Sunday, July 30, 2017


I do not know why Nicodemus waited until it was night before he went to speak with Jesus. Generally, we assume that it was because, as a member of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was afraid that the act of his going to see Jesus would cause him to be censured by his colleagues in their religious order.

By and large, we today have a largely negative connotation of the Pharisees of the first century. The Pharisees were a group of self-righteous religious leaders who were often the objects of scorn by Jesus.

Jesus said of the sect of the Pharisees as a whole, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”[1] Hypocrisy seemed to be the central issue of the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke to the Pharisees face to face, he even spoke in much harsher terms than he did when merely speaking to someone else about them.

Once, when Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees directly, he told them this: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”[2] Jesus also called them such things as “unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it,” [3] as well as “fools” and “hypocrites.”

Even John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, showed no deference to these men who always looked for the most important seats at gatherings and who loved to be honored by others. “You brood of vipers” John bluntly called them. These are the same words that were repeated later by Jesus when he spoke to the Pharisees.[4]

Notwithstanding these comments by Jesus and by John, in the Jewish society at large, the Pharisees actually were largely respected as the religious leaders of the day. They, along with the Scribes (who also were often of the sect of the Pharisees), were the ones who studied and knew the Scriptures.

Thus, it would not be surprising that a seeker of spiritual truth should become a Pharisee. The Apostle Paul, for example, before his conversion to Christ on the road to Damascus, had become a Pharisee and even called himself “a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee,” and that he lived "as a Pharisee according to the strictest sense of our religion."[5]

The Puffing

However, for many of the Pharisees, the unabashed enthusiasm and hunger for spiritual truth was soon consumed and replaced by the hunger for the admiration paid to them by other men. This more prideful and hypocritical nature of the Pharisees often came later, and perhaps came largely as a result of the adulation that they tended to receive from the people when they were out in the public. The word that Paul liked to use for this type of attitude was being “puffed up,” as in “inflated with pride.”[6]

Despite beginning their spiritual journey by seeking truth, it seems that most of the Pharisees so reveled in the honor bestowed upon them by their position that they soon quickly forgot their spiritual search. Their search instead turned into a quest for ways that would make them seem more honorable in the eyes of the people. They became puffed up with pride.

The Exception that Proves the Rule

But this apparently was not so with the Pharisee named Nicodemus. It appears, unlike most others of his sect, this Pharisee had not forgotten his spiritual hunger.

Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but he was also a member of the Jewish ruling council. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he was highly respected among his peers and the people alike, Nicodemus was nevertheless a troubled man. Some of the teachings of Jesus were in direct conflict to the teachings of the Pharisees, yet Nicodemus could not deny that those things that Jesus taught were well rooted in the Scriptures.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus said to Jesus when he came to see him that night, “we know that you have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”[7]

The greeting that Nicodemus gave to Jesus was a recognition of respect. It was the type greeting that Nicodemus himself was accustomed to hearing from others about him, and it was the type of flattering remark that sometimes may have caused him to inflate a little with pride. But there was no prideful display on the part of Jesus. On another occasion, when a ruler called Jesus “Good Teacher,” the repose of Jesus was, “Why do you call me ‘good?’ No one is good but God alone.”[8] 

Jesus Cuts to the Chase

With Nicodemus, Jesus instead passed right over all the niceties of exchanging compliments, and got right to the issue at hand. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”[9]

I do not know if this forthright statement surprised Nicodemus. He was perhaps more accustomed to talking around an issue before diving right in. However, if he was surprised, he quickly recovered. “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”

Whether Nicodemus thought that Jesus was actually referring to a second physical birth, as seems to be implied by the second part of his two-part question, we cannot really know. Nevertheless, it would be surprising to me if Nicodemus actually thought this was what Jesus meant. Thinking in terms of this type of rebirth could be construed to be very closely akin to reincarnation. This teaching is completely foreign to Scriptural teaching and entirely absent to Jewish thought. Nicodemus was surely much more learn-ed than this.

Nevertheless, it is also true that Nicodemus did not know what Jesus was talking about, so Jesus further explains: 

I tell you the truth; no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:5-8 NIV) 

If Jesus meant to clarify what he had said about being “born again,” this statement frankly does not help much. Even today, after having the advantage of being able to study all of the subsequent teachings of Jesus, no one is completely clear what Jesus meant by being “born of water and the Spirit.” Many have their ideas. Some say that the water refers to baptism, others say that it is simply a reference to the physical birth. 

By the Water and by the Spirit

I tend to think that Jesus, in referring to birth by water and birth by the Spirit, is not speaking of two separate events, but rather a single event that occurs when one is born again. Nicodemus would have known the writings of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, when he spoke the words of God saying, 

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:25-27 NAS) 

Knowing that Nicodemus was well versed in the Scriptures, I think that it is probably reasonable to assume that Jesus was referring to this passage in Ezekiel when he spoke of being born of the water and of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, the question of what Jesus actually meant by the statement remains an open one. But Jesus was not being ambiguous for the sake of being confusing. The whole point of his statement was that the need to be born again is something that goes beyond our understanding.

Jesus continued, “You hear the sound of the wind, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

All of this was just too incredible for Nicodemus. “How can these things be?” he asked.

Jesus recognized Nicodemus as a sincere seeker of the truth. It perhaps was true that Nicodemus was fearful of the other Pharisees when he sought out Jesus, but it was evident that he honestly was seeking the truth. Because of this, Jesus would not rebuke him as being a “whitewashed tomb,” which may outwardly appear beautiful, but on the inside being full of dead bones and everything unclean. Jesus had said this of the Pharisees on another occasion.[10] 

The Rebuke for Nicodemus

Nevertheless, Jesus did have a rebuke for Nicodemus: “Are you the teacher of Israel,” Jesus asked him, “and do not understand these things? ... If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”[11]

These are very important questions. The Pharisees were the premier students of Scripture. It was to them whom the people looked for answers to their spiritual problems. In these two succinct and reprimanding questions, Jesus points out two failures on the part of Nicodemus.

The obvious first failure is that, if anyone should be able to comprehend what Jesus was saying about the new birth, it certainly should have been Nicodemus. He was not only as one of many teachers of Israel, but as Jesus calls him, he was the teacher of Israel. Would not the premier teacher of the Scriptures have previously pondered over the meaning of writings from the prophets, such as those we read from the prophet Ezekiel that speaks of God removing from us our hearts of stone and giving us a new heart and a new spirit?

However, it is the second failure of Nicodemus identified by Jesus that was perhaps more to the point. Notice that the issue in the second question of Jesus to Nicodemus was not that the man was a poor student of Scripture. It was not a failure to understand that was the difficulty, but it was instead a failure to believe.

“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Jesus asked him.

It is not those who merely seek an intellectual understanding of the Scriptures who will come to have the greatest understanding of spiritual issues. It is more than a matter of the mind; it is also an affair of the heart. It is not difficult to admit that we can never know the deepest mysteries of God, simply because we do not have the capacity to understand eternal matters. Nevertheless, those who would know the mind of God must act in belief, for it is through a believing heart that God also gives intellectual wisdom. 

Failure to Believe Blinds Us to the Truth

This was the failure of Nicodemus, and I fear that it continues to be a failure among us today. We perhaps are not so different than the Pharisees.

As an example, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had it on good authority that Jesus could not be the Messiah. They thought this to be impossible. When some people wondered aloud if Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the Pharisees had Scriptural proof that he could not be.

“Surely the Christ is not going to come from Galilee, is He? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?”[12] This was one of the ways that the Pharisees countered the notion that Jesus was the Christ.

Here then, was their proof. Jesus was from Galilee and all students of the Scriptures knew well that the Messiah would come from the city of David – from Bethlehem. It never occurred to the Pharisees that there were facts that were unknown to them.

This is what simple intellectual pursuit accomplishes in one’s life. We can become so arrogant to assume that we know all that there is to know about the workings of God, that we are oblivious to the fact that there is much that is beyond our sight – things that have not been revealed to us. In doing so, we read our own understanding into the written Word of God, rather than seeking understanding from the Word.

We may choose any teaching of doctrine of the Bible that is not completely clear to us and we quickly see this observable fact. Any discussion among different evangelical denominations on the subject of baptism, or the pre or posttribulational rapture of the church (among many other subjects) will make this evident. We all have our opinions and proof Scriptures, which support our position.

However, the truth be known, there is much that has not been revealed to us. Nevertheless, this often does not prevent us from being adamant in our interpretation. I fear we have a bit of Phariseeism in us all. 

What Became of Nicodemus

From the few hints that we have from the latter life of Nicodemus, it seems that he benefited greatly from his nocturnal discussion with Jesus. Sometime later in the book of John he again makes an appearance. This time, Nicodemus was in the midst of a meeting with his Pharisaical associates discussing the claims of the people that Jesus was the Messiah.

Because of the debate that was going on over the Messianic claims, the Pharisees sent some officers to seize Jesus. When the officers returned without him, the Pharisees asked them why they had not brought back this Jesus.

“Never has a man spoken the way that this man speaks,” the officers replied.

The Pharisees belittled the officers: “You have not also been led astray, have you? No one of the rulers or Pharisees has believed in Him, has he? But this crowd, which does not know the Law is accursed.”

Nicodemus was there among the gathering of the Pharisees. He apparently had not yet come to any life-changing conclusion about the person of Jesus, or, if he had, he had not yet made many of his thoughts be known. However, he did know something about the Law. He saw that the other Pharisees were conveniently using it to bring condemnation upon the people.

Speaking of the Law, as they were, Nicodemus brought up an additional point that was written therein. “Our Law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” [13]

The scorn of the Pharisees was now turned upon one of their own. “You are not also from Galilee, are you?” they replied to Nicodemus, “Search, and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee” (their proof that Jesus was no prophet and certainly not the Messiah).

This is the entire account that we possess of this meeting in which Nicodemus was present. From this short description, it is difficult to see very deeply into the thinking of Nicodemus and dangerous to assume too much. However, it is evident from the single question that Nicodemus posed concerning the way that the Pharisees were handling the Law, that he could see that they manipulated it for their own ends. Nicodemus, I think, was having doubts about the sincerity of the Pharisaical position of authority. 

Nicodemus at the Cross

The last we see of Nicodemus is at the foot of the Cross of Calvary. Jesus had been crucified, his side pierced by a spear and declared dead. A man named Joseph from the village of Arimathea had been given permission by Pilate to take away the body of Christ. Joseph of Arimathea was, like Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin Council. We learn that, like Nicodemus, Joseph was also a disciple of Jesus, but one who had kept his discipleship secret, out of fear of the Jews.[14]

Coming with Joseph to the cross was Nicodemus. Nicodemus could understand why Joseph had kept many of his beliefs to himself out of fear, for it was he, the same Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus under the safe cover of night. We actually do not know the history of either of these men well enough to know exactly when they truly became disciples and when it was that they let their convictions be known publicly.

Like Nicodemus, Joseph had also defended Jesus in the Council. When the Council was discussing the matter of the planned crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea did not consent to their plan or their actions.[15] How vehemently he protested to the plan, we do not know, but we are given to understand that he was also somewhat captive to his own fear.

Whatever the past hesitancies and apprehensiveness of both of these men, they were now, by their actions, declaring openly their belief. Joseph and Nicodemus were identifying themselves with Jesus. 

Je Suis Nicodemus

For those of us who see a little of a Pharisee in ourselves, the life of Nicodemus can be very instructive. Like Nicodemus, every serious Bible student has his own interpretations of what the Scripture is saying on certain subjects, even if the Scripture does not explain every detail. Like the Pharisees, we also can point to “proof texts” to back up our beliefs. Next we surround ourselves with like-minded colleagues who reinforce our perspective and, like the Pharisee colleagues did to Nicodemus, belittle those even in our group who may point out something that does not fit into our interpretation.

However, if we are to learn from the life of Nicodemus, it may be wise to sometimes step back and see how we ourselves handle the Scripture. Do we use certain verses in the Bible that would seem to prove us correct, but simply ignore other parts? Nicodemus found that when he pointed out an aspect of their Law that would counter the established correctness of what was being said by his peers, he himself became the target of ridicule.

Nevertheless, if we are to be true to what is correct (and indeed, true to ourselves), we must not fear ridicule. It is the fear of ridicule that will keep us from discovering the truth. Hypocrisy is not an exclusive trait of the first century Pharisees. When we passively accept as fact certain interpretations of Scripture simply because they are the accepted positions of our peers, we might also receive a rebuke from Jesus.

“Do I call myself a teacher in the church, and yet I do not understand the spiritual things that Jesus is telling me?”

If we are to learn a lesson from Nicodemus, it may be this: Albeit initially with hesitancy, Nicodemus began to examine some of the established teachings that, when he was honest with himself, did not seem to answer the real questions of life. Those accepted truths did not correlate with what he knew to be his experience. It was not anarchy or rebellion against all teachings – that was not his intent. Nevertheless, he sought truth and he would not be dissuaded by the pressure and ridicule of his peers and colleagues.

Though he was rebuked by Jesus, I hope that I am like Nicodemus. He would not rest until he found the truth.

In the words of Martin Luther, a man who had thought long and deep about many of these things, “I stand convicted by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.
On this, I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”[16]

[1] Matthew 23:4
[2] Luke 11:39
[3] Luke 11:44
[4] Matthew 3:7; 12:34
[5] Acts 23:6;26:5
[6] Phusioó: 1 Corinthians 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2; 8:1; 13:4, Colossians 2:18
[7] John 3:2
[8] Luke 18:18-19
[9] John 3:3
[10] Matthew 23:27
[11] John 3:10, 12 NAS
[12] John 7:41-42
[13] From John 7:46-51
[14] John 19:38
[15] Luke 23:51
[16] Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, 1521

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