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‘There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.’
The accounts given us in Holy Scripture of Nicodemus are, in many respects, of peculiar interest.
I. A night visitor.—Of the early years of Nicodemus we know nothing. We first hear of him in this third chapter of John. It may be asked, Why did Nicodemus go to our Lord by night? The answer, no doubt, is, He was afraid to go by day. We are not told how long the visit lasted, but we may be sure that the gracious words that proceeded out of His mouth could never be forgotten by Nicodemus. Very precious in after years must have been the memory of that personal and private converse at such a time, and in such a place, with the Son of God Most High.
II. A defender of Christ.—Now let us turn to the next occasion on which we read of Nicodemus ( John 7:50). The time soon came when the Pharisees and Chief Priests became so jealous of our Lord’s power and influence that they determined to silence Him. For this purpose officers were sent to apprehend Him; but they did not, for, said they, ‘Never man spake like this Man.’ Then do we read of Nicodemus making a stand on our Lord’s behalf. We notice that he is still timid and cautious, but he does try to throw His shield over our Lord, and appears to stand alone in so doing, thereby exposing himself to the taunts of the most blind and ignorant prejudice.
III. A lover of Christ.—Once more do we read of Nicodemus. After the sad scene was ended at Mount Calvary, Joseph of Arimathea came and begged the body of Jesus and took it and laid it in his own new tomb in the adjacent garden. ‘And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night.’ How careful John is to identify Nicodemus and prevent our mistaking him for anybody else! ‘And brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes about a hundred pound weight.’ There is something very touching in this pious act of Nicodemus. All His disciples had forsaken Him in the hour of His deepest need. And now the faithful women and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus gather round the sacred remains and perform the last sad offices of love. The humiliation and reproach of the Cross had intensified rather than lessened their feeling of reverence and love, and so to them was allowed the holy privilege, never to occur again, of committing the Sacred Body to the tomb.
We know nothing more of Nicodemus, but we may gather from his simple story that our Lord does not reject a weak faith, provided it is sincerely directed towards Himself, and gives proof of its vitality by its growth.
‘If Christ reveals to Nicodemus great fundamental truths, it must have been because He saw in His hearer some fitness to receive these thoughts. “He knew what was in man,” and He recognised in His visitor one upon whom transcendental conceptions would not be thrown away, but in whose mind they would rest and germinate and “bring forth fruit.” We have here the introduction of the Gospel to a religious philosopher, who was certainly no stranger to the remoter depths of theological thought, who well understood the use of figurative language, who could see the substance behind the metaphorical drapery, and could himself use such drapery to veil his meaning. He was no fisherman upon the Sea of Galilee, no country peasant, no publican called straight from a dishonourable seat of custom, but one of the religious élite, trained in a famous school of interpretation, occupying a high position.’
A MOMENTOUS INTERVIEW
‘The same came to Jesus by night and said unto Him … Jesus answered and said unto him … Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’
Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus by night? You say that it was through fear. Perhaps it was. We do not know what men will do when they are afraid ( Proverbs 29:25; Luke 12:4). But it may have been zeal. His duties would occupy him during the day, but sooner than neglect his soul’s welfare, he stole the hours from the night ( Luke 13:24; Php_3:14 ). Or, again, it may have been consideration. He would know how busy Christ was in the day, and might feel it impossible to gain a quiet interview, so he came by night ( Ephesians 5:15-17). At all events, what a grand thing it is to see a man coming to Jesus ( John 6:37; John 6:44; John 7:37; Matthew 11:28; Revelation 22:17), so many refuse to come at all ( John 5:40). Have you come?
Two things require our attention in studying the narrative.
I. What brought him to the Saviour?—We are not told directly in the passage, but we may infer from our Lord’s discourse that he was dissatisfied with his religious state, that he was anxious about his soul ( Job 23:3; Isaiah 26:9). He was a Pharisee ( John 3:1). strict in the outward forms of religion ( Acts 26:5); but that would not satisfy ( Php_3:4-14 ). He had a certain knowledge of Jesus ( John 3:2), that He was a Divine Teacher ( Matthew 22:6), but that would not satisfy ( 1 Corinthians 1:20-24). There was sin demanding atonement ( Ezekiel 18:4). His soul was craving for peace ( Isaiah 57:19-21; Romans 5:1). This want brought him to the Saviour.
II. What the Saviour said to him.—Jesus knew that the matter in his heart was ‘ the Kingdom of God.’ What is that? ( Romans 14:17; Luke 17:21). It is of a spiritual character ( Romans 8:6). To see it and understand it, therefore, Nicodemus must be spiritual ( 1 Corinthians 2:14-15). He must be born again ( John 3:3, chap. John 1:12-13; 1 John 5:1). Nicodemus is carnal in his notions, and does not understand ( John 3:4). So Jesus tells him, that for entrance into the Kingdom he must be born of water and of the Spirit ( John 3:5). Nicodemus would know to what Christ referred ( Ezekiel 36:25-29). The reason is plain: ( John 3:6). All born of sinful man are sinful. All born of God by the Spirit are spiritual ( 1 Corinthians 15:22; Romans 5:12-21). It is as inexplicable as many a thing in nature ( John 3:8). But there is the fact—a fact which would meet the want of the soul—‘ Ye must be born again.’
—Bishop Rowley Hill.
‘What had Christ to say to Nicodemus that would come to him as fresh light? The Kingdom of God could not come merely as a development from existing human circumstances. It must he a new creation. It must come, not as the completion of an old order, but as the manifestation of a new. There must be a fresh beginning. That which had been born into the old could not, without re-birth, behold the new. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” In other words, Nicodemus did not realise the full significance of sin. He saw that the problems created by the fall of man ran deep, but he failed to appreciate how deep. He felt, as did others, the essential need of redemption and restoration; but he failed to grasp how much was implied in the ideas of pardon and of renewal. He imagined that things could move forward on the same plane until the glorious goal was attained. And the first of the two supreme lessons which our Lord sought to teach him was the fundamental character of this mistake. “No principle can produce results superior to itself. If man is to enjoy a spiritual life, that by which he enters it—his birth—must be of a corresponding character,” “Ye must be born anew.” It was a wholly fresh thought, and it naturally presented itself to Nicodemus as strange and perplexing.’
‘Ye must be born again.’
It is quite impossible for the human mind to have any subject for consideration of more profound importance than the new birth.
I. The new birth is the commencement of a new life, and it involves of necessity two new and most precious gifts—
(a) A new relationship.
(b) A new life.
II. The new birth is followed by results.
(a) There is a change in the whole character of the life.
(b) Those who are born again cease from the practice of sin.
(c) A third result is victory over sin ( 1 John 5:4-5).
III. The Author of the change.
(a) It is not hereditary.
(b) It is not the result of nature.
(c) It is not given according to the will of man.
(d) It is distinctly stated to be ‘of God.’
IV. The means employed.
(b) ‘The Word.’
(c) The Resurrection ( 1 Peter 1:3).
V. The sovereignty of God in the bestowal of this most sacred gift.—You cannot bind the wind by rules, or determine how and when it shall blow in a particular direction. Still less can you bind the Spirit of the living God. When He gives life, He gives it according to His own purpose of grace; and He does not put into the hand of any man to determine in what particular time or place He will in His own rich mercy bestow His gifts.
Rev. Canon Edward Hoare.
‘When our Lord was bringing this poor soul to Himself, He dealt at once with two great dogmatic truths: of Holy Baptism and redemption through the blood of Christ. These things are mysteries. Men do not like mysteries. Nicodemus did not like mysteries, or he would not have asked that perverse question, “Can a man enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Religious truth requires that we should be told something, but on the other hand, our own nature and our own understanding have their limits and prevent us understanding all. Should we say if we cannot understand it all that we will not accept it? That is not the way God deals with man. We are to be content to accept what He offers to us, and to seek to understand it as far as we possibly may. When Nicodemus wanted to understand all about it, our Lord turned to one of the commonest things and said, “You do not understand that. The wind bloweth where it listeth; you cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. And so it is with this great mystery of Holy Baptism; so is it with every one who is born of the Spirit.” The fact is that God does not satisfy curiosity; He just gives us practical knowledge; He just tells us what to do, and when we have done it, we begin to understand a little more about it.’
THE PUZZLED INQUIRER
‘How can these things be?’
In the interview between our Lord and Nicodemus, we have an early instance of difficulties of belief in a candid and thoughtful mind. The question contained in the text has often been repeated since with the same cautious timidity, and the same hesitating acquiescence with respect to the Christian verities.
I. There is a striking resemblance between the methods of religious inquiry of Nicodemus and the people of the twentieth century.—With him the difficulties of faith were prospective; with us they are retrospective. But then, as now, unworthy compromise in the place of courage leads to much vacillating uncertainty in religious thought, and this produces a want of thoroughness and completeness in the religious life; for unsteady conduct is almost sure to follow on infirm convictions. Unless a radical change takes place by Divine influence in the modes of thinking and feeling on religious subjects, the standpoint of seekers after God will remain to be that of fruitless questioning, ‘How can these things be?’ when no answer is expected where a negative is implied, when, from want of energy and earnest persistence, the true answer is never found. Discovery of truth is impossible when prejudice in favour of uncertainty prevents further search in the inquirer.
II. But the hesitation of Nicodemus forms another instructive aspect of his personality.—He is ready to make some admissions favourable to religion, but he does so with considerable reserve. To gain time, he asks questions which savour after intentional misapprehension. For example, ‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ etc. He will not see the spiritual and deeper significance of the words of Christ, and accepts them only in their bare literal import. Just so ‘candid unbelievers in the present day are but too often satisfied in attacking the weak outworks of the Christian system’ (as Christian apologists often think they have proved ‘the truth’ when they have merely upset a false theory of their opponents), and thereby feel themselves justified in remaining in a condition of mental suspense, leaving the ultimate decision as to the acceptance or rejection of the Christian scheme in abeyance, whilst waiting for a less faulty presentation of it on the part of its official advocates. In this way much of precious time and mental tissue are wasted in frivolous wrangling and sophistical hair-splitting concerning terms and phrases.
III. We may imagine the strange transformation in modes of thought and feeling wrought in Nicodemus during that night interview with our Lord, and the mingled feelings of satisfied wonder and discontent with self with which he left at break of day with a new light dawning on his soul. The master in Israel had changed much, even then when began, unconscious to himself, the career of his discipleship of Him Whom he acknowledged as the great Master sent from God. So the presence of Christ in modern life, constant intercourse with Christ in His teaching, may now lead men by degrees from uncertainty to knowledge in Divine things.
Rev. M. Kaufmann.
‘After all the claims of scepticism are acknowledged, a wide margin is left for provisional belief (as opposed to provisional unbelief on principle).
“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds,”
says the author of the “In Memoriam”; hut describing in the same stanza the experience of one “perplexed in faith,” he adds—
“He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind,
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own:
And power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone.”
This, too, we think, is the experience of every honest doubter who will not rest satisfied until he has arrived at some conclusion. The danger lies in inconclusive debate, which leads nowhither. If we are not afraid of the light of truth, it will come to us in broken rays—perhaps, as Lord Bacon says, all human truth is arrived at—or we shall turn to it, dazzled or dazed, though it be sooner or later, as the case may be. Purity of motive is the best equipment for this voyage of discovery.’
THE GIFT OF THE CROSS
‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’
The only remedy for the serpent-bitten Israelites was the serpent of brass; the only remedy now is Christ lifted up on the Cross ( 1 Peter 2:24). The Son of Man must be lifted up. Think of the Cross.
I. It is a great gift.—No one was worthy to die for our sins but the only begotten and well-beloved Son of God. The greatness of it is measured by the greatness of our sin. ‘For Thy name’s sake, O Lord, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great’ ( Psalms 25:11).
II. It is invaluable.—The rugged Tree of the Cross sweetens the bitter waters of our life. What should we do without our dear Lord in life and death? He knows all our sorrows, and disappointments, and bitterness; and He cares for us.
III. It is free.—‘Whosoever believeth.’ Christ is offered as a Saviour from sin to all. What are we going to do with Jesus? Accept Him, or reject Him? Take the gift with a humble, rejoicing heart. ‘My Lord and my God.’ My Jesus. ‘Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift.’
THE MAGNA CHARTA OF CHRISTIANITY
‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’
That is the great Magna Charta of Christianity. What is the meaning of it? I believe that it meets with a response not only in your hearts but in all the hearts of all mankind. We believe in God, and we believe in love. Not only in the beginning there was God, but God is, and if there is a God men ask that that God shall exhibit:—
I. The highest quality known to human nature.—What is that quality? It is the theme of all the poets, it is the inspiration of the greatest pictures of art, especially Christian art. What is the meaning of it? There is only one meaning of it—that the biggest achievement of man, springing from the deepest parts of his human nature, is love.
II. Christianity not a new thing.—Now the mistaken conception people have got about Christianity is that Christianity was something that came into the world two thousand years ago, or nearly that, as a new thing, and that you can put on your letters ‘Anno Domini.’ That is quite true in a sense, and yet really it is untrue. There is no date that you can put down ‘Anno Domini,’ for He is from eternity. Before the foundation of the world God loved man, and placed love as the key of all the universe.
III. Love manifests itself.—Some people think of love as a sentiment. Divine love is far deeper than that. And God reveals His love. How do you reveal your love? Exactly in the same way as you reveal your intelligence—by an incarnation. How is God to manifest Himself that He loves? In the stars? In the flowers? In a magnificent sunset? We all know that, but yet how far is He? If God loves He must come to us in personality, and if He did not the world would say: ‘It is a mistake, and God has not revealed Himself yet as He can and as He ought.’ God was in Christ. That is the highest revelation you can have—God in personality. And why was that? Do you not see what we had done? We were made all right, but we were spoiled by sin. Then the communion was broken, and if the communion is to be established again in personality, as it started in personality, it can only be done when Deity touches the eternal shore on one side and man on the other side, and redeems our human nature. That is what God did, and Christ took our human nature and redeemed it, and presented it perfect and spotless to God.
IV. Salvation by faith.—Mark the text—‘That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ People say they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ by a speculative assent of something they call the intellect. That is not belief. Do you know what it cost God to believe in the redemption of men? It cost Him His only begotten Son. What did it cost Christ to save man? It cost Him a Cross, and yet men think they can be saved by the sentimental assent to the doctrines of Christianity. Christ never said: ‘He that believeth in the doctrine of the Atonement shall be saved.’ He said, ‘He that believeth in Me shall be saved.’ What does that mean? Belief with the intellect? Yes. Belief in the Atonement? Yes. What else? You have got to believe with the heart. What else? To believe with the will, and to do His Will. Christ asks you for your heart—all you have got. I want you to give your intellect and lay it at the Cross; I want you to give your love and put it at the feet of the Crucified; I want you to be able to say, ‘O God, not my will but Thy Will be done,’ and give your will to God. Then you will understand that he that believeth has communion with God and hath eternal life. Will you have it? How can you get it? Do you know what wants redeeming? It is human nature, and He has redeemed it. Will you give it back to him and get this new life? Will you understand that you have been reconciled to God through the death of Jesus Christ? I want you to go away believing in the doctrine that God is love, and that the highest life is that which is wholly consecrated to Him.
—Rev. A. J. Waldron.
There are three great mysteries which are conveyed in this text.
I. Here, first of all, is the mystery of the Divine love of the world.
II. Then there is the second mystery—the mystery of self-sacrifice in God, Who gave His Son.
III. Then I come to the third mystery, perhaps the most wonderful of all—God’s individual care for the soul.—It is no Gospel to you or to me to be told that God so loved the world, unless I am told that whosoever believeth in Him shall have everlasting life, unless, as a sinner, I am told that whosoever cometh unto Him, He will in no wise be cast out.
‘Do not believe that the world is so had as you are in your more despairing moments tempted to suppose. Remember the warning of him in the Psalms—“I had almost said even as they; but lo! then I should have condemned the generation of Thy children.” Carry a pure, simple heart within you wherever you go. Everywhere you shall find that the children of God are not so hard to seek; everywhere you shall find the tokens of that Blessed Spirit Who is ever working in the dark places of human life, drawing souls and hearts in ways unknown to us to God. And carry also in your hearts that thought—you in your loneliness, your difficulties at home or in your work, your depression, your sadness, or solitariness, are yet the object of God’s eternal care and love, that you may be able to see and to know that God is present with you, watching over you, keeping you, saying to you, as He said to Jacob, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest.… I will not leave thee until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.” ’
OUT OF DARKNESS INTO LIGHT
‘And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.’
Is any one liable to this reproach of loving darkness more than light? It sounds, as it is, a very shameful thing, but it does not necessarily imply that debasement of the whole nature which characterises persons of reckless and abandoned lives.
I. Avoidance of the light is quite consistent with a truth-loving disposition, according to an imperfect idea of truth.—This is an age of earnest seeking after truth. Men would like to find out what are called the great problems of life; to know whence man comes and whither he is going; to understand the mystery of pain and sorrow and death in the creation of a God of Love; to understand the way in which prayer acts; and many such things, which are so much talked and written about in our day. How welcome would be considered any ray of light which would tend to clear up these difficulties! But has not the light itself come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ? Why, then, do you not come to it? Why do you not bring all your dark questionings to be illumined by it?
II. The light will illumine your deeds which you know are evil, and do not wish to have reproved.—You would be glad to study the wise sayings of Christ, only they oblige you continually to bring your own life to the rule of His life and precepts, and pronounce judgment upon it by that rule. You have a high respect for Christian morality as a system, but you cannot endure the continual conviction of sin, and the stinging words, ‘Thou art the man,’ especially when pronounced by human lips. You are not insensible to the wholesome general influence of religion, and you linger on the outskirts of an atmosphere warmed and brightened by other men’s piety; but you are afraid of entering in; afraid of forming distinctly religious habits yourself, lest you should gradually be brought into a position in which the inconsistencies of your own conduct will be more apparent, and a painful and humiliating alteration of your life, perhaps at an advanced age, be required of you. All this is undoubtedly avoiding the light. And yet you want to attain to truth, which dwells in the light! Do not think to make a distinction between one light and another; there is but one light for the soul of man, and that illuminates both the mind and the conscience. God does not reveal mental truth separately; thinking right is inseparably bound up with doing right. The riddance of mental darkness about religion must be accompanied by ceasing to do the works of darkness.
III. ‘He that doeth truth cometh to the light.’—Observe that the corresponding expression to doing evil is not doing good, but doing truth; because good actions wrought in Christ are the putting truth into operation as a living power, instead of treating it as a mere abstract idea. On the other hand, doing the truth is not to be diluted into dealing truly. It involves, of course, being honest and straightforward and open in one’s actions, as well as sincere of purpose, and simple-minded. But it reaches much further and deeper than this. It is thinking and feeling, speaking and acting in all things in harmony with the life of Christ.
THE JOY OF THE BRIDEGROOM’S FRIEND
‘The friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.’
John the Baptist here compares his own position with regard to our Lord to that of the friend of the bridegroom. Let us free ourselves from all the mean and lowering associations of a worldly marriage, and think of it only as it abides in the heart of God. This is what the Baptist is thinking of, and it is for us to consider in what points that figure of the bridegroom’s friend is like unto him.
I. John’s admiration of Christ.—There is, first, John’s loving admiration of Jesus Christ. You may have been blessed by God in having a friend whom you frankly admit as being your superior in every point you think of. He never speaks but you feel a fresh wonder at the clear and beautiful way in which he puts things. To your mind there never was, there never can be, any one quite like him. But all this is dim and faint and obscure compared with what John the Baptist felt in the presence of Christ our Lord. He seems to shrink into nonentity before the higher greatness, the pure holiness, of his beloved Lord. ‘I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?’
II. John’s estimate of his own work.—And secondly, there is John’s estimate of his own work. The marriage is in one sense already being celebrated, for souls are being brought to Jesus Christ. And in what has happened John sees the spirit of his own mission, his own work. This is just what he came to effect; it is being effected; John’s joy is fulfilled. For the bridegroom’s friend in Jewish life had something to do besides taking a formal part in the proceedings of the wedding-day. The preliminaries of the marriage were largely entrusted to him. Things really necessary were left in his hands. A great deal depended on his faithfulness and his tact. He would stand quiet and watchful, and when the joy of the bridegroom’s voice rang out, his face would light up as he thought that he had done something to bring about that blessed joy. So it was with John.
III. The relation of Jesus Christ to the faithful soul.—Thirdly, there is the deep reality, the full and blessed truth that is implied when we use the similitude of a wedding, which tells what Jesus Christ is to the faithful soul. ‘The voice of the bridegroom.’ She has heard it, the bride, the spouse of Christ; she has heard it, the human soul, the wife of His love. Look into the soul of John the Divine; look into the soul of St. Andrew. Think of the response they made to Christ’s love, think of the responses that the voice of Christ has awakened from that day unto now, that soul that in answer to Christ’s love has looked up to say, ‘My Beloved is mine and I am His.’ Can you wonder that the Bridegroom’s friend rejoices?
IV. Are we friends of the bridegroom?—Let us think of ourselves from one point of view, not as the friend of the Bridegroom—no, but actually—God help us—as the bride. But in another aspect we may claim to stand, not as the bride, but as the Bridegroom’s friend, to prepare Christ’s way, to win for Him an entrance into the hearts of other men. Three things are necessary for this.
(a) We must catch something of John’s enthusiasm for Jesus Christ.
(b) We must have clear thoughts as to His purpose and His will.
(c) We must believe that Christ in His love for men uses their brother men to bring this blessedness about, that in a thing so sacred as His own marriage, even in a thing so sacred as His espousal to the human soul, even in a thing so sacred as His saving union with men’s hearts, He is content to employ human aid. He does not disdain to use it if we will put ourselves simply at His service. There is no joy, my brethren, like it—no joy like the joy of the Bridegroom’s friend, the joy of winning a soul for Christ, the joy of winning and compelling and constraining to hear the voice of Jesus.
—Bishop H. L. Paget.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on John 3". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany