Who Was Nicodemus in the Bible? An Introduction to the Gospels’ Longest Fence-Sitter
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? Nicodemus was an esteemed rabbi who had a favorable view of Jesus, but who kept his admiration of Jesus a secret. We meet him three times in the Gospel of John, most prominently in a dialogue with Jesus (which provides the context for the famed John 3:16 verse). Nicodemus’s powerful profile in his nation ironically kept him a tepid, tiny follower of Jesus at best.
For first-century Judea, it’s hard to imagine someone boasting a stronger spiritual resume than Nicodemus. Yet his portrayal in John’s Gospel is of a tentative, almost hamstrung, figure.
Nicodemus, the Great Rabbi
Nicodemus, whose name meant “victory of the people,” was impressive enough to have won over the admiration of his people. He wasn’t just saintly or a significant or successful; he was all three in one! John 3:1 introduces him as “a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.”
First, Nicodemus was a “Pharisee.” The Pharisees were a group within the Jewish population who had been calling their people back to strict adherence to the law of Moses since the time of the Maccabees. Their rabbis had built a massive body of oral tradition which interpreted, expanded, and safeguarded the original laws. By the first century AD, there were likely around 6,000 Pharisees. So, it was a small percentage of the population, but they held a ton of influence over what was considered right and wrong to their countrymen. Saintly? Check.
Second, Nicodemus was a member of the “Jewish ruling council.” This was another term for the “Sanhedrin,” the 70-member council which served as the Jewish Supreme Court. The number came from the 70 judges whom Moses appointed to help lighten his leadership load at the suggestion of his father-in-law (Exodus 18:17–23). Most of the members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, typically aristocrats who collaborated with the Romans to oversee the temple. A minority of members were Pharisees, and this is what Nicodemus was. Significant? Successful? Check, check.
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “A Pharisee…who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.”
When Nicodemus came to Jesus to find out more about him, Jesus called him “Israel’s teacher,” which suggests the level of esteem his fellow Jews would have held him in (John 3:10).
Nicodemus, the Sweating Interrogator
As an authoritative religious figure, Nicodemus came to Jesus in John 3 to check him out and determine where Jesus stood on the theological map. Who is this Jesus? Is he teaching truth? Is he really a messenger from God, or from somewhere much more sinister? This conversation took place early in Jesus’ ministry, before the religious leaders had enough dirt on Jesus to condemn him a blasphemer and do away with him. Even still, Nicodemus was admirable in approaching Jesus and probing deeper.
Yet when Nicodemus met Jesus, the conversation went much differently than he had envisioned. Nicodemus had planned on framing the conversation and guiding the questions. Yet from the first sentence Jesus spoke, Jesus had seized the agenda and was introducing concepts that had Nicodemus scratching his head.
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “Nicodemus is admirable in approaching Jesus and probing deeper.”
Nicodemus began the conversation by tactfully complimenting Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). That’s actually quite the affirmation. Yet, rather than basking in the compliment, Jesus turned the light back on Nicodemus, saying that people can’t really speak of such things unless they have been born again. Had Nicodemus been born again? Well, that certainly wasn’t the question on Nicodemus’s mind; in fact, he didn’t even know what Jesus was talking about by the phrase:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:3–4)
“How can someone be born when they are old?”
If we zoom out to the context of this conversation, here’s what John writes immediately before narrating this conversation with Nicodemus:
“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” (John 2:23–25)
At first glance, Nicodemus was the perfect candidate for bringing the Jesus movement legitimacy: he was a righteous Pharisee and a powerful member of the Sanhedrin. Indeed, he was “Israel’s teacher,” and here he was admiring Jesus and affirming him as a rabbi from God. Yet, in John’s view, Nicodemus was a shiny, promising-looking prospect to whom Jesus couldn’t entrust himself—for Jesus “knew what was in each person.”
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “Nicodemus was a shiny, promising-looking prospect to whom Jesus couldn’t entrust himself.”
Thus, Nicodemus, found himself conducting an interview with an interviewee who at first chance turned the conversation into an uncomfortable exploration into whether or not Nicodemus was part of God’s kingdom in the first place. Nicodemus must have been exasperated at how Jesus assumed a criteria for being part of God’s kingdom—being “born again”—which Nicodemus didn’t even know the meaning of.
Nicodemus, the Stumped Theologian
So, Jesus responded by clarifying what “born again” meant—except it just confused Nicodemus more. You are born again by “water and the Spirit,” Jesus explained. The Spirit, after all, is like the wind, blowing where it will, and that’s the same with people born again.
Nicodemus didn’t even attempt an “uh huh.” He asked, “How can this be?” Now it was Jesus who was confused:
“You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” (John 3:10)
Still not computing. Jesus continued, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12).
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?”
What can we gather from Jesus’ surprise that Nicodemus wasn’t getting the idea of being “born again” by water and the Spirit? Apparently, Jesus thought Nicodemus should have understand, which implies that the concept was somewhere in the Old Testament. Indeed, Ezekiel 36:25–27 speaks of God cleansing his people with water and giving them his Spirit, a passage shortly followed by the Ezekiel 37 vision of God miraculously raising dry bones to full-blown life. Similarly, Old Testament prophets had spoken of God one day cleansing and regenerating his people. All of these promises find echoes in Jesus’ “born again” language.
Yet there’s no indicator in the text that Nicodemus ever had an “aha” moment. In the Gospel of John, though his story spanned three chapters, Nicodemus always seemed to remain halfway there.
Nicodemus, the Jesus Sympathizer
Although Nicodemus fell short of even the label “disciple” when it came to Jesus, he stood and head and shoulders above his peers on the Sanhedrin. Not that that’s too difficult when you admire Jesus and you’re on a council which eventually puts him on trial and sentences him to death (Matt. 26:57–68).
Still, when his fellow Pharisees were bickering with the chief priests why no one was making headway in bringing Jesus in, Nicodemus took the opportunity to offer a reasonable, even bipartisan, defense of Jesus:
Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” (John 7:50–51)
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “Nicodemus took the opportunity to offer a reasonable, even bipartisan, defense of Jesus.”
Even this reasonable suggestion was shot down by his hotheaded peers, who turned their guns on him: “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee” (John 7:52).
Nicodemus continued to remain a Jesus sympathizer. A fellow member of the Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea was an actual “disciple of Jesus,” although a secret one. It was Joseph, after Jesus’ crucifixion, who asked Pilate permission for the body so he could anoint it and bury it in its own tomb. In third his final appearance in the Bible, Nicodemus joined his bolder peer in this honorable act:
“He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.” (John 19:39–41)
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “[Joseph] was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.
As sympathetic as Nicodemus was, an unfortunate metaphor seems to attach to Nicodemus: night. “Night” isn’t a happy concept in the Gospel of John, which should be no surprise since Jesus, as the “light of the world,” is its antithesis (John 8:12). “Night is coming,” Jesus predicted to his disciples with foreboding (John 9:4). He also told them, “It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light” (John 11:10). And when Judas left to betray Jesus to the religious authorities, John simply says, “It was night” (John 13:30).
Guess when Nicodemus visited Jesus? “He came to Jesus at night” (John 3:2a). If by chapter 19 we’d forgotten this, John says it again: “[Joseph] was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night” (John 19:39a).
“He came to Jesus at night.”
This is why it’s probably not coincidence that, at the end of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, the conflict of light vs darkness takes center stage. Since there weren’t quotation marks in the original Greek, we aren’t sure if this was Jesus continuing what he was telling Nicodemus (e.g., ESV, NASB), or if Jesus had stopped talking and John was giving theological reflection on the conversation he had just narrated (e.g., NIV). Either way, here it is:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light.”
As nice of a guy as Nicodemus seems, we never see him come into the light.
Nicodemus, the Unfavorable Contrast
It’s easy to like Nicodemus (especially if you’ve seen his portrayal in the amazing TV series The Chosen). (If you haven’t kept up with The Chosen, it really is as good as you’ve been hearing.) Nicodemus is reputable, righteous, and respectful. What more could you ask for in a guy?
And, at first glance, it’s easy not to like the next major character we meet after Nicodemus in the Gospel of John: an unnamed Samaritan woman. She treats Jesus’ attempts to break the ethnic barriers with suspicion: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9). When he offers her “living water,” her response seems rhetorical and rude: “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” (John 4:12). When we find out (thanks to Jesus’ prophetic abilities) that’s she’s had a less-than-reputable past (five husbands + living with a man not her husband), we’re not really surprised. She’s neither reputable, righteous, nor respectful.
And yet, the conversation with Nicodemus never seemed to progress much past, “Say what?” and “Seriously, you still don’t understand?” This conversation with the Samaritan, on the other hand, was so fruitful that it ended with Jesus revealing to her that he is the Messiah and her evangelizing her entire Samaritan village.
Who was Nicodemus in the Bible? “The conversation with Nicodemus never seemed to progress much past, ‘Say what?’ and ‘Seriously, you still don’t understand?'”
Of all people, the Samaritan woman ended up being the one Jesus could entrust the gospel with. All the while, “Israel’s teacher” was such a theological walking library that he could nuance his way out of any real commitment.
In the end, Nicodemus ended up getting first prize for longest fence-sitter in the Gospels. People in the crowd either tended toward becoming a disciple or, in the end, joining the mob yelling, “Crucify!” Not Nicodemus. He straddled the fence longer than anybody. I guess we can add that to his other accomplishments.