"The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God : for no man can do these miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him."— John iii. 2.
HE singular designation of Nicodemus in roundabout fashion as "a man of the Pharisees" connects this narrative with the preceding verses, in which we hear of many who believed in Christ, but to whom our Lord did not commit Himself, because "He knew all men," and also "knew what was in man." One such man was Nicodemus, to whom, however, exceptionally our Lord did commit Himself, though his faith, too, was but based upon miracle, because He saw that there was in him the capacity for nobler and duller faith. Reticence and frankness were equally the results of His insight, and each appropriate in its place.
The confession of Nicodemus is incomplete and faulty in more than one respect, but still our Lord must have discerned in him the desire for fuller light, and so, as always, He gratifies it. Nicodemus only recognizes Jesus Christ as a Teacher; and the whole context is profoundly instructive as showing us how our Lord desired to substitute for that inadequate conception of Himself a truer one; and also as instructing us in the path by which a man may pass from the shallower to the deeper; and, beginning with the acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as a Teacher, may be led to see in Him the Son of Man who came down from heaven to give life unto the world. It is this process to which I desire especially to turn attention in this sermon. It has for its two termini Nicodemus' confession, "We know that Thou art a Teacher come from God," and Christ's declaration, "The Son of Man must be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
I.—So, then, first, look at the inadequate and faulty starting-point.
Nicodemus' confession, howsoever to the all-seeing eye of Christ it may have yielded the promise of something better in the future, was manifestly inadequate in more than one particular. It was imperfect in its conception of Him. He acknowledges that Jesus Christ is a "rabbi," and that was a great deal from a rabbi regularly trained, who had graduated in the schools, and had his degree of Master in the legitimate, educational fashion. And now he sees that in this Galilean peasant, a stranger to all the assemblages of Jewish learning, there did dwell the power of a teacher. He emphasizes the irregularity of His promotion to the office because, in the original, "from God" occupies an unusual and emphatic position in the sentence, as if it explained how the doctor of the schools condescended to recognize the doctor that had never been in any of them. He sees in Him a Teacher; and that is all. He was only one of a long series, from Moses downwards, whose words during all the ages had been as empty wind whistling through an archway, powerless to arrest evil, and impotent to bring the golden age. Here is another of the long, dreary succession, with no more weapons than His predecessors, and no more prospect of doing much with the weapons that He had. "Thou art a Teacher, come from God"; and there an end.
His confession is imperfect in its alleged basis. What did Nicodemus mean by demonstrating—surely most superfluously and inappropriately—to Jesus Christ that He was a Teacher because He could work miracles? It looks as if he were not quite sure of his own ground, and was quite as much strengthening his own somewhat tremulous convictions by this most mal d propos introduction of the reasons which had led him to his faith, such as it was. It was built entirely upon the fact of miracle. Now, all through this Gospel eminently, and, though less manifestly, in other parts of Scripture, a faith which has no account to give of itself beyond this, that it is produced by miracles, is treated as the lowest possible form of faith; and as scarcely deserving to be called so at all. It is not enough that a man should recognize the commission of the Messenger because He does wonderful works. What is wanted is that his heart should leap up in response to the message, and that it, and not the authority of the speaker, should be the thing that commends both speaker and message to him. A man who only says, "Thou hast done things which I could not do, therefore perforce I must take Thee to be a Messenger of God "; and does not say, "Thy words search my heart and fill my spirit, and find an answer to my inmost being, by their sweetness and their power, which leaves me no alternative but to accept their truth"—such a man is only in the swaddling-bands of faith, and has to grow much before it be matured. Or, to put it into more modern words, the evidence of Christianity, which past generations used to parade as being the strongest and the all-sufficient, is in reality the weakest and lowest kind of proof. The word itself, not the sign which accompanies it; the flashing of the lightning, and not the bellow of the thunder, should be the means of commending the truth. And only the faith which grasps the substance of the message, and says, "I believe that because of what it is," is the faith which Scripture recognises as adequate and lofty.
This confession was not only inadequate in its substance and imperfect in its grounds, but it was not altogether satisfactory in its temper. Why did he come at night? Either because he was frightened, or because he was ashamed. He seems to have been but a timid soul at the best; for, at a much subsequent period, and when, as we may suppose, he was more conclusively and thoroughly a disciple of Jesus Christ, he did not venture to open his mouth, and stand up in the Sanhedrim and say before them all, "/ believe in Him." But all that he could do was to suggest certain considerations in arrest of hasty proceedings, carefully suppressing the fact that he himself was a disciple. And even at the very end it was only when he was heartened by the example of a stronger and braver brother, Joseph of Arimathea, that he ventured to unite himself with him in the request for the body of Jesus. No doubt he was also ashamed that he, a rabbi, a member of the Sanhedrim, high in place and reputation, with all the legitimate sources of theological knowledge open to him in the schools, should be coming to this peasant to get information. Again, there is an unpleasant smack of patronage about that "We know," as if he felt the full value of the certificate that he was giving to this new beginner, and as if he was not unaware of his condescension in coming down from his height. There is a kind of intellectual conceit, too, about the " We know." For whom was he speaking? Was there some little knot of rabbis that had sent him as a messenger to get further information; or was he—as is more probable, I think—giving utterance to the unspoken convictions that were fighting in the breast of the whole set of them? If, at this early day, these convictions existed, that makes more criminal their subsequent attitude, when, with equal confidence in their own infallibility, and equal assurance that what they thought was absolute truth, and was to be rammed down other people's throats because they thought it, they declared: "We know that this Man is a sinner"; and then, forgetting the alleged sweep of their knowledge, but equally confident in the absolute correctness of their judgment, said further: "We know not from whence He is "—and what we do not know is not to be known!
A creed which says "Christ is a Teacher," and stops there, and which patronizes Him to some extent by recognizing the irregular wisdom that gleams in His words, and supposes that its knowledge is a line deep enough to go to the bottom of the bottomless, and that what it does not know is not to be known—such a creed did not cease to haunt Christianity when Nicodemus passed away. We can recall teachers and writers of no mean repute who take up exactly this position, pay compliments to the Galilean peasant, speak about the elevation of His teaching, and withal do it with such a smack of intellectual self-sufficiency as declares that they, the certifiers, think themselves to be at least upon a level with Him, the certificated. Perhaps the cultivated mind of modern Europe, and the enlightenment of this enlightened day, do not fathom the unfathomable after all. It is just possible that there may be more in Jesus Christ than these people's eyes have seen. I would even venture the heresy of saying that a trim, compact Christianity, which will have no terms kept with mystery, and knows that Jesus Christ is a Teacher and nothing more, by its very freedom from everything that is not utterly plain and intelligible to the most cursory eye writes its own condemnation. Whatever may be true about Him, that cannot be true, because it is so shallow.
II.—I ask you to look, secondly, at the deeper view of man's need which convicts this conception of Christ of inadequacy.
Jesus answered, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." That saying answers Nicodemus' thoughts. It meets the whole conception of what the kingdom of God was to be, and what sort of a leader He was to be that brought it, which underlay the inadequate confession of which I have been speaking. Without entering into questions, interesting as they might be in their place, which would take us much too far away from our present subject, as to the full significance and manifold applications of that great phrase, "the kingdom of God "; and whether "seeing" and "entering " it are equivalent; I just notice that the kingdom of God must be, whatever else it be, a state or condition in which a society of men obey absolutely the sovereign will of God. The idea of the rule of that Divine will over men's wills is the fundamental notion expressed in this Scriptural phrase, "the kingdom of God." And Christ's doctrine here, in so far as it answers Nicodemus' confession, is just this in effect—" Ah! Men want something a great deal more thorough than a teacher before they can pass into a state of obedience to the sovereign will of God. For true submission to Him, for the realization, therefore, of the very destiny of humanity, and for the possession and enjoyment of true blessedness and peace, it is not a teacher that will serve your turn. You want something else than that."
This declaration of the inadequacy of mere instruction to do what men must have done for them, in order that they may pass into God's kingdom, is the answer to all such imperfect and fragmentary conceptions of Christ's nature as have just been expressed by Nicodemus. There must be a thorough radical change in humanity before it becomes part of the true kingdom of God. Christ bases that upon the verifiable fact that the will of man is alienated from the will of God, and that, from generation to generation, that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and the alienation is transmitted from parent to child. Therefore there must be something else and other than Teacher, if men are to come to obedience to the will of God. The deepest need of man is not to know but to be helped to do. There must be a new birth, a new life. Ludicrously inadequate to the necessities of the case are representations which confine the Divine intervention to the sending of a Teacher, however perfect a revealer of truth, however absolute and complete. The worst man knows more than the best man practises. And if we are to get no help but larger knowledge and clearer instruction, we shall never be able either to see or enter the kingdom of God. You cannot put out Vesuvius with a teaspoonful of cold water. And you cannot make a man fit to be a subject of the kingdom of God by any gospel of which the ultimate word is teaching. You need something far more radical and thorough, even the communication of a new life.
III.—Notice the only means by which this necessity can be met.
Nicodemus' question to our Lord, in response to that declaration of the needs of the case, is by no means so foolish as it is often represented to be. It falls into two halves. "How can a man be born when he is old ? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" The second part of it shows that he correctly regarded our Lord's saying as being figurative; and the first part was the most appropriate question that he could ask. He recognizes the necessity; at least he does not contest it; he says, in effect, " I admit that teaching will not meet the needs. We want something more than that; we want a radical change of the man's nature. The point is, how are we to get the radical change?" And our Lord answers that for us in that profound set of sayings of which I can only touch the salient points. The recognition of the necessity for a radical moral change and new beginning of life, as the condition of seeing the kingdom, seems to Nicodemus to be equivalent to shutting the door of hope by making that necessary which is impossible. His question as to how it can be is almost a denial that it can be, and has a tone of despair as well as of interrogation. And Jesus Christ answers, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Without the Divine Spirit there can be no new life for men; without new life there will be no entrance into the kingdom.
Now I am not going to enter upon minute observations as to the details of our Lord's words here. I only point out that " water and the Spirit" seems to me to be a phrase in entire parallelism with John the Baptist's similar phrase, "the Holy Ghost and fire," two symbolical elements, however different in the two cases, bearing the same relation in each to the Spirit with whom they are associated, and each expressing the same idea of a purifying and cleansing power. At all events, whether there be any reference to baptism or no, in the "water and the Spirit" it is clear that "the Spirit" is the essential factor, for in the immediately subsequent repetition of the phrase our Lord omits all mention of the water, and dwells only upon '. the Spirit." That is to say, if men are to live a new life, it is God who must vitalise them. They cannot create it for themselves or for one another. The law remains, " like begets like "; the stream cannot rise higher than its source. Nothing which is only man can re-create a man, make him over again, and change the flesh, which is its own law, into the spirit which submits to God's will. It must be a Divine power that does that.
And if such a Divine power come, then the life which it produces, even within the husk and shell of humanity, though compassed about and weakened in its manifestations, as it will be, by the surrounding flesh, will be cognate, and like that which produces it. So "the wind bloweth where it listeth." The life which the Divine Spirit breathes into a man will be free from control, and mighty by its own inherent power. The law within will be the impulse; and where the spirit of the Lord is, there will be liberty. That life, inbreathed into men by the Divine Spirit, will be invisible in itself, but gloriously manifest in its effect. "Thou hearest the sound thereof," whether gentle as in the rustling of the summer wind amongst the leaves of the spreading trees, or mighty as in the rush of the tempest. That life, inbreathed by a Divine Spirit into our torpor and frailness, will have its source in a hidden place, and its goal in an unseen glory; "for thou canst not tell whence it cometh nor whither it goeth." The fact of sin justly estimated demands for its rectification something more than a Teacher, even a thorough new direction given to humanity comparable to a new birth, and the condition of that problem can only be met and solved by the actual communication of a Divine life.
So far our Lord brings this man. And then comes Nicodemus' second question, "How can these things be?"
IV.—The answer is, fourthly, the full conception of Jesus Christ which meets all the necessities of the case.
I cannot do more than grasp the one central point in the subsequent words of our Lord. It lies in the declaration of the deepest and the highest truth, concerning, first, His person, and, second, His work. He is not '-' a Teacher sent from God." "He is the Son of God who came down from Heaven." His task is not to impart instruction, but to communicate everlasting life. His place of power is not the rabbi's throne, but the Cross. He was lifted up there that He might destroy the poison, in the likeness of which He suffered. The sinless Son became sin for us; and died upon the Cross that life might come to men. This is the true thought of Him. None of your shallow, inadequate conceptions of Him as a Teacher, but as the Divine and dying Son of Man, to whom men must cling if they are to get any real blessing from Him. He does reveal, but He does more than reveal. He did not come to say, He came to be, and to do. He did not come to teach, but He came to minister and to die. And in that ministration and death there lie, not only lessons of the deepest truth, but the powers of the mightiest renovation, and of new life for men.
So, brethren, I beseech you, ask yourselves whether our own experience of our own characters, and our observations of the characters of others, do not confirm this central thought with which our Lord seeks to deepen this man's conception of Him—viz., that, if ever we are to enter the kingdom of God, we want to be radically changed; that if we are thus to be partakers of the new life, it can only be by the operation of the Divine Spirit; and that our only means of receiving such a Divine Spirit lies in our simple faith in the Christ who is the Teacher indeed, but who is the sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Old legends tell us of one who came from the abode of the gods, with a spark of Divine fire hidden in a hollow reed. Christ has come from the throne, with the fiery life which He will give to all that trust Him, hidden in the frail reed of His manhood. If we will take Him for ours, He will give us of that life by His Spirit, and the law of the spirit of life in Jesus Christ will make us free—and nothing else will—from the law of sin and death. Do not cling to the halfeclipsed "Christ," a "Teacher sent from God," but open all the windows of your heart to the light and life of the full-orbed Son of God and Son of Man, who will give to all that trust Him eternal life.