The chief priests and Pharisees are here in a close cabal, contriving how to suppress Christ; though this was the great day of the feast, they attended not the religious services of the day, but left them to the vulgar, to whom it was common for those great ecclesiastics to consign and turn over the business of devotion, while they thought themselves better employed in the affairs of church-policy. They sat in the council-chamber, expecting Christ to be brought a prisoner to them, as they had issued out warrants for apprehending him, John 7:32. Now here we are told,
I. What passed between them and their own officers, who returned without him, re infecta—having done nothing. Observe,
1. The reproof they gave the officers for not executing the warrant they gave them: Why have you not brought him? He appeared publicly; the people were many of them disgusted, and would have assisted them in taking him; this was the last day of the feast, and they would not have such another opportunity; “why then did you neglect your duty?” It vexed them that those who were their own creatures, who depended on them, and on whom they depended, into whose minds they had instilled prejudices against Christ, should thus disappoint them. Note, Mischievous men fret that they cannot do the mischief they would, Ps. 112:10; Neh. 6:16.
2. The reason which the officers gave for the non-execution of their warrant: Never man spoke like this man, John 7:46. Now, (1.) This was a very great truth, that never any man spoke with that wisdom, and power, and grace, that convincing clearness, and that charming sweetness, wherewith Christ spoke; none of the prophets, no, not Moses himself. (2.) The very officers that were sent to take him were taken with him, and acknowledged this. Though they were probably men who had no quick sense of reason or eloquence, and certainly had no inclination to think well of Jesus, yet so much self-evidence was there in what Christ said that they could not but prefer him before all those that sat in Moses’s seat. Thus Christ was preserved by the power God has upon the consciences even of bad men. (3.) They said this to their lords and masters, who could not endure to hear any thing that tended to the honour of Christ and yet could not avoid hearing this. Providence ordered it so that this should be said to them, that it might be a vexation in their sin and an aggravation of their sin. Their own officers, who could not be suspected to be biassed in favour of Christ, are witnesses against them. This testimony of theirs should have made them reflect upon themselves, with this thought, “Do we know what we are doing, when we are hating and persecuting one that speaks so admirably well?”
3. The Pharisees endeavour to secure their officers to their interest, and to beget in them prejudices against Christ, to whom they saw them begin to be well affected. They suggest two things:—
(1.) That if they embrace the gospel of Christ they will deceive themselves (John 7:47): Are you also deceived? Christianity has, from its first rise, been represented to the world as a great cheat upon it, and they that embraced it as men deceived, then when they began to be undeceived. Those that looked for a Messiah in external pomp thought those deceived who believed in a Messiah that appeared in poverty and disgrace; but the event declares that none were ever more shamefully deceived, nor put a greater cheat upon themselves, than those who promised themselves worldly wealth and secular dominion with the Messiah. Observe what a compliment the Pharisees paid to these officers: “Are you also deceived? What! men of your sense, and thought, and figure; men that know better than to be imposed upon by every pretender and upstart teacher?” They endeavour to prejudice them against Christ by persuading them to think well of themselves.
(2.) That they will disparage themselves. Most men, even in their religion, are willing to be governed by the example of those of the first rank; these officers therefore, whose preferments, such as they were, gave them a sense of honour, are desired to consider,
[1.] That, if they become disciples of Christ, they go contrary to those who were persons of quality and reputation: “Have any of the rulers, or of the Pharisees, believed on him? You know they have not, and you ought to be bound up by their judgment, and to believe and do in religion according to the will of your superiors; will you be wiser than they?” Some of the rulers did embrace Christ (Matt. 9:18; John 4:53), and more believed in him, but wanted courage to confess him (John 12:42); but, when the interest of Christ runs low in the world, it is common for its adversaries to represent it as lower than really it is. But it was too true that few, very few, of them did. Note, First, The cause of Christ has seldom had rulers and Pharisees on its side. It needs not secular supports, nor proposes secular advantages, and therefore neither courts nor is courted by the great men of this world. Self-denial and the cross are hard lessons to rulers and Pharisees. Secondly, This has confirmed many in their prejudices against Christ and his gospel, that the rulers and Pharisees have been no friends to them. Shall secular men pretend to be more concerned about spiritual things than spiritual men themselves, or to see further into religion than those who make its study their profession? If rulers and Pharisees do not believe in Christ, they that do believe in him will be the most singular, unfashionable, ungenteel people in the world, and quite out of the way of preferment; thus are people foolishly swayed by external motives in matters of eternal moment, are willing to be damned for fashion-sake, and to go to hell in compliment to the rulers and Pharisees.
[2.] That they will link themselves with the despicable vulgar sort of people (John 7:43): But this people, who know not the law, are cursed, meaning especially those that were well-affected to the doctrine of Christ. Observe, First, How scornfully and disdainfully they speak of them: This people. It is not laos, this lay-people, distinguished from them that were the clergy, but ochlos outos, this rabble-people, this pitiful, scandalous, scoundrel people, whom they disdained to set with the dogs of their flock though God had set them with the lambs of his. If they meant the commonalty of the Jewish nation, they were the seed of Abraham, and in covenant with God, and not to be spoken of with such contempt. The church’s common interests are betrayed when any one part of it studies to render the other mean and despicable. If they meant the followers of Christ, though they were generally persons of small figure and fortune, yet by owning Christ they discovered such a sagacity, integrity, and interest in the favours of Heaven, as made them truly great and considerable. Note, As the wisdom of God has often chosen base things, and things which are despised, so the folly of men has commonly debased and despised those whom God has chosen. Secondly, How unjustly they reproach them as ignorant of the word of God: They know not the law; as if none knew the law but those that knew it from them, and no scripture-knowledge were current but what came out of their mint; and as if none knew the law but such as were observant of their canons and traditions. Perhaps many of those whom they thus despised knew the law, and the prophets too, better than they did. Many a plain, honest, unlearned disciple of Christ, by meditation, experience, prayers, and especially obedience, attains to a more clear, sound, and useful knowledge of the word of God, than some great scholars with all their wit and learning. Thus David came to understand more than the ancients and all his teachers, Ps. 119:99, 100. If the common people did not know the law, yet the chief priests and Pharisees, of all men, should not have upbraided them with this; for whose fault was it but theirs, who should have taught them better, but, instead of that, took away the key of knowledge? Luke 11:52. Thirdly, How magisterially they pronounce sentence upon them: they are cursed, hateful to God, and all wise men; epikatartoi—an execrable people. It is well that their saying they were cursed did not make them so, for the curse causeless shall not come. It is a usurpation of God’s prerogative, as well as great uncharitableness, to say of any particular persons, much more of any body of people, that they are reprobates. We are unable to try, and therefore unfit to condemn, and our rule is, Bless, and curse not. Some think they meant no more than that the people were apt to be deceived and made fools of; but they use this odious word, They are cursed, to express their own indignation, and to frighten their officers from having any thing to do with them; thus the language of hell, in our profane age, calls every thing that is displeasing cursed, and damned, and confounded. Now, for aught that appears, these officers had their convictions baffled and stifled by these suggestions, and they never enquire further after Christ; one word from a ruler or Pharisee will sway more with many than the true reason of things, and the great interests of their souls.
II. What passed between them and Nicodemus, a member of their own body, John 7:50 Observe,
1. The just and rational objection which Nicodemus made against their proceedings. Even in their corrupt and wicked sanhedrim God left not himself quite without witness against their enmity; nor was the vote against Christ carried nemine contradicente—unanimously.Observe,
(1.) Who it was that appeared against them; it was Nicodemus, he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them, John 7:50. Observe, concerning him, [1.] That, though he had been with Jesus, and taken him for his teacher, yet he retained his place in the council, and his vote among them. Some impute this to his weakness and cowardice, and think it was his fault that he did not quit his place, but Christ had never said to him, Follow me, else he would have done as others that left all to follow him; therefore it seems rather to have been his wisdom not immediately to throw up his place, because there he might have opportunity of serving Christ and his interest, and stemming the tide of the Jewish rage, which perhaps he did more than we are aware of. He might there be as Hushai among Absalom’s counsellors, instrumental to turn their counsels into foolishness. Though we must in no case deny our Master, yet we may wait for an opportunity of confessing him to the best advantage. God has his remnant among all sorts, and many times finds, or puts, or makes, some good in the worst places and societies. There was Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, and Nehemiah in Artaxerxes’s. [2.] That though at first he came to Jesus by night, for fear of being known, and still continued in his post; yet, when there was occasion, he boldly appeared in defence of Christ, and opposed the whole council that were set against him. Thus many believers who at first were timorous, and ready to flee at the shaking of a leaf, have at length, by divine grace, grown courageous, and able to laugh at the shaking of a spear. Let none justify the disguising of their faith by the example of Nicodemus, unless, like him, they be ready upon the first occasion openly to appear in the cause of Christ, though they stand alone in it; for so Nicodemus did here, and John 19:39.
(2.) What he alleged against their proceedings (John 7:51): Doth our law judge any man before it hear him (akouse par autou—hear from himself) and know what he doeth? By no means, nor doth the law of any civilized nation allow it. Observe, [1.] He prudently argues from the principles of their own law, and an incontestable rule of justice, that no man is to be condemned unheard. Had he urged the excellency of Christ’s doctrine or the evidence of his miracles, or repeated to them his divine discourse with him (John 3:1-21), it had been but to cast pearls before swine, who would trample them under their feet, and would turn again and rend him; therefore he waives them. [2.] Whereas they had reproached the people, especially the followers of Christ, as ignorant of the law, he here tacitly retorts the charge upon themselves, and shows how ignorant they were of some of the first principles of the law, so unfit were they to give law to others. [3.] The law is here said to judge, and hear, and know, when magistrates that govern and are governed by it judge, and hear, and know; for they are the mouth of the law, and whatsoever they bind and loose according to the law is justly said to be bound and loosed by the law. [4.] It is highly fit that none should come under the sentence of the law, till they have first by a fair trial undergone the scrutiny of it. Judges, when they receive the complaints of the accuser, must always reserve in their minds room for the defence of the accused, for they have two ears, to remind them to hear both sides; this is said to be the manner of the Romans, Acts 25:18. The method of our law is Oyer and Terminer, first to hear and then to determine. [5.] Persons are to be judged, not by what is said of them, but by what they do. Our law will not ask what men’s opinions are of them, or out-cries against them, but, What have they done? What overt-acts can they be convicted of? Sentence must be given, secundum allegata et probata—according to what is alleged and proved. Facts, and not faces, must be known in judgment; and the scale of justice must be used before the sword of justice.
Now we may suppose that the motion Nicodemus made in the house upon this was, That Jesus should be desired to come and give them an account of himself and his doctrine, and that they should favour him with an impartial and unprejudiced hearing; but, though none of them could gainsay his maxim, none of them would second his motion.
2. What was said to this objection. Here is no direct reply given to it; but, when they could not resist the force of his argument, they fell foul upon him, and what was to seek in reason they made up in railing and reproach. Note, It is a sign of a bad cause when men cannot bear to hear reason, and take it as an affront to be reminded of its maxims. Whoever are against reason give cause to suspect that reason is against them. See how they taunt him: Art thou also of Galilee? John 7:52. Some think he was well enough served for continuing among those whom he knew to be enemies to Christ, and for his speaking no more on the behalf of Christ than what he might have said on behalf of the greatest criminal-that he should not be condemned unheard. Had he said, “As for this Jesus, I have heard him myself, and know he is a teacher come from God, and you in opposing him fight against God,” as he ought to have said, he could not have been more abused than he was for this feeble effort of his tenderness for Christ. As to what they said to Nicodemus, we may observe,
(1.) How false the grounds of their arguing were, for, [1.] They suppose that Christ was of Galilee, and this was false, and if they would have been at the pains of an impartial enquiry they would have found it so. [2.] They suppose that because most of his disciples were Galileans they were all such, whereas he had abundance of disciples in Judea. [3.] They suppose that out of Galilee no prophet had risen, and for this appeal to Nicodemus’s search; yet this was false too: Jonah was of Gath-hepher, Nahum an Elkoshite, both of Galilee. Thus do they make lies their refuge.
(2.) How absurd their arguings were upon these grounds, such as were a shame to rulers and Pharisees. [1.] Isa. any man of worth and virtue ever the worse for the poverty and obscurity of his country? The Galileans were the seed of Abraham; barbarians and Scythians are the seed of Adam; and have we not all one Father? [2.] Supposing no prophet had risen out of Galilee, yet it is not impossible that any should arise thence. If Elijah was the first prophet of Gilead (as perhaps he was), and if the Gileadites were called fugitives, must it therefore be questioned whether he was a prophet or no?
3. The hasty adjournment of the court hereupon. They broke up the assembly in confusion, and with precipitation, and every man went to his own house. They met to take counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed, but they imagined a vain think; and not only he that sits in heaven laughed at them, but we may sit on earth and laugh at them too, to see all the policy of the close cabal broken to pieces with one plain honest word. They were not willing to hear Nicodemus, because they could not answer him. As soon as they perceived they had one such among them, they saw it was to no purpose to go on with their design, and therefore put off the debate to a more convenient season, when he was absent. Thus the counsel of the Lord is made to stand, in spite of the devices in the hearts of men.