A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.

John 3:27


John the Baptist gave his questioners a brief sentence that I have called the “hope and the despair” of mankind. He told them that “a man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.”

John was not referring to men’s gifts. He was speaking of spiritual truth. Divine truth is of the nature of the Holy Spirit, and for that reason it can be received only by spiritual revelation.

In his New Testament letters, the Apostle Paul declares again and again the inability of human reason to discover or comprehend divine truth. In that inability we see human despair.

John the Baptist said, “Except it be given him from heaven”—and this is our hope! These words do certainly mean that there is such a thing as a gift of knowing, a gift that comes from heaven. Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit of truth would come and teach them all things (see John 16:13–14).

Jesus also prayed: “I thank thee, O Father, because thou hast hid these things from the wise, and hast revealed them unto babes” (see Luke 10:21).


Lord, I pray that as I read Your Word, Your Spirit will help me perceive its spiritual truth and apply it to my life.[1]

Unlike his overly zealous followers, however, John was not bothered in the least by his declining popularity. Despite his tremendous initial influence, he had always remained focused on the purpose of his ministry that he had probably known from childhood—to testify to Christ (cf. 1:27, 30). Now as his ministry began to wind down, John’s purpose did not waver. His humble reply must have startled his disciples: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.” In this way, he affirmed and embraced his subordinate role as the herald of the Messiah. God had sovereignly granted him his ministry (cf. Rom. 1:5; 1 Cor. 4:7; 15:10; Eph. 3:7; 1 Tim. 2:7); if God now chose to change or end that ministry, John was content. Everything among God’s servants, including popular ministry, is a gracious gift from God, not something to which a person is entitled. Therefore there is no place for jealousy, as John’s self-effacing reply indicated (note the opposite reaction by the Pharisees in 12:19). [2]

3:27 If John’s reply was referring to the Lord Jesus, it means that any success the Savior received was an indication of God’s approval on Him. If John was referring to himself, he was saying that he had never pretended to be anyone great or important. He had never claimed that his baptism was superior to that of Jesus. He simply said here that he did not have anything but what he had received from heaven. That is true of all of us, and there is no reason in the world why we should be proud or seek to build up ourselves in men’s esteem.[3]

3:27 given him from heaven. This verse emphasizes God’s sovereign authority in granting ministry opportunity (cf. 1Co 4:7; 15:10).[4]

3:27 unless it is granted to him from heaven John’s disciples were concerned about the diminishing interest in his baptism compared to Jesus’ rising popularity. John reassures them by again explicitly deferring to Jesus’ superiority.[5]

3:27 A person cannot receive. God is the Author of all that we receive (1 Cor. 4:7).[6]

[1] Tozer, A. W. (2015). Mornings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). John 1–11 (p. 127). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1481). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Jn 3:27). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[5] Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Jn 3:27). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[6] Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2005). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (p. 1515). Orlando, FL; Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries.


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