Many Christians are familiar with the story of Nicodemus, the ruler of Israel who came to Jesus at night in John 3. Relatively few are familiar with how Nicodemus reappears in John 7 to request a fair trial for Jesus, and in John 19 to assist Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. When we consider all three of these episodes, it appears that many have a simplistic if not mistaken view of Nicodemus. Nicodemus is not just one of of the leaders who ganged up on Jesus. He’s a complicated guy whose story leaves us with questions. His kin are still to be found in churches today, leaving pastors with difficult soul-care questions.
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Nicodemus the Sign-Believer: John 3
Although it may sound strange to describe Nicodemus as a believer, that is exactly how the Fourth Gospel presents him when we look at John 3 in light of John 2, especially John 2:23-25. Jesus created quite a stir in Jerusalem when he cleared the Temple at the time it was crowded by visitors during Passover. He also carried on a heated dialogue with with those who questioned his bold action (John 2:13-22). Jesus later did miracles (called “signs,” a key term in John, cf. 2:23; 3:2 etc.), which led many to believe in him (2:23-25). Seeing some of these signs apparently led Nicodemus to believe that Jesus was a teacher whom God had sent to Israel (3:2).
Many have pointed out that the Gospel of John emphasizes belief. The verb “believe” occurs in all but three chapters of John, almost 100 times in all. Some think that belief is is a simple matter in John, but truth be told, it is quite perplexing at times, especially in connection with Jesus’ “signs.” Nicodemus is presented as one of those who believed after seeing signs, but he is perplexed when Jesus tells him that he needs to be born again. Why would he need to be born again if he was already a believer? Belief is ambiguous in other scenes in John. Some who experienced Jesus’ sign of feeding the multitudes believed him to be the Prophet (Deut 18:15-19; John 1:21; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22; 7:37) and wanted to coronate him King of Israel (6:1-15). After they sailed across Lake Galilee to catch up with Jesus, he told them they didn’t really get him at all (6:25-27). This leads to the “Bread of Life Discourse” (6:35-59), which ends with many of Jesus’ disciples (believers?) turning away and following him no longer (6:66). We could multiply examples (cf. 8:31 ff.; 12:37-50; 20:24-29) of ambiguous believers in John if we were to take the time. Nicodemus is one of them, and his kin are still with us today.
Those who read John 3 may come away with the impression that Nicodemus was thoroughly confused and disgruntled with Jesus. Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching about the new birth, and Jesus’ last words to him were a sarcastic taunt: You are Israel’s teacher and yet you do not understand this? (3:10). We might conclude that Nicodemus was beyond hope if not for the rest of of the story in John 7 and John 19.
Nicodemus the Sanhedrin-Doubter: John 7
What was Nicodemus thinking after his nocturnal interview with Jesus? We learn something of his mental state from the question he later posed to his fellow rulers about their unjust plan to do away with Jesus: Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does? (John 7:50). For asking this question, Nicodemus’ intellect was taunted again, this time with an epithet—Are you from Galilee too? Sadly, we can think of current slurs which in a similar way insult someone’s ancestry, sex, race, or social standing. Ironically, the rulers’ snide remark that no prophet arises from Galilee was was not only biased, it was doubly ignorant—Jesus’ birthplace was in Bethlehem of Judah (John 7:40-44; Matt 2:4-6; Mic 5:2), and the prophet Jonah was born in Gath-Hepher of Galilee (2 Kgs 14:25).
In all this drama Nicodemus “can’t win for losing.” In John 3 he is insulted by Jesus as he quietly seeks to know more about Jesus’ teaching. His belief in Jesus’ identity is not acceptable to Jesus. In John 7 he is insulted for mildly objecting to his fellow-rulers’ plan to arrest and execute Jesus. His doubts about Jesus’ guilt are not acceptable to his peers. He is in a sort of religious no man’s land. Whatever sort of faith he has in Jesus, it gets him derision from Jesus and Jesus’ enemies alike. Neither Jesus nor Jesus’ enemies find Nicodemus credible. Nicodemus is finding the middle road to be difficult. One might conclude from his silence after asking the question here that he would now go along to get along with his peers on the council. Or could this moment of blatant disobedience to the Torah (cf. Deut 19:15-21; Mishnah Sanhedrin 4-5) be the catalyst which led him to go public with his support for Jesus?
Pastors today care for people whose relationship to God is similarly ambiguous. Such folks seem to lack a clear understanding of Jesus, and they do not live consistently under Christ’s lordship. But just when we assume they are not Christ-followers, like Nicodemus in John 7, they say or do something that shows the Spirit is at work in their lives after all.
Nicodemus the Disciple: John 19
Our last glimpse of Nicodemus occurs John 19:38-42, where he assists Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus. Joseph had been a secret believer in Jesus (cf. John 7:13; 9:22, 34; 12:42-43), but asking Pilate for Jesus’ body and burying it in his own tomb certainly amounted to a public statement of faith (Matt 27:57-60/Mark 14:43-46/Luke23:50-53). Nicodemus assisted Joseph by providing an extravagant amount (around 75 pounds!) of myrrh and aloes, which would be wrapped up with the linen cloths around Jesus’ body to diminish the stench of decomposition. This was a burial fit for a king, costing far more than the ointment with which Mary anointed Jesus (John 12:5). What does this tell us of Nicodemus faith? Would Nicodemus have spent so much money to help Joseph bury Jesus if he still considered Jesus to be only a teacher from God, or had the new birth transformed Nicodemus sign-faith into saving faith in Israel’s Messiah?
How ironic that the twelve men publicly associated with Jesus throughout his ministry are in hiding at this point, and Jesus is buried by two men whose allegiance to Jesus had been a secret until now. When they took Jesus down from his cross they were apparently taking up their own crosses and following him.
Nicodemus as a Pastoral Problem
Jesus’ well-known parable of the sower (Matt 13/Mark 4/Luke 8) may help us understand the ambiguous faith of Nicodemus and his kin. This parable shows us that Satan, persecution, and preoccupation with this world are three main reasons why people who hear the gospel do not become authentic, productive disciples.
In terms of the parable of the sower, Nicodemus’ faith is challenged by peer pressure and the prospect of persecution, not to mention the wiles of Satan. Nicodemus will lose his prestige and standing in the Jewish community if he openly confesses Jesus (John 9:22; 12:42-43). But it’s more complicated than this—Nicodemus has some serious intellectual questions to work out. If we think of the Fourth Gospel’s prologue, Nicodemus has to decide whether God’s gracious Torah-revelation through Moses was sufficient in its own right, or whether Jesus the Word is bringing about God’s ultimate revelation of grace and truth (John 1:14-18).
Similarly, Nicodemus would be caught up in the debate that plays out in John 5, a conflict over Moses and the Torah, specifically over Sabbath observance. In the religious leaders’ view, Jesus’ healing the paralyzed man and instructing him to carry his bedroll had broken the Sabbath. Jesus’ response to the leaders invoked several testimonies to his ministry, including
- the Father (who also worked on the Sabbath; John 5:17-29, 37-38),
- John the Baptist (John 5:30-35),
- Jesus’ works or signs (John 5:36-37)
- the Scriptures that came from Moses (John 5:38-47)
No doubt these four factors also weighed on the mind of Nicodemus as a prominent teacher of Israel. Nicodemus was faced with an intellectual paradigm shift as well as peer pressure and the prospect of persecution. As a diligent student of the Scriptures, could Nicodemus believe that Moses wrote about Jesus, and that a correct understanding Moses was tantamount to faith in Jesus? Pastors today often meet people dealing with similar societal and intellectual hindrances to faith.
Here are the key points of the story of Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel:
- Nicodemus sought out Jesus . . . but he did so under cover of darkness.
- Nicodemus questioned the justice of the plot against Jesus . . . but he said nothing further in defense of Jesus or his teaching.
- Nicodemus went to great expense in helping Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus . . . but only Joseph is explicitly identified as a secret believer in Jesus.
When I was a new Christian years ago, it was popular to put the question like this: If Christianity became illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you? How does Nicodemus fare with this criterion? The evidence is circumstantial, yet substantial. Nicodemus sought out Jesus privately, and later spoke up for Jesus in opposition to his peers on the council. Nicodemus publicly assisted Joseph with an extravagant burial for Jesus. Taking all this into account, it seems likely that Nicodemus had been born again and become a true follower of Jesus.
I suppose it is possible that Nicodemus’ participation and investment in Jesus’ burial was due only to his conviction that a teacher who came from God (John 3:2) had been treated unjustly. Today Nicodemus’ kin may make moves now and then that disciples of Jesus make, but their lives lack consistency and their public recognition of Jesus as Lord is lacking. Perhaps they show little interest in baptism. Maybe they are content with sin in their lives. Possibly they have intellectual problems with biblical miracles, or with God permitting evil to abound in a world he claims to rule. Whatever their issues, in terms of the sower parable, they do not bear fruit, and this is agonizing to those who care for their souls.
Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions regard Nicodemus as a saint, and celebrate him with a feast day. Protestants are not as uniformly positive. John Calvin may have coined the term “Nicodemite” in a 1544 essay (Excuse à messieurs les Nicodemites; cf. Calvin’s Commentary on John 19:38) to describe secret protestants who remained in Roman Catholicism to avoid persecution. Yet Calvin spoke glowingly of Nicodemus and Joseph in his commentary on John 19:38, convinced that their burying Jesus demonstrated their conversion:
They bring spices to embalm Christ’s body; but they never would have done so unless they had been sprinkled and steeped with the scent of his death. This shows the truth of what Christ himself said, “Except a grain of wheat die, it abides alone; but if it die, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Here we have an outstanding proof that His death was even more quickening than his life. And so great was the efficacy of that sweet savor which Christ’s death breathes into the minds of those two men that it easily extinguished all their carnal affections. So long as love of money and ambition reigned in them the grace of Christ was tasteless. Now they cease to relish the whole world.
What’s the solution? I see some in current evangelicalism who accept just about any sort of verbal assent to Jesus as adequate evidence of salvation. They call it grace, but to me it’s a license to sin, what theologians call antinomianism. These folks would not have told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again. Others today tend to engage Nicodemus’ kin aggressively like Jesus did, but with human rules instead of the need for regeneration. Nicodemus was already steeped in traditions that Jesus viewed as unbiblical; additional legalisms would not have clarified his ambiguous faith. As one with reformed leanings, my personal instinct is to rely on God to sort it out in the belief that God’s saints will finally persevere. But this view can become an excuse for passivity in soul care.
In all of this we may be expecting a level of clarity that exists only in simplistic books about the abundant, victorious, [insert your favorite word here] Christian life. The parable of the sower is about the long process of the growing season between planting and harvest. The parable of the weeds among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30) warns us against prematurely trying to distinguish between weeds and wheat while they are growing. Taking this parable to heart will keep us from suspiciously uprooting a Nicodemus and cluelessly cultivating a Judas. In the real world we often do not know exactly where people stand with God, but we always have the obligation to urge them to examine their hearts and believe the gospel. Ambiguous believers don’t need a theological explanation of their standing before God, they need to demonstrate their faith by their works. That’s what Joseph and Nicodemus eventually did, and Nicodemus’ true kin will do the same.