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§ 119. Interview of Christ with Nicodcmus.
(1.) Disposition of the People and Pharisees towards Christ.—Dispositions of Nicodemus.
Many of the people were attracted to Christ during this his first stay at Jerusalem. And although the prevailing Pharisaic party looked upon him with an eye of suspicion, they could not openly oppose him, as he had not as yet arrayed himself against their statutes and traditions, but directed his blows against abuses which no one dared to defend. And even of the Pharisees it cannot be supposed that all were hypocrites, governed only by selfish motives; doubtless there were many whose piety, however debased by the errors of their entire system, was yet sincere.276276 It is probable, in the nature of things, that although the Pharisees, scribes, and chief men, as a whole, were ill-disposed to Christ, there were among them individual susceptible minds. In the first Gospels we find Joseph of Arimathea; in Matt., ix., 18, a ruler; in Mark, xii., 28, a scribe, manifesting an interest in his Divine calling, and from these we may infer the existence of other cases. There is no ground, therefore, for Strauss’s assertion that the case of Nicodemus is improbable. Utterly unhistorical, too, is his assertion (i., 633) that the accounts of rich and chief men coming secretly to Christ (and so of Nicodemus) were invented at a later period, to remove the reproach brought against the primitive Christians, “that none but the poor and illiterate attached themselves to Jesus.” Instead of being a “reproach,” it was the pride and glory of the primitive Church that the new creation of Christianity began among the poor; that the wise of this world were put to shame by the ignorant. There was no inducement, then, for such inventions. Moreover, this mode of thinking pervades the whole of John’s Gospel; he that could represent Jesus as unfolding his highest truths to a poor woman could not have been tempted to in vent a conversation between him and a distinguished scribe. Such could not remain without Divine impressions from the words and works of Christ.
A specimen of this better class was Nicodemus.277277 Strauss strains hard to give a symbolical and mythical meaning to this common Jewish name, נַקְדֵימוֹן. There is no trace in the early Christian history of mythical persons thus originating from mere fancy, without any historical point of departure. Only at a later period was the history of really eminent men exaggerated by (voluntary or involuntary) invention into fables; e. g., Simon Magus was thus made mythical. To him, especially, the miracles of Jesus appeared to be works transcending all merely human power, and undeniable signs of a Divine calling. Beyond this general impression, however, he had no clear views of Christ’s person or mission; and his desire to obtain more definite information was the greater, because he had participated in the expectations awakened by John the Baptist, in regard to the approaching reign of Messiah. Recognizing Christ as a prophet, he determined to apply to him personally, and came to him by night, to avoid strengthening the suspicions of his colleagues in the Sanhedrim, probably already aroused against him.
We may presuppose that he shared in the ordinary Jewish conceptions of the Messianic kingdom, and expected it soon to be founded in visible and earthly glory; although he may have had, at the same time, 174some more worthy and spiritual ideas in regard to it. He considered himself sure, as a rigidly pious Jew and Pharisee, of a share in that kingdom. and was only anxious to be informed as to the approaching manifestation of Messiah.
Addressing Christ as an enlightened teacher, accredited from God by miracles, he expected to obtain from his lips a further account of his calling and of his relation to the Messianic kingdom. But instead of entering upon this, Christ purposely gives an answer especially adapted to the moral and religious wants of Nicodemus, and all of like mind.278278 An answer, too, entirely characteristic of Jesus, and which would not have occurred to one inventing this dialogue. The truth which he uttered was not only new and strange to Nicodemus, but also fundamentally opposed to his whole system: “Except a man be born again,279279 Or “from above;” but I cannot prefer this reading, even after Lücke’s arguments. “Born again” corresponds with “becoming like children” (Matt., xviii., 3); with παλιγγενεσίᾳ (Matt., xix., 28); compared with the λουτρὸν παλιγγενεσίας of Paul. We infer that this mode of expression belonged to the peculiar type of Christ’s teaching, as it agrees, also, with his expressions (recorded in the first three Gospels) in regard to his operations upon human nature.he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
(2.) The New Birth.
Uprooting the notion that any particular line of birth or descent call entitle men to a share in God’s kingdom, Christ points out an inward condition, necessary for all men alike, a title which no man can secure by his own power. His answer to Nicodemus presupposes that all men are alike destitute of the Divine life. It was directed as well against the arrogant self-righteousness of the Pharisees as against the contracted externalizing of the kingdom of God in Jewish particularism. It involves also (although we are not sure, from the form of the expression, that Christ intended precisely this) that a faith like that of Nicodemus was insufficient; springing, as it did, from isolated miracles, and not from inward experience, or an internal awakening of the Divine life. Certainly it hit the only point from which Nicodemus could and must proceed in order to change his mode of conceiving the Messianic kingdom. Even if he at first still expected it to appear as an outward one, he must have had a higher and nobler moral conception of it. He doubtless took Christ’s words “cannot see the kingdom” to mean “cannot share in the visible kingdom;” while Christ meant an inward spiritual “entering into” that kingdom which was first to be founded, as a spiritual one, in the hearts of men.280280 The idea of a “new birth” was not unknown to the Greek and Roman mind, although its true import is only revealed in the light which Christianity lends to self-scrutiny. The non emendari, sed transfigurari of Seneca (Ep. ad Lucil., vi.), which is rather a rhetorical expression any how, applies to a gradual amendment of character by lopping off separate vices, and not to a radical change of nature. As the Christian new birth is the beginning of a process in human nature, which is to go on until the consummation of the kingdom of God, the new birth in individuals preparing the way for the new birth of a glorified world, so the Stoic doctrine speaks of a περιοδικὴ παλιγγενεσία τῶν ὅλων, ἀναστοιχείωσις. But this is connected with the pantheistic conception of a cycle of alternate destructions and renewals of the world, utterly opposed to the teleological point of view in Christianity. Ὁ τεσσαρακοντούτης, ἐάν νοῦν ὁποσονοῦν ἔχῃ, πάντα τὰ γεγονότα καὶ τὰ ἐσόμενα ἔώρακε κατὰ τὸ ὁμοείδες.—(Anton. Monol., xi., 1.) “He who lives only forty years and observes well, has experienced every thing which occurs in the whole eternity of this ever-renewed process.”175
The mere figure of a new birth, in itself, would have been nothing so unusual or unintelligible to Nicodemus; he could have understood it well enough if applied, for instance, to the case of a heathen submitting himself to circumcision and the observance of other Jewish usages.281281 Strauss thinks (p. 701) that the way in which Paul uses the expression “a new creation” (2 Cor., v., 17; Gal., vi., 15), without explaining it, implies that it was in common use in Judaism. We do not agree with him, but rather see in such expressions the new dialect created by Christianity, which Paul’s readers might be supposed to understand. If Strauss’s view were correct, we should expect such antitheses in Paul as the following: “Circumcision cannot develope a new creation in the heathen, but leaves all in its old condition; a new creation can only grow out from within, through faith.” But what startled him was the altogether novel application which Christ made of the figure; not to a change of external relations, as in the case above supposed, but to a totally different change, of which the learned scribe had not the glimmering of an idea. He knew not what to think of such an answer to his question, and no wonder; a dead, contracted, arrogant scribe-theology is always amazed at the mysteries of inward, spiritual experience. This first direct impression, perhaps, did not allow him, at the moment, to distinguish between the figure and the thing, and he asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?”
(3.) The Birth of Water and of the Spirit.
But Christ confirms what he had said, and explains it further: “Verily, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”282282 How different the words of Christ, in their original simplicity, were from the later dress given to them, may be seen by comparing John, iii., 5, with the Clementines, Hom., xi., § 26: “ἐὰν μὴ ἀναγεννωθῆτε ὕδατι ζῶντι εῖς ὄνομα πατρὸς, υἱοῦ, ἁγίου πνεύματος,” &c. It is immaterial whether this passage was borrowed from John’s Gospel immediately, or from some tradition. He thus describes more exactly the active principle (the creative agent) of the new birth, the Divine Spirit, which implants a new Divine life in those who give themselves up to it; producing a moral change, a reversion of the. universal tendency of man, as the offspring of a race tainted by sin.
So much is clear. But what shall we say of the “water?”283283 It is said, by some, that the hand of a later writer is to be traced here, who planned this conversation, half fiction, half truth, upon the basis, perhaps, of an earlier narrative, and added “birth by water” to “birth by spirit,” in order to give additional authority to baptism in the Church. But this theory is contradicted by the fact that baptism is only incidentally mentioned by John; that he nowhere expressly ascribes its institution to Christ, and nowhere says any thing of the baptism of the Apostles. A writer influenced by an ecclesiastical intent, and permitting himself to remodel the history of Christ from such a motive, would not have made these omissions. It might even be said, with more plausibility, that John had been led to connect baptism and regeneration together, and had attributed this combination to Christ. We have no right, because of a mere difficulty, to charge such a thing, even though involuntary, upon the faithful disciple. The whole turn of John’s feelings, the mystic element (in its good sense) that predominated in his mind, would alone have prevented him from making any outward thing prominent that was not made so in the original words of Christ. We infer 176from the fact that Christ says nothing more of “water,” but proceeds to explain the operations of the “Spirit,” that the former was only a point of departure to lead to the latter. It was the baptism of the Spirit, the “birth of the Spirit” into a new Divine life, that was unknown to Nicodemus; whereas John’s baptism might have already made him acquainted with water as a symbol of inward purification, pointing to a higher purification of soul, to be wrought by the Messiah, and aiding in its comprehension.
After this preparation, Christ sets forth the general principle on which his previous declarations to Nicodemus were founded, viz., the total opposition between the natural life—the life of all those who continue to live according to nature simply—and the new life which God imparts [“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit”]. But as this “birth of the Spirit” was still strange to Nicodemus, Christ made use of a sensible image to bring it more vividly before him. “As none can set bounds or limits to the wind, as one hears and feels its blast, but can not track it to its source or to its aim; so it is with the breath of God’s Spirit in those who have experienced the new birth. There is something in the interior life not to be explained or comprehended, which reveals itself only in its operations, and can be known only by experience; it is a life which no one can trace backward to its origin, or forward to its end.”
The light begins to dawn upon Nicodemus. But to his mind, yet in bondage to a legal Judaism, prone to conceive all Divine things in an outward sense, and to keep God and man too far apart, the fact asserted by Christ seems marvellous; and he exclaims in amazement, “How can this be?” Jesus seizes upon this exclamation to humble the pride of the learned theologian, to convince him of his want of insight into Divine things, and to make him feel the need of further illumination. “You, a teacher of Israel, and this, without which all religion is a dead thing, not known to you! And if you believe me not when I speak of a mere matter of fact, which every man upon earth may test by his own experience,284284 A Jewish believer could understand this, from its analogy to separate impulses of the Divine life experienced under Judaism. how will you believe when I proclaim truths beyond the circle of man’s experience and transcending the limits of his reason; when I tell you the hidden and unfathomable counsels of God for human salvation!”177
(4.) Jesus intimates his own Sufferings.
This introduction prepares us to expect something totally opposed to the ordinary conceptions of the Jewish scribes. It would have been quite inappropriate if Christ had merely been about to speak of the exaltation of Messiah, for that idea was familiar enough; or even if he had been about to apply that exaltation personally to himself as Messiah; for this claim could not appear very marvellous to Nicodemus, who was already inclined to recognize him as a prophet. But nothing could have been more startling to Jewish modes of thought, or even to the mind of Nicodemus, who was still in bondage to the outward letter, than an intimation that Messiah was not to appear in earthly splendour, but was to found the salvation of mankind upon the basis of his own sufferings.285285 See p. 83, 84. This was indeed, and ever, the stumbling-block of the Jews.
But Christ did not announce this truth, so strange to Nicodemus, plainly and in full breadth. Employing a well-known figure from the Old Testament, he compared the lifting up of the Son of Man with the serpent that was raised in the wilderness286286 Conf. the explanation of Jacobi. (Stud. u. Krit., 1825, pt. i.) before the eyes of all the people; and, having thus intimated the truth to the scribe by a simile drawn from his own familiar studies, he left it to be further developed by his own thoughts. The brazen serpent may have appeared to the fathers a paradoxical cure for the serpent’s bite; and such a paradox is the salvation of the world through a suffering Messiah. The very strangeness of the comparison must have stimulated the mind of Nicodemus.287287 The words of Christ end with ver. 15, we think. Nicodemus had the goad in his mind, enough to wake him out of his spiritual slumber, and urge him to deeper thought upon the truth, partly clear and partly obscure, to which he had listened. In the nature of the case. therefore, Jesus would not be likely to add any thing further. The verses, 16-21, have al together the air of a commentary added by the Evangelist, from the fullness of his heart and experience. He has seen the working of the Gospel, and the judgments, too, which attend its preaching, and he records them. John’s Gospel is a selection from the history of the Gospel, made with a definite purpose; he begins it with a reflection, and he frequently interrupts the narrative with a course of reflection, as appears to us to be the case in the passage under consideration. Verse 16takes up and repeats Christ’s closing words in verse 15, and explains them, as the γάρ obviously shows. The marks of a change in the speaker seem to me very evident. It appears to be characteristic of John not to mark such transitions very distinctly; although, of course, he could never intend to intermix his own words with those of the Saviour.
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