Nicodemus doesn’t receive any benefit of the doubt in this Sunday’s lectionary reading from John 3:1-17. I have heard sermons on this text with explicit or implicit superiority that surely “we” would have understood what Jesus meant. Truthfully, I would’ve been as baffled as Nicodemus was in his conversation with Jesus.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me back up: Nicodemus was a leader of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jews in occupied Palestine. These religious leaders found a way to live with the Roman Empire and were given authority and oversight for their people. The Pharisees had figured out a way to maintain power and status within the realm of Empire.
Although Nicodemus had power, authority, and status he was also intrigued with this particular Jewish teacher, Jesus, who came from Nazareth. We know that Nazareth was a woebegone place from John 1:46 when Nathanial, a future disciple said, “What good can come from Nazareth?” I imagine the Pharisees in Jerusalem, the center of religious and military power, were prejudiced toward Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus was teaching and healing in the countryside and word was spreading to the center of Jewish power about Jesus’ miracles. And part of the Faustian bargain the Pharisees made with the Empire was they kept a lid on any anti-Empire activity going on around the country. And we know that some of the Jewish people, including some of Jesus’ disciples, were hoping that Jesus would be the one to lead the rebellion against the Occupiers. It is possible that Nicodemus was sent by the Pharisees to check Jesus out under the cover of nightfall gossips wouldn’t learn of the meeting.
Or, Nicodemus was intrigued with this teacher and wanted a private conversation with Jesus without the hypervigilant eyes of his Pharisee peers. So, Nicodemus stealthily visits Jesus, at night, to remain hiding from the civil and religious authorities.
I think it’s important to note two facets about this nighttime visit. First, “night” is used metaphorically in John’s gospel to represent the absence of God. Indeed, later in chapter 3:19-21, the writer condemns those who prefer darkness to light. Second, discipleship (or faithfulness) begins when we approach God. Nicodemus approached at night for his own reasons, most likely fear—fear of being seen by others but, perhaps, fear of being seen by Jesus in the bright sunlight.
With this first approach to Jesus, Nicodemus is completely baffled and confused. I am reminded of when I first met Dallas Willard in the late 1970s and he spoke with a deep knowingness and experience about God but I was completely baffled by what he said. So, I completely identify with Nicodemus in his confusion when Jesus began talking about being born from above then about the wind and being born of water then brings in Moses lifting up the serpent. I easily imagine me sitting next Nicodemus with my eyebrows furrowed, thinking,“Huh?”
But Nicodemus showed up again and is recorded twice, in John’s Gospel: In 7:50-52 Nicodemus gave a modest defense of Jesus in the midst of a fierce conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities; and in, 19:38-42 where he helped Joseph of Arimathea (a secret disciple) bury the body of Jesus. We are reminded in v. 39 that Nicodemus first approached Jesus in the night and here he was at the burial of Jesus, Nicodemus provided an abundant supply of spices with which to use for the body. I envision the act of enveloping Jesus’ body with burial spices then to the burial itself as an act of proclamation by both Nicodemus and Joseph. Is the gospel writer suggesting that Nicodemus moved out of the night shadows of distrust to the bright light of trust? Nicodemus’s appearance throughout the gospel suggests that belief in Jesus is movement, or a journey, if you will. One commentary writer notes: “In the Gospel of John ‘faith’ is never a noun. Believing … is a verb.”
I identify with Nicodemus because my own journey is distrust, curiosity, wondering, bafflement, tepidness, doubt, wandering, fear, and, hopefully, believing with fidelity and trust.