ICODEMUS.

BY ALEXADER GARDIER MERCER, D.D.
There was a man of the Pharisees, named icodemus, a mler ol the
Jews, etc. — ^Jou iii., 1-12.
Though the narrator does not enter into the particu-
lars of this interesting interview, we can be at no loss to
understand the main facts of it.
Jesus had for the first time visited Jerusalem in a
public character. Rumor no doubt had spoken of him
there as a great prophet or a great wonder-worker, who
had appeared in Galilee ; and now, when he had come
up to the Passover, he was observed with much interest.
There were obvious reasons why the higher classes — ^thc
Pharisees particularly — should regard him with suspicion ;
for, instead of commg to Jerusalem to open his ministry,
he had done that in the inferior region of despised
Galilee ; and now, when he was in the sacred city, it was
obvious that he did not belong to them. In dress, de-
meanor, and language he appeared to be alien to them ;
and instead of seeking the countenance of that haughty
class, he kept himself aloof.
In the judgment of all sects he who is not with them is
against them. How early the Pharisees seem to have
formed this prejudice ! They were waiting for a
Messiah, — not, to be sure, so anxiously as the people,
170
ICO DEM us. 171
but still with interest ; and as to Jesus, it is probable that
at this period they knew nothing substantial against his
claims. Still instinctively, as it would seem, the first look
of the matter was distasteful to them.
There was one of them, however, who saw that in this
Stranger from which he could not so easily turn. This
was icodemus, "a man of the Pharisees," but not
entirely a Pharisee, — a man in whom the open heart was
not quite lost in the prejudices of sect. He was "a
ruler of the Jews,*' — a member, that is, of the Sanhedrim.
icodemus, therefore, was of elevated rank, — one of
the princes of the people. His position and his credit
were no doubt dear to him ; they were not to be lightly
risked. To preserve caste as a ruler and as a Pharisee,
he was hemmed in to a very strict demeanor ; for there
can be no greater slavery than that of a man who occu-
pies at once an official position and a place of rank in a
religious party.
Therefore icodemus came to Jesus by night, — that
is, no doubt, secretly, and perhaps at the dead of night.
Where he found Jesus at that hour, and how employed,
we know not ; but he found him ready to do the work of
his ministry, — instant out of season as well as in. Though
icodemus came by stealth into the presence of one who
he knew in his heart could dishonor no one, and though
the secrecy of his action came perhaps from weakness, if
not from selfish carefulness, yet Jesus receives him and
does not upbraid him. Mixed motives are so treated
usually by the wise and good.
172 BIBLE CHARACTERS.
icodemus "came to Jesus by night, and said unto
him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from
God : (or no man can do these miracles that thou doest,
except God be with him." This introductoiy address,
and the respectful title, '* Rabbi " (a title which acknowU
edged that a man was not only a competent but an au-
thorized teacher), — this form of address is an expression
of ingenuous and decided belief in Christ, at least as a
teacher.
Accordingly our Lord begins at once his teaching:
" Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say
unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see
the kingdom of God,"
That Jesus should begin his reply in this way has
seemed to many abrupt and unconnected with the ad-
dress of icodemus ; but it is because they have not ob-
served that by that address icodemus had, as it were,
placed himself at the feet of Christ, to hear what he had
to announce. It does not seem to me remarkable that
Christ should have begun without delay his message;
but it is well worth while to remark what it is that he
chooses first to say. "Thou art a divine teacher," said
icodemus, — " that is, I am here to be taught." Jesus
answered : " Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man
be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God, That
is my message ; at least that is the great base and begin-
ning of the doctrine that I came to teach." With solemn
emphasis — "verily, verily" — he thus places the fact of
the new birth at the threshold.
ICODEMUS, 173
We usually regard these words merely as an abstract
statement of the doctrine that man must be spiritually
regenerated ; but we should keep in mind to whom, and
when, they were spoken.
Hitherto Christ had not taught any thing of this sort.
To the people generally, and indeed to his disciples, he
had, up to this time, set forth the most beautiful Gospel
morality, and had commanded implicit faith in him, but
hardly any thing more. He kept back the spiritual
depths of his religion. Here, however, he had an audi-
tor who, by his office, should be able to understand
something of these hidden things, and who, by the in-
genuous confession of his belief in Christ, gave promise
that he could in some measure appreciate them.
But icodemus knew nothing of his meaning. Though
trained in the perfect manner of the law, and though^
from the good heart which he had, we may suppose that
he, if any of the higher people, could imagine something
of Christ's intent, yet he knew nothing of it. ** How can
a man be born when he is old ? can he enter the second
time into his mother's womb and be bom? "
It would not be possible to show in any better way
than this how entirely formal, external, unspiritual the
Jewish people of all orders had become. Here was one
of the choicest of the people, who seemed as gross in his
religious conceptions as the most ignorant of the Jewish
peasants.
To think of such a being as Christ having arisen from
174 BIBLE CHARACTERS.
the bosom of such a people ! — of such intellectual and
spiritual conditions, or rather limitations. To think, too,
what a task was laid upon him, — in the midst of the bit-
terest deadliest prejudices of a nation that was besotted
with ignorance and foolish notions, to teach and to im-
plant the divine Christian faith !
But Jesus never turns from any stupidity or any wick-
edness that is willing to hear. At once he explains his
mystery, adding : " If I have told you earthly things, and
ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of
heavenly things ? " This expression sounds to me not
only as an apology to icodemus for not entering more
deeply into truth, but it is prompted, I think, by a feeling
of discouragement. For it was his intent, it appears
from this, to speak of ** heavenly things," and he thought
he had found the right ear ; but no, — the auditor was not
fit for the subject.
What things — what unspeakable things were they,
which were ready, but kept back for the want of a hearer !
He left unspoken his " heavenly things.** And not only
then, but always, he found not a world which would or
could hear, and so (and for no other reason) he could not
and did not speak. There was in his heart a reserve as
to truth, — a sensitive unwillingness to degrade it ; and
he had this trait in so peculiar a degree that he was
forced to silence or to the simplest teachings in parables.
True, this Gospel of John, unlike the other Gospels, re-
cords many of his words which the world did not hear.
JCODEMUS. 175
but which still he gave them, in the hope that they might
hear. But even in this Gospel, and to his chosen dis-
ciples, he was forced to say, " I have many things to say
unto you, but ye cannot bear them now"; while to the
Jews at large his reserve was singularly great. He shrank
with a wise dignity from speaking of the heavenly things
to gross and uncongenial hearts. And I can in no other
way account for that expression, — one of the severest he
ever used, — " Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,
•neither cast ye your pearls before swine."
Though icodemus was found so far below what a
*' master in Israel *' ought to be, and could believe but
little, he was yet, no doubt, of a towardly and open,
though timid heart ; and though it does not appear that
he publicly acknowledged Jesus, yet there is reason to
believe that on several occasions he used his influence in
the Sanhedrim in his behalf, and kept back somewhat,
perhaps, or meliorated for a time, the proceedings against
him. icodemus became, it is probable, a disciple,
though his strength was not equal to abandonment of
every thing for Christ's sake.
How far such weakness is consistent with sincerity it
does not become us to decide too boldly. There are pe-
culiar characters, peculiar situations, to which a general
rule is not applicable. There may, no doubt, be a genuine
and deep root of faith and love in the heart, which yet
may fail, not merely in one instance, but for years, to act
itself out consistently and boldly. True piety ought to
176 BIBLE CHARACTERS,
make every man ready even for martyrdom, if need be ;
yet who will say that there is no grace or goodness in
hearts which might not be equal to this? icodemus
was a style of man that is not uncommon. He sought to
make duty consistent with public honor and esteem ; and
for doing this, in his case as in others, there were, no
doubt, many plausible and some just arguments.
While, therefore, it may not become us to judge such
harshly, the lesson which his character affords should not
be lost. How many men live below — ay, far below —
their convictions as to what is good, pressed down by
some shameful fear ! ** I would openly serve God, but I
am afraid of the opinion of some ; I shall be criticised
too closely ; or I am afraid of some loss as to property*
I cannot acquire it so freely or hold it so firmly. I
would — I feel I ought to do my duty to my fellow-men
in a better way, — to be more generous, more noble to
them, — but prudence of some sort holds me back."
If it is mere prudence that holds us back, let me say
that it is an unworthy prudence. We have all our place
in some Sanhedrim, — that is, our post, our honor, our
point of interest or solicitude ; and that it is which brings
us at night to the Saviour, if we come at all ; that it is
which, while we say in our hearts, " Rabbi, we believe
that thou art a teacher come from God,** yet forbids us
to give up ourselves boldly to him. Constantly ham-
pered, we do our duty cravenly and partially, live thus
through the world, and when we leave it at last, the
ICODEMUS, 177
awful question is started by those behind us, whether
indeed we knew any thing of God. At best, perhaps,
we leave the charitable to hope that such might be the
case.
Let us now consider the great truth which our Lord
has here taught, — that there is a new birth, and that the
experience of it is absolutely essential. ** Except a man
be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
The idea of a second birth, as it is a natural figure to
express any great change, is not unknown in the East.
The Sanscrit name of Brahmin signifies "the twice-
born *'; and the Jews regarded the entrance of a prose-
lyte into their religion as a second birth. The meaning
of our Lord, however, is something far deeper than any
external or even moral change. As to what he really
did mean there has been and is much controversy.
The new birth is the beginning of a new affection in
the heart by the power of the Divine Spirit. I suppose
that this new and gracious affection of the soul is built
upon and rises out of the usual moral sentiments of the
man, just in the same manner as these moral senti-
ments (if you trace the process of their formation) rise
out of or are formed upon what is yet lower in him.
But, on the other hand, the element which appears is
strictly new, — ^just as much so as the new compound of
the chemist is entirely different from the elements out of
which it is compounded ; and not only is it strictly new,
but strictly born in us of the Divine Spirit. The same.
1/8 BIBLE CHARACTERS.
indeed, may be said of any other good sentiment or
characteristic which a man acquires, in the general sense
that ** every good gift cometh down from the Father,"
but it is true of this in a high and pre-eminent sense.
As for the manner of it: ask not for the manner. In
no one thing can you tell me how a thing is done : you
can only tell me at each stage that it is done. " Marvel not
that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind
bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound
thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither
it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."
Spiritual processes we know nothing of ; but then we
know just as little of material. We see results.
If I am a spirit, and if there be a Master-Spirit from
which I came, I know that he whose breath created me
can breathe on, can expand and illuminate the soul that
he has made. To be sure, he passes by me and I see
him not ; yet I feel his presence, and when he has gone
on, the fruits he has scattered remain. When the field
of grass or grain is blown upon by a gale, I see not the
gale, and I know not the laws of the wind ; but I feel the
freshness, and I see the whole harvest bent as under a
stream. That is all I know there, and that is all I know
here. " There is a river the streams whereof make glad
the city of God." There is a heavenly breath which
"into souls doth creep like to a breeze from heaven."
There is a vital heat which is like the clear sunlight upon
herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest*
ICODEMUS. 179
There is a light which lodges within us as the light
shines through the diamond, which purges the darkness
and goes down even to the inmost seat of mental sight.
There is, in short, a mighty word : " Behold, I make all
things new.'* This speaks, and it is done ; this com-
mands, and it stands fast.
This new power may exist in all degrees of strength,
even from a point where the signs of life are scarcely
perceptible, up to the most vigorous fulness. But while
we allow that the new birth of the Spirit may be so small,
let us not for a moment remove or blot out the line
which separates it from the ordinary condition of the
soul. The smallest beginnings of faith and love elevate
the man into a region as much above that of mere
morality as though he had ascended from earth up to
heaven. o mind can value, no tongue can tell, the
worth of that divine seed sown in the heart. It is a seed
of light sown in the midst of darkness, a seed of life
sown in the midst of barrenness and death ; and from its
blessed germination a new creation of spiritual and mag-
nificent reality shall spring forth, — a new heaven and a
new earth.
This is happily stated in the words of an illustrious
man. He is speaking of the dignity of this spiritual
element in the heart, which he calls charity, or love.
"The infinite distance," says he, '* that there is between
body and intellect does but imperfectly represent to us
the distance between intellect and charity, which last.
l8o BIBLE CHARACTERS,
being altogether supernatural, maybe said to be infinitely
more spiritual." According to this there is a carnal
greatness, an intellectual^ and a spiritual^ each rising in
splendid pre-eminence over the other, and each opening
a new world, as if totally unknown to the world below it.
We have seen, then, first as to the origin of it, that this
new element, though developed under laws and regulated
by them, is still entirely supernatural, — that is, is a new
and higher life than belongs to human nature outside of
the Gospel, — and in the next place that, though it may
exist in great weakness, it has intrinsically a divine value,
and without it a man cannot see the kingdom of God.
The birth of this new gleam of emotion, which begins in
whatever weakness and smallness, is regeneration^ and the
element is regal. I mean that there is that in its nature
which at once or gradually rules and dominates the whole
soul.
The conclusion is, then, that the first and great thing
which we should seek of God is this new soul. A man
may be accomplished in all the high and honorable
things of nature ; he may even believe Christianity, and
may say with icodcmus, ** I know that thou art a
teacher come from God," and sit at his feet and hear of
his doctrines, and yet live in blindness and say, " How
can these things be? '* A man may have all wisdom, all
knowledge, and yet see nothing. He may be ready to
give his body to be burned, and yet be nothing, if there
be not in his heart somewhat of this gift of divine love
ICODEMUS, l8l
and light. The heavens above his head are brass, and
the earth beneath his feet is iron. The greatest thing
that can be said of a man is that he is an immortal
spirit ; but a still diviner soul may be acquired, a soul
through which we may cast off sin and all lowness, —
through which we may behold and have fellowship with
God in his Son, and with all holy realities, — through
which, nay, in which, we have the heritage of eternal and
blessed life.
But how? How can we acquire this? "ot by
might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord,"
It Cometh not with observation, — Lo here ! or, lo there !
— the kingdom of heaven is within you. This unspeak-
able gift is bestowed freely, fully, always to prayer. Pray
that the evil heart be removed, and that a new heart be
formed in you. Seek it ! Ye shall find it. Knock for
it, and some door will be opened into it. It is divinely
given, then, to seeking. But not this only. Though
given divinely, it is formed as if naturally. We ascend
always and in all things from the ground where we stood
before. From sensation I rise to intelligence, from
intelligence and sensation I ascend to moral emotions ;
and from these, well used, the Spirit of God forms in me
that divine affection which is a new soul, and which is as
unspeakably above all morality as man is above the dust
of the earth out of which he was formed.
Great as the change is, boundless as are the results of
it, the birth of it will arise as simply and naturally as a
l82 BIBLE CHARACTERS.
plant in your garden when you have placed the
there. Indeed the germ of it is in that seeking.
sincere wish and search of your heart is itself the i
But suppose you have no disposition to seek. Thi
you hear the truth and feel no inclination upwai
your soul, you are so far hopelessly below life. You
as much unfit for God as some half-formed animal,
no man lives who is that — or he is not a man. S
with the natural light which lights eveiy man ; yiel
it as it points to all duty and all hope. The rewai
duty will be the receiving of a better soul, pledget
the word of Christ, called forth by the divine ene
and making you new-born to all the heavenly th
which now you see not.
And there is as deep reality in the fact to^lay as t
was on that night in Judea when icodemus heard
voice of the Son of God declaring in profound solemi
" Except a man be bom of water and of the Spirit
cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
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