Jesus and Nicodemus

The very first thing we read about Nicodemus in the Gospel according to John is that he was “a man of the Pharisees” (3:1). This is the second time the Pharisees are mentioned in this Gospel, and it calls to mind the occasion when they are first mentioned. In chapter 1:19 we read of a delegation sent by the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem to inquire of John the Baptist, “Who art thou?” While in verse 19 they are described as “priests and Levites,” in verse 24 it is said that “they had been sent from the Pharisees.” It is possible, however, that the Pharisees sent a separate delegation of their own because the marginal rendering of verse 24 is, “And certain had been sent from among the Pharisees.” Whether there were two delegations or only one, the fact remains that the Pharisees were deeply concerned about John the Baptist and his ministry.

We may reasonably assume, moreover, that when Nicodemus went to visit Jesus, he was not acting strictly on his own initiative but went as a representative of other Pharisees, at least of a particular group of them living in Jerusalem. If this event occurred during the early part of our Lord’s public ministry (and obviously that is where John places it), the Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus had not yet crystallized, but they were still wondering and inquiring about Him even as they had been wondering and inquiring about John the Baptist. Thus we find Nicodemus respectfully addressing Jesus as “Rabbi” and saying, “we know that Thou art a teacher come from God. . .” Observe that Nicodemus does not say “I,” but “we”; he was speaking not only for himself, but also for the Pharisees he represented.

An important consideration

It is important to bear this fact in mind in order to have an accurate understanding of the conversation which followed. Note should be taken of our Lord’s use of the pronoun “ye” in the verses which follow. This indicates that He was not addressing His words to Nicodemus alone, but to the entire company of Pharisees he represented.

It is unfortunate that in the evolution of the English language between the early 17th and the late 20th centuries, the distinctions between the second person singular and the second person plural have been abandoned. What has happened, of course, is that the singular pronouns (thou, thee, thy, thine) with their corresponding verb forms have disappeared from ordinary speech and the plural pronoun you and the plural verb form are are now used for the singular as well as for the plural. In addition, the plural nominative ye has also dropped out of use, being replaced in our speech by the objective you. I say this is unfortunate because it sometimes affects our understanding of a Scripture passage such as the one before us and obscures its true meaning. Languages do evolve with the passage of time, and so, though we may regret some of the changes that have taken place in our own, there is nothing we can do about it. Nevertheless, as students of God’s Word, we do well to observe some of the subtle differences in its language so that we may better understand what God is saying to us in it.

In the language of the Authorized Version (and also of the American Standard of 1901, from which I am quoting in this article) the pronoun ye and you always refers to more than one person. Thus Jesus was not thinking of Nicodemus alone when He said to him, “If I have told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (v. 12). We need not wonder what were the “earthly things” of which Jesus had been speaking. He spoke of many “earthly things” in His recorded parables; and it may well be that He had already been teaching by means of parables in Jerusalem and that the Pharisees there who heard Him had refused to believe and accept His teaching.

In the previous verse (v. 11), Jesus said to Nicodemus, “We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen . . .” No doubt by saying “we,” He was speaking of Himself and John the Baptist. The Pharisees had sent a delegation to investigate John, and here now was their delegate investigating Jesus. The witness of both John and Jesus was true, not based on speculation, but on fact, but “ye (the group of Pharisees again, not just Nicodemus) receive not our witness.”

Who needs to be born again?

Having looked carefully at these later statements of Jesus, let us now consider in the light of them that very well-known declaration of His in verse 7: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.” The “thee” of course is Nicodemus. Jesus had a message for him to carry back to the other Pharisees, but He was speaking to him personally as well. Twice before He had used emphatic language, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee. . .” (vv. 3, 5), to drive deep into his understanding the absolute necessity of the new birth. And he must carry this truth back to those other Pharisees as well. This word is not for “thee” alone, Nicodemus, but go back and say to all those Pharisees, “Ye — every single one of you — must be born again.”

In verse 10, Jesus calls Nicodemus “the teacher of Israel.” We are not completely sure what He meant by that term, but it may well be that among the Pharisees this man was looked up to as a teacher. Perhaps he was a serious student of Scripture, a man of quiet dignity, courteous and timid, yet well respected by the common people and even by his fellow Pharisees also. That may have been the reason why he was selected as their representative to go and talk to Jesus. I feel sure that Jesus said much more to Nicodemus that night than what is recorded in this short passage in John’s Gospel. He left the presence of the “Teacher come from God” a changed man, convinced and humbled. From that night on, though no doubt for a long while secretly so, he was a true disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.

Nicodemus went back to his fellow Pharisees with the message Jesus gave him for them, “Every single one of you needs to be born again. Except a man be born again, he cannot even see, let alone enter, the kingdom of God.” Did they receive his message? Perhaps a very few did, among them Joseph of Arimathea, but for the most part their unbelief hardened into determined opposition and eventually into murderous hatred. Jesus soon left Jerusalem and carried on most of His ministry in Galilee, but so bitter was their opposition that some of the Pharisees followed Him there that they might heckle Him and try to entangle Him with loaded questions (Matt. 15:1).

Nevertheless, we read in Acts 15:5 that there were in the church at Jerusalem “certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed.” Perhaps the testimony of Nicodemus among the Pharisees in that city a few years before had not been fruitless after all.