By Peter F. Connell*
copyright - 2015
Used by permission
I believe that Nicodemus came to Jesus—not as a hungry soul seeking truth—but as an emissary seeking information. I do believe that the clandestine meeting deeply impacted Nicodemus, as can be seen in later accounts in the Scriptures involving him.
This meeting, which contains the discourse on “ye must be born again” and the most widely translated verse in the Bible, John 3:16, was the scene of a scathing rebuke by the Lord of glory of Nicodemus and those he represented. John 3:16 was not presented to Nicodemus as a message of hope in the sing-song fashion of the Boy Scouts of yesteryear or the Baptists of today—but was part of that rebuke. The meeting was tense, abrupt, pointed, and left Nicodemus rather stunned—and I believe, shaken. Its impact would be seen in the only other two vignettes we see of his life: in John 7 and his assistance to Joseph of Arimathaea in John 19 following the crucifixion of Jesus. Nicodemus is mentioned nowhere else in the Scriptures, and is not— contrary to popular opinion—ever called, in the holy Writ, a “secret disciple” of Jesus.
At the time of the visit, Jesus’ ministry is quite new, and significantly marked with the miraculous as well as the power and simplicity of His teaching. Both His teaching and His miracles are noted by Nicodemus in the narrative.
Nicodemus was one of Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens. He was a ruler of the Jews, and a Pharisee (John 3:1). He was a member of the Great Sanhedrim (Sanhedrin) in Jerusalem1 Nicodemus is only mentioned in the gospel of John, chapters 3, 7 and 19. We shall look at all of these passages, for they all have bearing on the discussion.
In John 3 this member of the Great Sanhedrim came by night to Jesus. Jesus, as mentioned above, was already known for His simple yet powerful teaching and for His miracles. This is certainly what prompted the visit. The reason for the hour of the visit—in the darkness of night—is not mentioned in the text. It has been inferred by commentaries that it was for “fear of the Jews” based upon John 7:13, which says at a later time (in the last year of Jesus’ ministry), “Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews,” and upon John 19:38 which speaks of Joseph of Arimathaea, not Nicodemus. The narrative itself gives some clues as to the reason. This first such clue comes to us in the second verse:
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. - John 3:2
It is very plain that he said “we know.” The plural is clear in both the original Greek and in the English translations.2 He was speaking of a collective knowledge of a group of people—not merely his own personal surmising. Of course, this alone proves nothing, for he could have been speaking of the general populace who had heard His teaching and seen His miracles—but the context demonstrates otherwise. The “we” spoken of was that group which he represented.
Now it must be understood that Nicodemus’ opening monologue—though filled with platitudes and acknowledgements that Jesus was “Rabbi” (Master – a term not lightly tossed around by members of the Sanhedrim), and “a teacher come from God”—was summarily dismissed by Jesus without even so much as a “thank you.” It was as though Jesus had not even heard the words, which were (in my opinion) not intended as genuine compliments, but as placating-yet patronizing words. Jesus, after dismissing the greeting altogether, launches directly into a bit of pointed instruction:
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. - John 3:3
Jesus did not even return a customary greeting—quite a social breach of conduct to a member of the Great Sanhedrim who just called you “Rabbi!” This breach of expected etiquette and the words themselves threw Nicodemus off of his game, if you will—and he responded with bewilderment:
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? - John 3:4
While this is not the focus of our discussion, let me point out that Jesus meant, and Nicodemus understood that Jesus spoke of a grown man being “born again.” In my mind’s eye, I can see the look on Nicodemus’ face that belied the underlying thought: “Did this conversation really take the turn that it just took? I was expecting at least an exchange of pleasantries first!” Jesus answered Nicodemus quickly and broke it down for him:
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. - John 3:5-8
Again—Jesus spoke of a grown man being born both of water and of the Spirit. This is not a distinction being drawn between a natural birth and a spiritual birth, with the “natural birth” supposedly in reference by the phrase “born of water.” The language and grammar does not allow for such an interpretation. Jesus told him that a grown man must be born of water and the Spirit or he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and quite familiar with the Law of Moses, was nonplussed, as you can tell by his reaction:
Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? - John 3:9
This is where the narrative gets a bit interesting. It is important to take a look at exactly what is said—AND the context in which it is being said. Please note, that verse 9 above contains the last recorded words of Nicodemus in the narrative. The remaining words are those of Jesus—and we shall see that it appears that the meeting abruptly ends with Jesus’ very pointed words. I will include them below with my comments:
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? - John 3:10
Any way that you look at this verse, Jesus is speaking to an esteemed member of the Great Sanhedrim with scorn and ridicule. The Greek phrase Jesus used, ho didaskalos tou Israēl, means “the teacher of Israel.”3 Jesus asked him scornfully (and I paraphrase), “you’re a distinguished teacher in Israel, and yet you don’t know these elementary things?" Jesus went on:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. - John 3:11
Jesus is speaking in the plural when He says “ye receive not our witness.”4 It is clear in the context and in the grammar that He is speaking of both Nicodemus AND those whom he represents when He says “ye (plural) receive not our witness.” This distinctly shows him as representing a group, if not clearly as an emissary for that group. More of Jesus’ monologue to Nicodemus follows:
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. - John 3:12-17
Again, I will remind you that John 3:16, so loved by those who follow an "easy-believism" doctrine of salvation, was spoken in the same narrative as John 3:5 which said that a man MUST be born of water and of the Spirit—and is in the midst of a narrative wherein Jesus is speaking both tersely and in a condescending manner to this ruler of the Jews. Note how He begins verse 12 above:
“If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?”
Let’s look at further clues in the remainder of what Jesus said that night. First, please look above at verse 17 where He told Nicodemus that “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world…,” and then let’s look at what follows, and see the contrast regarding condemnation (emphasis by bolding is mine):
He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. - John 3:18-21
Please notice that Jesus just got done telling this man that he, and those whom he represents, did not receive their witness (did not believe). Then He tells him that “he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” In other words, he just told the man that he was condemned—as were those whom he represented. Then He told them that light is come into the world, but men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. And He was speaking this to a man who came to him by cover of night. The irony of the Lord’s word is evident. This harsh and pointed statement by Jesus ended the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. When Jesus got through, all that was to be said had been said. I’m sure that Nicodemus left that meeting thinking hard about what Jesus said, and the power and anointing with which it was spoken. As we shall see, in the final year of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Nicodemus is mentioned again. There is a bit of evidence that the encounter of John 3, three years prior, had registered powerfully with Nicodemus—but only to a point.
It seems evident to me, in the narrative contained in John 7, that Nicodemus was affected by what was said earlier. The events of John 7 are in the last year of Jesus’ earthly ministry. There are, at this stage of Jesus’ ministry, a great number of people speculating as to whether or not He is the promised Messiah.5 There is a great division among the people regarding the matter; so the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take Him (John 7:32). Jesus eludes those officers with the power of His words, and the officers return to the Pharisees and chief priests empty handed. When asked why they had not brought Him, their answer was, “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). Please note the narrative that follows, for it has bearing on the discussion, as Nicodemus will enter the narrative soon:
Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed. - John 7:47-49
Please note that Nicodemus was surely among these men and some of them asked aloud, “Have any of the Pharisees believed on him?” Something was roiling in the back of Nicodemus’ mind at this point. These Pharisees and chief priests went on to contrast their own wisdom with the ignorance of their servants (the officers which were sent and returned empty-handed) who were not studied in the law. When Nicodemus saw where this was going he spoke up:
Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?
- John 7:50-51
All that it took to silence him was a quick, “Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet” (John 7:52). The meeting abruptly ended following that terse statement to Nicodemus. He never answered them. This narrative tells us a number of things.
This same group of men was surely the “we” and the “ye” of John 3. Nicodemus was a member of that elite group; and when he had opportunity (in John 7) to speak up in Jesus’ defense, he was careful in his wording, and would not answer a retort to his comment.
The next time that we see Nicodemus is in John 19. It was a time shortly after “Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus” John 19:38. The narrative goes on to say:
And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. - John 19:39-40
Please note that the text says that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but mentions no such thing about Nicodemus. Their status would certainly assure that they were familiar with one another, and the death of Jesus compelled Nicodemus to come out and demonstrate an all-too-late support of this One who so greatly impacted him with His words one fateful night. We do not know that Nicodemus ever became a disciple. It seems likely that, had he become a disciple, this would have been recorded, especially given his position. Nonetheless, we cannot prove a negative, and we must simply state that we do not know whether he ever did become a disciple.
The narrative in John 3 of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus indicates a meeting that was planned and carried out by Nicodemus as a representative of the Pharisees, and possibly of the Great Sanhedrim. In that meeting Jesus summarily dismissed Nicodemus’ patronizing greeting, told him directly of the need to be born again of water and of the Spirit, and that by not believing and receiving His witness, he and those whom he represented were “condemned already.” Those who believed, on the other hand, would not be condemned, because they came to the light.
Nicodemus was strongly handled, and hardly got a word in beyond his greeting—and Jesus abruptly ended the meeting with a series of stinging comments. The meeting had a significant impact on Nicodemus—enough to cause him to begin to speak up in Jesus’ defense (just citing their law, nothing more). Yet it was not enough to cause him to give reply to the short retort he received, “Are ye also of Galilee….” He never was bold enough to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus, but after he found that was done, came with embalming spices to assist with the burial. Nothing more is known about Nicodemus in terms of him continuing and becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, secretly or otherwise.
One thing is abundantly clear: taking John 3:16 as a means of “being saved”—that is, taking this passage to mean that all one must do to inherit eternal life is “believe” is a gross misrepresentation of the passage. Such an interpretation pulls the passage completely out of context, and runs contrary to many clear passages regarding how one would be “saved” from sin and its consequences. This interpretation also runs contrary to Jesus’ words, within the context of John 3, that a man must be born again. We must look, rather, to the clear teaching of the Apostles and the early church in their preaching and instruction to sinners to see how one gets right with God, and how their teaching fits with Jesus’ declaration that a man must be “born again.” Their instruction is recorded only in the book of The Acts of the Apostles (Acts), and their message is consistent throughout the narrative in Acts, and is reinforced in the epistles.
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1 See Vincent’s Word Studies; Robertson’s Word Pictures; Adam Clarke’s Commentary, et al.
2 See Robinson’s Morphological Analysis of the verb translated “we know” in John 3:2. This verb is in a perfect tense, active, indicative, first person plural form.
3 Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament
4 Personal Pronoun, Second (you+), Dative Case, Plural as found in the Textus Receptus text, e-Sword HD version for iPad.
5 John 7:26; 41, 42 and the context of these passages make this clear.
* Peter F. Connell is the pastor of Cornerstone Pentecostal Church in Oakley, California
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