Nicodemus – A Conversion Story

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Repin, Christ and Nicodemus
Repin, Christ and Nicodemus

Good Friday is full of reflections from different people about different aspects of the Crucifixion narrative. There’s always much to say but perhaps this is one you’ve not heard much of before. As I was reading John’s gospel this morning I was reminded of one of the examples given in that gospel of God drawing someone irrevocably to Jesus and the lessons we learn from it. In this case, in the person of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus gets three mentions in John’s gospel. The first is the most famous:

John 3:1   Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9   Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

It’s a famous encounter and space restricts how much we can comment upon here. Nicodemus is curious and acknowledges that Jesus has some form of divine mission. However, he comes in the dark and is very much still in the dark when the meeting is over. He just doesn’t get it. And, of course, why would he? The words Jesus speak to him tell him why he will never get it without divine intervention. To truly understand who Jesus is he must be born again – there must be an external and deliberate act of the Spirit in bringing him to new life. Then, and only then, will he “see the kingdom of God” and it’s King.

But that is not to say that the divine work of conversion comes on it’s own. Jesus goes on to explain that everything he has been speaking about is something that Nicodemus, as a “teacher of Israel” should already know. It’s all in the Old Testament (and, as just one example, the language of being born again, of water and spirit and the breath of the Spirit is all from Ezekiel). More than that, Jesus has brought with him more testimony in His own words (v11-12) but Nicodemus does not understand.

And not only Nicodemus. The “you’s” in verses 11& 12 are all plural – it is not only Nicodemus who is included in this indictment. Who else does Jesus have in mind here? Well the obvious first answer must be all those who are a “teacher of Israel” which must mean the leadership of Israel and not least the Sanhedrin to which Nicodemus belongs.

And it is amongst these “teachers of Israel” that we next find Nicodemus.

John 7:45   The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring [Jesus]?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”

Opposition to Jesus has grown rapidly, not least amongst Israel’s teachers. As they challenge the temple guards over their failure to arrest Jesus they make the observation that not one of the “teachers” believes in him – as though this ought to be enough to settle the matter. Of course, we already know that it does settle the matter – but Jesus has already settled for us why they do not accept Jesus.

In their statements they reveal more of their failure to act as Israel’s true teachers. They accuse the crowd of not knowing the Law of Moses and therefore being accursed in their following of Jesus (v49). But we have already seen that a proper knowledge of the Law leads one to respond properly to Jesus:

John 1:45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

John 7:19 “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?”

And so Nicodemus speaks up,

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”

He is one of them, ie a teacher of Israel, and yet perhaps he is finally teaching properly – by turning to the Law, to the Scriptures. And he calls them to do exactly what Jesus has appealed to them to do (and the implicit challenge to the reader that runs throughout John’s gospel) – to judge him by his divine words and his divine actions; words and actions which are in harmony with the Law and the Prophets they claim to teach to Israel.

Nicodemus_Christ_CrossWe meet Nicodemus one last time, close to the end of the gospel.

John 19:38   After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.

Joseph’s request to Pilate was secret, but his subsequent action would not have been – how could it be? He very publicly takes the body down. And he is joined by Nicodemus. Again John reminds us that Nicodemus first came to Jesus by night. But it is no longer night, although it is a dark, dark day. John has already told us that there was a desire  to get everything finished before the Sabbath which would have started at sunset (v31). So Nicodemus, who once came by night, now helps bury Jesus in broad daylight. He has gone from a scared questioner, then calling for an open and honest assessment of Jesus’ claims through to now standing publicly as one of those who trusts Him. He is truly Israel’s teacher, following the one to whom the Law and the Prophets and Jesus’ words and actions all testified.

And why? Well we already saw Jesus explain. The Spirit moves as He will (3:8) and so He moved in the life of Nicodemus, bringing the divine testimony of Scripture and Jesus’ words and actions to illumine Nicodemus’ heart so that he would see and enter the Kingdom of God.

May that same Spirit quicken your heart this Good Friday.

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