How can these things be?

Written by, Thomas  Arnold, D.D.


How can these things be? –Nicodemus
John 3:9

This is the second question…

…put by Nicodemus to our Lord with regard to the truths which Jesus was declaring to him. The first was, “How can a man be born when he is old?” which was said upon our Lord’s telling him that, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now, it will be observed, that these two questions are treated by our Lord in a different manner: to the first he, in fact, gives an answer;” that is, he removes by his answer that difficulty in Nicodemus’ mind which led to the question; but to the second he gives no answer, and leaves Nicodemus ” and with Nicodemus, us all also “exactly in the same ignorance as he found him at the beginning.

Now, is there any difference in the nature of these two questions, which led our Lord to treat them so differently? We might suppose beforehand that there would be; and when we come to examine them, so we shall find it. The difficulty in the first question rendered true faith impossible, and, therefore, our Lord removed it; the difficulty in the second question did not properly interfere with faith at all; but might, through man’s fault, be a temptation to him to refuse to believe. And as this, like other temptations, must be overcome by us, and not taken away from our path before we encounter it, so our Lord did not think proper to remove it or to lessen it.

We must now unfold this difference more clearly. When Christ said, ” Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus could not possibly believe what our Lord said, because he did not understand his meaning. He did not know what he meant by “a man’s being born again,”and, therefore, he could not believe, as he did not know what he was to believe. Words which we do not understand, are like words spoken in an unknown language; we can neither believe them nor disbelieve them, because we do not know what they say. For instance, I repeat these words, τοὺς γὰρ πάντας ἡμᾶς φανερωθῆναι δεῖ ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ βήματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ. Now, if I were to ask, do you believe these words? –is it not manifest that all of you who know Greek enough to understand them may also believe them; but of those who do not know Greek, not a single person can yet believe them? They are as yet words spoken as to the air. But when I add, that these words mean, “We must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ;” now we can all believe them because we can all understand them.

It is, then, perfectly impossible for any man to believe a statement except in proportion as he understands its meaning. And, therefore, our Lord explained what he meant to Nicodemus, and told him that, by being born again, he did not mean the natural birth of the body; but a birth caused by the Spirit, and therefore itself a birth of a spirit: for, as that which is born from a body is itself also a body, so that which is born of a spirit is itself also a spirit. So that Christ’s words now are seen to have this meaning, “No man can enter into the kingdom of God except God’s Spirit creates in him a spirit or mind like unto Himself, and like unto Christ, and like unto the Father. Nicodemus, then, could now understand what was meant, and might have believed it. But he asks rather another question, “How can these things be?” How can God’s Spirit create within me a spirit like himself, while I continue a man as before? Many persons since have asked similar questions; but to none of them is an answer given. How God’s Spirit works within us I cannot tell; but if we take the appointed means of procuring his aid, we shall surely find that He has worked and does work in us to life eternal.

We must, then, in order to believe, understand what it is that is told us; but it is by no means necessary that we should understand how it is to happen. It is not necessary, and in a thousand instances we do not know. “If we take poison we shall die: there is a statement which we can understand, and therefore believe. But do we understand how it is that poison kills us? Does every one here know how poisons act upon the human frame, and what is the different operation of different poisons,” how laudanum kills, for instance, and how arsenic? Surely there are very few of us, at most, who do understand this: and yet would it not be exceedingly unreasonable to refuse to believe that poison will kill us, because we do not understand the manner how?

Thus far, I think, the question is perfectly plain, so soon as it is once laid before us. But the real point of perplexity is to be found a step further. In almost all propositions there is something about the terms which we do understand, and something which we do not. For instance, let me say these few words: –“A frigate was lost amid the breakers.” These words would be understand in a certain degree, by all who hear me: and so far as all understand them, all can believe them. All would understand that a ship had sunk in the water, or been dashed to pieces; that it would be useful no more for the purposes for which it had been made. But what is meant by the words “frigate” and “breakers” all would not understand, and many would understand very differently: that is to say, those who had happened to have known most about the sea and sea affairs would understand most about them, while those who knew less would understand less; but probably none of us would understand their meaning so fully, or would have so distinct and lively an image of the things, as would be enjoyed by an actual seaman; and even among seamen themselves, there would again be different degrees of understanding, according to their different degrees of experience, or knowledge of ships, or powers of mind.

But men do not speak to one another at random; when they say anything to their neighbor, they mean it to produce on his mind a certain effect. Suppose that we were living near the sea-coast, and any one were suddenly to come in, and to utter the words which I have taken as my example. Should we not know that what the man meant by these words was, that there was a danger at hand for which our help was needed? It matters not that we have no distinct ideas of the terms ” frigate”or “breakers;” we understand enough for our belief and practice, and we should hasten to the sea-shore accordingly. Or suppose that the same words were told us of a frigate in which we had some near relation: should we not see at once that what we were meant to understand and to believe in the words was, that we had lost a relation?

That is the truth with which we are concerned; and this we can understand and feel, although we may be able to understand nothing more of the words in which that truth is conveyed to us. Now, in like manner, in whatever God says to us there is a purpose: it is intended to produce on our minds a certain impression, and so far it must be understood. But when God speaks to us of heavenly things, the terms employed can only be understood in part, and so far as God’s purpose with regard to our minds reaches; but there must be a great deal in them which we can no more understand than one who had never seen a ship, or a picture of one, could understand the word ” frigate.” Our business is to consider what impression or what actions the words are intended to produce in us. Up to this point we can and must understand them: beyond this they may be wholly above the reach of our faculties, and we can form of them no ideas at all.

It is clear that this will be the case most especially whenever God reveals to us anything concerning himself. Take these few words, for example, “God is a spirit:” take them as a mere abstract truth, and how little can we understand about them ! Who will dare to say that he understands all that is contained in the words “God” and “spirit”? We might weary ourselves forever in attempting so to search out either. But God said these words to us; and the point is. What impression did he mean them to have upon us? how far can we understand them? This he has not left doubtful, for it follows immediately, “They who worship him should worship him in spirit and in truth.” For this end the words were spoken, and thus far they are clear to us. God lives not on Mount Gerizim or at Jerusalem; but in every place he hears the prayers of the sincere and contrite heart, in no place will he regard the offerings of the proud and evil.

Or again, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Here are words in themselves, as abstract truths, perfectly overwhelming: “God,” “God’s only-begotten Son,” –Eternity.` Who  shall understand these things, when it is said, that “none knows the Son, save the Father; that none knows the Father, save the Son?”

But did God tell us the words for nothing? Can we understand nothing from them? Believe nothing? Feel nothing? Nay, they were spoken that we might both understand, and believe, and feel. How must he love us, who gives for us his only-begotten Son! how surely may we believe in Him who is an only-begotten Son to his Father, –so equal in nature, so entire in union! What must that happiness be, which reaches beyond our powers of counting! Would we go further?” then the veil is drawn before us: other truths there are, no doubt, contained in the words; truths which the angels might desire to look into; truths which even they may be unable to understand. But these are the secret things which belong unto our God; the things which are revealed, they are what belong to us and our children, that we may understand, and believe, and do them. Again, ” the Comforter, whom Christ will send unto us from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, which proceeds from the Father, he shall testify of Christ. “What words are here! “The Spirit of Truth,” “the Spirit proceeding from the Father; “the Spirit” whom Christ will send” and “send from the Father,” Can any created being understand, to the full, such “heavenly things” as these?

But would Christ have uttered to his disciples mere unintelligible words, which could tell them nothing, and excite in them no feeling but mere wonder? Not so; but the words told them that Christ was not to be lost to them after he had left them on earth; that every gift of God was his; that even that Spirit of God, in which is contained all the fullness of the Godhead, is the Spirit of Christ also; that that mighty power which should work in them so abundantly, was of no other or lower origin than God himself; as entirely God, as the spirit of man is man. But can we therefore understand the Spirit of God, or conceive of him? How should we, when we cannot understand our own? This, and this only, we understand and believe, that without him our spirits cannot be quickened; that unless we pray daily for his aid, and listen to his calls within us, our spirit will never be created after his image, and we cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

It is thus, and thus only, that the revelations of God’s word are beyond our understandings; that in them, beings and things are spoken of, which, taken generally, and in themselves, we should in vain endeavor to comprehend. But what God means us to know, or feel, or do, respecting them, that we can understand; and beyond this we have no concern. It is, in fact, a contradiction to speak of revealing what is unintelligible; for so far as it is a revealed truth it is intelligible; far as it is unintelligible, it is not revealed. But though a thing revealed must be intelligible in itself, yet it by no means follows that we can understand how it happens. When we are told that the dead shall rise again, we can understand quite well what is meant; that we, beings who feel happiness and misery, shall feel them again, either the one or the other, after we seemingly have done with them for ever in the grave. But “How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come?” These are questions to which, whether asked scoffingly or sincerely, we can give no answers: here our understanding fails, and here the truth is not revealed to us.

How, then, has Christianity no mysteries? In one sense, blessed be God for it, it has many. Using mysteries in St. Paul’s sense of great revelations of things which were and must be unknown to all, except God had revealed them: then, indeed, they are many; the pillar and ground of truth, great without controversy, and full of salvation. But take mysteries in our more common sense of the word, “as things which are revealed to none, and can be understood by none, “then it is true that Christianity leaves many such in existence; that many such she has done away; that none has she created. She leaves many mysteries with respect to God, and with respect to ourselves; God is still incomprehensible; life and death have many things in them beyond our questioning; we may still look around us, above us, and within us, and wonder, and be ignorant. But if she still leaves the veil drawn over much in heaven and in earth, yet from how much has she removed it! Life and death are still in many respects dark; but she has brought to light immortality.

God is still in himself incomprehensible; but all his glory, and all his perfections, are revealed to us in his only-begotten Son Christ Jesus. God’s Spirit who can search out in his own proper essence? yet Christianity has taught us how we may have him to dwell with us for ever, and taste the fullness of his blessings. Yea, thanks be to God for the great Christian mystery which we this day celebrate; that he has revealed himself to us as our Savior and our Comforter; that he has revealed to us his infinite love, in that he has given us his only-begotten Son to die for us, and his own Eternal Spirit to make our hearts his temple.

June 14th, 1835.