Portion of Homily XXIV
Chap. iii. 1, iii. 2. "And there was a man of the Pharisees, named
Nicodemus. The same came to Jesus by night."
This man appears also in the middle of the Gospel, making defense for
Christ; for he saith, "Our law judgeth no man before it hear him" (c. vii.
51); and the Jews in anger replied to him, "Search and look, for out of
Galilee ariseth no prophet." Again after the crucifixion he bestowed great
care upon the burial of the Lord's body: "There came also," saith the Evangelist,
"Nicodemus, which came to the Lord by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh
and aloes, about an hundred pound weight." (c. xix. 39.) And even now he
was disposed towards Christ, but not as he ought, nor with proper sentiments
respecting Him, for he was as yet entangled in Jewish infirmity. Wherefore
he came by night, because he feared to do so by day. Yet not for this did
the merciful God reject or rebuke him, or deprive him of His instruction,
but even with much kindness conversed with him and disclosed to him very
exalted doctrines enigmatically indeed, but nevertheless He disclosed them.
For far more deserving of pardon was he than those who acted thus through
wickedness. They are entirely without excuse; but he, though he was liable
to condemnation, yet was not so to an equal degree. "How then does the
Evangelist say nothing of the kind concerning him?" He has said in another
place, that "of the rulers also many believed on Him, but because of the
Jews they did not confess (Him), lest they should be put out of the synagogue"
(c. xii. 42); but here he has implied the whole by mentioning his coming
"by night." What then saith Nicodemus?
"Rabbi, we know that Thou art a Teacher come from God: for no man
can do the miracles that Thou doest, except God be with him."
[2.] Nicodemus yet lingers below, has yet human thoughts concerning
Him, and speaks of Him as of a Prophet, imagining nothing great from His
miracles. "We know," he says, "that Thou art a Teacher come from God."
"Why then comest thou by night and secretly, to Him that speaketh the things
of God, to Him who cometh from God? Why conversest thou not with Him openly?"
But Jesus said nothing like this to him, nor did He rebuke him; for, saith
the Prophet, "A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall
he not quench; He shall not strive nor cry" (Isa. xlii. 2, Isa. xlii. 3;
as quoted Matt. xii. 19, xii. 20): and again He saith Himself, "I came
not to condemn the world, but to save the world." (c. xii. 47.)
"No man can do these miracles, except God be with him."
Still here Nicodemus speaks like the heretics, in saying, that He hath
a power working within Him, and hath need of the aid of others to do as
He did. What then saith Christ? Observe His exceeding condescension. He
refrained for a while from saying, "I need not the help of others, but
do all things with power, for I am the Very Son of God, and have the same
power as My Father," because this would have been too hard for His hearer;
for I say now what I am always saying, that what Christ desired was, not
so much for a while to reveal His own Dignity, as to persuade men that
He did nothing contrary to His Father. And therefore in many places he
appears in words confined by limits, but in His actions He doth not so.
For when He worketh a miracle, He doth all with power, saying, "I will,
be thou clean." (Matt. viii. 3.) "Talitha, arise." (Mark v. 41; not verbally
quoted.) "Stretch forth thy hand." (Mark iii. 5.) "Thy sins be forgiven
thee." (Matt. ix. 2.) "Peace, be still." (Mark iv. 39.) "Take up thy bed,
and go unto thine house." (Matt. ix. 6.) "Thou foul spirit, I say unto
thee, come out of him." (Mark ix. 25; not verbally quoted.) "Be it unto
thee even as thou wilt." (Matt. xv. 28.) "If any one say (aught) unto you,
ye shall say, The Lord hath need of him." (Mark xi. 3.) "This day shall
thou be with Me in Paradise." (Luke xxiii. 43.) "Ye have heard that it
was said by them of old time, Thou shall not kill; but I say unto you,
that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger
of the judgment." (Matt. v. 21, Matt. v. 22.) "Come ye after Me, and I
will make you fishers of men." (Mark i. 17.) And everywhere we observe
that His authority is great; for in His actions no one could find fault
with what was done. How was it possible? Had His words not come to pass,
nor been accomplished as He commanded, any one might have said that they
were the commands of a madman; but since they did come to pass, the reality
of their accomplishment stopped men's mouths even against their will. But
with regard to His discourses, they might often in their insolence charge
Him with madness. Wherefore now in the case of Nicodemus, He utters nothing
openly, but by dark sayings leads him up from his low thoughts, teaching
him, that He has sufficient power in Himself to show forth miracles; for
that His Father begat Him Perfect and All-sufficient, and without any imperfection.
But let us see how He effects this. Nicodemus saith, "Rabbi, we know
that Thou art a Teacher come from God, for no man can do the miracles that
Thou doest, except God be with him." He thought he had said something great
when he had spoken thus of Christ. What then saith Christ? To show that
he had not yet set foot even on the threshold of right knowledge, nor stood
in the porch, but was yet wandering somewhere without the palace, both
he and whoever else should say the like, and that he had not so much as
glanced towards true knowledge when he held such an opinion of the Only-Begotten,
what saith He?
Ver. 3. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again,
he cannot see the Kingdom of God."
That is, "Unless thou art born again and receivest the right doctrines,
thou art wandering somewhere without, and art far from the Kingdom of heaven."
But He does not speak so plainly as this. In order to make the saying less
hard to bear, He does not plainly direct it at him, but speaks indefinitely,
"Except a man be born again": all but saying, "both thou and any other,
who may have such opinions concerning Me, art somewhere without the Kingdom."
Had He not spoken from a desire to establish this, His answer would have
been suitable to what had been said. Now the Jews, if these words had been
addressed to them, would have derided Him and departed; but Nicodemus shows
here also his desire of instruction. And this is why in many places Christ
speaks obscurely, because He wishes to rouse His hearers to ask questions,
and to render them more attentive. For that which is said plainly often
escapes the hearer, but what is obscure renders him more active and zealous.
Now what He saith, is something like this: "If thou art not born again,
if thou partakest not of the Spirit which is by the washing of Regeneration,
thou canst not have a right opinion of Me, for the opinion which thou hast
is not spiritual, but carnal." (Tit. iii. 5.) But He did not speak thus,
as refusing to confound one who had brought such as he had, and who had
spoken to the best of his ability; and He leads him unsuspectedly up to
greater knowledge, saying, "Except a man be born again." The word "again,"
in this place, some understand to mean "from heaven," others, "from the
beginning." "It is impossible," saith Christ, "for one not so born to see
the Kingdom of God"; in this pointing to Himself, and declaring that there
is another beside the natural sight, and that we have need of other eyes
to behold Christ. Having heard this,
Ver. 4. "Nicodemus saith, How can a man be born when he is old?"
Callest thou Him "Master," sayest thou that He is "come from God," and
yet receivest thou not His words, but usest to thy Teacher a manner of
speaking which expresses much perplexity? For the "How," is the doubting
question of those who have no strong belief, but who are yet of the earth.
Therefore Sarah laughed when she had said, "How?" And many others having
asked this question, have fallen from the faith.
[3.] And thus heretics continue in their heresy, because they frequently
make this enquiry, saying, some of them, "How was He begotten?" others,
"How was He made flesh?" and subjecting that Infinite Essence to the weakness
of their own reasonings. Knowing which, we ought to avoid this unseasonable
curiosity, for they who search into these matters shall, without learning
the "How," fall away from the right faith. On this account Nicodemus, being
in doubt, enquires the manner in which this can be, (for he understood
that the words spoken referred to himself,) is confused, and dizzy, and
in perplexity, having come as to a man, and hearing more than man's words,
and such as no one ever yet had heard; and for a while he rouses himself
at the sublimity of the sayings, but yet is in darkness, and unstable,
borne about in every direction, and continually falling away from the faith.
And therefore he perseveres in proving the impossibility, so as to provoke
Him to clearer teaching.
"Can a man," he saith, "enter into his mother's womb, and
Seest thou how when one commits spiritual things to his own reasonings,
he speaks ridiculously, seems to be trifling, or to be drunken, when he
pries into what has been said beyond what seems good to God, and admits
not the submission of faith? Nicodemus heard of the spiritual Birth, yet
perceived it not as spiritual, but dragged down the words to the lowness
of the flesh, and i made a doctrine so great and high depend upon physical
consequence. And so he invents frivolities, and ridiculous difficulties.
Wherefore Paul said, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit."
(1 Cor. ii. 14.) Yet even in this he preserved his reverence for Christ,
for he did not mock at what had been said, but, deeming it impossible,
held his peace. There were two difficulties; a Birth of this kind, and
the Kingdom; for neither had the name of the Kingdom ever been heard among
the Jews, nor of a Birth like this. But he stops for a while at the first,
which most astonished his mind.
Let us then, knowing this, not enquire into things relating to God by
reasoning, nor bring heavenly matters under the rule of earthly consequences,
nor subject them to the necessity of nature; but let us think of all reverently,
believing as the Scriptures have said; for the busy and curious person
gains nothing, and besides not finding what he seeks, shall suffer extreme
punishment. Thou hast heard, that (the Father) begat (the Son): believe
what thou hast heard; but do ask not, "How," and so take away the Generation;
to do so would be extreme folly. For if this man, because, on hearing of
a Generation, not that ineffable Generation, but this which is by grace,
he conceived nothing great concerning it, but human and earthly thoughts,
was therefore darkened and in doubt, what punishment must they deserve,
who are busy and curious about that most awful Generation, which transcends
all reason and intellect? For nothing causes such dizziness as human reasoning,
all whose words are of earth, and which cannot endure to be enlightened
from above. Earthly reasonings are full of mud, and therefore need we streams
from heaven, that when the mud has settled, the clearer portion may rise
and mingle with the heavenly lessons; and this comes to pass, when we present
an honest soul and an upright life. For certainly it is possible for the
intellect to be darkened, not only by unseasonable curiosity, but also
by corrupt manners; wherefore Paul hath said to the Corinthians, "I have
fed you with milk, and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to
bear it, neither yet now are ye able, for ye are yet carnal; for whereas
there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal?"
(1 Cor. iii. 2.) And also in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in many places,
one may see Paul asserting that this is the cause of evil doctrines; for
that the soul possessed by passions cannot behold anything great or noble,
but as if darkened by a sort of film suffers most grievous dimsightedness.
Let us then cleanse ourselves, let us kindle the light of knowledge,
let us not sow among thorns. What the thorns are, ye know, though we tell
you not; for often ye have heard Christ call the cares of this present
life, and the deceitfulness of riches, by this name. (Matt. xiii. 22.)
And with reason. For as thorns are unfruitful, so are these things; as
thorns tear those that handle them, so do these passions; as thorns are
readily caught by the fire, and hateful by the husbandman, so too are the
things of the world; as in thorns, wild beasts, and snakes, and scorpions
hide themselves, so do they in the deceitfulness of riches. But let us
kindle the fire of the Spirit, that we may consume the thorns, and drive
away the beasts, and make the field clear for the husbandman; and after
cleansing it, let us water it with the streams of the Spirit, let us plant
the fruitful olive, that most kindly of trees, the evergreen, the light-giving,
the nutritious, the wholesome. All these qualities hath almsgiving, which
is, as it were, a seal on those that possess it. This plant not even death
when it comes causes to wither, but ever it stands enlightening the mind,
feeding the sinews of the soul, and rendering its strength mightier. And
if we constantly possess it, we shall be able with confidence to behold
the Bridegroom, and to enter into the bridal chamber; to which may we all
attain, through the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ,
with whom to the Father and the Holy Ghost be glory, for ever and ever.
John iii. 5.-"Verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water
and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God."
[1.] Little children who go daily to their teachers receive their lessons,
and repeat them, and never cease from this kind of acquisition, but sometimes
employ nights as well as days, and this they are compelled to do for perishable
and transient things. Now we do not ask of you who are come to age such
toil as you require of your children; for not every day, but two days only
in the week do we exhort you to hearken to our words, and only for a short
portion of the day, that your task may be an easy one. For the same reason
also we divide to you in small portions what is written in Scripture, that
you may be able easily to receive and lay them up in the storehouses of
your minds, and take such pains to remember them all, as to be able exactly
to repeat them to others yourselves, unless any one be sleepy, and dull,
and more idle than a little child.
Let us now attend to the sequel of what has been before said. When Nicodemus
fell into error and wrested the words of Christ to the earthly birth, and
said that it was not possible for an old man to be born again, observe
how Christ in answer more clearly reveals the manner of the Birth, which
even thus had difficulty for the carnal enquirer, yet still was able to
raise the hearer from his low opinion of it. What saith He? "Verily I say
unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter
into the Kingdom of God." What He declares is this: "Thou sayest that it
is impossible, I say that it is so absolutely possible as to be necessary,
and that it is not even possible otherwise to be saved." For necessary
things God hath made exceedingly easy also. The earthly birth which is
according to the flesh, is of the dust, and therefore heaven is walled
against it, for what hath earth in common with heaven? But that other,
which is of the Spirit, easily unfolds to us the arches above. Hear, ye
as many as are unilluminated, shudder, groan, fearful is the threat, fearful
the sentence. "It is not (possible)," He saith, "for one not born of water
and the Spirit, to enter into the Kingdom of heaven"; because he wears
the raiment of death, of cursing, of perdition, he hath not yet received
his Lord's token, he is a stranger and an alien, he hath not the royal
watchword. "Except," He saith, "a man be born of water and of the Spirit,
he cannot enter into the Kingdom of heaven."
Yet even thus Nicodemus did not understand. Nothing is worse than to
commit spiritual things to argument; it was this that would not suffer
him to suppose anything sublime and great. This is why we are called faithful,
that having left the weakness of human reasonings below, we may ascend
to the height of faith, and commit most of our blessings to her teaching;
and if Nicodemus had done this, the thing would not have been thought by
him impossible. What then doth Christ? To lead him away from his groveling
imagination, and to show that He speaks not of the earthly birth, He saith,
"Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the
Kingdom of heaven." This He spoke, willing to draw him to the faith by
the terror of the threat, and to persuade him not to deem the thing impossible,
and taking pains to move him from his imagination as to the carnal birth.
"I mean," saith He, "another Birth, O Nicodemus. Why drawest thou down
the saying to earth? Why subjectest thou the matter to the necessity of
nature? This Birth is too high for such pangs as these; it hath nothing
in common with you; it is indeed called `birth,' but in name only has it
aught in common, in reality it is different. Remove thyself from that which
is common and familiar; a different kind of childbirth bring I into the
world; in another manner will I have men to be generated: I have come to
bring a new manner of Creation. I formed (man) of earth and water; but
that which was formed was unprofitable, the vessel was wrenched awry; I
will no more form them of earth and water, but `of water' and `of the Spirit.'"
And if any one asks, "How of water?" I also will ask, How of earth?
How was the clay separated into different parts? How was the material uniform,
(it was earth only,) and the things made from it, various and of every
kind? Whence are the bones, and sinews, and arteries, and veins? Whence
the membranes, and vessels of the organs, the cartilages, the tissues,
the liver, spleen, and heart? whence the skin, and blood, and mucus, and
bile? whence so great powers, whence such varied colors? These belong not
to earth or clay. How does the earth, when it receives the seeds, cause
them to shoot, while the flesh receiving them wastes them? How does the
earth nourish what is put into it, while the flesh is nourished by these
things, and does not nourish them? The earth, for instance, receives water,
and makes it wine; the flesh often receives wine, and changes it into water.
Whence then is it clear that these things are formed of earth, when the
nature of the earth is, according to what has been said; contrary to that
of the body? I cannot discover by reasoning, I accept it by faith only.
If then things which take place daily, and which we handle, require faith,
much more do those which are more mysterious and more spiritual than these.
For as the earth, which is soulless and motionless, was empowered by the
will of God, and such wonders were worked in it; much more when the Spirit
is present with the water, do all those things so strange and transcending
reason, easily take place.
[2.] Do not then disbelieve these things, because thou seest them not;
thou dost not see thy soul, and yet thou believest that thou hast a soul,
and that it is a something different besides the body.
But Christ led him not in by this example, but by another; the instance
of the soul, though it is incorporeal, He did not adduce for that reason,
because His hearer's disposition was as yet too dull. He sets before him
another, which has no connection with the density of solid bodies, yet
does not reach so high as to the incorporeal natures; that is, the movement
of wind. He begins at first with water, which is lighter than earth, but
denser than air. And as in the beginning earth was the subject material,
but the whole was of Him who molded it; so also now water is the subject
material, and the whole is of the grace of the Spirit: then, "man became
a living soul," (Gen. ii. 7); now he becomes "a quickening Spirit." But
great is the difference between the two. Soul affords not life to any other
than him in whom it is; Spirit not only lives, but affords life to others
also. Thus, for instance, the Apostles even raised the dead. Then, man
was formed last, when the creation had been accomplished; now, on the contrary,
the new man is formed before the new creation; he is born first, and then
the world is fashioned a new. (1 Cor. xv. 45.) And as in the beginning
He formed him entire, so He creates him entire now. Then He said, "Let
us make for him a help" (Gen. ii. 18, Gen. ii. 18 LXX.), but here He said
nothing of the kind. What other help shall he need, who has received the
gift of the Spirit? What further need of assistance has he, who belongs
to the Body of Christ? Then He made man in the image of God, now He hath
united him with God Himself; then He bade him rule over the fishes and
beasts, now He hath exalted our first-fruits above the heavens; then He
gave him a garden for his abode, now He hath opened heaven to us; then
man was formed on the sixth day, when the world was almost finished; but
now on the first, at the very beginning, at the time when light was made
before. From all which it is plain, that the things accomplished belonged
to another and a better life, and to a condition having no end.
The first creation then, that of Adam, was from earth; the next, that
of the woman, from his rib; the next, that of Abel, from seed; yet we cannot
arrive at the comprehension of any one of these, nor prove the circumstances
by argument, though they are of a most earthly nature; how then shall we
be able to give account of the unseen generation by Baptism, which is far
more exalted than these, or to require arguments for that strange and marvelous
Birth? Since even Angels stand by while that Generation takes place, but
they could not tell the manner of that marvelous working, they stand by
only, not performing anything, but beholding what takes place. The Father,
the Son, and the Holy Ghost, worketh all. Let us then believe the declaration
of God; that is more trustworthy than actual seeing. The sight often is
in error, it is impossible that God's Word should fail; let us then believe
it; that which called the things that were not into existence may well
be trusted when it speaks of their nature. What then says it? That what
is effected is A Generation. If any ask, "How," stop his mouth with the
declaration of God, which is the strongest and a plain proof. If any enquire,
"Why is water included?" let us also in return ask, "Wherefore was earth
employed at the beginning in the creation of man?" for that it was possible
for God to make man without earth, is quite plain to every one. Be not
That the need of water is absolute and indispensable, you may learn
in this way. On one occasion, when the Spirit had flown down before the
water was applied, the Apostle did not stay at this point, but, as though
the water were necessary and not superfluous, observe what he says; "Can
any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received
the Holy Ghost as well as we?" (Acts x. 47.)
What then is the use of the water? This too I will tell you hereafter,
when I reveal to you the hidden mystery. There are also other points of
mystical teaching connected with the matter, but for the present I will
mention to you one out of many. What is this one? In Baptism are fulfilled
the pledges of our covenant with God; burial and death, resurrection and
life; and these take place all at once. For when we immerse our heads in
the water, the old man is buried as in a tomb below, and wholly sunk forever;
then as we raise them again, the new man rises in its stead. As it is easy
for us to dip and to lift our heads again, so it is easy for God to bury
the old man, and to show forth the new. And this is done thrice, that you
may learn that the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost fulfilleth
all this. To show that what we say is no conjecture, hear Paul saying,
"We are buried with Him by Baptism into death": and again, "Our old man
is crucified with Him": and again, "We have been planted together in the
likeness of His death." (Rom. vi. 4, Rom. vi. 5, Rom. vi. 6.) And not only
is Baptism called a "cross," but the "cross" is called "Baptism." "With
the Baptism," saith Christ, "that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized"
(Mark x. 39): and, "I have a Baptism to be baptized with" (Luke xii. 50)
(which ye know not); for as we easily dip and lift our heads again, so
He also easily died and rose again when He willed or rather much more easily,
though He tarried the three days for the dispensation of a certain mystery.
[3.] Let us then who have been deemed worthy of such mysteries show
forth a life worthy of the Gift, that is, a most excellent conversation;
and do ye who have not yet been deemed worthy, do all things that you may
be so, that we may be one body, that we may be brethren. For as long as
we are divided in this respect, though a man be father, or son, or brother,
or aught else, he is no true kinsman, as being cut off from that relationship
which is from above. What advantageth it to be bound by the ties of earthly
family, if we are not joined by those of the spiritual? what profits nearness
of kin on earth, if we are to be strangers in heaven? For the Catechumen
is a stranger to the Faithful. He hath not the same Head, he hath not the
same Father, he hath not the same City, nor Food, nor Raiment, nor Table,
nor House, but all are different; all are on earth to the former, to the
latter all are in heaven. One has Christ for his King; the other, sin and
the devil; the food of one is Christ, of the other, that meat which decays
and perishes; one has worms' work for his raiment, the other the Lord of
angels; heaven is the city of one, earth of the other. Since then we have
nothing in common, in what, tell me, shall we hold communion? Did we remove
the same pangs, did we come forth from the same womb? This has nothing
to do with that most perfect relationship. Let us then give diligence that
we may become citizens of the city which is above. How long do we tarry
over the border, when we ought to reclaim our ancient country? We risk
no common danger; for if it should come to pass, (which God forbid!) that
through the sudden arrival of death we depart hence uninitiated, though
we have ten thousand virtues, our portion will be no other than hell, and
the venomous worm, and fire unquenchable, and bonds indissoluble. But God
grant that none of those who hear these words experience that punishment!
And this will be, if having been deemed worthy of the sacred mysteries,
we build upon that foundation gold, and silver, and precious stones; for
so after our departure hence we shall be able to appear in that place rich,
when we leave not our riches here, but transport them to inviolable treasuries
by the hands of the poor, when we lend to Christ. Many are our debts there,
not of money, but of sins; let us then lend Him our riches, that we may
receive pardon for our sins; for He it is that judgeth. Let us not neglect
Him here when He hungereth, that He may ever feed us there. Here let us
clothe Him, that He leave us not bare of the safety which is from Him.
If here we give Him drink, we shall not with the rich man say, "Send Lazarus,
that with the tip of his finger he may drop water on my broiling tongue."
If here we receive Him into our house, there He will prepare many mansions
for us; if we go to Him in prison, He too will free us from our bonds;
if we take Him in when He is a stranger, He will not suffer us to be strangers
to the Kingdom of heaven, but will give us a portion in the City which
is above; if we visit Him when He is sick, He also will quickly deliver
us from our infirmities.
Let us then, as receiving great things though we give but little, still
give the little that we may gain the great. While it is yet time, let us
sow, that we may reap. When the winter overtakes us, when the sea is no
longer navigable, we are no longer masters of this traffic. But when shall
the winter be? When that great and manifest Day is at hand. Then we shall
cease to sail this great and broad sea, for such the present life resembles.
Now is the time of sowing, then of harvest and of gain. If a man puts not
in his seed at seed time and sows in harvest, besides that he effects nothing,
he will be ridiculous. But if the present is seed time, it follows that
it is a time not for gathering together, but for scattering; let us then
scatter, that we may gather in, and not seek to gather in now, lest we
lose our harvest; for, as I said, this season summons us to sow, and spend,
and lay out, not to collect and lay by. Let us not then give up the opportunity,
but let us put in abundant seed, and spare none of our stores, that we
may receive. them again with abundant recompense, through the grace and
lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father and the
Holy Ghost be glory, world without end. Amen.
John iii. 6.-"That which is born of the flesh is flesh: and that
which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
[1.] Great mysteries are they, of which the Only-begotten Son of God
has counted us worthy; great, and such as we were not worthy of, but such
as it was meet for Him to give. For if one reckon our desert, we were not
only unworthy of the gift, but also liable to punishment and vengeance;
but He, because He looked not to this, not only delivered us from punishment,
but freely gave us a life much more bright than the first, introduced us
into another world, made us another creature; "If any man be in Christ,"
saith Paul, "he is a new creature." (2 Cor. v. 17.) What kind of "new creature"?
Hear Christ Himself declare; "Except a man be born of water and of the
Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." Paradise was entrusted
to us, and we were shown unworthy to dwell even there, yet He hath exalted
us to heaven. In the first things we were found unfaithful, and He hath
committed to us greater; we could not refrain from a single tree, and He
hath provided for us the delights above; we kept not our place in Paradise,
and He hath opened to us the doors of heaven. Well said Paul, "O the depth
of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Rom. xi. 33.)
There is no longer a mother, or pangs, or sleep, or coming together, and
embracings of bodies; henceforth all the fabric of our nature is framed
above, of the Holy Ghost and water. The water is employed, being made the
Birth to him who is born; what the womb is to the embryo, the water is
to the believer; for in the water he is fashioned and formed. At first
it was said, "Let the waters bring forth the creeping things that have
life" (Gen. i. 20, Gen. i. 20 LXX.); but from the time that the Lord entered
the streams of Jordan, the water no longer gives forth the "creeping thing
that hath life," but reasonable and Spirit-bearing souls; and what has
been said of the sun, that he is "as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber"
(Ps. xviii. 6), we may now rather say of the faithful, for they send forth
rays far brighter than he. That which is fashioned in the womb requires
time, not so that in water, but all is done in a single moment. Here our
life is perishable, and takes its origin from the decay of other bodies;
that which is to be born comes slowly, (for such is the nature of bodies,
they acquire perfection by time,) but it is not so with spiritual things.
And why? Because the things made are formed perfect from the beginning.
When Nicodemus still hearing these things was troubled, see how Christ
partly opens to him the secret of this mystery, and makes that clear which
was for a while obscure to him. "That which is born," saith He, "of the
flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." He leads
him away from all the things of sense. i and suffers him not vainly to
pry into the mysteries revealed with his fleshly eyes; "We speak not,"
saith He, "of flesh, but of Spirit, O Nicodemus," (by this word He directs
him heavenward for a while,) "seek then nothing relating to things of sense;
never can the Spirit appear to those eyes, think not that the Spirit bringeth
forth the flesh." "How then," perhaps one may ask, "was the Flesh of the
Lord brought forth?" Not of the Spirit only, but of flesh; as Paul declares,
when he says, "Made of a woman, made under the Law" (Gal iv. 4); for the
Spirit fashioned Him not indeed out of nothing, (for what need was there
then of a womb?) but from the flesh of a Virgin. How, I cannot explain
unto you; yet it was done, that no one might suppose that what was born
is alien to our nature. For if even when this has taken place there are
some who disbelieve in such a birth, into what impiety would they not have
fallen had He not partaken of the Virgin's flesh.
"That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." Seest thou the
dignity of the Spirit? It appears performing the work of God; for above
he said of some, that, "they were begotten of God," (c. i. 13,) here He
saith, that the Spirit begetteth them.
"That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." His meaning is of this
kind; "He that is born of the Spirit is spiritual." For the Birth which
He speaks of here is not that according to essence, but according to honor
and grace. Now if the Son is so born also, in what shall He be superior
to men so born? And how is He, Only-begotten? For I too am born of God,
though not of His Essence, and if He also is not of His Essence, how in
this respect does He differ from us? Nay, He will then be found to be inferior
to the Spirit; for birth of this kind is by the grace of the Spirit. Needs
He then the help of the Spirit that He may continue a Son? And in what
do these differ from Jewish doctrines?
Christ then having said, "He that is born of the Spirit is spirit,"
when He saw him again confused, leads His discourse to an example from
Ver. 7, 8. "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth."
For by saying, "Marvel not," He indicates the confusion of his soul,
and leads him to something lighter than body. He had already led him away
from fleshly things, by saying, "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit";
but when Nicodemus knew not what "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit"
meant, He next carries him to another figure, not bringing him to the density
of bodies, nor yet speaking of things purely incorporeal, (for had he heard
he could not have received this,) but having found a something between
what is and what is not body, namely, the motion of the wind, He brings
him to that next. And He saith of it,
"Thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh,
and whither it goeth."
Though He saith, "it bloweth where it listeth," He saith it not as if
the wind had any power of choice, but declaring that its natural motion
cannot be hindered, and is with power. For Scripture knoweth how to speak
thus of things without life, as when it saith, "The creature was made subject
to vanity, not willingly." (Rom. viii. 20.) The expression therefore, "bloweth
where it listeth," is that of one who would show that it cannot be restrained,
that it is spread abroad everywhere, and that none can hinder its passing
hither and thither, but that it goes abroad with great might, and none
is able to turn aside its violence.
[2.] "And thou hearest its voice," (that is, its rustle, its
noise,) "but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth;
so is every one that is born of the Spirit."
Here is the conclusion of the whole matter. "If," saith He, "thou knowest
not how to explain the motion nor the path of this wind which thou perceivest
by hearing and touch, why art thou over-anxious about the working of the
Divine Spirit, when thou understandest not that of the wind, though thou
hearest its voice?" The expression, "bloweth where it listeth," is also
used to establish the power of the Comforter; for if none can hold the
wind, but it moveth where it listeth, much less will the laws of nature,
or limits of bodily generation, or anything of the like kind, be able to
restrain the operations of the Spirit.
That the expression, "thou hearest its voice," is used respecting the
wind, is clear from this circumstance; He would not, when conversing with
an unbeliever and one unacquainted with the operation of the Spirit, have
said, "Thou hearest its voice." As then the wind is not visible, although
it utters a sound, so neither is the birth of that which is spiritual visible
to our bodily eyes; yet the wind is a body, although a very subtle one;
for whatever is the object of sense is body. If then you do not complain
because you cannot see this body, and do not on this account disbelieve,
why do you, when you hear of "the Spirit," hesitate and demand such exact
accounts, although you act not so in the case of a body? What then doth
Nicodemus? still he continues in his low Jewish opinion, and that too when
so clear an example has been mentioned to him. Wherefore when he again
Ver. 9, 10. "How can these things be?" Christ now speaks to him more
chidingly; "Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?"
Observe how He nowhere accuses the man of wickedness, but only of weakness
and simplicity. "And what," one may ask, "has this birth in common with
Jewish matters?" Tell me rather what has it that is not in common with
them? For the first-created man, and the woman formed from his side, and
the barren women, and the things accomplished by water, I mean what relates
to the fountain on which Elisha made the iron tool to swim, to the Red
Sea which the Jews passed over, to the pool which the Angel troubled, to
Naaman the Syrian who was cleansed in Jordan, all these proclaimed beforehand,
as by a figure, the Birth and the purification which were to be. And the
words of the Prophet allude to the manner of this Birth, as, "It shall
be announced unto the Lord a generation which cometh, and they shall announce
His righteousness unto a people that shall be born, whom the Lord hath
made" (Ps. xxii. 30; xxx. 31 LXX.); and, "Thy youth shall be renewed as
an eagle's" (Ps. ciii. 5, Ps. ciii. 5 LXX.); and, "Shine, O Jerusalem;
behold, Thy King cometh!" (Isa. lx. 1; Zech. ix. 9); and, "Blessed are
they whose iniquities are forgiven." ( Ps. xxxii. 1, Ps. xxxii. 1 LXX.)
Isaac also was a type of this Birth. For tell me, Nicodemus, how was he
born? was it according to the law of nature? By no means; the mode of his
generation was midway between this of which we speak and the natural; the
natural, because he was begotten by cohabitation; the other, because he
was begotten not of blood, (but by the will of God.) I shall show that
these figures proclaimed beforehand not only this birth, but also that
from the Virgin. For, because no one would easily have believed that a
virgin could bear a child, barren women first did so, then such as were
not only barren, but aged also. That a woman should be made from a rib
was indeed far more wonderful than that the barren should conceive; but
because that was of early and old time, another figure, new and fresh,
was given, that of the barren women; to prepare the way for belief in the
Virgin's travail. To remind him then of these things, Jesus said, "Art
thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things?"
Ver. 11. "We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen,
and none receiveth Our witness."
This He added, making His words credible by another argument, and condescending
in His speech to the other's infirmity.
[3.] And what is this that He saith, "We speak that We do know, and
testify that We have seen"? Because with us the sight is the most trustworthy
of the senses, and if we desire to gain a person's belief, we speak thus,
that we saw it with our eyes, not that we know it by hearsay; Christ therefore
speaks to him rather after the manner of men, gaining belief for His words
by this means also. And that this is so, and that He desires to establish
nothing else, and refers not to sensual vision, is clear from this; after
saying, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born
of the Spirit is spirit," He adds, "We speak that we do know, and testify
that we have seen." Now this (of the Spirit) was not yet born ; how then
saith He, "what we have seen"? Is it not plain that He speaks of a knowledge
not otherwise than exact?
"And none receiveth our witness." The expression "we know," He uses
then either concerning Himself and His Father, or concerning Himself alone;
and "no man receiveth," is the expression not of one displeased, but of
one who declares a fact: for He said not, "What can be more senseless than
you who receive not what is so exactly declared by us?" but displaying
all gentleness, both by His works and His words, He uttered nothing like
this; mildly and kindly He foretold what should come to pass, so guiding
us too to all gentleness, and teaching us when we converse with any and
do not persuade them, not to be annoyed or made savage; for it is impossible
for one out of temper to accomplish his purpose, he must make him to whom
he speaks still more incredulous. Wherefore we must abstain from anger,
and make our words in every way credible by avoiding not only wrath, but
also loud speaking for loud speaking is the fuel of passion.
Let us then bind the horse, that we may subdue the rider; let us clip
the wings of our wrath, so the evil shall no more rise to a height. A keen
passion is anger, keen, and skillful to steal our souls; therefore we must
on all sides guard against its entrance. It were strange that we should
be able to tame wild beasts, and yet should neglect our own savage minds.
Wrath is a fierce fire, it devours all things; it harms the body, it destroys
the soul, it makes a man deformed and ugly to look upon; and if it were
possible for an angry person to be visible to himself at the time of his
anger, he would need no other admonition, for nothing is more displeasing
than an angry countenance. Anger is a kind of drunkenness, or rather it
is more grievous than drunkenness, and more pitiable than (possession of)
a daemon. But if we be careful not to be Bud in speech, we shall find this
the best path to sobriety of conduct. And therefore Paul would take away
clamor as well as anger, when he says, "Let all anger and clamor be put
away from you." (Eph. iv. 31.) Let us then obey this teacher of all wisdom,
and when we are wroth with our servants, let us consider our own trespasses,
and be ashamed at their forbearance. For when thou art insolent, and thy
servant bears thy insults in silence, when thou actest unseemly, he like
a wise man, take this instead of any other warning. Though he is thy servant,
he is still a man, has an immortal soul, and has been honored with the
same gifts as thee by your common Lord. And if he who is our equal in more
important and more spiritual things, on account of some poor and trifling
human superiority so meekly bears our injuries, what pardon can we deserve,
what excuse can we make, who cannot, or rather will not, be as wise through
fear of God, as he is through fear of us? Considering then all these things,
and calling to mind Our own transgressions, and the common nature of man,
let us be careful at all times to speak gently, that being humble in hear
we may find rest for our souls, both that which now is, and that which
is to come; which may we all attain, by the grace and lovingkindness of
our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father and the Holy Ghost be glory,
for ever and ever Amen.
Portion of Homily XXVII.
John iii. 12, 13.-"If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe
not how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man
hath ascended up to heaver, but He that came down from heaven, even the
Son of Man which is in heaven."
[1.] What I have often said I shall now repeat, and shall not cease
to say. What is that? It is that Jesus, when about to touch on sublime
doctrines, often contains Himself by reason of the infirmity of His hearers,
and dwells not for a continuance on subjects worthy of His greatness, but
rather on those which partake of condescension. For the sublime and great,
being but once uttered, is sufficient to establish that character, as far
as we are able to hear it; but unless more lowly sayings, and such as are
nigh to the comprehension of the hearers, were continually uttered, the
more sublime would not readily take hold on a groveling listener. And therefore
of the sayings of Christ more are lowly than sublime. But yet that this
again may not work another mischief, by detaining the disciple here below,
He does not merely set before men His inferior sayings without first telling
them why He utters them; as, in fact, He has done in this place. For when
He had said what He did concerning Baptism, and the Generation by grace
which takes place on earth, being desirous to admit them to that His own
mysterious and incomprehensible Generation, He holds it in suspense for
a while, and admits them not, and then tells them His reason for not admitting
them. What is that? It is, the dullness and infirmity of His hearers. And
referring to this He added the words, "If I have told you earthly things,
and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things?"
so that wherever He saith anything ordinary and humble, we must attribute
this to the infirmity of His audience.
The expression "earthly things," some say is here used of the wind;
that is, "If I have given you an example from earthly things, and ye did
not even so believe, how shall ye be able to learn sublimer things?" And
wonder not if He here call Baptism an "earthly" thing, for He calls it
so, either from its being performed on earth, or so naming it in comparison
with that His own most awful Generation. For though this Generation of
ours is heavenly, yet compared with that true Generation which is from
the Substance of the Father, it is earthly.
He does not say, "Ye have not understood," but, "Ye have not believed";
for when a man is ill disposed towards those things which it is possible
to apprehend by the intellect, and will not readily receive them, he may
justly be charged with want of understanding; but when he receives not
things which cannot be apprehended by reasoning, but only by faith, the
charge against him is no longer want of understanding, but unbelief. Leading
him therefore away from enquiring by reasonings into what had been said,
He touches him more severely by charging him with want of faith. If now
we must receive our own Generation by faith, what do they deserve who are
busy with their reasonings about that of the Only-Begotten?
But perhaps some may ask, "And if the hearers were not to believe these
sayings, wherefore were they uttered?" Because though "they" believed not,
those who came after would believe and profit by them. Touching him therefore
very severely, Christ goes on to show that He knoweth not these things
only, but others also, far more and greater than these. And this He declared
by what follows, when He said, "And no man hath ascended up to heaven,
but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven."
"And what manner of sequel is this?" asks one. The very closest, and
entirely in unison with what has gone before. For since Nicodemus had said,
"We know that Thou art a teacher come from God," on this very point He
sets him right, all but saying, "Think Me not a teacher in such manner
as were the many of the prophets who were of earth, for I have come from
heaven (but) now. None of the prophets hath ascended up thither, but I
dwell there." Seest thou how even that which appears very exalted is utterly
unworthy of his greatness? For not in heaven only is He, but everywhere,
and He fills all things; but yet He speaks according to the infirmity of
His hearer, desiring to lead him up little by little. And in this place
He called not the flesh "Son of Man," but He now named, so to speak, His
entire Self from the inferior substance; indeed this is His wont, to call
His whole Person often from His Divinity, and often from His humanity.
Ver. 14. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even
so must the Son of Man be lifted up."
This again seems to depend upon what has gone before, and this too has
a very close connection with it. For after having spoken of the very great
benefaction that had come to man by Baptism, He proceeds to mention another
benefaction, which was the cause of this, and not inferior to it; namely,
that by the Cross. As also Paul arguing with the Corinthians sets down
these benefits together, when he says, "Was Paul crucified for you? or
were ye baptized into the name of Paul?" for these two things most of all
declare His unspeakable love, that He both suffered for His enemies, and
that having died for His enemies, He freely gave to them by Baptism entire
remission of their sins.
[2.] But wherefore did He not say plainly, "I am about to be crucified,"
instead of referring His hearers to the ancient type? First, that you may
learn that old things are akin to new, and that the one are not alien to
the other; next, that you may know that He came not unwillingly to His
Passion; and again, besides these reasons, that you may learn that no harm
arises to Him from the Fact, and that to many there springs from it salvation.
For, that none may say, "And how is it possible that they who believe on
one crucified should be saved, when he himself is holden of death?" He
leads us to the ancient story. Now if the Jews, by looking to the brazen
image of a serpent, escaped death, much rather will they who believe on
the Crucified, with good reason enjoy a far greater benefit. For this takes
place, not through the weakness of the Crucified, or because the Jews are
stronger than He, but because "God loved the world," therefore is His living
Temple fastened to the Cross.
Ver. 15. "That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but
have eternal life."
Seest thou the cause of the Crucifixion, and the salvation which is
by it? Seest thou the relationship of the type to the reality? there the
Jews escaped death, but the temporal, here believers the eternal; there
the hanging serpent healed the bites of serpents, here the Crucified Jesus
cured the wounds inflicted by the spiritual dragon; there he who looked
with his bodily eyes was healed, here he who beholds with the eyes of his
understanding put off all his sins; there that which hung was brass fashioned
into the likeness of a serpent, here it was the Lord's Body, builded by
the Spirit; there a serpent bit and a serpent healed, here death destroyed
and a Death saved. But the snake which destroyed had venom, that which
saved was free from venom; and so again was it here, for the death which
slew us had sin with it, as the serpent had venom; but the Lord's Death
was free from all sin, as the brazen serpent from venom. For, saith Peter,
"He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth." (1 Pet. ii. 22.)
And this is what Paul also declares, "And having spoiled principalities
and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it."
(Col. ii. 16.) For as some noble champion by lifting on high and dashing
down his antagonist, renders his victory more glorious, so Christ, in the
sight of all the world, cast down the adverse powers, and having healed
those who were smitten in the wilderness, delivered them from all venomous
beasts that vexed them, by being hung upon the Cross. Yet He did not say,
"must hang," but, "must be lifted up" (Acts xxviii. 4); for He used this
which seemed the milder term, on account of His hearer, and because it
was proper to the type.