We know very little about Nicodemus. The information we do have about him is supplied by John, in three passages in the fourth Gospel: 3:1-21; 7:45-53; and 19:38-42. These passages demonstrate the development of grace in the life of this renowned Jew whom John never allows us to forget, and of whom John constantly reminds us that he came to Jesus in the night (3:2; 7:50; 19:39). It is the story of a man who, in the words of the Proverbs, bought the truth, and was not prepared to sell it (Proverbs 23:23).
A man in search of truth
It is interesting that each of these narratives is set by John in the context of Jewish feasts. The first, although not explicitly dated by it, is set at the time of the Passover (2:23), when many believed in Christ as a result of the testimony of the miracles. At that point we have the interesting observation that Christ did not commit himself to them ‘for he knew what was in man’ (2:25). If we needed corroboration of this testimony to the omniscience of Jesus at this point, John supplies it in the first account of Nicodemus.
Here was a man who saw the miracles, and responded with interest to their testimony. And here was a man of whom it was supremely true that Christ ‘knew what was in him’, for the Lord turned the whole agenda of Nicodemus on its head. The dialogue is opened by Nicodemus, who comments on the obviously supernatural nature of the Lord’s activity: ‘You are a teacher come from God.’
At this point, although Nicodemus has asked no question, we read that ‘Jesus answered’ him, emphasizing the need for the new birth. The Lord can hear the unasked question with which Nicodemus is struggling – the question of how he can friend peace for his soul and be right with God. This is the question every man, woman and child is grappling with. Some evade it, only to find that it soon returns. Some are misguided in their search for an answer to it. Many, however, are led, like Nicodemus, to the only place where needy sinners can rest in their search for truth – in the sovereign, saving work of the triune God.
The Teacher come from God leads Nicodemus to the love of the Father to lost sinners: ‘God so loved the world …’. He leads him to the death of the Son for lost sinners: ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up.’ He leads him to the work of the Spirit in lost sinners: ‘You must be born again.’ This is the only place where truth can be found. The sovereign, saving work of the holy, triune God, furnishes us with the market-place where truth can be bought without money and without price. Surely this is the message our lost world needs to hear!
A man in defence of the truth
Although he quickly fades from the scene in chapter 3, Nicodemus is not forgotten. The scene this time is the feast of tabernacles (7:2), the memorial of the wanderings of God’s redeemed people in the wilderness. The presence of Jesus led to a debate with him, as the Jews confronted him, and to a division among the people. The Pharisees were appalled that the Roman soldiers had not arrested him, dismissing in a sweep his claims and authority.
At that point, Nicodemus, one of Israel’s greatest sons, himself a pilgrim in the ways of God, speaks: ‘Does our law judge any man, before it hears him, and knows what he is doing?’ (7:50). Nicodemus’ defence of Christ, which diffuses for the moment the simmering hatred of the other Pharisees, also shows us the effect the Lord’s earlier teaching had had on him. Here was a man who had indeed found the truth.
The result was that he had a profound interest in Christ, one that went deeper than that of the people, or the army, or the other members of the Sanhedrin. He has what William Guthrie called ‘a true and special interest in Christ’. The world’s treatment of the Saviour grieves him. Now that the opportunity presents itself, he will speak a word in defence of Christ.
Nicodemus knows that truth is on the side of Jesus. There is a sense in which he is offering to have Christ subjected to the rigorous testings of law; he knows that the Saviour will not be found wanting. For that reason he is prepared to speak. How much we need men and women who will stand for truth, and not be ashamed to speak a word for Christ! We become so easily discouraged by the opposition of the world. But ‘Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.’ We have ultimate truth on our side. Let us encourage ourselves to be set for the defence of the gospel!
A man in the service of truth
Nicodemus makes his final appearance in John 19:39, when, along with Joseph of Arimathea, he removes the body of Christ lovingly from the cross in preparation for burial. This they hasten to do ‘because of the Jews’ preparation day’ (19:42). John reminds us that Jesus was crucified at Passover time, and that this particular Sabbath was a ‘high day’ (19:31),because of its connection with the Passover.
The Passover proper was celebrated on the fourteenth of the first month, and was followed by the seven days of the feast of unleavened bread. Christ, Nicodemus’ Passover, had been sacrificed for him, and now, with the ‘unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ (1 Corinthians 5:8), he comes to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus.
What Nicodemus can do, he will do, and now his love for the Saviour is made public, as he steps into the gaze of men in an act of selfless devotion to Christ. This ought to be the stuff of all our public service for the Saviour. How slow we often are to step out of the way for Jesus, to be bold and strong in the service of Christ. How must we need to encourage one another in the service of the truth.
Christ has a spiritual body, the church, in addition to his physical body. And his spiritual body exists because of what he did when he gave himself over to death. At this point the physical body of Christ had a need, and it was Nicodemus who responded. Not prepared to sell the truth, he gives himself in the loving service of Christ. In our day, the spiritual body of Christ is in need. What need we have to pray for the stirrings of true revival end reformation! To pray to the Lord of the harvest! To support and maintain the cause of truth!
May God grant that all who love the truth, as Nicodemus did, will give themselves willingly and graciously in the service of it!