“Nicodemus’ Fearful Approach By Night”
By Richard Allen – February 5, 2024
No doubt, one of the most interesting characters in the New Testament Scriptures is a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) named Nicodemus. Part of our interest in him is because of his stealthful approach to Jesus by night. He was certainly fearful for a good reason: If he were seen with the unauthorized new Rabbi, Jesus, he would have been shunned by his fellow Council members, and possibly put out of the synagogue. Yet in spite of himself, Nicodemus had some interest in Jesus and His teaching, so he came to Him by night. You may ask, how does this fit with the Parable of the Soils? The answer is: Nicodemus is a good example of the Thorny Soil, or “Divided-Heart Hearer.” And what really brings this example home is the context of Nicodemus’ visit, right on the heels of the events of John Chapter 2. The Holy Spirit “inspired” the Apostle John to connect the events of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. Remember, the Chapter Divisions in Scripture are not divinely inspired. So, here’s how the Holy Spirit inspired John to record both accounts:
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night . . . (John 2:23 -3:2).
John chapter 2 ends with Jesus not entrusting Himself to fickle man, He knew all men, and what made them tick. But immediately afterward, the Spirit inspired John to record: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night.” Just like the fickle crowds at the end of Chapter 2 – whom Jesus did not trust – this ruler, a teacher in Israel, Nicodemus – was also enamored by the signs that Jesus performed. But there was a big difference: Whereas the fickle multitudes were ready to believe in Christ, professing their shallow faith, Nicodemus came uncommittedly to Jesus by night. John’s Gospel is unique in that he demonstrates often that the multitudes were a flighty bunch, ready one minute to come by force and make Jesus King (John 6:15), and the next minute offended by Him for teaching that: “We must partake of His Body and Blood” (John 6:52). Nicodemus – as John’s text clearly reveals – was also a “fallen man,” and Jesus knew fully “what was in him” – that is, what made Nicodemus tick. Nicodemus had even drawn the obvious conclusion that God in Heaven was both with, and used this young Rabbi, Jesus, as he openly confessed that His miracles alone demonstrated Jesus’ Divine authorization.
But as we learn from Nicodemus’ dialogue with Jesus, he had a divided heart. He was drawn to Jesus as the potential Messiah because His miraculous deeds revealed “God was with Him.” John also records that even though Nicodemus was a teacher in Israel: “He was ignorant of spiritual things” (John 3:10). Nicodemus also “did not receive Jesus and the Spirit’s testimony” (John 3:11). Then Jesus laments: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12). As a plant, Nicodemus did sprout a level of faith that showed interest and some desire for truth. But it’s obvious that he came by night for fear that other members of the Sanhedrin might see him. A later reference to him in John’s Gospel implies that Nicodemus was considering that Jesus might be the longed-for Messiah (John 7:32-47). But coming to Jesus, and embracing Him in saving faith as the Savior, would have been a costly profession for Nicodemus. For him, the cares of this life, his possessions, and the station he enjoyed as a member of the Sanhedrin, made fully embracing this revolutionary Messiah far too risky.
Honestly, we do not know how this internal battle ended for Nicodemus, but it’s obvious there was another “internal conversation” happening than the one Nicodemus admitted outwardly, as he told Jesus: “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.” Whatever he was wrestling with, Jesus cut right to the heart of the matter – completely bypassing Nicodemus’ partial affirmation of a “thorn-choked-faith.” Instead of even dialoguing with Nicodemus, or pointing him to the prophecies in Isaiah and other Old Testament passages that obviously proved that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus makes a bold statement that appears to be out of context: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). But, in what appears to be a response out of left field (Jesus did the same with the Samaritan woman), Jesus’ statement answers what Nicodemus was actually struggling with: His fallen nature, motivated by the flesh!
Like most of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was a conservative, orthodox Jew who believed in the authority of the Scriptures and the special privilege given to the Jewish people. Even more, he was a “Teacher in Israel,” who clearly had understanding regarding the Law of God. How could anything keep him from full and immediate access to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! But now this young Rabbi tells him “You must be born again,” more literally “born from above.” Jesus’ pronouncement let Nicodemus know that his standing before God as an obedient “Law-Keeping” Jew did not grant him access to heaven. And now Jesus is telling him that something more is required of him to be accepted by God. Nicodemus had to be born of the Spirit! This no doubt rubbed Nicodemus the wrong way. The standard boast of the Pharisees was that they were “children of Abraham.” That alone granted them special favor and access to God! On other occasions, Jesus told these Pharisees who boasted in having Abraham as their father:
“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
So, as Jesus continues His explanation, telling Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God“ (John 3:5). It’s not within the scope of this study to even give an opinion of what Jesus meant by “the water and the Spirit.” The water may symbolize a natural birth from a human mother, or it might signify “the Word of God” (Ephesians 5:26). What does matter is the Spirit’s work of “Regeneration,” which is the Birth from Above, that’s important! The word we translate “Born Again” is the Greek word “Aero,” from which we derive the word Aero-plane. It means “from above.” Cutting through all of Nicodemus’ religious concerns and hang-ups, Jesus tells him that the only thing that matters, is being born by the Spirit from Above! This obviously made no sense to Nicodemus. In his mind, there was nothing wrong with his earthly birth of Jewish parents! Even his question to Jesus about entering again into his mother’s womb, tells us he has no grasp that anything is wrong with his earthly heritage. So, Jesus mildly rebukes this Pharisee as being a Teacher in Israel, who didn’t know about things above! But what Nicodemus did understand was exactly “what Jesus knew was in man” (John 2:24). In our fallen state, each of us loves our own people, we are selfish and self-centered – especially in our religious pursuits. This is true of both Jews and Gentiles. But the man to whom Jesus was speaking was very partial to the Jewish people, their customs, worship and law. They saw all the Gentiles, and even the Samaritan “half-breeds as unclean dogs,” outside the “real people of God, the Jewish nation!”
Jesus’ pronouncement: “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” was not easily understood by this bigoted Jew. He believed that it was the Gentiles who were unclean and irredeemable – unless they were circumcised first and became Jews. How could he, a “Law-Keeping” Jew who was learned in the ways and teaching of the Old Testament, lack anything? It’s here that I need to say once again: This was the teaching of The Parable of the Soils. The Soil (heart) of fallen man – whether Jew or Gentile – had to first receive the work of “The Plow of Regeneration” before the Seed of the Kingdom would ever find root and grow. And this is the consistent and oft repeated message of the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are now in the “Age of the Spirit” (John 16:8-11). There is “no longer Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female,” believers are all part of the New Man in Christ (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 4:24). What’s more, God will no longer be worshipped in “Temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24), but true Worshippers in this New Age, must Worship God in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24), or Not at All!
After a lengthy dialogue about the work of the Spirit in this New Birth (John 3:5-21), Jesus comes to possibly the most recognized passage in all Scripture, John 3:16. It is important for us to understand the context of this wonderful verse, and to whom Jesus was speaking. Far too many believers embrace a “Universalist-Unitarian” understanding of John 3:16. But, if we see the context of Jesus’ teaching, we’ll better understand what He was really saying, that God loves all kinds of people regardless of race, kindred or tongue. He doesn’t just love the Jews; He loves Gentiles as well. And now during in the New Covenant has flung open the doors to all! Often, these believers don’t continue to read as far as John 3:36 – which says something very different than: God loves everybody the same. In closing, let me list both verses so we can see them in contrast. It will help us ask the right questions, and ultimately get the right answers:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
These verses certainly appear to be teaching contradictory doctrines that should prompt us to ask questions like: “Does God love every man, woman and child ever born in this world?” Or, “Is He already angry at unbelievers, allowing His wrath to remain on those who do not have obedient faith in the Son?” And, “Does our eternal destiny come down to whether we choose to ‘come to the light?’ ” The New Testament Scriptures are clear that “Our Fallen Natures already condemn us before God.” So these are weighty questions, worthy of our asking and receiving what Scripture teaches. It’s ironic that in the very context of John 3:16 Jesus answers most of our questions in one verse:
“But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:21). As we’ll see, this was the same answer Jesus gave in The Parable of the Soils. More to come!
Soli Deo Gloria!