(St. John iii. 1-21.)
But there were those who beheld, and heard His words, and did in some measure understand them. Even before Jesus had spoken to the Temple-officials, His disciples, as silently they watched Him, saw an old Scripture-saying kindled into light by the halo of His glory. It was that of the suffering, self-forgetful, God-dedicated Servant of Jehovah, as His figure stood out against the Old Testament sky, realising in a hostile world only this, as the deepest element of His being and calling: entire inward and outward consecration to God, a burnt-offering, such as Isaac would have been. Within their minds sprang up unbidden, as when the light of the Urim and Thummim fell on the letter graven on the precious stones of the High-Priest's breastplate, those words of old: 'The zeal of Thine house eateth me up.'1 Thus, even in those days of their early learning, Jesus purging the Temple in view of a hostile rulership was the full realisation of that picture, which must be prophetic, since no mere man ever bore those lineaments: that of the ideal Nazarite, whom the zeal of God's house was consuming. And then long afterwards, after His Passion and Death, after those dark days of loneliness and doubt, after the misty dawn of the first recognition, this word, which He had spoken to the rulers at the first, came to them, with all the convincing power of prediction fulfilled by fact, as an assured conviction, which in its strong grasp held not only the past, but the present, because the present is ever the fulfilment of the past: 'When therefore He was risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this unto them; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.'
Again, as we think of the meaning of His refusing 'a sign' to the rulers of Israel - or rather think of the only 'sign' which He did give them - we see nothing incompatible with it in the fact that, at the same feast, He did many 'signs'2 in sight of the people. For it was only the rulers who had entered on that conflict, of which, from the character and aims of the two parties engaged, the beginning involved the terrible end as its logical sequence. In presence of such a foe only one 'sign' could be given: that of reading their inmost hearts, and in them their real motives and final action, and again of setting forth His own final triumph - a predictive description, a 'no sign' that was, and is, a sign to all time. But neither challenge nor hostile demand for a sign had been addressed to Him by the people. Indeed even at the last, when incited by their rulers, and blindly following them, 'they knew not what they did.' And it was to them that Jesus now, on the morning of His Work, spoke by 'signs.'
The Feast of the Passover commenced on the 15th Nisan, dating it, of course, from the preceding evening. But before that - before the slaying of the Paschal Lamb, on the afternoon of the 14th Nisan - the visitor to the Temple would mark something peculiar.3 On the evening of the 13th Nisan, with which the 14th, or 'preparation-day,' commenced, the head of each household would, with lighted candle and in solemn silence, search out all leaven in his house, prefacing his search with solemn thanksgiving and appeal to God, and closing it by an equally solemn declaration that he had accomplished it, so far as within his knowledge, and disavowing responsibility for what lay beyond it. And as the worshippers went to the Temple, they would see prominently exposed, on a bench in one of the porches, two desecrated cakes of some thank offering, indicating that it was still lawful to eat of that which was leavened. At ten, or at latest eleven o'clock, one of those cakes was removed, and then they knew that it was no longer lawful to eat of it. At twelve o'clock the second cake was removed, and this was the signal for solemnly burning all the leaven that had been gathered. Was it on the eve of the 14th, when each head of a house sought for and put aside the leaven, or else as the people watched these two cakes, and then the removal of the last of them, which marked that all leaven was to be 'purged out,' that Jesus, in real fulfilment of its national meaning, 'cleansed' the Temple of its leaven?
We can only suggest the question. But the 'cleansing of the Temple' undoubtedly preceded the actual festive Paschal week.4 To those who were in Jerusalem it was a week such as had never been before, a week when 'they saw the signs which He did,' and when, stirred by a strange impulse, 'they believed in His Name' as the Messiah. 'A milk-faith,' as Luther pithily calls it, which fed on, and required for its sustenance, 'signs.' And like a vision it passed with the thing seen. Not a faith to which the sign was only the fingerpost, but a faith of which the sign, not the thing signified, was the substance; a faith which dazzled the mental sight, but reached not down to the heart. And Jesus, Who with heart-searching glance saw what was in man, Who needed not any to tell Him, but with immediateness knew all, did not commit Himself to them. They were not like His first Galilean disciples, true of heart and in heart. The Messiah Whom these found, and He Whom those saw, met different conceptions. The faith of the Jerusalem sign-seers would not have compassed what the Galileans experienced; it would not have understood nor endured, had He committed Himself to them. And yet He did, in wondrous love, condescend and speak to them in the only language they could understand, in that of 'signs.' Nor was it all in vain.
Unrecorded as these miracles are - because the words they spoke were not recorded on many hearts - it was not only here and there, by this or that miracle, that their power was felt. Their grand general effect was, to make the more spiritually minded and thoughtful feel that Jesus was indeed 'a teacher come from God.' In thinking of the miracles of Jesus, and generally of the miraculous in the New Testament, we are too apt to overlook the principal consideration in the matter. We regard it from our present circumstances, not from those of the Jews and people of that time; we judge it from our standpoint, not from theirs. And yet the main gist of the matter lies here. We would not expect to be convinced of the truth of religion, nor converted to it, by outward miracles; we would not expect them at all. Not but that, if a notable miracle really did occur, its impression and effect would be overwhelming; although, unless a miracle submitted itself to the strictest scientific tests, when in the nature of things it would cease to be a miracle, it would scarcely find general credence. Hence, truth to say, the miraculous in the New Testament constitutes to modern thought not its strong, but its weak point; not its convincing evidence, but its point of attack and difficulty. Accordingly, treating of, or contemplating the miracles of the New Testament, it is always their moral, not their natural (or supranatural), aspect which has its chief influence upon us. But what is this but to say that ours is modern, not ancient thought, and that the evidential power of Christ's miracles has given place to the age and dispensation of the Holy Ghost? With us the process is the reverse of what it was with them of old. They approached the moral and spiritual through the miraculous; we the miraculous through the moral and spiritual. His Presence, that one grand Presence is, indeed, ever the same. But God always adapts His teaching to our learning; else it were not teaching at all, least of all Divine teaching. Only what carries it now to us is not the same as what carried it to them of old: it is no more the fingerpost of 'signs,' but the finger of the Spirit. To them the miraculous was the expected - that miraculous which to us also is so truly and Divinely miraculous, just because it applies to all time, since it carries to us the moral, as to them the physical, aspect of the miracle; in each case, Divine reality Divinely conveyed. It may therefore safely be asserted, that to the men of that time no teaching of the new faith would have been real without the evidence of miracles.
In those days, when the idea of the miraculous was, so to speak, fluid - passing from the natural into the supernatural - and men regarded all that was above their view-point of nature as supernatural, the idea of the miraculous would, by its constant recurrence, always and prominently suggest itself. Other teachers also, among the Jews at least, claimed the power of doing miracles, and were popularly credited with them. But what an obvious contrast between theirs and the 'signs' which Jesus did! In thinking of this, it is necessary to remember, that the Talmud and the New Testament alike embody teaching Jewish in its form, and addressed to Jews, and - at least so far as regards the subject of miracles - at periods not far apart, and brought still nearer by the singular theological conservatism of the people. If, with this in our minds, we recall some of the absurd Rabbinic pretensions to miracles - such as the creation of a calf by two Rabbis every Sabbath eve for their Sabbath meal,5 or the repulsive, and in part blasphemous, account of a series of prodigies in testimony of the subleties of some great Rabbi6 - we are almost overwhelmed by the evidential force of the contrast between them and the 'signs' which Jesus did. We seem to be in an entirely new world, and we can understand the conclusion at which every earnest and thoughtful mind must have arrived in witnessing them, that He was, indeed, 'a Teacher from God.'
Such an observer was Nicodemus (Naqdimon),7 one of the Pharisees and a member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. And, as we gather from his mode of expression,8 not he only, but others with him. From the Gospel-history we know him to have been cautious by nature and education, and timid of character; yet, as in other cases, it was the greatest offence to his Jewish thinking, the Cross, which at last brought him to the light of decision, and the vigour of bold confession.9 And this in itself would show the real character of his inquiry, and the effect of what Jesus had first taught him. It is, at any rate, althogether rash to speak of the manner of his first approach to Christ as most commentators have done. We can scarcely realise the difficulties which he had to overcome. It must have been a mighty power of conviction, to break down prejudice so far as to lead this old Sanhedrist to acknowledge a Galilean, untrained in the Schools, as a Teacher come from God, and to repair to Him for direction on, perhaps, the most delicate and important point in Jewish theology. But, even so, we cannot wonder that he should have wished to shroud his first visit in the utmost possible secrecy. It was a most compromising step for a Sanhedrist to take. With that first bold purgation of the Temple a deadly feud between Jesus and the Jewish authorities had begun, of which the sequel could not be doubtful. It was involved in that first encounter in the Temple, and it needed not the experience and wisdom of an aged Sanhedrist to forecast the end.
Nevertheless, Nicodemus came. If this is evidence of his intense earnestness, so is the bearing of Jesus of His Divine Character, and of the truth of the narrative. As he was not depressed by the resistance of the authorities, nor by the 'milk-faith' of the multitude, so He was not elated by the possibility of making such a convert as a member of the great Sanhedrin. There is no excitement, no undue deference, nor eager politeness; no compromise, nor attempted persuasiveness; not even accommodation. Nor, on the other hand, is there assumed superiority, irony, or dogmatism. There is not even a reference to the miracles, the evidential power of which had wrought in His visitor the initial conviction, that He was a Teacher come from God. All is calm, earnest, dignified - if we may reverently say it - as became the God-Man in the humiliation of His personal teaching. To say that it is all un-Jewish were a mere truism: it is Divine. No fabricated narrative would have invented such a scene, nor so represented the actors in it.10
Dangerous as it may be to indulge the imagination, we can almost picture the scene. The report of what passed reads, more than almost any other in the Gospels, like notes taken at the time by one who was present. We can almost put it again into the form of brief notes, by heading what each said in this manner, Nicodemus: - or, Jesus:. They are only the outlines of the conversation, given, in each case, the really important gist, and leaving abrupt gaps between, as would be the manner in such notes. Yet quite sufficient to tell us all that is important for us to know. We can scarcely doubt that it was the narrator, John, who was the witness that took the notes. His own reflections upon it, or rather his afterlook upon it, in the light of later facts, and under the teaching of the Holy Ghost, is described in the verses with which the writer follows his account of what had passed between Jesus and Nicodemus (St. John iii. 16-21). In the same manner he winds up with similar reflections (ib. vv. 31-36) the reported conversation between the Baptist and his disciples. In neither case are the verses to which we refer, part of what either Jesus or John said at the time, but what, in view of it, John says in name of, and to the Church of the New Testament.11
If from St. John xix. 27 we might infer that St. John had 'a home' in Jerusalem itself - which, considering the simplicity of living at the time, and the cost of houses, would not necessarily imply that he was rich - the scene about to be described would have taken place under the roof of him who has given us its record. In any case, the circumstances of life at the time are so well known, that we have no difficulty in realising the surroundings. It was night - one of the nights in that Easter week so full of marvels. Perhaps we may be allowed to suppose that, as so often in analogous circumstances, the spring-wind, sweeping up the narrow streets of the City, had suggested the comparison,12 13 which was so full of deepest teaching of Nicodemus. Up in the simply furnished Aliyah - the guest-chamber on the roof, the lamp was still burning, and the Heavenly Guest still busy with thought and words. There was no need for Nicodemus to pass through the house, for an outside stair led to the upper room. It was night, when Jewish superstition would keep men at home; a wild, gusty spring night, when loiterers would not be in the streets; and no one would see him as at that hour he ascended the outside steps that led up to the Aliyah. His errand was soon told: one sentence, that which admitted the Divine Teachership of Jesus, implied all the questions he could wish to ask. Nay, his very presence there spoke them. Or, if otherwise, the answer of Jesus spoke them. Throughout, Jesus never descended the standpoint of Nicodemus, but rather sought to lift him to His own. It was all about 'the Kingdom of God,'14 so connected with that Teacher come from God, that Nicodemus would inquire.
And yet, though Christ never descended to the standpoint of Nicodemus, we must bear in mind what his views as a Jew would be, if we would understand the interview. Jesus took him straight to whence alone that 'Kingdom' could be seen. 'Except a man be born from above,15 he cannot see the Kingdom of God.' It has been thought by commentators, that there is here an allusion to a Jewish mode of expression in regard to proselytes, who were viewed as 'new-born.' But in that case Nicodemus would have understood it, and answered differently - or, rather, not expressed his utter inability to understand it. It is indeed, true that a Gentile on becoming a proselyte - though not, as has been suggested, an ordinary penitent16 - was likened to a child just born.17 It is also true, that persons in certain circumstances - the bridegroom on his marriage, the Chief of the Academy on his promotion, the king on his enthronement - were likened to those newly born.18 The expression, therefore, was not only common, but, so to speak, fluid; only, both it and what it implied must be rightly understood. In the first place, it was only a simile, and never meant to convey a real regeneration ('as a child'). So far as proselytes were concerned, it meant that, having entered into a new relation to God, they also entered into new relationship to man, just as if they had at that moment been newly born. All the old relations had ceased - a man's father, brother, mother, sister were no longer his nearest of kin: he was a new and another man. Then, secondly,19 it implied a new state, when all a man's past was past, and his sins forgiven him as belonging to that past. It will now be perceived, how impossible it was for Nicodemus to understand the teaching of Jesus, and yet how all-important to him was that teaching. For, even if he could have imagined that Jesus pointed to repentance, as that which would give him the figurative standing of 'born from above,' or even 'born anew,' it would not have helped him. For, first, this second birth was only a simile. Secondly, according to the Jewish view, this second birth was the consequence of having taken upon oneself 'the Kingdom;' not, as Jesus put it, the cause and condition of it. The proselyte had taken upon himself 'the Kingdom,' and therefore he was 'born' anew, while Jesus put it that he must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God. Lastly, it was 'a birth from above' to which reference was made. Judaism could understand a new relationship towards God and man, and even the forgiveness of sins. But it had no conception of a moral renovation, a spiritual birth, as the initial condition for reformation, far less as that for seeing the Kingdom of God. And it was because it had no idea of such 'birth from above,' of its reality or even possibility, that Judaism could not be the Kingdom of God.
Or, to take another view of it, for Divine truth is many-sided - perhaps some would say, to make 'Western' application of what was first spoken to the Jew - in one respect Nicodemus and Jesus had started from the same premiss: The Kingdom of God. But how different were their conceptions of what constituted that Kingdom, and of what was its door of entrance! What Nicodemus had seen of Jesus had not only shaken the confidence which his former views on these subjects had engendered in him, but opened dim possibilities, the very suggestion of which filled him with uneasiness as to the past, and vague hopes as to the future. And so it ever is with us also, when, like Nicodemus, we first arrive at the conviction that Jesus is the Teacher come from God. What He teaches is so entirely different from what Nicodemus, or any of us could, from any other standpoint than that of Jesus, have learned or known concerning the Kingdom and entrance into it. The admission, however reached, of the Divine Mission of this Teacher, implies, unspoken, the grand question about the Kingdom. It is the opening of the door through which the Grand Presence will enter in. To such a man, as to us in like unspoken questioning, Jesus ever has but one thing to say: 'Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.' The Kingdom is other, the entrance to it is other, than you know or think. That which is of the flesh is flesh. Man may rise to high possibilities - mental, even moral: self-development, self-improvement, self-restraint, submission to a grand idea or a higher law, refined moral egotism, aesthetic even moral altruism. But to see the Kingdom of God: to understand what means the absolute rule of God, the one high calling of our humanity, by which a man becomes a child of God - to perceive this, not as an improvement upon our present state, but as the submission of heart, mind, and life to Him as our Divine King, an existence which is, and which means, proclaiming unto the world the Kingship of God: this can only be learned from Christ, and needs even for its perception a kinship of spirit - for that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. To see it, needs the birth from above; to enter it, the double baptismal birth of what John's Baptism had meant, and of what Christ's Baptism was.
Accordingly, all this sounded quite strange and unintelligible to Nicodemus. He could understand how a man might become other, and so ultimately be other; but how a man could first be other in order to become other - more than that, needed to be 'born from above,' in order to 'see the Kingdom of God' - passed alike his experience and his Jewish learning. Only one possibility of being occurred to him: that given him in his natural disposition, or as a Jew would have put it, in his original innocency when he first entered the world. And this - so to express ourselves - he thought aloud.20 But there was another world of being than that of which Nicodemus thought. That world was the 'Kingdom of God' in its essential contrariety to the Kingdom of this world, whether in the general sense of that expression, or even in the special Judaistic sense attaching to the 'Kingdom' of the Messiah. There was only one gate by which a man could pass into that Kingdom of God - for that which was of the flesh could ever be only fleshly. Here a man might strive, as did the Jews, by outward conformity to become, but he would never attain to being. But that 'Kingdom' was spiritual, and here a man must be in order to become. How was he to attain that new being? The Baptist had pointed it out in its negative aspect of repentance and putting away the old by his Baptism of water; and as regarded its positive aspect he had pointed to Him Who was to baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire. This was the gate of being through which a man must enter into the Kingdom, which was of the Messiah, because it was of God and the Messiah was of God, and in that sense 'the Teacher come from God' - that is, being sent of God, He taught of God by bringing to God. This but a few who had gone to the Baptist had perceived, or indeed could perceive, because the Baptist could in his Baptism only convey the negative, not the positive, aspect of it. And it needed that positive aspect - the being born from above - in order to see the Kingdom of God. But as to the mystery of this being in order to become - hark! did he hear the sound of that wind as it swept past the Aliyah? He heard its voice; but he neither knew whence it came, nor whither it went. So was every one that was born of the Spirit. You heard the voice of the Spirit Who originated the new being, but the origination of that new being, or its further development into all that it might and would become, lay beyond man's observation.
Nicodemus now understood in some measure what entrance into the Kingdom meant; but its how seemed only involved in greater mystery. That it was such a mystery, unthought and unimagined in Jewish theology, was a terribly sad manifestation of what the teaching in Israel was. Yet it had all been told them, as of personal knowledge, by the Baptist and by Jesus; nay, if they could only have received it, by the whole Old Testament. He wanted to know the how of these things before he believed them. He believed them not, though they passed on earth, because he knew not their how. How then could he believe that how, of which the agency was unseen and in heaven? To that spring of being no one could ascend but He that had come down from heaven,21 and Who, to bring to us that spring of being, had appeared as 'the Son of Man,' the Ideal Man, the embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven, and thus the only true Teacher come from God. Or did Nicodemus think of another Teacher - hitherto their only Teacher, Moses - whom Jewish tradition generally believed to have ascended into the very heavens, in order to bring the teaching unto them?22 Let the history of Moses, then, teach them! They thought they understood his teaching, but there was one symbol in his history before which tradition literally stood dumb. They had heard what Moses had taught them; they had seen 'the earthly things' of God in the Manna which had rained from heaven, and, in view and hearing of it all, they had not believed, but murmured and rebelled. Then came the judgment of the fiery serpents, and, in answer to repentant prayer, the symbol of new being, a life restored from death, as they looked on their no longer living but dead death lifted up before them. A symbol this, showing forth two elements: negatively, the putting away of the past in their dead death (the serpent no longer living, but a brazen serpent); and positively, in their look of faith and hope. Before this symbol, as has been said, tradition has stood dumb. It could only suggest one meaning, and draw from it one lesson. Both these were true, and yet both insufficient. The meaning which tradition attached to it was, that Israel lifted up their eyes, not merely to the serpent, but rather to their Father in heaven, and had regard to His mercy. This,23 as St. John afterwards shows (ver. 16), was a true interpretation; but it left wholly out of sight the Antitype, in gazing on Whom our hearts are uplifted to the love of God, Who gave His only-begotten Son, and we learn to know and love the Father in His Son. And the lesson which tradition drew from it was, that this symbol taught, the dead would live again; for, as it is argued,24 'behold, if God made it that, through the similitude of the serpent which brought death, the dying should be restored to life, how much more shall He, Who is Life, restore the dead to life.' And here lies the true interpretation of what Jesus taught. If the uplifted serpent, as symbol, brought life to the believing look which was fixed upon the giving, pardoning love of God, then, in the truest sense, shall the uplifted Son of Man give true life to everyone that believeth, looking up in Him to the giving and forgiving love of God, which His Son came to bring, to declare, and to manifest. 'For as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth should in Him have eternal life.'25
With this final and highest teaching, which contains all that Nicodemus, or, indeed, the whole Church, could require or be able to know, He explained to him and to us the how of the new birth - alike the source and the flow of its spring. Ours it is now only to 'believe,' where we cannot further know, and, looking up to the Son of Man in His perfected work, to perceive, and to receive the gift of God's love His perfected work, to perceive, and to receive the gift of God's love for our healing. In this teaching it is not the serpent and the Son of Man that are held side by side, though we cannot fail to see the symbolic reference of the one to the other, but the uplifting of the one and the other - the one by the sin, the other through the sin of the people: both on account of it - the forthgoing of God's pardoning mercy, the look of faith, and the higher recognition of God's love in it all.
And so the record of this interview abruptly closes. It tells all, but no more than the Church requires to know. Of Nicodemus we shall hear again in the sequel, not needlessly, nor yet to complete a biography, were it even that of Jesus; but as is necessary for the understanding of this History. What follows26 are not the words of Christ, but of St. John. In them, looking back many years afterwards in the light of completed events, the Apostle takes his stand, as becomes the circumstances, where Jesus had ended His teaching of Nicodemus - under the Cross. In the Gift, unutterable in its preciousness, he now sees the Giver and the Source of all.27 Then, following that teaching of Jesus backward, he sees how true it has proved concerning the world, that 'that which is of the flesh is flesh;' how true, also concerning the Spirit-born, and what need there is to us of 'this birth from above.'
But to all time, through the gusty night of our world's early spring, flashes, as the lamp in that Aliyah through the darkened streets of silent Jerusalem, that light; sounds through its stillness, like the Voice of the Teacher come from God, this eternal Gospel-message to us and to all men: 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'