Nicodemus: the man who dared to ask his questions face to face
My name is Nicodemus, Nick for short. I am famous because, as a high profile Jewish ruler, my late night meeting with Jesus was scandalous. Before that, I was a man in conflict and my devotion to Jesus ended up costing me my job. If you’d like to step into my mess to hear my story, I will tell you about the turmoil that kept me awake at night and alienated me from my friends and family but resulted in friendship with the Savior of the World.
My colleagues hated Jesus.
You see, I lived and worked with people who despised Jesus and His followers. I’ve never seen anyone who could make my fellow religious leaders more angry than Him. They made fun of Him and spent their days planning his demise. I was a Pharisee and we were the ones that always tried to trap Him and kill Him. It would have given my colleagues no greater pleasure than to pose a question that tripped Him up and caused Him to contradict ancient prophecy. They dreamed of attending a dinner party where his interaction with drunks and prostitutes might discredit His reputation. Their ultimate goal was to stone Him for blasphemy, but they were always unsuccessful.
Jesus called us Snakes.
You are talking to an original BAD GUY of the gospels. I’m the Bible villain that you’ve heard about if you ever read the books by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. During my life, Jesus called us Pharisees lots of names, including: Blind Guides, Brood of Vipers, Hypocrites, Whitewashed Tombs, Fools, and my personal favorite, Snakes.
I was surprised to learn I made history.
What, you didn’t know that Jesus called people names? It’s there in the gospels! I wish that they would have been around in my day, but they weren’t written yet. We lived the stories, we did not read about it, nor did we know that we would be the most famous villains of the best selling book of all time. I know many people imagine Jesus as the helpless baby in the manger, but He was powerful— take it from me. I encountered Him many times. Let’s start at the beginning.
I was a model citizen.
Just to be clear, I paid my taxes, stayed faithfully married to the same woman, never killed anyone, went to temple more than once a week, tithed ten percent of my income, AND traveled all over the country to teach religious principles. I prided myself on obeying the law!
Sounds pretty “bad,” doesn’t it? And yet, I was treated like a bigger villain than adulterers or thieves. This made no sense to me.
I’m not going to lie. From a religious and political standpoint, Jesus was our enemy. We hated it when He arrived on the scene. We hated hearing about Him all the time. We hated His ways because He went against our ways. We hated His power because we didn’t have power like that. We hated the attention He received because everyone was obsessed with what He was doing and grew bored of us. I admit that we were jealous of his popularity. And, we hated His message that salvation came through Him and that following our rules was not the path to God.
Hindsight has given me the opportunity to understand why we He called us those names, especially since I have come to know Him. But it wasn’t always that way.
My curiosity made me famous.
I probably had the most famous conversation that ever took place between Jesus and a human.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life.”
That quote is known as John 3:16, but I think it should be Nick 3:16 because He was talking to ME not John. But, I’m not bitter. Oops, I said I wasn’t going to lie. Well, I’m not bitter anymore.
So here’s the thing. I was a good boy. I spent my WHOLE LIFE studying. I was at the top of my class and I did what a good Jewish boy should do; I became a teacher and leader. Everyone knew the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy— that one should not do any work on the Sabbath. We expanded upon this commandment and specify exactly what people could and couldn’t do to make the law more clear. We taught that in order to properly obey this command, for example, that we should not tie or untie a knot, cook, carry or lift anything, write, erase, give medical attention, or wear jewelry on the Sabbath. Then Jesus came along and broke many of our traditions, like daring to heal people on the Sabbath, which He knew was against everything we taught. What’s worse, people loved Him.
He didn’t play by our rules or agree with our religious interpretations of holiness. We were sure that our teaching made us better people; we felt better than others, too, as a matter of fact. Then He came along, claiming that He was God, that He was the Messiah, that He was the Savior of the World, calling us names, and shooting down our example. We believed that there was a Messiah coming, but not Him.
We wanted Him to go away. He threatened our power and our foundations. We were happy writing rules, enforcing rules, punishing lawbreakers and believed that we were doing the right thing. What is a society without good and order? People can’t just go around claiming to be God and doing whatever they want!
I believed all that but, to be honest, He intrigued me. He drew me in even though He threatened our influence. If people were to believe in His message, He would discredit us because rather than emphasizing obedience and righteousness by good behavior, He said that He was the righteousness of God and that He was the way, the truth and the life. He said that we needed to believe in Him for eternal life. You can see why we hated Him. We had everything to lose. He made us look bad. Really bad.
Nevertheless, I arranged a meeting to talk to Him. Alone. At night, when we could talk freely. I had questions, lots of questions.
I went alone to meet Him secretly in the dark.
To my surprise, when I arrived, he was relaxed and our conversation seemed natural and easy. His countenance and demeanor were disarming and He didn’t seem resentful toward me at all. You can read the highlights in John 3:1-22, but I was with Him over two hours and most of what we talked about is not written down because we visited a lot more than John recorded. He knew things I was thinking of course, asked about my family and knew them all by name. One thing that we had in common was that we had both lost our fathers, and we talked quite a while about what that was like. He showed me a table He was building. He asked me about a couple incidents from my childhood I thought no one knew.
He explained and introduced the concept of being “born again” or “born from above,” and I was confused because I thought he meant literally being born again in your mother’s womb. Eternal life can be gained by being “born of the Spirit” by believing in God’s Son, He explained. I had no idea what He was talking about, but He taught with great authority. I knew that scriptures prophesied a coming Messiah, but I had always focused on being a good person by following the Law to earn eternal life so I was unable to understand everything He said that night.
Then He went on to explain in more detail that eternal life comes from believing in the Son of God, who God sent to save the world and that His Son did not come to condemn the world. I know that He claimed to be the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God. I knew that He had powers and performed miracles, but I couldn’t understand how He planned to give me eternal life. He wasn’t even the ruler of our town, let alone all of Israel. He hardly seemed like a powerful political figure. What’s more, I didn’t want to throw out my whole belief system and all the years I’d spent earning my spot just because of this conversation.
He said we must be born again.
Now before you judge me, remember that nobody else had heard of being “born again” either. None of us, including John or His disciples, knew that He was going to be crucified, and we certainly didn’t know that He would not stay dead. You have the luxury of reading the history books; I did not.
When I walked away that night, I was changed; the truth is, I respected Him. Looking back, I think seeds were planted that I couldn’t keep from growing, and I was secretly haunted by the question: “What if what He said is true?” It was all too weird, too terrible, and too wonderful to believe at first. So, I thought about it and wrestled with what he told me. I couldn’t dare talk about my experience with any of the other guys on the council. I watched Him over the next couple years. I saw more healings, more miracles, listened to more teaching.
I woke up sweaty from nightmares in the middle of the night. Sometimes in my dreams I didn’t get into heaven and I was standing outside pounding on the gates with the other Pharisees. Sometimes I appeared naked at court because my council found out I was a closet believer, and chased me to have me flogged. In one dream I turned into a snake that slithered through the temple and the council chased me with garden hoes and shovels. During the day I made up excuses to go to where He was to give spy reports just to see and hear. I kept thinking about what He said. I couldn’t admit my feelings amongst the growing rage and frustration of our ruling council, but secretly I cheered for Him and kept track of his activity.
Many times our council tried to kill Him. Stones were gathered at our leaders’ command, but he slipped away. I don’t know how He did it, but he disappeared from the crowd and we were left frustrated, our plans foiled. We spent most of our days toward the end of His life trying to figure out some grounds on which to have Him arrested. Deep down I was glad each time we were unsuccessful in trapping Him. I liked talking with Him that night and I didn’t want to have any part in murdering Him, but the conflict inside my heart was growing harder to conceal.
The miracles continued.
Oh, the wonderful things He did!!! I knew this guy once that had leprosy and was covered in sores. I saw Jesus heal and restore him instantly with my own eyes. I knew the crippled man who laid on a mat for years and saw him walking and running after his friends lowered him through the roof to where Jesus was teaching. My neighbors’ kid was a frothing, crazy terror before Jesus cast out his demon. Little children flocked to Him and He laughed and told them stories and made them smile. And, to top it off, I smelled the nasty, decomposing body of His friend Lazarus after he had been dead three days and Jesus raised him to life.
If you’ve read the book of John you know that later I got to intervene on his behalf for justice when my colleagues became so blood thirsty they tried to condemn him without a hearing. All I did was remind them of the law and right to a fair trial. The other guys on the Sanhedrin looked at me and I think they were a little suspicious, but no one said anything. Then later, after He was crucified, I teamed up with Joseph of Arimathea to give Him a proper burial. We Jews were finally successful in having Him executed and it felt awful. As He breathed His last breath and hung lifeless amidst a dark sky, my heart shook like the earthquake rocking the ground and I risked it all to take down his body from the cross. The hands that gave me a drink that first night we met were pierced and bloody and I wept bitter tears as I laid his dead body on a stretcher to carry it. I wondered if I could have prevented his death.
I was a fairly wealthy man and I was able to bring about 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to help preserve his corpse. It was the least I could do. It was also the last thing I did as a ruler, for I was kicked off the Sanhedrin shortly thereafter.
Eventually, I believed.
If you’ve read John’s book you also know that He didn’t stay dead. I saw Him myself after His resurrection and so did hundreds of other people. Jesus was not just a “teacher” like me. I believe that He was the Son of God, the Savior of the World. I’m not sure exactly when I started to believe, but I did.
Most of our famous conversation made almost no sense until after He was crucified and resurrected years later. We looked for a Messiah who would conquer the world, not a carpenter.
In the book of Romans, there is a verse about me.
Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
As a religious man, I wanted a religious path to God.
We certainly did not want a worldview or faith in which our well being depended on Jesus.
Before that, my gospel went something like this: Every good person will be saved. After watching the horrible crucifixion that Jesus suffered, I realized that if we didn’t need a Savior then Jesus would not have willingly gone to the cross. Why would He have put Himself through that heartbreak and agony if we could save ourselves with doing good things and being good people? How good would be good enough? Who would be the judge?
As a Jew, I still wasn’t sure so I went back to the ancient scriptures and I found Jesus there, over and over again in the Old Testament. I read about the promised Messiah, written hundreds of years before He was born. Here is a small portion, but you should read the whole chapter. I can see it all so clearly now but I couldn’t then.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, Nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, A man of suffering and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, He was despised and we held Him in low esteem. Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering,Yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But, He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The punishment that brought us peace was on Him, And by His wounds we are healed. isaiah 53
Jesus taught me that He is the way.
I didn’t want to need Him, but after I believed I have never wanted to need anyone worse in my whole life. One by one all the things he said and did made sense after He was crucified and came back to life. We Pharisees told everyone that His resurrection was a lie, but I saw Him myself. He talked to many of us and appeared to hundreds of people. He told us once that if we destroyed His temple He would raise it again in three days. This is one of those conversations that didn’t make sense until afterwards. We thought he was talking about building a temple in three days, which is obviously impossible, but He was talking about a spiritual temple: His body.
I found life and freedom in knowing Jesus as my Savior. I left the heavy, oppressive weight of religious inadequacy and judging others behind. I wish that I had received these revelations and insights earlier in life.
And as for the Law? Well, that was a very long process. I learned that Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. As an old man, I went back through everything I had been taught, examining the scriptures to see what tradition and rules were manmade. I learned how to rest and keep the Sabbath holy without getting hung up on things like whether I could or could not get medical help for someone. I realized that, in focusing on laws, I missed the spirit of God’s love for people.
Under the Law I felt inadequate; with Jesus I felt loved.
Ironically, what gave me most comfort was a teaching from a time when we were trying to trap Jesus! The Pharisees wanted to back Him into a corner by trying to force Him to choose which commandment is most important. His answer left us speechless and frustrated, as always, because we couldn’t trap Him.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
I guess that we couldn’t trap Him with questions about the Law because He wrote the Law— but we sure did try!
I finally came to understand the reason for Christ’s harsh rebukes. He came to save the world because He loves the world. He knew that He was the key to eternal life and we tried to make salvation about ourselves and deny the need for Christ’s sacrifice at the cross and the truth of His resurrection. These beliefs are eternal life or death for His beloved creation that He died to save. Our teachings were dangerous and lacked grace and love, more dangerous than the crimes of a murderer or thief because they could affect a person’s eternal destiny. We looked down on others and tried to gain power for ourselves. Christ had a tender, sacrificial love for every human being— a love that we lacked.
Living the way of grace and love are so much better than striving to be “good enough.” It’s good to be “good,” but if we didn’t need a Savior, Jesus would not have gone to the cross. Earning eternal life is not only deemed impossible by Jesus, but exhausting. You spend your whole existence wondering how good is good enough and comparing yourself to others. I learned that Christ already made me righteous and started living in gratitude and joy. I grew nicer to other people because I wanted to pass on the love I felt, not because I was trying to work to attain holiness. I started to enjoy my family and grandchildren more!
The freedom that I experienced later in life was wonderful, though it caused a big rift in my marriage at first. My wife never completely understood. Fortunately I had enough money to survive after being kicked off the Sanhedrin. I made better friends in the last part of my life than I ever had before. Since I died, I have to tell you: it’s pretty great here in paradise and I don’t want you to miss out!
Thanks for hearing my story, best of luck to you on your journey, and may we meet face to face some day.
I love you. Jesus loves you more.
A great surprise to me in my new adventure of writing is how much I’m learning. It’s fun to imagine some of the details of Bible stories and put myself in the shoes of the historical figures we read about. You may imagine them differently. One thing is certain: no two people come to know Christ in the same way and that makes every story interesting.
Jesus told Nicodemus that to receive eternal life, “You must be born again.” Whoever believes in Jesus and calls up on the name of the Lord will be saved. How can someone come to faith in Christ and where does that start? To believe or put our confidence in someone, we usually know them and become acquainted with them. Sometimes that happens almost instantly, in the first meeting and sometimes it takes months or even years to get to a place of genuine trust, especially if you get off to a rough start. That is how I’ve come to know and trust people in my life. The first meeting leads to getting to know them better through experience, conversation, mutual friends, listening, storytelling. Paul said that faith comes through hearing the word of God.
So, why are we impatient with each other? Why would we ever over-simplify this process and judge someone that’s having trouble believing or trusting God? How well do we know Jesus and is our faith a passionate relationship and exciting journey that others would want for themselves? Or, is our religion a turn off to other people because it makes us miserable?
It’s so easy to judge Nicodemus. We may look down on him because the Pharisees’ rules seem ridiculous to us or because he was afraid to share his faith and came to Jesus in secret. What I found striking is the process whereby he came to belief in Christ.
In French, there are two verbs that mean “to know.” Savoir is used to imply a skill or something we know how to do, like riding a bike. Connaître is used for knowing people and cities and means to become familiar with. My professor once explained: “We can NEVER fully know everything about a person or a city.” French speakers embrace the lifelong process of discovering more and more about the people and cities they love.
In the same way, no one can say they fully know everything about God. Common experiences around town that led to curiosity. Intrigue led to a “coffee date” where Nicodemus talked to Jesus and asked questions. Hearing the stories, listening to His teaching, asking questions, and time resulted in belief but John doesn’t tell us when that happened for Nicodemus. His was a process that started as Enemy…. To Seeker…. To Acquaintance…. To Follower… to Friend. However, as we’ve seen before, Nicodemus didn’t always love Jesus but Jesus always loved Nicodemus. You didn’t always love Jesus and maybe you still don’t but Jesus has always loved you.
Despite his rebuke of the Pharisees teaching and even calling them names as a group, Jesus created Nicodemus and came to die for the sins of the world, his included. When Nicodemus asked for a meeting, Jesus made time to meet with him alone and carefully answer his questions. They initiated a relationship and friendship and years later, after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus was bothered that he might be condemned without a trial or receive an improper burial. We have every reason to believe that once Nicodemus met Jesus face to face he was forever changed and drawn to Him. If Jesus is your enemy, I dare you to set up a meeting with Him.
I bet that as he sits in paradise today with Jesus, Nicodemus has never been more glad for any decision that he made on earth than to make an appointment to ask questions and air his doubts. In fact, his doubts, frustrations, questions, and curiosity brought him all that much CLOSER to Jesus because he wisely pursued answers rather than writing Jesus off.
We have so much hope.
Just because we don’t believe in Jesus or aren’t “born again” today, doesn’t mean that He doesn’t love us like crazy. We’re on a journey. We may be his enemy, have some doubts, be really angry at Him, or have a lot of unanswered questions and that’s all okay. Being really mad or skeptical of Jesus may position us for a break through! Be honest! Lean in! Read about Him! We can bring our raw, honest feelings and questions to Him and watch what happens!!! That seed that is planted today won’t grow into a beautiful flower in one day… we need to give ourselves and our loved ones time for faith to grow. We can keep filling ourselves with other things to try to make ourselves happy, but we won’t find anything or anyone who loves us more than Him. He is the friend who loved us first.