Nicodemus plays a small but important role in the New Testament. He appears in three chapters in John’s gospel. His exchange with Jesus in John 3 includes probably the best-known verse in all Scripture, John 3:16.
What do we know about Nicodemus and his background?
- He was a Pharisee. Therefore, he may have been educated as a rabbi.
- He was a ruler of the Jews.
- His parents gave him a Greek name.
- Jesus fascinated him.
Let’s take a closer look at him, and then his relationship with Jesus.
Nicodemus as Pharisee and ruler
We tend to define Pharisee as a judgmental hypocrite. Some were, but let’s not forget that Paul boasted of being a Pharisee when he was arrested in Jerusalem. And of all the sects of Judaism at the time, Jesus’ teachings most closely resembled the Pharisees’.
At their best, the Pharisees lived a holier life than anyone else. They sought to be obedient to everything God required. It took some sacrifice.
They represented the most accurate and comprehensive understanding of the Old Testament scriptures. Unlike the Sadducees, who recognized only the five books of Moses, they based their theology on what we now recognize as the entire canon.
Unfortunately, some all too easily became proud of their holiness. Many scorned other people who didn’t aspire to follow their example. By Jesus’ time, they had more than a hundred years of teaching in synagogues. They placed as much emphasis on this oral tradition as on the written word itself, errors and all.
According to John 7:50, Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee but a ruler. He was part of the very important body that conducted Jesus’ trial. Other scriptures refer to it as the Sanhedrin. We can deduce that he had great personal influence and probably great personal wealth.
The Sanhedrin ruled the Jews under the authority of the occupying Roman empire. Israel had not had political independence since the Babylonian conquest. When Jews returned after the captivity, the Persians ruled them. Then the Greeks followed by the Romans.
Greek influence became so pervasive that many Jews gave their children Greek names. “Pharisee” means “separate,” but they could not separate from their surroundings as much as they wanted. Or, indeed, as much as some of them may have thought they did.
Nicodemus and Jesus
In John 7:51, Nicodemus asked if the law allowed condemning someone without a hearing. Other Pharisees had scolded the guards who had failed to arrest Jesus. They asked, “Has any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?
They sneered at Nicodemus’ question and asked if he was from Galilee, too. By implication, they accused him of sympathy for a country bumpkin who, not knowing the law, was accursed. If he seems timid in that chapter, no wonder he decided to visit Jesus at night.
But the encounter with Jesus in John 3 shows something that Nicodemus has in common with too many preachers and church leaders today. He had an inadequate understanding of Scripture.
He opened the conversation with a compliment. Perhaps he wanted to make a good first impression both personally and as a Pharisee.
Jesus’ first recorded comment surprised Nicodemus. He said, “unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus responded with a question: how can an old man crawl back into his mother’s womb? It might not seem like a stupid question in English, but the Greek for “again” also means “from above.” Surely Nicodemus and Jesus conversed in Aramaic and not Greek, but Aramaic has a smaller vocabulary than Greek. Its words have an even broader range of meanings.
2 important words
I’m basing this word study on resources in Bible Study Tools. Finding Bible words in the original languages now easy. Anyone can look up a scripture in either King James or New American Standard and choose “Strong’s numbers” in settings. Then click on any hot-linked word to find the underlying word and its meaning.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance has two numbered sequences of words, one Hebrew/Aramaic and one Greek.
Bible Study Tools uses Strong’s numbering but different more detailed lexicons than his dictionary.
Ten Hebrew words are translated “again” in the Old Testament. (Young’s Analytical Concordance is the easiest place to find that kind of information.) Here are the most common:
- In Genesis 8:21, where God promised not to destroy every living thing again: yacaph (Strong 3254 in Hebrew) means “to add, increase, do again.”
- In Psalm 71:20, the psalmist declares, “You who have shown me many troubles and distresses will revive me again and will bring me up again from the depths of the earth”: shuwb (Strong 7725 in Hebrew) means “to turn back, return.”
Hebrew is a dialect of Aramaic no longer spoken in Jesus’ time. He most likely used the Aramaic equivalent of one of these two words. Nicodemus’ response hints that perhaps Jesus used “shuwb.” If so, Psalm 71:20 hints at bodily resurrection.
So why did Nicodemus not suspect that Jesus meant more than repeating physical birth?
Jesus answered with another word that has multiple meanings. “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Spirit in Greek is pneuma (Strong 4151 in Greek). It is most often translated “spirit,” whether the Spirit of God or the human spirit. In the latter sense, it can mean the vital principle that animates the body or an immaterial essence. But pneuma also means breath or wind.
The Hebrew equivalent is “ruwach” (Strong 7307 in Hebrew). It means variously breath, wind, spirit (both in the sense of a breathing being and as the seat of emotion), and the Spirit of God. Its first appearance in Scripture (Genesis 1:2) explicitly refers to the Spirit of God.
Nicodemus and Jesus were both breathing as they spoke. Perhaps a gentle breeze blew on them at this point in the conversation. In any case, Nicodemus should have recognized breath or breeze as an illustration of the Holy Spirit.
Still clueless, he asked, “How can this be?”
Jesus asked, “Are you the teacher of Israel but you do not know these things? Truly, truly I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”
By “we,” Jesus probably means himself and the Holy Spirit. Pharisees and should have known God better than anyone, but they stuck to their traditions. They didn’t recognize God when he came and talked to them face to face.
If Nicodemus failed to recognize a reference to the Spirit of God, what chance did he have to understand anything about the Son of God? Jesus regularly called himself the Son of Man more than the Son of God. But that was a scriptural reference that the Pharisees, at least, should have recognized.
Nicodemus failed, but at least he wanted to hear the truth. He apparently went away from that conversation as he came: an unbeliever. But by the end of Jesus’ ministry, he did believe.
The man who was afraid to be seen with Jesus in daylight became bold enough to ask for Jesus’ corpse for a decent burial. He even bought the spices (John 19:38-39).
Nicodemus and modern pulpits
Too many Christian teachers and preachers have as little understanding of Scripture as Nicodemus did. Look at John 3:16-21.
- God loved the world enough to send Jesus into it as a human being to give them eternal life. Therefore, no one inherently has eternal life. We must receive it as a gift of God through Jesus. Too many preachers proclaim eternal salvation, which Jesus explicitly rejected here and elsewhere.
- God did not send Jesus to condemn the world. Too many preachers are quick to consign people to hell, even though only God is fit to render that judgment.
- Whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned. Whoever does not believe is condemned already. Satan can’t recruit. He is the ruler/god of this world, as both Jesus (John 14:30; 16:11) and Paul (2 Corinthians 4:4) attest. He starts out with everyone. No one in his kingdom believes. But only God, looking on the heart, can know who believes and who doesn’t.
- This is the verdict: light (Jesus and his teaching) has come into the world and men preferred darkness. A dozen Methodist ministers recently performed a gay marriage in defiance of the standards in the Book of Discipline. Then they issued a press release to brag about their disobedience. They not only disobeyed a denominational document, but also Jesus’ teachings and example on sexual sin.
More preachers today fall toward the universal salvation error than the one of usurping God’s role as the sole judge of people’s eternal fate. But in deciding that everyone is saved, it follows that God doesn’t object to anyone’s behavior.
In sermons and prayers, they may give lip service to the fact that we’re all sinners who need God’s forgiveness. But they’re quick to distance themselves from anyone who insists on the biblical standard of what sin means. They ask, with Nicodemus, “how can this be?”
Nicodemus went to Jesus and showed himself clueless about what Jesus said he should have known. Eventually, he caught on.
Pray that today’s willfully ignorant church leaders will also catch on.