Nicodemus the Pharisee

The discourse between Nicodemus and Jesus Christ, found in the Gospel of John, is one of the most profound doctrinal discussions Jesus had with a Pharisee.

The story of Nicodemus and Jesus Christ is quite fascinating. Most of the Pharisees were totally opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Yet Nicodemus, one of their leaders, came to Jesus by night and ended up learning a great deal about the need to be born again and how one enters the Kingdom of God.

Who was Nicodemus?

“There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him’” (John 3:1-2).

This encounter took place early in the ministry of Jesus. The famous miracle of water being turned into wine had just occurred (John 2:1-11). In fact, “many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did” (verse 23).

So, Nicodemus acknowledged that he and other Pharisees knew that Jesus was a teacher who came from God, because none of the signs that He did could have been done without God.

Who were the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were a religious sect of the Jews. They had their own beliefs and interpretations of the Old Testament laws and were often at odds with Jesus Christ. The following information is from jewishvirtuallibrary.org:

“Their main distinguishing characteristic was a belief in an Oral Law that God gave to Moses at Sinai along with the Torah . . . or Written Law . . .  The Pharisees believed that God also gave Moses the knowledge of what these laws meant and how they should be applied.”

The oral traditions were largely devised by the Pharisees and eventually became codified and written down in what is now known as the Talmud.

It was these oral traditions “of the elders” that Jesus addressed and condemned in Mark 7:5-9: “Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?’

“He answered and said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

“‘For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.’

“He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.’”

Jesus’ core problem with the Pharisees was that they elevated their humanly devised laws over the actual laws God had revealed. In many ways, their laws contradicted the intent and purpose of God’s law and took people’s attention away from how God had actually intended them to live.

Still, Nicodemus came to Jesus

Even though Jesus chastised the Pharisees for their man-made commandments, Nicodemus still came to visit Jesus.

Why did he come at night? The Bible doesn’t say, but as a ruler of the Pharisees (which meant he was a member of the Sanhedrin or Council), he may have just wanted to have a private meeting with Jesus away from the scrutiny of others.

Whatever the reason, Nicodemus was going to hear some profound truths—things even Jesus’ disciples had not yet heard.

Jesus responds to Nicodemus

One of the Pharisees’ firmly held beliefs was the resurrection of the dead. The apostle Paul knew about their belief and used it during his defense in Acts 23:6-9.

So, interestingly, when Jesus began His discussion with Nicodemus, He focused on what must happen prior to one’s entering the Kingdom of God, and it involved a resurrection. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Nicodemus then said to Jesus in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

It seems to have been a logical question, and so Jesus further explained this belief in the next few verses. He took time to instruct Nicodemus on one of the most foundational beliefs regarding how one enters the Kingdom of God.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (verses 5-7).

For a further detailed explanation of this doctrine, please read our article “What Does It Mean to Be Born Again?

Jesus then concluded this discourse on what being born again will look like in the future: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (verse 8).

After hearing these words, “Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’” (verse 9).

We don’t read any more comments from Nicodemus in this passage, but Jesus continued His teachings.

Further doctrines that Jesus taught

It’s important to note that after this discussion on being born again, Jesus emphasized to Nicodemus additional doctrinal truths that are at the heart and core of Christianity:

  • “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven” (verse 13). For more about this, see our article “Do We Go to Heaven When We Die?
  • “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (verses 14-15). For more about this, read our article “Why Jesus Had to Die.”
  • “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (verses 16-17). For more on this, see our article “Love of God.”

Nicodemus appears again

There are two other instances where Nicodemus is mentioned in the Gospel of John. From what we read, it seems that he believed what Jesus had taught him earlier.

Nicodemus, the one who had heard the truth about being born again and how to enter the Kingdom of God, used his resources to show honor to Jesus after His death.It was during the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the annual festivals of God, that Jesus proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38).

Soon afterward, there was a division among the crowd as to who they thought Jesus was. Many thought He was the Prophet, and others said He was the Christ. The Pharisees then pompously asked the crowd to consider: “Have any of the rulers or Pharisees believed in Him?” (verse 48).

However, one spoke up: “Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?’” (verses 50-51).

Good question. Nicodemus had insight into the law, and he stood up to his fellow Pharisees. As a ruler in the Sanhedrin, he was putting his reputation at risk by challenging them in public. As we can read in the next verse, the other Pharisees openly disagreed with him.

“They answered and said to him, ‘Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee’” (verse 52).

They totally rejected what he had to say. This account seems to indicate that Nicodemus was sympathetic to Jesus and was growing in faith that Jesus was the Christ.

One final appearance of Nicodemus

After Jesus Christ was crucified, His body was taken away to be buried by Joseph of Arimathea. But Joseph was actually assisted by someone else—Nicodemus.

“And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby” (John 19:39-42).

Nicodemus brought a prodigious amount of expensive spices for the burial. He and Joseph prepared the body of Jesus and buried Him in the tomb.

This act showed their extreme respect for Jesus. Nicodemus, the one who had heard the truth about being born again and how to enter the Kingdom of God, used his resources to show honor to Jesus after His death. He stood up to the Pharisees by proclaiming that one shouldn’t judge a man until he heard that person.

What happened to Nicodemus?

The Bible doesn’t reveal any more information about what happened to Nicodemus. There is some speculation about his life later, which can be found in a number of commentaries. One of those traditions is found in Unger’s Bible Dictionary:

“Tradition adds that after he had thus publicly declared himself a follower of Jesus, and had been baptized by Peter, he was displaced from his office and expelled from Jerusalem.”

Whether this particular story about Nicodemus is true or not, we do have biblical proof that he was interested in what Jesus taught and was supportive of Him. From Nicodemus’ limited statements and actions recorded in the Bible, we can conclude that he came to believe in what Jesus taught.

So must we. That is what faithful men and women need to do!

Learn more about faith in our section “Faith: Believing and Trusting in God.”

About the Author

John Foster

John Foster

John Foster grew up in the Chicago, Illinois, area and began attending the Church of God with his parents in 1958.

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