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There is an air of caution and of timidity about him. He carefully feels the ground of innovation, before he lets go the establishment; and, indeed, he appears to have taken no step by which he forfeited his caste or his office. It is difficult, too, to discover the precise purpose of this visit to Jesus. Perhaps he sought the interview from mixed motives. A religious earnestness, kindled by the teachings and the character of Christ, may have blended with speculative curiosity, and even with the throbbings of political ambition. His coming by night, too, may have indicated timidity, or he may have chosen that season as the best time for quiet and uninterrupted discourse. But, whatever may have been his motives, the position in which we find him shows, I repeat, that the power of Christ's ministry was felt, not only by the excitable multitude, but by the more thoughtful and devout of the Jewish people.
Nicodemus, however, presents a peculiar interest, not only because he exhibits the influence of Jesus upon the higher orders of his nation, but because he appears as a seeker after religion, and as one personally interested in its vital truths. His interview with the Savior gives occasion for one of the most important passages in the New Testament. The conversation of Christ, in this instance, is not uttered in general principles and accommodated to the multitude, but it is directed to an intelligent and inquiring spirit, in the calm privacy of the night-time laying bare its very depths, and craving the application of religion to its own peculiar wants. To be sure, Nicodemus did not profess this want, but commenced the conversation with the language of respect, and with suggestiori of more general inquiry. But He who “knew what was in man,” had already penetrated the folds of the ruler's breast, and saw the real need that had sent him; so, putting by all compliments, and all secondary issues, He struck at once the conscious chord that throbbed there, and exclaimed: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!" These words must have filled Nicodemus with surprize, both from their sudden heart-searchingness, and as addressing to him a term which was usually applied to men of very different condition. For the phrase, “new birth,” was a customary one to express the change through which the Gentile passed in becoming a Jew. But it was indeed a strange doctrine that he, a son of Abraham, a Pharisee, a ruler, must be born again, before he could be fit for the Messiah's kingdom. Therefore, really or affectedly, he misunderstood the Savior's words, and gave to a phrase, plain enough when applied to a heathen, the most gross and literal interpretation. But Christ reiterated the solemn truth assuring him that an inward change, and an outward profession, a regeneration of the affections and the will, and a renunciation of pride and fear, by the symbol of baptism-a new birth of water and of the Spirit-was essential to true discipleship. And thus, stripping away all the reliances of formal righteousness, and all the supports of birth and position, in reply to the earnest question of Nicodemus: “How can these things be?” the great Teacher proceeded to utter some of the sublimest doctrines of the gospel.
As I have already said, whether Nicodemus became an avowed follower of Jesus, or not, is uncertain; but we know that the truths which he then heard are of everlasting importance, have a personal application to every man, and appeal to wants in our own souls, which are as real and as deep as those of the ruler of old.
But while thus Nicodemus exhibits a need of our common humanity, he especially represents a class who may be called “seekers after religion,” either as being unsettled and inquiring in their spirits, or as resting upon something which is not religion, but only, perhaps, a tendency toward it—they are seekers after it, as not having actually found it. In other words, for this class, religion has its meaning and its pressure; they think about it, and they feel its claims, yet they do not thoroughly and mentally know it; or, like Nicodemus, they rest upon some substitute. Some of these positions I propose now to illustrate.
I observe, then, in the first place, that some seek religion in rituals and sacraments. The tendency of the human mind, as to matters of faith and devotion, has always been to complicate rather than to simplify, and to associate these with set forms and symbols. In all ages, men have shrunk from naked communion with God, from the solitude of an intense spirituality, and have conducted transactions with the Invisible, through the mediation of ceremony. But that which, at first, was an expression of the individual soul, has grown into a fixed and consecrated rite. Gestures and modes of worship, suggested by the occasion, have been repeated in usage, and grown venerable with age, until they have become identified with religion itself. They have been exalted into mystic vehicles of grace, have been considered as possessing virtue in themselves, and as constituting an awful paraphernalia, through which, alone, God will deign to communicate with man, and through which man may even propitiate and move God. Christianity has not escaped this tendency; and, even now, there are many with whom the sacraments are something more than expressive signs and holy suggestions, and with whom the position of an altar, the shape of a vestment, and the form of a church are among the essentials of religion. With
such, baptism speaks, not merely to the eye of an inward washing, but it is of itself a regenerative process. In their view, the communion bread is not simply a representation of the broken body of the Redeemer; but is itself so sacred, so identical with that body, that they must receive it by a special posture, and upon a particular part of the hand. As a matter of course, to such, religion must appear eminently conservative and retrospective; the genius of the established and the past, rather than of the reformatory and the future. Cherishing the minutest fibers of these ancient rites, they chiefly venerate the men who authenticate them, and the soil out of which they grow. With them, the fluent spirit of religion became organized and fixt into a form, with fast-days and feast-days, with miter and cassock, and a lineal priesthood, ages ago.
It cannot be said that this method is entirely unfounded. It has its justification in human nature, if not elsewhere. There are those who can find peace only in the arms of an hereditary faith: who can feel the inspiration of worship only among forms that have kindled worship in others for a thousand years: with whose earliest thoughts and dearest memories is entwined a ritual and an established church, so that personal affection and household sanctity, as well as religious feeling, demand that every great act of life of joy or sorrow—should be consecrated, by the famil