The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

St Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on John 3:1-21

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 10, 2015

Chap. iii, 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,

More ready is Nicodemus to believe, but overcome by no good fear, and not despising the opinion of men, he refuses boldness, and is divided in opinion into two, and halts in purpose, feeble upon both his knee joints, as it is written, forced by the convictions of his conscience to the duty of believing by reason of the exceedingness of the miracles, but esteeming the loss of rulership over his own nation a thing not to be borne, for he was a ruler of the Jews. Deeming that he can both preserve his repute with them, and be a disciple secretly, he cometh to Jesus, making the darkness of the night an aider of his scheme, and by his secret coming convicted of double mindedness. |167

3, 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. Jesus answered and said unto him

In these words he supposes that he can attain complete piety, and imagines that it will be sufficient for his salvation, to marvel merely at those things which call for wonder: nought else but this does he seek. Calling him a Teacher from God, and a co-worker with Him, he does not yet know that He is by Nature God, nor understand the plan of the dispensation with Flesh, but still approaches as to a mere man, and hath but slight conception of Him.

4 Verily verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto Him,

Faith consisteth not, O Nicodemus, in what thou thinkest. Speech sufficeth not unto thee for righteousness, neither wilt thou achieve piety by mere words. For not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father Which is in Heaven. But the will of the Father is, that man be made partaker of the Holy Ghost, that the citizen of earth reborn unto an unaccustomed and new life, be called a citizen of Heaven. When He calls the new birth of the Spirit from above, He sheweth clearly that the Spirit is of the Essence of God the Father, as indeed Himself too saith of Himself, I am from above. And the most wise Evangelist again saith of Him, He that cometh from above is above all.

But that the Spirit is of the Essence of God the Father we shall speak more largely in its proper place.

5 How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered,

Nicodemus is convicted hereby of being still carnal, and therefore no way receiving the things of the Spirit of God. For he thinketh that this so dread and illustrious Mystery is foolishness. And hearing of the birth spiritual and from above, he imagineth the carnal womb returning to birth-pang of things already born, and, not attaining beyond the law of |168 our nature, measureth things Divine; and finding the height of its doctrines unattainable by his own conceptions, he falleth down, and is carried off. For as things that are dashed by mighty blows upon the hard stones again rebound, so too I deem the unskilled mind falling upon conceptions of greater calibre than it, being relaxed returns, and ever glad to remain in the measure that suits it, despises an understanding better and loftier than itself. In which case the ruler of the Jews now being, receives not the spiritual birth.

Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.

Since the man did not understand as he ought, what the need of being born from above meant, He instructs him with plainer teaching, and sets before him the more open knowledge of the Mystery. For our Lord Jesus Christ was calling the new birth through the Spirit from above, shewing that the Spirit is of the Essence That is above all essences, through Whom we become partakers of the Divine Nature, as enjoying Him Who proceeds from It Essentially, and through Him and in Him re-formed to the Archetype-Beauty, and thus re-born unto newness of life, and re-moulded to the Divine Sonship. But Nicodemus not so understanding the word from above, imagined it was meant that the future birth should take place after the manner of bodies: therefore also falling into imaginations which shut him up in impossibility, he was caught alike senseless and hard of learning. Of necessity therefore does the Saviour answer yet more mildly, as to one more infirm of habit, and removing the veil that seemed to be thrown over His Words, He now says openly, Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. For since man is compound, and not simple in his nature, being combined of two, to wit, the sensible body and intellectual soul, he will require two-fold healing for his new birth akin to both the fore-named. For by the Spirit is the spirit of man sanctified, by the sanctified water again, his body. For as the water poured into the |169 kettle, being associated with the vigour of fire, receives in itself the impress of its efficacy, so through the inworking of the Spirit the sensible water is trans-elemented to a Divine and ineffable efficacy, and sanctifieth those on whom it comes.

6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

By another argument again He persuades him to mount up to a higher understanding, and on hearing of spiritual birth, not to think of the properties of bodies. For as it is altogether necessary, saith He, that the offspring of flesh should be flesh, so also is it that those of the Spirit should be spirit. For in things the mode of whose being is different, in these must surely the mode of generation also be not the same. But it is to be known that we call the spirit of a man the offspring of the Spirit, not as being of It by Nature (for that were impossible), but in the first place, and that in order of time, because that through Him that which was not was called into being, and in the second place and oeconomically, because of its being re-formed unto God through Him, He stamping His Own Impress upon us, and trans-fashioning our understanding to His own Quality, so to speak. For so I deem, you will understand aright that too which is said to some by Paul, My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, and again, For in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel.

7, 8 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.

It is the excellence of a teacher, to be able manifoldly to manage the mind of the hearers, and to go through many considerations, heaping up proofs where the argument appears hard. He takes then the figure of the mystery from examples, and says, This spirit belonging to the world and |170 of the air, blows throughout the whole earth, and running where it listeth, is shewn to be present by sound only, and escapeth the eye of all, yet, communicating itself to bodies by the subtlest breaths, it infuseth some perception of its natural efficacy. So do thou, saith He, conceive of the new birth also through the Spirit, led on by little examples to what is greater, and by the reasoning brought forward as it were in an image, conceiving of what is above the senses.

9, 10 Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him,

Long discourse nothing profits him who understandeth not a whit. Wise then is the saying in the book of Proverbs, Well is he that speaketh in the ears of them that will hear. And this the Saviour shewed by trial to be true, giving Himself an ensample to us in this too. For the teacher will be wholly free from the charge of not being able to persuade, saying what himself thinks good, though he profit nothing by reason of the dulness of the hearers. Besides we learn by this, that hardness in part is happened to Israel. For hearing they hear and understand not.

Art thou a master of Israel and knowest not these things?

By one Christ convicts all, that adorned with the name of teachers, and clothed with the mere repute of being learned in the law, they bear a mind full of ignorance, and unable to understand one of those things, which they ought not only to know, but also to be able to teach others. But if he that instructeth be in this condition, in what is he that is instructed, seeing that the disciple exceedeth not the measure of his master, according to the word of the Saviour? For the disciple, saith He, is not above his master. But since they were thus uninstructed, true is Christ in likening them to whited sepulchres. Most excellently doth Paul too say to the ruler of the Jews, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall. |171

11 Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know and testify that we have seen.

He finds the man careless of learning and exceedingly uninstructed and, by reason of his great grossness of mind, utterly unable to be led unto the comprehension of Divine doctrines, albeit many words had been expended with manifold examples. Whence letting alone, as was fitting, accurate explanation, He at length advises him to accept in simple faith, what he cannot understand. He testifies that Himself knows clearly what He saith, by the illustriousness of His Person shewing that yet to gainsay is most dangerous. For it was not likely that Nicodemus would forget, who had affirmed that he knew it of our Saviour Christ, that He was a Teacher come from God. But to resist one who is from God and God, how would it not be fraught with peril? for the thing is clearly a fighting with God. But hence we ought to know, who have authority to teach, that for those just come to the faith, faith in simple arguments is better than any deep reasoning, and more elaborate explanation. And Paul also used to feed with milk some, not yet able to bear stronger meats. And the most wise Solomon again somewhere says to us, Thou shalt wisely know the souls of thy flock, meaning that we should not set before those who come to us the word of doctrine indiscriminately, but fitly adapted to the measure of each.

And ye receive not our witness.

As having in Himself the Father and the Spirit Naturally, the Saviour set forth the person of the Witnesses in the plural number, that, as in the law of Moses, by the mouth of two or three witnesses, what is said may be established. For He shews that the Jews in no wise will to be saved, but with unbridled and heedless impetus are they being borne unto the deep pit of perdition. For if they can neither from their great unlearning understand what is proclaimed to them, nor yet receive it in faith, what other means of salvation may be devised for them? Well then and very justly did the Saviour say that Jerusalem would be without excuse, as |172 snatching upon herself self-called destruction. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, saith He, that killest the prophets and stonest them, which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold your house is left unto you.

12, 13 If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, the Son of man Which is in heaven.

A doctrine, saith He, not exceeding the understanding befitting man, ye from your extreme folly received not, and how shall I explain to you things more Divine? For they who in their own matters are most foolish, how shall they be wise in matters above them? And they who are powerless as to the less, how shall they not find the greater intolerable? And if, says He, ye believe not Me being Alone in speaking, but seek many witnesses for every thing, whom shall I bring to you as a witness of the heavenly Mysteries? For no man hath ascended up to heaven but He That came down from heaven the Son of man. For since the Word of God came down from heaven, He says that the son of man came down, refusing after the Incarnation to be divided into two persons, and not suffering certain to say that the Temple taken by reason of need of the Virgin is one Son, the Word again which appeared from God the Father another: save only as regards the distinction which belongs to each by nature. For as He is the Word of God, so Man too of a woman, but One Christ of both, Undivided in regard of Sonship and God-befitting Glory. For how does He clothe as its own the Temple of the Virgin, with what befitteth the bare Word Alone: and again appropriateth to Himself what befitteth the Flesh only? For now He saith that the Son of man hath come down from heaven: but at the time of His Passion, He feareth, and is sore afraid, and very heavy, and is recorded as Himself suffering the Sufferings which befitted His Human Nature only. |173

14, 15 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in

Him should not perish but have eternal life. Having explained sufficiently, and set before him the reason, why His Word of teaching does not run forth into the boundless and supernatural, but descends again to those things that were typically done by Moses of old, knowing that he could by leadings by means of figures scarce arrive at knowledge of the truth, rather than by the exactitude of spiritual inspirations, He saith He must surely be lifted up, as the serpent was by Moses, shewing that search of history is most necessary, and all but saying to this man of no understanding, Search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of Me. For serpents were springing upon them of Israel in the wilderness, and they, falling like ears of corn, and not a little distressed at this danger unexpectedly visiting them, with most piteous cry called for salvation from above and from God. But He, since He was Good and full of compassion, as God, commands Moses to set up a brazen serpent; and commands them therein to have a forethought of the salvation by faith. For the remedy to one bitten, was to look at the serpent put before him, and faith along with the sight wrought deliverance at the last extremity to the beholders. So much for the history. But it represents in act as it were in a type, the whole Mystery of the Incarnation. For the serpent signifies bitter and manslaying sin, which was devouring the whole race upon the earth, manifoldly biting the soul of man, and infusing the varied poison of wickedness. And no otherwise could we escape it thus conquering us, save by the succour alone which is from heaven. The Word of God then was made in the likeness oj sinful flesh, that He might condemn sin in the flesh, as it is written, and to those who gaze on Him with more steadfast faith, or by search into the Divine doctrines, might become the Giver of unending salvation. But the serpent being fixed upon a lofty base, signifies that Christ was altogether clear and manifest, so as to be unknown to none, or His being lifted up from the earth, as Himself says, by His Passion on the Cross. |174

16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever helieveth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

He desireth to shew openly herein, that He is God by Nature, since one must needs deem that He Who came forth from God the Father, is surely God also, not having the honour from without, as we have, but being in truth what He is believed to be. With exceeding skill does He say this, having joined therewith the love of God the Father to us, well and opportunely coming to discourse thereon. For He shames the unbelieving Nicodemus, yea rather, He shews that he is ungodly also. For the not coming readily to believe, when God teaches anything, what else is it, than laying upon the Truth a charge of falsehood? Besides this, in saying that He was given for the life of the world, He persuades him to consider seriously, of how great punishment they will be in danger, who from their mad folly, have made of no account so wondrous grace of God the Father. For God, says He, so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son.

Let the Christ-opposing heretic again hear, and let him come forward and say, what is the greatness of the Love of God the Father, or how we should reasonably marvel at it. But he will say that the marvel of the love is seen, in His giving His Son for us, and that the Only Begotten. In order then that the great love of God the Father may remain and be preserved, let Him be held to be Son not a creature, I mean Son of the Essence of the Father, that is to say, Consubstantial with Him Who begat Him, and God verily and in truth. But if, according to thy speech, o thou, He possesseth not the being of the Essence of God the Father, He will also lose the being by Nature Son and God, and the wide-spread marvel of the Love of God will at length come to nought: for He gave a creature for creatures, and not truly His Son. Vainly too will the blessed Paul trouble us, saying, He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God? For confessedly |175 he that despised trampleth under foot, but not the Very Son, but a fellow servant of Moses, if indeed creature be always akin to creature, in respect at least of having been made, even if it surpass the glory of another, in the excellences of being greater or better. But the word of Paul is true; and a severer penalty shall he pay who hath trodden under foot the Son, not as though he were transgressing against a creature, or one of the fellow servants of Moses. Great then and above nature is the Love of the Father, Who for the life of the world gave His Own Son and Who is of Himself.

17 For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

Having plainly called Himself the Son of God the Father, He thought not good to leave the word without witness, but brings forward proof from the quality, so to say, of the things themselves, making the hearers more steadfast unto faith. For I was not sent, saith He, like the law-expounder Moses, condemning the world by the law, nor introducing the commandment unto conviction of sin, nor do I perform a servile ministry, but I introduce loving-kindness befitting the Master: I free the embondaged, as Son and Heir of the Father, I transform the law that condemneth into grace that justifieth, I release from sin him that is holden with the cords of his transgressions, I am come to save the world, not to condemn it. For it was right, it was right, saith He, that Moses, as a servant, should be a minister of the law that condemns, but that I as Son and God should free the whole world from the curse of the law and, by exceedingness of lovingkindness, should heal the infirmity of the world. If then the grace that justifieth is better than the commandment that condemneth, how is it not meet to conceive that He surpasseth the measure of the servant Who introduceth so God-befitting authority, and releaseth man from the bonds of sin?

This then is one aim of the passage under consideration, and no mean one. A second besides this, revolving through the same circuit, and introducing a consideration akin to |176 those above, will be given from love of learning. The Saviour saw that Nicodemus was cleaving to the law of Moses, and was fast held to the more ancient commandment, and was somehow startled at the new Birth through the Spirit, shrinking from the new and Gospel polity, supposing it seems that this would be more burdensome than the things already enjoined. Being therefore not ignorant, as God, of the fear which from his ignorance had sprung upon him, by using one short argument, He frees him from all trouble on this score, and shews that the commandment of Moses, by reason of its condemning the world, is harder to be borne, and introduces Himself as a mild Judge, saying, For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

18 He that believeth on the Son is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the Name of the Only Begotten Son of God.

Having proved by facts, that He is both Son of God the Father, and introduceth into the world grace which is more excellent than the ministration of Moses (for how is not the being justified by grace better than the being condemned by the law?), He devised, as God, another way to bring unto the faith, from all quarters driving together to salvation them that were lost. He puts forth then to the believer as his reward the not being called to judgement, to the unbeliever punishment, bringing into one and the same way by both, calling to come readily unto the faith, some by desire for the grace, others by fear of suffering. He shews that heinous and great is the crime of unbelief, since He is Son and Only Begotten. For by how much is that worthy of belief which is insulted, so much the more will that which despises be condemned for his dire transgression. He says that he that believeth not is condemned already, in that he hath already determined against himself the due sentence of punishment, by knowingly rejecting Him Who gives not to be condemned. |177

19   And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light.

He lets not the condemnation of the unbelievers remain without consideration, but recounts its causes, and shews clearly that, according to the words of the Proverbs, Not unjustly is the net spread for the birds. For they, saith He, who when it was in their power to be illuminated preferred to remain in darkness, how will not they fairly be determiners of punishment against themselves, and self-invited to suffering which it was in their power to escape, if they had been right provers of things, choosing rather to be enlightened than not, and studying to make the baser things second to the better? But He preserved the mind of man free from the bonds of necessity, and tending by its own impulses to both sides, that it might justly receive praise for good things, and punishment for the contrary. As indeed He sheweth in another place, saying, If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall, eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword.

20   For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.

Profitably doth He go over what has been said, and convicts indolence unto things helpful of proceeding from love of evil, and of having its root in unwillingness to learn those things whereby one may become wise and good. For the doer of evil, says He, flees from and refuses the being in the Divine Light: not hiding from shame on account of evil (for so he would have been saved) but desiring to remain in ignorance of what is becoming, lest transgressing he should be smitten, falling upon the now keener convictions of his own conscience, and by means of at length clearly knowing what is good, should pay a more woeful account to the Judge, if he should not do what was pleasing to God. But he that doeth truth (that is, the lover and doer of the works of the Truth) cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God. For he doth not reject the illumination in the Spirit, by It specially led to be able to |178 understand in all calm collectedness, whether he hath transgressed the Divine commandment, and whether he hath wrought all things according to the Law of God.

It is then a plain proof of an unbridled tendency to evil, and unrestrained pleasure in what is worse, not to wish to learn that whereby one may avail to attain unto what is better: again of desire for the best, to thirst for illumination, and to make His Law a rule so to say and index unto a conversation pleasing to God. And the Divine Psalmist knowing that this was so, sings, The Law of the Lord is perfect converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. (source)

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