VII. THE NEW BIRTH.
[Lincoln's Inn, Palm Sunday, March 16, 1856.]
St. John III. 3.
Jesus answered and said to him, Verily, verily, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
It is undoubtedly right to connect the beginning of this chapter with the latter verses of the preceding one. 'Now when He was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast, many believed in His name, when they saw the miracles which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for He knew what was in man.' I must ask you here, as everywhere else in St. John, to substitute the word signs for miracles. Our unfortunate adoption of this last word — which cannot be referred, as some of our careless translations may be, to the following of the Vulgate, for it has signs — has sadly weakened and perplexed the Evangelist's statements. Here, for instance, he does not tell us what the acts of Christ were which were done at the passover. He does not say whether He healed the sick, or cast out devils. He fixes our attention on this point, — that the acts were received by many of those who were gathered at the feast as signs. 'They believed on His name.' The word name, in every part of Scripture, expresses that which is invisible. It is the contrast to an idol, or that which may be seen. Even idolaters recognised the name of the god as that which was expressed by the outward image, as that which only the mind could recognise. We cannot, then, give less force to the phrase, 'They believed on His name,' than this, — they confessed a power within Him which put forth these outward manifestations of itself. We should not try to be more definite when we are describing the vague feelings of a people. One moment they might think, 'Some divine power is at work in Him; He is a Prophet.' At another, 'He is the Deliverer, the King we are looking for.' The passover was a time at which such opinions were most likely to be discussed, when parties were most likely to be formed about any new leader. The words which follow, 'But Jesus did not commit Himself to them,' indicate, I think, that such a party was ready to gather itself round Him. He did not covet their support. He did not show the least desire to make use of their services, as one claiming to be the Christ might have done. But the language was capable of another sense. It might denote the caution of a chieftain who was waiting till he had sounded the dispositions of his followers, till he had assurance from some competent witnesses of their fidelity. The notion of such prudence in One who came to give His life for the world, of such need of information in Him whose life was the light of men, was utterly revolting. St. John adds, that the reason of His not committing Himself to this party was, 'that He knew all men, and needed not that any should testify concerning Man: for He knew what was in Man.' They were not to discern and choose Him; He was to discern and choose them. He was not a King that a faction was to set up; He was the original Lord of men — ruling them not as a stranger, not as one who is separate from them, but as one possessing the most intimate knowledge of that which is distinct and peculiar in each man, and of the man that is in all.
That there should be many in the crowd at the passover — many of the ignorant expectants of a Christ — who thought that Jesus had given sufficient signs of His right to the name, is not surprising. They might be all the more willing to recognise Him, because He seemed to be of their class. But these signs had affected some to whom the thought of a Galilæan peasant must have been utterly scandalous. 'There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God: for no man can do these signs which you do, except God were with him.' The words express more than an individual opinion. Nicodemus must have been conversing with other members of the Sanhedrim. A suspicion that a new Teacher — perhaps a Prophet — with some unusual powers, had appeared, might be diffusing itself through the body. Where the powers were derived, whether the prophet was true or false, were still questions to be asked. It was a further question whether the Prophet had any claim to be considered the Christ. The people might easily arrive at that conclusion; a ruler would be disposed to reject it. Yet it might be the true one. Nicodemus would evidently like to know. He could not take the rash step of putting himself under the banner of one who might lead him to rebellion; but he would ascertain the fact privately, if he could.
The reply meets the thought in the heart of the speaker, not the words he had uttered. 'You wish to know whether I am about to set up a kingdom. "Verily, verily, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."' The phrase 'kingdom of God,' or 'kingdom of heaven,' is one which is continually recurring in the first three Evangelists; it may be said to be nearly their most characteristic phrase. It is not characteristic of St. John; he uses it rarely. But if we want a commentary upon every passage in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in which it is to be found; if we want to know why we hear of it in connection with the parables, — why the Gospel which the Apostles were to preach is called the Gospel of this kingdom, — I should point you to this verse and to the conversation which follows it. Nicodemus was expecting, in some way or other, to see the kingdom of God. Signs were to show who the divine King was; He would present Himself in such wise to His people, that they should have no doubt of Him and His authority. All this he thought would be granted by God, if He fulfilled His promises, and raised up the Son of David to sit upon David's throne. Was the hope a wrong one? Could less than a clear demonstration be a warrant for accepting any being clothed in human flesh as the divine Prince and Deliverer? Verily, nothing less. They must see the kingdom of God. It must reveal itself to them with an evidence which they could not gainsay. It must lay hold upon them as its subjects, de facto and de jure, with a compulsion not weaker but mightier than that with which the Roman empire had laid hold of them. The arguments of the Christ must be as decisive in their own kind as the arguments of the Cæsar.
But were they of the same kind? Our Lord says, 'Verily, verily, I say to you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' This language does not occur for the first time in our Gospel. We heard before that the divine Word 'came to His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God; which were born not of flesh, nor of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God.' Here is the announcement of another kind of birth from that which we call the natural birth. And yet it is not a portentous, unnatural birth. If the doctrine which is the foundation of this Gospel is true; if the Word that was with God and was God is Creator of men; if His life is the light of men; those who entertained His light, those who did not refuse to be penetrated by His life, became what they were meant to be: they fulfilled the purpose of Him who called them into existence. The power which He gave them to become sons of God was a power to become men, in the true sense of that word — to rise above the condition of animals.
When, therefore, our Lord tells Nicodemus that only those who were born again, or born from above (there is a justification for each rendering — ἄνωθεν, perhaps, unites the force of both), can see the kingdom of God, He tells him that the vision of the true state of man, — of that order which is intended for men, — is only given to those who receive the Light which lightens all men. Theirs is the nobler, better birth — the divine birth; and theirs is the power of perceiving that kingdom which surrounds all men, to which all are subject, but which, being the kingdom of God, and not the kingdom of the Cæsar, does not act upon men through material armies, and tax-gatherers at the receipt of custom, — does not manifest its power and majesty to the outward eye. This kingdom is over the man himself, not over his accidents and circumstances; he must be a man, not a creature of these accidents and circumstances, in order to see it; and that capacity of being a man he must derive not from flesh and blood, but from the Father of his spirit.
This conversation by night must have been remembered and recorded by Nicodemus himself. As he repeated it to St. John, — probably long after that day when he came with spices to anoint the body of Jesus in the tomb, — the words which had been spoken to him, and the words which he had spoken, must have come fresh to his memory; the meaning of the one, the deep ignorance of the other, seen by the light that fell upon them from the experiences and the revelations of after years. As he was an honest man, he did not suppress or soften his own answer to the 'Verily, verily,' of Christ. 'How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born?' In truth, he had no cause to be ashamed of himself for having stated his difficulty in that rough way. To veil it under seemly phrases would have been no evidence of enlightenment.
The Jewish doctors, it is said, not uncommonly described the Gentile as one who became a little child, who began his life anew, when he was received by baptism into the privileges of their outer court. If so, Nicodemus must have been familiar with the expression; but it must have been to him, and to most who availed themselves of it, a mere figure of rhetoric — one of those counters which pass among religious people, which have a certain value at first, but which become at length so depreciated that they serve no purpose but to impose on those who take and those who give them. However little Nicodemus might know of Jesus, he did know that He was not resorting to figures of rhetoric — that if He spoke of a birth, He meant a birth; and he must have perceived that what He said did not apply to sinners of the Gentiles, but to him, the religious ruler of the Jews. It was, therefore, a good and healthy sign, a proof of the power of the new Teacher, that he forgot the conventionalisms of the Sanhedrim, and spoke out coarsely and naturally, as a peasant might have done. Our Lord, surely, passed this judgment upon him; for, instead of reprimanding him for his question, He meets it in the most direct manner possible: 'Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say to you, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' The object of Nicodemus in coming to ask Him about His kingdom, is still kept prominently forward; but there is a noticeable change in our Lord's words. He had spoken of seeing the kingdom of God; He now speaks of entering into it. Each expression may, unquestionably does, involve the other; still they are distinct. To see a kingdom, is to have an apprehension of its reality and of its nature; to enter into a kingdom, is to become a subject of it. And then the thought forces itself upon us, 'How can any one choose to become a subject of God's kingdom? Is he not a subject of it necessarily? If God is the King of kings and Lord of lords, can he escape out of His kingdom? Is he not bound by the laws of it, whether he likes them or no?' We cannot state this difficulty to ourselves too frequently; we cannot meditate upon it too earnestly. Our consciences tell us that we are the subjects of God's kingdom; that its laws do bind us; that they avenge themselves upon us when we break them. But our consciences tell us, also, that there is rebellion in us against that which holds us so fast, which executes its decrees so certainly. This is the contradiction, it exists — it is a fact, the fact, of our lives. No theories can get rid of it. But who shall tell us how to get rid of it? Before we can understand what could remove it, before we can even ask with any seriousness to have it removed, we must know and feel how deep the contradiction is. Suppose the government of God should be a government over our wills, rebellion in those very wills must be the most fearful we can conceive of. And the entering into the kingdom of God must import the return of the spirit of man to its allegiance, — the claim of a voluntary spiritual being to be under the will with which it is its misery to be at strife. John had come preaching, 'the kingdom of God is at hand,' calling men to repentance, baptizing with water, proclaiming One who would baptize with the Holy Ghost. When Jesus says to Nicodemus, 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,' He takes up the teaching of his forerunner, He expounds his act, He announces the fulfilment of his promise. The being baptized with water, He declares to be the act of submission to the Father of spirits, — the sign which a man gives that he accepts His government, that he surrenders himself to it. It is a surrender, — that is the only word we can find, — a confession by the human will of its impotency. It must be guided, governed, inspired, or it can do nothing, it can only struggle against its blessedness. The acceptance, therefore, of this water-sign, by a creature conscious of his own irregular strivings, of his separation from God, is the expression of a desire that God would act upon his will, would raise it to its proper condition, would quicken it to the acts and impulses which belong to it, — in other words, would baptize it with the Spirit.
We see, then, how water and the Spirit are connected with the entrance into the kingdom of God, — the kingdom over the spirit of man. Our Lord goes on to explain that He had used the word birth in its relation to both, not carelessly, but strictly. 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' One is as true and actual a birth as the other. The coming forth of the fleshly creature into light, its beginning to breathe, the voice which accompanies that breathing, are not more undoubted facts — very mysterious facts they must appear to all who reflect upon them — than the coming forth of a spirit out of its darkness, than the sense of light which startles it, than its breathings, than its cry.
I have introduced this thought concerning breath and the voice of the new-born child, because it seems to me to connect itself with the words which follow, and to remove a confusion which our translation of them has introduced into our minds: 'Marvel not that I said to you, You must be born again. The wind bloweth where it lists, and you hearest the sound thereof but can not tell where it comes, or where it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.' The philological objections to this rendering of the words are very numerous. In the first place, ἄνεμος, not πνεῦμα, is the proper word for wind. But suppose, by reducing the wind to a faint low breathing, we escape from that objection, there is the second, that πνεῦμα is used twice in the same sentence in different senses. Yet this is a slight fault compared with the next. We actually attribute will to the wind; it blows where it lists, ὅπου θέλει. After this flagrant departure from all scriptural and spiritual analogy, it is scarcely necessary to mention another, which is, nevertheless, not unimportant, and is of the same kind. Φωνὴ is the articulate voice of a living being; it is here changed into a natural sound. Now, wherever violence is done to the truth of language, I believe more or less of violence is done to some higher truth. What need have we to introduce the sighing and soughing of the wind, in order to make our Lord's explanation more clear and forcible, if we understand Him to say, — 'All the breathings of God's Spirit are free, not fixed and fettered by material or mechanical conditions. You hear His voice continually; but where the Spirit comes, where it is going, you know not. And so it is with him that is born of the Spirit. The process of birth cannot be perceived by you; you hear the voice which indicates birth, you see the signs and tokens of life; but how the spiritual being came to be what he is, you know not.' If we take this to be what our Lord told Nicodemus, and what He is telling us, are we not to learn that, at every moment of the day, the Spirit of the eternal God is moving around us, speaking to us, acting upon us; but that His mightiest operation, that which alone fulfils His purpose towards us, is when He enables us to become the willing servants and children of our Father in heaven?
'How can these things be?' asked the doctor of the Sanhedrim, in a bewilderment which many of us can well understand. It was, indeed, a strange new world into which he was transported; it seemed to him a world of dreams, because he had been himself so much amidst dreams, because he had known so little of realities. 'Are you a master of Israel,' was the rejoinder, 'and know not these things?' 'What have you been learning all your life? what have you been teaching your countrymen? Have you not been reading of an unseen God, who holds converse with men, — of a God of the spirits of all flesh? Have you not believed that this God is a living God, as He was when He appeared to Moses in the bush? when He touched the lips of Isaiah with fire in the Temple? Have you not understood that He is your God, as much as He was the God of any Israelite to whom the commandments were spoken on the Mount? Have you not bidden the people of Israel of this day to believe that He is their God?' 'Verily, I say to you, That which we have known, we speak; that which we have seen, we testify.' 'This is the characteristic of every true teacher, of every called prophet. This has been the characteristic of John; this is mine. We do not speak things that we have learnt by report — things that have been transmitted to us; we speak the truths with which we have been brought face to face.' 'And you receive not our testimony.' 'These things we tell you of, because they are about you, because you are created to know them, and have fellowship with them. And you turn away from them in search of things that are at a distance from you — of formalities and trifles which you call by lofty names, which give rise to endless disputings, but which do not concern you as human beings in the least.' 'And if I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe if I tell you of the heavenly things?' 'If these things which have to do with your daily lives, which bear upon your ordinary business, which you can test by the experience of your failures and your sins, — if these seem to you incredible, how will it be if I speak to you of God Himself, of His purposes, of His nature?'
His words imply that He has a right to speak of these things also, that He is able to speak of them. On what ground could a power so amazing rest? He goes on to declare the ground of it: 'For no man has ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.' Of all paradoxes, this appears to be the greatest. And yet if the heart of this ruler — if the heart of any man — has been delivered from the oppressive fears and superstitions that connect themselves with the thoughts of a distant heaven in space, which looks coldly and drearily down upon earth — of a distant heaven in time, which stands aloof from all human sympathies; if ever the belief in heaven has been regarded as a spring of hope and energy to the sons of men; if ever they have learnt not to think of earth as a place in which they were to cozen and lie for threescore years and ten, and heaven as a place to which some might escape, if they made compensations to the Ruler of it for the evils which they had done in the other region of His government; that deliverance, those better and nobler thoughts have come from the paradox which is uttered in this verse. Poor people — utterly bewildered by all they have heard from divines and masters in Israel about heaven, and the way in which they are to obtain heaven — have taken this sentence home to their hearts, — that the Son of Man, He who suffered for them and with them on earth, is He who has ascended into heaven, and who is always in heaven. They have entered into the kingdom of heaven with those spirits which were born of the divine Spirit, as they entered into the kingdom of earth when they were born of the flesh; they have seen the kingdom with the spiritual eye which God has opened, as clearly as they have seen the trees and flowers of earth with the fleshly eye which He has opened.
How He opens that eye, and what He reveals to it when it is opened, the next words will tell us. 'And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes 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.'
How can I introduce such a passage as this at the close of a sermon? Because I would not allow my sense of the immense worth and importance of every clause, of every word, of which it consists, to hinder you from tracing the method of our Lord's discourse. The question about the kingdom of God lay at the threshold of the dialogue. Here He declares how He is to claim His kingdom, to what throne He is to be raised, that all men might confess Him as their King. Jesus might have spoken of the exaltation of David or of Solomon as the pattern of His own. He goes back to an older and sublimer event in Jewish history. The brazen serpent to which the eyes of those were turned who had been bitten by the serpents in the wilderness, the common life-giving, life-restoring object, — this was the sign which He chose of that dominion which should stretch from sea to sea, which should reach to the lowest depths, and work the mightiest deliverance. 'You would know if I am a King. You will see me lifted upon a cross: there you may learn what I am. Whosoever sees the Son of Man, his Lord and King there, — whosoever believes and trusts Him there, — will rise up indeed a new man, will be saved from the plague which is destroying him, will awaken to health and freedom. He will not perish in his wretched, selfish isolation; he will have that life which is the common life of all.'
And why? He will see there the love of God to him and to the world. The only-begotten Son upon that cross will declare Him as He has always declared Him; but the revelation will be immeasurably fuller and clearer than it has ever been. He from whom men have turned as their enemy, as plotting their destruction, as pledged to destroy the world, will be manifested as their Saviour and its Saviour. That which has been the curse and misery and death of man, his separation from God, his hatred of God, will cease for those who believe that in this Son of Man He is making known what He wills, what He is. They will have that eternal life of trust and love which is His own life.
And therefore He goes on: 'He that believes on Him is not condemned: but he that believes not is condemned already, because he has 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 does evil hates the light, neither comes to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that does truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are created in God.' The belief that Jesus does by His cross manifest the tender love of God to mankind, that in Him God's whole will and mind and purpose are revealed to men, — this takes away the condemnation from their consciences; this restores them to trust and liberty and hope. And therefore, conversely, not to believe this, is to have a sense of alienation and distance from God, to feel that there is an abyss between us and Him which has never been closed — an abyss into which we are casting our sacrifices and works of devotion, in the dream that it may at last be filled up; while all our efforts, being efforts of discontent and distrust, efforts to conciliate a foe, widen and deepen it. Our Lord pronounces this unbelief to be its own all-sufficing punishment. 'The light is there; you do not love it; you fly from it. What worse state can there be than that? You hug the evil deeds from which you might be delivered. You choose the evil which is contrary to the being and nature of the blessed God in whose image you are made. What torment can there be so great as that?'
I spoke of the new birth, or the birth from above, by which men are made capable of seeing the kingdom of God, as one of which those may become conscious who are conscious of a rebellious will, and who would fain submit to their rightful Ruler. This latter part of the dialogue confirms and enlarges that statement. He who is bitten with serpents may turn to the brazen serpent; he who has been alienated from God may become at peace with Him. But our Lord's words also discover to us another truth, different from this, not at all inconsistent with it. They show us that our consciousness is not in any sense the foundation of God's kingdom, that His love is the foundation of it. They make us understand that the revelation of that Love is in very deed the reconciliation and regeneration of the world; that we may claim all as included in that reconciliation and regeneration; that our baptism of water and the Spirit, while it gives all warrant for conscious repentance and faith, must comprehend the unconscious, must declare upon what their consciousness is to stand. They are sons of God. God's Spirit is given them, that they may grow into the knowledge of their sonship, that they may be able to live in conformity with it.
The conclusion of this memorable discourse also takes off all the edge which has been given to those words, in the earlier part of it, in which it is said, 'the Spirit breathes where He wills.' I have treated that language as expressing the entire freedom of His operations, His independence on material agents as well as on the will of the creature. But if any one concludes that the Spirit does not will that all men should believe and come to the knowledge of the truth, he must deny that He is the Spirit of that God who sent not His Son to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Reach for the Calling Creator
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.