There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles 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 again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the 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 of 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 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. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? JOHN 3: 1-10
We know that our eternal soul consists of our will and understanding. Our will is what we love most and our understanding is what we believe to be true. To be RE-BORN is to RE-FORM our mind and to RE-GENERATE our will in order to acquire a NEW MIND and a NEW WILL. It is only by this NEW MIND and NEW WILL that we are able to enter the Harmonic Fields of Heaven. Therefore, this NEW MIND must be harmonic or True and this NEW WILL must be harmonic or Loving. This New Mind must be aligned with Divine Truth (or the Word) and this New Will must be aligned with Divine (or unselfish) Love.
At the time when God manifested Himself as the Messiah on earth, the Israelitish Church had completely degraded and even the leaders of the Church or Pharisees only understood the Word literally. Hence, although many Hebrew prophets had prophesied the coming of the Messiah on earth, most of the Pharisees pretended to reject Jesus because they were unable to decipher what He was communicating, neither who He really was, nor what He came down from Heaven to accomplish. But Jesus knew that the real reason they chose to reject Him was because, inwardly, they loved the world more than God or their neighbor and they did not want to lose their worldly power and stature in the community. Hence, He pointed out to them that, by freely choosing to reject Him, they were also willingly choosing to remain in spiritual darkness (hell).
Now, during those days, anyone who was reasonable and witnessed Jesus’ miracles could conclude that He was not like any other human being. No other finite human being could perform such miracles. Such miracles could only be a manifestation of God’s Power.
Like all Pharisees of the time, Nicodemus was in spiritual darkness (he came by night). Yet, Nicodemus still had an open heart and an open mind. Like all human beings, he was free to love and believe or reject God. But he made a free choice; he freely chose to believe what Jesus was saying and he was willing to be taught.
Since he still understood everything literally, he had trouble understanding what being born again meant. Some people today also still have trouble understanding what it means. And some even foolishly believe that by simply dipping their body in water that they are born again in spirit and saved. They erroneously believe that God has instantly saved them by Divine Mercy. They think that they can continue to intend, think, live and behave as they did before and still be able to enter Heaven. It would be great if it were that easy. The universe is governed by natural and spiritual laws. And, in order to enter Heaven, we need a Heavenly or spiritual body. Like a natural body, this spiritual body must be conceived, grow like a fetus in the womb of Love for a while, eventually be born in the spiritual atmosphere of Truth and continue to mature.
Baptism is simply a symbol for regeneration. And we can only be slowly and gradually regenerated through repentance and spiritual temptations. The water in which we may be baptised or born again is Truth (The Word of God). And its spirit is Love in action. This Holy Spirit is in Jesus’ words in the Bible (“The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are Life” John 6:63) Hence, before we begin to be regenerated or born again into Truth and Love, we are only natural beings (flesh) who are in self-love and self-intelligence. But the day we freely choose from our own will to believe the Truth (Word of God) and willingly choose to love God and our neighbor, we are born again in water (Truth) and spirit (Love in action).
Now, although our spiritual body is conceived at that fateful instant, like a seed, it takes a long time to grow into a healthy tree which is our spiritual body. This spiritual growth unfolds over many years through repentance, spiritual temptations and a life of useful and loving actions. We must freely reject what is false within our mind and willingly resist the selfish urges and lusts that are still within our heart. The Lord will then gradually replace them with His Wisdom and Love. By living our life in accordance with Truth and Love (rationality and conscience), we gradually generate a spiritual body of mental and spiritual substance that has the capacity to reside in the eternal fields of Heaven.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, Except one be begotten anew he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus said, How can a man be begotten when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be begotten? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be begotten of water and of the spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is begotten of the spirit is spirit. (John 3:3-6).
As Nicodemus did not understand the spiritual sense of the Lord’s words “that a man must be begotten anew,” the Lord explained that “to be begotten” means “to be begotten of water and of the spirit,” thus to be regenerated, that is, by means of truths from the Word and a life according to them, for “water” signifies truths, and “spirit” a life according to them. But elsewhere in the Word, where “to travail,” “to bring forth,” “to produce,” and “to beget” are mentioned, there is no explanation, and yet spiritual travail, birth, nativity, and generation are meant, since the Word in the letter is natural, but in its bosom is spiritual. “To bring forth” signifies to bring forth spiritually, because when a man is regenerating he is likewise as it were conceived, carried in the womb, born, and educated, as a man is conceived of his father, carried in the womb and born of his mother, and afterwards educated. Emanuel Swedenborg [AE 721]
UNLESS A MAN IS BORN AGAIN, AND, AS IT WERE, CREATED ANEW, HE CANNOT ENTER INTO THE KINGDOM OF GOD.
That unless a man is born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God, is the Lord’s doctrine in the following passages from John:
Jesus said to Nicodemus, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God; and again, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God; That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit (3:3, 5, 6).
“The kingdom of God” means both heaven and the church, for the church is the kingdom of God on earth. So in other places, where the kingdom of God is mentioned (as in Matt. 11:11; 12:25; 21:43; Luke 4:43; 6:20; 8:1, 10; 9:11, 60, 62; 17:21; and elsewhere).
“To be born of water and the spirit” signifies to be born by means of truths of faith and a life in accordance with them. That “water” signifies truths, may be seen in the Apocalypse Revealed (n. 50, 614, 615, 685, 632); that “spirit” signifies a life in accordance with Divine truths is clear from the Lord’s Words in John (6:63). “Verily, verily” [or “Amen, amen”], signifies that this is the truth; and the Lord used that expression so frequently because He was the truth itself. He Himself is also called “the Amen” (Apoc. 3:14). In the Word the regenerate are called “Sons of God” and “born of God,” and regeneration is described by “a new heart and a new spirit.” Emanuel Swedenborg [TCR 572]
That Baptism is an introduction into the Christian Church is evident from many considerations, such as the following:
1 Baptism was instituted in place of circumcision; and as circumcision was a sign that those circumcised belonged to the Israelitish Church, so Baptism is the sign that those baptized belong to the Christian Church, as was shown in the preceding article. A sign, however, only serves as a mark of recognition, as bands of different colors are placed on the infants of two mothers that they may be distinguished from each other, and not be changed.
2 That Baptism is only a sign of introduction into the Church is clearly evident from the baptizing of infants, who do not exercise any reason at all, and who are no more capable of receiving anything of faith than young branches of a tree.
3 Not only are infants baptized, but also all foreign proselytes converted to the Christian religion, whether young or old; and this is done before they have been instructed, provided they express their desire to embrace Christianity, into which they are inaugurated by Baptism. This also was the practice of the Apostles, according to the Lord’s words,
That they should make disciples of all nations, and baptize them, Matt. xxviii. 19.
4 John baptized all that came to him from Judea and Jerusalem, in the river Jordan, Matt. iii. 6; Mark i. 5.
He baptized in Jordan because the entrance into the land of Canaan was across that river. Canaan signified the Church, because the Church was there; and consequently Jordan signified introduction into it. That Canaan signified the Church, and Jordan introduction into it, may be seen in the Apocalypse Revealed, No. 285.
5 This is what is done on earth; but in the heavens infants are introduced by Baptism into the Christian heaven, and angels are there assigned to them to take care of them. Therefore, as soon as infants are baptized, they are placed in charge of angels by whom they are kept in a state to receive faith in the Lord. When they grow up, however, and come under their own control and exercise their own reason, the guardian angels leave them; and they attract to themselves as associates those spirits whose life and faith harmonize with their own. From this it is evident that Baptism is insertion among Christians in the spiritual world also. Emanuel Swedenborg [TCR 677]
by William Bruce
It is remarkable that some of our Lord’s most important lessons of doctrine and practice were drawn from him by, persons who sought his advice or instruction, and even by some who endeavoured to entangle him in his talk; so that it seems as if many of the precious truths of the gospel owed their existence to the accidental circumstance of some human inquiry. But things accidental are not fortuitous. What natural men call chance, spiritual men call Providence. All things that happen are divinely ordered or permitted, and for some wise and benevolent purpose. Besides, the sense of need, and the desire for light, which drew Nicodemus, as well as others, to Christ, were inspired by him who could bestow the blessing. This shows that divine instruction is adapted to human want. And when we reflect that every sincere desire to receive the Lord’s light is inspired by his love, since no one can come to the Son except the Father draw him., we can see, that while the occasion of these lessons is human, the cause of them is divine; and that providence and revelation are coincident as well as concordant. But all who, like Nicodemus, come to Jesus, to learn the truth relating to eternal life, are directed to the Lord by his works, especially those miracles of grace that act upon the will, and incline the mind to listen to the truth.
1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. Such is the description of him through whom our Lord delivered to his church his divine lesson on the subject of the new or heavenly birth. The darkest times sometimes produce the greatest lights, and the most corrupt the brightest examples. The Pharisees produced a Nicodemus and a Paul. The characters of these men, both eminent, are yet strongly contrasted. Nicodemus was timid, Paul was bold; Nicodemus was fitted to be a disciple, Paul to be an apostle. The different characteristics of these men are determined by constitution rather than by state. They may be equally sincere, and both eminently useful. The one forms a link of connection between the new and the old during a period of transition, the other supports the new against the old in a time of separation; the one is a man of peace, the other is a man of war. Yet Nicodemus was a ruler, which bespeaks and represents that human quality which we call intellectual, but he-was a ruler of the Jews, which marks the character of his intellect as being of the celestial class, a Jew being expressive, in the genuine sense, of what has relation to the will and to goodness. Such being the character of those represented by Nicodemus, we may more readily understand what is related of him, and what Jesus said to him respecting the regeneration, or the new birth.
2 The same came to Jesus by night. Privacy, and perhaps fear of the Jews, were the motives which actuated the Jewish ruler in making this visit by night. Yet he who so unsparingly censured hypocrisy did not reprove this privacy. Night has, however, another use than that of sheltering darkness; it is the sign of mental obscurity. And as John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching the gospel, to represent the desert state of the church; so Nicodemus came in the night, to represent the state of darkness into which it had sunk, respecting everything relating to spiritual and eternal life. The religious Nicodemus comes also in the night of his own spiritual darkness, to seek and to see Jesus as the Light. And this is the language in which he addresses him : Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God. To salute Jesus as Rabbi is to acknowledge him as Master, the supreme authority in matters of faith and life. ” Be not called masters, for one is your Master, even Christ” (Matt. xxiii. 10). He who is the truth itself is the only authority in matters of faith. But Nicodemus not only addressed the Lord as a teacher, but as a teacher come from God; not only as divine truth, but as divine truth coming forth from divine love. This Jesus was. Nicodemus had been led to believe Jesus to be a divinely commissioned teacher, because of the miracles he performed: for, said he, no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. The Jewish ruler took, so far, the right view of these supernatural works, in regarding them as evidences of the character of him who performed them, and of his being sent from God; and he came to him as a teacher, to learn the message, of which he believed him to be the bearer. This inquirer, as it is natural to suppose, had but imperfect notions of the true character of Jesus: and who can know the Lord truly but from his own teaching? To know that God is with Jesus is, however, a step towards knowing that God is in him, and that he himself is God.
3 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. This is one of the primary truths of the gospel, the meaning of which is better expressed in the original, which speaks not of being born again, but of being born from above. Of the nature of this divine work, which alone can prepare the mind for heaven, it is most important that we should have some definite and clear ideas. The second and heavenly birth, which our Lord teaches, is not a mere figure but a great reality. It is a birth as real and actual as that which ushers us into existence in this world. There is a constant correspondence between natural operations and spiritual, or between what is done in the body and what is done in the spirit. From this correspondence, the stages of spiritual regeneration answer to those of natural conception, gestation, birth, and education. It is on this ground that, whenever mention is made in the Word of natural births, they signify spiritual births, or the birth of goodness and truth in the mind. It is from this ground too that the Lord is called Father, and that the church is called mother, and that those who have received the principles of goodness and truth from the Lord are said to be born of God, and to be his children, and in relation to each other are called brethren. As there is a correspondence in all things that relate to the body and all that relate to the soul, we may see the nature of the second birth from that of the first. As the life of the body is dependent on the motion of the heart and the lungs, the life of the soul depends on that of the will and the understanding. By birth the will and the understanding are natural, being devoted exclusively to the things of this life. Regeneration consists in the beginning, formation, and birth of a new will and a new understanding, which, as they come from heaven, are devoted to heavenly things. The Word, treating of the soul by images and language relating to the body, calls regeneration the creation of a new heart and a new spirit; as in the Psalms, ” Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (li. 10). In accordance with the same imagery, the old will, or the natural heart of man, is called a heart of stone, and the new will is called a heart of flesh (Ezek. xxxvi, 26). To receive a new heart and a new spirit is to receive a new will and a new understanding, and as a consequence, new affections and thoughts, a new life and conversation, and thus in reality to become a new man. This is to be born from above, a child of God, and an heir of his kingdom.
4 But Nicodemus failed to see the truth which the Lord declared to him. He answered, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born ? This expresses at once ignorance and concern; ignorance of the birth of which the Lord spake, and concern for his own salvation, which seemed to him to rest on so impossible a condition. Yet the second birth, as Nicodemus had first conceived of it, had such a birth been possible, would not have been a birth from heaven, but from the world, and at best but a repetition of that which he had already experienced. There is perhaps something of the spirit and notion of Nicodemus, in the desire which natural men often have, of returning again into the innocence and happiness of their childhood. And yet in this sighing for the purity of early life, there is the germ of a yearning for the new life, which combines the innocence of infancy with the wisdom of manhood. We may see, therefore, in this turn in the thought of Nicodemus, the influence of those remains of the innocence and ignorance of childhood, in turning the mind with a tender longing for what the new birth can alone supply. All, at first, form natural conceptions of spiritual things, earthly ideas of heavenly states. Where, however, there is a spiritual desire, there is the ground for receiving the seeds of spiritual truth.
5 Having excited in the mind of the Jewish ruler a desire for spiritual knowledge, and a fear of exclusion from the kingdom of God, Jesus proceeds to instruct him respecting the nature of that birth which qualifies the soul for heaven: Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. John’s baptism is distinguished from the Lord’s by this: John baptized with water; Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The Lord here combines the two baptisms, and calls them the baptism of water and the Spirit. John’s baptism was a type of that preparatory part of the new birth which is called reformation; the Lord’s baptism consists of that part which is properly called regeneration. The first consists in the removal of what is old and dead, the second consists in the communication of what is new and living. Water is the truth by which the life is purified; the Spirit is the truth by which the mind is enlightened and inspired. The Lord, therefore, speaks of the whole process of man’s renewal; the reformation of the outward life by the truth of the literal sense of the Word, and the regeneration of the internal by the truths of the spiritual sense of the Word, meant by the Spirit. To be born of water and the Spirit is, therefore, to be born from above, for the Word, or the truth which it reveals, is from heaven, and is above all the natural and moral truth which man derives from the light of this world, which relates to this natural and temporal life.
But what are we to understand by being born of water and the Spirit? Are we to suppose that to be baptized is to be born of water; and that the water washes away original sin ? This, by some, is called baptismal regeneration. Water baptism has an immediate and important use. It is a sign of introduction into the church. As, at our Lord’s baptism, heaven was opened unto him, and the Spirit descended and abode upon him; so, there is every reason to believe, baptism has still the effect of opening heaven, and surrounding the person baptized with a sphere of heavenly influences, to preserve him in a state favourable to the reception of that divine truth of which the water of baptism is the symbol, and to the accomplishment of that purification which the washing of baptism represents.
6 The Lord further teaches the nature of the second birth, by showing wherein it differs from the first. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Nothing could be more plain and decided than this. That which we derive from our earthly parents is natural; that which we derive from our heavenly Father is spiritual. There is, however, something more contained in the meaning of the word flesh than may at first sight appear. Flesh, as a term expressive of the nature of man, is not confined to what is generally called its physical part, but means his whole nature, both mortal and immortal, which he inherits by birth, with all he acquires to himself while he continues in his natural or unregenerate state; it means his entire selfhood. And as man, when he becomes spiritual by being reborn, has a new will and a new understanding, therefore the natural will and the natural understanding constitute the flesh, as distinguished from, and opposed to, the spirit. In a special sense the flesh means the evil of self-love, which constitutes the very essence or deepest ground of man’s selfhood, and which is the root of all others. In relation, however, to those who are well disposed, and who may be called good natural men, the flesh is expressive of natural goodness; and our Lord’s words teach us that even natural goodness, undirected by spiritual truth, and uninfluenced by spiritual goodness, does not prepare the soul for entering into the kingdom of heaven; being of the earth, it is earthly, and therefore transitory. ” All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as a flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it” (Isa. xl. 6). But contrasted with the withering grass and the fading flower is the Word of God which stands forever (ver. 8). As the Word itself, so whatever is born of the Word, endures; because, having come from heaven, it returns to heaven again. And the Lord places this in contrast with our fleshly nature, by calling it regenerating: ” that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The Spirit of which the Lord here speaks is that which proceeds from his humanity; the saving operation of which makes us new, in a sense analogous to that in which his own humanity was made new.
7, 8. Our Lord having stated this important doctrine, addresses the astonished Nicodemus thus, Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The Jewish ruler had already expressed his astonishment at the mere idea of a new birth; how then must he have marvelled when the Lord explained to him, that the birth of which he spake was spiritual and from heaven. Although he now heard that this change was purely spiritual in its nature, he seems to have supposed that it was to be effected by some outward visible agency; Jesus, therefore, points out to him that it was to be effected by an unseen, and even unperceived, operation of the Spirit. The wind bloweth where it listeth; and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the Spirit. We are not to understand this to mean, that man’s regeneration is effected by the Lord without his knowledge, and even without his consent. It no doubt teaches us that regeneration is a divine work, effected by an inward operation in itself incomprehensible to the human mind, but it does not teach that it is done independently of the choice and co-operation of those who are the subjects of it. It is similar to the description of another part of the same process, in which the Lord compares the kingdom of heaven to a man that cast seed into the earth, and who rose night and day, but the seed grew up he knew not how (Mark iv. 26). These two statements of our Lord, taken together, describe regeneration as an inward and an outwork work; the blowing of the wind describing the inward operation of the Spirit, and the growing of the seed describing the outward operation of the Word. In both cases the idea presented to us, and intended to be impressed upon our minds, is this; that regeneration, both as an inward and an outward work, is of the will and power of God, and not of man. Human power cannot produce a blade of grass. Growth is the effect of life, and life is an attribute of God. Yet man not only can, but must, become a worker together with God, before any beneficial change can be wrought in him. He must cultivate the ground and sow the seed and water the plants; and this forms his part of the work. But here his power and agency end. He may bestow all the care and labour required of him, rising night and day, but in the process of growth he can do nothing ; the corn grows up he knoweth not how. This truth, laid down by divine wisdom, is of the utmost importance, and therefore it is most desirable that it should be understood. It shows us what we can do and what we cannot do; it tells us where human agency ends and where the divine agency begins. It teaches us that we owe the whole of our regeneration to the Lord’s power, though it requires us to co-operate with him in the great work. All that is required of us is to do what we are commanded to do, to learn the truth and to obey it, by resisting evil and doing good; since without these outward uses, it is as impossible for us to be regenerated as it is for the soil to produce its harvest without the labour of the husbandman, in tilling and sowing, and all the other labours that devolve upon him. Thus, therefore, man sows the seed; God gives the harvest. So, also, every one who is born of the Spirit must co-operate with the Spirit. The inward operation of the Spirit is like the blowing of the wind. We hear its sound, but we see it not. It affects the will, but is not perceived by the understanding. Influx is into the will, and through the will into the understanding. The saving operation of the Spirit comes to us as something that is heartfelt, as heartfelt peace, a peace which passeth all understanding, because it comes into the understanding as thoughts of peace and goodwill, divinely breathed into the mind, without our knowing whence they come or whither they go. It is enough for us to learn and do our duty to God and to man; and if we faithfully do the outward work, the Lord will conduct and perform the inward operation. These outward duties are all that are required of us. Our agency extends no further. But if we perform the outward duties, the Lord accomplishes the inward work. It is remarkable, therefore, that in describing the inward operation of the Spirit, by which the regeneration of the heart is expressed, there is nothing said of man’s agency; but in describing the regeneration of the life, human agency is introduced : man has nothing to do with the blowing of the wind, but he has arduous and anxious duties to perform with respect to the growing of the seed. That is wisely and mercifully concealed from us. If we knew all the mysteries, and were conscious of the process, of our own regeneration, we should interfere with the order ancl tenor of its progression, and so defeat the Lord’s purpose to make us new creatures. So it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.
This work of spiritual life in the soul, as carried on by the Lord alone during our co-operation, may be compared to the operation of natural life in the body, as carried on by a similar economy. The heart and the other internal organs do their work spontaneously, in obedience to the will or laws of the Creator, independently of our will, and even without our consciousness. Yet we must needs co-operate, in order that their action, especially their healthy action, may be kept up. We must, by labour, provide ourselves with food and clothing and shelter, and attend to the other conditions of life and health, or the motion of the vital organs will languish and finally cease. So is it with the soul. God is the Author of spiritual life and of all that belongs to it, all its vital operations; we have to use the means which he has appointed for its preservation, and these are the conditions on which we enjoy the blessing of spiritual and eternal life.
9, 10. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be ? It is not surprising that one who heard those things for the first time should be at some loss to comprehend them. But this mixture of wonder and unbelief is characteristic of the natural man, even when he is in an affirmative state of mind, on his first learning the nature and necessity of regeneration. A stupendous work is regeneration, and to man a marvellous one. In that sublime Psalm (cxxxix.), where the second birth is treated of under the figure of the first, the impression it has on the devout mind is stated in strong terms—” I will praise thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, being yet unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when, as yet there was none of them.” True as this is in the natural sense, it is not the less true in the spiritual; for the re-creation, of the soul for heaven is at least as great and marvellous a work as the creation of the body for the world. Nicodemus ought to have known something of the nature of this work. Therefore, Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Some suppose that our Lord here alluded to the then prevailing mode of calling initiation into the mysteries of a science, or inauguration into an office, a new birth. It is more reasonable to believe that the Lord alluded to the idea as taught, not only in the Psalm already quoted, but throughout the Old Testament generally. Thus in Isaiah, ” Zion travailed, she brought forth her children. Rejoice with Jerusalem, that ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk, out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory” (lxvi. 8). In such language as this, had the Lord instructed his people in the knowledge of regeneration. But the Jews had little apprehension of anything spiritual. And even a master in Israel, who showed an earnest desire to be introduced into the knowledge of Christ’s kingdom, knew, it would appear, nothing of the things that Jesus taught respecting one of its most essential truths.
11 The Lord further says to him, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. Jesus knew and saw all things; and so far as his speech and testimony were concerned, his teaching should be received as indisputable truth. The Lord speaks as if he were not the only one who possessed the knowledge which he was willing to communicate to Nicodemus; he says, we speak. In the spiritual sense, this has. relation to the twofold testimony of his love and wisdom. But what the Lord says of himself, he says also of his Word, and the Word speaks to us both in the spirit and in the letter, both in truths of love and truths of wisdom, designed to beget in us both charity and faith. This duality runs through the Lord’s declaration; he speaks and testifies, he knows and sees ; for to speak what he knows has relation to his love, and to testify what he has seen has relation to his wisdom. And those who do not receive the witness of these, are such as have as yet no real spiritual affection for the good or love which the Word teaches, and no internal perception of its truth, in relation to the work of regeneration.
12 Nicodemus being still in amazement and doubt, the Lord addresses him in these words: If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things. The Lord had told him heavenly things after an earthly manner, teaching him spiritual truths by natural images. If he believed not the teaching of heavenly truth, when accommodated to his natural apprehension, by being clothed in natural images ; how would he have believed, if it had been addressed to him unclothed and unaccommodated ? If heavenly beings cannot be seen by the natural eye, neither can heavenly things be perceived by the natural understanding. Our first conceptions are natural, therefore unless spiritual truth came to us clothed in a natural vesture, it would come to us, and be regarded by us, as a phantom: and instead of administering comfort, it would create alarm; as the Lord’s presence did to the disciples, even when they stood most in need of his aid, when they thought they saw a spirit.
13 The Lord now imparts the secret of all reception and rejection of the truth, in these mysterious words, And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. This declaration has no very obvious connection with the Lord’s previous teaching, if understood in the ordinary meaning of human language. But it will be seen to have an intimate connection with the subject, if we regard it in its spiritual sense. In the first place, it teaches us, that the Son of man, as a title of Jesus, is not limited to his natural humanity. This did not come down from heaven, and was not then in heaven. If we could suppose that the Lord spoke of himself personally, without any reference to the distinction between the divine and human nature, his words would present no difficulty, since he, as God manifest in the flesh, was in heaven, and far above all heavens, at the same time that he was upon earth. But this is not the case. An accurate distinction is always made between the Son of God and the Son of Man. The Lord calls himself the Son of God when he speaks of his divine humanity, and he calls himself the Son of Man as divine truth or the “Word. No one ascends up to heaven but by means of divine truth, and all divine truth comes from heaven, and is in heaven. “We have nothing in ourselves that can raise us up into heaven. There is nothing we can acquire from the world that can raise us up into heaven. Whatever is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth. Nothing can ascend up into heaven but what has first come down from heaven. This was true of the Lord especially by virtue of the Incarnation. As the Son of man he was in heaven; for the divine truth in heaven was his humanity before he came into the world by incarnation. Divine truth in heaven came down to earth, that it might raise men from earth to heaven. And this it provided for by ascending where it was before. Of this our Lord speaks in what now follows.
14, 15. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. Most commentators are of opinion, that, not the serpent itself, but only the lifting of it up, was typical. Why, in the case of rebellious Israel, did God command that the serpent should be the instrument both of their punishment and their cure ? No doubt because the serpent was emblematical, in the one case, of the means of destruction, in the other, of the means of salvation. The brazen serpent was a type of Jesus, as the Saviour of those whose fall had been effected by the serpent; and the lifting up of the serpent is intended to describe the elevation of that principle of human nature, represented by the serpent, which had become degraded by man’s fall. The curse pronounced upon the serpent for deceiving Eve was, that it should walk on its belly and eat dust. It is almost self-evident that this has another than a natural meaning. Did the serpent, before the fall, walk erect, after the fall did it eat dust ? Inapplicable to the animal, the ” curse ” is exceedingly appropriate when understood to refer to the sensuous part of man’s nature, of which the serpent is the emblem. The sensuous principle is cognizant of, and affected by, earthly things, and, in itself, has a downward tendency. It is the design of the Creator in regard to man, that reason should control sense, and elevate it above the love of earthly things. Such was man’s original state, when God gave him dominion over the whole animal creation, that is, over his whole animal nature; and when he, and all creatures under his dominion, the serpent included, were pronounced ” very good,” and were ” blessed.” All in man is good and blessed, when the rational rules the sensual, or the spiritual the natural; all in man is cursed, when the sensual rules the rational, or the natural the spiritual. When, instead of the rational elevating the sensual, the sensual draws down the rational, man falls from his high estate. Instead of sense being subservient to reason, reason becomes subservient to sense; the animal obtains dominion over the man; and he who bore the image of God becomes “earthly, sensual, devilish.” If man’s fall consisted in his sensual nature obtaining dominion over the rational, his restoration must consist in his rational nature obtaining dominion over the sensual. The promise given to Eve was, that her seed should bruise the serpent’s head, a promise that the Lord would deprive the sensual nature of man of the dominion it had acquired by the fall over the rational. The Lord first accomplished this great work in himself. The humanity he assumed from Mary, which was literally the seed of the woman, had in it every principle of human nature; and, in its hereditary state, all existed in it in that state of inverted order which was characteristic of fallen man. Among those principles of humanity there was the sensual principle, prone to the earth, as it had become through the fall. It was a part of the Lord’s divine work to raise that principle of human nature from the state of degradation into which it had fallen, and to glorify it, and thus elevate it into union with his all-conquering divinity. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so was the Son of man lifted up; and for the same beneficent purpose, that those who have been bitten by the fiery flying serpent of the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life, may, by looking in faith to him, be delivered from the deadly effects of the poison which has entered into their soul; that they may not perish, but have everlasting life. The sensuous principle glorified, or the divine natural, is that by which the Lord has immediate connection and communication with, and influx into, the sensual principle of man, so as to deliver it from death, and raise it into conjunction with the rational. This principle in the Lord is also that by which he exercises divine circumspection over heaven and the church, and over every individual of the human race. For in him exists, in its infinite perfection, that union of the spiritual and the natural, which he enjoined on his disciples, when he said, on sending them forth into the world as his ambassadors, ” Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves ” (Matt. x. 16). The serpent in him is the divine natural, and the dove is the divine spiritual, like the dove that descended upon him at his baptism.
The object of the Lord’s being lifted up was, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. The Lord expresses this same truth on another occasion by saying, ” And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me ” (chap. xii. 32). The Lord, having lifted up his own humanity by glorification, has the power of elevating men, and drawing them to himself. Men derive from the Lord’s elevation the power of being elevated. This elevation is effected through faith. Belief in the Lord as our Saviour is not so much a condition, as a means, through which his saving power acts upon us. We are not saved on account of our belief, but through it. Salvation is not the reward, but the result of faith. And this salvation is freely offered to all. Whosoever believeth shall have everlasting life. This is a blessed truth. It would be a terrible thought, that God is able, but not willing, to save all men. This would be to vindicate his power at the expense of his goodness. If all are not saved, it is because men will not come unto him that they might have life.
16 The reason of the freeness of the gospel is given in the clearest language. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. A blessed truth is this, and precious the gift which it declares. God’s love is the origin of man’s redemption. To the love of God the world owes all that forms the foundation of its hopes for the progressive advancement of the race in true virtue and happiness on earth, and of salvation as the means of felicity in heaven. And yet how could it be otherwise ? God is love; and his tender mercies are over all his works. And what God is, and what he feels, he is and feels invariably and eternally. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He changes not, therefore we are not consumed; he marks not iniquity, else who could stand ? his compassions fail not, else how could we hope? But the truth, that the world owes its redemption to God’s love, if it need not excite our astonishment, has everything in it to call forth our gratitude. For the world, which God so loved that he gave his only begotten to redeem and save it, was in a state of enmity and rebellion against him, as every one is that comes into the world. ” Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John iv. 10). ” But God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. v. 8). In the means by which the purposes of love were to be wrought out there was nothing inconsistent with the pure wisdom of God. On the contrary, infinite love ever works out its purposes by infinite wisdom; and a true knowledge of the nature of redemption only tends to exalt our ideas of the perfection both of the wisdom and the love of God. The freeness of the salvation offered to us by this manifestation of the Lord’s love is given in the assurance, that whosoever believeth on the Son should not perish but have everlasting life. The Son is the divine humanity; and God in his humanity is the Object of Christian faith, and the Author of eternal life. It is said by an apostle that he that hath the Son hath life (1 John v. 12). Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Son in whom is the Father, as the Divine Wisdom, in whom is the Divine Love, as the Humanity in which is the Divinity, is the means of salvation; hence belief in him leads to conjunction with him, and in this conjunction we have eternal life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. The Word, or the divine truth, may be said to exercise the two distinct functions of a judge and of a Saviour. Divine truth judges, because it lays open the states of all, being sharper than a two-edged sword, and is the two-edged sword that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Son of Man (Rev. i. 16). But as a judge, or an instrument of judgment, truth condemns those only who resist it. It is truth separate from love that pronounces the judgment of condemnation. But this separation is not effected by the Lord, but by man. It is only those who ” hold the truth in unrighteousness” who are judged by it. But it is not the will of God that his divine truth should in any case judge men to condemnation. God’s truth, as it proceeds from him, is united with his love; and it ever comes from him on a mission of love, for the purpose of delivering men from sin and death. Therefore, God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world. Redemption was eminently a work of love. When God sent forth his truth, as the Word made flesh, his divine purpose was, that the world through his eternal truth, thus manifested, might be saved. Divine truth effected redemption by one great act of judgment; but this was an act by which the prince of this world was judged. The powers of darkness were overcome by the power of divine truth. But even in their case, the Lord did not deviate from his own laws of order, or from his own beneficent purpose. It is because the spirits of darkness have shut the divine love out from their hearts, and rebel against the laws of truth, that the truth becomes to them an instrument of judgment and condemnation.
18 But although it is the Lord’s purpose to save, this does not prevent man from bringing condemnation on himself. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. We learn from this that condemnation is not a divine act, but a human state. He that believeth not is in a state of condemnation. On the the same principle, he that believes is in a state of justification and salvation. We are so accustomed to think unreflectingly of the justice and judgment of God from those of men, that we represent to ourselves the divine Being as making and administering laws to impose his own will on his creatures, and to vindicate his own authority. But the divine justice is but another expression for immutable divine order; and God’s law is but another expression for the law of divine order. These are, indeed, of the divine will and wisdom; but the divine will and wisdom can have no view in anything they do or require, but the welfare and happiness of mankind. The condemnation, therefore, that results from unbelief or disobedience, is simply and purely the state which man acquires by opposing those laws which were given for his happiness.
19 The ground of this condemnation our Lord explains. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. Light condemns those who have the light, and yet love the darkness rather than the light. It is a truth plainly revealed in Scripture, that where there is no law there is no transgression; and that the degree of guilt is exactly proportionate to the degrees of light which we possess. Light is given, not to condemn, but to guide and direct us. But that which is given for use is always liable to abuse. Did not this possibility exist, there would be no choice, and therefore no virtue. Ignorance implies the absence of responsibility, but it implies also the absence of improvement. Light is necessary for our advancement, and if we faithfully use it, it will enable us to progress in virtue and happiness. Light is therefore an inestimable blessing. But it may also become a great curse, as every blessing becomes when it is abused and perverted, or even when it is neglected or contemned. That very light, therefore, which came into the world in the person of him who was the Light itself, while it is the means of our highest improvement, may become also the means of our deepest condemnation. Not indeed that light condemns, but that those who love the darkness and hate the light, form and confirm in themselves a state of evil, more malignant in proportion to the clearness of the light against which they have sinned.
20 The reason of this state of condemnation is given. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. Evil and truth are incompatible with each other; no one can be in love with both at the same time. It is possible, indeed, for men to know the truth, and yet to be in evil; but to know the truth and to love it are two distinct things. Men may even make a profession of faith in the truth, and at the same time hate and despise it in their hearts ; and if they had no object in making a profession of faith, they would despise and contemn it openly. And if evil men do not act thus in the natural world, they do so when they come into the spiritual world, where there is no concealment, and therefore no motive for hypocritical belief. John here says that the evil come not to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved. Literally men hate the light when it condemns their conduct. But, in the spiritual sense, we are instructed that the evil do not come to the light, because they have no desire that their evils may be laid open, or made manifest to themselves in order that they may be removed. The Lord reproves that he may convince, and by convincing, lead men to amendment of life. The evil refuse reproof, because they have no desire of amendment.
21 But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. The natural sense of this is easily understood. He who acts uprightly acts openly, that the character of his deeds may testify of their origin. The spiritual sense teaches a still more specific lesson. Truth is one thing, the light of truth is another. Truth comes from without, light comes from within ; truth comes from the Holy Word, light comes from the Holy Spirit. Obedience to the truth, as taught in the Scriptures, opens the mind to the reception of the light of truth, which is, indeed, present in every mind, but which enlightens none but those who learn and obey the truth as they possess it in the Word. This same important lesson is taught in other parts of Scripture. “A good understanding have all they that do his commandments” (Ps.. cxi. 10). “He that doeth tho will of the Father, shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God” (John vii. 17). In a certain sense knowledge is light, but it is only the light of the natural understanding. Spiritual light, which is the light of spiritual discernment, comes only through goodness, and this is only acquired by knowledge applied to the uses of life. Not truth alone, but the good of truth, is that which forms the channel through which the light of life is received. Another point may be mentioned in connection with this subject. Those who do good from obedience without intelligence, do it without discrimination and good done without discrimination is natural, not spiritual, charity. It is most desirable that we seek to come to the light, for it is the light that makes manifest that our works are wrought in God. William Bruce (Commentary on the Gospel according to St John, 1870)