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“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”—JOHN iii. 7.
EVERY man comes into the world wrapped in an atmosphere of wonder—an atmosphere from which his whole after-life is a prolonged effort to escape. The moment he opens his eyes this sense of wonder is upon him, and it never leaves him till he closes them on the greatest wonder—Death. Between these wonders, the first awaking and the last sleep, his life is spent—a long-drawn breath of mystery.
This sense of wonder is not an evil thing, although it is a thing to escape from. It is one of God’s earliest gifts, and one of God’s best gifts; but its usefulness to childhood or to manhood depends on the mind escaping from wonder into something else—on its passing out from wonder into knowledge. Hence God has made the desire to escape as natural to us as the desire to wonder.
Every one has been struck with the wonderment of a little child; but its desire to escape out of wonderment is a more marvellous thing. Its wonder becomes to it a constant craving for an entrance into the rest of information and fact. Its eager questionings, its impatience of its own ignorance, its insatiable requests for knowledge, these are alike the symptoms of its wonder and the evidences of its efforts to escape. And although, in adult life, the developed man is too cautious or too proud to display his wonder like the child, it is there in its thin disguise as inquiry, or investigation, or doubt. And there is no more exuberant moment in a man’s life than when this wonder works until it passes into truth, when reason flashes a sudden light into a groping mind, and knowledge whispers, “Marvel not!”
There are three possible ways in which different minds attempt to escape from this sense of wonder. They take refuge in knowledge, or in mystery, or in ignorance. The first of these, knowledge, satisfies the sense of wonder. The second, mystery, deepens it. The third, ignorance, crushes it. Marvel not at all, says ignorance, because you cannot know at all. Marvel more, says mystery, because you cannot know more. Marvel not, says knowledge, because you know enough. Christ in our text says, “Marvel not.”
It is the custom with most people, on every subject except one, to let their wonder escape in the last and only reasonable way—knowledge. The exception is Religion. Men will not trouble themselves with thorough knowledge about it. They protest it is too marvellous. When a man wonders at anything secular, he proceeds to inquire about it, and takes refuge in information. But when he wonders at anything sacred, he is wont to take refuge in mystery which is just his wonder deepened, or in ignorance, which is just his wonder neglected. Religion has been always treated by the world as if it contained no human, commonsense principles; and however right it may be to rank it on a platform by itself, it has probably suffered as much from having been regarded as too exclusively supernatural, as too exclusively natural. Men who would be very much ashamed to confess ignorance in secular things, have no scruples in saying, “I do not know” in religious things. Men who would consider it intellectual treason to permit their minds to be put off with inexactness or evasion in an intellectual question, feel it no disloyalty, on encountering a religious difficulty, to pass it by on the other side. The inscrutableness of God is made a veil for the neglect of God, the divine infinity becomes a plea for human ignorance, and the spirituality of the laws of heaven an excuse for failure and irresponsibility on earth. So there are times when Christ has to put His finger on this wonder, and tell us to wonder not.
Of all the subjects which men have found it convenient to banish into these regions of the unknowable, none suffer so frequently as this question of the being born again. The elements of mystery which are supposed to cluster about it are reckoned an ample excuse for even the most intelligent minds not trying to understand it, and more than a justification of any one who makes the attempt and fails.
The famous Rabbi, indeed, who was honoured with all this immortal discourse on Regeneration is a case in point. He was just on the verge of losing himself in this most treasonable despair. Never was man more puzzled than Nicodemus at the initial statement of this truth. Never was man’s sense of wonder more profoundly excited, never more in danger of losing itself in the mazes of mystery, never nearer taking the easy escape of drowning itself in ignorance, than when Jesus rallied the escaping faculties of the Jewish ruler by the message, “Marvel not.” The background working of that mind during its strange night-interview with Christ is full of suggestion and meaning. Twice already during the conversation had the great Teacher said in substance, “Ye must be born again.” And one of the strongest intellects of its time stood literally petrified before the words. Nicodemus first tries to summon courage and frame a wondering question in reply: “How can a man be born when he is old?”—less a question, perhaps, than a soliloquy of his own. He has heard the great Teacher’s statement, and he thinks upon it aloud, turning it over in his calm Hebrew mind till his very question returns upon himself and plunges him in deeper wonderment than before: “How can a man be born again when he is old?”
Next time he will venture no remark, and the Teacher’s words fall uninterrupted on the puzzled scholar’s ear: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He has given him the key to it. But Nicodemus sees it not. He seems to have plunged into a dream. His reverie has deepened till he stands absorbed in thought, with down-turned eyes, before his Master. Jesus stands by in silence, and reads the wonder and perplexity in the gathering blackness of his brow. Nicodemus is despairing, perhaps. He is going to give it up. He is utterly baffled with the strange turn the conversation has taken. There is no satisfaction to be got from this clandestine meeting after all, and puzzled, and beaten, and crestfallen, he prepares to take his leave. But Jesus will not let the divine sense of wonder be aroused to end like this. It must end in knowledge, not in ignominy. It must escape into spiritual truth, not into intellectual mystery. So He says, “Wonder not; Marvel not. Here is nothing so very mysterious that I cannot make you know. You will understand it all if you come and think of it. You need not marvel that I said, ‘Ye must be born again.’ “
Thus Jesus saved Nicodemus from relapsing into ignorance of the greatest truth the world had known till then, or lulling his wonder to sleep for ever in mystery or despair.
Now for the sake of those of us who have been tempted to pause—where Nicodemus so nearly lost himself—on the threshold of this truth: for the sake of those of us who have almost felt drawn into the intellectual sin of drowning our wonder at this truth in despair of it, let us ask ourselves very shortly why Christ said, “Marvel not.” And it may be convenient in following up the subject from this side in a few words, to divide the answer into three short heads.
I. “Marvel not”—as if it were unintelligible.
II. “Marvel not”—as if it were impossible.
III. “Marvel not”—as if it were unnecessary.
To begin with the first of these:—
I. Marvel not—as if it were unintelligible. There is nothing more unintelligible in the world than how a soul is born again. There is nothing more intelligible than that it is. We can understand the fact, however, without necessarily understanding the act. The act of being born again is as mysterious as God. All the complaints which have been showered upon this doctrine have referred to the act—the act with which we have really nothing to do, which is a process of God, the agency of the unseen wind of the Spirit, and which Jesus Himself has expressly warned us not to expect to understand. “Thou canst not tell,” He said, “whence it cometh or whither it goeth.”
But there is nothing to frighten search in this. For precisely the same kind of mystery hangs over every process of nature and life. We do not understand the influence of sunshine on the leaves of a flower at this spring-time, any more than we do the mysterious budding of spiritual life within the soul; but botany is a science for all that.
We do not give up the study of chemistry as hopeless because we fail to comprehend the unseen laws which guide the delicate actions and reactions of matter. Nor do we disbelieve in the influence of food on the vital frame because no man has found the point exactly at which it passes from dead nourishment into life. We do not avoid the subject of electricity because electricity is a mystery, or heat because we cannot see heat, or meteorology because we cannot see the wind. Marvel not then, from the analogy of physical nature, if, concerning this Spirit of Regeneration, we cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth. It is not on that account unintelligible that a man should be born again.
If we care again to take the analogy from the moral and intellectual nature, the same may be said with even greater emphasis. The essence of Regeneration is a change from one state to another—from an old life to a new one. Spiritually, its manifestation is in hating things once loved, or loving things once hated. God is no longer avoided, but worshipped; Christ no longer despised, but trusted.
Now, intellectually, changes at least in some way similar are happening every day. You rose up yesterday, bitterly opposed, let us say, to such and such a scheme. You were so strong in your opinion that nothing would ever shake you. You would never change, you said—you never could. But you met a friend, who began to talk about it. You listened, then wavered, then capitulated. You allowed yourself to be talked round, as you expressed it. You were converted to the other side. And in the evening your change of mind was so complete that you were literally born again—you were literally another man; you were in a new world of ideas, of interests, of hopes, with all the old dislikes in that special connection reversed, and the old loves turned into hates.
Something like this goes on, only with a higher agency, in the Regeneration of the soul. Hence it is called by similar names—a change of heart, or a turning round or a conversion to the other side. And just as talking round will change a man’s opinion or convert him intellectually, so turning round by the Spirit of God will change his heart or convert him spiritually. When you are told, therefore, that your heart may be changed by the Spirit, even as your mind was changed by your friend, marvel not, as if it were unintelligible. What a few hours’ conversation could do in making you love the side you hated, and hate the side you loved, marvel not at what more the power of God could do in turning round your being from the old life to the new. And one might even press the analogy a little further, and add, if a few minutes’ conversation with a fellowman overturned the stubborn mountain of your mind, how much more should a few minutes’ conversation with Christ—such as Nicodemus had, and which overthrew his strongest Messianic views, and changed the current of his life for ever from that hour—change your life the moment it touched you?
To Nicodemus, indeed, even the conception itself of being born again should have seemed no mystery. It was already a familiar thought in another sense to every Jewish heart—nothing more or less, indeed, than one of the common political phrases of the day. The custom in these times was to regard as unclean the foreigner who came to reside in a Jewish town. He was held at arm’s length; he was a man of different caste, the Jew had no dealings with the Samaritan. But if he wished to leave his gods and share the religious hopes and civil privileges of the Jews, there was one way out of the old state into the new—just one way—he must be born again. He was baptized with water, and passed through certain other rites, till finally reckoned clean, when he became as truly one of the chosen people as if he had been the lineal son of Abraham. And the process of initiation from the Gentile world into the kingdom of the Jew was called a Regeneration, or a being born again. There was nothing, therefore, in the thoughtful consideration of the New Birth for the Jew to marvel at. “Art thou a Master in Israel,” Jesus might well ask, “and understandest not these things?” A Master in Israel stumbling at an every-day illustration, marvelling as if it were unintelligible! “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.”
What the Jews did to a stranger in admitting him to their kingdom corresponds exactly with what we do in our process of naturalization. Naturalization—spiritualisation if we would be exactly accurate—is the idea, then, expressed in the “born again” of Christ: and when we trace the expression back to its setting in Jewish politics, it yields the beautiful conception that God calls man—the foreigner, the stranger, the wanderer—to forsake the far country, and having been purified by initiatory rites from all uncleanness, to be translated into the kingdom of His dear Son. And though there may be, indeed, reasons why we should be so slow to understand it, and regions of rightful wonder in the deeper workings of the thought which we have not yet explored, there is at least this much clear, that we need not marvel as if it were unintelligible.
II. Marvel not—as if it were impossible. There is a name for God which men, in these days, have many temptations to forget—God the Creator of heaven and earth. It was the name, perhaps, by which we first knew God—God had made our earth, our house; God had made us. He was our Creator—God. We thought God could make anything then, or do anything, or do everything. But we lost our happy childhood’s faith; and now we wonder what things God can do, as if there were many things He could not.
But there is one thing we have little difficulty in always referring to the creating hand of God—life. No one has ever made life but God. We call Him the Author of life, and the Author of life is a wondrously fertile author. He makes much life—life in vast abundance. There is nothing so striking in nature as the prodigality—the almost reckless prodigality—of life. It seems as if God delighted Himself in life. So the world is filled with it. In the woods, in the air, in the ocean-bed, everywhere teeming life, superabundance of life, which God has made.
Well, if God can give life, He can surely add life. Regeneration is nothing in principle but the adding of more life. It is God adding life to life—more life to a man who has some life. The man has life which God gave him once; but part of him —the best part of him—is dead. His soul is dead in trespasses and sins. God touches this, and it lives. Even as the body was dead and God breathed upon it till it lived, so God will breathe upon the soul, and more life and better life will come.
So there is nothing impossible in being born again, any more than there is the impossible in being born at all. What did Christ come into the world for? To give life, He said, even more abundant life. And Christ giving life—that is Regeneration. It was not more knowledge Nicodemus wanted, though he thought so, but more life; and the best proof that life was possible was that life was granted. So the best proof of the Christianity is a Christian; the best proof of Regeneration is a man who has been regenerated. Can a man be born again when he is old? Certainly. For it has been done. Think of Bunyan the sinner and Bunyan the saint; think of Newton the miscreant and Newton the missionary; think of Paul the persecutor and Paul the apostle; and marvel not, as if it were impossible that a man should be born again.
III. Marvel not—as if it were unnecessary. Regeneration is more than intelligible and possible—it is necessary, to enter the kingdom of God. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus says it is necessary. A man cannot see the kingdom of God except he be born again. He not only cannot enter it; Jesus says he cannot see it. It is actually invisible to him. This is why the world says of religion, “We do not understand it; we do not make it out; we do not see it.” No, of course they do not see it; they cannot see it; first, it is necessary to be born again.
When men come into the world, they are born outside of the kingdom of God, and they cannot see into it. They may go round and round it, and examine it from the outside, and pass an opinion on it. But they are no judges. They are not seeing what they are speaking about. For that which is born of spirit is spirit, that which is born of flesh is flesh; and they can only give a criticism which is material on a thing which is spiritual. Therefore the critical value of a worldly man’s opinion on religious matters is nothing. He is open to an objection which makes his opinion simply ludicrous—he is talking about a thing which he has never seen. So far as one’s experience of religion goes, Regeneration makes all the difference. It is as if some one had been standing outside some great cathedral. He has heard that its windows are of stained glass and exceeding beautiful. He walks all round it and sees nothing but dull, unmeaning spaces—an iron grating over each, to intensify the gloom that seems to reign within. There is nothing worth seeing there, but everything to repel. But let him go in. Let him see things from the inside. And his eye is dazzled with the gorgeous play of colours; and the miracles and the parables are glowing upon the glass; and the figure of Jesus is there, and the story of His love is told on every pane—and there are choirs of angels, and cherubim and seraphim, and an altar where, in light which is inaccessible, is God.
So let a man enter into the kingdom of heaven—let a man be born again and enter—and he will see the kingdom of God. He will see the miracles and the parables which were meaningless, colourless once; he will see the story of the Cross, which was a weariness and an offence; he will see the Person of Christ and the King in His beauty, and beholding as in a glass the glory of the Only begotten, he shall be changed into the same image from glory to glory. Marvel not if it is necessary, to see all this, that he must be born again.
Within this great world there are a number of little worlds, to which entrance is only attainable by birth. There is the intellectual world, for instance, which requires the birth of brains; and the artistic world, which requires the birth of taste; and the dramatic world, which requires the birth of talent; and the musical world, which requires the gift of harmony and ear. A man cannot enter the intellectual world except he have brains, or the artistic world except he have taste. And he cannot make or find brains or taste. They must be born in him. A man cannot make a poetical mind for himself. It must be created in him. Hence “the poet is born—not made,” we say. So the Christian is born, not made.
There remains one other and imperative protest against Regeneration being unnecessary. Human nature demands Regeneration as if it were necessary. No man who knows the human heart or human history will marvel as if it were unnecessary that the world must be born again. Every other conceivable measure has been tried to reform it. Government has tried it, Philosophy has tried it, Philanthropy has tried it, and failed. The heart—the national heart or the individual heart—remains deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Reformation has been of little use to it; for every reformation is but a fresh and unguaranteed attempt to do what never has been done. Reconstruction has been of little use to it; for reconstruction is an ill-advised endeavour to rebuild a house, which has fallen a thousand times already with the same old bricks and beams. Man has had every chance from the creation to the present moment to prove that Regeneration was not the one necessity of the world—and, again, has utterly failed.
We are still told, indeed, that all the world needs is just to get a start. Once set a man on his feet, or a universe, with a few good guiding principles. Give human nature fair play, and it must win in the end. But no. The experiment has been tried. God tried it Himself. It was fairly done, and it failed. The wickedness of man had waxed great throughout the land. So God said He would destroy all living flesh, and select a picked few of the best inhabitants to start the world afresh. A fair experiment. So all the world was drowned except a little nucleus in an ark—the picked few who were to found Utopia, who were to reconstruct the universe, who were to begin human life again, and make everything so much better than it was before. But the experiment failed. The picked few failed. Their children failed. Their children’s children failed. Things got no better; only worse, perhaps, and worse; and no man ever really knew the cause till Jesus told the world that it must—absolutely and imperatively must—be born again.
If human nature makes it necessary, much more does the Divine nature. When Christ shall present His Church to God, it must be as a spotless Bride. In that eternal kingdom saints are more than subjects: they are the companions of the King. They must be a select number. They must be a highborn company. Marvel not if you and I are to be there—as if it were unnecessary that we must be born again. “Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle—who shall dwell in Thy holy hill? He that hath clean hands and a pure heart.” “There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth.” Marvel not as if it were unnecessary that our robes should be washed white.
Marvel not, as if it were unintelligible.
Marvel not, as if it were impossible.
Marvel not, as if it were unnecessary that ye must be born again.
But marvel if you are. Marvel if you are not. Marvel that you may be to-day.
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