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John 3:7-12

7. Wonder not that I said to thee, You must be born again. 8. The wind bloweth where it pleaseth, and thou hearest its voice; but knowest not whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. 9. Nicodemus answered, and said to him, How can these things be? 10. Jesus answered, and said to him, Thou art a teacher of Israel, and knowest you not these things? 11. Verily, verily, I say to thee, We speak what we know, and testify what we have seen; and you receive not our testimony. 12. If ‘I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

 

7. Wonder not. This passage has been tortured by commentators in various ways. Some think that Christ reproves the gross ignorance of Nicodemus and other persons of the same class, by saying that it is not wonderful, if they do not comprehend that heavenly mystery of regeneration, since even in the order of nature they do not perceive the reason of those things which fall under the cognizance of the senses. Others contrive a meaning which, though ingenious, is too much forced: that, “as the wind blows freely, so by the regeneration of the Spirit we are set at liberty, and, having been freed from the yoke of sin, run voluntarily to God. Equally removed from Christ’s meaning is the exposition given by Augustine, that the Spirit of God exerts his power according to his own pleasure. A better view is given by Chrysostom and Cyril, who say that the comparison is taken from the wind, and apply it thus to the present passage: though its power be felt, we know not its source and cause.” While I do not differ greatly from their opinion, I shall endeavor to explain the meaning of Christ with greater clearness and certainty.

I hold by this principle, that Christ borrows a comparison from the order of nature. Nicodemus reckoned that what he had heard about regeneration and a new life was incredible, because the manner of this regeneration exceeded his capacity. To prevent him from entertaining any scruple of this sort, Christ shows that even in the bodily life there is displayed an amazing power of God, the reason of which is concealed. For all draw from the air their vital breath; we perceive the agitation of the air, but know not whence it comes to us or whither it departs. If in this frail and transitory life God acts so powerfully that we are constrained to admire his power, what folly is it to attempt to measure by the perception of our own mind his secret work in the heavenly and supernatural life, so as to believe no more than what we see? Thus Paul, when he breaks out into indignation against those who reject the doctrine of the resurrection, on the ground of its being impossible that the body which is now subject to putrefaction, after having been reduced to dust and to nothing, should be clothed with a blessed immortality, reproaches them for stupidity in not considering that a similar display of the power of God may be seen in a grain of wheat; for the seed does not spring until it; has been putrefied, (1 Corinthians 15:36, 37.) This is the astonishing wisdom of which David exclaims,

O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all,
(Psalm 104:24)

They are therefore excessively stupid who, having been warned by the common order of nature, do not rise higher, so as to acknowledge that the hand of God is far more powerful in the spiritual kingdom of Christ. When Christ says to Nicodemus that he ought not to wonder, we must not understand it in such a manner as if he intended that we should despise a work of God, which is so illustrious, and which is worthy of the highest admiration; but he means that we ought not to wonder with that kind of admiration which hinders our faith. For many reject as fabulous what they think too lofty and difficult. In a word, let us not doubt that by the Spirit of God we are formed again and made new men, though his manner of doing this be concealed from us.

8. The wind bloweth where it pleaseth. Not that, strictly speaking, there is will in the blowing, but because the agitation is free, and uncertain, and variable; for the air is carried sometimes in one direction and sometimes in another. How this applies to the case in hand; for if it flowed in a uniform motion like water, it would be less miraculous.

So is every one that is born of the Spirit. Christ means that the movement and operation of the Spirit of God is not less perceptible in the renewal of man than the motion of the air in this earthly and outward life, but that the manner of it is concealed; and that, therefore, we are ungrateful and malicious, if we do not adore the inconceivable power of God in the heavenly life, of which we behold so striking an exhibition in this world, and if we ascribe to him less in restoring the salvation of our soul than in upholding the bodily frame. The application will be somewhat more evident, if you turn the sentence in this manner: Such is the power and efficacy of the Holy Spirit in the renewed man

9. How can these things be? We see what is the chief obstacle in the way of Nicodemus. Every thing that he hears appears monstrous, because he does not understand the manner of it; so that there is no greater obstacle to us than our own pride; that is, we always wish to be wise beyond what is proper, and therefore we reject with diabolical pride every thing that is not explained to our reason; as if it were proper to limit the infinite power of God to our poor capacity. We are, indeed, permitted, to a certain extent, to inquire into the manner and reason of the works of God, provided that we do so with sobriety and reverence; but Nicodemus rejects it as a fable, on this ground, that he does not believe it to be possible. On this subject we shall treat more fully under the Sixth Chapter.

10. Thou art a teacher of Israel. As Christ sees that he is spending his time and pains to no purpose in teaching so proud a man, he begins to reprove him sharply. And certainly such persons will never make any progress, until the wicked confidence, with which they are puffed up, be removed. This is, very properly, placed first in order; for in the very matter in which he chiefly plumes himself on his acuteness and sagacity, Christ censures his ignorance. He thought, that not to admit a thing to be possible would be considered a proof of gravity and intelligence, because that man is accounted foolishly credulous who assents to what is told him by another, before he has fully inquired into the reason. But still Nicodemus, with all his magisterial haughtiness, exposes himself to ridicule by more than childish hesitation about the first principles. Such hesitation, certainly, is base and shameful. For what religion have we, what knowledge of God, what rule of living well, what hope of eternal life, if we do not believe that man is renewed by the Spirit of God? There is an emphasis, therefore, in the word these; for since Scripture frequently repeats this part of doctrine, it ought not to be unknown even to the lowest class of beginners. It is utterly beyond endurance that any man should be ignorant and unskilled in it, who professes to be a teacher in the Church of God.

11. We speak what we know. Some refer this to Christ and John the Baptist; others say that the plural number is used instead of the singular. For my own part, I have no doubt that Christ mentions himself in connection with all the prophets of God, and speaks generally in the person of all. Philosophers and other vain-glorious teachers frequently bring forward trifles which they have themselves invented; but Christ claims it as peculiar to himself and all the servants of God, that they deliver no doctrine but what is certain. For God does not send ministers to prattle about things that are unknown or doubtful, but trains them in his school, that what they have learned from himself they may afterwards deliver to others. Again, as Christ, by this testimony, recommends to us the certainty of his doctrine, so he enjoins on all his ministers a law of modesty, not to put forward their own dreams or conjectures — not to preach human inventions, which have no solidity in theme but to render a faithful and pure testimony to God. Let every man, therefore, see what the Lord has revealed to him, that no man may go beyond the bounds of his faith; and, lastly, that no man may allow himself to speak any thing but what he has heard from the Lord. It ought to be observed, likewise, that Christ here confirms his doctrine by an oath, that it may have full authority over us.

You receive not our testimony. This is added, that the Gospel may lose nothing on account of the ingratitude of men. For since few persons are to be found who exercise faith in the truth of God, and since the truth is everywhere rejected by the world, we ought to defend it against contempt, that its majesty may not be held in less estimation, because the whole world despises it, and obscures it by impiety. Now though the meaning of the words be simple and one, still we must draw from this passage a twofold doctrine. The first is, that our faith in the Gospel may not be weakened, if it have few disciples on the earth; as if Christ had said, Though you do not receive my doctrine, it remains nevertheless certain and durable; for the unbelief of men will never prevent God from remaining always true. The other is, that they who, in the present day, disbelieve the Gospel, will not escape with impunity, since the truth of God is holy and sacred. We ought to be fortified with this shield, that we may persevere in obedience to the Gospel in opposition to the obstinacy of men. True indeed, we must hold by this principle, that our faith be founded on God. But when we have God as our security, we ought, like persons elevated above the heavens, boldly to tread the whole world under our feet, or regard it with lofty disdain, rather than allow the unbelief of any persons whatever to fill us with alarm. As to the complaint which Christ makes, that his testimony is not received, we learn from it, that the word of God has, in all ages, been distinguished by this peculiar feature, that they who believed it were few; for the expression — you receive not — belongs to the greater number, and almost to the whole body of the people. There is no reason, therefore, that we should now be discouraged, if the number of those who believe be small.

12. If I have told you earthly things. Christ concludes that it ought to be laid to the charge of Nicodemus and others, if they do not make progress in the doctrine of the Gospel; for he shows that the blame does not lie with him, that all are not properly instructed, since he comes down even to the earth, that he may raise us to heaven. It is too common a fault that men desire to be taught in an ingenious and witty style. Hence, the greater part of men are so delighted with lofty and abstruse speculations. Hence, too, many hold the Gospel in less estimation, because they do not find in it high-sounding words to fill their ears, and on this account do not deign to bestow their attention on a doctrine so low and mean. But it shows an extraordinary degree of wickedness, that we yield less reverence to God speaking to us, because he condescends to our ignorance; and, therefore, when God prattles to us in Scripture in a rough and popular style, let us know that this is done on account of the love which he bears to us. 6060     “Pour l’amour de nous.” Whoever exclaims that he is offended by such meanness of language, or pleads it as an excuse for not subjecting himself to the word of God, speaks falsely; for he who cannot endure to embrace God, when he approaches to him, will still less fly to meet him above the clouds.

Earthly things. Some explain this to mean the elements of spiritual doctrine; for self-denial may be said to be the commencement of piety. But I rather agree with those who refer it to the form of instruction; for, though the whole of Christ’s discourse was heavenly, yet he spoke in a manner so familiar, that the style itself had some appearance of being earthly. Besides, these words must not be viewed as referring exclusively to a single sermon; for Christ’s ordinary method of teaching — that is, a popular simplicity of style — is here contrasted with the pompous and high-sounding phrases to which ambitious men are too strongly addicted.


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