The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:Nicodemus
Let us consider how possible it is to be much, and yet to be nothing. In other words, let us consider how possible it is to be near, and yet to be at an infinite distance. If we could make this idea perfectly clear to ourselves we should begin to ask great questions; we should indeed inaugurate in our own souls the only temper in which it is possible to study the greatest theme with advantage and success. What did Nicodemus want? He impresses us favourably at every point. He went amongst men as an elder, a superior, a councillor: what more did he need? What is our idea of completeness? Now we have an opportunity of coming into close quarters with human character, and of studying human character under the inspiration and guidance of the man Christ Jesus. Probably he never talked so grandly as upon this occasion; he kept to one point in the hearing of one man, and made that one night the most memorable period in the man's recollection. Nothing could stir him; again and again he came upon his theme with renewed and tenderer emphasis. Nicodemus had not a thousand messages to take home; Jesus Christ saw the kind of man with whom he had to deal, and, like a wise master-builder, he dealt with it according to its quality and scope. He fixed that large and open mind upon one point.
It is possible to occupy a very high nominal position in the Church, and to know nothing about the purpose of Christ. That is a terrible business; let us face it soberly but resolutely. Nicodemus was a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews, a master in Israel, and he knew nothing. Literalists do not know anything. There is nothing in the letter when taken by itself, out of its context and atmosphere: "the letter killeth." If the discussion had turned upon the number of the folio and the number of the line on which a certain quotation was to be found, Nicodemus perhaps would have led the conversation; but here he stands in the presence of a Man who talks as he never heard mortal tongue talk before; he finds that his books and references and evidence are of no use to him: here is a Man who talked above them high as the heaven is above the earth. Nominal position ought to go for something. A man may be Archbishop Canterbury, and never have seen the Saviour; a man may attain a conspicuous position in the pulpit, and never have seen the Cross. That is the infinite mischief. Men may make a profession of the ministry in any communion; not one can escape saying, I am not as other men. The ministry of Christ is not a profession: ministers are not professional gentlemen; ministers of the right kind are called from eternity, and they cannot help uttering what is in them, and they are not always aware of the reach of their own meaning. They pass through periods of madness, wondering what, and what manner of time the Spirit of God within them doth signify when it tells of coming blue skies, and summers that shall encircle the globe, and songs that shall make the welkin ring with infinite joy. Do not bind the poor solitary man down as if he had invented the message, and must grammatically interpret it and bind it within parsing bounds, nor judge him by his after-conduct; he is an instrument; through him God sends sounds mysterious, messages beneficent, gospels that are saving. He is not a professional gentleman. If any young men are coming into the ministry as a profession, God hinder them; build up a great granite wall in the very face of them, and starve them until they begin to repent and pray. We are either in the kingdom of God or we are not in it; if we are not in it we cannot climb into it by ways of our own making and processes of our own invention; and if we are in it men will know by a subtle, mysterious, magnetic music and power that we have something to say not to be found on the decaying and fading pages of earthly wisdom. Here is a man, then, who occupies a high nominal position in the then Church, and who knows nothing about the kingdom of God. Probably for the first time in his life he heard the expression "kingdom of God" as it had never been uttered before. The emphasis was a commentary.
In the next place, we see that it is possible to be deeply interested in comparative religion, and yet to know nothing about the kingdom of God ruling in the heart. Comparative religion takes up all the religions known to men, and expounds them, and contrasts them, and compares them one with another: as thus,—Buddhism says so; Christianity says thus. The study is interesting; the study may be instructive and advantageous. I do not see any advantage to be derived from ignoring the religions of distant and unknown nations; I think that God may have revealed himself in all lands, in idolatry as well as in rational and spiritual worship. It is perfectly right, therefore, to trace the operations and disclosures of Providence everywhere; that is not the point in contention or in illustration: the point is, that men may be deeply interested and deeply learned in comparative religions, and may know nothing about the truth as it is in Jesus. You say, for example, that a theological professor must of necessity be a Christian. In Germany they say nothing of the kind. The German professor does not necessarily profess to be a Christian at all; he may teach Christian history and Christian evidences and Christian apologetics, and he says, I teach these things as I would teach Buddhism or Mohammedanism; I am not teaching them because I believe them, I am expounding these things to young and opening minds, giving the evidence on the one side and the argument on the other, and asking them to draw their own inferences and conclusions. That is a poor account for a man in such a position to give of himself. It means that Christianity is one of the sciences, or a branch of literature, or an aspect of philosophy; it ignores what we believe to be the fundamental feature and characteristic and nature, namely, that Christianity is a revelation, a sheet let down from heaven, yet held in heaven by the four corners thereof, within which man may find every food he needs for the sustenance and maintenance of his strength. If a man can profess Christian theology without experiencing Christian emotion and Christian piety, why not preach it? It is impossible for a bad man really to preach. He may be eloquent in words, but dumbness is more eloquent than his rhetoric. He is not eloquent; all his sentences are a mere plash of syllables. The true eloquence is conviction, enthusiasm, reality. He is eloquent who tells you that your house is in flames; the sentence may be short, but it glows with truest eloquence. Men can only preach in proportion as they believe. The reciter is not a preacher; he is only unloading his mind of something which ought never to have been in it. His heart takes no part in the delivery; his eye is not interested in this great sight; his soul is miles away. Yet the mischief is that people will run after the reciter; they like the giddy climax, they call fluency—impious fluency—eloquence. These are the people who debase the pulpit and turn the altar to unholy uses. Give me one sentence of reality, one burst of sincere solicitude and enthusiasm; I shall know it when I hear it; however blundering the construction of the sentence, however ungrammatical, yet through it there will burn the very warmth of divinest love.
Here, then, we have a pitiful state of affairs: a man may have a high nominal position in the Church and not know what the kingdom of God is; a man may be deeply interested in comparative religion, and know nothing about the one religion that we believe is to save the world. We may come even closer, and astound ourselves with a greater amazement; for it is possible to conduct a reverent inquiry into Christian evidences, and to know nothing about their true force and compulsion. Here is a man in earnest, but he must not be taken as a master in Israel; that is not the point at which Christ will accept us; we must throw off our master's robe and go in nakedly. We must begin at the point of ignorance. Except ye be converted and become as little children—not masters in Israel—ye shall not see the kingdom of God. You must not come in with your supposed intelligence, and your great research, and your love of exquisite diction, and your conception of the Church; you must come in bare-footed, bare-headed, broken-hearted, and say, "I am no more worthy to be called thy son." Then you may move God into speech; otherwise he will only blind you with dazzling glory; otherwise he will only plunge you into what you call metaphysics. He will say, to the infinite startling of your soul, "Ye must be born again," and you will turn away and say, This is metaphysical. So it is to any master in Israel; but when a little child hears that, it seizes the meaning by a kind of sanctified instinct, or budding reason; a singular miraculous operation by God the Holy Ghost in the soul, and, without being able to explain the meaning, it feels it and answers it.
We may come into still closer definition, and clear the ground absolutely of all sophisms. It is possible to go direct to Christ himself on the wrong business:—"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 Christ does not want to talk about miracles. The miracles are but the dust of his feet. He wants to talk upon a greater subject. He will not discuss with any man the miracles. Herein we have put things into false perspective and altogether untrue relation. We have begun by thinking that if we could understand the miracles we could understand the Cross; and therefore we have made a professional study of the miracles, and we have read the great argument of Hume, in which there is not the faintest fibre or shadow of reasoning; and there we are, and there we may remain. Christ has nothing to say to such men. He says, If you will begin at the beginning, I will remain with you until you are a scholar in my school; if you will come and ask me about inward, spiritual and vital subjects, I will tarry with you till the rising of the sun. Blessed Saviour! sweeter than woman in love, tenderer than mother in compassion, wiser than all sages in understanding human nature! It you want, saith he, to know how the soul may be reborn, sanctified, liberated, and finally glorified, we will take no heed of time. To earnestness there is no time.
We may therefore come to Christ himself, but on the wrong lines and for the wrong purpose; and therefore we may get nothing from him but that which dazzles and bewilders us, so that the mind is lost in a new and infinite perplexity. Thus we see how possible it is to be near and yet far; how possible it is to be much and to be nothing. What then can we want? Here was lack of spiritual insight. Literal learning there was in abundance. Books are the ruin of some men. The distinction between information and genius lies there. The well-informed man says, What does the book say about this? He reads, and operates accordingly. Genius takes no heed of the book, but sees through the case in a moment, and prescribes accordingly. Genius knows the case before it is stated; genius reads sign and symptom whilst the man is approaching him for the purpose of consultation. There was no spiritual insight in Nicodemus—he was a professional gentleman. Probably there was not a stain upon his professional robe; probably he was esteemed above many in the society to which he belonged. But he was blind: many gentlemen are—especially professional gentlemen. It is the heart that sees; it is love that pierces the cloud. Who was it that saw the Figure on the shore and said, "It is the Lord"? Was it rough Peter? Peter never saw anything until it was straight before him. It was John, it was the disciple of love, who said, "It is the Lord." Love sees clearest, furthest, best. If we have not love we do not know God, or Christ, or the Cross, or anything Christian. If we have not been killed we have not been made alive. "Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die." What is wanted therefore to understand Christ is spiritual insight.
Many men also suffer from looking for the wrong thing. They are looking for argument, demonstration, long and elaborate statement of pros and cons. They will be disappointed with Christ. He will have nothing but pureness of soul, love of heart, a desire after the very spirit and genius of childhood; where he sees these things there he abides, and he makes the heart burn with new love, and gives the eyes the delight of continually changing and brightening vision. Lord, make us little children; enable us to look for the right things, namely, the revelation of thy heart, thy love, thy purpose of redemption; deliver us from this satanic temptation of wanting to understand miracles, signs, and wonders, and impossibilities; lead us up the green gentle slopes of loving prayer and desire; and then when we get near the top we shall be able to look down and see the miracles as very little things; help us, Lord, and give us vision of soul. Spiritual insight can only come with spiritual life; in other words, if you have not the life, you cannot have the insight. Unless we live and move and have our being in God we cannot read the Bible aright. We must be in the Spirit. This is the day of the Holy Ghost, this the Pentecostal era. Yet men are fooling away their time in asking wrong questions about wrong subjects; they are busy at the wrong door; they will agitate themselves about things that need not come within purview just now. When we can pray mightily we can treat the miracles aright. Meanwhile, if we have not the spirit, the temper, and the disposition of heart, everything will be difficult to us, and we shall be asking little questions about little things, as who should say, Who wrote this epistle? Was it a Deutero-Isaiah? When was the first portion written? What relation had the prophecies to the captivity? Why trouble yourselves just now about these things? Do you see the kingdom? Are you inside that kingdom? Have you been killed with Christ? Has every drop of blood in your very soul gone out of you in sacrifice? If so, you will be able to put all other questions into their right position and relation, and in due time, if there is anything in those questions that you need for the completion of your education, God shall reveal even this unto you. Meanwhile, here is the Book; whoever wrote it, it is here. We can read it through our reason, through our conscience, through our need and pain and sorrow and woe; we can read it best through our tears; and as to who wrote it, better say, who has read it with wise eyes and an understanding heart; and, maybe, when the grey day of time is gone we may alight upon some soul in the heavens that will say, I wrote the gospel you inquired about: I am the other Isaiah that puzzled you so much down there: why did you spend so much time about my personality? I wrote the book of Genesis and the whole Pentateuch. The day is not done when we pass from earth. We only begin the alphabet here. The reading, the music begins where the day is cloudless, where the school is heaven.
On Human Regeneration
Nicodemus did not deny the doctrine of the Second Birth, he merely started a difficulty. Though a master in Israel, he was apparently destitute of that spiritual insight which sees the possibility of the very stones being raised up as children unto Abraham—that sensitive and hopeful ideality which sees everywhere the throbbings of an inner life, and believes instantly in every word which even remotely hints at immortality. Nicodemus was a literalist; his ideas were cramped by the fixed meanings of words; he never could have written the Apocalypse; seal and trumpet and vial were not for such men as Nicodemus. He was startled by the word "born"; probably he doubted its exactness; it was, in his estimation, too specific in its common meaning to be literally applied to anything else; consequently he took his stand upon nature, and judged as if there were but one way by which life could come into the world. He who had been convinced by the miracle was astounded by the metaphor. What if there were no metaphors? What if pillars never became arches? What if dogma never coloured and brightened into parable? The answer of Jesus Christ was strikingly consistent with his whole method of teaching; the strangeness of his language excited attention, provoked thought, sometimes awakened controversy, and so, through a process of troubled inquiry and anxious strife, men often entered into the mystery of Christ's rest. It is a hard way; but the men who travel it come into great strength. Simon Peter asked no questions at first, but Simon Peter denied his Master at last. Paul began with enmity, and ended with most passionate and rapturous love; Nicodemus expressed a wonder, almost dark enough to be a doubt, but in the long run he took his stand by the dead body of "the Teacher come from God." It seems as if every man must at some time in his religious life have doubts and even anguish of heart respecting Jesus Christ and his kingdom; and as if some men particularly, of whom Simon Peter may be taken as a notable example, must be utterly dashed to pieces before God can begin his constructive work upon them. Nicodemus had been an attentive observer of the public life of Jesus Christ. He was one of those persons who always ground their course upon facts; they never throw themselves completely upon great principles, or risk themselves upon the supposed strength of an argument; they only believe history, they never make it. The facts which Nicodemus had observed led to reasoning, and the reason was expressed in this conclusion: "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." The admission is one of the utmost spiritual importance, because if the works are from God, what of the words? Can the same fountain send forth sweet waters and bitter? Can the worker have found his way to the Omnipotent except through the Omniscient? Yet, important as the admission was, Jesus Christ returned an answer, which apparently had no bearing upon the subject of miracles—"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." The subject which Nicodemus introduced was miracles; the subject which Jesus Christ introduced was regeneration. Did Jesus Christ, then, evade the question of miracles? No; he incidentally showed the true position and value of the mighty works as elements in his ministry; they were hardly to be mentioned; they lay somewhat remote from his great scheme; they were symbolic, and illustrative of one great miracle; they all pointed towards the final triumph of his power, namely, the second birth of creatures who had dishonoured their first estate.
When men are not sure of their ground they make sudden deflections, and raise side issues, so as to escape a perilous topic. Read superficially, Jesus Christ's remark about the new birth looks like the stratagem of a skilful controversialist; but looked at more carefully, we may find it to be strictly in the line of the original subject. Earnest men often avail themselves of ellipsis. They are impatient of mere detail. They are straitened until their work be accomplished. Jesus did not evade the subject of miracles; he merely passed the intermediate points, and went at once to the spiritual results which the great works of his hands were meant to prefigure and elucidate. Not only so; he taught that unless every man himself became the subject of a miracle—the miracle of regeneration—his belief in other miracles would not admit him into the kingdom of heaven; other miracles were to be looked at, this was to be felt; other miracles were public, this was intensely personal; other miracles were material, this was moral; other miracles give new views, this gives new life. This miracle of regeneration is the only explanation of all other miracles; and until a man has undergone its power, the other miracles may possibly be stumbling-blocks to his reason—except a man be born again, he cannot see; cannot see anything as it really is; specially cannot see the kingdom of God.
This call from outward circumstances to the deepest experiences which the soul can undergo, not unnaturally suggested the question, "How can these things be?" And the answer does not attempt to clear itself of the original mystery—"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." The meaning of the answer would seem to be that we are not to deny results simply because we cannot understand processes: we may see a renewed life, but cannot see the renewing Spirit; we may gather the fruits of autumn, though we may not know by what cunning the leaf was woven, nor can we follow the skill that set the blossom in its place. Jesus Christ thus gives Nature an illustrative function; all its beauty, its splendour, its force, is to teach something beyond itself; there is a voice in the wind other than strikes the hearing of the ear; beyond the common fragrance of the flowers there is an odour which reaches the soul; the glitter of starlight comes from a fire veiled from all eyes. Jesus Christ thus found a common law in Nature and in grace; the Spirit is the same, whether it direct the course of the wind or renew the springs of the heart,—the earth to the spiritual mind is but a lower heaven. This method of reasoning from the physical to the spiritual gives great interest to life and nature; it is not meant that we should force meanings from the things which are round about us, but we are certainly taught that there is congruity between the works of God, and that the limitation of our earthly knowledge should teach us modesty respecting the things which are heavenly. Look at the words, "Thou hearest.... but canst not tell." Man occupies an outside position; even in common things God fixes a tabernacle of his own; he will not tell man the whole of his secret; he brings man to his appointed stature, and then says that man cannot, even by taking thought, add one cubit to it; he counts the hairs upon the heads of his saints, and tells them that they cannot make one hair white or black; he says to the master of Israel, "Thou hearest the wind, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth." As a mere matter of fact, then, apart from theological inquiries, there are limitations to human knowledge. Man does not even understand himself: on every side he touches immediately the boundary of his information and his power; the atom baffles him; the insect is only half comprehended; the sea sounds like a great mockery; the dwelling-place of the light is yet undiscovered, and as for darkness, no man knoweth its habitation; the wise man knows only his folly; he cannot tell by what way the light is parted which scattereth the east wind upon the earth; he knows not whether the rain had a father, or who hath begotten the drops of dew; he cannot tell out of whose womb came the ice, or who gendered the hoarfrost of heaven; Mazzaroth, Arcturus, Pleiades, and Orion pay no heed to his voice; he heareth the sound of the wind, but cannot tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth!
These considerations show the spirit in which the subject of the New Birth should be approached. It is to be a spirit of self-restraint, of conscious limitation of ability, and by so much a spirit of preparedness to receive, not a mere confirmation of speculative opinion, but a divine revelation of doctrine. The expression of wonder is not forbidden; there is a wonder which belongs to the region of doubt; there is also a wonder which accompanies glimpses of new phases of truth. This wonder is one of the joys of the soul; it often forces the cry of delight, the shout of men who have come suddenly on much spoil. A great shock of surprise seems to come upon every one respecting this new life. The shock comes differently, indeed, but always comes. Sometimes, for example, it comes on the intellectual side, as in the case of Nicodemus, throwing into confusion the arguments and theories of a lifetime; sometimes the shock comes upon the selfish instincts, as in the case of the rich young man who cannot give all his possessions to the poor; sometimes the shock comes on the natural sensibilities, as in the case of Bunyan, extorting groans and lamentations the most piteous and distressing. Such men represent the most dissimilar experiences. The young man who had large property might know nothing of the struggles of the master in Israel; and John Bunyan, who had no riches at all, knew nothing of the desperate hold which property may get upon the heart. Hence the folly of setting up a common standard of judgment, or of any man measuring all other persons by himself. The intellectual man has troubles peculiarly his own. Is it an easy thing to pronounce oneself a fool before God—to give up intelligence and conviction, and begin just where little children begin? The man finds it is hard work to give up one by one the elements which he imagined were necessary to his manhood, and to start again empty-handed, as it were, or, at least, with nothing that bears the mark of his own wit and independence—to know as much about the great changes of his heart as he knows about the course of the wind. He would part with money rather than with theories; he would endure the laceration of his natural sensibilities, rather than surrender his logical position. What then? He can only know the agony of birth by giving up what he prizes most. He might give all his goods to feed the poor, and yet remain out of God's kingdom; he might give his body to be burned and yet keep the bad heart. God will not give his kingdom other than as a revelation, and a revelation always implies the ignorance and helplessness of the man to whom it is given.
Though the mystery of regeneration may for ever remain unexplained, yet it is important to have an idea of the truths with which it is inseparably identified. It would appear that Jesus Christ delivered the most complete and formal gospel discourse to Nicodemus that he ever uttered. That discourse occupies twenty-one verses of the chapter in which the text is found, and touches upon such subjects as—the work of the Holy Ghost; the Lifting up of the Son of man; Faith; Divine Love; Salvation; Eternal Life. All this Jesus Christ spoke to the man who came by night to talk about miracles. Could he have said more if he had called the universe to audience? It is as if all the stars had come out together to light a trembling traveller along a lonely road.
What Jesus Christ himself has left as a mystery it would be presumptuous in any man to attempt to explain. We hear the sound of the wind; we cannot follow it in all its way, yet we know the analogy of intellectual life. Can we explain the origin and succession of ideas? How did they begin to expand, mature? Do we know where the child was displaced by the man? "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." So, too, are many of the processes of the mind. As with thoughts, so with affections. Can we make plain all the secret processes of the heart, and trace the transition through which the soul passes from distrust to confidence, or from indifference to admiration and love? The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so, too, are the troubles and changes of the heart. All birth is mysterious. "Thou knowest not how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child." Can we say why one grain brings forth thirty, and another sixty, and another a hundred fold? If we cannot understand these earthly things, how can we understand things that are heavenly? Yet, as the sound of the wind is heard, so are there results which prove the fact of our regeneration. Jesus Christ says that, if any man is in him, that man bringeth forth much fruit, as a branch that abideth in the vine. The Apostle Paul says that, if any man be in Christ, that man is a new creature, living in a new world, all old things gone. The Apostle John says, that men know that they dwell in Christ because Christ has given them of his Spirit. This is the practical side of the doctrine of regeneration. Thou hearest the sound thereof—"secret things belong to the Lord our God." The regenerated man is known by the spirit which animates his life, for it is the motive which gives quality to character; the regenerated man lives by rule, but it is the unwritten and unchanging rule of love; the regenerated man advances in orderliness, but it is the orderliness, not of mechanical stipulation, but of vigorous and affluent life; the regenerated man is constantly strengthened and ennobled by an inextinguishable ambition to be filled with all the fulness of Christ—his new life springs up for ever as a well of water that cannot be exhausted.
It is important to dwell upon the signs of regeneration, lest the doctrine be classed with merely speculative or metaphysical theology, a study of deeply intellectual interest, but powerless in the life. It is quite conceivable that an unregenerate man may do many outwardly decent or even beautiful things, just as it is conceivable that a watch may be altered by the hands, and not by the regulator, or as it is conceivable that the ruddiness of the cheek may be artificial, and not natural. If an unregenerate nature can produce the same quality of moral life as a nature that has been born again by the power of the Holy Ghost, the testimony of the inspired writers is simply untrue, because that testimony declares that "the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be; so, then, they that are in the flesh cannot please God." "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." Thus, on the explicit authority of Jesus Christ and his apostles, the broadest possible distinction is made between the First Birth and the Second Birth. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; that which is born of the Spirit is spirit; marvel not that ye must be born again.
In making this great claim on behalf of regeneration, it is easy to see the ground upon which a condemnatory charge may be urged against those who bear the name of Jesus Christ. How is it that new-born men often walk as the children of this world? The answer is, that a man has not only a soul, but a body; that while the soul is renewed the body remains in its own condition; consequently, though the Christian delights in the law of God with the inward mind, yet he sees another law in his members warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into the captivity of the law of sin, which is in his members. "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." It is undoubtedly true that the spirit may attain great mastery over the flesh, so much so as to explain the apostle's words—"Ye are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you." Still, as a matter of fact, the body is dying; an inexorable law condemns and hastens it to the grave; what if, in going down, it should trouble and vex the spirit? The Christian man is an anomaly; in a sense which unregenerate men can never understand, his body and his soul are at constant war. What, then, is the complement of regeneration? The complement of regeneration is resurrection, and not until resurrection has done for the body what regeneration has done for the soul, can men be perfect in the stature and quality of Jesus Christ.
Is there anything suggestive in the inquiry, How can a man be born when he is old? What does the old man care for new sights, new eras, new services? Does the old tree ever ask to be transplanted into new gardens? Still the old should not be left without a word of hope. We have known the spring work a wonderful transformation even upon old trees, making them strangely beautiful with green leaf and blushing blossom. I remember standing in a large forest, on an early spring day; the sky was bright, and there was a keen vigour in the air; the great trees were stretching their branches, as if appealing to the heavens; they seemed to be saying, "O Spring, come quickly, and clothe us with thy verdant beauty! We have shivered through the long cold winter, and now would be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven. O Spring, thy kingdom come!" And what can I, a poor leafless human tree, do but carry forward that prayer to a higher significance? "O fairer Spring, O richer Summer, O purer Light, make me beautiful as a child of God—Saviour, Father, thy kingdom come!"
Is there anything suggestive in the circumstance that Nicodemus came to Jesus Christ by night? Oh, the night!—how many troubled doubters and inquirers are weary of its darkness! Yet they are thankful for it, because it protects them in part from the sneer of a faithless faith, and gives them an opportunity of hiding the tears which daylight should never see. It is better that the night of the soul should not write its history. Let Christian men be mindful how they throw their weapons into the night. Some honest man may be struck; some anxious heart may be wounded; some who are coming to Jesus may be hindered. Those who come by night should be encouraged. God himself made the night, as well as the day; the moon is his, as well as the sun. We know little more of Nicodemus, but what we do know is sufficient. Where do we last find him? We find him at the Cross and in the light! He has found his way through the night to the morning, from the miracles to the Cross; and there shall all true inquirers be found at last—at the Cross and in the Light!
Let it be understood, then, that in speaking of the New Birth we do not attempt to explain the mystery; on the contrary, we allow it not only as a fact, but as a necessity. We cannot have religion of any kind without mystery. We cannot construct the clumsiest mythology without having mystery; we cannot be Pagans without mystery; we cannot carve a slab to the unknown God without sinking into the darkness of mystery. But through the Christian mystery there comes a Christian fact, and it is by that fact that Christianity must be judged. We know the new man by his new life; we know the new worker by his new works; we know the heart by the hand. A Christian is the best defence of Christianity. A living man is the most convincing argument on behalf of the Christian religion. We are called not to reformation, but to regeneration—not to morality (popularly so-called), but to theology as Jesus Christ interpreted it. If we accept the heavenly call, we shall at last be found—at the Cross and in the Light. It is finished, Christ and Christians are for ever one.
We come to thee, thou loving One, because in thee are all our springs. There is nothing in ourselves; our expectation is from on high, in God we live and move and have our being. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing. The morning is thine, its light, its dew, its spirit of hope, its promise of opportunity; these are the gifts of God: enable us to receive them as such, and to walk worthy of the blessings with which thou hast entrusted us. Thou hast given unto us rest in sleep, thou hast called us again to duty, to worship, to endurance, to all the responsibility, the gladness, and the grief of life: may we answer thy call fearlessly, lovingly, reverently, and hopefully. The Lord will not forsake the work of his own hands; when father and mother forsake us, then the Lord will take us up, and his rod and his staff shall comfort us, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Great joy have they that love the Lord; deep is the peace of those hearts that rest upon the Cross of Christ; none shall disturb them, or overwhelm them, or bring them into sudden and fatal fear; the Lord's arms are round about all who have believed in him, and no man can violate their sanctuary. How abundant are the providential mercies of God! Who shall count his compassions? who shall number the tears of his pity? who shall show where his lovingkindness begins or ends? Thou dost beset us behind and before, and lay thine hand upon us; there is nothing in our life for which thou hast not provided; thy circle round about us is without break or weakness. We praise the Lord with a common voice, we lift up our psalm of adoration, for great is the Lord, and wonderful is his way. We breathe our confessions because we have done the things we ought not to have done; we make mention of the name of our Saviour, for he alone is our Light and our Salvation, our Defence and our Comfort, our Rock and our Hope. Thy tender mercies give us assurance that thou wilt not cast us off for ever; thy withdrawment is but for a small moment, thy coming again is an everlasting summer. We rejoice in all thy promises, we are rich in all the pledges of thy love: we have in Christ Jesus an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. Pity our littlenesses, our vanities, our transient conceits; lay them not against us as iniquities, regard them as the expression of infirmities: then come into the deeper parts of our life, its innermost recesses, its depths and abysses, which none can plumb but thyself, and there work the miracle of pardon through the blood of the everlasting covenant. Forgive the sinner, revive his hope in the midst of his contrition, and into his broken heart come with all the presence and beauty and tenderness of thy love The day is before us: may it provide us opportunity for showing that we have been with Jesus, and have learned of him; may we handle its duties strongly, wisely, and in the fear of God; may we accept its endurances and trials and difficulties in the spirit of sonship, and at eventide may we know that once more through the circuit of the sun God hath been round about us and within us, an infinite light. Let thy word be precious to us; let thy word bring to us our chief delights; let thy promises be our inspiration, and let all the duties of the life that now is contribute to the enjoyment of the life that is to be. Help the old and the young, the joyous and the sad, those who are heavily afflicted, and those who live in the open sunshine: upon all men let thy blessing come, thou Giver of the Christ that saved us. Our prayers we pray at his Cross: at that altar we breathe our praise, our confession, our supplication, and there we await the answer of joy and love and peace. Amen.
Nicodemus was a master of Israel, and "these things" he did not know. The question put to him by Jesus Christ was not necessarily a condemnation; we may import a tone of rebuke into the inquiry, but it does not follow that Jesus Christ intended to rebuke his visitor. A man cannot be much beyond his age; some great men are simply abreast with it. The child is not greatly ahead of his toys, nor is he to blame for his nursery enjoyments and nursery satisfactions: they suit the child, they are the measure of his age, they represent his present capacity. Jesus Christ was anxious to impress upon the mind of Nicodemus that there were things which even he, though a master of Israel, did not know. Our knowledge is helped by our ignorance: we are chastened by wisely recognised imperfections. If we could apply the rule which inspires this inquiry we should have no uncharitableness, we should feel that some brothers are older than others, that some students are a page farther on than other students are; nor is the one class of students to be praised, and the other to be vehemently and unsparingly condemned. Blessed is that faithful reader who has read up to the place where he now is, without skipping any, slurring any, but who has patiently, thankfully, and sympathetically received the message word by word. Do not overchide him lest he be cast down with sorrow overmuch; recognise his progress, and tell him there are still things beyond. It is important to bring into view the things that have not yet been fully realised, because they may change all that has gone before, not in solidity, not in substance, not in the best spiritual uses; but they may set all things in a new relation, and invest all things with a new colour, and bring the mind to feel that even in its farthest studies it has but begun its divine schooling.
Or we may take it from the point of rebuke:—"Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?" then what is the good of thy mastery? Thine is a nominal mastership, thine is an office without an inspiration; thine is only the action of mechanism, it does not belong to the great astronomic forces and ministries of the universe. Away with thy mastership of Israel! It is a name, a label, a designation, but within there is nothing equal to the name which thou dost bear. It is a pity that a man remains nominally a master of Israel when he has lost his real mastership. It is one of the last lessons which a man is willing to learn, to know when it is time for him to retire. The man thinks he has still something more to say, some other work to do, some higher height to climb; it is hard for him to see the coming man and to say, "He must increase, but I must decrease": it is enough for a man to live in his own generation, and bless the souls that are nearest to him. This seems to be an easy thing to say, but it is almost impossible to utter it from the heart. Yet masterships are good, though they are temporary. A man who has taught us the alphabet has done us a service, though he may not be able to read as he ought to read the language in which he was born: yet he has introduced us to it. Let us be thankful for all past masterships, for all vanished schools of honest thinking and honest working; they were up to date, they told all they knew, but they never said it was all that was to be told. So let masterships be ruled by the spirit of progress, coming into full bloom, flourishing awhile, fading out, and yet not allowed to leave the world without recognition and gratitude and honour. It is difficult to combine the old and the new: the old is looked upon with superstition, the new is regarded as turbulent; or the old looks upon the new with suspicion, and the new looks back upon the old with vexation and with a spirit of resentment. Yet how many souls have to live as between the two, holding with the tenacity of love all things that are true and therefore old, yet willing to look forward to new developments, new aspects, new views, and to give them a welcome and assurance of hospitality. This is hard work, only a few men can do it: the great lesson to be learned by those who cannot do it is that they are not to find fault, to be impatient, to be fruitful of condemnation and eloquent in deprecation; they should rather say, These men are our leaders, teachers, forerunners; we cannot keep up with them, but little by little we shall conquer the ground they have traversed. How hard it is for men to know that truth passes through phases, that every phase has its own particular time of revelation; and how difficult to learn that no man is expected to know more than what God himself has graciously revealed for the time being. Abandon the idea that there is any finality in thought. The utmost that the most vigorous thinker can accomplish is to begin. It is not in man to end. God hath yet more to show us, teach us, and reveal unto us, and put us in trust of; let us patiently await all further disclosures, and not await them in a spirit of contemplation and dreaminess, but in a spirit of industry and faithfulness The servant who works most shall know most.
All these principles have definite applications. We may admit the principles, yet it may cost us much to apply them. The application of those principles would cut down a great deal of our present action and thought. It is hard work for any minister even to indicate those applications. He may be misunderstood; men can only go at a certain rate, and if you hurry them beyond their natural pace they complain, grow weak, and fretfully resent the scourge that is meant to accelerate their progress. What say we to a man who is found in the midst of June, with all its wealth of light and blossom and colour and promised fruitfulness, with his head prone to the earth, and voice choked with groaning, and who, on being asked why he moans, replies, When I think of the severity of last winter, its snows and frosts and bitter winds, I cannot be happy today; I remember the winter that is gone, my thoughts live amid the cold snow, the dark nights, the tempestuous winds? Would that man talk rationally? What would be the view taken of him by ordinary observers? They would say, The winter is over and gone, this is summer; we are not called to the recollection of the past winter, but to the enjoyment of a present gift of light and beauty: the rain is over and gone, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land: stand up and praise the Lord. That would seem to be the voice of reason and the voice of nature. There could be no difficulty in a general acceptance of this principle; the difficulty resides in the all but impossibility of its theological and Christian application. There are men now who are thinking about the agonies of Christ, Calvary, its crucifixion, its pain, its cruel wounds: all these are historical verities, all these are tragedies that ought to make the heart ache, but they are over. Christ is risen, Christ is enthroned, Christ is in heaven: why seek ye the living among the dead? Christians are called to summer joys, and summer songs, and summer liberties and hopes. Are ye masters in Israel, and know not these things? Paul says, "Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more:" he is the enthroned Lord, he is seated upon his Father's throne, and we have to deal with the present aspect of Christian history and Christian pro phecy. Do we then forget the winter that is gone? We say, Probably owing to its severity we enjoy the gentleness and graciousness of the summer. So when we think of Gethsemane and Calvary and the Cross, and the pierced hands and pierced feet and wounded side and thorn-crushed temples, we say, The summer of our joy came out of the winter of that endurance. We are not to live backwards; our faces are towards the light, and no man can hold up his face towards the noonday of Christian truth and love and hope without being provoked by a gentle provocation to song and joy and sacred delight. This is the precious gift of God to every believing soul. Rejoice always, be glad in a risen Lord; even when you sit down to break the memorial bread and drink the memorial cup, remember that the words are, "Ye do these things till the Lord come." It is a prospective interview that makes the retrospective review sacred and fruitful of solemn joy.
Art thou a master of Israel, and readest thou the letter of the Bible? So many men go to the wrong Bible, therefore they are afraid the Bible may be taken from them. No man can take love from the heart, devotion from the soul, trust from the spirit. You may steal a document, but you cannot steal a revelation. If we have only a theologian's Bible, it may be taken from us any day. If we have God revealed to the heart through the medium of the Bible we are independent of all criticism, all hostility; we have a sanctuary into which we can retire and within whose walls we can be for ever safe. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is superstition. Even many Christians have hold of the wrong Bible; that is to say, they have hold of the Bible by the wrong end. So they are always living in an age of unbelief; they are always saying, The age is oscillating between rationalism and superstition. The men who have hold of the wrong Bible live a troubled life; there is not a window in their houses that faces the south; they live in gloom and sadness and apprehension; every new volume of short essays published in criticism upon the Bible is thought to be another ebullition of the devil. Art thou a master of Israel, and troubled by any assault that is made upon the sanctuary of revelation? First be sure that you do not misunderstand the assailants; they may be making no such assault, they may only be aiming to clear away clouds and demolish fictions, and cleanse the air of superstitions, and liberate the mind from iniquitous bondage; it is due to them that we should clearly understand what they are talking about and aiming at. There are those who go to the Bible for the wrong things, and they are disappointed. What say you to a man who, wanting health, fixes upon the South of France for his winter's abode; but in journeying thither he is told that he may not have sufficiently considered certain peculiarities attaching to that portion of the earth?—Are you aware, quoth the one, that there are two distinct theories of the geological formation of the South of France? Are you aware that botanists differ about the fauna and the flora of the South of France? Are you aware that there are many contentions about the right political division of Continental countries? Saith the man, Why this bother? why this rude, strange, irrelevant talk? I am going to the South of France not because of geological formations or botanical curiosities, or political and imperial divisions and sovereignties: there the fresh air blows, there the sun is warm, there all nature is a kind nurse, a loving mother, and back from the South of France I shall bring health, spring, hope. That is a wise speech. The man went to the South of France for the right thing, and he secured it, and he has returned in full enjoyment of the blessing he went in quest of. There are those who go to the Bible timorously, and saith one, Do you know there are two theories about the first chapters of Genesis? Are you aware that some persons have doubts whether the serpent really did speak to Eve? Are you aware that some parts of the Pentateuch are postexilian in their composition? Saith the man, What is this craze? what are these long words? what can be the meaning of this muddle of polysyllables? I go to the Bible to see if the fresh air blows there, if there be aught spoken to the soul, if there be any touch that makes me live again: as to Genesis, whether it be first or last or midst, pre-exilian or postexilian, Mosaic or written by John the Baptist, these are not the questions I am asking. I am saying, what is the living line of the book? what is the inner, eternal, redeeming spirit of the book? That man's Bible can never be taken from him; he has laid up riches where moth and dust do not consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal. That Bible is hidden in the heart; that revelation is an eternal treasure; the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that this is the very revelation of God. In this sense the Bible asks only to be read—to be read patiently, thoroughly, sympathetically, to see if it cover not the whole breadth of life, answering all its deepest inquiries, and breathing gospels upon its broken-hearted penitence. Art thou a master of Israel, and hast been seeking to bolster up some book simply because thou hast been afraid that if its mechanical structure be altered its spirit will evaporate? That is not mastership; that is bondage. How is it that the Bible outlives all assailants, and breathes its benediction upon awakening and enlightening souls? It is because the spirit of the book is the Spirit of God; because the message of the book is a message of righteousness, atonement, reconciliation, spiritual purification, and the ultimate triumph of grace over sin.
There is a theologian's Bible as there is a physiologist's body. An interview with a physician would frighten you. Were he to tell you all his polysyllables you would no longer believe you are alive; were he to ask you about the curious nomenclature of the body, you would declare that you had no such things in you, you would protest vehemently that you never heard of them. And yet he would be perfectly right—he is a physiologist, and no physiologist could ever be content without an enormous quantity of Latin; he thinks that physiology depends upon the Latin language for its real construction and the proper application of all its principles. There is an analyst's water. If you were to spend a day with an analyst you would never take a glass of water more as long as you live; he could frighten you out of water-drinking, and he could frighten you out of bread-eating; if he lay before you the exact constituents of the last meal you consumed you would regret that you ever rose from your bed. But there is another body, the body that was rocked by your mother, and sustained by your friends; there is another water, there is another bread, there are great ministries in nature of the motherliest sort, meant to sustain and cheer and enrich and consolidate our life. So there is a theologian's Bible; let the theologians keep it: it has never done them any good, and it will never do anybody any good. The Bible we all want is our mother's Bible, the heart Bible, the Bible that stoops down to the life to kiss it and bless it and lift it up, and breathe into it daily inspiration of divine sustenance and assurance of immortality. That Bible is open to the poorest woman, the tiniest child, the wisest man; it is the world's wide-open book, printed in infinite letters, so that the blind may see it.
Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not the meaning of Christ in the constitution of his visible body the Church? Yet what gateways we have put up round the Church. We have made it a theologian's church; we have admitted into the Church persons who have very clear views. Be perfectly sure that if any man has very clear views he never saw the Church. So-called clear views have torn the Cross of Christ into splinters. The only view I can have of my Saviour is that he loved me, and gave himself for me, and has by his Spirit told me to say this in all my prayers, and by saying it with my heart I shall lay hold upon eternal life. This would involve a great many persons being in the Church who are at present frightened away from it. Jesus Christ never frightened any man away from himself who really wanted simply and sincerely to see him and know his message and purpose. The disciples would have had a very extraordinary Church; there would have been no children in it, there would have been no women in it who were so earnest as to cry after the Master for pity and for the exercise of his power; there would have been nobody in it but themselves. It is a sophism of the human heart that only a man's self is really the prime favourite of heaven. The Church is hindered when one man asks another to agree with him in opinion. What is your opinion? how long have you had that opinion? who gave you the right to impose that opinion upon any other living creature? Let us develop individual responsibility; let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind: every one of us shall give account of himself to Christ. Let each soul have its own view, its own Saviour, its own rapture, its own assured heaven, and let us find our agreement in our spiritual division, and not in our intellectual monotony.
Art thou a master of Israel, and art thou fearing death? Now there is no death: death is abolished: the body drops away, but the body never truly lived; it was enlivened, but it never lived: to live is to live for ever. If masters of Israel are afraid of death, and afraid because there is panic in the heart, and afraid of loss, and afraid of affliction, and afraid because of tumult, where is their Christianity? Mastery in everything means repose; mastery means peace; mastery means rest: he only is a master of Israel who says, Let the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, still God is our refuge and strength; let all the seas thunder themselves into everlasting destruction, no tempest can touch the river which makes glad the city of God.
Almighty God, our cry is for thy love. Thou hast made known thy love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Without thy love we cannot live; thy love gives us light and life and hope and joy. God is love. May we be like God; may we live in God through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Help us to know that we live and have our being in God; take out of us all unworthy self-trust, and may we live by faith and not by sight: Lord, increase our faith. The just shall live by faith. We would live that higher life, we would behold that furthest outlook, we would see descending heaven: then shall our life be glad with great joy, nor shall our gladness be content with itself, it shall go out unto others, until all men who know us feel the sunshine of our joy. Enable us to know ourselves, our proper measure before God and before one another. May we never cease to do that which is right in the sight of God, come what may; may our purpose be one of righteousness and charity, and may our course be straight on, knowing that righteousness and charity can only end in heaven. Thou knowest the burdens we have to bear, thou knowest all the tears we shed in secret; thou knowest our hearts and lives altogether: minister unto us according to our need, keep us by thy love, sustain us by thy tender grace, and give us confidence that when this present day shall cease our sun of life shall arise upon the clime of heaven. Help every one of us to be better; help the best to be better still: speak a word of hope to the soul that has no hope in itself; and call men who are wandering far away back to the home they have left. Let grace, mercy, and peace be shed abroad abundantly upon us; may our hearts be warm with the love of God. Hear thou in heaven thy dwelling-place, and when thou hearest, Lord, forgive. Amen.