John 3:1 – There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.
It seems that this man, Nicodemus was not just any ordinary Jew. He was a man of zealous religious devotion, committed to the Law of Moses and to upholding the truth of God in Israel (or so he thought). He was not your average run-of-the-mill Jew, but he was a man that no doubt far exceeded the common Jew in his religious achievements, capabilities and public recognition among the people.
We’re told here that Nicodemus was a Pharisee. Now, when we read the Bible 2,000 after this time, it’s easy for us to just brush off the Pharisees as a legalistic, semi-heretical sect of Judaism that rejected Christ and trusted in a works-based salvation. It’s especially easy to think of them with scorn in our minds because we know how harshly the Lord Jesus denounced them as a whole and rebuked them sharply on many occasions. However, we have to understand that historically speaking, in Israel at the time of Christ, the Pharisees were the peoples’ choice for religious and political leaders.
The people looked up to the Pharisees for their religious insight and counsel, because they believed the Pharisees were so devout and zealous for the Law of God. After all, who else but the Pharisees would dare to fast for two days every week and give tithes of all they owned (Luke 18:12)? Who else sat in the seat of Moses with such authority and taught the Word of the Lord (Mat. 23:2-3)? Who else was so devout as to travel land and sea just to make a single convert (Mat. 23:15)? Who else would give alms to the poor on a regular basis (Mat. 6:2)? Who else would be so devoted to prayer that they would drop whatever they were doing to pray right on the spot whenever the hour of prayer struck, even if they happened to be in the middle of the marketplace (Mat. 6:5)? Apparently they were, in fact, those who the common people would go to whenever they had spiritual struggles or needed insight from God, looking up to the Pharisees as their teachers and counselors (Mat. 23:7). We can safely assume that Nicodemus was at least equaling, if not exceeding, his fellow Pharisees in such intense devotion.
And we have to acknowledge that not all of the Pharisees were blind hypocrites that purposely chose to be deceived and to deceive others. Some of them, no doubt, were very sincere. They sincerely wanted the truth, they sincerely were devoted to the God of Israel, they sincerely saw themselves as the spiritual guardians and teachers of Israel, and they sincerely desired to be holy. Some of them certainly desired to do what was right. And it is here that we find Nicodemus.
Obviously, Nicodemus wasn’t an intentional rejecter of God’s truth like so many other Pharisees. We see his sincerity here in the fact that he came to Christ in the midst of potential threats to be excommunicated and banned from the religious establishment (John 9:22). Certainly he came by night in the cloak of secrecy, but can we blame him? After all, his whole career, reputation, and everything he had worked for was on the line. Any man risking so much to hear the truth of God would want to make sure that what he was considering was really the truth of God before being willing to suffer for it. He came to Jesus knowing that He was a teacher who come from God, but it’s probable that at this early stage he didn’t yet know Who Jesus really was (i.e. the Messiah).
But the point is that Nicodemus was a devout follower of Judaism. If anybody could be saved by their acknowledgement of the one true God and their religious devotion and good works, it was him. Yet, as we will find out just a few verses later, Nicodemus at this time had no spiritual life in him. He was still “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1) and was in desperate need of the new, divine, supernatural life which came from above. He needed to be spiritually reborn, to become a new creature, or else he would never enter the Kingdom of God that he was so eagerly looking and waiting for. And as we will see, his religious devotion didn’t impress Christ one bit. Jesus will cut straight to the heart of the matter and address Nicodemus’ great, pressing, desperate spiritual need for salvation through regeneration.
We are also told here that he was a “ruler of the Jews”. In fact, the very name “Nicodemus” means, “conqueror of the people” in Greek. What his name shows us, if in fact it holds some meaning here in the inspired Word, is that in religious piety, devotion, and achievement, he was a man on the top, far above his peers in success as a Pharisee. He was a leader of the people, and had achieved greater status and recognition in Israel than his equals. Furthermore, by calling him “a ruler of the Jews”, the Scripture is informing us that Nicodemus had a seat on the respected governing counsel of Israel, known as the Sanhedrin. This ruling counsel consisted of 70 select elders from among Israel and was overseen by the High Priest. Religiously speaking, no one was viewed as in higher authority over Israel except the High Priest himself. In such a high position of honor, Nicodemus was viewed as an authority for religious counsel, an example for religious practice, and a model for religious learning. Yet, despite his great religious success in the eyes of men, he was a total failure when it came to the eyes of God, in need of the real salvation which could only come as a gift of sovereign grace from above. Jesus will yet tell him, “You must be born again”, or else he will never see the Kingdom of God.
So in the light of understanding that he was still dead in his sins and not saved at this time, we learn several lessons from the background of Nicodemus:
1. He was a man of intense religious devotion. To be not only a Pharisee, but a leader of the Pharisees, means that his commitment to his religious convictions had to be above that of the average Pharisee. Yet all the fasting, praying, proselytizing, studying, teaching, alms giving, tithing, and attending synagogue couldn’t save him. Let us understand that no amount religious works can save us, no matter how good they seem to be and no matter how great they are in quantity.
2. He was a man of committed sincerity to what he understood of the things of God. He was not purposely deceived and certainly did not intend to be a religious leader without truly knowing the God he claimed to represent. We learn from this that sincerity doesn’t always constitute salvation. “For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:2-3). One can be zealous, religious, and intensely sincere, and yet still miss the righteousness which comes from God, and so be spiritually lost and dead.
3. He was a man who sought for the truth. This is proven by the fact that he came to Jesus at a time when the Pharisees as a whole were rejecting Him. They had rejected John the Baptist as the prophet of Christ (Mat. 21:25) and now they were rejecting Christ Himself. But in the midst of it, Nicodemus sneaks away to secretly inquire of Christ, desiring in his heart to know the truth of God and to hear divine instruction from the mouth of Him who he knew to be a “teacher come from God” (John 3:2). This shows us that one can be a seeker of truth, earnestly desiring to know the truth, and yet still be deceived. A real child of God is not seeking truth, they have found the truth, and it has set them free (John 8:32).
4. He was a man of significant religious attainment. He was not just any Pharisee, but was a leader among them. This man was in essence a pastor of pastors, a recognized theologian in Israel that even the rabbis would look up to. He was viewed as “a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law” (Romans 2:19-20). Yet even so, as a leader and a guide among God’s people, his religious achievement, respected status, and lofty position didn’t save him. This shows us that one can be a leader, a pastor, a theologian, and still not be born again. Just because a man holds a high position in the church doesn’t mean that he holds a high position in the sight of God. One can attain a great level of respect and attain a high level of honor among men in the church, and still be in desperate need of regeneration.
And so we learn that religious devotion and works can’t save us, no matter how intense and numerous; commitment and sincerity can’t save us, no matter how sincere; seeking the truth alone can’t save us, no matter how much we sacrifice to find it; and having success in the church and attaining to high levels of religious or denominational achievement can’t save us, no matter how lofty of a position we attain to. Just like Nicodemus, we need to learn to forsake our own understanding, our own works, our own achievements, and to trust in Christ alone. Salvation is not in outward actions; it is in spiritual life from above being implanted to us inwardly. We need to be transformed on the inside by the mighty power of the grace of God in regeneration.