Theme: Who Was Nicodemus?
In this week’s lessons we look at the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, and learn of the need to be born again, which can only happen by the sovereign working of God through the Holy Spirit.
Scripture: John 3:1-3
In John 3, we come to the second main character, whose name is Nicodemus. It is with this encounter that Jesus has that great teaching about the necessity of being born again. I want to show how this conversation with Nicodemus adds to what we saw with John the Baptist. We noted in the last study how essential John the Baptist’s witness was to point people to the Lord Jesus Christ. But because we’re all spiritually blind, we remain in spiritual darkness and are unable to see that which is spiritual light. On our own we cannot understand the true significance of the witness that is being given. What is necessary in addition to the witness is the work of God by the new birth in which those who hear the witness are brought to spiritual life. What Jesus is saying here to Nicodemus is that what you need is the specific call of God, by which that witness is used in such a way that spiritual life is brought forth in the heart of the one who is listening.
Now the first verse begins by saying there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is going to be the great example in this story, and in order to understand why he is introduced as he is you have to go back a verse, to the very last verse of the second chapter. It is a little summation of Jesus’ attitude to the human race. We’re told that he did not need man’s testimony about man, that is, he didn’t have to be instructed about the sinfulness of the human heart and the ability of human beings to understand because he knew what was in a man. In other words, he knew human nature.
But now, after having said he knew what was in a man, you read in the very next verse, “Now there was a man.” Well, that’s not accidental. You can see it even in the English text; it’s even more obvious in the Greek text. Jesus knew what was in a man. Now here’s a man who comes to Jesus, and Nicodemus is used to show what is being talked about at the very end of chapter 2. It seems that Nicodemus is brought forward as a representative of this point about Jesus’ knowledge of the human nature and its condition.
Now, if you wanted to be represented by somebody, Nicodemus would certainly be the right kind of person. For one thing, he was a Pharisee. We have a bad opinion of the Pharisees because of many of the things Jesus said about them, but they were not badly regarded in Jesus’ day. They were the outstanding people of the time. They were the religious figures, the moral figures, the people who knew the law, and they made it their business to keep the law. People would have been proud of those who were Pharisees. They looked up to these people.
So Nicodemus was well respected by the people as a religious leader, and as a scholar who knew the law. In addition to that, there’s probably something else as well. You notice that the name Nicodemus was not a Hebrew name but a Greek name. It means “victory over the people” or “one who rules over the people.” So here you have a Greek name, which of course not everyone had, and which you might not have expected among the Pharisees.
Those who had such a name tended to be what are known as Hellenists, that is, those who are Jewish but had been well educated in Greek culture as well. They knew the Old Testament Scriptures, but they also knew the Greek philosophers. Nicodemus was probably among this rather elite company of the Hellenists, and that meant that he was knowledgeable in the secular as well as in the religious literature of his day. It’s as if he had gone to university and taken a secular degree, and then had gone on to seminary and had gotten a religious degree.
It’s also the case that he was a political leader, and probably came from a rather prominent family. We understand that for several reasons. For one thing, Josephus, the Jewish historian, mentions two men by the name of Nicodemus, one from before the time of Jesus Christ and one afterwards. They were both somewhat what we would call ambassadors. It could well be that this was a prominent name that was given to one coming from a prominent Jewish family.
There’s some other evidence that he seems to have been a distinguished figure. Later on, at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, it’s Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who go to see Pontius Pilate to ask for the body in order that they might bury it in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. That’s significant because it meant that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had access to the highest ruler of the land in their day. They seem to have had no trouble getting in to see Pilate. Now if you were somewhat far down on the social scale of the day, you wouldn’t have that kind of access.
Nevertheless, even though Nicodemus was an impressive figure, he, too, was a sinner who was in need of the regenerating work of God, as Jesus well knew. Apart from this divine work, he was unable to understand spiritual things, let alone respond to them.
Explain the meaning of John 2:25.
Review what we learned about Nicodemus today. What is suggested about Nicodemus from his name?
Reflection: Can you recall the details of your own conversion, when the Lord caused you to understand the truth of his Word and respond in faith?
For Further Study: For another interesting conversation Jesus once had, and the importance of faith, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “Jesus and the Centurion.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)