Christ’s first visit to Jerusalem, after His baptism, appears to have been a brief one; not longer, perhaps, than that usually paid by those who went up to the Passover. Besides the cleansing of the temple He wrought some miracles which are left unrecorded, but which we may believe were of the same kind as His subsequent ones, and these were generally miracles of healing. Many believed on Him when they saw these miracles performed; believed on Him as a wonderworker, as a man who had the great power of God at His command; but their faith scarcely went further, involved in it little or no recognition of His true character and office. Although they believed in Him, Jesus did not believe in them (for it is the same word which is used in the two cases). Knowing what was in them, as He knew what was in all men, undeceived by appearance or profession, He entered into no close or friendly relations with them; made no hasty or premature discovery of Himself.
But there was one man to whom He did commit himself on the occasion of this first and short residence in Jerusalem, to whom He did make such a discovery of himself, as we shall presently see He never made to any other person in the whole course of His ministry. This was a man of the Pharisees, one of the sect that became the most bitter persecutors of Christ; a ruler, too, of the Jews, a man well educated, of good position and in high office; a member of the Sanhedrin. He was one of the body that not long ago had sent the deputation down to the Jordan to inquire about the Baptist. He knew all about John’s ministry, about his announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand, that there was one coming after him who was to baptize not with water but with the Holy Ghost. He had been wondering what this ministry of John could mean, when Jesus appeared in the city, cleansed the temple, wrought those miracles. He saw that among the class to which He belonged, the appearance and acts of the young Nazarene, who had assumed and exercised such an authority within the courts of the temple, and when challenged had given such an unsatisfactory reply, had excited nothing but distrust and antipathy, however, in which he did not, could not share. He could not concur with those who spake of Him as an ignorant rustic, a mere blind zealot, whom a fit of fanaticism had driven to do what He did in the temple; still less could he agree with those who spake of Him as an imposter, a deceiver of the people. We do not know what words of Christ he heard, what acts of His he witnessed; but the impression had come upon him, whencesoever it came, that He was altogether different from what his fellow-rulers were disposed to believe. Could this indeed be the man of whom John spake so much; could this indeed be the Christ, the Messiah for whom so many were longing? If it was, what new and higher truths would He unfold, what a glorious kingdom would He usher in! Restless and unsatisfied with things as they were, all his Pharisaistic strictness in the keeping of the law having failed to quiet his conscience, and give comfort to his heart, Nicodemus was looking about and longing for further light. Perhaps this stranger who has come to Jerusalem, may be able to help him. He may be poor and mean, a Galilean by birth, without official rank or authority; but what of that, if He be really what He seems, one clothed with a Divine commission; what of that, if He can quench in any way his thirst of heart and soul which burns within? If he could be seen by Him alone, Jesus would surely lay aside that reserve which he appeared to maintain, and instruct him fully as to the mysteries of the coming kingdom. But how could such a private interview be brought about. He might send for Him; and sent for by one in his position, Jesus might not refuse to come. But then it would be noised abroad that he had been entertaining the Nazarene in his dwelling. Or he might go to Him when He was teaching in public, but then it would be seen and known of all men that he had paid Him an open mark of respect. He was not prepared to face either of these alternatives; he was too timid, thought too much of what his companions and friends and the general public of the city might think or say. Yet he is too eager to throw the chance away. He must see Jesus, and as his fears keep him from going to or sending for Him by day, he goes by night, breaks in upon His retirement, asks and obtains the audience.
There was something wrong, no doubt, in his choosing such a time and way for the interview. It would have been a manlier, a more heroic thing for him to have braved all danger and risen above all fear of man. But whatever blame we may choose on this ground to attach to Nicodemus, let it not obscure our perception of his obvious honesty and earnestness, his intense desire for further enlightenment, his willingness to receive instruction. He came by night, but he was the only one of his order who came at all. He came by night, but it was not to gratify an idle curiosity, but in the disquiet of a half-awakened conscience to seek for peace. Rabbi, he says, as soon as he finds himself in Christ’s presence. He salutes Him with all respect. The Rabbis of the temple would have scorned the claim of one so young in years, unknown in any of their schools, who had given no proof of his acquaintance with their laws and their traditions,—to be regarded as one of them. But the ruler in all likelihood by many years Christ’s senior, and one who on the other grounds might have counted on being the saluted rather than the saluter, does not hesitate to address Him thus: “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.” He shows at once his respect, his candor, his intelligence, and his faith. He, does not doubt that those are real miracles which Jesus had been working; he is ready to trace to its true source the power employed in their accomplishment; he is prepared at once to acknowledge that the worker of such miracles must be one sent and sanctified by God. In saying so, he knows that he is saying more than perhaps any other man of his station in Jerusalem would be ready to say. He thinks that he says enough to win for himself a favorable reception. Yet, he is speaking far below the truth, much under his half-formed conceptions and beliefs. It is but as a teacher, not as a prophet, much less the great prophet, that he addresses Jesus.
One might have expected that, having addressed him as such, he would go on to put the questions to which he presumed that such a teacher could give replies. But he pauses, perhaps imagining that, gratified by such a visit, pleased at being saluted thus by one of the rulers, Jesus will salute him in return, and save him the trouble of inquiry by making some disclosures of the new doctrine which as a teacher sent from God, He had come to teach; or by telling him something more of the new kingdom which so many were expecting to see set up. How surprised he must have been when so abruptly, yet so solemnly, without exchange of salutation or word of preface, Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Such a man as Nicodemus could scarcely have been so stupid as to believe that, in speaking of being born again, Jesus meant a second birth of the body. He is so disconcerned, however, disappointed, perplexed, besides being perhaps a little irritated, by both the manner and the substance of the grave, emphatic utterance—one which, however general in its terms, was obviously spoken with direct and personal reference—that, in his confusion, he seizes upon the expression as the only one that had as yet conveyed any definite idea to his mind. As affording him some ground of exception, some material for reply, and taking it in its literal sense, he says: “How can a man be born again when he is old, old as I am? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” The wise and gentle Teacher in whose hands he now is, takes no notice of the folly or petulance of the remark. He repeats what He had said, modifying, however, His expression, so that Nicodemus could not fail to see of what kind of second birth it was that He was speaking, “Verily, verily, ‘I say unto you, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Had Nicodemus only had time at first to collect his thoughts, he would have remembered that it was no new term, framed now for the first time, that Jesus had been employing in speaking of a second birth; it being a proverbial expression with his countrymen with reference to those who became proselytes to the Jewish faith, and were admitted as such into the Jewish community, that they were as men newborn. The outward mode of admitting such proselytes to the enjoyment of Jewish privileges was by baptism, by washing with water. John had adopted this rite, and by demanding that all Jews should be baptized with the baptism of repentance, as a preparation on their part for the coming of the kingdom, he had in fact already proclaimed, that, as every heathen man became as a new man on entering into the commonwealth of Israel, so every Jewish man must become a new man before entering into that new kingdom which the Messiah was to introduce and establish. It was virtually to symbolize the importance and necessity of repentance—that change of mind and heart which formed the burden of his preaching, as a qualification in all candidates for admission into the kingdom—that John came baptizing with water. But he took great pains to inform his hearers that, while he baptized with water, there was one coming immediately, who was to baptize with the Holy Ghost. Was it likely than, or we may say, was it possible that, when Nicodemus now heard Jesus say, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” he could fail to perceive the allusion to the water of baptism of John and the Spirit baptism of the Messiah?
In common with all his countrymen, Nicodemus had assumed that, be it what it might, come how or when it might, the Messianic Kingdom would be one within which their very birth as Jews would entitle them to be ranked. The popular delusion John had already, by his baptism and his teaching, done something to rectify. The full truth was reserved for Jesus to proclaim, and He does it now to Nicodemus. This master in Israel had come to Jesus to be taught; let him know then that it is not a new doctrine, but a new life which Jesus had come to proclaim and to impart. It is not by knowing so much, or believing in such truths, or practicing such duties that a man is to qualify himself for becoming a subject of the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ. First of all, as a necessary preliminary, he must be born again; born of the Spirit, have spiritual life imparted, before he can see so, as to apprehend its real nature, before he can enter so as to partake of its true privileges, the kingdom of God. This kingdom is not an outward or a national one. It is a kingdom exclusively of the new-born—of those who have been begotten of the Spirit—of those who have been born again, not of blood, nor of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. For that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
A mystic thing it looks to Nicodemus, this second birth,—this birth of the Spirit; secret, invisible, impalpable ; its origin and issues hidden, remote. Marvel not, says Jesus, at its mysteriousness. The night is quiet around you, not a sound of bending branch or rustling leaf comes from the neighboring wood but now the air is stirred as by an invisible hand; the sigh of the night-breeze comes through the bending branches and rustling leaves; you hear the sound, but who can take you to that breeze’s birthplace, and show you where and how it was begotten; who can carry you to its place of sepulcher, and show you where and how it died? Not that the wind—the air in motion,—is a wit more willful or capricious, or less obedient to fixed laws than any other elements, or is chosen upon that account to represent the operations of God’s Spirit on the souls of men. All its movements are fixed and orderly; but as the movements of an invisible agent, they elude our observation; nor if you sought for a material emblem of the hiddenness with which the Holy Spirit works, could you find in the whole creation one more apt than that which Jesus used, when He said to Nicodemus, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Already a dim apprehension of that for which he was being apprehended of Christ has begun to dawn upon Nicodemus. He receives the truth as affirmed by Jesus as to the necessity of the new birth. He begins even to understand something as to its nature. Yet a haze still hangs over it. He wonders and he doubts,—giving expression to his feelings in the question, “How can these things be?”
If Christ’s answer may be taken as the best interpretation of this question. Nicodemus was now troubling himself not so much either with the nature or the necessity of the new birth, as with the manner of its accomplishment; the kind of instrumentality by which so great an inward change was to be effected; for, read aright, our Lord’s reply is not only a description of that instrumentality, but an actual employment of it. First, however, a gentle rebuke must be given: Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? Hast thou forgotten all that is written in the book of the law and in the prophets, about the coming of those days in which the Lord will pour out His Spirit upon all flesh; about the new covenant that the Lord will then enter into with His people, one of those two great provisions was to be this: “I will give them a heart, and I will put a new Spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh?” (Ezek. 11:19). What had so often and so long beforehand been thus spoken of was now about to be executed. The Spirit of God was waiting to do His gracious work, in begetting many sons and daughters to the Lord. Let Nicodemus be assured of this, on the testimony of one whose knowledge of the spirit-world was immediate and complete. He had spoken very confidently of his knowledge of Jesus. We know he had said, Thou art a teacher sent from God. Let him listen now to words of equal confidence, which no mere human teacher, though he were even sent by God, could well, upon such a subject, have employed: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, we speak that we know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.” This work of the Spirit in regenerating is connected with another—my own—in redeeming. The one is but an earthly operation; a work performed within men’s soul; but the other, how high have you to rise to trace to its source; how far to go to follow it to its issues? “If I have told you these earthy things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things.”
“And yet who can speak of these heavenly things as I do? You take me, Nicodemus, to be a teacher sent from God, perhaps you might even acknowledge me as a prophet; but know me that I am no other than He, the Son of God, the Son of man, coming down from heaven, ascending to heaven, but leaving not heaven behind me in my descent, bringing it along with me; while here on earth, being still in heaven. “No man, I say unto thee, hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.'”
And having thus proclaimed the ground and certainty of His knowledge of all the earthly and all the heavenly things pertaining to the kingdom, Jesus goes on to preach His own Gospel beforehand to Nicodemus, taking the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness, as the type to illustrate His own approaching lifting up on the cross, declaring this to be the great and gracious design of His death, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish but have eternal life: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”