If we were to judge the most important person that Jesus ever met solely by the number of people who had memorized portions of Jesus’ interactions with that person, Nicodemus would win hands down. The famous words of John 3:16 were spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus under the cover of darkness at their first meeting.
Nicodemus was a prominent Pharisee. And while we are accustomed to booing and hissing whenever the Pharisees enter the gospel stage, the party of the Pharisees had noble beginnings. A little over a hundred years before the birth of Christ, there was concern among the Jewish people that the purity of Judaism was being compromised by the increasing influence of Greek culture. When Greece conquered much of the known world in 333 BC, they spread their culture, and art, and language, and religion far and wide. And some of their religion and morals began to creep into Judaism. Those within the Jewish community who wanted to preserve the pure way of Moses coalesced into a movement which later became a party. This group was known as the “separatists” party, are better known as, the Pharisees.
So, the Pharisees began as a religious movement to keep Judaism pure and free from the influence of the paganism of the Greek culture. But by the time Jesus arrived, the Pharisees had gone from a movement to a police force, enforcing narrow applications of the Laws of Moses. No doubt, they saw themselves as the spiritual elite, entrusted with keeping the faith pure.
Not only was Nicodemus a Pharisee, he was also a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the ruling council of the Jewish people. It was made up of 71 elders, and it had considerable authority even under the rule of the Romans in the first century. It was the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus and Stephen, ordered the apostles to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, and was instrumental in the arrest of the apostle Paul. Nicodemus was a member of this ruling council, and we have no evidence that he ever left his position even after his nighttime meeting with Jesus. So, Nicodemus was passionate about the Law of Moses, one of the spiritual elite, and a powerful ruler among the Jews.
Nicodemus came to Jesus with at least a modicum of belief, believing that He must be a teacher sent by God because He was able to do great and mighty deeds. Unlike many of the other Pharisees, at least he was able to admit that there had to be something about these miracles Jesus was doing. But Jesus started off the conversation with fire, completely avoiding the customary small talk. In response to Nicodemus’ compliment, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3.3). While those of us on this side of the Cross have heard about being born again, this was a shocking idea to Nicodemus. After Nicodemus asked the obvious question about how it was possible for an old person to enter his mother’s womb again, Jesus replied,
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3.5-8)
We should not let our familiarity with these words keep us from hearing them anew. Jesus spoke these words to a man who had dedicated his life to both keeping the law of Moses and to policing the Law of Moses. He was a member of the Pharisees, generally considered the most religious people in all of Judea. And to a man who had been working hard all of his life to follow the laws of Moses, Jesus said, “You must be born again.”
The spirit of Nicodemus still lives today. Many times we will hear people say, “I have always believed in God.” And they will insist that they have been moral and good all of their lives. But if the goodness of the Pharisees was not enough, our efforts at morality will not be either. Just like Nicodemus, we all must be born again. Repentance and good works is not enough to see the Kingdom of God, and this new birth is brought about by the movement of the Spirit.
Of course, Nicodemus could not understand what it meant to be born again, any more than we can today. So Jesus compared the new birth of the Spirit to the blowing of the wind. We don’t know where it comes from, and we can’t see it move, but we can see, and hear, and feel the results. When Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be,” he was asking about the method of this new birth. Or, as the Message translates this verse, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
To which Jesus said, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Some English translations miss this, but Jesus identified Nicodemus as a prominent teacher among the Jews. It is highly likely, though I don’t think it can be proven, that Nicodemus was a student of Gamaliel, just like the apostle Paul (see Acts 22.3). And yet as a well studied, popular teacher, and learned man, his intellect left him short of understand the most basic of spiritual truths. And so Jesus explained himself to Nicodemus in remarkable clarity,
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3.13-15 ESV)
These words, “If I be lifted up,” must have rung in Nicodemus’ mind for over three years.
We are not told how Nicodemus responded to Jesus in this nighttime meeting. He arrived believing Jesus was a teacher sent by God, but was confronted with a Jesus who claimed to have descended from heaven, to be the Son of God, and to be the giver of eternal life. And we have no evidence that Nicodemus believed or disbelieved. The conversation just ends, and Jesus and His disciples continued their travels into the Judean countryside.
But this is not the last we read of Nicodemus. We meet Nicodemus two more times in the gospel story. Later in the gospel of John, when the opposition to Jesus by the religious leaders was growing, and the division among the people as to the true identity of Jesus is increasing, we are told of a meeting of the Sanhedrin where some wanted to arrest Jesus. But Nicodemus took a stand for justice by saying, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7.51). Reading these words in the context of the gospel story, it sounds like Nicodemus was speaking from personal testimony. He had given Jesus a hearing, and he had been learning what Jesus was doing. And if the Sanhedrin would do the same, they might come to the same conclusion as Nicodemus. But of course, we don’t know what that conclusion was, that is until the last time we meet Nicodemus in the Scriptures.
After Jesus was crucified and declared dead, Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate for permission to bury the body of Jesus. Joseph feared the Jews, feared that the Jewish leaders might put him out of the synagogue which meant he would be ostracized from the Jewish community (see John 9.22). Joseph was joined in his task by Nicodemus, and together they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as was the burial custom of the Jews (see John 19.39-40). Reading between the lines, and connecting the dots, we see that Joseph was afraid of the Jewish leaders and kept his belief in Jesus secret, but he did not keep his secret from Nicodemus, who was one of the Sanhedrin. Joseph did not fear Nicodemus, which is why many feel that Nicodemus did become a believer of Jesus, a secret disciple if you will. Indeed, when Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, those who believed in him found eternal life.
So what do we do with the story of Nicodemus? On one hand, Nicodemus is the poster child for the intellectual seeking the truth about Jesus. He was studied and learned, but his book knowledge was not enough. In the end, faith required him to believe in what he could not see, the Spirit of the Son of God blowing in the wind. And the same is true today. Our knowledge about Jesus will take us so far, but to believe in Jesus we must take the step of faith into what cannot be proven to our intellect.
Nicodemus is also the poster child for the religious person seeking the truth about Jesus. Repentance and good deeds are not enough to enter the Kingdom of God. There must be a spiritual, God wrought new birth where the Spirit of God enters our soul and where we become new creations in Christ. This is all that matters (see Galatians 6.15).
Nicodemus, or at least the conversation he had with Jesus, helps us to understand the love of God. God’s love, so poetically described in John 3.16, is not the kind of love that is void of judgment. God’s love for mankind is not like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, giving out good gifts to all regardless of merit. There is a judgment side to the love of God, and that judgment was simply proclaimed to Nicodemus,
16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3.16-18)
The love of God does not erase condemnation, but it provided a way to escape the just wrath of God.
But Nicodemus is also the poster child for how the self righteous legalist reacts to the genuine gospel. In John 7, when Nicodemus came to the defense of Jesus suggesting that the Sanhedrin should hear him out and learn what Jesus was teaching, notice how they responded to Nicodemus. They said, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee” (John 7.52). The response of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin is more stinging that it sounds. First, they accused Nicodemus of being an ignorant peasant from Galilee, and nothing good comes out of Galilee (see John 1.46). If Nicodemus were really the learned man they thought him to be, he would not ask such silly questions. In short, they questioned his education, his knowledge, and his intellect simply because he suggested they give Jesus a fair hearing before making their judgment.
Second, they questioned his interpretation of the Scriptures. “Search and see” were code words for “Go back and read the Scriptures.” In other words, they accused Nicodemus of not being able to understand the basic teaching of the Old Testament.
Long after the church left the Pharisees behind, the religious yet un-reborn are still among us. The self-righteous legalist, even today, attacks the new born follower of Christ by questioning his upbringing, his intellect, and his understanding of the Bible. When the legalist is challenged to rethink their understanding of Jesus, the quick response is “I know the Bible, and if you want to be part of us, you had better read it like I do.” Paul wrote about the response of those who trust in works based righteousness with these words in Galatians,
29But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. (Galatians 4.29)
Nicodemus, born again according to the Spirit just as Jesus talked about in their first nighttime meeting, was beginning to feel the persecution from those who were still in the flesh.
The gospel was born in an environment where there were very religious people (the Pharisees) who were not born again. And from among these very religious people, some believed in the name of Jesus and experienced a divine new birth. And the reborn were persecuted by the legalists, to the point that they had to bury their Savior under the cloak of darkness. And while we wish that the church left all the self-righteous, un-reborn people behind, the same story continues today. Those who have been born again according to the Spirit, who dare to give Jesus a fair hearing and who long to really learn what He did and taught, are often mocked by the religious. In fact, the Scriptures warn us that as the Day of Christ’s return draws even closer,
1I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4.1-5 ESV)
Nicodemus endured the suffering of those who would not endure sound teaching, and we likewise must endure the suffering of those who would not listen to sound teaching as we fulfill our ministry to reprove, rebuke, exhort, and preach the Word.