Benny Nalkara, CMI
Nicodemus, whose name means “conqueror (victory) of the people” in Greek, surfaces three times in the Gospel of John. The first mention of Nicodemus comes in the well-known exchange with Jesus about the doctrine of spiritual rebirth (Jn 3:1-21). The second time Nicodemus is mentioned, he reminds his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged (John 7:50–51). Finally, Nicodemus appears after the Crucifixion of Jesus to provide the customary embalming spices, and assists Joseph of Arima-thea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:39–42).
The Gospel of John is noted for a growth process of faith. There is a gradual progress in the journey of faith from unbelief to partial belief and then culminates in total faith commitment. True to this understanding the Gospel presents Nicodemus as a cautious convert who grows more courageous as time passes and eventually shows himself as a devoted disciple. There are interpretations which states that he represents a reluctant witness who feels drawn to accept the Saviour’s message but lacks the internal strength to fully commit and thus a hesitant follower. Anyway, we find that Nicodemus had accepted fully the instructions of Jesus with the invitation to look to “the Son” for salvation (3:14–21).
The descriptions given about him gives us an idea about his journey of faith in life. He was a Pharisee (v. 1). Throughout his ministry, Jesus often butted heads with the stubborn and legalistic Pharisees. His message, which stood in direct opposition to their power and principles, centred around a spiritual transformation of the heart, not a fastidious adherence to the law. Nicodemus was a ruler of Jews, which suggests he belonged to the Jewish Sanhedrin (v. 1). It is possible he came to Jesus by night (v. 2) for multiple reasons. First, during the day he was so busy that he could not free himself from his pressing leadership responsibilities. Second, at night-time he could find uninterrupted time with Jesus. Third, it conformed to a rabbinic custom of staying up at night to study the law. There are certain noteworthy things in the approach of Nicodemus towards Jesus. During the visit he calls Jesus “Rabbi”—a term of respect, worthy of a superior teacher. Then with his mention of Christ’s miracles, Nicodemus refers to Jesus as equal to a prophet (v. 2).
The second encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus is recorded in John 7:45–53, where the Sanhedrin attempts to arrest Jesus without a cause. Nicodemus boldly raises the question whether or not the Sanhedrin has the right to overlook due process. Ironically, the Sanhedrin then accuses Nicodemus of sympathizing with Jesus and perhaps even being one of his disciples. The narrative ends there. For those who place Nicodemus with the believers this exchange is courageous. It seems Nicodemus was now willing to risk his professional standing for the sake of following Christ. The final episode between Nicodemus and Jesus is the account of Jesus’ burial recorded in John 19:38–42. Nicodemus was willing to step forth when all the Saviour’s chosen disciples had deserted in fear. For them this Nicodemus is no timid devotee. He reflects the literal meaning of his name as he conquers spiritual darkness. Thus Nicodemus stands for many as a courageous convert who had overcome the stifling traditions of Judaism.
Often the question regarding the real stance of Nicodemus in discipleship is raised by many. Some argue that all the description related to the reactions of Nicodemus in the three episodes are pointing towards his reluctance to have full faith in Jesus. Till the end he remained as a timid follower of Christ. But what we note that John the evangelist uses Nicodemus to teach all about the covenant to follow Christ. Even though this process requires certain costs and sacrifices, it returns a life which is eternal.
Nicodemus was a puzzled man, a man with many honours and yet with something lacking in his life. He came to Jesus for a talk so that somehow in the darkness of the night he might find light. What Jesus asked of Nicodemus was that he must experience a comprehensive spiritual transformation. The change comes when we love Jesus and allow Him into our hearts. In the case of Nicodemus, we find that this basic openness towards Jesus and His ideals is expressed. He was ready to break away from the legalistic stubbornness of his Jewish traditions. His conversation with Jesus regarding the “born again” question, is to be considered as the hallmark of a seeker of truth and the conqueror of spiritual darkness with an open mind towards the truth. Nicodemus teaches us that the real faith seeking understanding may demand a long process of search and may need a transition from a hesitant follower to a committed convert.
In our journey of faith, we need to undergo this comprehensive spiritual transformation to become real committed disciples of Christ. That may demand a total break up with all that bind us in life and to have a real openness to the truth. Only then we will be able to conquer the spiritual darkness of life.