There are a lot of songs with the word “good” in the title. Off the top of your head, how many can you name?
If you were on your game, you probably would have mentioned some of the following songs: “Good Vibrations” (The Beach Boys), “Only the Good Die Young” (Billy Joel), “Good Day Sunshine” or “Good Morning, Good Morning” (The Beatles), “You’re No Good” (Linda Ronstadt), “Good Riddance” – aka, “Time of Your Life” (Green Day), “Good Lovin’” (The Rascals),”Good Enough” (Evanescence), “Good Golly, Miss Molly” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), “Good Girl Gone Bad” (Rihanna) and of course, “Good King Wenceslas.” And if you got even four of those names, good for you! But of course, if you got less than three titles, let’s face it, “You’re no good, you’re no good, you’re no good, baby you’re no good.” Now, if you named the theme from the movie, “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” then you may go directly to the nearest unclaimed railroad, and buy it with the $200 you got for passing “Go,” because you are on your game! Sing it with me: Wah-wah-wah / wah-wah-wah. Wah-wah-wah / wah-wah-wah.
Here’s today’s question: Was Nicodemus a “good” Pharisee? We started talking about this in the previous post, and we raised the following questions:
- Is there such a thing as a “good” Pharisee?
- Did Nicodemus ever come to faith?
- Does the contrast between Nicodemus and the people in chapter 2 (the ones with a thoroughly superficial belief) prove anything?
- Doesn’t a comparison between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman prove Nicodemus didn’t come to faith?
- Doesn’t John’s light/darkness symbolism tell us that Nicodemus was not of the light because he came to Jesus at night?
- Does the fact that Jesus welcomed Nicodemus change how we are to understand Nicodemus?
- Is the story of Nicodemus the story of someone coming into the light?
- Is that all there is to say about Nicodemus?
Let’s start with that last question first: is that all there is to say about Nicodemus? And the answer is: Absolutely not! There are many more clues in John 3 that, if we follow them, will show us clearly that Nicodemus was a good Pharisee. What clues might these be? Let’s get back to the story of Nicodemus (John 3) and see for ourselves.
First clue: Everything that Nicodemus says about Jesus is true (and really nice and honoring). He calls Jesus, Rabbi (Nicodemus was probably called Rabbi himself, so in saying this he is making the claim that Jesus is worthy of honor as a colleague). He also says Jesus is a teacher who has come from God. He also sees that the signs that Jesus is doing are proof that God is with him. These statements alone put Nicodemus in a very different category than most of the Pharisees we see in the synoptic gospels. They (the “bad” Pharisees) believed that Jesus cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub. They believed Jesus was a sinner because he associated with sinners and because he didn’t follow the law meticulously and because he claimed things no human should ever claim (like in John 8 where Jesus says, “before Abraham was born, I am!”). In short, it sure seems like Nicodemus is an honest seeker who recognizes that Jesus is at least a (true) prophet, even if he isn’t quite ready to call him the promised Messiah.
There’s a second clue in verse 2 where Nicodemus moves from the singular “I” to the plural “we.” Note verses 2-3: “He [Nicodemus – singular] came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we [plural] know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” And all God’s scholars said, “What’s up with that?” Did Nicodemus bring some disciples of his own with him to meet with Jesus? Was Nicodemus sent by a group of Pharisees? Or was he speaking on behalf of people who were wondering if Jesus could possibly be the promised Messiah and had sent Nicodemus on a fact-finding mission for them (since he was their teacher)? If option 3 is likely, it feels like it ought to change how we read the whole passage.
A third clue. . . . Verse 3 seems to come out of nowhere, but that is John’s fault. He obviously skipped over Nicodemus’ initial question and went straight to Jesus’ answer. Reading between the lines, we can deduce that Nicodemus’ original question was: “Are you the promised Messiah?” (We know you are a teacher; we know you can do miracles; we know you are sent by God; but we don’t know if you are the one. Tell us, please, are you the Messiah?). But there is a barb in Jesus’ answer. By asking his question this way, Nicodemus is assuming that given a few additional facts from Jesus, he will be able to discern if Jesus is the Messiah or not. But Jesus challenges this assumption and says (vs. 3): “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” In other words, “Nicodemus, you think you will be able to discern the truth based on a few answers, but that’s not true. In order to see spiritual truth, you have to have spiritual eyes. You have to be born again.” Now, that had to sting because Nicodemus thought he already had spiritual eyes. After all, he was one of Israel’s teachers. But now, Jesus is telling him that he lacks the spiritual acumen to see even basic spiritual realities. But Jesus isn’t being the bad guy here. His tone may be a bit harsh, but it has a purpose. He needs Nicodemus to let go of being a Pharisee with all the answers and, instead, become a student with a hunger to learn. And that is hard to do. Again, it’s pretty clear in the narrative of John 3. In the first few verses, Nicodemus saw himself as the one in charge; the one who, on behalf of his people, would either approve of Jesus as someone from God or disapprove of him as a false messiah. But now, Jesus is turning the tables; and just like that, HE is evaluating whether Nicodemus was in or out. Nicodemus came in with a great deal of pride. And now Jesus is asking him to let go of that pride and, instead, to put on a great deal of humility. Again, this would not be easy for Nicodemus to do. He is a leader in his synagogue. He is a teacher in Israel. He is a Pharisee. He is an expert in the law. So now, the question becomes: From here on out in the text, do we see arrogance in Nicodemus or humility? Let’s look.
In verse 4, Jesus makes a rather bizarre statement about needing to be born again (3:3 – “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”). But Nicodemus has no idea what Jesus is saying, a point made even worse when it becomes clear that Jesus believed that he should be able to grasp it easily (after all, he was one of Israel’s teachers). Now, part of the reason Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus here is because he felt he was above all that. Yes, the Samaritans need to be born again. Yes, sinners need to be born again. Yes, even Sadducees need to be born again (that is why they are “sad, you see”). But Pharisees certainly didn’t (after all, they were Israel’s teachers). And in particular, he didn’t feel he needed to be born again (after all, he was one of Israel’s good teachers!). And so, Nicodemus responds to Jesus’ demeaning accusation with a bit of snark, saying (vs. 4): “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Granted that sounds idiotic. Did he really think Jesus was talking about being physically born a second time? Of course not. His intent was to question how Jesus could even hint that he needed to be “born from above” (a good paraphrase might be: “How dare he say that I, one of Israel’s teachers, would not be allowed even to enter the kingdom of God!”), but it came out wrong, like he had totally missed Jesus’ point. But he was being ridiculous to make a point. DA Carson says that Nicodemus’ responded “with a crassly literalistic interpretation of what Jesus said, as a way of expressing a certain degree of scorn.” Ah, now that makes sense. Nicodemus is not so clueless that he thinks that Jesus is advocating climbing back into his mother’s womb because that would be utterly ridiculous. Instead, he is indicating that what Jesus is saying about his need to be “spiritually reborn” is utterly ridiculous.
Note how Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ snark. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t rail against the Pharisees. He doesn’t see Nicodemus to the door. Instead, he clarifies his comments to bring them down to Nicodemus’ level. But there are a few changes in his explanation. “No one can see” becomes “no one can enter.” Being “born again” becomes being “born of water and the spirit.” I must admit, that, as clarifications go, these aren’t very clarifying (I can almost hear Jesus say to me: “What? You are a teacher in the church and do you not understand these things?). So let me add some further clarification. “Born of water and the spirit” is best understood as a unity—a “water-spirit” birth—and speaks of a pouring out from above. Now, any good teacher of Israel would immediately think of Ezekiel 36 where God promises to sprinkle the people with clean water so that they can be cleansed from their sin—a cleansing that results in a new work of God’s grace. Ezekiel 36:26-27 says: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” Any good teacher in Israel should have seen the connection between what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus and to what Ezekiel had said, but unfortunately, Nicodemus missed his connection and was late to the party. But had he been on his game, he would have seen that Ezekiel’s new heart seemed almost identical to Jesus’ new birth, a birth that transforms the individual from the inside out. But Ezekiel is also making one other point. While this new heart is a gift of God’s grace, we have a part to play in it. We have to repent. Jesus is offering Nicodemus a new heart, but he is also calling him to repent.
And how does Nicodemus respond to Jesus’ call? He asks one more question (vs. 9): “How can this be?” In other words, “Tell me more.” And so, Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ request in verses 10-15 with clear teaching that expresses in far more detail and depth what Nicodemus wanted so desperately to know. Here’s how these verses end (13-15): “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Who is Jesus? He is the Son of man who has come from heaven, who has come from God to bring salvation. And how do we get this new heart promised by Ezekiel? The Son must be lifted up in much the same way Moses lifted the snake up in the wilderness so that all who looked to it would be healed. And how do we “look to the Son?” We believe in him and receive eternal life.
As soon as Jesus explains the path to this new heart, Nicodemus is silent (a sign of humility). He asks no more questions. He offers no more snark. He shows no more indications of confusion or doubt. Instead, he takes in all that Jesus is saying.
In fact, John feels so comfortable with where Nicodemus is, that he breaks off the narrative and explains to us what Jesus was saying. Had Nicodemus rejected Jesus at this point, we would have expected Jesus to rail against the evils of the Pharisees much like he did in Luke 11 when the Pharisee he was dining with refused to humble himself (vs. 40 – “You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also. . . . Woe to you, Pharisees. . . .”). But there is no such response from Jesus because Nicodemus had accepted what Jesus had said. And John hints that this is the case. Hence, the reason he concludes this story with these great words (Jn. 3:16-18): “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” You just get the feeling that while he is talking to all of us here, he is thinking about Nicodemus, the Pharisee who believed.
In addition, it sure seems like only a believer would stand against the whole Jewish ruling body and demand that Jesus be treated justly. It sure seems like only a true believer would ask for Jesus’ body so that it could be lovingly prepared for burial. And while Joseph gets special mention as a follower of Jesus (though in secret) and Nicodemus does not, my guess is that John felt no need to do so since Nicodemus has already been introduced to us and had clearly come to faith on that night long ago. Why restate that Nicodemus was a believer, where it was patently obvious from any reading of John 3? And it was patently obvious in his careful attending to Jesus’ body. Here was a man who loved Jesus deeply.
Put all of this together, and it demonstrates clearly that Nicodemus was a good Pharisee. After all, he has all the fruit. He came to Jesus seeking the truth. He listened intently to what Jesus had to say, even when it contradicted his own self of self-righteousness. He repented of his sin and of his (self-perceived) holiness. He embraced Jesus’ reading of the Old Testament. He understood that Jesus is the promised Messiah. And he stepped out in faith in love of Jesus, even when Jesus’ closest disciples had abandoned him. That’s a good Pharisee. Nicodemus may have politely mouthed his first words to Jesus in John 3 (“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”); but as he listened to Jesus, he realized he had spoken far better than he knew. The only person who could perform the signs Jesus was doing had to come from God; he had to be the Messiah. With the first words out of his mouth on that night, Nicodemus had (perhaps unknowingly) begun a new journey of faith. But what took him the distance, was that he stopped talking, humbled himself and listened to Jesus. He was willing to put aside the title, a teacher of Israel, and instead fully embraced the title, a student of Jesus or, in the language of that day, a disciple of Jesus. I don’t know about you, but I am getting some really good vibrations about Nicodemus. In fact, I can say it even stronger than that: “Good Golly, Miss Molly, there is no doubt that Nicodemus came to faith and was a good Pharisee.” I wouldn’t even be surprised if someday they made a movie about him. And when they do, they can call it, “The Good, the Humble, the Disciple, the Pharisee.” Wah-wah-wah . . wah-wah-wah. Wah-wah-wah . . . wah-wah-wah.