A CASTE or a sect may consist for the most part of haughty fanatics and obstinate bigots, but it will be strange indeed if there are to be found among them no exceptions to the general characteristics; strange if honesty, candour, sensibility, are utterly dead among them all. Even among rulers, scribes, Pharisees, and wealthy members of the Sanhedrin, Christ found believers and followers. The earliest and most remarkable of those was Nicodemus, a rich man, a ruler, a Pharisee, and a member of the Sanhedrin.
A constitutional timidity is, however, observable in all which the Gospels tell us about Nicodemus; a timidity which could not be wholly overcome even by his honest desire to befriend and acknowledge One whom he knew to be a Prophet, even if he did not at once recognise in Him the promised Messiah. Thus the few words which he interposed to check the rash injustice of his colleagues are cautiously rested on a general principle, and betray no indication of his personal faith in the Galilæan whom his sect despised. And even when the power of Christ's love, manifested on the cross, had made the most timid disciples bold, Nicodemus does not come forward with his splendid gifts of affection until the example had been set by one of his own wealth, and rank, and station in society.
Such was the Rabbi who, with that mingled candour and fear of man which characterise all that we know of him, came indeed to Jesus, but came cautiously by night. He was anxious to know more of this young Galilæan prophet whom he was too honest not to recognise as a teacher come from God; but he thought himself too eminent a person among his sect to compromise his dignity, and possibly even his safety, by visiting him in public.
Although He is alluded to in only a few touches, because of that high teaching which Jesus vouchsafed to him, yet the impression left upon us by his individuality is inimitably distinct, and wholly beyond the range of invention. His very first remark shows the indirect character of his mindhis way of suggesting rather than stating what he wishedthe half-patronising desire to ask, yet the half-shrinking reluctance to frame his questionthe admission that Jesus had come "from God," yet the hesitating implication that it was only as "a teacher," and the suppressed inquiry, "What must I do?"
Our Lord saw deep into his heart, and avoiding all formalities or discussion of preliminaries, startles him at once with the solemn uncompromising address, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again (or 'from above'), he cannot see the kingdom of God." My disciple must be mine in heart and soul, or he is no disciple at all; the question is not of doing or not doing but of being.
That answer startled Nicodemus into deep earnestness; but like the Jews in the last chapter (ii. 20), he either could not, or would not, grasp its full significance. He prefers to play, with a kind of querulous surprise, about the mere literal meaning of the words which he chooses to interpret in the most physical and unintelligible sense. Mere logomachy like this Jesus did not pause to notice; He only sheds a fresh ray of light on the reiteration of his former warning. He spoke, not of the fleshly birth, but of that spiritual regeneration of which no man could predict the course or method, any more than they could tell the course of the night breeze that rose and fell and whispered fitfully outside the little tabernacle where they sat, but which must be a birth by water and by the Spirita purification, that is, and a renewalan outward symbol and an inward gracea death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness.
Nicodemus could only answer by an expression of incredulous amazement. A Gentile might need, as it were, a new birth when admitted into the Jewish communion; but hea son of Abraham, a Rabbi, a zealous keeper of the Lawcould he need that new birth? How could such things be?
"Art thou the teacher (ò didáskalos) of Israel," asked our Lord, "and knowest not these things?" Art thou the third member of the Sanhedrin, the châkâm or wise man, and yet knowest not the earliest, simplest lesson of the initiation into the kingdom of heaven? If thy knowledge be thus carnal, thus limitedif thus thou stumblest on the threshold, how canst thou understand those deeper truths which He only who came down from heaven can make known? The question was half sorrowful, half reproachful; but He proceeded to reveal to this Master in Israel things greater and stranger than these; even the salvation of man rendered possible by the sufferings and exaltation of the Son of Man; the love of God manifested in sending His only-begotten Son, not to judge, but to save; the deliverance for all through faith in Him; the condemnation which must fall on those who wilfully reject the truths He came to teach.
These were indeed the mysteries of the kingdom of heaventruths once undreamed of, but now fully revealed. And although they violated every prejudice, and overthrew every immediate hope of this aged inquirerthough to learn them he must unlearn the entire intellectual habits of his life and trainingyet we know from the sequel that they must have sunk into his inmost soul. Doubtless in the further discussion of them the night deepened around them; and in the memorable words about the light and the darkness with which the interview was closed, Jesus gently rebuked the fear of man which led this great Rabbi to seek the shelter of midnight for a deed which was not a deed of darkness needing to be concealed, but which was indeed a coming to the true and only Light.
Whatever lessons were uttered, or signs were done during the remainder of this First Passover, no further details are given us about them. Finding a stolid and insensate opposition, our Lord left Jerusalem, and went with His disciples "into Judæa," apparently to the banks of the Jordan, for there St. John tells us that His disciples began to baptise. This baptism, a distant foreshadowing of the future sacrament, Christ seems rather to have permitted than to have directly organised. As yet it was the time of Preparation; as yet the inauguration of His ministry had been, if we may be allowed the expression, of an isolated and tentative description. Theologians have sought for all kinds of subtle and profound explanations of this baptism by the disciples. Nothing, however, that has been suggested throws any further light upon the subject, and we can only believe that Jesus permitted for a time this simple and beautiful rite as a sign of discipleship, and as the national symbol of a desire for that lustration of the heart which was essential to all who would enter into the kingdom of heaven.
John the Baptist was still continuing his baptism of repentance. Here, too, theologians have discovered a deep and mysterious difficulty, and have entered into elaborate disquisitions on the relations between the baptism of Jesus and of John. Nothing, however, has been elicited from the discussion. Inasmuch as the full activity of Christ's ministry had not yet been begun, the baptism of St. John no less than that of the disciples must be still regarded as a symbol of repentance and purity. Nor will any one who is convinced that Repentance is "the younger brother of Innocence," and that for all who have sinned repentance is the very work of life, be surprised that the earliest preaching of Jesus as of John was"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." The time of preparation, of preliminary testing, was not over yet; it was indeed drawing to a conclusion, and this baptism by the disciples was but a transitory phase of the opening ministry. And the fact that John no longer preached in the wilderness, or baptised at Bethany, but had found it desirable to leave the scene of his brief triumph and glory, marked that there was a waning in the brightness of that star of the Gospel dawn. The humble spirit of Johnin all of whose words a deep undertone of sadness is traceableaccepted in entire submissiveness to the will of God, the destiny of a brief and interrupted mission.
He had removed to Ænon, near Salim, a locality so wholly uncertain that it is impossible to arrive at any decision respecting it. Some still came to his baptism, though probably in diminished numbers, for a larger multitude now began to flock to the baptism of Christ's disciples. But the ignoble jealousy which could not darken the illuminated soul of the Forerunner, found a ready place in the hearts of his followers. How long it may have smouldered we do not know, but it was called into active display during the controversy excited by the fact that two great Teachers, of whom one had testified to the other as the promised Messiah, were baptising large multitudes of people, although the Sanhedrin and all the appointed authorities of the nation had declared against their claims. Some Jew had annoyed the disciples of John with a dispute about purification, and they vented their perplexed and mortified feelings in a complaint to their great master: "Rabbi, He who was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou hast borne witness, lo He is baptising, and all men are coming to Him." The significant suppression of the name, the tone of irritation at what appeared to them an encroachment, the scarcely subdued resentment that any one should be a successful rival to him whose words had for a season so deeply stirred the hearts of men, are all apparent in this querulous address. And in the noble answer to it, all John's inherent greatness shone forth. He could not enter into rivalries, which would be a treachery against his deepest convictions, a falsification of his most solemn words. God was the sole source of human gifts, and in His sight there can be no such thing as human greatness. He reminded them of his asseveration that he was not the Christ, but only His messenger; he was not the bridegroom, but the bridegroom's friend, and his heart was even now being gladdened by the bridegroom's voice. Henceforth he was content to decrease; content that his little light should be swallowed up in the boundless dawn. He was but an earthly messenger; but he had put the seal of his most intense conviction to the belief that God was true, and had given all things to His Son, and that through Him alone could eternal life be won.