman because the Jews refused to have any dealings with the Samaritans (Acts 10:28). The Samaritans were half-breeds from the days when Assyria conquered Israel (II Kings 17:24-41). Their worship was a mixture of
Judaism and idolatry brought with them into the country. As a result, the Jews found them to be repulsive. It is not likely that the woman was going to refuse Jesus’ request but took the opportunity to banter with him.
Jesus responded that she understood God’s gift and who she was speaking to, she would ask him for living water. The phrase to people in those days meant water from a flowing stream as opposed to water sitting still at the bottom of a well. Jesus is using it to represent life-giving words from God, but the woman would not have understood this at first (Isaiah 12:3; Zechariah 13:1; 14:8). Since Jesus had no container she could not see how he could draw water from this well, let alone fetch living water. Could he actually be greater that the Samaritan’s ancestor, Jacob, who dug the well and used it for his family and livestock?
By her question we learn that the Samaritans, though a mixed breed, viewed themselves as descendants of Jacob and were not above rubbing this in the Jew’s face. After all Jacob’s well was in the possession of the Samaritans. The very water that once watered the Jew’s ancestors is being used by the Samaritans. Josephus mentions that the Samaritans were wont to claim Israelite ancestry when the Jews were prospering and deny any connection with them when things were going badly [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 9:14:3].
Jesus replies that his water was better because those who drink of it never thirst again. The water would become a fountain of everlasting life (Romans 6:23; John 7:38-39; John 6:35). This was something that the woman could see as being valuable. With such water she could stop having to come to draw water from this well (Romans 8:5).
The woman accepted Jesus’ offer, though she did not understand exactly what he was offering to her. To bringing her to the point of understanding her need for the waters of salvation, Jesus asked her to fetch her husband. To his request the woman admits she has no husband. Jesus points out the truth of her statement. She has been living in adultery, having had five husbands and not even bothering to marry the man with whom she currently lived.
Now light begins to dawn in the woman’s mind. Here was a man who knew her past though they had never met. She correctly concludes that he must be a prophet of God. By calling him a prophet, she is acknowledging that what Jesus said was true.
Having access to a true prophet of God was a rare event, and perhaps she also wanted to turn the conversation away from her troubled life, so she asks about one of the points of contention between the Samaritans and the Jews: Where must a person worship, here or in Jerusalem? Notice the justification for worshiping on Mt. Gerizim was because this is what their ancestors all had done, even though the Law clearly stated that worship was to be done in Jerusalem (I Kings 9:3, II Chronicles 7:12).
Jesus said that shortly the question would no longer matter because there would not be one set place to worship God (Malachi 1:11; I Timothy 2:8). The Samaritans have worshiped out of ignorance. The Jews had the truth of God’s will. But the time has come when God seeks people who will worship Him in both spirit and in truth, both from a fervent desire and a willingness to obey God’s will. God is Spirit so proper worship is not a mere physical ritual but from the heart accompanied by obedience.
Such a dramatic change, the woman understood, would come about when the Messiah came from God. Jesus plainly tells her that he is the Messiah. This is the first record of Jesus stating who he was and it was made not to leading Jewish men, but a sinful Samaritan woman.
The Disciples’ Reaction (John 4:27-38)
The disciples return from their purchasing food in town and are amazed to find Jesus talking with a woman, but none of them were bold enough to interrupt the conversation. What Jesus did was against all that they thought to be proper conduct for a Jewish man. “The spirit of the Rabbis is shown by their later precept; namely: "Let no one talk with a woman in the street, no, not with his own wife."” [J. W. McGarvey, The Four-Fold Gospels, page 150].
The woman soon leaves, but in such a hurry that she leaves her waterpot behind. What she had learned drove out all thoughts about why she originally came to the well. She excitedly tells the men of the city that there was a man by the well who knew everything she ever done and that possibly he is the Christ (Isaiah 11:2-3). She has gone from seeing Jesus as another Jewish man (John 4:9), to a gentleman (John 4:11), to a prophet (John 4:19), and now the Christ (John 4:29). But being a woman, it won’t be seen as proper to assert the fact so plainly. She is giving the men of the city room to judge for themselves.
While she was convincing men to go and see Jesus, the disciples were asking Jesus to eat some of the food they had just bought. However, Jesus wasn’t that interested in food at the moment. There were more satisfying things happening (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4). After all what is a few more hours to a man who went forty days without eating?
The disciples, however, took his words literally as they were want to do. They asked among themselves if someone had quietly beaten the rest back to Jesus and gave him food.
So Jesus explains that his food, his satisfaction, comes from doing God’s will (Isaiah 55:1; Job 23:12; Proverbs 11:30). Continuing with the theme of food, Jesus points out that the harvest is still four months away (making the current time late December to early January), but there is a spiritual crop ready to be harvested right away. The harvest time is a time of joy for the worker who is paid to gather the grain as well as the farmer who originally planted the seed (Psalm 126:6). Therefore, Jesus is pointing out that work which has been done by another is now ready to bear fruit at this time. God has spent thousands of years getting the world ready for this moment in time. Many prophets and teachers have laid the groundwork for what is about to happen. And though the results are seen in hands of the harvesters, those who did the preparation can also rejoice in the result (I Peter 1:11-12; I Corinthians 3:5-6). Herein is wisdom for us all, for how many are reluctant to labor in the gospel when they do not see direct results of their labor? (Ecclesiastes 11:4).
The Samaritans’ Reaction (John 4:39-42)
Many accepted the woman’s word that Jesus knew her past and thus believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Those who came out to Jesus asked him to spend time with them and he consented to stay with them for two days. They learned much from Jesus in that time and more became believers. Their faith did not rest solely on the woman’s testimony but on the results of their own investigation. “This is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:42; Isaiah 49:6).
This ready acceptance becomes a strong contrast to later events. Samaritans came to Jesus because of the words of a sinful woman, but Jews would reject Jesus despite the testimony of prophets recorded in their own Scriptures (John 5:46-47). Notice too that no miracles are mentioned taking place. These people accepted Jesus as the Messiah because of his teachings (Romans 10:17). Yet the Jews would witness numerous miracles and still would not believe that Jesus came from God.
John is Arrested and Jesus Returns to Galilee (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:14-15; John 4:43-45)
After two days, Jesus continues his journey to Galilee. About this time John is arrested by Herod (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14). Jesus became openly active in teaching the gospel (Luke 4:14; Mark 1:14). John might have been arrested, but Jesus quickly took up the fallen mantle and continued the work (Mark 1:15). People had seen him in Jerusalem and when they returned home, word of Jesus had spread rapidly (Luke 4:14).
Jesus taught in the synagogues and he was glorified by the people in the Galilee region (Luke 4:15), but John tells us that Jesus did not include the Nazareth area in his travels because he would not be accepted (John 4:44).