Frank W. Tyler
Jesus’ testimony to Nicodemus reveals God’s chesed or loyal covenantal love in giving His Son for the salvation of the world, both Jew and Gentile.1 As a teacher of Israel and a Pharisee, Nicodemus might well have been taken aback with Jesus’ promise: “For in this manner, God loved (chesed) the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, emphasis added).2 Despite his high standing within Israel, Nicodemus as an individual, we learned, was a mere whoever in need of eternal life.
While traveling through Samaria and to the disciples’ dismay, Jesus stretches the meaning of whoever by befriending a lowly Samaritan woman, a nameless whoever, and offering her eternal life: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
Jesus fulfills His promise of living water by offering her, in verses 13 and 14, His promise of everlasting life: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14, emphasis added).3
Shockingly, Jesus promises living water and then freely offers eternal life to a whoever badly mired in sin, without calling her to repent. The events of Jesus’ witness beg the question, “Why did our Lord need to go through Samaria (John 4:4) to witness to a Samaritan woman, let alone spend an additional two days witnessing to the men of Sychar?”
II. SETTING THE STAGE: SAVING THE NATION OF ISRAEL
Although John does not report on Jesus’ preaching of repentance in the Fourth Gospel (because his purpose was evangelistic, John 20:31), the Synoptic writers do report His call for the nation of Israel to repent and to believe. As well, the Synoptics report that early in Jesus’ ministry, God called the nation and its people to repent in order to receive God’s promised Messiah and His kingdom.
When the Judean authorities ask, “What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22b), John the Baptist quotes from Isa 40:3.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.”
Isaiah goes on to write (Isa 40:4-5):
Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough places smooth;
The glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
And all flesh shall see it together;
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
How did John “prepare the way of the LORD”? National repentance. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” National repentance. “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low.” National repentance. And, “the crooked places made straight and the rough places smooth.” National repentance. Indeed, “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, by calling the nation of Israel and her people to national repentance: “John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4). The Apostle Matthew records John’s very words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt 3:2).
The message entrusted to John the Baptist was extremely important. So much so, that following the Baptist’s imprisonment, Jesus Himself begins preaching repentance: “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 4:17, emphasis added). Mark records:
Now after John was put in prison Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).4
John Niemelä makes a strong case that, based upon the following sequence of events, Jesus did not begin preaching repentance to the nation until after the Baptist’s imprisonment (Matt 4:17). Consider Niemelä’s chronology chart.5
|John baptizes Jesus (late fall, AD 29)||3:13-17||1:9-11||3:21ƒ|
|John the Baptist testifies about Jesus: Part 1||1:15-34|
|Disciples testify about Jesus and go to Galilee||1:35-51|
|Turning water to wine||2:1-11|
|Disciples, Jesus and family go to Capernaum||2:12|
|The first Passover of His ministry (April 7, 30)||2:13-3:21|
|John the Baptist testifies about Jesus: Part 2||3:22-36|
|Ministry while crossing Samaria (Late May 30)||4:1-42|
|To Galilee after John’s arrest (Late May 30)||4:12||1:14a||4:14a||4:43-45|
During the time of Jesus’ ministry in Sychar, John the Baptist continues to call the nation of Israel to a baptism of repentance. Shortly thereafter, the Lord Himself picks up the call to the nation to repent and believe. This call only ends after the leadership of Israel rejects Jesus’ Messiahship, because they thought He was demon possessed (Matt 12:24-45). From that moment on, our Lord speaks to the nation in parables.
If the gift of eternal life defines the salvation of the individual, then the reception of Israel’s Messiah and His kingdom defines the salvation of the nation. Up until Jesus’ rejection as Messiah, they remain related, yet distinct, concurrent ministry concerns.
III. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN NATIONAL AND INDIVIDUAL SALVATION
As already noted, the witness to the Samaritan woman occurs before John the Baptist’s imprisonment, during a time when the Baptist continues to preach repentance as a forerunner to Israel’s Messiah. How then does Jesus the Messiah not call the Samaritan woman to repent prior to offering her living water? He knows of her sin, for He says to her, “For you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly” (John 4:18).
In several places, the NT documents a very poignant distinction between God’s chosen people and the Samaritans. As He sends the twelve apostles out to preach the gospel, Jesus instructs them: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans” (Matt 10:5b). When a Samaritan town refuses to receive Jesus, the disciples James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”(Luke 9:54).
In correcting a certain lawyer (Luke 10:25) who desires to justify himself (Luke 10:29), our Lord tells one of the most famous parables of all time. If a Samaritan receives a Judean as his neighbor and ministers to his urgent needs, then how do a priest and Levite fail to minister to this same person, a fellow Jerusalemite who urgently needs help after being robbed and left for dead (Luke 10:30-37)?
After healing ten lepers and commanding them to show themselves to the priests, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks to Jesus. The Lord asks, “Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18).
During the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jews considered Samaritans as foreigners. When Jesus asks for a drink of water, the Samaritan woman responds, “How is it that You, being a Jew [Judean]6, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” John explains, “For Jews [Judeans] have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). Would Jesus require Samaritans (foreigners) to repent in order to receive Israel’s Messiah and His kingdom? No. At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Judeans would never acknowledge Samaria as a part of Israel, for they were considered a second-class, despicable, low-life people.
Let’s step back momentarily in time: did our Lord call Nicodemus to repent? Surely, the ignorance and unbelief of a Pharisee and teacher of Israel (John 3:10) would be an even greater offense than the Samaritan woman’s adultery. Misleading the nation of Israel regarding the Messiah would make Nicodemus a false shepherd of the worst sort (Ezek 34:1-10), but Jesus does not call him to repent. Instead, He promises eternal life to him as a simple whoever (John 3:16).
Though you and I are not told so, the implication remains that as an anomaly in the midst of his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus may have repented (turned away from the sins of the majority of his fellow Pharisees) and come to the light, that he and his students might hear and understand Jesus’ words privately. Nonetheless, Jesus never tells Nicodemus to repent in order to receive eternal life. Prior to John’s imprisonment, Jesus must hold a distinction between the requirements for the national salvation of Israel and the salvation of individuals like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, independent of the differences between Judeans and Samaritans.
Looking forward in time, we see that the events of John 5 take place in the wake of the Baptist’s imprisonment, after which Jesus begins preaching repentance to the nation of Israel and her people (Matt 3:2; 4:17).7 Our Lord heals a man who had suffered for thirty-eight years as a paralytic. In response, the Judean authorities “persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him” (John 5:16). When Jesus offers a simple explanation, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working,” the Judean authorities “sought all the more to kill Him” (John 5:17-18). Clearly, the individuals confronting Jesus exemplify the rabble Jesus described previously to Nicodemus:
And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God (John 3:19-21).
If Jesus views Nicodemus as an exception of one who came to the light (v 21), then the Judean authorities now seeking His life reveal the normative leadership of the nation of Israel who practice evil and refuse to come to the light (vv 19-20).Does Jesus call them to repent of their evil deeds? No. Instead, without one exhortation to repent, Jesus promises them “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).
If following the Baptist’s imprisonment, God, through His Son Jesus, actively calls the nation to repent in order to hear their Messiah, the Prophet like Moses, then surely these Judean authorities represent the nation and need to repent in order for the nation of Israel to receive her Messiah and His kingdom.8 Ironically, though Jesus has already begun preaching repentance to the nation of Israel (following John the Baptist’s imprisonment), He draws a distinction between Israel’s national salvation and the salvation of a group of individuals, even if those individuals themselves are leaders responsible for the salvation of the nation.
Whatever the distinction between His chosen people and the Samaritans may be, it is not an entirely adequate explanation of why Jesus does not call the Samaritan woman to repent. Likewise, whether John the Baptist or Jesus preaches repentance to the nation of Israel, the national salvation of Israel and the salvation of individuals remain related yet distinct concurrent ministry concerns. National salvation requires the nation to “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17), while individual salvation requires individuals to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, in order to receive eternal life (John 3:16; 11:25-27; 20:31). Only after Jesus’ rejection by the leadership of Israel does He no longer openly call the nation to repent but speaks to the nation in parables. In marked contrast, as the Apostle John records, Jesus never ceases reaching out with a straightforward simple message of life to individuals without one call to repentance.
IV. THE PURPOSE OF JOHN’S ACCOUNT
Within the Apostle John’s account, Jesus’ witness to Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and the Judean authorities are not isolated instances in which our Lord fails to call His audience to repentance. If one searches John’s Gospel for the words “repent” and “repentance,” he cannot find a single usage of either word. While one might speculate that the Apostle John simply does not use the words “repent” or “repentance” in any of his writings, that would be a wrong conclusion.9 Of all the NT writers, only Luke uses the word “repent” more frequently than John.10
This dilemma becomes even more challenging when one considers the purpose statement in John’s Gospel.11
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).
If the Apostle John chose a limited number of specific signs out of all the signs Jesus performed, then the very process of selection (inclusion and exclusion in order to achieve a specific purpose) shows that the Apostle views these signs as sufficient to accomplish his purpose in writing—“that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” If John has left out anything that is required for an individual to have life in the name of Jesus Christ, then he has misled his audience.
It might be tempting to write off the obvious conclusion that repentance is not a requirement to receive the gift of eternal life. One could argue that it is an argument from silence. However, the lack of a call to repent in John’s account does not come from a momentary silence or gap in dialogue or narrative. Instead, it involves a purposeful and systemic silence, even though both John the Baptist and Jesus concurrently call the nation to repent. The call to “repent for” the kingdom of heaven is at hand” does not occur in John’s Gospel (Matt 3:2; 4:17).12 For this reason, the silence is utterly deafening.
In his Gospel account, the Apostle John avoids the word repent, because he purposefully does not record Jesus’ call for the nation to repent in order to receive the Messiah and His kingdom. Instead, John records Jesus’ call to individuals and/or groups of individuals to believe in Him as the Christ, the Son of God, for everlasting life.
Many other instances within John’s account confirm this simple truth. For example, when the Apostle John records John the Baptist’s witness (John 1:6-36), he never includes the Baptist’s calling of the nation to repent in order to receive Messiah and His kingdom. When Nathanael believes in Jesus and says, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). His Lord does not call him to repent in order to receive the Messiah and His kingdom (John 1:48-51). Likewise, when Jesus feeds 5,000 men and their families, the men conclude “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” and “they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king” (John 6:15a). But Jesus does not seize the opportunity to call them to repent and receive the Messianic kingdom. Instead, “He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15b).
The call to repent does not occur in John’s Gospel. But the call to believe does. The Apostle records Jesus’ witness to individuals and groups of individuals as the Christ, the Son of God who gives eternal life to those who believe in Him and His promise of eternal life.
A. Jesus’ Meaning of Whoever
Thus far, we surmise that whether or not John the Baptist or Jesus preaches repentance to the nation and people of Israel, the promise of eternal life to individuals remains unfettered with the call to repent. Likewise, as the Gospel of John reveals, Jesus continues steadfastly reaching out to individual whoevers or groups of whoevers with the promise of eternal life well after He ceases to call the nation to repentance.
The story of Nicodemus reveals a teacher of Israel willingly pursuing Jesus and His message. John 3 records Nicodemus and his students coming to Jesus, the Light of God’s revelation, in order to seek clarification and understanding of the message Jesus taught in the temple.13 Throughout the Gospel of John, Nicodemus remains an exception as a Pharisee because he comes to the light. Consider Nicodemus’ interaction with his fellow Pharisees as they interrogate officers previously sent to arrest Jesus:
“Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee” (John 7:48-52, emphasis added).
While his fellow Pharisees have already foreclosed any possibility that Jesus is the Christ, Nicodemus wants to hear and know what Jesus is doing. His ears and eyes remain open to Jesus, God’s Prophet like Moses. This same openness reflects Nicodemus’ attitude towards Jesus throughout John’s account. John 3 is no exception. Having seen the signs our Lord performed in the temple, Nicodemus wishes for himself and his students to hear Jesus quietly, away from the tumult and combative presence of his fellow Pharisees.
As mentioned in the Introduction concerning John 3:16, in the quiet hours of night,14 Jesus shared a very radical and challenging message with Nicodemus: “For in this manner God loved (chesed) the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (emphasis added). The thought that 1) God loves the world, both Gentiles and Jews, with loyal covenantal love, or chesed, greatly offends the leadership of Israel during Christ’s earthly ministry, especially in light of Roman oppression (John 12:19),15 and that 2) Jesus promises Nicodemus and his students everlasting life as mere whoevers, proves equally shocking in light of who Nicodemus is as a teacher of Israel.
Although Nicodemus and his students,16 along with Jesus’ disciples, may find His words challenging, Jesus’ radical message remains true. The world does not just include Jews. It includes Romans and, as His disciples will soon discover, the hated Samaritans. Whoever—Roman, Samaritan or Jew—believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Nicodemus remains guilty of failing to teach accurately the Scriptures as they relate to Israel’s Messiah (John 3:10),17 but as an individual, he has no need to repent, for openly and with his students present, he seeks out Jesus to hear His message. Both he and his students have ears to hear the truth of Jesus’ promise of eternal life.
2. The Samaritan Woman
When Jesus sits by the well of Jacob at the sixth hour in the heat of the day, a woman comes to the well alone to draw water. That this woman does not come in the cool of the day and in the midst of a social gathering of women demonstrates her status as a pariah within Sychar.18 When Jesus asks for a drink of water, He is alone and thirsty from a long day’s walk. It is surprising that the woman answers Him at all. Her answer indicates her understanding of the status she thought she had in His eyes. She asks of Him: “How is it that You being a Jew [Judean], ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:9). Although the Samaritan woman’s response to His request for water reveals her forwardness, it also shows openness on her part to hear and seek after our Lord.
Jesus does not rebuke her, but responds by offering her living water: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10). The Samaritan woman may not understand Jesus’ promise, but she has ears to hear Him and begins a purposeful inquiry into His meaning.
Like Nicodemus, she is a sinner who has no need to repent in order to hear Jesus’ words, for she actively pursues Him (John 4:11-12). Jesus clarifies His meaning to her with a simple promise:
Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14, emphasis added).
Clearly, she does not yet understand the meaning of Jesus’ promise to her (John 4:15).19 Nevertheless, she openly seeks to understand. Jesus tells her, “Go, call your husband and come here” (John 4:16). When she says, “I have no husband,” Jesus commends her honesty: “You have well said, ‘I have no husband’” (John 4:17).
Perhaps the Samaritan woman knows not to offer more information than is required in response to a simple command and now thinks the bulk of her sinful life escapes the notice of Jesus. She is wrong. Jesus tells her He knows that she has had five husbands, and the one she is living with at that time is not her husband (John 4:18). The sin of adultery riddles her life. Jesus knows it and purposefully reminds her of it. And yet, she continues to pursue Him.20
Jesus’ revelation allows the Samaritan woman to deduce two important truths: 1) knowing the intimate details of her life, this Judean stranger must be a prophet, and 2) Jesus promised her living water, knowing full well of her ongoing sin of adultery, without calling her to repent. Therefore, she need not turn from her sins to partake of the living water.
Her deductions are correct: 1) Jesus is a prophet, and 2) He has no interest in the Samaritan woman repenting in order to usher in the Messianic kingdom, but instead desires her as a lowly sinning whoever to partake of the living water. As long as the Samaritan woman has ears to hear Jesus’ words to her, she can believe in Him and His promise of eternal life. And why should she not believe Him? He knows the intimate details of her life as a sinner and still offers her living water. In her eyes, this act of grace and mercy reveals the lovingkindness (chesed) of a godly man addressing the pressing needs of a woman in dire need of living water.
When the woman responds, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (John 4:19), she draws an obvious conclusion.
In His dialogue with a Samaritan adulteress, Jesus reaches beyond the social barriers and adroitly builds her confidence in Him by showing her the manner of God’s love, chesed. It is a loyal covenantal love anchored in His promise to her of eternal life, a promise that transcends her nationality, gender, sin, and hurt as an outcast.
Now He must breach the religious barrier between Judeans and Samaritans in order to reveal Himself as Messiah. He does so by continuing to prophesy. “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John 4:21). As the Prophet like Moses, Jesus reveals the end of the division between worship in Judea and Samaria.21 Although the Samaritans currently worship in ignorance, both Samaritans and Judeans will soon unite together as true worshipers and worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:22-24). When she responds, “I know that Messiah is coming… When He comes, He will tell us all things” (John 4:25), as a Samaritan, she effectively asks, “Are you the Messiah, the Prophet like Moses?” (Deut 18:15, 18-19).22
The very moment Jesus reveals Himself, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:26), the Samaritan woman believes in Jesus as Messiah,23 the Prophet like Moses, and His promise to her of everlasting life (John 4:13-14). She takes one sip of the living water that Jesus promised to her and knows she has what He promises. She now has everlasting life.
B. Samaritans Called Jesus the Savior of the World
Just as the Samaritan woman believes in Jesus for eternal life, His disciples return from the city of Sychar and marvel that He spoke with the Samaritan woman. The woman leaves her water pot and goes to the men of the city, proclaiming, “Come see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:27-29). This woman, a lowly Samaritan whoever, whose life remains riddled with sin, was not deafened by her sin of adultery, but heard and actively pursued Jesus and ultimately believed in Him as the Christ.
Did Jesus tell her to repent of her sins either before or after she believed in Him as the Messiah? No, and yet, amazingly, the witness of this unrepentant woman causes the men of the city of Sychar to come to Jesus (John 4:30). All of these events transpired before the eyes of Jesus’ disciples as an object lesson in order to teach them the meaning of whoever. It was a lesson they had begun to learn when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus and his disciples late at night.
Jesus challenges His disciples with a reality that runs contrary to their social upbringing,24 that whoevers include the world of wayward Pharisees like Nicodemus, Gentiles (Romans, etc.), as well as those despicable low-life Samaritans. It even includes an adulterous Samaritan woman.
Jesus has a discussion with His disciples:
…My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, “There are still four months and then comes the harvest”? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors (John 4:34-38).
The fields white for harvest are the myriad of Samaritan men with their traditional white headdress25 coming out of the city of Sychar toward Jesus: “So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days” (John 4:40, emphasis added). That a lowly unrepentant Samaritan woman, and not the disciples, brings Jesus this food (John 4:34) reveals the necessity of why their Lord needed to go through Samaria (John 4:4).
The men of Sychar pursued Jesus, yet no record exists of Jesus calling them to repent as Samaritans of their false worship of God or to repent of any other sin. Drawn to the manner of God’s loyal covenantal or promissory love based upon His promise of eternal life, they, like the Samaritan woman, were simple whoevers riddled with sin, in need of living water. “And many more believed because of His own word” (John 4:41).
Eventually, the men of the city spoke to the Samaritan woman: “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:42, emphasis added).26
As Israel’s Messiah, Jesus really is the “Savior of the world,” sent by God the Father with the power to save unrepentant sinning whoevers.27
V. APPLICATIONS FOR EVANGELISM
Regardless of an individual’s particular sin or sins, as long as a person has ears to hear Jesus’ message, he or she has the opportunity to believe in Him and be saved as an individual. Whoevers riddled with sin do not necessarily need to repent in order to hear the truth of the gospel. Moreover, if turning from sin were a requirement for everlasting life, then Jesus would not have made a genuine offer of living water to the Samarian woman (John 4:10, 13-14) unless He first called her to repent of her sins. Repentance from sin is not a requirement for individuals to receive eternal life.
The lesson for Jesus’ disciples remains unmistakable even to this day. Jesus is the Savior of the world. Whoever includes all people, regardless of their sins. If they hear Jesus’ promise and believe Him, they have, as individuals, what He promises—everlasting life.
As shocking as it may seem, despite the ongoing call recorded in the Synoptic Gospels for the nation to repent and believe in Jesus, neither Jesus nor the Apostle John uses the words “repent” or “repentance” within John’s Gospel account. Rightly so, for John maintains an abundantly clear witness to the individual throughout the entirety of his account:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31, emphasis added).
Following Jesus’ example in witnessing to Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, we, like Jesus’ disciples, learn to first demonstrate our Lord’s covenantal or promissory love (chesed) by sharing the good news and calling individuals to believe. They are to believe in His Person, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and His promise of everlasting life.
If, unlike Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, the individuals we share with do not hear or pursue understanding, consider that they may well not hear because of sin in their lives. Pray and trust that the Holy Spirit brings conviction (John 16:7-11). Then ask the Lord for an opening to address the sin that keeps them from hearing the good news. Hearing the good news does not guarantee a person will believe in Jesus as the Christ. Pray that the Lord persuades of the truth of who He is and His promise of eternal life. As tempting as it may be, never confuse repentance from sin in order to hear the good news with believing in Jesus and His promise of life.28
Though the Samaritan woman and the men of Sychar seem a distant concern to us today, do we have within our society those who might be regarded as downcast, despicable, and low-life individuals? Absolutely. On street corners in every American city, there are homeless, drug-addicted drifters who gather to panhandle. They are a rough lot through force of circumstances, oftentimes resorting to violence and sex crimes in order to gain a dollar. If we lift our eyes beyond the street corners, the conclusion is inescapable. The world overflows with sinful whoevers of whom you and I, even as born again believers, remain a part (1 John 1:8-10).
Are we willing to stretch our understanding of whoever to include homeless drifters? They are whoevers whose sins Jesus has paid for on the cross, upon whom Jesus, through His promise, desires to bestow the gift of eternal life. Or, like Jesus’ disciples, do we quietly bury our shock and moral dismay at His chesed or loyal covenantal love for those we consider downcast, despicable, low-life individuals? What sin has our Lord and Savior not paid for in full on the cross? Who cannot be drawn to the chesed of God so ably demonstrated upon the cross and confirmed by Jesus’ promise of eternal life? “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32, emphasis added). The object lesson Jesus taught His disciples regarding whoevers remains as vital today as the day He offered living water to the Samaritan woman and the men of Sychar.
The Synoptic Gospels reveal that both John the Baptist and Jesus called the nation of Israel to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2; 4:17, emphasis added). Jesus did not begin preaching this message to the nation personally until after the Baptist’s imprisonment. When the leadership of Israel rejected the Messiah and His offer of the Messianic kingdom, Jesus pronounced the AD 70 judgment on that particular generation of Israel. From that time forth, He began addressing the nation in parables. As recorded in the Synoptics, this remarkable ministry to the nation of Israel provides a wonderful and decisive contrast for understanding God’s chesed for the world and Jesus’ concurrent call to individuals to believe in Him and His promise of everlasting life.
As the Savior of the world, Jesus needed to go through Samaria so that His disciples might better understand the manner of God’s love (chesed) for the world in saving some despicable low-life Samaritans, including an adulterous woman.29 In the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, Jesus witnesses to a multitude of individuals and/or groups of individuals for the explicit purpose that they may believe in Him as the Christ, the Son of God and receive as individuals the gift of life in His name.
Ultimately, Jesus needed to go through Samaria for two reasons: 1) to save individual Samaritans and 2) to teach a simple, but extraordinarily hard lesson to His disciples. Jesus saves individual whoevers, riddled with sin, without requiring them to repent of their sins. Indeed, Jesus needed to go through Samaria to demonstrate His loyal covenantal or promissory love for a people long before written off as low-life despicable foreigners.
1 Frank Tyler, “John 3:16: The Manner of God’s Love,” TTVF Fellowship Journal, 2018. Chesed and hesed are common transliterations of the Hebrew word for loyal covenantal love, a love rooted in the covenantal or promissory nature of God’s relationship with man. This word is frequently translated “mercy” or “lovingkindness.”
2 Tyler, “John 3:16,” 15-18. In John 3:16, the Greek word translated world is kosmos, meaning “the inhabitants of the earth, men, mankind.” The Greek word translated whoever is pas, meaning “all or every,” and is followed by the participle with the article, ho pisteuōn, literally “the one believing.” Hence, every one believing or whoever believes (The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, ed. Spiros Zodhiates, [Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1992], 881 and 1126).
3 The inclusive nature of the Greek expression, pas followed by the article ho and the participle, along with the hos d’ an piē (John 4:14) lies at the heart of Jesus’ promise of eternal life to individuals. Whoever, or more literally “every one,” reveals the freeness and inclusivity of Jesus’ promise:
3:15 pas ho pisteuōn en autō (“every one believing in Him”)
3:16 pas ho pisteuōn eis auton (“every one believing in Him”)
4:13 pas ho pinōn ek tou hudatos toutou (“every one drinking from this water”)
4:14 hos d’ an piē ek tou hudatos (“who but ever drinks from the water”)
6:40 pas ho theōrōn ton huion kai pisteuōn eis auton (“every one seeing the Son and believing in Him”)
11:26 pas ho zōn kai pistueōn eis eme (“every one living and believing in Me”)
12:46 pas ho pisteuōn eis eme (“every one believing in Me”).
4 The word gospel in Mark 1:15 does not refer to the gospel as recorded in 1 Cor 15:3-11. Instead, as v 14 shows, it refers to the “the gospel [or good news] of the kingdom of God.” In order for the kingdom to come, the nation had to repent and believe in the good news of the kingdom, which would mean believing that Jesus is the Messiah, King, and Savior of that kingdom.
5 John H. Niemelä, “Don’t Get Ahead of Jesus: When Did He Start Preaching Repentance?” presented April 26, 2017, at the Grace Evangelical Society Conference, Fort Worth, TX.
6 In John’s account, the Greek word Ioudaios is better translated Judean. See J. Ramsey Michaels, The Gospel of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 95-96 for a discussion.
7 Niemelä, “Don’t Get Ahead of Jesus: When Did He Start Preaching Repentance?”
8 In John 9, Jesus deals with this kind of rabble again and reminds them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41). Even so, He does not call them to repent.
9 Wayne Grudem is among those who argue that the idea of repentance is in John’s Gospel, even though the word does not occur. He finds it, for example, in John 3:16. He claims it is involved in the phrase “believing in” Christ. Wayne Grudem, “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 52.
10 John uses the word repent not at all in his Gospel account or his epistles, but twelve times in Revelation. Luke uses the word twenty-five times in Luke and Acts.
11 Carson deals with this dilemma by redefining “believe” at the very beginning of the Gospel of John (John 1:12-13). He says that faith “yields allegiance to the Word, trusts him completely, acknowledges his claims and confesses him with gratitude.” Even though Carson doesn’t use the word “repent,” it is clear that for him believing includes repentance and is much more than believing something to be true. See D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 125-26. The reader will have to determine if Carson and others are reading their theology into the text.
12 Besides Grudem, other theologians such as John MacArthur and David Croteau have desperately tried to read repentance into John’s account. For an outstanding exposition regarding this kind of approach, see Robert N. Wilkin, “Is the Concept of Repentance Found in John’s Gospel, and If So, What Difference Does It Make?” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 2019 (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society), 23-41.
13 While referring to Himself and His disciples, Jesus uses the first person plural. In addressing Nicodemus and his students, He uses the second person plural (John 3:11-12).
14 While it is common to hear that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night out of fear of being seen, there is no need to take this position. Nicodemus could very well have come at night because he was a busy man. Michaels says both reasons are possibilities. See Michaels, John, 177-78.
15 Jonah became so offended with the possibility that God would show chesed toward the Gentile city of Nineveh, he initially sought to thwart God by fleeing to Tarshish (Jonah 1:3) and after God spared the city, pleaded, “please take my life from me” (Jonah 4:1-3). Ironically, Nineveh, her king, and nobles engaged in national repentance (Jonah 3:7-9) and moved God to spare the city and nation (Jonah 3:10). Rome was no less an oppressor of Israel, while Jesus, the Prophet like Moses, was certainly greater than Jonah. Yet unlike Nineveh, Israel as a nation failed to repent and receive God’s deliverance, her Messiah, and His kingdom (Matt 12:41).
16 Even though the verb used by Nicodemus is plural (“we know”), it is common for commentaries to say that Nicodemus came alone. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 212. It is better, however, to conclude that Nicodemus brought others with him. It would be natural for him as a teacher to be accompanied by his students. In the conversation, Jesus points out that Nicodemus is a teacher.
17 Keener says that Nicodemus’ performance of his teaching was “shameful.” See Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub., 2003), 559.
18 F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 102.
19 Bruce, John, 106.
20 As she does in v 25 as well. See Michaels, John, 255.
21 Carson, John, 223.
22 Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible, as canon. See Michaels, John, 256.
23 Bruce appears to take this view. See Bruce, John, 111.
24 Morris, John, 274.
25 Thomas L. Constable, https://netbible.org/bible/John, accessed October 10, 2019.
26 The word Savior (sōtēr) only occurs here in John’s Gospel (4:42)—and then on the lips of the Samaritans.
27 Borchert says the story of the woman at the well shows Jesus reaching out not only to Jews, but also to “rejected and thirsty half-breeds of Jewish society.” See Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 1996), 205.
28 Though not documented in John’s account, this is not an uncommon approach. Our Lord’s witness to the rich young ruler provides one of the best examples. The young man is unable to see Jesus as God (Matt 19:16-17). He cannot hear Jesus’ correction (Matt 19:20). Jesus calls him to repent (Matt 19:21). Lastly, the young man fails to turn from the sinful riches which blind and deafen him, and he departs from Jesus (Matt 19:22). Had the young man turned and followed Jesus, he would have heard the good news from Jesus time and again and had the opportunity to believe in Him and His promise of eternal life. When the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:25-26). Under these circumstances, pray, for only God can bring a man to repentance in order to hear the truth of the gospel. In Athens, the Apostle Paul finds the city given over to idols (Acts 17:16). He preaches the gospel, but finds his audience unable to hear (Acts 17:18-21). He calls them to repent (Acts 17:22-31). Then, he shares the good news again (Acts 17:32-33) with the result that some joined him and believed (Acts 17:34). Be careful not to impose your personal preferences regarding repentance from sin in the life of another person, but pray to understand the sin(s) that keeps him or her from hearing the good news.
29 Morris says it means He is the Savior of all, unimportant and important people alike. See Morris, John, 284-85.