Discourses on John 3:1-21


John 3:1,2

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God:
for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
When we read our Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus, we may well say what some said who heard him speak themselves: Never man spake like this man. [1] Here we see:
  a depth of doctrine, explained and illustrated by the most familiar and condescending[helpful] comparisons [2]
  we see something of that tenderness and freedom with which he received all that came unto him – He did not despise the day of small things, he did not quench the smoking flax but cherish[ed] it to a flame. We see likewise the power and efficacy of his words, how they cause light to spring out of darkness – instruct the most ignorant, and confirm the most fearful. Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, attained at length so much boldness in his cause, that when he hung upon the Cross wounded and dead, when his apostles had all forsaken him, he durst appear in the midst of his enemies as an open disciple, and assist in taking down his body, and preparing it for the funeral. Let this encourage those who are now seeking him in much darkness and many fears. His arm is not shortened nor his ear heavy, nor his compassions abated to this hour.
As I conceive that this discourse will afford a large scope for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, I propose if opportunity is afforded to go through it all. It may be reduced to four principal heads:
  1. The nature and necessity of the new birth from v 3–8.
  2. concerning the certainty and evidence of divine truth, and the insufficiency of man, to receive the clearest and most necessary doctrines, unless he is taught from above, vv 9–13.
  3. Our Lord declares the great design of his coming into the world, to give life to those who were at the point of death, vv 14–17.
  4. the happiness of those who should believe, and the aggravated condemnation of those who reject his Gospel, vv 18–21
To enlarge upon all that the verses before us contain in reference to these subjects will be a work of time. Perhaps many who are present at my entrance upon this passage may not live to see the close of it, even if I should be spared to complete it. May the Lord therefore enable me to speak and you to hear every discourse as [if] it was the last opportunity we should enjoy on this side [of] eternity.

I shall begin with the two verses which introduce our Lord’s discourse:
  1. Who Nicodemus was
  2. What he did
  3. What he said
1. Who he was
By profession a Pharisee, in rank a ruler – and as it [seems] probable from chapter 7 verse 50 [3] a member of their chief council, that council which afterwards condemned him to death. The Pharisees were our Lord’s professed and implacable enemies upon all occasions, and the Rulers and rich men, if they did not directly join with them in seeking his destruction (which many did), yet in general thought him beneath their notice. The publicans and sinners, the poor and the miserable, flocked about him, but as to the rest, they were either so careless or so obstinate, that his enemies could boldly say, Have any of the Pharisees and Rulers believed on him? [John 7:48]

This was therefore a singular case; we may observe from it:
  1.1 That the grace of God can, and often does, triumph over the greatest difficulties, and show itself sovereign in calling the most unlikely persons. Who would have thought of an Obadiah in the court of a wicked Ahab? Or an enquirer after Jesus among the Pharisees and Rulers? The Lord draws some in every situation and character of life. He can break through the greatest prejudices and the strongest temptations – can soften the heart of a proud Pharisee, and make a rich man poor in spirit. It is true not many of these are called, but some there are and we know not who will be the next. It should therefore give us encouragement and teach us patience concerning those who as yet sit in darkness. We are apt to condemn by the lump, and give up whole bodies of men as desperate, but those we have little hopes of may ere long outstrip us in the Christian profession.
  1.2 When Nicodemus came to Jesus he was not reproached with what he had been. Our Lord was of no party, even one that came from among his professed enemies, he received with freedom and kindness. He is the same still. No matter what you have been, whether Pharisee or publican, if you seek to him you shall be welcome.
  1.3 The truth has some secret friends amongst those who seem engaged for its overthrow. Jesus had a Nicodemus and a Joseph in the Council of his enemies, who perhaps moderated and kept back their wicked designs, till the appointed time, and then openly appeared in his behalf. The Lord has often preserved his Church and professed people in this manner. And perhaps it is to answer the designs of his providence that some whose hearts are touched with this love, are kept for a season from that increase of light and knowledge which, if they could immediately obtain, would break them off from those connections where he has at present occasion for their service.
2. What he did
  2.1 He came to Jesus
And thus his weak infant faith expressed in his words, was justified by his works. He had heard much against Jesus, but then the power of his miracles struck him – he thought there must be something extraordinary. Though he was a ruler and Jesus to outward appearance a despised and poor man, he thought it worthwhile to go and see him. He did not send others to judge, but went to hear for himself. In this his example is:
    2.1.1 A reproof to many
As there were disputes about Jesus in person – some saying he was a good man – and others, Nay, he deceiveth the people [John 7:12] – so it is now wherever his Gospel is preached. When it comes first into a place, it occasions a talk all round the country. Many are hasty to charge it with folly and madness – a strange doctrine that frightens people out of their wits. The men that have turned the world upside down are come in our neighbourhood likewise – and O what numbers of poor ignorant souls are kept back by such foolish reports, and take up with lies and falsehoods at second-hand, when if they could but be persuaded, to come and hear for themselves they might perhaps receive conviction. I can only pity and pray for those that will not come; the absent cannot hear me. But for the sake of some that do, I would take notice that his example is:
    2.1.2 An encouragement to such as are like him
Perhaps some of you are much in his case – have heard strange stories about the Gospel preaching, much evil, and some good. You have been considering, if the doctrine is false, how comes it that so many flock to it? Surely they cannot be all fools; if, as I hear, it breaks people off from their sins, teaches liars to speak truth, drunkards to live sober, and those who were bad neighbours to become good ones, how can this be a delusion?  I have been hearing and hearing these many a year, and I am just as I was, and so for aught I see are my neighbours too. Well, if it please God I’ll go soon, and know if I can what it is that makes all this stir. And now you are come. Well then take encouragement. It’s a good thing to be enquiring after Jesus, as Nicodemus found it. He came very ignorant, as you may be now – he seemed to come as it were only to satisfy his curiosity – but he heard what he did not expect, and by degrees became a faithful friend and follower of Christ. [4] I hope the Lord who brought you now will incline you to come again, for I have many [things] to say to you. Perhaps you are not aware that the comfort of your life and the salvation of your soul is closely concerned in the judgment you make of what you hear amongst us. Do not think I take upon me too much in saying this. I am desirous to learn to think meanly of myself, but I must magnify my office. [5] I have reason to doubt of myself, but I am sure of my doctrine. Do you ask what is preached amongst us here? I answer, We preach Christ crucified – Christ the wisdom of God and the power of God, [6] Christ the sinner’s friend, Christ the sure foundation, Christ the only hope and refuge for lost man. Surely then you will attend. Should I ask this question, What think you of Christ? [7] perhaps some of you could give me no answer. But perhaps you have never considered that according to your thoughts of Christ so will your eternal state prove. If you go out of the world with low, dishonourable thoughts of Jesus, you are lost forever. But observe Nicodemus was ignorant too till the Lord taught him, and he will teach you likewise if you seek him with your whole heart.
  2.2 He came by night
Some ascribe this to prudence and modesty; he would not interrupt Jesus in the day but waited for his leisure. For my own part I made no doubt he came by night because he was afraid to come by daylight. He was under the sinful fear of man, lest he should be persecuted, or laughed at; he was not willing to run the risk of being thought a follower of Christ, at least till he was sure that he was right. We have many such spirits, that would hear if they durst, would be glad of the opportunity of a strange place or a dark night – but so afraid of being called mad or a Methodist. I doubt not but you are acquainted with some who are afraid of coming to us for that reason, and perhaps some of you are thinking how you shall face your acquaintance when you go back. However, it’s well you are come at all. Our Lord did not reprove Nicodemus on this account, though it was quite wrong, but he is very gracious and gentle to young beginners. I shall only advise to pray to him for strength, and the oftener you come and the more diligently you hear, the bolder you will grow.
We should proceed to what he said – but as these words will afford us a fair occasion of setting the great question whether the Gospel – I mean what we call the Gospel preaching – is from God or no, what he has appointed, and what he blesses, I shall defer this to the next opportunity. You see Nicodemus goes upon these grounds: that Christ really performed works which required the power of God, and that it was not probable that God would give the witness of his power, to any doctrine or teacher, but what he approved. Because no man – therefore thou art a teacher sent from God. I propose in my next to show you the truth of these propositions and to apply them to ourselves, to know whether the doctrines for which we contend be the truths of God or no.

Series No. 1

[1] John 7:12 Never man spake like this man.
[2] ‘condescending’ originally meant coming down to our level – since we are incapable of understanding heavenly things on account of our human limitations, the Lord Jesus made concessions by expressing great truths using comparisons with everyday things we could more easily identify with.
[3] John 7:50 Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them)
[4] See also Olney Hymns, Book 1, Hymn 107, verse 4 wrt Zaccheus in Luke 19:1-6,:
’Tis curiosity
Oft brings them in the way,
Only the man to see,
And hear what he can say;
But how the sinner starts to find
The preacher knows his inmost mind.
[5] Romans 11:13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office:
[6] 1 Corinthians 1:23,24  But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
[7] Matthew 22:42 Saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The son of David.

Cowper & Newton Museum, 714(1) No. 2

Marylynn Rouse, 28/10/2020