Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. (Jn 3:1)
Nicodemus is an enigmatic figure. Did he come to Jesus by night because he wanted to avoid detection, or was he simply a busy man with a full schedule? Our answer to that question (and, of course, we can only speculate) will color what we think of him.
Later passages in John portray Nicodemus as a secret believer. In chapter 7 Nicodemus argues for giving Jesus a fair trial‚Äîbut only in such a way that won’t tip his hand that he is “one of them” (7:50). In chapter 19 he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, another disciple “though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews” (19:38) and helps him bury Jesus’ body. Did he ever profess Christ publicly?
Nicodemus was an esteemed teacher, yet Jesus chided him for the shallowness of his spiritual insight. His later behavior suggests that by the end of the Gospel, he had not yet come to terms with all that it means to be a follower of Christ. Will Nicodemus ever get it right? Will we?
For Nicodemus, beholding Christ’s glory was apparently never as bright an epiphany as it was for others. His faith always seems tentative. He saw Jesus’ signs and came to speak with him, but there is no resolution to the encounter. The Gospel writer identifies him as a believer, but one would be hard pressed to find much evidence that this is the case.
What do we do with an encounter with the divine? We can abandon ourselves to the transformations it calls forth, but that may be harder than it sounds. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born from above” (v. 7). The teacher of Israel struggled to understand. He hedged his bets and preferred to follow Jesus under cover of darkness and at a safe distance.
Rearranging one’s life so thoroughly that one can speak of “rebirth” doesn’t often happen all at once, no matter what the revival preachers tell you.