Upon Earthly and Heavenly Things - John 3:12
If I have told you earthly things, and you believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things ?" - John iii. 12.
The Lord here plainly makes a distinction between the things which he
has been telling Nicodemus, and the things of which he is about to tell him.
The former he calls earthly things, the latter he calls heavenly things. He
intimates also plainly that the earthly things are of easier grasp to human
intelligence and faith than the heavenly; so much so that if Nicodemus could
not apprehend the earthly, he could scarcely be expected to accept the
heavenly. But still the Lord is so bent on telling of the heavenly things that
he speaks as if he must needs do so, whether the earthly things are believed or
not, in order to fulfil his mission and complete his message. There are,
therefore, three questions suggested by our text
I. What is the distinction between the earthly things and the heavenly things?
II. How should the earthly things be more easily believed than the heavenly things?
III. Why must the Divine Teacher, having told his hearer earthly things, proceed to tell him of heavenly things, even although the earthly things are not believed ?
The things which Christ has been telling Nicodemus are facts or truths connected with regeneration; its necessity, its nature, and the agency by which it is accomplished. The things of which he goes on to tell him are facts or truths which concern redemption; the lifting up of the Son of man, the love of God in the gift of his Son, and the way of grace and salvation through faith in him. In what sense and to what effect are they contrasted as earthly and heavenly. Are they not alike and equally heavenly ? Surely in some most important aspects they must be so regarded! They have both of them alike and equally a heavenly source and origin. Regeneration and redemption are alike of God. They are effects of his mere good pleasure. "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth" (James i. 18). "In his love and in his pity he redeemed them" (Is. I lxiii. 9).
The new birth and the atonement are alike and equally heavenly thoughts, heavenly plans and purposes. The agencies concerned in their accomplishment are alike and equally heavenly. In the one, it is the agency of the Eternal Spirit, the only regenerator. In the other it is the agency of the Eternal Son, the only Redeemer. In both works and the things about them, in both alike, a heavenly being, a divine person, must be the worker - the Spirit in the one, the Son in the other. In respect of instrumentality also, they are alike heavenly. The word of God, which is heavenly, is the available instrumental means as regards our interest in both. In regeneration, we are born again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which liveth and abideth for ever" (I Peter i. 23).
And the application of redemption, or our being made partakers of it, is through the Word; the Word or ministry of reconciliation, which Christ has committed to his ambassadors, that as though God did beseech you by us, we should pray you, in Christ's stead, to be reconciled unto God (2 Cor. v. 20). The end contemplated is in both cases alike and equally heavenly. Coming from heaven, they aim and tend heavenward. Regeneration contemplates out restoration to the image or likeness of God; redemption contemplates our restoration to his favour, fellowship, and friendship. The Spirit, in the new birth, brings us near to God in respect of character and nature. The Son, lifted up, brings us near, in respect of real and actual standing. Thus, as regards the source, the agency, the instrumentality, and the end; the two works are alike and equally heavenly things.
In another view, and in a view,for practical application quite as important, they are alike and equally earthly.
1. The subjects of both, the persons on whom they tell, are the same; and they are to be viewed in the same light as earthly, all alike and equally earthly. They are men; and men contemplated simply as earthly; wholly alienated and estranged from heaven; destitute, all of them alike, of a taste or fondness for heaven, and of a right or title to heaven; in character and condition, earthly. Regeneration deals with them as corrupt ; redemption deals with them as criminal.
Regeneration looks at their depravity; redemption looks at their guilt. The one has respect to their being morally and spiritually unsound, the other to their being legally and judicially condemned. "The carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be :" that is the feature of our miserable case that renders the new birth, our being born of the Spirit necessary. Accursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the law to do them:" that is what requires the offering up of the Son to be the propitiation for our sin. Thus alike and equally, regeneration and redemption, with the thing or truths about them, are emphatically earthly; they bring the heavenly agents concerned in them respectively & into contact, real and personal contact, with the worst elements of our earthliness; our deep indwelling ungodliness on the one hand, and our hell-deserving guilt on the other.
2. Then, as to place and time, the place and time of their accomplishment, or their availableness for us, they are earthly. The place for both alike and equally is this earth. The time for both is our brief sojourn on this earth, our earthly life. Here and now, on this earth, while you and I are spared on it, you must be born again. There is no provision [ for any renovating change of nature anywhere else than here, any time else than now. Here and now you have to make good your interest in him who is lifted up as the atoning Lamb of God. Nowhere else than here, no time else than now, is there any sacrifice for sin. Thus the things, or truths, relating to these two works - the work of the Spirit in regeneration and the work of the Son in redemption - are to be regarded as in some views alike and equally heavenly, and in others alike and equally earthly. What then is the ground of difference in respect of which the Lord characterises and contrasts the two themes or topics as earthly and heavenly? How are they to be thus distinguished
1 Evidently the distinction is one of relation. It turns upon the antithesis or contrast of these two questions, both arising out of our fallen state - the first, How does man on earth feel and act towards God in heaven? the second, How does God in heaven feel and act towards man on earth? The relation between heaven and earth, between God and man, has become and is deranged and disordered on both sides. It is no more what it was at first; a relation of amity and mutual good-will. Both parties have drawn off from one another; they stand to one another in the attitude or position of estrangement and antagonism. If there is to be reconciliation and peace, restored fellowship and friendship, there must be double movement. Earth and heaven must both be moved.
Earth must be moved heavenward; its heart must have put into it a heavenward bent and bias; and it must also be made clear that heaven is moved earthward, that the longings and yearnings of heaven's heart are earthward, seeking to have earth again as its own. Hence the distinction now in question. Regeneration, or the new birth, has respect to the relation and affection of earth towards heaven; redemption, to the relation and affection of heaven towards earth. Regeneration is the putting right of man's disposition of heart towards God; redemption, or the operation and manifestation of the Father's love in the lifting up of the Son, is the discovery to us of God's disposition of heart towards man. Nay, it is more than that. It is the actual working out of that disposition; the rendering of it effectual on the part of God for the real and actual reconciliation of sinners to himself.
For in both cases, and on both sides, there is a work. Only, in the one case it is a work needed to call forth love, while in the other case it is a work needed to make a way in which love may righteously have its free course. The Spirit's work in regeneration creates love out of enmity, turning the carnal mind, which is enmity against God and insubordination to his law, into the loving, loyal, obedient heart of a child. The Son's work in redemption - his being lifted up - does not create love, being itself the fruit of love; but it is a work indispensable to heaven s love reaching righteously this earth and its righteously doomed inhabitants. Most fitly, therefore, it may be characterised as in itself and in all the things truths connected with it, distinctively and emphatically lavenly. For as it is all of earth that there is need of regeneration to make earthly men meet and fit for heaven, so all of heaven, of heaven's holiness and right and truth, given's free grace and love, that redemption is needed for earth's guilty ones - the redemption which alone can secure to them either a righteous title to heaven or a holy preparation for its joy.
The Lord plainly intimates that the earthly things which he has been telling Nicodemus are somehow of easier to grasp to human intelligence and faith than the heavenly things of which he has yet to tell him; insomuch that if one cannot take in the earthly he will not be likely to accept the heavenly. Here it is at all events implied, that in our Lord's judgment Nicodemus should have understood and believed the earthly things; that this might have been warrantably expected of him. The Lord has already indicated as much. And he has given two reasons; the one, as it were, official; the other simply human. "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things (ver. 10).
As a master of Israel, thou art called to study and expound the Scriptures. And hast thou never discovered in them any trace of man's need of the Spirit s renovating work, or of God's promise of it. David s fervent prayer "create in me a clean heart;" is the Lord s gracious assurance "a new heart will I give you;" are these to thee sealed utterances from earth and from heaven! And if it is my use of the symbol of water that staggers thee, should not that be familiar to thee as a reader of Isaiah's prophecy, especially in its application to Messianic times. "I will pour water on him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground. I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring" (xliv. 3). "Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things?" But that is not all. On another ground my teaching should have a hold upon thee. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, we speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness" (ver. 11). Not only as a master of Israel, familiar with Old Testament phraseology, and with Messianic prophecy using that phraseology; but simply as a man with human consciousness and human experience, you might have taken in and accepted the earthly things I have been telling you. For my. speech and testimony hitherto has been about what lies within the range of, our ordinary knowledge, and sense, and observation; yours and mine alike. The subject of our conversation, about which, as a teacher and revealer, I have been conferring with you, is one that touches the confines, or rather reaches the heart of man's conscious want. What I have been telling you of the new birth might never indeed have occurred to you so clearly unless suggested from above; but when suggested it should be felt to fall within the range of your conscience as well as my insight. I know enough of human nature by intuition (John ii. 24, 2o), you should know enough of it experimentally, to make us both own this as a great truth, that except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. So the Lord appeals to the inward sense of Nicodemus.
And not without warrant. For Nicodemus has already given some indication of his consciousness or conscience bearing responsive witness to the Lord's appeal about the new birth. Consider, in that view, the rise and progress of the conversation. Nicodemus is an earnest man, seeking light. Gladly and gratefully he hails the light which a teacher come from God may give. He places himself accordingly at the teacher's feet, and awaits his teaching. The teacher's first word arrests and startles him. It is not enough that there be light from above. There must be the opening of the eye here below receive and use it. The teacher may have come from God, but that will not suffice. The scholar must get a capacity for seeing what the teacher has to show. A teacher come from God may show the kingdom of God. But a except a man be born again, he cannot see it.
It is probably a new thought to Nicodemus. But it takes hold of him. It comes home to his inmost soul. It calls forth from its depths the anxious question, a sort of plaintive, wailing cry (ver. 4), "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born again?" Would that he could! For it is in that light that I look upon this question of Nicodemus. I cannot imagine it to be ironical. To me, it is rather the utterance of real feeling, of profound emotion. It is the man, not the master of Israe who asks. Would that what thou speakest of were possible! It is the fond , vain wish that often springs up in the bosom of weary, sated, jaded man hood; sin-laden, care-worn, tempest-tost, war-broken; touched at the sight of calm, sweet, smiling infancy! Ah I what would I not give to be as that new born child once more! To have all my long life of sin and shame, of vanity and folly, cancelled, obliterated, blotted out for ever, to begin anew, fresh from the womb again! What would I not give for that "Nay, the Lord replies, even if that could be, it would avail thee nothing. (Ver. 6)" That which is born of the flesh is flesh." And a thousand new births could not make it other than flesh. Thou mightest enter a second time into thy mother's womb and be born. Thou wouldest be but what thou art now; flesh born of the flesh; and as such incapable of seeing or entering into the kingdom of God. Only "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit," capable of seeing and entering into the kingdom of God, who is a spirit. Therefore have I said "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." And now I say (ver. 7) "Marvel not at this." A man's being born of the Spirit may not be so palpable to sight and sense as his being born of the flesh. But consider the view-less wind, from which, by analogy, the Divine Spirit is named. Mark its mighty power, as thou hearest its rushing sound. Thou canst not trace or track its course, though thou feelest its force and seest its effects. Why should it be thought incredible that, as the Lord sends forth his breath, his wind, to renew the face of the earth (Ps. civ. 30) so his Spirit should be sent forth to regenerate the soul.
"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." Now - it is when Nicodemus, notwithstanding this explanation, still asks incredulously (ver. 9) "How can these things be?" that the Lord, after a sharp expression of surprise and rebuke to the master of Israel speaks tenderly, as if in the sorrow of a sore disappointment, to the man; I have more to reveal to you of my Father than I have yet indicated. But to what purpose "If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you of heavenly things " I have been telling you of what comes within the range of your own earthly cognisance, your own inward earthly sense and experience, when I have been telling you of your need of being born again, and of the sort of new birth that you need; therefore I might have expected you to understand and receive my testimony. I have been speaking of what is not merely matter of revelation to you from heaven, but to a large extent also matter of personal feeling and conviction in you upon earth. True, the possibility of your being born again as you need to be born again, the fact that there is an agency which this can be effected, must be communicated to you above; but when so communicated, it should surely find entrance into your understanding and conscience, into mind and heart.
Proceed to Part 2
Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Links | Photo-Wallet