Beliefs

Nicodemus, the mystery man of Holy Week

Deposition from the Cross from Vienna church - Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatea. Photo courtesy Shutterstock (http://shutr.bz/15W6boY)

(RNS) He came to Jesus at night, sneaking off to meet the man behind the miracles.

He was a powerful Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. He wasn’t supposed to mix with the motley lot that followed Jesus.

Deposition from the Cross from Vienna church - Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatea.  Photo courtesy Shutterstock (http://shutr.bz/15W6boY)

Deposition from the Cross from Vienna church – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimatea. Photo courtesy Shutterstock (http://shutr.bz/15W6boY)

But Nicodemus had to know: Was the charismatic Galilean for real?

Jesus’ answers in the Gospel of John are among his most famous teachings: Nobody can see the kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” he told Nicodemus. And God so loved the world that he gave his only son to save it.

Those words remain widely cited — witness the legion of John 3:16 signs at sporting events — but the man they are spoken to, Nicodemus, remains somewhat of a mystery.

To blacks after the Civil War, he was a model of rebirth as they sought to cast off their old identity as slaves. In the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, Nicodemus is a saint. Some modern Christians continue to call him a hero for defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin and helping give him a proper burial. But others Christians call him a coward who kept his faith concealed.

The Bible tells us little about Nicodemus — good or bad.

He’s only mentioned three times in the Gospel of John. There’s the nocturnal meeting with Jesus, which Bible scholar Ben Witherington calls “Nick at Night” to help his students remember the encounter. Later, Nicodemus reminds the Pharisees that under Jewish law, Jesus should be granted a hearing before he’s condemned. Finally, Nicodemus brings ointments to assist in Jesus’ burial.

“The Bible” miniseries on the History channel that ends Easter Sunday (March 31) assigns Nicodemus a larger role, casting him as Jesus’ chief foil among the Jerusalem Pharisees. He chastises Jesus for overturning the money-changers’ tables and tries to trap him with a question about taxes, eliciting the famous “render unto Caesar” response.

Before Nicodemus, most of Jesus’ followers had been “simple folk,” writes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his book “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week.” Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were “two highly regarded representatives of the educated class of Israel who had not yet dared to profess their discipleship,” the former pope writes.

Nicodemus and Jesus by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov circa 1850.  Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/ZqpaUz)

Nicodemus and Jesus by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov circa 1850. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/ZqpaUz)

Writer Joy Buchanan said she found spiritual and intellectual joy in imagining Nicodemus’ journey from the Jewish ruling council, to skeptic, to the foot of the cross.

“I thought it would be neat to explore a possible path for this guy,” Buchanan said. “What brought him to Jesus that night to ask honest questions?”

Buchanan’s 2011 novel, “Nicodemus,” portrays the Pharisee as a learned scholar enthralled by a woman who, like Jesus, puts love before the law. Her illness spurs Nicodemus to seek out Jesus, who was gaining fame for his dramatic healings.

Buchanan, an evangelical Christian and graduate student of economics in Northern Virginia, said Nicodemus can speak to an age awash in information but parched for spiritual wisdom.

“He’s a character that modern Christians can relate to because of his education, and the way he thinks, and the way he wants a clear-cut answer from Jesus,” Buchanan said. Jesus’ enigmatic response — that individuals must be “born again” — puzzled Nicodemus, and continues to challenge Christians.

“Jesus used a phrase that is very meaningful, but also very hard to understand,” Buchanan said.

Nicodemus might not be on the minds of many modern evangelicals, but they care deeply about his conversation with Jesus in John’s Gospel, said Timothy Larsen, a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College in Illinois. Most consider being “born again” essential to salvation and a hallmark of their faith.

“Evangelicals have traditionally cared a lot about when this happened,” Larsen said of the born-again experience. “It is the hinge moment in a person’s life.” When Chuck Colson moved from Nixon hatchet man to evangelical eminence, he titled his autobiography “Born Again.”

Well before Colson, the freed slaves who moved to Nicodemus, Kansas, after the Civil War sought rebirth as well, argues scholar Rosamond Rodman.

Many scholars have assumed that the town, which was founded by African-American ministers, was named after a former slave named Nicodemus. But the town’s founders had ample reason to honor the biblical figure, Rodman argues.

Slave owners often forbade blacks from reading the Bible, fearful that they might question the scriptural sanction of slavery. “Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the same way African-Americans came to the Bible: at night and in secret, understandably afraid of the consequences,” Rodman writes.

But the story of Nicodemus ends not in darkness but in light, according to Benedict and other Christians.

After the apostles have fled, it’s Nicodemus who walks up Golgotha with Joseph of Arimathea on Good Friday, bringing balm to bury Jesus, in full view of the Jewish and Roman authorities.

“The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions,” writes Benedict. “This is a royal burial.”

About the author

Daniel Burke

Daniel Burke worked for Religion News Service from 2006-2013. He now co-edits CNN's Belief Blog.

21 Comments

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  • Great article! It’s interesting that most of the popular quotes from Jesus are spoken to a crowd or group, but John 3:16 is spoken to only one man. So, understanding Nicodemus’s heart and background can definitely help modern Christians to interpret the meaning and purpose of Jesus’s words.

  • I wish you had finished the quote…”Amen Amen I say to you, unless one is born of WATER and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” We are born again thru Baptism, into Christ’s death that we might share in His Resurrection. This is consistent Church teaching for 2000 years….the ‘New Testament Church’ taught this from the very beginning (read the Church Fathers). Salvation is NOT guaranteed and achieved in a moment of emotional pitch…it is an ongoing, lifelong struggle against sin, and the aquiescence of the individual will to align with God’s Will. Even St. Paul didn’t consider his salvation assured UNTIL he had run the full race and stayed faithful to the end (way too many examples of this, but check Phil 2:12 and 3:12 in just ONE epistle). This whole ‘once saved always saved’ abomination is a modern innovation and a true tradition of man; it is sadly lulling many souls into the particularly deadly sin of presumption.

  • I’ve read Joy’s book “Nicodemus” and found it to be a very enlightening and interesting take on the Biblical character. It’s a fast read and I highly recommend it for all those interested in learning more about such a little known individual from the Bible.

  • Again well said Susan! This whole thing about saved once, saved forever really comes from Martin Luther or is a furthr devolution of his heretical teachings from the fathers of the Catholic Church. I once worked with a fine evangelical woman who told me that “we don’t have to really worry about the Ten Commandments because we are “saved” by Jesus and that SAINT Paul’s comment about working out his salvation in fear and trembling referred to dissention in the church (???) This is dangerous presumption as you state.
    It is so clear what Our Lord’s words to Nicodemus mean. As you pointed out, one must be baptised in water and the Holy spirit. We see this too when St. Peter baptises Cornelius and his friends at Ceasarea.

  • Susan, I am sorry that you do not find the death burial and resurrection sufficient for salvation. Are the things you do so important that you can influence God ????? Eph 2: 8-9

  • William, I most certainly see the Passion, death and Resurrection of our Lord as ENTIRELY sufficient for our redemption, but our salvation is truly in our hands (Phil 2:12-13) to be worked out as a consequence of our free-will decisions to either cooperate with God’s grace, or turn our backs on it. He doesn’t FORCE salvation on anyone, and as the great St. Augustine says, “the God Who made you without your consent will not save you without it”. I won’t even begin to go into the myriad passages that deal with our being saved and repaid according to what we’ve done, and how well we’ve demonstrated our love for God and neighbor. I would suggest as a start, looking at Matthew 25 for 2 very clear statements from our Lord on this, which St. Paul explains further in the Philippeans passage.

  • I have been looking up Nicodemus articles since a morning Sunday School class kinda of said that Nicodemus was saved because of his anointing Jesus’ body and speaking up for Jesus in trial. If salvation comes from doing good deeds, then we are all saved – but I think not.

    What is interesting to me is this blog on once saved always saved. I stumbled with this for a while and came up with this :
    If once we are saved we are always saved, then who cares if we stumble and fall ? We would not be accountable to anyone ….. we would be, in this concept, always saved to God -no matter what ….

    Also: As God sees it, there are only two types of people on the planet – those that are saved and those that are unsaved. The saved will go to Heaven and the unsaved to Hell. Satan already has the unsaved – unless they turn around and accept Jesus Christ. Satan doesnt need to pursue the unsaved because he has them by default.
    Satan is after the saved but- If once saved, we are always saved, what is satan’s job ???? Satan wouldn’t be able to pull us down to sin. I was asked once if I believed in eternal security? I replied “yes i do as long as the person is walking with Jesus in heart,mind and soul 24-7-365+ every second of every minute of every hour !”. I actually believe “eternal security is a cop-out for people to live how ‘they’ want to……

  • {f Nicodemus was saved, I am throwing in a disclaimer to say I don’t try to discredit any person’s salvation ! Jesus did say we are to be fruit inspectors, and therefore the works thing doesn’t add up. – “not by works that any man should boast”. It is just that alot of assumptions are made without scriptural backup.

  • Thank you Susan. Those who subscribe to the ‘once saved…’ theory look to texts like Galatians 2:16 which says a man cannot be justified by works, but a look at the next two verses (17, 18) clearly state that we cannot be justified in Christ while harboring sin. Vs 21 states that being crucified with Christ means that His life is evident in us. Also, Hebrews 6:4-6, 10:26, 27, 2 Peter 2:21,22 (just to name a few) all make it clear that if after we’ve experienced Christ’s saving grace and return to our old ways we will not be saved. Paul states in Romans 8 that baptism is symbolic of dying to sin and rising to live the new life. Transformation is part of the salvation experience and we play a large roll in it.

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