Expositor's Dictionary of Texts
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:The Intellectual Type
I. The prominent feature of this man's nature was pure intellectuality—the love of truth as such; a strong man, and yet a weak man; one without whom neither the Church nor the world can well do, and yet who has many failings. This man was bent more on spiritual certainty than on spiritual safety. We all know this type of man—lean of visage, hungry of soul, burning with a consuming desire to unlock the riddle of the universe—the devotee, often the martyr, of the intellect. These men are the thinkers of the world, not its doers; they live in the brain, not the heart or the hand. Everything must be tested, examined, reasoned out, and found to be true, before it can be acknowledged to be true; to this they will hold even though the consequence be to find themselves branded as heretics, or, worse still, even though in the meantime they have to live without a faith at all. Such is the intellectual man, and such was Nicodemus.
II. What are we to say of Nicodemus and his kind? First, this, that the debt due from religion to men of the intellectual type has never been fairly acknowledged. The thinking faculty—is it not the highest, in one direction, which man possesses?
Every great advance in human progress, let us not forget, begins with an idea. And what a magnificent service has been rendered to religion by the great intellects of the Christian Church! Let us, therefore, not say foolish things of the intellect in relation to religion. We may be sure that till we give the mind its place in our religion, it will not be long ere both will lose their glow and vigour.
III. Having vindicated the place of the intellectual man in religion, we pass on to his frailties and limitations. For these intellectual Christians have their very decided weaknesses and vices, and as soon as they get so wrapped up in their thinking as to become one-sided, they lack both emotional intensity and practical force. (1) The first danger to which they are liable is the undue exaltation of the reason as a religious faculty. Thinking, we must remember, is not the first act of the soul. Man lives first, and thinks afterwards. (2) The second weakness of men who are predominantly intellectual in temperament is their proneness to live an isolated, visionary life, to spend in thinking the time they ought to use for service, to grow out of sympathy with practical life, to stand aloof in cultured scorn from the rough, uncouth, and vulgar world. Experimental religion is the doorway into Christian theology.
—E. Griffith-Jones, Types of Christian Life, p. 21.
Jesus does for Nicodemus the three things which every thorough teacher must do for every scholar. He gives him new ideas, He deepens with these ideas his personal character and responsibility, and He builds for him new relations with his fellow-men. When Nicodemus goes away from Jesus he carries with him the new truth of regeneration; he is trembling with the sense that, to make that truth thoroughly his, he himself must be a better man; and by-and-by he is seen setting himself against the current of his fellow-judges to speak a word for the Master who had spoken such educating words to him.
—Phillips Brooks, The Influence of Jesus, p. 178.
References.—III. 1.—A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, pt. iv. p. 282. C. Perren, Sermon Outlines, p. 307. III. 1, 2.—W. H. Evans, Short Sermons for the Seasons, p. 55. C. Bickersteth, The Gospel of Incarnate Love, p. 22. H. J. Bevis, Sermons, p. 254. III. 1-8.—Expositor (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 54. III. 1-12.—Ibid. (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 197. III. 2.—W. P. Balfern, Lessons from Jesus, p. 27. G. Trevor, Types and the Antitype, p. 193. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 422. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—St. John, p. 143.
The Ministry of Night
Three times Nicodemus is mentioned in the Gospel story. Each time the fact is mentioned that he came to Jesus by night. Why is it that this peculiar stress is laid upon the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. I think it is because John would lay emphasis upon the fact that Nicodemus had a mind that was dark with perplexity and difficulty on the great problems of the soul and of religion. He came by night because there was something in the dark obscurity of the night which answered to the condition of his own soul. But why did he come to Jesus about the difficulties? Because he had watched Jesus, he had heard His words, and he had perceived that there was a secret about Christ that he desired to understand.
I. The first thing I wish you to notice, then, is that this is not an old and obsolete story; it is a new and living story, because it is a representative story. It represents two things common to mankind in all ages: the desire to discover the best kind of life, and dissatisfaction with any kind of life that is not the best.
II. Nicodemus did something—he went to Jesus. He did something positive, he did something that cost him much. Be sure of this, it always costs us something to come to Jesus. It is not an easy thing. But the man whose heart is really aching for peace and rest will not stop to think about what others think of him. And he must do something. He came to Jesus. And what was Christ's word to him? 'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'
III. And now, think of what it means to be 'born again'. It means getting back to your childhood. To get back to childhood, to get the weight of sin removed, to start anew—Jesus says you can. Science tells us that all that is wanted to create a new star is a start. There is the vast floating nebulæ. If it will only cohere at some little point, then the globe will begin to form, and presently you will have a star. All that you want is the point of contact, the cohering point; then the new life will begin to stir in you, and the new soul begin to grow into the starry image of Christ.
—W. J. Dawson, The Evangelistic Note, p. 133.
The Extinction of Evil
I. Let us consider the bearing of the doctrine of regeneration on the moral classes. Plato was inclined to believe that virtue was not really teachable, or to be acquired by any prescribed discipline, but that it was the special volition and grace of the gods; and Christ taught this truth distinctly and emphatically. The suggestion and interrogation of the Greek passes into clear revelation in the Master. 'Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' And these words of Christ are obviously reasonable. Goodness cannot be taught any more than genius can. And do not thousands of moral men feel this to be the case? They very exactly and assiduously observe moral precepts and ecclesiastical order without ever feeling the reality of goodness, that is, the power and liberty and gladness of goodness. Whatever genius does, it does with rapture. But it is a joyless thing to write, sing, speak, paint, without force and fire. Now, multitudes of men are moral without inspiration or delight; the life of virtue is dry, dull, and irksome. But are not some men born saints? No man is born a saint; a pure and fervent heart is never the result of organisation. If we are to believe the saints themselves, they were born from above, and by the grace of God attained and perfected the shining virtues by which they were adorned. To lift us into the highest life of all, there must be a supernatural act, a breaking forth in the soul of a new Divine power and love. There is a mighty gulf indeed between the highest Pharisee and him who is least in the kingdom of God.
II. The bearing of the doctrine of the text on the immoral classes. (1) Think of the power of inherited constitution. We may have no family genealogy, but the grey fathers have left their mark upon us; their story is written with more or less clearness in our constitution; bound up in our heart are the reminiscences of their weakness, their wickedness, their barbarism. We can prevent these morbid tendencies breaking forth in practical life into criminal misdeeds, but our philosophers are right in insisting that we cannot in any deep sense get rid of the tyranny of a constitution hereditarily depraved. (2) Think of the power of circumstance. Men make a grand fight with circumstances in the kingdoms of nature and society, but a sorry fight with circumstances as these menace the kingdom of the spirit; they fail most where it is exactly most desirable that they should succeed. (3) Think of the power of habit.
III. Let none stay short of this great change.
IV. We must remember that this change is wrought in us only through the power of God in Jesus Christ.
V. Let no man despair of this change being wrought in him.
VI. Let us be co-workers with God towards this new creation.
—W. L. Watkinson, The Transfigured Sackcloth, p. 171.
Christ Preaching to an Inquiring Soul
Our Lord had just left the Temple, whence He had driven out those who bought and sold, and He had also worked several miracles. Then He retired, probably very weary, to some quiet house in the city for the purpose of repose and rest.
I. The Secret Approach.—If we had been in the streets of the city we might have seen a figure creeping quietly along wherever the houses would throw a shadow (I say 'throw a shadow,' because it was Passover time, and the bright Passover moon would be shining, making the streets almost as light by night as they would be by day). At last we should have seen him stopping opposite some house which he very quietly entered. Who is this man? A great deal of the importance and the interest of the whole account depends on that. He was not one of the mere common people who were beginning to throng around our Lord to listen to His words. He was a man of great importance; he was a member of the great council of the Jews, and he was a Pharisee. You would have to think for a few minutes to realise for yourselves what would have been the result if it had been known that the great Nicodemus, the counsellor, was privately and by night seeking an interview with our Blessed Lord. When we contemplate these two within the house we have that which is of extreme interest, for we have a highly educated man seeking to know more about the Lord Jesus Christ, and we have the Lord Jesus Christ Himself preaching His own Gospel.
II. His Perplexity.—Now we must just look a little more closely into the character of the man. Evidently he was a very timid man. I think we see something of the character of the man in the very way he began to speak. 'Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God, and no man can do the work which Thou doest unless God be with Him.' There was all that, but still he was a man who could not sit quiet when his conscience was telling him that his conduct was wrong. There were many others who had been touched by our Lord's actions, and touched as much as he, but who just sank back into their sloth and never took any steps. But Nicodemus's whole soul was moved, and timid though he was, he was very much in earnest.
III. Dogmatic Teaching.—Then just consider how our Lord dealt with the sinner, because you know that sometimes people talk as if our Lord spoke much about practice, but very little about doctrine; they speak contemptuously about doctrine, as if that were a thing that did not matter. But here you have Christ preaching His own Gospel, and preaching it to the inquiring soul. And what did He do? He took two great subjects and spoke about Regeneration and Redemption. 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.
References.—III. 3.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 130. Archbishop Lang, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 77. D. W. Simon. Twice Born, and other Sermons, p, 1. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 183. III. 3, 5—Ibid. (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 88. III. 3-16.—Ibid. (5th Series), vol. vii. p. 106.
Man's How and Christ's How
Nicodemus represents humanity when he says, 'How can a man be born when he is old?' and the Jews represent humanity when they said in a bewildered and perplexed tone to the Saviour and about Him, 'How can this man give us His flesh to eat?'
I. Nicodemus said, 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus was stunned by the new language. Christianity has a language of its own and a gamut of its own, music peculiarly belonging to it, and incommunicable to all who do not know the secret and pine after its expression as by the urgency and sweet pressure of a most holy and irresistible instinct. Some men are now trying to rub out the peculiar language of Christianity: when they do that, they will rub out Christianity itself. Christianity has a language of its own, and a tone of its own, not the oily twang that has been ridiculed in fiction, but a tone without which it cannot express the deepest mysteries of its palpitating and self-sacrificing heart—a new song, a new language, a new speech; we must get to know it if we would understand Christianity. Here is a lesson in the new language. 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus could not on any wise put the new wine into the old bottles. The conception struck him as in part ridiculous. 'Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be bora?' That is how the literalists have been spoiling the feast of wine to which God has invited us, saying, 'Eat and drink abundantly, O beloved,' and the literalist has put before us the temptation to ask literal questions and make small and petty and bewildering inquiries. The literal critic has put up before the gate of the kingdom a great 'How'—How can the dead be raised? How can a man be born when he is old? How can this man give us His flesh to eat? You must break down that gate, for it is only a gate of gossamer, it is not a gate of cast or wrought iron. But man is fond of putting up gates, suggesting difficulties, and saying, 'It appeals to reason—how can it be?' Poor man! New birth and new life—an old idea with a new application. Christianity always links us on to the past, to the well known; Christianity always springs from a clearly defined point. You know what birth is? Yes. Christianity is the greater birth: keep your eye fixed upon birth, and then take your mind away from that starting-point, right up to a wider, more illustrious application and definition of the term. But the ruler of the Jews was stunned. That is the point; no introduction led up to the tremendous revelation; the way was not smoothed and levelled up in carefully studied gradients. '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. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again'—that was the stunning blow, and the ruler of the Jews fell back as if struck by the thunder of God. And so we must be thrown down before we can be taken up. No man can come into the kingdom of God easily, jauntily, after a holiday fashion, saying, 'Oh, I see it, I see it all, perfectly plain and perfectly clear'. No, no. 'Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God'; and thus Christ, so to say, with clenched fist, felled the man that would make an easy problem of Christian mysteries.
II. Now we come to the second How. 'How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?'—another wonder, another stroke of the great hand, an impossibility, a most rhetorical and extravagant idea. Oh, what a life the parabolist has in communing with commonplace minds! What a crucifixion Christ underwent before the Crucifixion! to have all His words misunderstood, belittled, pinned down to little unworthy meanings! The prophet has never been understood, the parabolist has always been ranked amongst men who are unusual and unmanageable. They say they cannot tell what He saith. They are perfectly correct, they cannot tell. The mischief is that they try to interpret by a dictionary what can only be interpreted by a genius—by a 'genius' I mean, a spirit, a kindred spirit, a similar power of conceiving ideas—and thus the great Gospel has been mangled and mutilated and ill-treated in every form by men who have tried to crush it into cast-iron expressions, not knowing that it is a sky, a fragrance, a light, a poem, a joy, a mystery. 'How can this Man give us His flesh?' Do you understand that? 'No, 1 do not; the thing is impossible, quite.' There the Man is sitting. 'Yes, I see Him.' And He says that something He holds in His hand or can give is His flesh. 'Ridiculous, absolutely impossible! He is talking riddles rather than parables, He is a propounder of conundrums. Moreover, how can any one man spread Himself over the whole world?' 'Except a man eat My flesh and drink My blood, he has no life in him.' How? do you know how? No. Can you tell how? No. What is it to eat? You are busy with the wrong word; define the word eat, and you hold the mystery. Here is one man who makes use of a wonderful expression, which may help us perhaps; he says, 'I found Thy word, and I did eat it'. I see we have been limiting the meaning of the word eat, we have thought of it in only one fleshly possibility of application. Jesus says, 'The words that I speak unto you are spirit and life'. Is there a spiritual eating? Yes, there is a spiritual eating. What does eating mean? It means appropriation, it means assimilation, it means turning something that is outside you into a life that is inside you; that is eating. Now the possibility seems to dawn upon us. Eating is individual. I never thought of that. No man can eat for another. What a revelation! Every man must eat for himself, must eat in his own way, and must eat to his own satisfaction. I cannot eat in your way, and you cannot eat in my way. There is the individuality of the faith and the individuality of the practice. Eating is not only individual, it is daily appropriation. You might miss a day, but it will lead to your health's injury. Daily appropriation; we must eat at regular times and in a regular way, and in regular measure, and according to individual capacity. I thought that eating was sitting down at a table, and tearing something to pieces with edged instruments, and applying it wholly and solely to fleshly purposes. No; to eat is to live, to eat is to pray. We must get out of the literal way of interpreting Christianity, we must get into the poetic and mystic, and we shall find great delight in so treating and enjoying the Holy Word.
III. These are man's negative hows: 'How can a man be born again when he is old?' 'How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?' Now Christ has a How. Are you prepared to hear it? If man wonders, Christ is amazed as well. We meet heaven's propositions with a stare of perplexity; Christ encounters us with an aspect of unutterable bewilderment. What is the dear Lord's How? He turned round upon us once and said in words never to be forgotten for the pathos with which they were spoken—we had been asking How, how, how? and Jesus turned upon us and said, 'How is it that ye have no faith?' That is the great wonder to God. Ours are little intellectual hows, but God's amazement is that we have lost the tentacles that took hold of the Divine idea and hung on as with grim death until faith conquers and is expressed in perfect sight. Do not be knocking at Christ's door, saying How, how, how? lest He open it and say, 'How—how is it that ye have no faith?'
References.—III. 4.—J. E. Wakerley, Preacher's Magazine, vol. v. p. 81. Bishop Westcott, Village Sermons, p. 82.
The Trinity in Salvation (For Trinity Sunday)
It would appear as if this glorious chapter had been chosen for the Feast of Trinity, in order that clearly and definitely there might be put before us the distinction of the three Persons in the work of human salvation. The Father loves the world, and gives His only begotten Son (ver. 16); the Son comes into the world and is lifted up on the cross, in order that all who believe in Him may have everlasting life (ver. 15); and then in this work the Holy Ghost engages, Who implants the seed of everlasting life in holy baptism, and re-creates the soul in Christ Jesus. This is very comforting, and should give us a heart joyful towards God, since we see that all three Persons, the whole Godhead, is engaged in our salvation.
I. The New Birth comes from God.—Nicodemus was right; the miracles of Christ were to the beholders the undeniable credentials of His mission. 'No man can do these works that Thou doest,' etc.
(a) It was the recognition of Christ's power that brought Nicodemus to Christ—St. John 2:23.
(b) It was this that prepared him to receive Christ's teaching. Though he had not yet the courage of his convictions, he was of willing heart to hear Christ's words.
II. The New Birth is Given by the Lord Jesus Christ.—'Verily, verily, I say unto thee,' etc. Christ answers the thoughts rather than the words of Nicodemus. He had come to inquire about this new kingdom, for which he was waiting—the terms of admission; but his thoughts were rather carnal than spiritual, outward rather than inward. Christ teaches—
(a) The necessity of Spiritual regeneration to entrance into the kingdom of God (vers. 5, 7). He shows in what this necessity lies (ver. 6).
(b) Spiritual regeneration is difficult for the carnal to understand. 'Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?'
(c) And if this is difficult, how much more the mysterious nature of Him Who had been in heaven and came down to be crucified? 'How shall ye believe if I tell you of these heavenly things?'—mysteries higher than the new birth (vers. 13, 14, 15).
III. The New Birth Recognises the Agency of the Holy Spirit (vers. 5, 7).
(a) The water of holy baptism is the outward symbol of this agency.
(b) This agency, like the wind, is unseen and mysterious. Then the whole Trinity is concerned in our salvation. The Father certifies the work of the Son, the Son the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit witnesses in the human heart.
References.—III. 5.—John Watson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. p. 401. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. liii. pp. 30-53. Expositor (6th Series), vol. v. p. 72. III. 6, 6.—T. Arnold, The Interpretation of Scripture, p. 124. III. 6.—J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 219. W. G. Bryan, Seven Sermons on the Sacraments, p. 40.
Born of the Flesh and Born of the Spirit
God is every man's Father, but it does not follow that every man who is God's offspring is therefore a son of God. The Fatherhood is often interpreted as if it involved the sonship, but it does not The Christ who reveals the Universal Fatherhood of God denies the universal sonship of men. 'As many as received Him to them gave He the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on His name.' It was a right bestowed, not a right recognized. Consistently with this teaching, the New Testament sharply divides all men into two classes—the children of God and the children of the Devil.
I. This distinction Christ attributes to the operation of the fundamental and universal law: 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit'. All living things come into being by birth. Parentage determines nature. Upon this universal law Jesus bases the universal necessity of the New Birth. The spiritual kingdom demands a quality of being not possessed by the natural man. Here again we touch a fundamental principle. Every kingdom demands as a condition of citizenship correspondence with its own quality of life. Therefore the first demand of a spiritual kingdom is a spiritual nature.
II. The natural man is disqualified for a spiritual kingdom. Man is born of the flesh and needs to be born again of the spirit. The term flesh is variously used in the New Testament: (1) Of all living creatures, 1 Corinthians 15:39; (2) the substance of the living body, Colossians 2:1, 2 Corinthians 4:11, Galatians 4:13; (3) the life lived in the body, Galatians 2:20, Hebrews 5:7; (4) natural generation, Romans 9:3; Romans 9:5; (5) the animal nature of man without suggestion of depravity, St. John 1:13; (6) the whole of man's human nature, Romans 8:3, 1 John 4:2, 1 Timothy 3:16; (7) ethically of life lived in the power and dominion of the flesh. In its ethical sense it (a) is the avenue of evil, St. Matthew 26:41; (b) incites to sin, Romans 7:18; Romans 13:14, Galatians 5:16-21, Judges 1:23; (c) makes captive to sin, Romans 7:14-23; Romans 8:6-8; (d) brings forth death, Romans 7:5, Galatians 6:8. Christ's condemnation of the flesh is threefold: (1) It cannot see the kingdom of God; (2) it cannot enter the kingdom of God; (3) it chooses evil and darkness rather than goodness and light. The mind must be enlightened, the heart renewed, and the will emancipated before we can enter the kingdom of heaven. The need of this New Birth is universal.
III. What is it to be born of the Spirit? God has thrown an impenetrable veil over the beginnings and processes of life. Life is evident to the consciousness, manifest to the senses, but mysterious in its process. So it is with the life that is born of the Spirit. There are, however, some instructive negatives, and one or two positive truths revealed concerning even the process. The children of God are born, we are told, 'Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God'. The negatives are, that no man can become a child of God by natural descent, or by any refinement, or by any aspiration of the soul. The positive truths are, that it is a birth, by the direct operation of the Spirit of God, through the agency of truth. The life is begotten in the soul by the Holy Spirit and the vehicle of communication is the Word of God. The marks of sonship are correspondence and co-operation. Every man's pedigree is declared in his conduct.
—S. Chadwick, Humanity and God, p. 41.
Reference.—III. 6, 7.—J. D. Thompson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 136.
Two Aspects of the New Birth
1. Its Naturalness
I. The reasonableness of the New Birth as illustrated by that which appears elsewhere. (1) Thus, to take an illustration on a much lower level, almost at the bottom of the scale of existence, you find a dividing line of a very similar kind. Nothing is more familiar to us than the broad difference that separates all living things from those which are not possessed of life. The living and the dead constitute different worlds and between them is a great gulf fixed. (2) Again, higher up the scale, you have a somewhat similar example. A chasm also divides the conscious from the unconscious. Under the former are to be included not only human beings of course, but the entire sensitive creation. (3) And so is there also, to take one more example, a gulf between man and all those other existences by which he is surrounded. Here, then, are three several gaps in the scale of existence. Nor is a passage from one to the other conceivable unless by a miracle.
II. Will you observe here, then, that the distinction between the natural and the spiritual is as broad and complete as any of those referred to. (1) Thus the typical man of the world is just what his name implies, that is to say, he belongs to, is part and parcel of this present world, in which we all meanwhile play our part. His roots are fastened in it; he draws his life from it; and the fruit he bears corresponds to the soil on which it grows. (2) He again who is 'of the Spirit' belongs to another world than this. The narrow walls that shut in the present have been thrown down for him, and he has found himself already in a true sense in the midst of the eternal. If now all this be true, is it not indeed the case that a very wide interval divides them? And are we not entitled to conclude that it need not be looked for that any man shall merely develop naturally into God's kingdom? The chain of evolution is broken here once more.
III. See, then, the infinite service which is rendered to us here by Jesus Christ. That He was not 'of the earth, earthy,' as we are, is clear. He is 'from above, and is above all'. He descends from that upper realm of light and love that He may bring us thither again. He is the ladder let down from heaven, by which humble and trustful souls pass up from an earthly, sinful, worthless life to God and true life in Him. Two worlds are ours. One belongs to us by nature—or shall we say we belong to it? To another we belong by right. But between them a great gulf is fixed. But Christ has bridged the gulf, and our salvation consists in making use of Him. Lay hold of Him by faith, and let Him lay hold of you by His Spirit, and He will create a new life within you and transfer you into a new world.
—A. Martin, Winning the Soul, p. 233.
Every man comes into the world wrapped in an atmosphere of wonder—an atmosphere from which his whole after-life is a prolonged effort to escape. This sense of wonder is not an evil thing, although it is a thing to escape from. There are three possible ways in which different minds attempt to escape from this sense of wonder. They take refuge in knowledge, or in mystery, or in ignorance. The first of these, knowledge, satisfies the sense of wonder. The second, mystery, deepens it. The third, ignorance, crushes it. Marvel not at all, says ignorance, because you cannot know at all. Marvel more, says mystery, because you cannot know more. Marvel not, says knowledge, because you know enough. Christ in our text says, 'Marvel not'.
I. Marvel not—as if it were unintelligible. There is nothing more unintelligible in the world than how a soul is born again. There is nothing more intelligible than that it is. We can understand the fact, however, without necessarily understanding the act. All the complaints which have been showered upon this doctrine have referred to the act—the act with which we have really nothing to do, which is a process of God, the agency of the unseen wind of the Spirit, and which Jesus Himself has expressly warned us not to expect to understand. 'Thou canst not tell,' He said, 'whence it cometh or whither it goeth.' But there is nothing to frighten search in this. For precisely the same kind of mystery hangs over every process of nature and life. We do not avoid the subject of electricity because electricity is a mystery, or heat because we cannot see heat, or meteorology because we cannot see the wind. Marvel not, then, from the analogy of physical nature if, concerning this spirit of regeneration, we cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth. If we care again to take the analogy from the moral and intellectual nature, the same may be said with even greater emphasis. The essence of regeneration is a change from one state to another—from an old life to a new one. Now, intellectually, changes at least in some way similar are happening every day.
II. Marvel not—as if it were impossible. There is one thing we have little difficulty in always referring to the creating hand of God—life. We call Him the Author of life, and the Author of life is a wondrously fertile Author. Well, if God can give life, He can surely add life. Regeneration is nothing in principle but the adding of more life. So there is nothing impossible in being born again, any more than there is impossible in being born at all.
III. Marvel not—as if it were unnecessary. (1) When men come into the world, they are born outside of the kingdom of God, and they cannot see into it. Therefore the critical value of a worldly man's opinion on religious matters is nothing. (2) Human nature demands regeneration as if it were necessary. (3) If human nature makes it necessary, much more does the Divine nature.
—Henry Drummond, The Ideal Life, p. 185.
The Mystery of the New Birth
I. In this miniature parable of regeneration Jesus reminds us of the sovereignty of the Spirit, who quickens men to newness of life. 'The wind bloweth where it listeth.' The wind is, perhaps, less trammelled than any of the forces which work in the realm of Nature. No Canute has been mad enough to defy it. It has the attribute of incomparable majesty. And such is the absolute and self-determining sovereignty of the Spirit, who comes to accomplish the miraculous change which had staggered the faith of Nicodemus. To teach this lesson Jesus personified a dumb, insensate force, and described it as choosing its own pathway. He who is Divine enough to create new life in human souls is clothed with matchless majesty; and, whilst obeying no human mandate on the one side, recognises no impossibility or finite limitation on the other. This power from God which makes for human regeneration can overpass mountains and outleap all restraints imposed upon its action by our dim vision and our blundering unbelief. 'It bloweth where it listeth.' And yet its sovereignty is not aloofness or inconstancy. The Spirit, like the wind, which is its emblem, makes for an equal distribution of the great gifts of heaven. We cannot choose its methods or prescribe its times. And this is to teach us a reverent and implicit dependence upon His holy will.
II. This spirit of regeneration lends itself within certain limits to the test of experience. Like the wind, it asserts its presence by an unmistakable sign. 'Thou hearest the sound thereof.' The subtle force attests its presence by the sign it stamps upon the face of Nature. So with the movement of this life-giving Spirit in human souls. We see the tokens of its power, for they come within the range of our direct experience, although its comings and its goings are veiled in impenetrable dimness. Ruskin has said that David Cox was the first painter to put the wind into his trees. And no human life is rightly sketched for us unless we are allowed to see the Divine impulses which arise within it. With all our lugubrious realism in art and letters, I doubt whether we have yet had a single picture of true conversion presented by a master hand. It would be something to see the wind in the trees.
III. The movements of this spirit of regeneration are unsearchable. A veil of dense mystery is drawn about the steps of His visitations. 'Thou canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth.' When does the Spirit first begin to work in the heart of a child? Whither is He directing the man who receives His renewing virtues? To answer such questions would be to empty eternity, past and to be, of those unutterable things which God has kept back from us. Men who are at the opposite theological poles are in equal danger of forgetting that the Spirit's renewing work is inscrutable both in its beginnings and in its illimitable outlook.
References.—III. 7.—J. H. Jowett, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 323. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1455. III. 7, 8.—J. B. Mozley, University Sermons, p. 266. J. Caird, Sermons, p. 65.
The Life of the Spirit-born
It is described for us by the Lord Himself, 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit'. Every one that is born of the Spirit.
I. So then the life of the Spirit-born is free. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and the Spirit-born follows no law but his own law. Is this a bold thing to say? No, it is the only possible way in which freedom can be expressed. But this true freedom is achieved by the sacrifice of our own will and the acceptance of God's will. When the soul truly accepts God's will its own will dies, and then it enters into the only freedom of which the human being made in the image of God is capable. We are God's free men when we accept God's will. Can we always know that will? We cannot now hear the voice that spoke to the disciples. There seems something forlorn in the words: 'The Apostles came together to consider the matter,' when we think that Christ might have been among them in His old manner, with His 'Verily, verily, I say unto you'. Yet it was not so, for He sent the New Comforter, Who was to abide with them for ever. As He fills the heart, as the heart is surrendered to His care and doctrine, it becomes jubilantly free, free as the wind that bloweth where it listeth.
II. The life of the Spirit-born is a life that makes itself manifest. Thou hearest the sound thereof. Ever since Christ came and spoke and died, there has been a new force in the world. It is a force that has often been contemned, that has oftener contemned itself. And yet men have heard the sound of the wind even when it seemed to sigh in dying, and however low and hushed it has been sometimes, it has waked again, and made itself heard by the most reluctant ears. Christianity has done much to change the world and its outlook, though the complete regeneration may be far away. Thou hearest the sound thereof in the wonderful Church of Christ, in labours innumerable of love and pity, in the gradual softening of the human lot; but above all, in the lives of the saints. The world will never cease to hear the sound of the Spirit-born life; but it will not know it in its magnificence till Christ sees all the travail of His soul, in His own country, in the Day of Sheaves.
III. The life of the Spirit-born is mysterious. Thou canst not tell whence it cometh, whence it came at first, whence it is renewed from day to day. On whom does it lean with all its weight, stay with all its trust, repose with all its difficulties through long, weary days and longer, wearier nights? It is on Him Who is invisible. Whence cometh it—its sweet, composed energy, its unwearied, undaunted hope, its surprising sense of freshness, its meekness and lowliness, that meekness and lowliness which are the yoke of Jesus? Thou canst not tell. Thou canst tell that the springs are far withdrawn, that they are deeper springs than arise in Nature. Thou canst not tell whence it cometh. This is the mystery which only the Holy Spirit makes plain.
IV. This life of the Spirit-born passes to inconceivable issues. Thou canst not tell whither it goeth. It is a life that cannot die. The rose-bush year by year brings forth its children to live their little time, and at last withers and dies like them; but the fruit never fails on that Tree Whose Root and Head is God. Over the life of the Spirit-born death has no power. We watch the tender fading glow, and feel that the sun sinks to rise. A flash of light breaks through the mist of tears, and testifies to the glory-sphere. Thou canst not tell whither it goeth when the call comes to them to leave their beloved for the Beloved. We know not the destiny of any life that is born of the Spirit. We know not to what heights the life may rise here. We know not what manner of country that is on the other side of the river.
He that hath found some fledg'd bird's nest may know
At first sight if the bird be flown;
But what fair dell or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.
—W. Robertson Nicoll, Sunday Evening, p. 243.
Two Aspects of the New Birth
II. Its Mystery
The figure under which our Lord speaks here of the Spirit is that of the wind. And what is the most obvious feature of the wind? It is its unknowable character. When it is there we know the fact. But in itself it is viewless, trackless, impalpable. Of the working of the Spirit then, we are to understand that one thing is evident enough. The fact of its presence is apparent always. Men will 'hear the sound thereof,' and have no doubt about it. But it is another matter when they come to try to give an account of these operations to themselves.
I. In endeavouring to realise this to ourselves it may be useful to turn first to the working of the Spirit on the larger scale—I mean in the religious life of the world generally. There have been epochs at which His presence and power among men have been very specially manifest. (1) First of all, for example, at the birth of the Christian Church in the world. When the believers had gone forth with their new endowment it was not long till they were effecting a spiritual revolution of the most extraordinary and far-reaching kind. And what is the explanation of the stupendous fact? No ordinary causes will account for it. It was an irruption of the Divine energy in the sphere of human experience that occasioned it. (2) Or take the Reformation. No feeble efforts of any 'Reformer before the Reformation' can account for it, and no human instrument can estimate what its effects have been and will be. (3) And the same thing may be said about those revivals of true religion with which God still is pleased to bless His Church from time to time.
II. Turn now to the smaller scale of the individual life. And here perhaps the most important point of all is that which our Lord signalises first. 'Thou hearest the sound thereof,' He says. The Christian life then should, in every case, be recognisable. This, our Lord implies, is a fundamental requirement of it.
III. What is it, then, that ought to render the presence of the Spirit in any life so clearly recognisable as this? If we turn to the Gospel we find the answer. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Jesus of Nazareth. (1) The Spirit of Jesus is a Spirit of unworldliness. (2) This is the second outstanding feature of the Spirit of Jesus—His inward adherence to His Father in faith and love and His passionate devotion to the fulfilment of His will. (3) And once more there is, what is the other side of this, His perfectly self-forgetful interest in men. We do not after all speak as though the character of Jesus were exactly that which is to be reproduced in His followers. It is not so. It is the same Spirit which is to be found in both Him and them, but in them the Spirit will appear with a difference. For they are sinners, and no measure or degree of sanctification they shall ever have experience of in this world can ever do anything but (to their own consciousness at least) make the fact more painfully apparent. Therefore the Spirit must be in them a spirit of contrition as well. Of the genuine Christian man who is filled with the Spirit, no one can say whence he comes or whither he goes. The practical lessons that arise here then, are just these two: (a) The unmistakable quality of the Christian life, (b) Also we are made to feel the incomprehensible nature of the Spirit's working.
—A. Martin, Winning the Soul, p. 249.
References.—III. 8.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xi. No. 630; vol. xxiii. No. 1356, and vol. xxxv. No. 2067. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. iii. p. 197. Christianity in Daily Conduct, p. 325. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons (2nd Series), p. 78. J. B. Mozley, University Sermons, p. 164. J. Keble, Sermons for Septuagesima to Ash Wednesday, p. 333. E. M. Geldert, Faith and Freedom, p. 27. G. H. Morrison, The Scottish Review, vol. i. p. 223. D. Fraser, Metaphors in the Gospels, p. 267. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture —St. John, p. 154. III. 9.—Bishop Magee, Sermons at Bath, p. 181. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. iv. p. 206. G. W. Brameld, Practical Sermons, p. 181. III. 11.—S. H. Kellogg, Preacher's Magazine, vol. iv. Hugh Price Hughes, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 161. J. Keble, Sermons for Ascension Day to Trinity Sunday, p. 332. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 436; ibid. (6th Series), vol. v. p. 106. III. 12.—A. Ainger, Sermons Preached in the Temple Church, p. 180. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 37. A. Whyte, The Scottish Review, vol. iii. p. 637. J. C. M. Bellew, Sermons, vol. iii. p. 258. III. 13.—A. B. Wilberforce, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. p. 314. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 242.
The Serpent Lifted Up
The old is always becoming the new. 'As Moses... so the Son of man;' as the old, so the new; as the historical, so the prophetical. All the pattern of the spiritual temple has been shown in the mountain, and has been frayed out in shapely and significant clouds which themselves were parables. 'That the Scripture might be fulfilled.' History always has something to do more than it seems to have; it does not only record the event of the day, it redeems old subjects, old vows and oaths; it takes up what seems to be the exhausted past and turns it into the present and energetic action of the moment. As Moses, As Jonah, As Solomon, As the bold Esaias; it is always a going-back upon the sacred past and eating up the food that was there provided. Do not live too much in what we call the present; do not live upon the bubble of the hour; have some city of the mind, some far-away strong temple-sanctuary made noble by associations and memories of the tenderest kind.
T. 'As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.' What serpent was that? I have read of many serpents—the serpent subtler than any beast of the field; the brazen serpent; the fiery flying serpent; that old serpent the devil. But sometimes the serpent is found in unlikely places. I thought it an unlikely place when I encountered the serpent in the garden, in Eden, in the sunny paradise in which all young life seems to open. 'The serpent in the wilderness;' that is rough rhyme; these words belong to one another; but serpent in the garden—who ever suspected such a concatenation of terms? What have these terms to do with one another? Serpent I can understand as being in the hot rock or under the bushes of the wilderness, the bushes so bare and barren; but serpent in the garden! What is the size of the garden? Big as the whole life. Every life begins in a garden. Some of the gardens are poor enough, but there is a touch of garden about all infant life; the infant life itself is a bud, a piece of a garden, a green banneret that might float over a whole paradise. Can we not have a garden without a serpent? Not under the sun. Can we not have a garden without a sepulchre? No; be thankful that there is a garden round about the sepulchre.
The serpent is in the garden, is in the bank, in the balance, in all the riches, in all the wine-cellars, in all the gathered luxuries.
II. What is the nature of the serpent? The nature of the serpent is to destroy. It cannot rest so long as one stone of the character is upon another. The serpent cannot rest until it has poisoned the whole life. Evil never built anything; evil always pulls down, upsets, destroys. The bite of a serpent is death. May we not play with the serpent? We may not. Are there not moments when the cruel beast is not cruel? Not one. The sandwasp paralyses the beetle with his sting that he may and that his progeny may profit by the paralysis. The sandwasp does not kill the insect, but thrusts a sting into him, not fatally; the insect can still lay eggs for the advantage of the progeny of the sandwasp. It is so with many serpentine tricks; we are paralysed to be used, not today, but to be eaten in six months.
III. No human power can cope with the power of the serpent, the power of evil; if help is to come it must come from above. 'O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself: in Me is thy help.' It is not in man to find a way out of his own sin; it is not in man to invent an atonement, it does not lie within the wit of man to devise a redemption that shall be thorough and universal and unchangeable.
Jesus Christ is the great counteractant; He can take the poison out of our veins. I will go to Him, I will say, Is there no balm in Gilead? is there no physician there? I shall know that I am in the right direction, and no man who is in the right direction, though he has gone but one step, can ever perish. The salvation is not in some great triumph of the intellect, but in the first trust, the childlike trust, the longing, loving trust.
—Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. iv. p. 12.
The Serpent in the Wilderness (For Trinity Sunday)
The Gospel for Trinity Sunday sets before us each one of the Persons in the Godhead. The Father is represented as sending the Saviour to a sinful race, the Son as coming down from heaven for man's salvation, the Spirit as working regeneration and life in the human heart In this reference to a picturesque and memorable incident in the history of Israel in their desert wanderings, our Saviour exhibits Himself as the divinely appointed Healer and Saviour of mankind.
I. An Emblem of Sin.
(a) The bite of the venomous serpents is a figure of the operation of sin in human nature and in human society. It is diffused in its action, rapid in its progress, painful to those affected, dangerous and deadly in its consequences.
(b) The death which followed upon the bite of the serpents is emblematical of the spiritual results of the introduction of sin into the world.
II. An Emblem of Redemption.
(a) God's mercy appointed the remedy in both cases. It was by the command of Jehovah that Moses prepared the serpent of brass, and it was God who sent His Son that He might be the Healer and Physician of souls.
(b) In both cases there was a remarkable connection between the disease and its cure. As the brazen serpent was the means of healing those bitten by the fiery flying serpents of the desert, so Christ was made in the likeness of a sinful flesh, and endured as our representative that death which is the penalty of sin.
(c) The lifting up of the pole is representative of Christ's crucifixion and exaltation. The banner-staff of the wilderness is the cross of Calvary, the sign of victory and of suffering. By the lifting up, which is mentioned by the Lord here and elsewhere, is meant, first, the elevation of the Saviour upon the cross of suffering and shame, and then as an appointed result His exaltation to the throne of heaven.
III. An Emblem of Salvation.
(a) The publication of the news corresponds to the preaching of the Gospel; the scene of the former was the camp, that of the latter was the world.
(b) The looking of the wounded Israelite towards the brazen serpent suggests the indispensable, enjoined, but not meritorious gaze of faith.
(c) The healing of the bitten and dying represents the blessing of those who look unto Jesus, instantaneous and complete.
I have chosen this text for the sake of one word in it, that solemn 'must' which was so often on our Lord's lips. The expression is most frequently used in reference to the Passion and Resurrection. There are many instances in the other Gospels in which He speaks of that must. If we put these instances together, we shall get some precious glimpses into our Lord's heart and His view of life.
I. Here we see Christ recognising and accepting the necessity for His death. My text, if we accept John's Gospel, contributes an altogether new element to our conception of our Lord as announcing His death. For the other three Gospels lay emphasis upon it as being part of His teaching, especially during the latter stage of His ministry. But it does not follow that He began to think about it or to see it when He began to speak about it. There are reasons for the earlier comparative reticence, and there is no ground for the conclusion that then first began to dawn upon a disappointed enthusiast the grim reality that His work was not going to prosper, and that martyrdom was necessary. If John's Gospel is a true record, that theory is shivered against this text. And why must He go to the cross? Not merely as the other evangelists put it that 'it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the prophets'. He could not be the Saviour of the world unless He was the Sacrifice for the sins of the world.
II. In a second class of these utterances we see Christ impelled by filial obedience and the consciousness of His mission. 'Wist ye not that I must be about My Father's business?' That was a strange utterance for a boy of twelve. He is our great Example of spontaneous obedience which does violence to itself if it does not obey. It was instinct that sent the boy into the Temple. Thus He stands before us the pattern for the only obedience that is worth calling so, the obedience which would be pained and ill at ease unless it were doing the work of God. Religion is meant to make it a second nature. To be in fellowship with God, and to be doing His will. That is the meaning of our Christianity.
III. We see in yet another use of this great 'must' Christ anticipating His future triumph. 'Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and there shall be one flock and one Shepherd.' So then, this work was beyond the cross. And whatever it was, it was to be done after He had died. It is a 'must' of destiny, a 'must' which implies the power of the cross to be the reconciliation of the world.
IV. Lastly, we have Christ applying the greatest principle to the smallest duty. 'Zaccheus, make haste and come down; today I must abide at thy house.' Why must He? Because Zaccheus was to be saved, and was worth saving. What was the 'must'? To stop an hour or two on His road to the cross. So He teaches us that in a life penetrated by the thought of the Divine will which we gladly obey, there are no things too great, and none too trivial, to be brought under the dominion of that law, and to be regulated by that Divine necessity.
—A. Maclaren, Christ's Musts, p. 1.
References.—III. 14.—H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 174. W. H. Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 237. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 63; ibid. (6th Series), vol. i. p. 119; ibid. vol. vii. p. 297. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—St. John, p. 162; ibid. p. 171. III. 14, 15.—F. B. Cowl, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xviii. p. 430. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, pp. 114, 480. C. Bosanquet, Blossoms from the King's Garden, p. 262. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 163. III. 14-17.—Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 117. III. 15-19.—Ibid. (5th Series), vol. ii. p. 440.
The Course of True Love
We are not concerned to deny the immense advance in thought and knowledge, the ceaseless floods of sunlight that have poured into every region where the human mind energises. We have asserted the right and the duty of every Christian Church to follow the leadings of the Spirit; but our Gospel remains unaffected. We can preach it, if that were possible, more fully than our fathers could. That Gospel is no other than my text: 'God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life'. In expounding it I shall adopt the divisions of a celebrated preacher. We have here (1) the Lake; (2) the River; (3) the Pitcher; (4) the Draught. The Lake—God so loved the world; the River—that He gave His only begotten Son; the Pitcher—that whosoever believeth in Him; the Draught—should have everlasting life.
I. The lake is the Love of God. 'God so loved the world.' It is not too much to say Christians have shrunk from the full force of this great word. They have even interpreted the words to mean the elect sinners of the world. Where they have not gone so far as that, they have stopped short of the clarion proclamation. The words 'God is Love' are not to be found in our Catechism or in our Confession. They do not occur, as far as I remember, in any of the Confessions of the Reformed Church. No matter. We go back to the supreme standard, the Word of God, and we find the mystery there. God loves the world and each soul in the world. The love of the mass is the love of the individual. Each single soul is beloved as if there were no other. There is no limitation. God loves each soul of our fallen family. The worst and the most forgotten is strained to His bosom. Is it an easy thing to say? Nobody said it till Christ said it. Even after Christ said it many of His most faithful servants have feared to repeat it. I shall never forget how Professor Elmslie, in the brief delirium before death, when his mind was wandering, came back over and over again to 'God is Love, God is Love; I will go out and tell this to all the world. They do not know it.'
Can it be that God loves Nero, that He loves Judas? Can it be that God cares for saints and martyrs, whom He abandons to defeat and agony and death? One thinks of St. Bernard's question, when, absorbed in meditation, he rode by the Lake of Geneva, and said at evening, 'Has anybody seen the lake?' We have to answer, 'No man hath seen the lake at any time,' and yet we know that God's awful attributes
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed His sacred flame.
II. For there is a River that makes glad the city of God. We know of the lake because we know of the river. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. The course of true love never did run smooth, and the course of the Divine love ran rough indeed. We do not preach that an easy way has been thrown open, and that now the gate is no longer strait and the road no longer narrow. No, God so loved that He gave. It is not merely that He sent His Son: He did much more. He gave His Son, and as the Apostle more fully expresses it, 'He delivered Him up to the death for us all'. That was the course of the Divine love. The love of the Father is the source of the Atonement. He gave in love.
Belief in the love of God has been maintained and propagated in the shadow of the cross, and only there. Apart from that, where is the proof that God is a Father and not merely a force? In the Old Testament they did not know it, though there are passages that dimly shadow it Christ came in time. The heart of the world was failing. Martyr after martyr, prophet after prophet had died without a token. He came to change the cross into a throne, and the shroud into a robe, and death into a sleep, and defeat into everlasting triumph.
III. All this love may run in full flood past our door and never reach us, unless we take the pitcher— 'Whosoever believeth in Him'. We all know what it is to trust and to be deceived. It is natural to trust, and we go on believing till we are surrounded by defaced and abolished idols. Human stays may fail us, but there is a moment when we give ourselves to the Divine. To trust Christ is not merely to believe with the intellect the truth about Him but to commit our hearts to His keeping. It is a committal for time and for eternity, for life and for death, to the Lord of all worlds. Then is the channel opened between the poor, narrow, needy life and the great lake of love. Then the Divine Lover has His way with the soul.
IV. 'Should not perish, but have everlasting life.' What is to rescue from perishing? What is to keep the fires alive—the loftiness, the unworldliness, the willingness to die, the aspirations after purity, truth, goodness? Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but—it goes on to say—have everlasting life.
It is life which is the Draught from the river of love, which, as we know, is untouched by death. Our Lord Himself worked out His promise when He died for us and rose again.
—W. Robertson Nicoll, The Lamp of Sacrifice, p. 244.
The Heart of the Gospel
These words explain to us the relation in which Jesus stands as Son of man, first to God and next to us. This revelation is inexhaustible in its significance. Note, however, that though these words open the gate to infinite mystery, yet they are a clear and positive statement of momentous facts.
I. But our first business, any student will admit, is to obtain a clear, distinct, and full perception of the facts, of the whole facts affirmed on the authority of Jesus Christ: to arrange these facts in their causal order, and to trace their relations to other cognate facts. (1) Jesus begins with God: God Himself, God in His totality; not with His 'attributes' or 'qualities,' but with Himself in His redeeming activity. (2) The God of Love and Right is at the back of all, beneath all, above all, and before all, since God is love, and was, and will be. (3) The third fact is God's 'love of the world'. It has no exclusions. (4) The fourth fact is the advent of God into the sinful and suffering life of man, bearing it vicariously as His way of eradicating it from the heart and will of the sinner. (5) The fifth and final fact contains the eternal purpose of Jehovah in His work, and is described in the clear and catholic language, that 'whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life'.
II. But we men are never content with bare facts. We ask not only what God does, but why. Three things we must never forget as to our 'theories' concerning God's method of human redemption. (1) It is not the acceptance of any 'theory' of the Atonement that 'saves,' but the soul's response to the gracious attractions of the Saviour, in passionate devotion to Him and to His righteous kingdom. (2) Nor should we shrink from admitting that a complete, faultless, adequately adjusted, and perfectly articulated statement of God's 'scheme' of human redemption for all men and for every age is impossible, and can only be approached by sustained investigation, frequent rearrangement, and strict verification. (3) And on this theme it is vital to remember that all our theories concerning the Divine action have to be expressed in the language of symbol and metaphor, and therefore we must not mistake the symbols for the facts they shadow forth, or the truths they attempt to convey. (a) For the symbols are not all of equal value as means of helping us to think accurately and clearly of God; and even those that help most require careful handling, or they open the door to mistake and mischief, (b) Moreover, symbols and theories are of different values in different eras, and to people in different stages of intellectual and ethical progress.
—J. Clifford, The Secret of Jesus, p. 85.
The Mystery of Love
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. The world, as we know it, does not seem to be an object for love. Yet God saw it not only in its darkness and its ruin, but as it might hereafter be, transfigured and ennobled, a new heaven and earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. 'God so loved the world.' And this is a truth which I am sure we should be happy if we carried in our hearts. Is it not a strange and wonderful thing how, if you go through the world with an honest and pure heart, everywhere you find tokens that the world is not left to itself? Everywhere you find tokens of the Presence of God the Holy Ghost. Sometimes we are surprised, and hang our heads with shame to find some man who makes no profession of religion—a business man, let us say, going to his daily work in the City, who yet surprises us by his integrity, his fine sense of honour, his noble regard for truth, his power of selfsacrifice; or you find often in the most degraded, a cheerful devotion to duty, here and there a patient endurance of suffering and of wrong; here and there a heroism, a selfsacrifice, which recalls in a distant manner the sacrifice of the only begotten Son of God. And so this love of God for the world is something that we should carry in our hearts as we go to and fro among our fellow-men. As we advance in life we delight to find everywhere tokens of the Presence of the Holy Spirit working His will even in the most unpromising surroundings.
II. Then there is the second mystery—the mystery of selfsacrifice in God, Who gave His Son. How many hours might we spend in unfolding that magnificent theme! It is the whole of the Gospel of the goodness and grace of God contained in four little, simple words—God gave His Son, gave Him to be our example, that in this sinful life we should not be without a light shining in a dark place to teach us how to walk and to please God; gave Him to be our very own, our Brother, Flesh of our flesh and Bone of our bone, that as our Representative, our Brother, He might offer up to God the one acceptable sacrifice—a perfect obedience, a perfect submission, a perfect atonement. God gave His Son; but did His mercy stop at that point? No; He gave His Son to be within us as a Presence, as a quickening Spirit, as the Light of our life, that we, in our union with Him, might learn to sorrow for sin with His sorrow, that we might learn the secret of the victory over the world which was wrought by Him, that we might be righteous, not with our own righteousness, but with that righteousness which is of God through Jesus Christ. He 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 cast out.
When we think of the thousands and thousands who are cast about the streets of our cities, swept to and fro by the rough tides of human life, when we think of the numbers who are carried off in pestilence, or a war, or an accident, I know how hard it is to believe in this simple truth of religion—the individual care of God for the soul. And yet nothing less than that is involved in the Gospel which the Lord, the Saviour, the Prince of Light has preached to the world. He gave His Son, 'that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life'.
Love in Four Dimensions
John 3:16; Ephesians 3:18
I. First: the breadth of the love of God—'God so loved the world'. That world is a term used in Scripture in three different senses. In its first sense it means the universe of created things. 'The world and all that therein is. 'Its more usual meaning, as it is found so frequently on the lips of our Lord and in the Epistles, is that of those forces of evil opposed to goodness and to God, whose inspiring spirit is the evil one. The love of that world is deadly to faith and holiness. Its third sense is that which is employed here. The world of sinning and suffering, sorrowing and rejoicing, loving and aspiring men and women. That is the world that God loves. Who does not at times relapse into hate? We take up Mr. Darwin's Voyage of the 'Beagle,' and read his compassionate account of the natives of Patagonia. The picture of their low and sunken state of mind fills us with disgust. We read the last book of travels in inland China, and we recoil from its story of pitiless cruelty and callous greed. We take up the account of a criminal trial, and our minds rise in revolt at the deliberate malice, the almost diabolic love of sin, the shameful delight in dragging others into the pit of shame, which is disclosed. Robert Moffat, whose quick and tender heart beat with an undying passion for South Africa, confesses that he was almost roused to loathing by the brutal and sunken minds of the heathen villagers among whom he lived. Even Thomas Chalmers confesses his deep distaste at the crowds who packed the churches, as he preached, and looked up in admiration, complaining of 'the stare and animal heat and pressure'. Yet it is this world whose low and sunken state, whose shameless evil and mad rebellion, God sees and knows and feels, as you and I do not, that God loves. It is the men and women whose sins are set in the light of His countenance that God longs after. Surely 'it passeth knowledge'.
II. Secondly: the length of the love of God—'He gave His only begotten Son'. The test of love, accurately and permanently, is to what length it will go.
Test the love of God. It had been easy for God to have given what some men call proof. He might have written it in letters of light among the stars, white as the pillar of cloud by day and radiant as the pillar of fire by night. He might have created a new world with fresh opportunities for men. He might have altered the external conditions of this world and made life a primrose path of ease for idle feet. So would some men have God work easy and wicked miracles. These would have told us nothing of God's love, for they would have cost Him nothing. But God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. You must come and stand below the cross of Christ before you can comprehend the length of the love of God.
III. Thirdly: the depth of the love of God—'That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish'.
The depth of love is to be understood only in the love of Christ. It is expounded in all His gracious words and merciful deeds. It is set forth in His Incarnation, that infinite descent from the presence of God, and in His exile from God's fellowship during His earthly life among men. Have we realised the deeps of sorrow and trial and pain of that descent? It was a descent from a throne to the anguish and shame and desolation of the cross. But all that is not the depth of the love of God. This descent was made not for the flower of human chivalry, nor for the high and rare and lovely among womanhood; not even to save the unstained lives of little children; but for the worst, the lowest, the most sunken, for the publican, the harlot, the thief, for even the Pharisee and the Sadducee, for 'whosoever should believe, that they might not perish'. 'God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.'
IV. Fourthly: the height of the love of God—'But have everlasting life'. Breadth, length, depth, height. How shall we comprehend its height? Its height is seen in the high and holy purpose it cherishes. Love may be real and yet may be low. It may have no vision, no uplifting purpose for the beloved, no sublime end to reach. The height of God's love is seen in its ultimate purpose that those He loves should have everlasting life.
—W. M. Clow, The Cross in Christian Experience, p. 52.
The doctrine (or a doctrine) of the New Testament goes so far as to say that God Himself gave (and is eternally giving) up what is dearest to Himself in order to save the life of the world. (Death is self- surrender; all loss is a kind of death; 'the only begotten Son' is the summing up of what is dearest, most ones own.) I.e. God can only be at one with His work by eternally dying—sacrificing what is dearest to Him. God does not thereby cease to be; He does not annihilate Himself: He lives eternally in the very process of sacrificing his dearest work.
—R. L. Nettleship.
References.—III. 16.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxi. No. 1850. R. A. Armstrong, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 340. G. A. Sowter, From Heart to Heart, p. 141. J. Clifford, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvi. p. 187. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 400. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, pp. 203, 204. B. Deedes, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. p. 350. R. Allen, The Words of Christ, p. 55. A. S. Peake, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 264. R. J. Campbell, New Theology Sermons, p. 81. John Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, vol. ii. p. 309. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 205; ibid. vol. ii. p. 60; ibid. vol. v. p. 409; ibid. (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 442; ibid. (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 128. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture—St. John, p. 180. III. 16, 18.—Expositor, vol. vii. p. 28.
Judging By Negatives
This is one of a knot of passages. This is a lesson on endeavouring to find out what a thing is by first discovering what it is not. Sometimes by beginning at the other end we find our way most surely to the end that is final. Some scholars, slow of mind but willing of heart, can only learn things by first cutting away all the things that represent only the negative side. There are very few positive scholars or original intellectual inventors; some of us can go but slowly; thank God if we can go surely. And first of all we have to find out in many cases what a thing is not, what a man is not, what a policy is not, and then we may perhaps suddenly come face to face with what it is.
I want to collect specimens from the life of Christ which illustrate this homely but not unprofitable style of education and progress. Jesus Himself repeatedly told us what He was not. When we had learned that lesson, which a little child might learn, we began to wonder what He was, what He did come to do, what He did want to teach; in a word, what the Man wanted to be at. Sometimes we have to take a seat on the negative form and spend a whole day in writing down what Jesus Christ was not.
I. Let us hear this sweetest of all speakers of sweet things. 'I came not to call the righteous.' That shuts up one section of society. Jesus Christ had nothing to say to the self-righteous, He left them to rot in their own conceit, He boycotted them, He would not deign to speak to them; for they did not realise their need of Him, and until need is realised prayer is impossible. It was very wonderful to watch the hauteur by which and through which He passed the righteous so-called. None so haughty as the Child of the manger when He liked! If He could lift His head to the stars, He could bend it down to the child in the gutter. Only majesty can condescend. 'I came not to call the righteous'—all the thunders of heaven could not reach such deaf ears—'but I came to call sinners to repentance'.
II. 'The Son of man came not to be ministered unto.' Would we not be glad to be His servants? Yes, if we could get anything by it. Would we not be only too proud to help Him in any degree? No, we would not; it is a lie. If we make such claim and boast it is because we know nothing about ourselves, we do not understand the mystery of human nature. We verily think we would, and it would delight us to play lady-bountiful to the Lord, the Son of the heavens and the Child of eternity. But He came not to be ministered unto. He wanted no body servant, He asked for no one to wait upon Him. 'Let him that is greatest among you be the servant of all.'
III. 'Not to destroy.' The world had had destruction enough; it had been drowned, it had been burned, it had been the place of plague and locust, and caterpillar, and overwhelming whirlwind, a place of sudden flood and mighty war, and the sword was turned up in the hand of the warrior. Behold, here is an evangel, a missionary from heaven unarmed. It is a great sight, and we poor fools run after sights that we think are great.
IV. 'Not... to condemn the world.' Judgment is as easy as destruction. Not to make men wantonly discontented and unhappy, not to turn conscience into a plague, but to encourage men, to show them how they may get out of all the wickedness and all the misery. I have not come to condemn the world; any poor creature could do that; I have come to save the world; I am not going to pelt you with impossible maxims, and to hang up before you some blackboard, chalk-written with apothegms as to what you should do at this hour or at that; I have come not to condemn you, but to lay down My life for you. 'This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus is come into the world to save sinners.' That is the Gospel.
—Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. iv. p. 194.
References.—III. 18.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. vii. No. 361; vol. vii. No. 362; and vol. xvi. No. 964. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ix. p. 383. III. 18, 19.—C. Moinet, The Great Alternative, p. 3.
In My Confession (chap. 11) Tolstoy describes his awakening from a life of pleasure and selfish vice. 'I erred not so much from having thought incorrectly as from having lived wrong. I understood that the truth had been hidden from me, not so much because I had erred in my reasoning as because I had led the exceptional life of an epicure bent on satisfying the lusts of the flesh.... I understood the truth which I afterwards found in the Gospel: "That men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For every man that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved." I understood that, for the meaning of life to be understood, it was first necessary that life should be something more than an evil and unmeaning thing discovered by the light of reason.'
He that has an eye and a heart can even now say: Why should I falter? Light has come into the world; to such as love Light, so as light must be loved, with a boundless, all-doing, all-enduring love. For the rest, let that vain struggle to read the mystery of the Infinite cease to harass us. It is a mystery which, through all ages, we shall only read here a line of, there a line of.
—Carlyle on Characteristics.
References.—III. 19.—Archbishop Magee, Christ the Light of all Scripture, p. 31. III. 21.—C. F. Aked, The Courage of the Coward, p. 11. III. 22-30.—Expositor (6th Series), vol. x. p. 1. III. 23.—Ibid. vol. vi. p. 251.
Friends of the Bridegroom
St. 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. St. John's Admiration of Christ.—There is, first, St. John's loving admiration of Jesus Christ. The artist is not improbably right in introducing St. John the Baptist into pictures of the Holy Family. Think of him again at the baptism of our Lord. He seems to shrink into nonentity before the higher greatness, the pure holiness, of his beloved Lord. 'I have need to be baptised of Thee, and comest Thou to me?'
II. St. John's Estimate of his own Work.—And secondly, there is St. 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 St. John sees the spirit of his own mission, his own work. This is just what he came to effect; it is being effected; St. 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 St. John. Christ awaits his bride; and as already in souls like the souls of St John the Divine and St Andrew the Apostle we see Christ's longing satisfied, souls trained for Christ in the Baptist's room—as already in these we see types and foretastes of the glorious marriage of the Lamb, let us acknowledge in it all the hand of the Bridegroom's friend, rejoicing greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice.
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. It was hinted in the Old Testament. Prophets loved to speak of it. Their constant figure for the heart and for the love of God was the love of the husband to his wife. While on the one hand it does seem to have been necessary in the order of God's revelation that for a while one nation should stand out as the recipient of the knowledge and the love of God, on the other there are indications for all who read even the Old Testament carefully that this is not, cannot be, God's last word about it all, that the special love is only the herald of a wide and all-embracing tenderness, the love of God manifest in Christ Jesus. Think of the Baptist's love of Jesus Christ. He is the last man in the world, is St. John the Baptist, to claim what does not belong to him. God sent him to prepare the way. He did his best to prepare it, and this has come of it, this joy that rings out in the Bridegroom's voice.
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.
1. We must catch something of St. John's enthusiasm for Jesus Christ. He must be to us what He was to St. John. We know what that means. There must be no doubt, no misgiving, no 'if-ing and an-ing,' no wavering of the hand with which we point men to Jesus Christ. In plain words, the grace of Christ, the beauty of Christ, the blessedness of His kingdom, the reality of His power to satisfy and to save the souls of men—these must be our unwavering convictions, these must be printed deep upon our heart. We must be indeed and of a truth the Bridegroom's friend.
2. We must have clear thoughts as to His purpose and His will. That spiritual marriage and unity, that heavenly espousal, must be a real thing to us. Whether we think of some single soul that is not yet won for Christ, or whether we think of some department of human life, be it commerce, be it pleasure, be it trade—some department of human life in which Christ has not been recognised, we must have in our hearts the two sister truths that Christ loves the souls of men, that Christ ought to rule the lives of all men.
3. We must believe that Christ in His love for men uses their brother men to bring this blessedness about, that He 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 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.
Reference.—III. 29.—J. M. Neale, Sermons for Some Feast Days in the Christian Year, p. 132.
I had the pleasure of introducing my honoured and reverend friend, Mr. John Wesley, to preach at Black-heath. The Lord give him four thousand times more success than He has given me.
References.—III. 30.—J. Keble, Sermons for the Saints' Days, p. 268. H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons, p. 202. J. H. Holford, Memorial Sermons, p. 154. III. 33.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxvi. No. 2158. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 117. III. 34.—A. Whyte, The Scottish Review, vol. iii. p. 525. III. 34, 35.—Expositor (5th Series), vol. v. p. 250. III. 36.—Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvii. No. 1012. S. Cox, Expositions, p. 183. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons (2nd Series), p. 119. J. A. Alexander, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 75. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 203; ibid. vol. ii. pp. 62, 424; ibid. vol. x. p. 108. IV.—Expositor (4th Series), vol. vi. p. 464. IV. 3.—Ibid. vol. vii. p. 94.
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the 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 of 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 again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
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.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.
But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
And John also was baptizing in AEnon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.
For John was not yet cast into prison.
Then there arose a question between some of John's disciples and the Jews about purifying.
And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.
He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.
He must increase, but I must decrease.
He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all.
And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony.
He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true.
For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.
He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.