The Bible’s Supporting Players: Nicodemus

opened bible

Seeking wisdom isn’t always quite the same thing as seeking the truth, which can be a risky business in a culture of rigid thinking, as the disciples of Jesus discovered. They were willing to take the risk of following Jesus because they recognized in him the truth. In addition, they didn’t have a lot to lose, as people with little property or social position.

But that wasn’t the case with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem). He was powerful and wealthy, yet he dared to approach Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness.

Nicodemus had been impressed by Jesus’ miracles and teachings, which seemed to him to come from God. He addresses Jesus as “teacher” or “rabbi” with respect: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2).

Dramatic Scene

What comes next is one of the most important and dramatic scenes in the New Testament. It contrasts the earthbound understanding of Nicodemus, shared by most people, with Jesus’ wide perspective on
God and the Spirit. In the eloquent dialogue, dominated by Jesus, he gives Nicodemus a marvelous gift: the great truth of salvation.

Jesus was likely impressed by this man’s courage in risking to come to him without guile. In addition, Jesus wanted to get the word to other influential Jewish leaders who viewed him with angry suspicion.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells his visitor (John 3:3). Nicodemus is puzzled and asks Jesus how an old person can be born; how could he go back into the womb again and be born? Jesus is talking about being born of the Spirit and chides Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” for not knowing this.

Jesus then launches into a monologue of mystery and sublime truth, which contains the famous lines: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).

John doesn’t record the reaction Nicodemus had to Jesus’ startling teaching. But it obviously had a profound impact: Later we find Nicodemus sticking his neck out for Jesus, arguing with the Pharisees that the Law of Moses requires a formal hearing before condemning someone (John 7:50).

If that weren’t risk enough, we last find Nicodemus at the crucifixion of Jesus and, with Joseph of Arimathea, providing an honorable, even lavish, burial for Jesus (John 19:39).

Man of Legend

Like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus leaves the stage of Christian history and enters the realm of legend. An apocryphal work under his name—the Gospel of Nicodemus—was produced at some point in the medieval era. It is mostly a reworking of the earlier Acts of Pilate, which recounts the harrowing of hell.

So all we really know about Nicodemus is what we get from the Evangelist John, although the Jewish Encyclopedia and many biblical historians have theorized that he is identical to Nicodemus Ben-Gurion, mentioned in the Talmud as a wealthy and popular holy man reputed to have miraculous powers.

Christian tradition asserts that Nicodemus was martyred sometime in the first century, and he is venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. There is even a church and hospice in Ramla, Israel, erected by the Franciscans, named after Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.

What we can learn from the story and experience of Nicodemus is that truth may be found if sought with an open mind and generous heart. But it can rarely be found without some risk. A willingness to take a risk is perhaps the only authentic preparation to receive the truth. Jesus knew that, and Nicodemus came to understand it.

Next Month: Rahab

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