We know from John 3 that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council, who came to Jesus at night with a question. He received an answer that generations of Christians would hide in their hearts.
Nicodemus’ Secret Conversation with Jesus
In John 3, Nicodemus concedes that God must have sent Jesus because of all the miraculous signs he performed. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter by responding with firm truth: “…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).
Then Nicodemus simply asks, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). Jesus laments that Nicodemus cannot seem to grasp such a heavenly concept (John 3:12) and relies on an Old Testament story (Numbers 4-9), which a Pharisee was sure to have heard before, to illustrate how to be born again and get to heaven.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15).
It’s in this story of Nicodemus where John writes the God-inspired verse:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
Nicodemus was Not a Spy
Some scholars question Nicodemus’ motives. They claimed that he came as a representative of the Sanhedrin as a kind of spy, tasked with trapping Jesus in giving an official response based on the questions he would pose. After all, Nicodemus speaks using the first-person plural ("We know You have come from God as a Teacher"). But there are three problems with this idea.
Since other Jewish officials challenged Jesus in public, Nicodemus would not have needed to sneak through the night to visit Jesus.
He did not ask; he declared that Jesus was a Teacher from God. This hardly seems the language of a disapproving enquirer.
Mainly, Nicodemus later reveals himself as a believer when he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus's body for a proper Jewish burial (John 19:39).
Nicodemus was Honestly Seeking God
The better answer is that Nicodemus, while not yet fully convinced of Jesus’ divinity, had seen the miracles Jesus performed. Comparing what he knew from the Old Testament and the expectation of the Messiah, he planned for a way to see Jesus. Therefore, he came honestly seeking after God. By the time of Jesus's crucifixion, Nicodemus had grown bold enough to publicly reveal what he now believed.
“And though now he came by night, afterward he owned Christ publicly,” according to Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary.
What Else Does the Bible Say About Nicodemus?
In John 7:50-51, Nicodemus spoke to a group of unbelieving Pharisees against unlawfully seizing Jesus.
Later in John 19:39, after Jesus had been crucified, Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in giving Jesus a traditional Jewish burial. Nicodemus “brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds” (John 19:39).
Adapted from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Book III, Chapter VI) and from the lecture notes of Dr. Doug Bookman, professor of New Testament Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary (used by permission).
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