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The Expositors Bible The Gospel Of St John Vol I by Marcus Dods


|Now when He was in Jerusalem at the passover, during the feast, many believed on His name, beholding His signs which He did. But Jesus did not trust Himself unto them, for that He knew all men, and because He needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man; for He Himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto Him by night, and said to Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these signs that Thou doest, except God be with Him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.| -- JOHN ii.23-iii.8.

The first visit of Jesus to Jerusalem was not without considerable effect on the popular mind. Many who saw the miracles He did believed that He was a messenger from God. They saw that His miracles were not the clever tricks of an impostor, and they were prepared to listen to His teaching and enrol themselves as members of the kingdom He came to found. Yet our Lord did not encourage them. He saw that they misunderstood Him. He recognised their worldliness of heart and of aim, and did not admit them to the intimacy He had established with the five simple-minded Galileans. The Jerusalem Jews were glad to fall in with one who seemed likely to do honour to their nation, and their belief in Him was the belief men give to a statesman whose policy they approve. The difference between them and those who rejected Christ was not a difference of disposition such as exists between godly and ungodly men, but consisted merely in the circumstance that they were convinced that His miracles were genuine. Had our Lord encouraged these men they would ultimately have been disappointed in Him. It was better that from the first they should be stimulated to reflect on the whole matter by being coldly received by the Lord.

It is always a point that calls for reflection: we have to consider not only whether we have faith in Christ, but whether He has faith in us -- not only whether we have committed ourselves to Him, but whether that committal is so genuine that He can build upon and trust it. Can He count upon us for all service, for fidelity in times when much is needed? Thoroughgoing confidence must always be reciprocal. The person you believe in so utterly that you are entirely his, believes in you and trusts himself to you -- his reputation, his interests are safe in your keeping. So is it with Christ. Faith cannot be one-sided here any more than elsewhere. He gives Himself to those who give themselves to Him. They who so trust Him that He is sure they will follow Him even when they cannot see where He is going; they who trust Him, not in one or two matters which they see He can manage, but absolutely and in all things, -- to these He will give Himself freely, sharing with them His work, His Spirit, His reward.

To illustrate the state of mind of the Jerusalem Jews and Christ's mode of treating them, John selects the case of Nicodemus. He was one of those who were much impressed by the miracles of Jesus, and were prepared to attach themselves to any movement in His favour. He belonged to the Pharisees; to that party which, with all its narrowness, pedantry, dogmatism, and bigotry, still preserved a salt of genuine patriotism and genuine godliness, and reared high-toned and cultivated men like Gamaliel and Saul. Nicodemus, whether a member of the Sanhedrim's deputation to the Baptist or not, certainly knew the result of that deputation, and was aware that a crisis in the national history had arrived. He could not wait for the community to move, but felt that whatever conclusion regarding Christ the Pharisees as a body might arrive at, he must on his own responsibility be at the bottom of those extraordinary events and signs that clustered round the person of Jesus. He was a modest, reserved, cautious man, and did not wish openly to commit himself till he was sure of his ground. He has been blamed for timidity. I would only say that, if he felt it dangerous to be seen in the company of Jesus, it was a bold thing to visit Him at all. He went by night; but he went. And would that there were more like him, who, whether cautious to excess or not, do still feel constrained to judge for themselves about Christ; who feel that, no matter what other men think of Him, there is an interest in Him which they cannot wait for others to settle, but must for themselves settle before they sleep.

Probably Nicodemus made his visit by night because he did not wish to precipitate matters by calling undue attention to the position and intentions of Jesus. He probably went with the purpose of urging some special plan of action. This inexperienced Galilean could not be supposed to understand the populace of Jerusalem as well as the old member of the Sanhedrim, who was familiar with all the outs and ins of party politics in the metropolis. Nicodemus would therefore go and advise Him how to proceed in proclaiming the kingdom of God; or at least sound Him, and, if he found Him amenable to reason, encourage Him to proceed, and warn Him against the pitfalls that lay in His path. Modestly, and as if speaking for others as much as for himself, he says: |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!| There is here neither patronizing acknowledgment nor flattery, but merely the natural first utterance of a man who must say something to show the state of his mind. It served to reveal the point at which Nicodemus had arrived, and the ground on which the conversation might proceed. But |Jesus knew what was in man.| In this acknowledgment of His miracles on the part of Nicodemus, Jesus saw the whole mental attitude of the man. He saw that if Nicodemus had uttered all that was in his mind he would have said: |I believe you are sent to restore the kingdom to Israel, and I am come to advise with you on your plan of operation, and to urge upon you certain lines of action.| And therefore Jesus promptly cuts him short by saying: |The kingdom of God is quite another thing than you are thinking of; and the way to establish it, to enlist citizens in it, is very different from the way you have been meditating.|

In fact, Jesus was becoming embarrassed by His own miracles. They were attracting the wrong kind of people -- the superficial worldly people; the people who thought a daring and strong hand with a dash of magic would serve all their turn. His mind was full of this, and as soon as He has an opportunity of uttering Himself on this point He does so, and assures Nicodemus, as a representative of a large number of Jews who needed this teaching, that all their thoughts about the kingdom must be ruled by this principle, and must start from this great truth, that it was a kingdom into which the Spirit of God alone could give entrance, and could give entrance only by making men spiritual. That is to say, that it was a spiritual kingdom, an inward rule over the hearts of men, not an outward empire -- a kingdom to be established, not by political craft and midnight meetings, but by internal change and submission in heart to God -- a kingdom, therefore, into which admission could be given only on some more spiritual ground than the mere circumstance of a man's natural birth as a Jew.

In our Lord's language there was nothing that need have puzzled Nicodemus. In religious circles in Jerusalem there was nothing being talked of but the kingdom of God which John the Baptist had declared to be at hand. And when Jesus told Nicodemus that in order to enter this kingdom he must be born again, He told him just what John had been telling the whole people. John had assured them that, though the King was in their midst, they must not suppose they were already within His kingdom by being the children of Abraham. He excommunicated the whole nation, and taught them that it was something different from natural birth that gave admission to God's kingdom. And just as they had compelled Gentiles to be baptized, and to submit to other arrangements when they wished to partake of Jewish privileges, so John compelled them to be baptized. The Gentile who wished to become a Jew had to be symbolically born again. He had to be baptized, going down under the cleansing waters, washing away his old and defiled life, being buried by baptism, disappearing, from men's sight as a Gentile, and rising from the water as a new man. He was thus born of water, and this time born, not a Gentile, but a Jew.

The language of our Lord then could scarcely puzzle Nicodemus, but the idea did stagger him that not only Gentiles but Jews must be born again. John had indeed required the same preparation for entrance to the kingdom; but the Pharisees had not listened to John, and were offended precisely on the ground of his baptism. But now Jesus presses upon Nicodemus the very same truth, that as the Gentile had to be naturalized and born again that he might rank as a child of Abraham, and enjoy the external privileges of the Jew, so must the Jew himself be born again if he is to rank as a child of God and to belong to the kingdom of God. He must submit to the double baptism of water and of the Spirit -- of water for the pardon and cleansing of past sin and defilement, of the Spirit for the inspiration of a new and holy life.

Our Lord here speaks of the second birth as completed by two agencies, water and the Spirit. To make the one of these merely the symbol of the other is to miss His meaning. The Baptist baptized with water for the remission of sins, but he was always careful to disclaim power to baptize with the Holy Ghost. His baptism with water was of course symbolical; that is to say, the water itself exercised no spiritual influence, but merely represented to the eye what was invisibly done in the heart. But that which it symbolised was not the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit, but the washing away of sin from the soul. Assurance of pardon John was empowered to give. Those who humbly submitted to his baptism with confession of their sins went from it forgiven and cleansed. But more than that was needed to make them new men -- and yet more he could not give. For that which would fill them with new life they must go to a Greater than he, who alone could bestow the Holy Ghost.

These then are the two great incidents of the second birth -- the pardon of sin, which is preparatory, and which cuts our connection with the past; the communication of life by the Spirit of God, which fits us for the future. Both of these are represented by Christian baptism because in Christ we have both; but those who were baptized by John's baptism were only prepared for receiving Christ's Spirit by receiving the forgiveness of their sins.

Having thus declared to Nicodemus the necessity of the second birth, He goes on to give the reason of this necessity. Birth by the Spirit is necessary, because that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and the kingdom of God is spiritual. Of course our Lord does not mean by flesh the mere tangible substance of the body; He does not mean that our first and natural birth puts us in possession of nothing but a material frame. By the word |flesh| He signifies the appetites, desires, faculties, which animate and govern the body, as well as the body itself -- the whole equipment with which nature furnishes a man for life in this world. This natural birth gives a man entrance into much, and for ever determines much, that has important bearings on his person, character, and destiny. It determines all differences of nationality, of temperament, of sex; apart altogether from any choice of his it is determined whether he shall be a South Sea Islander or a European; an antediluvian living in a cave or an Englishman of the nineteenth century. But the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, into which entrance can be had only by a man's own will and spiritual condition, only by an attachment to God which is no part of a man's natural equipment.

As soon as we clearly see what the kingdom of God is, we see also that by nature we do not belong to it. The kingdom of God so far as man is concerned is a state of willing subjection to Him -- a state in which we are in our right relation to Him. All irrational creatures obey God and do His will: the sun runs his course with an exactness and punctuality we cannot rival; the grace and strength of many of the lower animals, their marvellous instincts and aptitudes, are so superior to anything in ourselves that we cannot even comprehend them. But what we have as our speciality is to render to God a willing service; to understand His purposes and enter sympathetically into them. The lower creatures obey a law impressed upon their nature; they cannot sin; their performance of God's will is a tribute to the power which made them so skilfully, but it lacks all conscious recognition of His worthiness to be served and all knowledge of His object in creation. It is God serving Himself: He made them so, and therefore they do His will. So it is with men who merely obey their nature: they may do kindly, noble, heroic actions, but they lack all reference to God; and however excellent these actions are, they give no guarantee that the men who do them would sympathize with God in all things, and do His will gladly.

Indeed, to establish the proposition that flesh or nature does not give us entrance into God's kingdom, we need go no further than our own consciousness. Remove the restraints which grace puts upon our nature, and we are aware that we are not in sympathy with God, fond of His will, disposed for His service. Let nature have its swing, and every man knows it is not the kingdom of God it takes him to. To all men it is natural to eat, drink, sleep, think; we are born to these things, and need to put no constraint on our nature to do them; but can any man say it has come naturally to him to be what he ought to be to God? Do we not to this hour feel drawn away from God as if we were not in our element in His presence? Flesh, nature, in God's presence is as much out of its element as a stone in the air or a fish out of water. Men who have had the deepest religious experience have seen it most clearly, and have felt, like Paul, that the flesh lusts against the spirit, and draws us ever back from entire submission to God and delight in Him.

Perhaps the necessity of the second birth may be more clearly apprehended if we consider it from another point of view. In this world we find a number of creatures which have what is known as animal life. They can work, and feel, and, in a fashion, think. They have wills, and certain dispositions, and distinctive characteristics. Every creature that has animal life has a certain nature according to its kind, and determined by its parentage; and this nature which the animal receives from its parents determines from the first the capabilities and sphere of the animal's life. The mole cannot soar in the face of the sun like the eagle; neither can the bird that comes out of the eagle's egg burrow like the mole. No training can possibly make the tortoise as swift as the antelope, or the antelope as strong as the lion. If a mole began to fly and enjoy the sunlight it must be counted a new kind of creature, and no longer a mole. The very fact of its passing certain limitations shows that another nature has somehow been infused into it. Beyond its own nature no animal can act. You might as well attempt to give the eagle the appearance of the serpent as try to teach it to crawl. Each kind of animal is by its birth endowed with its own nature, fitting it to do certain things, and making other things impossible. So is it with us: we are born with certain faculties and endowments, with a certain nature; and just as all animals, without receiving any new, individual, supernatural help from God, can act according to their nature, so can we. We, being human, have a high and richly-endowed animal nature, a nature that leads us not only to eat, drink, sleep, and fight like the lower animals, but a nature which leads us to think and to love, and which, by culture and education, can enjoy a much richer and wider life than the lower creatures. Men need not be in the kingdom of God in order to do much that is admirable, noble, lovely, because their nature as animals fits them for that. If we were to exist at all as a race of animals superior to all others, then all this is just what must be found in us. Irrespective of any kingdom of God at all, irrespective of any knowledge of God or reference to Him, we have a life in this world, and a nature fitting us for it. And it is this we have by our natural birth, a place among our kind, an animal life. The first man, from whom we all descend, was, as St. Paul profoundly says, |a living soul,| that is to say, an animal, a living human being; but he had not |a quickening spirit,| could not give to his children spiritual life and make them children of God.

Now if we ask ourselves a little more closely, What is human nature? what are the characteristics by which men are distinguished from all other creatures? what is it which marks off our kind from every other kind, and which is always produced by human parents? we may find it hard to give a definition, but one or two things are obvious and indisputable. In the first place, we could not deny human nature to men who do not love God, or who even know nothing of Him. There are many whom we should naturally speak of as remarkably fine specimens of human nature, who yet never think of God, nor in any way acknowledge Him. It is plain, therefore, that the acknowledgment and love of God, which give us entrance into His kingdom, are not a part of our nature, are not the gifts of our birth.

And yet is there anything that so distinctly separates us from the lower animals as our capacity for God and for eternity? Is it not our capacity to respond to God's love, to enter into His purposes, to measure things by eternity, that is our real dignity? The capacity is there, even when unused; and it is this capacity which invests man and all his works with an interest and a value which attach to no other creature. Man's nature is capable of being born again, and that is its peculiarity; there is in man a dormant or dead capacity which nothing but contact with God, the touch of the Holy Ghost, can vivify and bring into actual exercise.

That there should be such a capacity, born as if dead, and needing to be quickened by a higher power before it can live and be of use, need not surprise us. Nature is full of examples of such capacities. All seeds are of this nature, dead until favouring circumstances and soil quicken them into life. In our own body there are similar capacities, capacities which may or may not be quickened into life. In the lower animal-creation many analogous capacities are found, which depend for their vivification on some external agency over which they have no control. The egg of a bird has in it the capacity to become a bird like the parent, but it remains a dead thing and will corrupt if the parent forsakes it. There are many of the summer insects which are twice-born, first of their insect parents, and then of the sun: if the frost comes in place of the sun, they die. The caterpillar has already a life of its own, with which, no doubt, it is well content, but enclosed in its nature as a creeping thing it has a capacity for becoming something different and higher. It may become a moth, or a butterfly; but in most the capacity is never developed, they die before they reach this end -- their circumstances do not favour their development. These analogies show how common it is for capacities of life to lie dormant: how common a thing it is for a creature in one stage of its existence to have a capacity for passing into a higher stage, a capacity which can be developed only by some agency peculiarly adapted to it.

It is in this condition man is born of his human parents. He is born with a capacity for a higher life than that which he lives as an animal in this world. There is in him a capacity for becoming something different, better and higher than that which he actually is by his natural birth. He has a capacity which lies dormant or dead until the Holy Ghost comes and quickens it. There are many things, and great things, man can do without any further Divine assistance than that which is lodged for the whole race in the natural laws which make no distinction between godly and ungodly; there are many and great things man may do by virtue of his natural birth; but one thing he cannot do -- he cannot quicken within himself the capacity to love God and to live for Him. For this there is needed an influence from without, the efficient touch of the Holy Spirit, the impartation of His life. The capacity to be a child of God is man's, but the development of this lies with God. Without the capacity a man is not a man, has not that which is most distinctive of human nature. Every man is born with that in him which the Spirit of God may quicken into Divine life. This is human nature; but when this capacity is so quickened, when the man has begun to live as a child of God, he has not lost his human nature, but has over and above become a partaker of the Divine nature. When the image of God, as well as of his earthly parents, becomes manifest in a man, then his human nature has received its utmost development, -- he is born again.

Of the Agent who accomplishes this great transformation there is need only to say that He is free in His operation and also inscrutable. He is like the wind, our Lord tells us, that blows where it lists. We cannot bring the Spirit at will; we cannot use Him as if He were some unintelligent passive instrument; neither can we subject all His operations to our control. The grub must wait for those natural influences which are to transform it; it cannot command them. We cannot command the Spirit; but we, being free agents also, can do more than wait, -- we can pray, and we can strive to put ourselves in line with the Spirit's operation. Seamen cannot raise the wind nor direct its course, but they can put themselves in the way of the great regular winds. We can do the same: we can slowly, by mechanical helps, creep into the way of the Spirit; we can set our sails, doing all we think likely to catch and utilize His influences -- believing always that the Spirit is more desirous than we are to bring us all to good. Why He breathes in one place while all around lies in a dead calm we do not know; but as for the wind's variations so for His, there are doubtless sufficient reasons. We need not expect to see the Spirit's working separate from the working of our own minds; we cannot see the Spirit in Himself -- we cannot see the wind that moves the ships, but we can see the ships moving, and we know that without the wind they could not move.

If this, then, be the line on which our human nature can alone be developed, if a profound harmony with God be that which can alone give permanence and completeness to our nature, if in accordance with all that we see in the world around us some men fail of attaining the end of their creation, and lie for ever blighted and useless, while others are carried forward to fuller and more satisfying life, we cannot but ask with some anxiety to which class we belong. Good and evil are in the world, happiness and misery, victory and defeat; do not let us deceive ourselves by acting as if there were no difference between these opposites, or as if it mattered little in our case whether we belong to the one side or the other. It matters everything: it is just the difference between eternal life and eternal death. Christ did not come to play with us, and startle us with idle tales. He is the centre and fountain of all truth, and what He says fits in with all we see in the world around us.

But in endeavouring to ascertain whether the great change our Lord speaks of has passed upon us, our object must be not so much to ascertain the time and manner of our new birth as its reality. A man may know that he has been born though he is not able to recall, as no man can recall, the circumstances of his birth. Life is the great evidence of birth, natural or spiritual. We may desire to know the time and place of birth for some other reason, but certainly not for this, to make sure we have been born. Of that there is sufficient evidence in the fact of our being alive. And spiritual life quite as certainly implies spiritual birth.

Again, we must keep in view that a man may be born though not yet full grown. The child of a day old has as truly and certainly a human nature as the man in his prime. He has a human heart and mind, every organ of body and soul, though as yet he cannot use them. So the second birth impresses the image of God on every regenerate soul. It may not as yet be developed in every part, but all its parts are there in germ. It is not a partial but a complete result which regeneration effects. It is not one member, a hand or a foot that is born, but a body, a complete equipment of the soul in all graces. The whole character is regenerated, so that the man is fitted for all the duties of the Divine life whensoever these duties shall come before him. A human child does not need additions made to it to fit it for new functions: it requires growth, it requires nurture, it requires education and the practice of human ways, but it requires no new organ to be inserted into its frame; once born it has but to grow in order to adapt itself with ease and success to all human ways and conditions. And if regenerate we have that in us which with care and culture will grow till it brings us to perfect likeness to Christ. If we are not growing, if we remain small, puny, childish while we should be adult and full grown, then there is something seriously wrong, which calls for anxious enquiry.

But above all let us bear in mind that it is a new birth that is required; that no care spent on our conduct, no improvement and refinement of the natural man, suffices. For flying it is not an improved caterpillar that is needed, it is a butterfly; it is not a caterpillar of finer colour or more rapid movement or larger proportions, it is a new creature. We recognise that in this and that man we meet there is something more than men naturally have; we perceive in them a taming, chastening, inspiring principle. We rejoice all the more when we see it, because we know that no man can give it, but only God. And we mourn its absence because even when a man is dutiful, affectionate, temperate, honourable, yet if he have not grace, if he have not that peculiar tone and colour which overspread the whole character, and show that the man is living in the light of Christ, and is moved by love to God, we instinctively feel that the defect is radical, that as yet he has not come into connection with the Eternal, that there is that awanting for which no natural qualities, however excellent, can compensate -- nay, the more lovely and complete the natural character is, the more painful and lamentable is the absence of grace, of Spirit.

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