Offbeat #7 - Nicodemus

He’s only mentioned three times in the Bible, all in the book of John, but Nicodemus’ faith journey is fascinating. In John 3, the author tells us that Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, a Jewish sect that prided itself on its strict observance of the Jewish law. All four gospel writers present the Pharisees as being in nearly constant conflict with Jesus. This eventually culminates in the Pharisees being the prime instigators of the plot to have Jesus killed. Simply put, the Pharisees are the villains of the gospel story.
 
All of this makes the appearance of Nicodemus in John 3 all the more remarkable. Arriving to see Jesus by cover of darkness, this religious leader in the anti-Jesus party confesses that Jesus must indeed be a great teacher because of the miracles he has been performing. What follows is some of Jesus’ most famous teaching in all the gospels. He explains what it means to be “born again” and stresses the importance of believing in him as the savior sent from God. Right in the middle of this discourse comes perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus finishes his teaching to Nicodemus by warning him that people tend to love darkness instead of light (clearly referring to his fellow Pharisees) and then by issuing this challenge, “Whoever does what is true comes into the light.”
 
So, what does Nicodemus do? Does he believe? Does he choose light over darkness? Well, John 3 doesn’t tell us. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is left as a cliffhanger with the narrative abruptly shifting to a new scene altogether. Our next glimpse of Nicodemus comes in John 7 and is quite brief. The Pharisees are gathered and are lambasting Jesus and criticizing anyone who would choose to follow him. Nicodemus speaks up and questions whether they should condemn Jesus without first even talking to him. Clearly Nicodemus hasn’t left the Pharisees to become one of Jesus’ followers, but he also hasn’t totally given up on him. Nicodemus’ courage, however, only earns him the derisive laughter of the rest of the Pharisees. Does Nicodemus walk out on his Pharisee friends to join Jesus or does he give in to the pressure of his peers? We’re left with another cliffhanger.
 
Our third and final look at Nicodemus comes in John 19 after Jesus’ death on the cross. The Pharisees had seemingly won their personal war on Christ. But, where is Nicodemus? Rather than celebrating with the Pharisees, he joins some of Jesus’ followers in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. Verse 39 tells us the he brought with him “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds in weight.” This was far from a typical burial practice. In fact, so extravagant are the materials brought by Nicodemus, their only appropriate usage would be for a royal burial. Here at the darkest moment, when many of Jesus’ followers were in hiding, Nicodemus decides where his true allegiance lies and what he believes about who Jesus is. Nicodemus believes Jesus is the long-awaited messiah/king.
 
Nicodemus’ story should challenge us to evaluate what we really believe about Jesus. Is he who he says he is? Is he the king? If so, then we ought to surrender all of ourselves and all our resources to him. Nicodemus also challenges us not simply go along with whatever our peers think, but to truly evaluate Jesus and his teachings for ourselves. My desire as a pastor is not for you to just believe whatever you’re told (not even whatever I tell you), but to engage critically and prayerfully with scripture and with teaching from sermons, books, blogs, podcasts, etc. to learn what the Bible really teaches and who Jesus really is, and then to live as he calls us to live.

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