Charles F. (Charles Force) Deems.

Who was Jesus? online

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enforce would bring upon them. He was in no haste. He came

to plant principles and demonstrate truths, not to create factions

and secure partisans.



Jesus was a light that could not be hid. The more thoughtful

had begun to study the phenomena of his character and career.

Even members of the Sanhedrim began to take

., ,'i-i i- ^-,ir-T p Nicodemus. John

interest in his teachings, — most with feelings or

aversion, a few with solicitude, and one at least
with kindly inclination. That one was Nicodemus. There must
have been others whose observation had led them to desire to
know more of Jesus. Such was Joseph of Arimathea, who be-
came a disciple, " but secretly for fear of the Jews." (See John
xix. 3S.) How many more men of mark were in this circle we
have no means of knowing. John says (xii. 42) that "among the
chief rulers many believed on him." Of these we take isicode-
mus as at once the leading spirit and the representative man.

He was a Pharisee as to faith, and a member of the Sanhedrim
as to position. He had all the traditionary influence of his sect
and his office to bind him to propriety and conservatism. He was
not young. The Talmud* speaks of a rich Sanhcdrist, called
Nicodemus Bonai, who, at a great age, was alive at the destruc-
tion of Jerusalem. There are no means of identifying this man
with the Nicodemus spoken of by John, but there is no reason, so
far as I know, why he may not have been the same.

This Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. The interview is re-
ported condensedly by John, but is exceedingly interesting, as
showing how ready Jesus was to sel forth the most profound doc-
trines to any willing mind, even when that mind is still held in
the bondage of old prejudices. Timid, afraid of the ban of his

* The N ' )t tin' Talxnudisl 9

Is called "son of Gorion," is represented
as one of the three richesl men in Jeru-
salem, living :it tin' time of tli" ''.■
tion of Jerusalem, being then among

tiir disciples of Jons. Olshansen re»
Eers t" Sanhedr., foL xliii. 1; Aboth

Kal.. Nathan, cap. G; Tract Gittin,
t'"l. hi. 1, etc



caste, holding tenaciously to liis prejudices by force of habit, yet
candid, loving truth, seeking a sure footing cautiously, he felt
himself bound, as all honest minds are bound, to give a fair hearing
to every new word and an impartial examination to all new claims.
Jesus had not yet classed — as he did afterward — the hypocrite
with the infidel, the Pharisee with the Sadducee. He had not re-
peated with emphasis the denunciations of John
Jesus regarded the B tist But h ; s gtyle wag nQt &uch ag WouM
with mistrust. . u .

be pleasing to the Pharisees, and they did not
know how far he was to advance his claims. They regarded him,
therefore, with mistrust. Nicodemus saw more in him than most
of the other Pharisees perceived. Just such was the posture of
his mind when he determined for truth's sake to have an inter-
view with Jesus, but for the sake of prudence to have it at night.

Let us now examine the narrative in John in the true historic
spirit, laying aside the dogmatic prejudices of education.

Tsicodemus calls Jesus "Rabbi," the title of respect to an

acknowledged teacher. His opening speech is complimentary,

but cautious. It gives a sufficient reason for his

Arid ■ f

-aaaress 01 com j n nr ail d implies a careful guarding against

Nicodemus. . L ° ?

admitting too much. " 11 e know that from God

thou hast come — a Teacher." Who are "ive"? It was not con-
fined to himself.* There would have been no propriety in such
stately official mode of expression in a secret nocturnal interview,
lie was representing others as well as himself, what a very few
others, like Joseph of Arimathsea, were ready to admit, and what
Nicodemus thought the whole Sanhedrim, at that time, in their
hearts, believed. Here is a discovery of the impression already
made by Jesus upon the most elevated and thoughtful minds of
his nation. "We know this much, that thou hast come from
God — that thou hast a divine mission to the people — as a teacher."
Only that, no more, is admitted. They are not carried away by
any enthusiasm in his behalf, but they are stimulated to learn
what he can teach them. lie must not be elated by this admis-
sion, for it is qualified by a logical reason: "for no man can do
the wonderful things thou doest, if God be not with him."

* It is noticed that the phrase ' ' we
know" is the current characteristic
formula of the proud Pharisees, who
held the key of knowledge for them-

selves and withheld it from the common
people. We shall meet it frequently as
we proceed.


To what does all this amount? Not very much. It implies
that while the chiefs had made no high estimate of John, be-
cause John had performed no miracle, Jesus had
made 'a profound impression upon the rulers: 10U °

. . Nicodemus' s a means) the kingdom of God.

Nieodemns would have received no shock from the idea of the
new birth if it had been spoken of the proselytes from the heathen,
who stood at the door of Judaism applying for admission. When
such a one was baptized he was, in the Rabbinical view, "sicut
parvulus jam natus," as a new-born babe. But the shock lay in
the sweeping statement which turned all the Jews — rulers, Phari-
sees, Scribes — out-doors, to seek admittance afresh.

The word dvwdev in this conversation has been a puzzle to

critics. And it is the important word, on our understanding of

which will depend our comprehension of this

pu2 speech of Jesus. It is to be recollected that

Jesus spoke in the Aramaic tongue most probably, and John

records in G reck the conversation which Jesus had reported tc


him. Now, for the Greek word is there a corresponding word in
the Aramaic, with a double meaning? If so, then the more
remote meaning might throw light upon the word, showing that
it meant of God, as the kingdom of God is mentioned, or that it
bore the meaning which the Apostolical usage subsequently closely
connected with the being born again, namely, from heaven, e/c
rov oupavou, so that dvcodev might be synonymed with ovpavoOev.
But Grotius has shown that there is no such word in the Aramaic.
We must, therefore, give the closest possible translation of avooOev,
and that must mean " anew," or " afresh," or " entirely anew," or
" from the beginning." Nicodemus makes a reply which shows
that he so understood it, namely, as a totally new birth experi-
enced by one at his maturity. This is not conclusive, as Nico-
demus might have misunderstood Jesus, but it is corroborative,
as it gets exactly the most natural meaning of the word.

In all these studies of Jesus we are not concerned to learn
what the official expounders, commentators, and preachers have
agreed is to be the conventional interpretation of the words of
Jesus, but to discover by calm and patient research into the
original documents what this remarkable Teacher reallv did
mean. We are not, however, to despise the opinions of others,
especially when they seem formed ujDon impartial examination.
In this spirit we are to encounter another phrase, namely, " the
kingdom of God.''''

It may be noticed here that it is not usual with John. Indeed it
does not occur in his gospel outside this conversation. This is inci-
dental evidence of the fidelity with which John reports the conversa-
tion, not changing any phrase, however it differ from his own modes
of thought and expression, as any critic must see that this does.

We know that the Jews looked for a temporal kingdom of
material splendor, in which Jehovah's Messiah should reign, and
which should have sanctity from the Divine Presence and won-
derful spiritual manifestations, us it should have paramount
authority from its political predominance. Now, just as a Je •
was gross and materialistic in his tendencies, this kingdom fig-
ured itself to him on its earthly and material Bide : and jusl as ho
was devout and spiritual in his tendencies, this kingdom presented
itself to him as of the soul and spirit of a man, with heavenly
characteristics. Nicodemus seems to have had very mixed ideas
of the kingdom.


" The kingdom of God " must reasonably mean as much aa
this: a government in which God is king, which, being an ab-
straction, wo can concretely think of, so far a3

The kingdom of , . -. i ,, i we know " against Nieodemus's " we know." The affir-
mation is of positive personal knowledge on the side of Jesus, and
the allegation is of an unbelieving rejection upon the part of
Nicodemus and the Jews. Jesus adds: "If I have shown you
tilings of the earth, and you believe not, how can you believe if 1
show you things of heaven? No one has ascended into heaven
but he tl at came down from heaven, namely, the Son of Man,
whose residence is in heaven."

Here Jesus makes claims for himself of the most extraordinary
character. He affirms himself to be a personal witness of the
things which are invisible to men, all the heaven-
ly things. lie asserts his own pre-existence. He
asserts his coming into the world on a mission,
lie asserts that his real residence is in heaven; that where he is is
heaven. There is no evading this meaning. He intended !Nico-
demus to understand him so. "We have a phrase in English to
this effect — " the words were calculated to make a certain impres-
sion," — meaning that such would be a hearer's natural interpreta-
tion, although such meaning might have been totally absent from
the mind of the speaker. But here we go further than that, and
say that Jesus meant to convey what the words are calculated to
convey. He was too wise, Nicodemus was too important a lis-
tener, the conversation was on too solemn a theme to allow the
slightest carelessness of diction. lie must have given it with pre-
cision to his biographer John, and John must have been most
careful in the report, for this is altogether the most important oc-
casion of speech which Jesus ever had. The point in his life and
the character of his listener made it the occasion to render the
most careful version of his doctrine. "Whether his doctrine was

Jesus claims

* It may entertain the reader to see
how much learned difference there has
been about this simple use of the
plural form. Euthymius, a Byzantine
commentator of the twelfth century,
says that it means Himself and his
Father; Bengel, Himself and the Holy

Spirit ; Beza and Tholuck, Himself and
the Prophets ; Luther andKnapp, Him-
self and John the Baptist ; Meyer, Him-
self and Teachers like Him ; Lange and

Online LibraryCharles F. (Charles Force) DeemsWho was Jesus? → online text (page 14 of 77)