"Thy Condescending Gentleness
Hath Made Me Great"
Psalm 18:35; John 3, 7, 19
There was an interval between the bite of the fiery
serpent and the death of its victim. That interval was granted in
grace, that the Israelite who had been bitten might look on the serpent
of brass and live.
This interval may have been longer in some cases than
in others. We cannot say. But we know it is so in the analogy or allegory.
Many sinners have their lives lengthened out in mercy, that if not
in youth, yet in age, they may look to Jesus and live. The tower in
Siloam did not fall on all who were then dwelling in. Jerusalem; the
survivors are warned to use the longer time in mercy afforded them.
So, some of the bitten Israelites may have looked more
immediately and at once, after the bite, than others. Again, we cannot
say. But we know it is so in the analogy. Some of us have been slow
to look to Jesus, even after we have felt the venom of the old serpent's
bite: others make short work of it--as is the common case under the
operation of God upon souls at this present time (1860). As one has
lately said, "What in ordinary cases is spread over months and years,
is now compressed into an instant. Men comprehend at once that
they are lost, and that the Lord is all they need. It is only a look--a
cry--an act of reliance--and the day dawns upon them, and their peace
begins to flow as a river."
It is not, however, with Nicodemus after this manner.
Nicodemus was long ere he looked. The Lord lets him know in the early
time of John 3, that he had been bitten, and must look, but he does
not look till the distant day of John 19.
According to cases more generally recorded in the Gospels,
the entrance of souls into light and liberty was rapid. Zaccheus,
and the dying thief, the Samaritan woman, Peter, and Matthew the publican
took but little time to accomplish the journey from darkness to light.
We have, however, instances of a slow and gradual progress also. The
spirit of Nathanael may have been under the shade and over-casting
of the fig-tree for years. Lydia may have resorted with a religious
but unsettled soul to "the place where prayer was wont to be made,"
again and again; and Cornelius may have had his fasts, and devotions,
and prayers, in long succession. We cannot say; all this may have
been so under pressure of soul trouble. But we can say (for it is
marked under our eye), that the journey which Nicodemus took was but
tardy and lengthened.
He was among those in Jerusalem who had been attracted
by the miracles which the Lord was working (John 2:23; 3:1). This
attraction was felt by him. But there was, I am sure, another feeling
known to him. He was uneasy in his soul. This separated him.* I do
not say that this uneasiness was the commanding affection.
I do not believe it was. Had it been so, he would not have come to
the Lord as an inquirer after knowledge merely. When conviction was
the commanding thing in the soul of Peter, he fell down before Jesus.
This did not Nicodemus. Still, I doubt not, light, which disturbs
the easy sleep of nature, had penetrated his spirit. Two facts witness
this to me--his taking a solitary journey to Christ, apart from the
multitude who, like him, had been attracted by the miracles; and his
lingering with the Lord, though He had answered him so strangely
and so quickly; unlike the people in chapter 6, who leave Him when
His words do not suit them; and unlike his brother Pharisees in chap.
8, who go out from Him at once when His words convict them.
* Chapter 3 should open with the word "but;" which,
under the Spirit, distinguishes him.
Thus it begins with Nicodemus, I believe. Conviction
has not become the commanding affection in his soul, again I grant.
Perhaps some of us are scarcely aware that it has ever been so with
us, though we doubt not the truth of our being quickened. But his
conscience has been disturbed; and such an one as this--an inquirer
after truth--one attracted by the miracles, and one carrying some
soul-trouble about with him, now comes into the presence of Christ.
And sure I also am, it was this uneasiness, and not
his being attracted by the miracles, that interested the Lord. To
the people of the city who had been alike attracted, Jesus would not
commit Himself, as we read (2:24). For a miracle is not the proper,
immediate ground of faith--such faith as the Spirit works, and as
saves the soul. A miracle, like a book on the evidences, may draw
attention, and thus be the remote cause of faith. But the faith that
saves the soul makes such acquaintance with Christ as a convicted
conscience leads to. The fragments of convicted hearts and the answer
which grace makes to them--in other words, our need and Christ's fullness--are
the links of eternal fellowship.
And in this gospel by John, where only we get any notice
of Nicodemus, we specially see this. The Lord refuses to be received
save as the Friend of sinners. This is strongly expressed, very strongly.
The mother would have had Him display Himself, and so would His brethren
(Chap. 2, 7). The multitude would have made Him a king, the Pharisees
a judge (Chap. 6, 8). Nicodemus treated Him as a teacher, a revealer
of heavenly secrets. But these apprehensions of Him were a trouble
to Him. He was weary to bear them. He resents them earnestly. His
reply to His mother, the shortness with which He turns upon Nicodemus,
His quick retreat from the multitude who would have put the crown
upon His head, His reply to His brethren, His action when challenged
by the Pharisees to sit as judge upon the sinner--all these tell us
of the entire alienation of His spirit from such apprehensions of
Him, or such approaches to Him. So that we may indeed assure ourselves,
it was none of these or such like, but uneasiness of soul, feeble
as that may have been, which engaged the regard of the Lord at this
time, and kept him in discourse with him.
But Nicodemus leaves the Lord on this occasion without
looking where the Lord had guided his eye. He has not yet so felt
the bite of the serpent as to look to the pole. That is most sure.
Some good distance of time must have passed between the first and
the second occasion on which we see Nicodemus. He had carried his
uneasiness of soul with him all through this interval, I doubt not.
But now, in chap. 7 (vs. 50-51), he has made but little advance--he
is still of the Pharisees, one, moreover, of that council of
Pharisees who had sent officers to take the Lord by force. But, still,
he who had before separated himself, as we saw, from the multitude
in Jerusalem by seeking Jesus in solitude, soon separates himself
from his brother Pharisees by pleading for the ends of justice in
the behalf of Jesus.
This may, perhaps, be progress, but it is surely slow.
The cords which were drawing him to the Lord were weak. We track the
path of a lingering, slow-paced traveler, and most surely there has
been no look at the uplifted serpent yet.
There is again a long interval between the second and
third sight we get of him, as there had been between the first and
second. But now, when we see him for the third and last time, his
soul has advanced indeed; as I judge, I may say, with all certainty.
The same evangelist, John, who alone notices
Nicodemus, says in chap. 12 (v. 42), "among the rulers also many believed
on Him (Jesus), but because of the Pharisees they did not confess
Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue." Nicodemus may
have been one of these rulers. He is called by the same name (see
chap. 3:1; 12:42). But now, in chap. 19 (v. 39), he takes a
place apart from his fellow-rulers, and does so openly--nay, from
the whole body of the Jews, rulers, priests, Pharisees, multitude,
all orders and estates of the nation. He allies himself with the Lord
in a moment of some of His very deepest humiliation; nay, he
and his companion, Joseph of Arimathea, stand, as with God Himself,
in relation to the Crucified One. God will presently provide that
blessed Sufferer with a triumphant, glorious resurrection; they provide
Him now with a tomb and grave-clothes, and their spices now perfume
that sepulcher which ere long divine power will rend asunder.
Surely we may say, Nicodemus has now, in spirit as
well as in act, reached the cross. Is he not in the place at that
moment chiefest in God's eye on the face of the whole earth? When
I see him there, and all the disciples fled away and gone, I know
not whether I cannot say, "the last are first;" the timid Joseph and
the slow-paced Nicodemus are now before the earnest Peter and the
loving John. I know not, I say, whether I have not warrant to say
as much as that. But this I know and say again, Joseph and Nicodemus
are at that moment occupying the spot of chiefest attraction with
God, and doing the very highest and most honorable service which could
then have been rendered to Him. They are at the cross, taking down
the body of Jesus, and fulfilling that word of the prophet who was
anticipating their very act of that moment--"with the rich
in his death" (Isaiah 53). They were owning the Crucified One in the
face of the whole world. They were in the place where a sinner first
meets a Savior. They were looking to Him whom sin had just pierced.
Nicodemus now stands on the very spot to which the
Lord, at the earliest moment, had pointed him. He has now, at last,
gained that place. He is at the foot of the pole on which the true
Brazen Serpent had been lifted. And he is, in spirit, one with all
the other saved ones in this precious Gospel, to whom Jesus "committed
Himself"--Andrew, and Peter, and Philip, and Nathanael, and the Samaritan,
and the Adultress, and the Blind Beggar. He has changed company, indeed,
now. This is no longer a weak and partial separation; Nicodemus is
in a new world, which redemption has formed and planted, and
where sinners saved have their new being. He is now "born again,"
as his Lord told him at the first he must be. It is no longer the
travail, but the birth. It is indeed, I feel it, a happy thing to
delineate the path of this elect one of God. He has now made the journey
of all the elect, the journey from darkness to light. He has been
a slow-paced traveler. That is true. But there is comfort in turning
to this Israelite in the midst of the busy camp in the wilderness,
and watch him thus for so long a time struggling, as it were, with
the bite of the fiery serpent, and still not looking to the pole.
There is comfort in tracking the lingering, lazy footsteps of this
man on the road to God, amid the brilliant speedy journeyings of those
more vivid, earnest spirits which gladden the pages of John's gospel.
He creeps along among them, and the eye, more attracted by them, almost
consents to lose sight of him. But grace did not lose sight of him.
It rather abounds in setting at last the slow-paced Nicodemus in company
with the liveliest of them.
"O to grace, how great a debtor,
Daily I'm constrained to be,
May that grace, Lord, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee."
Ah, as once it bound and kept the lingering heart
of this man of the Pharisees, this ruler of the Jews.
What wonderful moral variety, what lights and shades
of character, not merely in broader outline, but in more minute and
delicate touches, do the illustrations of Scripture afford us! There
are moral glories in the Book, and that in abundance; but surely
there are moral wonders also--paths which, for their elevation,
none but the Spirit of God could reach; and others which, for their
obscurity or intricacy, none but the same Spirit could discover and
Surely we are invited by the evangelist to gather up
those fragments which thus lie in the harvest-field of his gospel.
They are but fragments, it is true; but they are not to be lost. There
is something of bread-corn for the nourishment of the soul in them,
though we may gather but one basketful.
Can we gather this one basketful? If we have delineated
the path of this saint of God, can we read the moral of his story?
It is, I own, the creeping progress of this slow-paced
traveler, in the very thick and midst of the earnest and vivid histories
which fill the pages of John, which I chiefly delight to contemplate.
There is such comfort in it for some of us, who know the sluggishness
of our own souls, in comparison with much that one sees all around
at present. For truly, it is an earnest, vivid thing, again I say,
which one sees around us at this moment. The present work of God with
souls is very much of that character. The journey from darkness to
light is rapidly performed--and we are conscious that we are breathing
the atmosphere of John's gospel. The Lord is, as it were, acting on
His own models, and taking His first impressions as the order and
standard of those which may be among His last. Indeed, the very earliest
samples of faith and of divine workmanship in the soul, were of the
same character. Adam and Eve, and Abel give witness of earnest, simple,
unquestioning, unlingering faith. And precious are such specimens
of the way of the power of God. But to find among them, as we have
said, a. sluggish traveler who had, it may be, but half a heart for
the journey, is relief to some of us; and we accept it among the provisions
and stores of His boundless riches of grace. And, therefore, we will
not overlook Nicodemus.
But, then, there is admonition as well as comfort.
I grant it, indeed. This slowheartedness is not of God, but of ourselves.
The grace that meets it, and blesses in spite of it, is of God; the
temper that calls forth that grace, is ours.
The Jesus who has now, as we have seen, dealt with
Nicodemus and blessed him, is the Jehovah who, of old, dealt with
Gideon. Gideon was a slowhearted man also. God (to speak as men speak)
found it hard to win the confidence of that man of Abiezer. Again
and again, the heart of Gideon retired. Mistrust of God filled his
spirit. But God bore with him, went on with him, and rebuked him in
the exercise of His grace, until He prevailed over nature. He heaped
the coal of fire on the head, and consumed these suspicions of His
goodness. In an eminent manner, God's "gentleness" made Gideon "great."
And so now. Nicodemus has been another slowhearted man ; but Jesus,
the God of Gideon, has borne with him and conducted him into the place
of blessing--the new world where salvation shines.
Deborah and Samson, in those early days of Gideon,
had not been slowhearted like Gideon, as we have already observed.
Andrew and the Samaritan woman had not been slowhearted like Nicodemus
in these days of John's gospel. But the slowhearted and the readyhearted
are alike in blessing. As the feeble faith and the strong faith; the
faith that can only say, "if thou canst do anything, have compassion
on us, and help us;" and the faith that without asking leave or making
apology, breaks up the roof of the house to reach the Lord, are alike
answered. The small and the great, as we read, are together before
Him: the thirtyfold, the sixtyfold, the hundredfold are, each of them,
owned by Him.
Wonderful! What a witness to us of God! Not, however,
that Jehovah did not go on with earnest Deborah more in full fellowship
than with reluctant Barak. Not that Jesus did not more delight in
the boldness of the centurion's faith, than in the weakness of the
leper's. And not but that every servant shall receive his own reward,
according to his own labor, and they who sow sparingly shall reap
sparingly; and they who sow bountifully shall reap bountifully. Still,
as we read the stories of Gideon and of Nicodemus, we surely see that
blessing closes them.
But withal, beloved, do we praise this slow-heartedness?
We praise it not. It has a root of evil in the heart, we may be sure.
The fear of man wrought it in both Gideon and
The love of present possessions wrought it in
the rich young ruler. He was uneasy, like Nicodemus, and he would
fain have known the rest of Jesus. But the love of what he possessed
kept him out of it.
And what was the slowheartedness of the two disciples
that were going to Emmaus, or, indeed of all--apostles and Galilean
women together--touching the resurrection? Why this flocking to the
empty sepulcher? Had Christ, in their thoughts, no strength equal
to the rising from the dead, or had God no love equal to the giving
sinners that pledge of their redemption? Why did it appear a thing
incredible with them, that God should raise the dead? Whatever form
this unbelief may have taken in their hearts, it involved unworthy
thoughts of God; as the apostle tells us in 1 Cor. 15. And is
not that an evil root? "I speak this to your shame," says the apostle.
And surely we will not give this slowness of heart, be it found in
ourselves, or where it may, anything but a bad character. But surely
this magnifies that grace that blesses in spite of it.
The soul hesitates. It refuses to be comforted. We
linger and draw back. Why? We are occupied with ourselves. Is
that to be commended, after we have been told about the pole in the
wilderness? True humbleness forgets self. "It is perfect humility,"
says one, "to have every thought of Christ, and not one of ourselves."
Some of us know too well the workings of a legal self-righteous mind.
But we will not, we do not, speak well of it. Faith in
silence ascends to God, and dwells in His light. Faith
in Joshua, allowed in silence even the mitre to be set on his head.
Faith in the prodigal, in silence sat at the table, ate of the calf,
wore the robe, and listened to the music. As faith in Adam at the
beginning, came forth in silence and in nakedness, to be clothed and