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Episode 27: Nicodemus

The first interaction by Nicodemus with Jesus reminds us of one, key element of faith-it is expected to develop with the passing of time.
     As we read about encounters by Jesus with various individuals in the Gospel of John, it is not uncommon to get to the end and wonder how that person responded to Jesus. Such is the situation for Nicodemus. When we reach the conclusion of his discussion with Jesus we are puzzled. After he speaks up for Jesus in John 7 we are intrigued. When he steps up and helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus’ body we are curious. Who is Nicodemus and where does he stand in relationship to Jesus?

     I must acknowledge this limited concern for one’s relationship with Jesus based solely on a faith response may only be common within certain Christian communities. Yet, the goal of the Gospel of John recorded in chapter 20 also fuels this interest.

Now, to be sure, Jesus did many different signs in the
presence of his followers which have not been written in
this account, but these signs have been written so that
you can trust that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son and
so that those who trust in his name may experience life.

Before casting Nicodemus aside since he didn’t choose to follow Jesus in Chapter 3, one might consider Nicodemus’s participation in developing the message of this Gospel.

In the Gospel of John

     When Nicodemus visits Jesus at night, he speaks three times. On the first he is complimentary, on the second he misunderstands Jesus’ statement, and on the third he is either dubious or befuddled. In other words, Nicodemus’s attempt to control the conversation is upended and the discussion is ultimately directed by Jesus.

     When Nicodemus reappears in the Gospel, Jesus has been speaking “at the Temple” and the assistants to the religious leaders have returned without him. Nicodemus subtly defends these assistants after they report that Jesus speaks like no one they have ever heard, after which he is disparaged by his peers when they seek to associate him with Galilee. (Episode 22)

     Finally, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with removing Jesus’ body from the place of crucifixion, preparing it for burial, and placing the body in a tomb. Joseph is identified as a disciple of Jesus, albeit a secret one. Where does that leave me, as a reader, with regard to Nicodemus and his faith?

     As is often the case, better understanding often follows from broader context. Nicodemus's entry into the story follows a summarizing statement by the evangelist writer, a statement often passed over in order to get to chapter 3.

When he was in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast,
many people believed in his name when they saw the
signs which he was performing; yet Jesus was not
entrusting himself to them because he knew all things
and because he had no need for anyone to testify
concerning humans; for he knew what was inside man.
There was a man from the group known as Pharisees,
by the name of Nicodemus, who was a ruler among the
Judeans (2:23-3:1).

We see from this context that Jesus was not going to trust the opening words of Nicodemus whose visit was based on seeing these signs. One could say that Nicodemus, like the crowd, believed in Jesus’ name at this point in time. Nicodemus is also described as “a man” and Jesus does not entrust himself to “a man.” Rather than viewing Nicodemus’s misunderstanding and befuddlement in a negative light, it serves the modern reader of this Gospel well to understand that this conversation directs every reader toward the central theme. Those who would pursue the Kingdom of God must be born of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus is not a disbeliever, he is simply ignorant of heavenly realities.

     Addressing their assistants, the religious leaders seek to assert their perspective over any other, especially those in the crowd.

The Pharisees replied, “Surely you aren’t wandering
from our teaching, are you? None of the rulers or
Pharisees have believed in him, have they? This crowd
of people does not know the law and are under God’s
curse.” (7:47-49)

At this point, Nicodemus, who like the assistants has actually listened to Jesus speak, reminds his fellow rulers what the law actually teaches.

Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from
him and understands what he is attempting, does it?

Three things are happening at once in this scene. First, Nicodemus supports the opinion of those assistants who have heard Jesus teach. Second, Nicodemus negates, or at least casts considerable doubt on, the statement that none of the rulers have believed Jesus. Finally, Nicodemus indicates that these religious leaders don’t actually practice the law they claim to know so well.

     After Jesus’ death, and in order that the bodies won’t be left hanging during the second Sabbath of Passover (Episode 25), Joseph of Arimathea receives permission from Pilate to remove the body. Nicodemus came with Joseph and brought with him an abundance of spices for burial. These two prestigious and religious men set aside their religious purity, thus forfeiting their opportunity to celebrate this religious holiday with their peers, by touching a corpse.

Concluding Thought

     The first interaction by Nicodemus with Jesus reminds us of one, key element of faith-it is expected to develop with the passing of time. While many are attracted to Jesus because of the many signs he performs (Episode 24) attraction is not the same as faith. While many seek answers from Jesus on their own terms and through their own filters, Jesus is not obligated to answer our questions. Rather, he explains to us what we truly need to hear.

     Nicodemus’s second interaction with Jesus demonstrates far more regarding his relationship to Jesus than his first. One of two men who take the time and effort to attend to the proper burial of this one, Nicodemus shows us that actions come from faith, especially when they are personally costly. Nicodemus allows his care and concern for Jesus’ dead body to affect his religious standing in the community. Nicodemus provides an extravagant gift of fragrances and spices for the body of Jesus, a man from a family with no means to repay such generosity.

     In between these two scenes, the words of Nicodemus to his peers, the rulers and religious leaders of Jerusalem, illustrate that we cannot condemn an entire group as faulty when one of them is honest and true. This simple statement by Nicodemus demonstrates that not only is the crowd divided over Jesus’ identity, but the rulers and religious leaders are as well. Nicodemus’s reply to the religious leaders exposes the reality that not only is the crowd under God’s curse because they do not know the law, the rulers and religious leaders are as well. Nicodemus, whose name can mean “victory for the common folk,” provides us an example of one whose name truly was lived into, as he ultimately identifies with Jesus, the Victorious One, through devotion to his teaching, teaching we can only fully comprehend in light of the resurrection of Jesus.

Take 5 Minutes More

     We live in a time when words seem to be the ultimate element we judge someone by, rather than the long-held preference for one’s actions. Nicodemus’s actions toward Jesus at the end of the Gospel speak far more loudly than his words at the beginning. Yet, the question that seems to matter is, “Did we understand who Jesus was and is?”

     Has Jesus affected both my words and my actions? Take several moments to consider any changes you recognize in your own life over the past six months to a year.

     Consider someone close to you and any changes you have seen Jesus bring to their life. Write these down so you can share them with someone.

     Ask someone close to you whether they have seen any recent changes in your life because of the influence of Jesus.


Updated August 4, 2022