the Church on the Hill
by G. Eric Williams
Pastor, Cottonwood Community Church
Most people think of Nicodemus as a timid fellow. They've been told that he visited Jesus at night because he was afraid that his fellow Pharisees would turn against him for taking a personal interest in Christ. However, the popular view doesn't square with the biblical presentation of the man nor with the witness of history. For instance in John 7:51 we see Nicodemus speaking out in defense of Christ in the Sanhedrin. We also know from the books of the Maccabees and the writings of Josephus that the ancient Jewish religio-political arena was no place for the faint of heart. The Bible tells us that Nicodemus' vindication of Christ was met with scorn. We might imagine that he was shouted down; nonetheless there is no indication that he shrank from the contest. Indeed, his name crops up again in John's gospel as one of the brave souls who helped prepare Christ's body for burial after His crucifixion (John 19:38-42). This would have been the riskiest time of all to show support for the Nazarene. He had been vanquished, or so it seemed, and His disciples where on the run. Intoxicated with success, the Jewish leadership could be expected to ride the tide of victory to a glorious end, sweeping all opposition before them. Apparently the Disciples anticipated as much and so hid themselves away behind locked doors. On the other hand, Nicodemus boldly proclaimed his commitment to Christ by his actions.
The real reason Nicodemus sought an audience with Jesus at night is that it was customary for the teachers of the law to spend their evenings discussing doctrine. Thus, a night-time visit to Jesus would not have been unusual; it was the time of day when such things were done.
Hence, Jesus did not encounter a fearful and retiring man that night long ago. Instead He met with a man full of self-confidence, secure in his position of power as a ruler and teacher in Israel. It is very possible that Nicodemus met with our Lord in an effort to bring the dynamic Prophet under Pharisaic control. In their struggle against the rival Sadducees for ascendancy in Jewish society, the sect of the Pharisees would have left no stone unturned. Their party was the more popular among the common folk and Jesus' appeal to the masses would have peaked their interest. Perhaps Nicodemus approached Jesus intending to offer some sort of an alliance between his party and the rustic miracle worker from Galilee. As we know, Nicodemus got more than he bargained for.
"Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him" began the accomplished Pharisee. He paused, expecting the Prophet to nod in deference and respond with similar niceties. Instead, the Carpenter from Nazareth merely regarded Nicodemus with silence - and a penetrating gaze that made the sophisticated visitor uncomfortable. After what seemed a long time, Jesus spoke; "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."
I'm sure that this was quite a shock to Nicodemus. After all he hadn't said anything about the kingdom of God - yet. True, Nicodemus was hoping to enlist Jesus in the cause, but how had the Galilean anticipated his intent? More troubling was Jesus' inference that he, Nicodemus, was not fit for the Kingdom. Well, if he wasn't fit for participation in the Messianic reign then who could be? After all, he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, one of the chosen people, a Pharisee, a ruler and teacher in Israel. As far as Nicodemus was concerned his right of participation in the kingdom of God was undisputed. However, as we shall see next week no one is suited for the kingdom of God apart from the new birth.