Nicodemus and the New Birth

Nicodemus and the New Birth

Nicodemus. The New Birth.

(The Gospel History, Section 22)

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou the teacher of Israel, and undertstandest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and bear witness of that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you heavenly things? And no man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.

Nicodemus and the New Birth

(The Saviour of the World, Vol I Book III Poem X)

How good to know that house where Nicodemus
Found the Lord in the night! Had pious soul
Bidden Him occupy a prophet’s chamber?
We please ourselves with picture of the scene:—
How, late at night, a cautious knock was heard,
And he admitted to the Master’s presence;
How slender wick in oil obscured the room,
But lit up that one Face of all the world,
That figure, seated in tranquillity—
A King gave audience in that upper room!—
How Nicodemus sat in the obscure,
And took, unknowing, cognisance of Him
Before whom the world is judged! So may we dream:
We know that, courteous, Nicodemus spake,
And frank, as one convinced on certain points,—
“Rabbi, Thou art a teacher come from God,
We know, how else were done the works we see?
No man can do these signs save God be with him.”
Thus, friendly, opened midnight conference:
Nor spake the ruler for himself alone;
“We know,” his word, including those who sent him.
The mournful interest of occasion lost,
Belongs it to those rulers of the people?
Was this the moment of the open mind
When they, too, had been saved had they so willed?

And Jesus answered, filling that hiatus
’Twixt spoken word and the unspoken thought,
So baffles the poor speech of man with man:
He knew what image blinded this man’s heart—
Messias, come to rule, a King, defiant,
Before whom Roman legions flee as the chaff!—
“Hast thou, then, with Messiah aught to do?
Art sent, a prophet, to foretell His coming?”
Such unspoke questions, knowing, Jesus answered:—
“Thou wouldst know of the kingdom, but I tell thee,
No man can see the kingdom, be it come,
Save he be born again. God’s kingdom comes
With signs thou wot’st not of: with observation
Come kingdoms of the earth; magnificence
Of kings takes every eye. The kingdom of God
No man can see, but has been born anew:
For such as thou, there shall be nought to see.”

The ruler, baffled, vexed, scoffs out reply:—
“What talk is this—a grown man born again!
Again to enter in his mother’s womb,
Come forth a babe once more, all life forgot,
All habits, thoughts, controlling circumstance?
Such talk flies wide of possibility,
And shows Thou know’st not life, the ways of men!”
(Is’t possible, we ask to-day, to change
A man from all he was born and has become?)
The Lord repeats His word, but adds thereto.

“In truth, in very truth, I say to thee,
Except a man, of water and the Spirit,
Be born again, he cannot enter in.
Here be the only means to that new birth
Whereby a man can come into the kingdom.”

Water, the ruler knew, for every Rabbi,
Whose teaching differed by a jot from the rest,
Baptized his following. Why not this Jesus?
But the Spirit—that means power—here, a new thing!
Nor testing of the power without the sign;
(Sign, and thing signified, He joins together);
Outward profession, first, for such as he,
Who came to Christ by night, ere any power!

“What is this that he saith—born of the Spirit?
I know not what he saith!” the puzzled man,
Not baffled by the word, but by the truth
Come on him unprepared, said in his heart;
To whom Christ gave, as His wont, a principle
To guide him through a thousand intricate ways;
To guide us through that conflict of our age,—
Shall one law govern matter, govern mind?
“Nothing I see,” the man of science cries,
“Which makes me apprehend Power you name God!”
“Nay,” saith the Master, “thou hast spoken truth;
Nothing thou seest reveals to thee the kingdom;
To see that must thou new birth undergo;
Born of water and the Spirit, shalt thou see!
That which is born of flesh, no more than flesh;
Spirit is born of Spirit, and hath vision.
Then marvel not that who is born of woman
Discern not mysteries of that other world,
The world of the Spirit; lo, two kingdoms these,
With each its several law! Wouldst keep within
Dominion of the flesh? It is enough,
That what he see and prove a man believe.
Wouldst enter that dominion of the Spirit
Which is God’s kingdom? Ye must be born anew.
‘Where find this realm, suppose a man would enter?’
Thou wouldst ask: nay, none may track the way
The Spirit takes to reach the heart of a man
To whom He brings new birth; free as the wind,
That bloweth where it listeth, is that Wind,
That breath of God, engenders the new life;
Thou knowest not whence it comes, nor whither goes;
Its voice thou hear’st,—the moaning cry of souls,
Distressed, as trees in the wind, crying for God!
That, when thou hear’st it, know the voice of the Spirit;
But think not thou to measure what He doth
By rule that metes out things of sight and touch;
There be two kingdoms with two several laws,
Both of the Father, governed by His word;
But law of the one ruleth not things of the other.”

And “Marvel not at this,” saith Christ; to-day,
Hint of the mystery transpires to our searching:—
A man conceives a pure love for a maid,
Or notes a new star in the firmament,
Or thinks to traverse space some untried way;—
What has he now to do with things of flesh?
His greed, his lust, fall from him as a slough;
All thoughts revolve round that engrossing thought;
The tissues of his mortal brain take shape
From thoughts that run among them, none knows how;
Behold, a new man, new thoughts, new hopes, desires!—
A man may oft lay finger on the place
Where new thought seized him, made him painter, poet.

So God hath made us, that for every man
Are many chances of being born anew
Into a life still higher than the first:
What if were one great chance for every soul
Of highest birth creature of dust may know?
What if were some amazing thought, compelling,
That no man could pass by were it once brought
Within the focus of his narrowed vision;
A thought for wise and foolish, vile and pure,
That sudden, certain, should transform a man,
Give him new birth, within an air unbreathed
In all his grovelling days! Why, here, a lever,
With arm to lift the world to higher plane!
To make this weary, travel-stained, poor Earth
A place for angels to go to and fro,
A paradise of God!

With Nicodemus,

What hath all this to do? Practical man,
He knew and paid all dues of his religion,
All tithes of mint and anise, ceremonious rites:
What was all this, of rustling in the heart
Stirr’d by the breath of the Lord and Giver of Life?
No word of Christ’s has penetrated him,
Good honest man, but dense to things of the Spirit;
“How then can these things be? What meanest Thou
By talk of wind, the Spirit, some new birth?”
Christ labours not to make His meaning plain,
Already put in simplest speech. He chides
Him rather. “Art thou a teacher in Israel
And understandest not? What teachest thou?
Of prophets, moved by Holy Ghost to speak?
Of mighty men, on whom the Spirit came,
Raised to deliver Israel? Perceivest not,
That I but tell thee of these self-same things?
Verily, verily, is My word to thee,
We speak that we do know; that we have seen,
We testify and tell of; as for you,
This is your condemnation, ye receive
Not the truth when ye hear it.”

“We” and “ye”—

Here, first, in the history of the yet infant Church,
Appears the dividing line that separates
The world, so multitudinous, so strong and wise,
From that poor two or three gathered in His Name;
The Church, grown great, is known by the same sign
Her Lord announced of her in infancy;—
She, through whatever mark she would impose
In pride of separate life, is known by this:—
She discerneth things of the Spirit, as at first.
The world, how sensible, righteous soe’er,
Calls still, with Nicodemus, “Foolishness,”
The spiritual things a plain man would away with!

Again, that “teacher come from God,” his very words,
Would teach the ruler: “I tell you earthly things,
Of wind and the Spirit, and that new birth takes place
Before your eyes on any common day:
What if I were to speak of heavenly things!”
And, lo, that man caught up to the seventh heaven,
Who saw there things not lawful to be uttered—
For none could comprehend speech of those things,—
Helps the dim searching soul, with single eye,
To range that vista of the heavenly things!
“But no man hath ascended into heaven,
None knows the length and breadth, the depth and height
Of riches unsearchable that be in God,
Save He, the Son of Man, from heaven descended,
Who, walking here with men, abides in heaven.”
And now to Nicodemus, slow of heart,
(Never the Son of Man chooseth His hearers,
Recipients of those pearls that be His words!)
To that dull Nicodemus tells He out
That secret the old earth had travailed with
Through many ages, now, to bring to birth!
That secret of the spell should lift the world,
Nor fail in power to raise one soul of man!
“Thou knowest how Moses lifted up the serpent,
And every dying wretch who looked was healed?
So must the Son of Man be lifted up:
All men shall look on Him; and whoso looks,
Seeing the Son with eye that comprehends,
And knowing Him, believes, is born again,
(This, the new birth I told thee of but now),
And is, in Him, eternally alive!”
“Aye, lifted up,” murmured the vexed ruler
In his heart, below his light word of farewell;
“He means the throne of Israel, but there is, methinks,
Another way of lifting the presumptuous—
An eminence all men shall curse, not praise!”
And Nicodemus went into the night:
But ever, he being honest, in his heart
Echoed the words he could not comprehend—
“Ye must be born again,” “I, lifted up!”

St. John iii. 1-15.