The story of Nicodemus might be familiar to you. Or it might not. More often than not, the character himself isn’t the most important part of his own story. I think we might all feel like that sometimes, so maybe that’s one of the ways we can all identify with him.
Nicodemus appears three times in the gospel of John and only in John. Since he isn’t in any of the more narrative gospels that have similar sources, some people have speculated that Nicodemus is a fictional character created to facilitate the writer’s point. Or that he’s a composite character that represents those who are drawn to Jesus’ message but find it hard to let go of the old ways. Perhaps that also ought to be a way we can identify with him.
Nicodemus is described as a pharisee, a leader in the Jewish community. He comes to talk with Jesus (John 3:1-17), he later reminds the Sanhedrin (the assembly of Jewish leaders) that their law requires someone have a chance to speak before they are judged (John 7:50) and he assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial (John 19:39-42).
That conversation with Jesus gives us some of the most familiar words of the gospels: that we must be “born again” and that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” There’s a lot more there and we’ve mined it for its truth as best we can, but we often fixate on those two pieces. And that’s too bad. They’re great, they are, and need to be studied and thought about and understood and wondered about. But they can also be taken out of their context and when we do that, they can take on a life of their own. Before you know it we think we have all the answers.
I don’t. And I’m not doing an in depth study of the content of this story here, nor am I focusing on a particular piece. That’s important and necessary and we do so regularly. Today, I just want to wonder about why the story might be told this way in the first place.
I do like to identify with Nicodemus. I’ve given a couple of reasons above why we all might be able to and I like to wonder about Nicodemus a little less literally and a little more metaphorically.
Here’s Nicodemus, a pharisee, a leader of the community, a teacher. So he’s an intelligent person. He comes to Jesus at night, the story says. He acknowledges that Jesus must be from God because of all the things he’s done. Jesus tries to explain to him about the spirit and Nicodemus doesn’t seem to understand, something Jesus wonders at. And then Jesus keeps talking and there’s no further mention of Nicodemus. At all. It’s almost as if the sole reason for Nicodemus being in the story was for Jesus to say some important things.
And that would be okay. But what if we thought for a minute about how we’re like Nicodemus, how we hear important stuff and how we understand. And don’t. Hear me out, because it’s not a bad thing to still be wondering.
Nicodemus may have come to Jesus at night because he didn’t want to be seen. Sure. He might have worried what the other Pharisees would think, or even the general public. They might wonder if he’s sympathetic to someone who’s been challenging the status quo. It could also be that he was busy all day and after sundown was the time he was available. It doesn’t say. It could also be a metaphor: Nicodemus is in the dark when it comes to what Jesus is teaching. He’s seeking enlightenment. That metaphor makes sense in the context of the story because, at the end, Jesus talks about how the light has come to the world (in himself) and those who do what is true will come to the light.
And I like that. I’ve often thought that the story should have wrapped up with them talking all night and Nicodemus leaving in the bright light of day. Comes in the dark, leaves in the light, right?
But it doesn’t. Maybe Nicodemus didn’t stay long, he got frustrated and moved on. Maybe he left just as the first light of dawn was brightening the sky. The beauty of the sunrise might grab his attention, but it’s not really illuminating the path very well just yet. The story doesn’t say and we, if we’re even still thinking about Nicodemus, we’re left to wonder. Just like him.
And that’s just it: I think he went away with wonder. Maybe that’s why he reappears a couple more times. Maybe Nicodemus’ perspective here isn’t about getting full and complete answers. Maybe it’s about engagement and building a relationship with Jesus. Maybe Nicodemus isn’t a detail guy, maybe he’s more interested in the big picture, maybe a long term relationship. Maybe he’s still just stumbling around in the dark, but trying to do what is true and he’s coming to the light.