Four Profiles in Discipleship in the Gospel of John
Samaritan Woman
Lame man at the pool

Part II: Nicodemus

First is Nicodemus. To his credit, he seeks Jesus out, though he comes surreptitiously in the dead of the night. Nicodemus is a "leader of the Jews"(3:1), "a teacher of Israel" (3:10), and a member of the religious party most opposed to the teaching of Jesus. In fact, in chapter 12, the summary statement says that it was Nicodemus' own group, the Pharisees, which intimidated the authorities against confessing Jesus. Nicodemus politely addresses Jesus as a rabbi in God's service (3:2). With his perfunctory greeting, he is like one who tries to fill up a canyon with reverberating echoes: the noise has no substance. For a Gospel that announces a new Genesis founded upon Christ ("In the beginning was the Word."), merely calling Jesus a good rabbi is woefully inadequate.

Hence, Jesus does not even acknowledge what Nicodemus said. Instead he chooses to engage him in a seemingly unrelated topic of conversation. Jesus says that rebirth is necessary to enter the realm of God (3:3). Of course, Nicodemus the Pharisee has already found religion, so he thinks that Jesus must be referring to physical rebirth (3:4). No, Jesus responds, someone who is reborn spiritually knows the experience as surely as one who has been refreshed by an invisible breeze (3:5-8). How can a respected rabbi among the Jews not know this (3:10)?

And that is precisely the point. Nicodemus is the first of what we might loosely call the official clergy with whom Jesus has personal engagement. Yet he does not accept the testimony of Jesus (3:11). Commendable is Nicodemus' seeking out Jesus, but lamentable is his response. For the rest of the conversation, it is Jesus who speaks while Nicodemus just fades away into the darkness from which he came. We are left with the feeling that he just doesn't get it.

The fate of Nicodemus is not necessarily unhappy, however. In chapter 7, the Gospel portrays Nicodemus as a defender of Jesus' right to a fair trial (7:50-51); in chapter 19, Nicodemus helps to bury Jesus with honor. Is this a hint that Nicodemus has taken Jesus' words to heart? Perhaps his nocturnal discussion with Jesus was the last hour before the dawn of hope.

Go to | Introduction | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Reading Scripture as the Word of God |
(C) 1998, 2006 Mark Whitters