There are a lot of movies with the word “good” in the title. Off the top of your head, how many can you think of?
If you were on your game, you probably mentioned several of the following: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014), Goodfellas (1990), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), A Few Good Men (1992), Good Will Hunting (1997), Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), The Good German (2006), The Good Lie (204), and As Good As It Gets (1997); and that is not to mention some TV series like The Good Place, Good Omens and Stranger Things (ok, I know, this one doesn’t have good in the title, but it’s still really good). Based on all of these titles, here’s what I think: If you have the adjective “good” before your name, nine times out of ten, you’re not. Think about it. “The Good” may not have been as bad as “the Ugly,” but he wasn’t very good. A goodbye is rarely a good thing (unless it is accompanied by “and good riddance!”). The Good lie was still a lie. The guys classified as “goodfellas,” were definitely not good. And there was never such a thing as a good morning in Vietnam. Most of the time, when we place the adjective “good” before a word, it means the opposite. Let’s face it, sometimes mediocre is as good as it gets.
Here’s today’s question: Was Nicodemus a “good” Pharisee? Now, that is a tough question. I grew up believing that he was, but it is also possible that he wasn’t quite as good as I thought. In other words, he could have been nothing more than a mediocre Pharisee. To further complicate things, most of us stumble over the whole category of a “good Pharisee.” A “good Pharisee” sounds like an oxymoron akin to “deeply superficial,” “jumbo shrimp” and an “original copy.” And yet, recent scholarship has caused us to ask if the Pharisees were really all that bad. To put their concern in question form: Were the Pharisees the prestige-loving hypocrites who forced the law upon the people (upon penalty of “or else!”) or were they basically good people trying to live out their faith whose chief sin was seen in opposing Jesus? Now, I will be honest. Until very recently, I would have classified the Pharisees as the bad guys. No, worse than that. They were the very worst guys (just read Matthew 23!). They were so bad, in fact, that if I was screenwriter Sergio Leone, I would have named my movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Pharisees. But modern scholarship has argued that we need to rethink our view of the Pharisees and see them more in light of history than in light of Matthew 23. Now, it would certainly help modern scholarship’s case if in the gospels, we saw a “good” Pharisee. Hence our question: Is Nicodemus that good Pharisee?
Now, as I said, I grew up believing Nicodemus was a good guy, but it is quite possible that the best we can say is that he was mediocre. Yes, he came to Jesus with sincere questions. Yes, he was looking for truth. Yes, he engaged Jesus in an important conversation. Yes, he shows up in the gospel of John two other times. But, is that as good as he gets? Think about it. John 3 never says Nicodemus came to faith. In fact, we are left wondering if Nicodemus even understood anything Jesus was saying. Any straightforward reading of the text would lead us to think that Nicodemus met with Jesus, listened to Jesus, was confused by Jesus and left Jesus unconvinced. And there is a lot of evidence to support such a mediocre view of Nicodemus.
For instance, compare the responses of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. Nicodemus’ last words in the conversation are (3:9): “How can this be?” The last words spoken by the Samaritan woman are (4:39): “He told me everything I ever did!” Now, that is a significant difference. Nicodemus fades into the night while the Samaritan woman leaves her water pot behind and goes to share the good news of Jesus the Messiah! Also compare when Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman met with Jesus. Nicodemus came at night, and the Samaritan woman came during the middle of the day. Now, perhaps that is nothing, but John loves symbolism, especially the symbolism of light and darkness. For instance, in John 3:19 we read: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” Is John telling us something by having Nicodemus meet with Jesus in the darkness, while the Samaritan woman meets Jesus in broad daylight?
Also compare the other two cases where Nicodemus is mentioned in John’s gospel. In John 7, Nicodemus speaks in favor of Jesus. The Pharisees and chief priests want to arrest Jesus, but Nicodemus objects, saying (Jn. 7:51): “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” The Pharisees reject Nicodemus’ objection with strong words (7:52): “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” Clearly, Nicodemus is sympathetic to Jesus here, but are his words motivated by faith or by human kindness? The text never says, which may indicate that Nicodemus, while being a nice guy, is not quite a good guy. In John 19, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus so that they can anoint his body (Jn. 19:38-42) which they do with great care and expense (using 75 pounds of myrrh and aloe). Interestingly, John describes both Joseph and Nicodemus. He tells us that Nicodemus had visited Jesus at night (vs. 39). And he tells us that Joseph (vs. 38) “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he feared the Jewish leaders.” Is John saying that Joseph was a believer, but that Nicodemus was supportive and sympathetic, but not quite there. This is the view of one of the early church fathers. John Chrysostom, in speaking about Joseph and Nicodemus anointing Jesus’ body, writes:
“They still regarded Christ as merely a man. Thus, they brought spices which are most likely to preserve the body for a long while and not permit it to become the prey of corruption, a procedure which indicated that they thought nothing out of the ordinary of Jesus, except that they were displaying very tender affection toward him.”
And this is the view of many modern scholars, professors like Dr. Harold Attridge. In his chapter in the book, The Pharisees, we read:
“Nicodemus’ actions after encountering Jesus have been variously read. It is clear that he did not reject Jesus, despite his puzzlement about rebirth. His discussion with the priests and Pharisees shows him to be a man of principle who will not stand by if people in authority ignore Torah in prosecuting Jesus. Yet, his legal objection does not reveal him to be a believer. It is not clear if he ever fully accepted Jesus’s message, hence his designation in John’s gospel as an ‘ambiguous’ character.”
Bottom line: Nicodemus was in the running to be a “good Pharisee,” but fell just short.
But is that true? I’m not convinced, and I think there are clues in the text that should lead us to see that Nicodemus came to faith and was a “good” Pharisee. Here’s my five-point case.
First, at the end of John 2, we see many people flocking to Jesus and claiming to be his sheep. But it was all superficial. They came because they liked the idea that Jesus could do miracles, and who would not like to follow a true miracle-worker. As a result, Jesus never entrusted himself to them because he knew what was in their hearts (Jn. 2:24-25). And on that sad note, John 2 comes to an end. John 3, however, starts with an adversative, “but.” The NIV translates it “now,” but it should be a “but.” In other words, John is setting up a contrast. Jesus may not have entrusted himself to these people, but he did entrust himself to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. While keeping these people at arms’ length, Jesus welcomed Nicodemus. And that is surprising and for many reasons. For example, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council (which also meant, besides power, he had money). Now, if we were in the western movie-making business (a la Sergio Leone), we would make sure Nicodemus was wearing a black hat because he has the trifecta of evil (he was a Pharisee, he was a ruler, and he was rich–think, the rich young ruler who turned and left Jesus). But in spite of all this, Nicodemus still comes to Jesus. And while we may guess as to why Nicodemus came at night (So as not to be seen? To symbolize his spiritual darkness? So that Jesus’ light could shine in the darkness? Because that is the only time on their calendar that would work?), the text never says or makes a big deal out of it. So maybe, it is not important? What is important is Jesus’ reaction to him. Jesus welcomes Nicodemus at night, sets him apart from the superficial believers in chapter 2 and honors him by calling him one of Israel’s teachers (vs. 10), even though Nicodemus doesn’t understand much of what Jesus is saying. And when John wraps things up in verses 19-21, it seems that Nicodemus is not a verse 20 person who hates the light, but a verse 21 person who comes into the light because he lives by the truth. Here’s what John says (3:19-21):
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
If John 3 is anything, it is the story of Nicodemus coming into the light.
Remember when movies were so long, they had intermissions. Even good movies had them. I’m thinking of Spartacus (197 minutes), Gods and Generals (219 minutes), Ben-Hur (222 minutes), Lawrence of Arabia (228 minutes), Once Upon a Time in America (229 minutes) and Gone with the Wind (233 minutes). Well, keep that thought, because instead of asking you to read three more pages of this post, we’re going to take an intermission. So take a break and come back next week to finish this movie/blog/run-away truck that we call, “The Good, The Way Too Long and The Pharisee.” Wah-wah-wah . . wah-wah-wah. Wah-wah-wah . . wah-wah-wah.