45. So the officers came to the chief priests and Pharisees, and they said to them, Why have you not brought him? 46. The officers answered, Never man spoke like this man.47. The Pharisees therefore answered them, And are you also seduced? 48. Hath any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed in him? 49. But this multitude, who know not the law, are accursed.50. Nicodemus said to them, (he who came to him by night, for he was one of them,) 51. Doth our law judge a man before it hath heard him, and knoweth what he doth? 52. They answered and said to him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search and see, that no Prophet hath arisen out of Galilee.53. And every man went to his own house.
45. So the officers came. Here we may see how blind is the arrogance of men. To such an extent do they admire and adore the greatness which renders them eminent, that they have no hesitation in trampling under foot morality and religion. If any thing happen contrary to their wish, they would willingly mingle heaven and earth; for when these haughty and wicked priests ask, why Christ was not brought, they magnify their power so greatly as if nothing ought to oppose their command.
46. Never man spoke like this man. Those officers acknowledge that they are subdued and vanquished by the word of Christ, and yet they do not on that account repent or give due honor to the word. If it be true, that never man spoke like this man, why did not the Divine power, which they were compelled to feel, touch their hearts in such a manner as to cause them to devote themselves wholly to God? But it was necessary that the prediction of Isaiah should thus be accomplished:
he will prostrate the wicked by the breath of his mouth, (Isaiah 11:4.)
Nay more, we shall afterwards see how those who were attempting to put him to death, overwhelmed by the voice of Christ alone, and as if they had been struck down with mallets, fell backwards, (John 18:6.) Let us, therefore, learn that the doctrine of Christ possesses such power as even to terrify the wicked; but as this tends to their destruction, let us take care that we be softened, instead of being broken. Even in the present day, we see many persons who too much resemble those officers, who are reluctantly drawn into admiration of the doctrine of the Gospel, and yet are so far from yielding to Christ, that they still remain in the enemy's camp. There are others even worse, who, for the sake of obtaining favor with the wicked, employ all the opprobrious terms which they can find for basely slandering that doctrine, which, notwithstanding, they acknowledge to be from God, because they are convinced of it in their hearts.
47. And are you also seduced? While they reprove their officers, they endeavor, at the same time, to keep them in subjection. For by these words they mean, that it would be unreasonable and unbecoming that they should not remain steady, though the whole people should revolt. But we must see on what argument they rest, when they so haughtily insult Christ.
48. Has any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed in him? |He has none on his side,| they say, |but low and ignorant men; the rulers, and every person of distinction, are opposed to him.| They expressly name the Pharisees, because they had a reputation above others, both for knowledge and holiness, so that they might be said to be the princes of the people. This objection appears to have some plausibility; for if the rulers and governors of the Church do not retain their authority, it is impossible that any thing shall ever be properly done, or that the good order of the Church shall long continue. We know what are the fierce passions of the common people; in consequence of which the most frightful disorder must follow, when every man is allowed to do what he pleases. The authority of those who rule is therefore a necessary bridle for preserving the good order of the Church; and, accordingly, it was provided by the Law of God that, if any question or controversy should arise, it should be submitted to the decision of the High Priest, (Deuteronomy 17:8.)
But they err in this respect, that, while they claim for themselves the highest authority, they are unwilling to submit to God. It is true that God conferred the power of judgment on the high priest, but God did not intend that the high priest should decide, except according to his Law. All the authority that is possessed by pastors, therefore, is subject to the word of God, that all may be kept in their own rank, from the greatest to the smallest, and that God alone may be exalted. If pastors who honestly and sincerely discharge their duty, claim authority for themselves, this glorying will be holy and lawful; but when the mere authority of men is supported, without the authority of God's word, it is vain and useless boasting. But it often happens that wicked men rule in the Church; and therefore we must beware of giving any authority to men, as soon as they depart from the word of God.
We see that nearly all the prophets were tormented by this kind of annoyance; for, in order to bury their doctrine, men continually brought against them the magnificent titles of Princes, of Priests, and of the Church. Provided with the same armor, Papists in the present day rage not less fiercely than did the adversaries of Christ and of the Prophets in former times. It is a horrible blindness, indeed, when a mortal man is not ashamed to oppose himself to God; but to such a pitch of madness does Satan carry those who set a higher value on their own ambition than on the truth of God. Meanwhile, it is our duty to cherish such a reverence for the word of God as shall extinguish all the splendor of the world, and scatter its vain pretensions; for miserable would be our condition, if our salvation depended on the will of princes, and far too unsteady would our faith be, if it were to stand or fall according to their pleasure.
49. But this multitude. The first part of their pride was, that, relying on the title of Priests, they wished to subject all to them in a tyrannical manner. The next is, that they despise others as men of no estimation, as those who excessively flatter themselves are always disposed to abuse others, and an immoderate love of ourselves is accompanied by contempt of the brethren. They pronounce the whole populace to be accursed; and why? It is no doubt alleged by them that the people do not know the law; but another reason, which they concealed, was, that they thought that there was no holiness but in their own rank. In like manner, the Popish priests in our own day pretend that none but themselves deserve to be called the Church; and all others, whom they call the laity, they despise as if they were profane persons. But to throw down such madness of pride, God prefers the mean and despised to those who hold the highest authority and power. And it ought to be observed that they here boast of knowledge, not that which instructs men in religion and the fear of God, but such as they possessed while, with magisterial pride, they gave forth their responses, as if they alone had been qualified to interpret the law. It is undoubtedly true, that all who have not been instructed in the law of God are accursed, because by the knowledge of it we are truly sanctified. But this knowledge is not confined to a few who, swelled with false confidence, wish to exclude themselves from the rank of other men, but belongs in common to all the children of God, that all, from the smallest even to the greatest, may be united in the same obedience of faith.
50. Nicodemus said to them. The Evangelist describes Nicodemus as a neutral man, who does not venture to undertake in good earnest the defense of sound doctrine, and yet cannot endure to have the truth oppressed.
He who came to Jesus by night. This circumstance is mentioned by the Evangelist, partly to the praise, and partly to the disgrace, of Nicodemus. If he had not loved the doctrine of Christ, he would never have dared to meet the rage of wicked men; for he knew that, if any of them but opened his mouth, he would be immediately exposed to dislike and to danger. When, therefore, he ventures to throw out one word, however feeble it may be, some small spark of godliness shines from his heart; but in not defending Christ openly, he manifests excessive timidity. Thus the Evangelist means that he has still a hankering after the concealment of the night, and is not a true disciple of Christ. He says that he once came to Jesus by night, but remained openly among his enemies, and kept his place in their camp.
This ought to be the more carefully observed, because there are many in the present day who plead that they resemble Nicodemus, and hope that, by assuming this mask, they will mock God with impunity. Granting what they ask, that there is no difference between them and Nicodemus, what assistance, pray, do they derive from such an example? Nicodemus says that Christ ought not to be condemned until he be heard; and the same thing might be said of a robber or an assassin; for it is a well-known and proverbial sentiment, that it is better to acquit the innocent than to condemn the guilty. Besides, in his attempts to release the person of Christ, he leaves and abandons the doctrine. What shall we find here that is worthy of a believer or a Christian? Thus the seed of the gospel, which afterwards bore fruit, was still concealed and choked in him. We shall apply this example far more profitably to another purpose, that the Lord frequently causes the doctrine, which seemed to have perished, gradually to take a concealed root, and, after a long period, to put forth some bud, first like an untimely plant, afterwards lively and vigorous; just as the faith of Nicodemus acquired new and sudden vigor from the death of Christ.
52. Art thou also from Galilee? They say that all who favor Christ are from Galilee, and this is spoken reproachfully, as if he could not have any person among his followers except from the small and unknown corner of Galilee The extreme violence to which they are excited against Nicodemus, shows with what furious hatred they burned against Christ; for he had not avowedly undertaken to defend Christ, but had only said that he ought not to be condemned before he was heard Thus among the Papists in our own day, no man can show the slightest token of candour that the Gospel may not be oppressed, but immediately the enemies fly into a passion, and exclaim that he is a heretic.
53. And every man went to his own house. Now follows an astonishing close of the transaction. If any one take into account what was the reign of the priests at that time, with what rage they were excited, and how vast was their retinue, and, on the other hand, if he consider that Christ was unarmed and defenceless, and that there was no body of men to protect him, the conclusion must be, that it was all over with him a hundred times. When so formidable a conspiracy is dissolved of its own accord, and when all those men, like waver of the sea, break themselves by their own violence, who will not acknowledge that they were scattered by the hand of God? But God always continues to be like himself; and therefore, whenever he pleases, he will bring to nothing all the efforts of enemies, so that, while they have everything in their power, and are ready and prepared to execute their design, they will depart without having done their work. And we have often found that, whatever contrivances our enemies have made to extinguish the Gospel, yet by the amazing kindness of God, it immediately fell powerless to the ground.