Behold, you are called a Jew, and rest in the law, and make your boast of God,…
In His conversation with Nicodemus our Saviour enunciated the principle to which all Christian usefulness must eventually be referred (John 3:11). The model Pharisee asserted for himself the most edifying orthodoxy, flawless morality and eminent devotion; he claimed extraordinary keenness in discrimination, approving only what was excellent; he could inform the ignorant, illumine the darkened, give counsel to illumined adults, and help forward untaught children. Yet with all these assumptions the apostle seems to have discovered that which led him to rate such a creature as a mere spiritual quack. This man, so earnest against thieving, had a touch of dishonesty; so stern in pressing the penalties of the seventh commandment, had some sins which would look ill under scrutiny. In a word, he was instructing others with no word for himself. And so St. Paul reiterates the grand principle of the gospel: religious instruction is to be indorsed by the living experience of the instructor. Consider: —
I. THE GREAT COMMON NEED UNDER WHICH HUMANITY LIES. It has pleased God to make men instruments of good to each other. Hence the proclamation of the gospel is necessarily experimental. "Come all ye that fear God, and I will declare what He hath done for my soul." Naaman was just the person to tell lepers of the prophet who had bidden him go wash in the Jordan. Bartimeus was just the right one to lead blind men to Jesus, who had opened his eyes. Hence, it is perfectly natural that we demand of him who teaches that he should first have felt the truth he proffers. Otherwise he lays himself open to the taunt, "Physician, heal thyself!"
II. THE AIM OF ALL RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION. The conscience must be reached, and through its monitions the entire life must be influenced, or else all teaching is wasted. Nothing is so mysterious as the forms of operation which this inner monitor chooses. Sometimes it seems to render a man harder and more violent; and yet at that very wildest moment he is nearer yielding than ever before. Sometimes it melts a man into deep emotion; and yet we painfully discover afterward that this has been mere ebullition of excited feeling. Now, we cannot grow skilful in distinguishing these external shows, without diligent study of our own experience. Conscience must be watched in its working within our hearts. "As in water, face answereth to face; so the heart of man to man." That truth is most effective which, having proved itself forceful in reaching our own consciences, goes from its success there upon the intrenchments of another.
III. THE VARIETY OF FORMS EMPLOYED IN SCRIPTURE INSTRUCTION. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine," etc. But then, how much there is of it! and what room for skill in discriminating what doctrine, principle, or precept to apply in each given case. Now, many of our Sunday school teachers are at a loss here. When the tossed vessel is drifting, and a passenger lies at the point of death, are there none who hurry to the Bible, as a sailor to the medicine chest; and yet stand appalled at the formidable array of spiritual drugs, any one of which possibly might be helpful or hurtful, if only they could know which? How can we learn what phases of truth to present? Let the Scriptures be studied experimentally. Let the Christian teacher rework every principle he offers to others, first into his own mind, and outwork it into his own life.
IV. THE POWER OF A GODLY EXAMPLE. Men are imitative, and in nothing so much as religious observance. Moreover, they insist upon identifying a moral teacher with what he teaches. They will not suffer a limping man to propose an effective cure for lameness. Hence there can be no failure more ridiculous in the eyes of the world than that of a man who urges a truth and lives a lie. But, on the other hand, whenever fully possessed of the power of the gospel, and radiant with its light, a grand life goes about doing good, that life has a majestic driving force to it almost unlimited.
V. THE LAW OF THE HOLY SPIRIT'S ACTION. Truth is propagated not by transmission through mere symbols, but by radiation through conductors in contact. The lens of a burning glass will not only suffer the free passage of the sun's rays, but will concentrate them, until what they fall upon bursts into flame; meanwhile the lens itself will remain perfectly cool. Wonderful experiments of this sort have been performed with even a lens of ice, which kindled a fire and continued unmelted. You can find nothing, however, in religious matters to which this phenomenon would answer. The torch, not the burning glass, is the emblem of spiritual life; it flames while it illumines, and is warmed as it sets on fire. He influences others most who has been nearest in contact with Christ. No religious teacher can give more than he gets. Conclusion: Whichever way we look, then, we reach the same conclusion. The heart lies behind the hand which proffers religious truth.
1. We learn here the proper use to make of the Scriptures. All religious instruction must be received experimentally. Thus the Bible becomes personal in every one of its utterances. How is it now (see Isaiah 29:11, 12)? What renders the learned and the unlearned together so at fault is not want of education, but want of experience. It may be worth knowing, as a geographical fact, that there is no water in the Kidron valley save after a shower: it may be important to learn, as a historic fact, that Capernaum was located at Khan Minyeh; but this is not what is going to save souls. We must embody truth in life, and reduce vague information to vital and available help.
2. We learn to distinguish between gift and grace. Mere intellectual gift sometimes even hinders grace. "Christ," said Legh Richmond, "may be crucified between classics and mathematics." It is not our want of aptitudes for doing good which stands in our way, half so much as it is our want of communion with God. The rule is, "Oh! taste and see that the Lord is good!" Out of this experimental acquaintance with truth grows our power fitly to offer it. Scholarship is only a means to an end. The gospel light is much like the solar light; its beauty is not its efficiency. You may divide the sunbeam into seven beautiful colours, and not one alone nor all together will imprint an image on a daguerreotype plate. Just outside the spectrum, in the dark, there is one entirely invisible ray, called the chemical ray, which does all the work. No man ever saw it, no man every felt it; and yet this it is which bleaches and blackens a dull surface into figures of loveliness and life. I care not how luminous a man's personal or intellectual qualities may be; if he lacks, amid the showy beams that are shining, this one which is viewless — this efficient but inconspicuous beam of spiritual experience — all his endeavours will surely prove inoperative for good.
3. We learn here the advantage of seasons of discipline. In all the round of God's dealing with His children, there is nothing like suffering as an educator. Anything that loosens the hold of the soul on earthly things, and shuts it up to God, is valuable; but, as a preparation for usefulness, is priceless. Any man expert in sea life could have said all that the apostle said when he came forth to quiet the sailors in the midst of a shipwreck. The force of his counsel lay not so much in the prudence of what he suggested, as in the experience which was embodied in it — that "long abstinence" in which he had received his vision. One mysterious but remembered hour there was which gave his speech all its efficiency (Acts 17:22-25). It is just this which is the element of power in any counsel. The angel of experience is sent to one, and then he is ready to say, "I believe God!"
4. We learn the secret of all success, and the explanation of all failure. It would seem at first sight that truth is efficient in itself. But now we understand that first it must pass through the teacher's experience. When the plague was raging in Ireland, the priests gave out that if any man would take from his own fire a piece of burning peat and light his neighbour's fire with it, he would deliver the family from an attack of the disease. The whole region was instantly alive with brands passing to and fro. Oh! if superstition could do this much, ought not zeal to do more? But the kindling was to come from one's own hearthstone then; and the kindling must come from one's own heart now. Calvin's seal motto was a hand holding a heart on fire, with the legend, "I give thee all, I hold back nothing!" What we need is to have our entire level of Christian experience lifted. We are too busy about appliances and places and theories.
5. We learn the last essential of preparation for teaching. We must have the presence of the Holy Ghost. You see this most evidently in the case of Paul. They called him Paullus, because he was little. He had a distemper in his sight. His bodily presence was said to be weak, and his speech contemptible. But no man ever equalled him in power as a religious teacher.
(C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God,