12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
JOHN 3:12 ESV
12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπον ὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε;
JOHN 3:12 SBLGNT
It should have been easy for Nicodemus and the others to believe this testimony regarding the new birth wrought by the Spirit, for this belongs to the lesser parts of divine revelation, to the abc of the gospel. The more significant is the guilt for not believing. Far more significant and higher things are included in the gospel and must also be told and testified. If the lesser are met with unbelief, what will happen in the case of the more significant? If I told you earthly things, and you do not believe, how, if I shall tell you heavenly things, shall you believe? Here Jesus confronts the “how” of Nicodemus with a “how” of his own. For Nicodemus, the answer is always ready; for that of Jesus, none exists. Now Jesus omits reference to the Baptist and speaks of himself alone; hence we have the singular in the verb forms. Therefore, this does not imply that we need to press the point to shut out the Baptist from knowing any heavenly things or anything about them. He had the measure of revelation that he needed regarding these things. Nevertheless, he could not testify of them as one who had directly seen them (v. 13 and 1:18).
We now have the plurals τὰ ἐπίγεια and τὰ ἐπουράνια, which, of course, are not general: all earthly and all heavenly things; but specific, those about the kingdom. Nor are the earthly and the heavenly opposites but are most intimately related, are actual correlatives. The kingdom has an earthly and a heavenly side; the earthly side has an exalted heavenly background. To the earthly belong contrition and faith (μετάνοια, “repentance”), Baptism and regeneration, and many things of like nature. If these are to be fully and properly understood and received, the heavenly must be added, those things which occurred in heaven in order to establish the kingdom on earth: the counsel of God’s love for our salvation (v. 16), the sending of the Son and the Spirit; and all this not merely for the consummation of the kingdom but equally for its establishment, progress, and continuance to the end.
The first is a condition of reality, “if I told you …, and you do not believe.” It expresses what a fact is. The second is a condition of expectancy, “if I shall tell you …, how shall you believe?” Jesus expects and reckons with this future unbelief. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus admits some justification for unbelief in the heavenly things; or, to put it in another way, he would more readily excuse this unbelief. The “how” of Jesus is not measuring degrees of guilt, is not justifying or excusing unbelief, but is reckoning with the likelihood of faith with this or that content of the gospel from men who, like Nicodemus, meet already the earthly things of the gospel with their “how” of unbelief.
The contrast between the ‘earthly things’ and the ‘heavenly things‘ is difficult to fathom. Some take the ‘earthly things‘ to refer to physical elements such as wind and natural birth, while ‘heavenly things‘ refers to the new birth. However, no one disbelieves in ‘earthly things‘ such as wind and physical birth. A subtler variation of the same interpretation takes the ‘earthly things‘ to refer to birth and the blowing of the wind but takes the clause, and you do not believe to mean ‘you do not trust and recognize God in these events, nor see how they point parabolically to birth from above. Hence, this seems an extraordinarily generous periphrasis. It is also tangential to the context, for natural birth and the blowing of the wind do not function in the narrative as the appropriate objects of faith to gain spiritual insight but illustrations or analogies of spiritual realities.
On its face, the obvious candidate for ‘earthly things‘ is the new birth itself, the subject of Jesus’ conversation so far. Some reject this interpretation because the birth ‘of water and the spirit is ‘from above’ (anōthen), so it can scarcely be considered an ‘earthly thing.’ Nevertheless, it is ‘earthly‘ because it takes place here on earth when people are born again. More important, Jesus’ teaching on the new birth is elementary. If Nicodemus had apocalyptic leanings, he might have wanted to know what the new heavens and new earth would be like and what God’s kingdom would be like when it finally dawned. As in Is. 65:17 17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” Jesus says, in effect, that entrance into the kingdom depends absolutely on new birth; if Nicodemus stumbles over this elementary point of entry, then what is the use of going on to explain more of the details of life in the kingdom? The ‘heavenly things‘ are then the splendours of the consummated kingdom and what it means to live under such glorious, ineffable rule.
This verse speaks volumes about the nature of the church today; however, this is no different from the church yesterday. The only problem is that our days are narrowing down, and soon, the tribulation shall begin, and many souls will be lost because we refuse to accept the nature of our being. The issue begins within us and our inability to come to terms with our continued disregard for God’s teachings. Jesus would not have come if there was any possibility for humanity to set aside our reasoning’s and self and turn to God.
The reality of our broken state continues in many who claim salvation. Unfortunately, the reality of the condemnation is apparent since their views are so blinded by their self-righteousness that we cannot see our faults. It begins within us, and that battle does not end in a moment’s acceptance of Christ. The battle against our ‘self’ continues till judgement. Unless that truth is made known, we will continue to live in a lie.