If you’ve spent any amount of time in church, you’re probably already familiar with, perhaps, the most celebrated and esteemed passages of Scripture, that of, John 3:16. Those words of Christ, which read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” have been so popularized throughout history, near colloquial, that even unbelievers and non-followers of Jesus are, at the very least, familiar with the words. Yet, because of their unbelief, they know not the true and vast import of the Messiah’s statement, carrying such weight and significance as to unburden all those who feel “weary and burdened” with the plague of sin. (Mt 11:28 NIV) But the great significance of this expression from the Son of God comes from the larger context of John 3 itself. If you’re more than familiar with the verse, then you know the account.
Nicodemus, a highly esteemed Jewish leader and member of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee, and a comrade of those who sought to destroy Jesus’s mission, comes to Jesus in the cool of evening, under cover of darkness (Jn 3:2), to inquire of him and the stir he had already conjured up through his miracles and healings and teachings. Nicodemus solicits the Savior at twilight, assuredly out of fear and shame. “What might my colleagues think if they see me with this Man?” he might muse. Or, “What sort of reproach and disgrace might this rouse?” Thus, he comes to Christ, and the answer that Nicodemus sought isn’t what he got. Most are familiar with this account and with Nicodemus’s ignorance to Christ’s words regarding the new birth and being born again. (Jn 3:3–8) Jesus speaks the gospel to this rabbincal teacher, telling him that this new birth cannot arise out of anything earthly man can do. Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (Jn 3:13) No one can make it on their own, no one can offer their traditions and deeds and doctrines on the table of salvation and expect to be accepted. Salvation only comes to those who believe that he, Christ, is the promised Messiah, that he is God on earth, come for the redemption of man. (Jn 3:15)
Jesus continues this dialogue with Nicodemus, again trying to express to this renowned teacher and leader of the seriousness of the Messiah’s mission and the urgency at his own response. But what’s most interesting to note about this passage, which is only recorded in the Gospel of John, is that there’s no seeming resolution to Nicodemus’s inquiry. The section ends with Jesus talking about light and darkness, and those that love one or the other (Jn 3:19–21), and then it quickly transitions to the next scene where John the Baptist exalts Christ. So . . . what happened with Nicodemus? How did the conversation end? Where did he go and what did he do afterwards? Was he changed? Did he get saved? What happened?
Defending Jesus…kind of.
Well, what’s fascinating is that, in part, we do know the result. Besides the scene of his questioning Jesus (Jn 3:1–21), Nicodemus is also mentioned two other times in Scripture, in John 7 and John 19.
In John 7, were given the incident of Nicodemus half-heartedly taking Jesus’s case amidst rampant dissension and division regarding his teachings. (Jn 7:40–52) A large crowd gathers and begins discussing what to do with Jesus and his disciples. Some were calling him a prophet, a good teacher, a great man, while others were naming him a blasphemer and hypocrite, worthy of death. “The crowd was divided about him. Some even wanted him arrested, but no one laid a hand on him.” (Jn 7:43–44) Some of the Pharisees interposed to have Jesus wrongfully and unlawfully arrested and convicted. This is where Nicodemus chimes in: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (Jn 7:51) But, despite his “defense” of Christ, the other religious leaders quickly squash his suggestion of a legal trial, disregarding Nicodemus’s notion of “fairness.”
Then, he’s not mentioned again until John 19, where, now, we find he and Joseph of Arimathea caring for Jesus’s dead body after the crucifixion. (Jn 19:38–40) They took the lifeless form of Christ and properly prepared it to prolong decay. The key phrase which appears here, is actually in reference to Joseph of Arimathea, but, I contend, it is also applicable to the story of Nicodemus. Verse 38 says he “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” But secretly! How telling is that revelation! Extrabiblical Christian tradition and history holds that Nicodemus was eventually martyred for his open declaration of Jesus’s gospel. The annals of orthodoxy hold that he was killed while serving as a missionary some time during the 1st century A.D.
What he once cowered away from was now the cause of his demise. What once he believed, yet with great timidity, now turned him over to the cruel hands of death. What a shame to him to have lived and not stood, to have interacted and not upheld the truth. But it seems, notes Alexander Maclaren, that the cross and death of Jesus “shamed and stung [him] into courage.” From doubter to defender to martyr, Nicodemus’s life is a tragedy turned triumph because of Jesus’s grace and his faith in the cross. That’s what Jesus does, he transforms lives. “God is [the] great transformer of lives,” writes D. G. Barnhouse. “He turns slaves into kings,” and sinners into saints.1
Living for Jesus.
Regardless of who you are, God’s Word of grace can redeem and rescue you. For Nicodemus, and for you, it can also infuse you with strength and courage and fortitude to stand for the cause and mission of Christ. Don’t make the same mistake that Nicodemus made (and Joseph made) with his life. Don’t serve Jesus in secret. Don’t claim Christ only in the shadows, in a furtive manner that associates with caution. Don’t piddle with gospel and seek to uphold your reputation and relationships over everything else. This is, seemingly, what Nicodemus did. Not wanting to relinquish his seat, and the power and prestige that came with it, he endeavored to attend to the mission of Jesus while yet retaining his prominence and prowess. This can’t be done, for the gospel itself mandates that we relinquish all of ourselves in exchange for Christ. We must be completely dead to ourselves before we can be alive “in Christ.”
This is what Jesus was referencing when he impressed upon his disciples to deny themselves and take up his cross daily. (Mt 16:24) It’s a continual struggle to resign one’s self to the gospel, to abandon all earthly aspirations in the stead of new, heavenly desires, to renounce control of your life and surrender to the will of the Father. But this is what the gospel accomplishes, which is why we must perpetually remind ourselves of it! Charles Spurgeon even said, “The most important daily habit we can possess is to remind ourselves of the Gospel.” A fresh remembrance of Jesus’s grace, an unbroken memory of his mercy, an incessant gaze upon the cross of Christ: this is what spurs holy passions and frees us to walk in “newness of life.” “The sight of Christ’s Cross makes the coward brave,” continues Maclaren, “[it] leads to courage, and kindles a love which demands expression, [it] impels to joyful surrender.”
How are you living? In the shadows? Or in the sunlight? Are you living with the boldness of grace or the fear of rejection? Are you serving in secret or testifying in confidence? Are you living in anxiety, trying to uphold your reputation, or are you living with abandon, yielding to a relationship with Jesus?
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia: The Evangelical Foundation, 1959), 1:71.