Christ's Conversation With Nicodemus About Conversion
( Originally Published 1895 )
"Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. "—John iii. 7.
THE natural simplicity of Jesus in conversation is always interesting and delightful. How this little evening talk with Nicodemus has been growing upon the world ever since. Not only have sermons been preached about it, and books written upon it, but multitudes of earnest hearts have found in it their own introduction to Christ and the beginning of a new and peaceful life.
Everything that is told us about Nicodemus is in his favor. He is presented to us in a very amiable light. He seems to have been a serious and honorable man, true to the light of his time. He was a sincere believer in the faith of his fathers. He refused to be led away by the bitter prejudice of the Sanhedrin against Christ, and with Joseph of Arimathea voted for his acquittal when Jesus was on trial before that body. And when finally the great sacrifice was ended on the cruel cross, he came with his loving gifts to share with Joseph the last tender offices of kindly love for the Savior, giving to him in his death —what he had not been able to bring himself to do in his life—his open and devoted discipleship. I have often thought it must have been a great regret to Nicodemus in after years that he had been so slow in openly espousing the cause of the Savior; yet I do not share with those who think it was an undoubted evidence of his cowardice that he came to talk with Jesus at night. No doubt it was much easier at night to have a quiet conversation with the Savior, to open his heart to him, and to ask those deep and earnest questions which his soul hungered to have answered. Christ always gave welcome to all who came. He talks with Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, with the same simplicity, the same straightforward earnestness, the same heart-searching fidelity, that he did with the poor woman who came to the well of Samaria. Social caste did not exist for Jesus Christ at all. A man was a man for all that, whether he was rich or poor, whether he was high or low, outwardly moral or outbreakingly sinful. He was a man, a son of God, who needed the divine quickening, the heavenly cleansing, who " must be born again."
Many stumble over the expression, "Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." There seems to me to be no reason for believing that this has any reference to our present baptism by water or any suggestion of its necessity in order to salvation. Nicodemus had no doubt already been baptized by water with the baptism of John. Undoubtedly so - serious and earnest a Pharisee as Nicodemus would have been among the first to turn to the honest and unflinching preaching of John the Baptist. But John came only to make way for Christ, and declared everywhere : " I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance : but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire." Jesus was simply saying to Nicodemus that his own present standing was insufficient, that to be baptized by John unto repentance was not enough, that he must go on unto the baptism of the Holy Ghost. He must be born again not only to outward works, but to new purpose, new disposition, new hope, new love, in his inmost soul.
These declarations of Christ are exceedingly significant, because of the radical and imperative manner in which they are given. " Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." And still again, " Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again." t would be impossible to make more radical declarations than these. They are all the more impressive when we take into consideration the character of the man to whom they are spoken. He was not a poor fellow who was possessed with demons, like that wild man of Gadara, who had been the terror of his town, had been chained and imprisoned, and had broken through all restraint until he came under the heavenly influence of Christ; neither was he to be compared with the sinful woman who came and sat at the Master's feet in the house of Simon and broke the costly box of ointment on his head, who wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with her own hair—the very presence of whom was a source of disgust and shame to Simon and his friends; but he was a highly dignified, honorable man, a ruler of merit and ability, whose life every-where was recognized as high and lofty in its principles, a man who was sincerely seeking to find the light. t was to such a man that Jesus made these imperative statements, and to whom he put them most personally, in a declaration as clear as that of Nathan when he stood in the presence of King David, and, after arousing the king's anger and indignation against a horrible piece of iniquity, looked the king straight in the face and said, " Thou art the man." So Jesus said to Nicodemus, definitely and personally, " Ye must be born again."
We ought to learn from this the great truth that we are all alike under sin. Not that all men have committed the same sins; or that there is not a separation as wide as the east from the west between the grades of cultivation and refinement and character seen in different people; or that all are as great sinners as they may become—but that the deadly poison is in the refined and cultivated sin (if one may so speak of it), as well as in the deed that seems to us most loathsome and horrible. Sin is rebellion against God. t is the refusal to accept the will of God concerning us. t is the neglect of love and gratitude in our hearts to God for his goodness. And it is as necessary that one who has simply neglected to give God love, to give him sincere fidelity and devotion, to give him prayerful tenderness and reverence, should be born again into this new spirit of reverence and love and gratitude and fidelity, as it is for the new birth to come to the most degraded sinner that lurks in the dives of the city. Jesus Christ himself said that some of these outbreaking sinners among the publicans and harlots were not so far away from God in their inmost heart, and were more likely to be brought back by the tender pleading of the Spirit and the sweet message of his mercy, than were some people who prided themselves upon their morality and their self-righteousness.
There can be no doubt that the New Testament makes it just as clear as language can make it, that every man and woman in the world needs to be born anew into the kingdom of love and fellow-ship with the Lord Jesus Christ. To many this comes in childhood. Many wise Christian parents watch the opening of the hearts of their children as florists watch the opening of the beautiful buds in their conservatories, and turn their hearts while they are yet tender, and before they have been marred or soiled by sin, in love and consecration to the Lord Jesus Christ. Many of you heard last night that godly woman who stood here in your presence, while her face beamed with the joy of her heart in its communion with Christ, and told us that she had the clear witness of the Spirit that she was a child of God when she was seven years old. I have known many persons of whose most genuine and glorious conversion at an earlier age than that I have never had a doubt. I would to God that all children were converted at that age. t is the natural thing. Children ought to grow up loving the Lord Jesus Christ just as simply and as naturally as they grow up loving father and mother. Oh, when shall we cease to bring up these multitudes of Christless children in Christian homes? When shall we learn wisdom enough not to give over the impressionable years of childhood and youth to be sown with the wild oats of worldliness and sin? But if this genuine turning of the soul to the Lord Jesus Christ does not take place then, it must take place later, or there is no promise in God's word of salvation. It is not an arbitrary edict of the Almighty, it is simply that there can be no other way according to the law of our being. " The pure in heart shall see God"—not because they are an elected or selected few, a privileged class, but because in the very nature of things only the pure in heart can see him. So Christ says to Nicodemus that unless a man be born again, born anew of the Divine Spirit, "he cannot see"—not "he shall not"—"he cannot see the kingdom of God."
I read to you this evening the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. There you have the story of the first two conversions which took place on Paul's missionary tour into Europe—that of Lydia, a woman very much of the character of Nicodemus, I should think, and the other the Philippian jailer, a man offering as strong a contrast to the gentle merchant, Lydia, as could easily be imagined. Lydia was a woman of prayer. When Paul first came to her city, he heard of a prayer-meeting near the outer wall, and he went there, thinking it a good place to begin his work. Lydia was one of the women present. She was a prayerful woman, earnestly seeking to know the right, longing to find the truth, and sensitive to anything that promised to bring her spiritual enlightenment and help. On the other hand there can be no doubt that this Philippian jailer was a brutal kind of a man, a hardened man, like his class ; the kind of man who, when misfortune overtook him, was ready to do that most cowardly thing any man ever does—plunge the sword into his own heart, dying the death of a dog, and leaving his wife and children to bear the brunt and carry all the burden alone. And yet they both needed and received the divine call to conversion. Both of them were happily converted to the Lord Jesus Christ. Into each of their hearts came the new birth of love and confidence in Jesus.
True, they came very differently. As the eloquent editor of Zion's Herald says, the woman's heart opened to the truth as quietly as a morning-glory opens to the rising sun. The jailer's heart opened as the rock opens when it is torn asunder by the blast of dynamite. t needed only that the sweet message of the gospel be presented to Lydia, and she embraced it at once with all her heart, joyfully. t needed an earthquake that shook down prison walls and shook off the stocks from the prisoners' limbs to awaken the jailer to repentance. One of them was moved by the sweet influences of love, because the great deeps of her tender heart were touched and her gratitude overflowed to the Christ who had done so much for her; and the other because his conscience was aroused and thundered in his ear, " Thou art a sinner against God, and thy sin has found thee out." But, thank God, it ended the same with both of them. Love and fear have the same purpose in God's economy of grace. Do not hold back because your emotions are stirred, because your heart overflows with feeling, because your eyes are wet with tears. Do not hesitate because you have these feelings, and say, " I ought not be moved by these emotions ;" rather thank God that he has thus touched your heart, and yield him back love for love. On the other hand, do not hesitate because your conscience is aroused and, instead of emotion that makes you weep, there is a stern conviction in your reason, in your judgment, that you are under condemnation of the law, that you are a sinner in God's sight. Do not, I beg of you, shrug your shoulders and say, " I will not be driven into religion through fear." O brother, both love and fear are arrows in the quiver of the Savior, and if either of them have found a lodgment in your conscience or heart, I pray God they may not be withdrawn until the Savior's sacrificial blood hath made thee whole.
Do not hesitate because, like Nicodemus, there are things about Christianity which you cannot understand, because the new birth seems mysterious to you. Take rather to your heart those tender words of Jesus, " If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine."
One of the most interesting as well as influential Christian workers, in recent years, is Lady Henry Somerset, the leader of the temperance hosts of Great Britain. Her conversion was very interesting. She was surrounded by a most ultra rich and fashionable circle. Few, if any, of the titled men and women whom she constantly met in her social life were earnest and devoted Christians. Not only so, but through reading infidel works she had come to doubt the very existence of Christ. Yet she could not rest in such a state of uncertainty. In her better hours her heart hungered and thirsted for some-thing that was real, for something upon which her soul might feed. She pondered and thought and read, and even prayed, but found no resting-place for her faith. Finally, one evening, as she was walking in her grounds, she heard a voice speaking to her inmost soul, " Act as if I were, and thou shalt know that I am." She repeated the words over and over again. The more she pondered on the message, the wiser it seemed. And from that hour she began to try to do the will of God. Whatever seemed to her to be pleasing to Christ, that she did. Whatever a Christian woman ought to do, that was her law, and so she came into a joyous and inspiring fellowship with Jesus Christ. O my dear friends, you who have never known the Savior as your personal helper and friend and Redeemer, will you not follow her ex-ample to-night? You have been living as if there were no God, no Christ, no heaven, no immortal life; surely it is not strange that you have not found the Lord. Begin now, this very hour, to live as though there were a God who gave his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for your salvation. Begin now to do whatever a Christian ought to do. Begin now in the path of obedience. Confess Christ openly and frankly, and there shall come to you the quickening of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of your sins, the conscious witness in your spirit that you are a child of God.