November 12, 2014.
Sometimes some of the most interesting stories in the bible are those that leave a lot unsaid. Sure, we have a lot of information about the life of David, or the journeys of Paul, and even the spiritual transformation of Peter and the other Apostles before and after Christ walked the earth. But what about the rest of the story for woman at the well? What happened to the Ethiopian eunuch after the Spirit called Phillip away? What was the name of the man of God from Judah, and why did he just appear on the scene without any background? It is the stories of the little characters that often go unnoticed but can draw some of the most intriguing questions that may or may not ever be answered in our time here.
I was talking to a friend in church tonight about what I was going to write about and he suggested Nicodemus and then we starting talking about other individual Pharisees mentioned in the New Testament. Thus, I want to look at what we are given about Nicodemus in the bible and follow his progression of faith through his interactions with Jesus.
A Pharisee came to Him by night.
Nicodemus is a very interesting minor character in the gospels. He is mentioned upon three occasions, once in the very famous passage of John three, once in the middle of Jesus’ ministry and then once when he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to seek the body of the Lord after He had been crucified. What my friend pointed out to me tonight is that even with only thee accounts of his life, you can follow a remarkable transition in his spiritual journey. Let’s start in John 3.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “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, “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.”
What I find interesting about this passage is the fact that it sets the background for what is probably the most quoted verse in the New Testament (John 3:16, in case you were wondering), yet not many really know the context in which the verse stands. Most Christians can say “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever shall believe on Him shall never perish, but have everlasting life,” but they might not be able to tell you that this was a statement made by Jesus as he was talking to a Pharisee who had come to him by night. What is also usually left out is the background to the verse.
Don’t get me wrong, John 3:16 is a wonderful verse. It boldly proclaims the good news in a concise manner. But it is not the whole story, yet only the beginning. It is not a theological prooftext, but a promise of so much more. It is not meant to be examined in isolation, but with the rest of the conversation with Nicodemus. Before this verse even comes into the picture, Jesus first tells Nicodemus that man must be born again of the water and of the Spirit if he is to enter the kingdom of God.
This seems to be Nicodemus’ first encounter with Christ, and what a confusing start he is given. He doesn’t understand how a man can be physically born again. But this is not what Jesus is talking about. He is talking about being born again to a new life, burying the old life of sin and putting on Christ. Paul talks about this concept in several different places (as does Peter), one of the most blatantly in my opinion in his letter to the Colossians.
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
When we are buried with Christ in baptism, we are dying to our old life of sin and being raised to a new life with Christ. We have been born again, not physically, but of the Spirit (ref. Acts 2:38, Titus 3:5). Our old life in which we were dead in our trespasses is now over, and we can begin anew in Christ. This was the background to the very famous passage found later in John 3. It is not true that Jesus never taught about baptism, as I have heard claimed before. He even was baptizing disciples before He went to the cross (ref. John 3:22). It is hard for me to believe that He (or rather his disciples) was baptizing without teaching about baptism. But I digress (to read more about this, read “How do I become a Christian?”).
A public defense.
The second instance that we find Nicodemus is found in John 7 where Jesus is teaching amongst the crowd in Jerusalem and was making some very bold statements. He was claiming to be the Messiah that they had been waiting for, a claim that the Pharisees did not like at all. Their biggest argument was that Jesus was from Galilee (though Jesus wasn’t actually born in Galilee), a city that was of no reputation and from which no prophecy mentioned about the coming Christ. This was more of a convenient excuse in my opinion (notice how they didn’t try very hard to find out where Jesus was actually born) because the Pharisees did not want to believe that Jesus was the Christ. He was drawing more and more people away from their teachings, and their pride did not allow them to see the truth of God. Eventually, the Pharisees decided that they needed to arrest Jesus, so they sent officers to do just that, but they came back empty handed.
“The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
After the officers come back without arresting Jesus, Nicodemus decides to publicly take a stand for Jesus. This is the first time to our knowledge that he has made any public statements that would imply his belief in Christ, as he was afraid of the Jews, for he was a Pharisee after all. Notice how he enters the conversation though; he doesn’t come right out and say that he is a disciple, but seems to try to find another way to defend Jesus, pulling Mosaic Law that he and the other Pharisees knew so well. Either the Pharisees saw right though this or they were just so angry that they would accuse anyone who said anything against what they were trying to do (or both), but they immediately call him a disciple of Christ and dismiss him with the scriptures, as they knew them. We see that Nicodemus is slowing building his faith. He isn’t bold enough to publicly state it (though perhaps he was right after this instance, as he would have already been labeled a disciple), but he did, nevertheless, take a stand to protect Jesus. This passage really makes me curious as to what interactions he had with Jesus and the other disciples between the time he came to Jesus by night and this instance. It seems he is starting to grow, but it may not have been happening all that fast. But now we are just getting into speculation, so I believe it is time to move on to the final time he is mentioned.
A proper burial.
“After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”
It is interesting to me that Nicodemus is continually addressed as the one who came to Jesus by night. I think there is a reason for this, though I don’t know exactly what it is other than to simply signify who he was. Perhaps it was because he was known for his fear of the Jews, or perhaps it was a bold move coming to Jesus at the beginning of His ministry in the first place. It could have even been because Nicodemus was actually regularly among the disciples and this is just how he was denoted. I don’t know, but it is still interesting.
In this final instance where we find him mentioned, it is in conjunction with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Christ. Whether Nicodemus actually went into Pilate with Joseph I don’t know, but he was certainly with him when they put Him in the tomb. We see commitment (though perhaps he was still in fear of the Jews somewhat) to Christ here in my opinion. The fact that he did not drop all faith in Jesus when he was put to death on the cross is more than could be said for some of the disciples. Not only did he run away like many did, but he went to see that Jesus’ body would have a proper burial according to Jewish custom. I don’t think he would have done such if he didn’t have faith in the end.
It is really cool to see the transformation of Nicodemus throughout these three short snapshots of his life. I don’t know what happened to him after this final mention, but I think I would be safe to assume that he went on to do some great work in the church. We can see a progression of faith throughout the ministry of Jesus, and Nicodemus sticks with Christ to the end. When Christ was raised, what a glorious experience that must have been for Nicodemus, to confirm the teachings and perhaps shed a little more light on the very first encounter he had with the Lord. Jesus was the Christ. Man can be born again. God did so love the world.
Even through minor characters can we see the love of Christ displayed. The message is the same today. Will you too exhibit a progression of faith?
Suggested Daily Reading: John 3, 7, 19, Acts 2.
The Lord establish your faith.