By J.R. Miller
Nicodemus is well-known. His story has often been told. We study here, the beginning of his Christian life. It is the fashion to speak slightingly of his coming to Jesus by night. It is sometimes said that it was cowardly. But this may not be a fair criticism. Night may have been the best time for him to make his visit. It may have been the only time when he could hope to find Jesus free for an undisturbed hour's talk with him. We must read the story through to the close, and see if the subsequent mentions of Nicodemus, confirm the charge of timidity or cowardice in him. We shall find that just the reverse is true. It is said that he desired to be a secret disciple. If that was his thought, we know that he did not persist in this kind of discipleship--but that the time came when his secret friendship for his Master grew into majestic strength. We may be glad, therefore, that he came to Christ, even though he came first under cover of darkness. The end of the story, justifies its beginning.
"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." John 3:3. The heart of the lesson which our Lord taught Nicodemus, is the necessity of the new birth. The natural human birth is not sufficient. We must be born of the Spirit, or we cannot even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it.
That is, we are not fitted for heaven or the heavenly life--while we have only our old sinful nature. We would not enjoy heaven even if we could be taken up and set down in the midst of it--unless our hearts have been changed. A wicked man would not enjoy a prayer meeting in one of our churches, where the exercises consist of prayer, hymns, singing, preaching and conversation on spiritual subjects. He finds no pleasure in reading the Bible. Think of this ungodly man, his heart full of worldliness, without love for God, without the spirit of prayer--finding joy in heaven!
To one who was speaking of heaven being so far away and asking how one could ever find the way there, the answer was given: "Heaven must come down to you. Heaven must begin in your heart." Nothing could be truer than this. Heaven must come into our heart before we can enter into the heavenly life. Our nature must be so changed that we shall love holiness, purity, and the things that God loves. This change can be made only by the Holy Spirit.
A second natural birth, even if it were possible, would not effect the change. We would be the same being still, with the same carnal desires, the same evil nature, and the same hatred of God and of holiness. "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." The new birth is more than education--the drawing out of the powers that are in the nature. There would be no improvement in this process. The new birth is more than the refinement produced by good society, by familiarity with beautiful things, by association with gentle and refined people. It is a new life which must come down from heaven into the heart of him who believes. Without this we cannot be made into the likeness of God.
This new life is like its Author. "That which is born of the Spirit--is spirit." John 3:6. Like produces like. Everyone who is born of God--will bear the features of God's likeness. He will begin to love the things that God loves--and hate the things that God hates. He will be like God in holiness, in forgiveness, and in love.
If we would know what God is like--we need only to look at Jesus Christ, for He is the image of God; and if we are born again, we will have the same features in us. At first they may be very dim--but they will come out clearer and clearer--as we grow in spiritual life. We can tell whether or not we are born again--by looking closely at our lives, to see if they bear the marks of the Holy Spirit. Do we put away sin and strive to live holy lives? Do we love the Bible and prayer? Do we love the pure worship of God? Do we love to be with Christ in Christian fellowship and in personal communion? Is it our deepest desire to have the divine features stamped on our lives?
It would put strong confidence into our hearts if we would learn to think of Christ's words as eternal verities. They are not like any other words. A dying woman cried to the minister who entered her room, to try to comfort her, "Oh, give me a word that I can lay hold of!" She felt herself drifting out upon the sea with nothing to which she could hold. We will all need words of this kind--as we come into life's crisis places. Nothing but the words of Christ will then meet our needs.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, "I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen--but still you people do not accept our testimony." Very much of human science is only guessing and speculation; we cannot be sure of it. Every now and then some new discovery is made which overturns and sweeps away whole volumes of boasted theories. We have to be all the time buying new books--just to keep up with the times; and we are afraid to quote from any but the newest editions, lest there may have been some recent discovery which contradicts the older.
But Christ's teachings are eternal certainties. He came down from heaven, where from all eternity He had dwelt, and He knew what He taught. We may accept His words without the slightest doubt--and may build our soul's hopes upon them. We need never fear that there will be a revision of these teachings--or that anything yet to be made known to us will contradict or set aside what we have already been taught. What Jesus said about God, about God's love, about the way of salvation, about Christian duty, about the judgment day, about the future life--is all eternal certainty. We may infallibly believe and unfalteringly trust every word of Christ--and be sure of these eternal verities.
There is no other infallible teacher but Christ. "No man has ascended up to heaven." There are some people these days who take it upon themselves to question what Christ revealed about the heavenly life. They talk as if they knew more about these matters, than did He who lived from all eternity in heaven, and then coming to earth, told men of the invisible things of God. Christ's words to Nicodemus mean that there is no other one, that there never has been any other one so qualified to speak of heavenly things--as was God's own Son, who came to reveal Him. He was an infallible teacher and a true witness. There is no guesswork about the statements which He makes concerning God and God's love for men, God's will and the provision made in the heavenly kingdom for God's children. All manner of books have been written, telling us of "gates ajar" and "gates wide open," and we find whole volumes of guesses and theories about the eternal world. But these are of no value whatever when they go beyond what the Son of God has made known to us. We must turn to Christ's words for any real knowledge of the land beyond.
The shadow of the cross lay upon the heart of Christ from the beginning. He knew in what way He was to make salvation for men. He says here, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness; even so must the Son of man be lifted up." The reference to the incident of the brazen serpent is instructive--so must Christ be lifted up. He referred to the cross--He knew He must die on it. It was at the beginning of His ministry, that Jesus spent the evening with Nicodemus. Even then He knew what was before Him. Why the "must"? Not merely because it had been foretold by the prophets. The prophets foretold it because of the necessity that He must suffer. Only by dying for sinners--could He save them.
The way in which bitten ones in the Hebrew camp could be saved by the uplifted serpent, illustrates the way lost men can be saved by Christ on His cross. Those who looked lived; those who behold the Lamb of God shall live. Anyone who looked, whatever his condition, was healed; "whoever" believes on Christ, no matter who he may be, of what nation or color or condition, shall have everlasting life!