The Passion and the People: Nicodemus

Nicodemus and JesusJohn 3:1-9, 14-16: From Bystander to Believer


With Jesus crucified, the Apostle John identifies Nicodemus as “the man who earlier visited him at night” (John 19:39).  So, we travel back to their first meeting to learn of Nicodemus.  “A man from the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews, Nicodemus, came to Jesus one night.”

The Pharisee, Nicodemus, is a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, with 70 members.  The Sanhedrin is the supreme court of the Jews, with jurisdiction over every Jew in the world on religious matters.  One of its duties includes examining and dealing with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.

So, a Pharisee comes at night to talk to Jesus alone, away from earshot and eyesight of others.  For he wants a private, perhaps a secret, meeting to speak with this miracle-making man, teacher to teacher.  Is Nicodemus also not a teacher?  Yes.  One is a rabbi and leader among the Jews, the other with signs from heaven.

With wonder and curiosity filling his mind, he goes to visit this mystery man, who might be the Messiah—but he goes at night.  Now, why did Nicodemus consider a night visit as needed?  The man he goes to check out is someone the Jewish leaders do not like.  For they view Him as a threat and hate How he ignores many of their self-made teachings—and they are jealous of His growing popularity with the people.

So, this Jewish leader wants to be undetected by those who belong to the Jewish ruling council.  For if they realize he visited Jesus, they might turn on him.  To risk your standing and reputation if you don’t need to do makes little sense.

So, Nicodemus goes but does understand what Jesus tells him, though our Lord’s words still stir within him.  Much he needs to ponder—and he likes Jesus.  Still unsure, he keeps silent about his visit and hides his feelings to himself.  With doubts and fears shifting within him, this Pharisee doesn’t let others in on his friendship with this much-reviled rabbi.  On the outside, he is quiet, but inside, his soul cries out for more.

The time progresses, and the Ruling Council grows hostile toward Jesus.  Unable to hide their feelings, they oppose Him, believing Him a heretic.  In their meetings, they rail against Him, vent their frustration, but Nicodemus does little to change events.

Is he not a member of the Sanhedrin, which convicted Jesus?  Yes.  Perhaps, Nicodemus speaks out during the first proceedings against Jesus, and they ignore him.  More likely, his mouth remains mute through the entire event.  On the Thursday evening when the Council, at last, convicts Jesus, his faith is but a fragment of what will be on Friday afternoon.  On this night of ill fame, fear and confusion silence the voice of a witness who should confess, “He is the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

The tragedy of such silence is understandable.  Are we not often without words when we’re uncertain of our belief?  Such is Nicodemus on such a fateful night for our Lord.  In his belief, he hesitates, going back and forth about Jesus’ claims.

So, why are we uncertain at times, for we believe and want the eternal life God promises?  Still, to accept God came into the flesh as a human being smacks of an imagination gone wild, something too incredible to be real.  So also with Nicodemus.

Oh, he is curious about this man sent by God but still uncertain.  The tension between marveling about miracles and belief come front and center in their first meeting by night.  “Oh, we realize you are a teacher sent by God, for no one can perform the signs you are doing unless God is with him.”

The Lord baffles this visiting teacher, “Unless someone is born anew, he cannot be in the kingdom of God.”  Without a clue, Nicodemus asks for more. “How can anyone be born when he is old?  Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”

Unable to think outside normal childbirth, this visiting instructor thinks Jesus is speaking of a second, physical birth.  Not so, for He is speaking of a spiritual birth.  So, Jesus drops the hammer, “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  The flesh gives birth to flesh, and the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

The eternal Son of God gives the power to become children of God to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).  So, what is believing?  More than examining signs and miracles and being drawn to the one who performs them.

The Messiah, Jesus, understands the human heart, recognizing the stance of a sympathetic spectator is not the same as faith.  A marveling head nod and a gaping mouth are not the same as trust in the Savior.  Such body language only reveals, “Something is here, but I’m not sure what.  So, I’ll wait and find out what comes of this.”

The tension increases between Jesus and the Jewish leadership.  Some plot against Him and they send out the Temple guards to arrest Him—but they return empty-handed.  The Apostle John tells us of this event in John, chapter 7.  The Sanhedrin presses those who return without a prisoner in tow, to tell why they failed.  All they can do is stammer a response.  “No man ever spoke like this” (John 7:46).

The Temple guards tried to arrest Jesus and fail.  The Pharisees in the Council shout in anger.  “None of the authorities or Pharisees believe in him” (John 7:48).  Now, Nicodemus reacts, for he is both a ruler and a Pharisee.

Still too terrified to testify of his possible faith in this Messiah, he gains the floor of the council.  Perhaps, his voice quivers in fear.  So, he becomes the politician and tries to outmaneuver them.  “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing from him and finding out what he is doing” [John 5:51]?  A proper legal question, which falls short of defending and confessing Jesus as Lord.  Still a curious outsider, Nicodemus is not the sure-footed believer, lacking in this confession, “He is the Son of God.”

About half a year later, Caiaphas, the High Priest, convinces the council—Jesus must die.  So, they declare their verdict, with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea refusing to consent.  Still, neither one objected or testified to saving faith.  The killing storm comes their way, and they remain silent.

To believe is more than someone’s sincere religious interest in Jesus as a teacher sent from God.  To trust in Him is not the same as accepting facts.  For our Lord sends away all such notions in the meeting with Nicodemus long ago.  To be in the kingdom of God, you must be born anew, from above, with a spiritual birth.  A person does not choose to be born.  No, birth is something, which happens to him.

A strong belief will never exist if someone only stands back in curiosity.  “How can this be?”  Such a question is of the flesh, the old nature trapped in a fallen, physical world.  The Spirit of God is someone else, who is beyond the understandings of the flesh.

The wind gives us some idea of the Spirit’s working. In the moving wind, we sense its existence, for our ears pick up its sound and our face experiences its touch.  Still, who can explain where the wind came from, which touches your face, and now gone?

The Scriptures record the reality of the Spirit.  The Spirit comes to us in the Word of God, spoken by the prophets and confirmed by miraculous signs.  Those are some of the miracles Nicodemus caught sight of Jesus performing.  Such signs came from God to point us to the greater miracle—Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Son of God.

The Spirit works this faith so you and I, like Nicodemus, may believe Jesus is the Son of God and, by believing, receive life in His name (John 20:31).  The Spirit works through His words and works so we may believe in the love of God for the world.  Such love from God brought salvation and eternal life for all.

So, the Word of God enters our ears.  The Spirit calls someone through the Word, moving someone from a passive observer to a believer in Christ.  The tragedy is this member of the Sanhedrin walking away from a meeting with Jesus and remaining a bystander for so long.  The tragedy for us is we often do the same.

Still, hope does remain.  For Nicodemus, the death of Jesus does for him what the life of Jesus did not do.  Why?  The Savior’s death is His greatest sign, His greatest miracle.  In death, he realizes this humble Rabbi is the Servant King, saving us in His death.  Only He takes up our weaknesses and carries our sorrows, and we find Jesus “wounded, struck down by God, and afflicted,” as Prophet Isaiah foretold (Isaiah 53:4).

The Redeemer dies—and Nicodemus is a different man.  Gone are the misgivings and the spectator attitude.  The cowardice, hesitation, fearful hiding, and silence are no more.  Not dead for an hour, still nailed to the wood, our Lord’s prophecy rings true.  “Lifted from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

Earlier, Nicodemus’ doubts about Jesus silence his tongue.  Now, the power of the cross begins to act.  The beam of death is drawing people to the Savior, pulling them toward the Ransom-Payer of our sins, including this Pharisee in the Sanhedrin.  The power of the cross is turning doubt into certainty and a spectator into a participant.

At the cross, Nicodemus makes an irreversible confession of Jesus as the Christ.  For after His death, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea with a mixture of 75 pounds of spices to give Him a proper burial (John 19:39-40).  Earlier, a coward too frightened to speak, he now acts with the courage of belief, in the sight of all people.  How strange for a man, who earlier kept silent about Jesus, to now lead us to God.

Through His death, our Lord saves us from our sins.  Now, our confession of faith brings us to be where Jesus promises to be.  The resurrected Lord, risen to heaven, now comes to us as He promises in Word and Sacrament.  Such is our confession of faith in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and living presence.  Amen.