Part - Second (The Public Life of the Saviour)
Period of General Exploration
Section 1 Jesus Reveals Himself as the Messiah
CHRIST'S DISCOURSE WITH NICODEMUS
JESUS CONTINUES HIS MINISTRY OUTSIDE THE TEMPLE THE LIVELY IMPRESSION UPON THE MULTITUDE NICODEMUS THE VISIT DURING THE NIGHT THE DISCOURSE ON THE SECOND BIRTH WATER AND THE SPIRIT REVELATION OF GREAT MYSTERIES THE BRAZEN SERPENT THE REDEMPTION BY THE SON THE EFFECT OF THIS CONVERSATION ON NICODEMUS. (St. John ii, 2335, and iii, 121.)
THE role of Jesus is, therefore, to be one of reserved activity. The hostility He has encountered in the hierarchical party is a presage of the most insuperable obstacles. He has failed to take the mass of this theocratic people by assault in the impulse of a first enthusiasm; therefore He will with patience undertake a regular siege.
Henceforth He establishes the center of His Messianic action no longer in the Temple, but in the street, in the midst of the multitude. There He speaks and there He acts, and the many miracles1 with which He sustains His assertions produce a most vivid impression on the crowds who are come to participate in the feast of the Passover. His name is on the lips of all; many even have faith in His mission; but, as the Gospel says, He places no trust in these first declarations of faith. Closely acquainted with the souls that now hail Him, as the farmer knows the land he tills, He is quite well aware that the most alluring appearances may often lead to a most sorrowful deception. This fertile layer has no depth, and one cannot rely on superficial impressions. Yet, if, in that multitude, any one appears to Him better disposed, He will hasten to welcome him with love, and to acquaint him with the most profound secrets of this religious renovation.
Thus, to Nicodemus, who is come to consult Him, and perhaps to learn if He is the Messiah announced by John the Baptist, He opens up the broad horizon of His doctrine.
Nicodemus was one of the chief personages2 in Jerusalem. A member of the great council, and belonging to the powerful sect of the Pharisees, the first theologian of Israel, he, indeed, had some merit in presenting himself as a proselyte and in risking, through his visit to Jesus, the popularity he enjoyed.
As a matter of fact, his was only a halfmeasure bravery, for in order not to compromise himself he came at night. Jesus was then alone with His chosen disciples, and it is, no doubt, as an eyewitness that one of them, John, has given us an account of this conversation. "Rabbi," said Nicodemus, as he introduced himself, "we know that Thou art come a teacher from God: for no man can do these signs, which Thou hast, unless God be with him." Therefore, from the miracles which they beheld, Nicodemus and several of his friends have concluded that the teaching of Jesus was of Heaven. And rightly so, for a miracle is a sign from God, and when it is placed as a Divine seal upon the discourse of man, it is God that assumes the responsibility of that discourse. Hence Nicodemus had no difficulty in acknowledging that beyond and above the official doctorate of the rabbis, there may be a doctorate of exceptional and transcendent character conferred by God without the use of pedagogical forms. This again is the reason why Nicodemus salutes the Carpenter of Nazareth with the title of Rabbi, and comes to consult Him as a Master.
If Jesus had been a mere youthful enthusiast, He would surely have felt and manifested a lively joy in receiving the homage now done Him by one of the most important personages in Jerusalem in his own name and in the name of his colleagues. It was an opportunity that called for the exercise of every manner of policy to secure a proselyte of such importance.
But He was a stranger to the practice of these tricks of mankind. With full consciousness of His mission, rather than suppress the truth, He intends boldly to confront those very ones whom prudence would move Him to lead on by allurements. Nicodemus, therefore, who presents himself as a disciple, has only to stand with ready ear to receive the teachings he has come to request. "Amen, amen, I say to you," responds Jesus, "unless a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." By this general declaration He seizes His questioner's every thought. The theory is a radical one. Nothing should remain of any man, and particularly of Nicodemus who was so pious, of this Pharisee who was so respected, of this prominent man who was esteemed of all. He must be born again, must be made anew, in order to behold with profit and to enter into the Kingdom of God. For, this extraordinary sense of spiritual sight shall be granted only to those who are already born into the new life.
In the ears of a Pharisee this teaching must certainly have sounded very strange. To admit that one was not capable of seeing the Kingdom of God, when he believed himself already officially inscribed and even incorporated therein; to condemn one's self not only to new practices of perfection, but to a life new from every point of view; in fine, to confess that one was in the midst of evil and darkness, when he looked upon himself as pure and filled with the light of God, was this not, in truth, too much? So Nicodemus, unable to understand Jesus' theory, sought further enlightenment, and with a sort of ironical goodnature, retorts: "How can a man be born' when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born again?" The impossibility is the more evident, since, if he is old, his mother is no longer alive. But Jesus, ignoring his objection, continues His thought and clearly, defines the two real elements of regeneration. "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." The first life of the world had come from the Spirit who moved over the waters in the days of the creation; this new life, again, is to be the product of water and the Spirit.
Baptism, in fact, is the entrancegate of the Christian society. It is the external sign with which the Church marks her children. The neophyte, who buries himself in the lustral waters, will be reputed dead to the world and to its spirit, and at the threshold of a new life. In reality, he will come forth in a condition quite different from that in which he entered, freed from his evil aspirations and transformed by repentance; for baptism is not only the sign of purification, it is also the symbolical expression of penance. Thus far this was only a negative birth, or, better, simply death. The Spirit of God must needs assist and breathe life and virtue and new ability into the soul in which repentance has blotted out the past, and which, dead to sin, asks life in grace and sanctity. Thus are water and the Spirit the two principles of spiritual regeneration. The former signifies the disposition required in the soul of man; the latter is the creative agent that endows it with life. Through the means of both, man will be born again. As there are in us two lives, one carnal, the other spiritual, nothing is more logical than the distinction of a twofold birth. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit," says the Savior. But such being the truth, as Nicodemus knows not what he is capable of doing personally for his own regeneration, since from the Holy Spirit alone it is to be sought, Jesus continues: "Wonder not that I said to thee, you must be born again. The Spirit breatheth where He will, and thou hearest His voice, but thou knowest not whence he cometh or whither he goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." Human liberty does not suffice to effect our regeneration; the breath of grace must come to second its efforts. Like a strong wind, the Spirit of God enters in to give growth to the supernatural life. It is impossible to know whence He comes or whither He goes; but He is felt and heard in the depth of the heart, and, all unawares, the welldisposed man is transformed and regenerated. The work is done; how, is beyond our ken.
At this moment Nicodemus, whose comprehension of these transcendent theories is ever less and less, can no longer withhold his astonishment. "How can these things be done?" be cries out. And Jesus, with deep compassion, says to him: "Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?"3 By this slight stroke of irony He teaches him that it is beyond the limits of the puerile dissertations in the synagogue, and above the vain science of the rabbis, that he must seek for the true notion of the new life. One may be the most revered doctor of Jerusalem and not know the first word of the question that surpasses all others in the Kingdom of God.
Yet, many have this knowledge, and however humble and ignorant the world may find them, they are none the less acquainted with heaven's secrets. In them the Kingdom of the Father is already personified. Behold them faithfully grouped about the Son. More progress has been made than Nicodemus suspects. The new Church is founded and she is better instructed than the doctor of the Sanhedrim. "Amen, amen, I say to thee, that we speak what we know, and we testify what we have seen, and you receive not our testimony." Thus does the Master express all the joy He feels in being no longer alone to represent the nascent Church. He makes all who have joined themselves with Him by faith, speak with Him. The comparison and the contrast He draws between them and the Jews become a peremptory argument. Nicodemus, the learned man, the doctor, is still seeking for light, while the poor fishermen of Galilee, gazing into the depths of the heavens, have already beheld it and are now propagating it. Simple and humble men, they believed unquestioningly.
The proud doctors of the synagogue are incapable of understanding and of accepting even those religious truths that are supported by the human conscience and the deep-felt experience of devoted hearts. What will be their conduct when there is question of heavenly secrets which must be admitted upon a simple affirmation and without any possibility of grasping the unanswerable why and wherefore? "If I have spoken to you of earthly things and you believe not," says Jesus, "how will you believe if I shall speak to you heavenly things?" For such discourse can suffer no control, since "no man hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended from heaven, the Son of Man, Who is in heaven."
Nicodemus, surprised at this supremely authoritative language of Jesus, has no more to say. He seems to murmur with Job before Jehovah: "What can I answer, who have spoken inconsiderately? I will lay my band upon my mouth." So Jesus, moved by his humility, determines to reveal to him those truths that constitute the sum of the Gospel. He has already mentioned the Divine nature of the Messiah, His eternal preexistence, and, consequently, the Incarnation of the Word. He has now to speak of the Redemption, and of the final fulfillment of God's intentions concerning the two great groups of mankind, believers and unbelievers. "And," He continues, "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must4 the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting."
If Nicodemus, like all his colleagues, has dreamed of a Messiah more exalted in glory and power than Solomon, he is now to learn that this Messiah shall, indeed, be exalted, but that His exaltation shall be upon the cross. There, only, in deepest ignominy, God's envoy shall attain the truest glory. The characteristic and striking analogy between the symbol of the serpent suspended from a stake in the desert and the Son of Man crucified cannot be ignored. As the brazen serpent was merely an image of a real serpent, so the Son of Man was to be but the image of a sinner and not really such. The serpent evoked the idea of evil for the suppression of evil; the Son of Man upon His gibbet will assume the load of sin for the suppression of sin. The Israelite who gazed upon the brazen serpent, was cured of the mortal wounds he had received; the sinner who with the eye of faith looks upon the Son of Man become sin for humanity, is freed from his own sins and recovers life.
What a cry of gratitude and, above all, what an amount of virtue such generosity should draw from earth! "For God," adds the Master, "so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but may have life everlasting." Salvation, therefore, is the Father's gift. The Son need use no violence to procure the Father's forgiveness; the Father's heart has ever longed to be able to grant it. For the Father has ever loved the world as a child that had gone astray. His love for it was not confined to one race or one nation, but was universal, and He has loved it so much that to secure its salvation He has given His own Son. Abraham had made to Jehovah the offering of his only offspring, but Jehovah had not accepted it. But now it is Jehovah that presents His Son to the world, and the world takes Him and puts Him to death, that by this crime it may insure its own redemption; for so great is the mercy of God that the world by joining itself in efficacious faith to the very one it immolates, prepares for itself eternal life! "For God sent not His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by Him."
The Jews, taking certain passages of Scripture5 in a material sense, believed that the Messiah would come to judge and to destroy the nations. Jesus declares that such is not His mission. He comes for the saving of all, and only those shall fail of salvation who will not receive Him. It is for men, therefore, to elect their own destiny by the giving or the refusing of their faith; the distinction then will become quite easy, and there will be nothing odious in the Messiah's role.
"He that believeth in Him, is not judged. But he that doth not believe is already judged, because he believeth not in the name of the Onlybegotten Son of God." The unbeliever proves by his incredulity that he has abandoned his heart to evil and to error. For ordinarily one's moral state determines his attitude toward the light, and, consequently, distinguishes the two classes of men of which humanity is made up. Those who fly the light show that they have need to bury their iniquitous works in darkness, while those who seek after it make plain that they find nothing shameful in their aspirations or in their actions. "And this is the judgment: because the light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For every one that doth evil hateth the light and cometh not to the light, that his works may not be reproved. But he that doth truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, because they are done in God." It was easy for Nicodemus to find some consolation and even some praise in these words that described his moral state; for he had come, a pious Israelite, to seek for light, and he stands before it, despite all he may have heard contrary to his notions or humiliating to his person. It was a proof of the uprightness of his soul and of his thirst after truth and justice.
The sublime discourse was ended; and Nicodemus took leave of Jesus. The Evangelist says nothing of his final disposition and impressions, but we are inclined to believe that he went away deeply moved. Unfortunately, like many virtuous souls, he had no great courage, and never in public did he venture to declare what he thought of Jesus. And later on, it is only with difficulty, in order to save His life, that he utters a few kind words before the Sanhedrim; on these he does not insist, but says them with a kind of indifference very noncommittal. His weak and forceless character will be transformed only by the catastrophe of Calvary. And then, as if in shame for his weakness in the past, this man who came secretly to speak with Jesus living, will claim Him dead from His enemies, and, with some degree of courage, he will share with Joseph of Arimathea the honor of interring Him. The sight of the cross must have been to him an awful reminder of the brazen serpent raised up between heaven and earth, and the bloody realization of the symbolic figure, long before held up to him by Jesus, finally confirming his faith, he proved his Affection at the very moment when the others made known their unbelief and their ingratitude.
1 These miracles are not otherwise specified, but reference is made to them later on, St. John iv, 45.
2 The word arcwn indicates this. The Talmud speaks of a Nicodemus, also called Bounaï, who, though the head of one of the most powerful families in Jerusalem, became a disciple of Jesus, and, having survived the destruction of the Holy City, was finally reduced with all his family to great misery. (Cf. Delitzsch, Zeitschr. f. Luth. Theol., 1854, p. 643.) Is this the same man? One of the Apocryphal Gospels containing the Ada Pilati and the Descensus Christi ad inferos is called the Gospel of Nicodemus.
3 They are indicated in Ps. cxlii, 10, 11; Jer. xxxi, 33; Ezech. xxxvi, 2628, etc.
4 Here for the first time we meet the inexorable must, dei, imposed by divine justice. We shall find it again in St. Matth. xvi, 21; St. Luke xxiv, 90.
5 Ps. ii, 9; Mal. iv, 1, etc.
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