I love the way the Bible portrays its heroes. David, the man after God’s own heart, the warrior poet who wrote half the book of Psalms, the King who united a kingdom, was also an adulterer (2 Samuel 11). Moses, the man chosen by God to free the Hebrew people from slavery, got started as an impatient hothead (Exodus 2:11-12, explained in Acts 7:25). Look at any of the Judges! They are all kind of jacked up! The Bible is full of heroes, but all of them look a lot like us – sinful men in need of God’s grace.
One of the imperfect, but relatable characters of the Bible is Nicodemus. I love this guy. More pointedly, I love how John uses him to demonstrate something so common, it often remains unremarkable. What Nicodemus demonstrates is a weak, faltering, fragile faith.
I think his story is significant for guys like me. Pastors. Especially church planting pastors. Because I deal with people like him every day.
Nicodemus’s story is the same as most the people in our churches.
In John 3, we get our first introduction to Nicodemus. And it happens at night, under cover of darkness, where a scared Nicodemus asks to hear more from Jesus. Nicodemus was an important guy, a religious leader, a teacher of Israel, and a part of the group most disturbed by the actions and teachings of Jesus.
Jesus represented a threat to national peace, because if he started an uprising, the Roman occupiers of their land would quash an entire town to stamp out a spark of rebellion.
Jesus represented a threat to their own authority, because he spoke with more wisdom, taught with more authority, and demonstrated more power than anyone of the teachers of Israel.
He did not fit in their mold, and seemed not to care about their authority. Nicodemus’s friends hated Jesus.
Yet, Nicodemus was intrigued.
The miracles Jesus performed demonstrated power that could only come from God. The authority with which Jesus spoke seemed more like a beacon of hope than an immediate threat. And Nicodemus felt compelled to hear more.
I have known a lot of people like Nicodemus. It is like they are wandering down a path laid out before them by someone else, moving slowly forward, in line with everyone else around them. Then suddenly, it is like they see a flash of light that makes them stop, and they begin to wonder about the light. So they investigate.
Nicodemus investigated. He asked questions. He pushed back on what Jesus had to say, and was not very cordial about it either. He spoke with sarcasm and open disbelief. In fact, at the end of chapter 3, all we know is that Nicodemus did not respond in awe and believing abandon at the sermon Jesus gave him. Nicodemus just drifted out of the spotlight, into the darkness of anonymity in John’s story of Jesus.
Until chapter 7, that is.
Chapter 7 is what I like to think of as the Spy Chapter. I call it this because there is a lot of sneaking going on in this chapter. Jesus is hiding from the Jews (Nicodemus’s friends) who want to kill him (7:1). Jesus’ buddies tell him to stop sneaking and go public, but Jesus refuses (7:4-9). So they all go down to a big party without him, they thought. But Jesus decides to sneak into town and go to the party (7:10). I would love to think he wore a fake mustache, but the Bible is unclear on that point. So, in town, as Jesus suspected, there are a group of guys looking for him, trying to kill him. Everybody is talking about him, but everyone is doing it secretly (more sneakery). Once Jesus makes it to the center of the party, where everyone can see him and the religious leaders cannot just kill him (I think they assumed killing folks in public would really hurt the offering), Jesus starts teaching again. It does not take long before Jesus makes some guys so mad they try to grab him anyways, but Jesus somehow just melts into the crown like Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible (7:30). So, in light of all the emphasis on sneaking around and spy games, the Jewish rulers hold a quick strategy session, trying to figure out what to do about Jesus.
In this discussion about what to do with Jesus, kill him or follow him, the leaders are getting worked up and one of them says, “no one among us believes in this guy, right?” And then, out of the narratival shadows, steps Nicodemus, into the spotlight again. And after a full chapter of spy games, his statement is really interesting. Nicodemus urges everyone to exercise a little caution. He uses their own rule of law, which does in fact prohibit killing dudes without a trial, and says they need to calm down. As soon as he spoke, everyone turns to questions him: “What? Are you with that guy?” Clearly, in the context of that moment, Nicodemus was trying to protect Jesus.
Although John’s story did not stick with Nicodemus after the secret meeting in chapter 3, it is apparent that Jesus’s message did. Nicodemus, once approaching Jesus in the dark, in secret, hiding from his friends, was now taking a pretty bold step, protecting Jesus, in a round about way, to those very friends he once hid from.
This takes me back to the people who see a flash of light and stop for a moment to investigate. Maybe they keep moving in life, but there is a part of them that always looks back now. They wonder about the light. They think about it. And they even begin, slowly, tentatively, moving towards it.
Our last stop with Nicodemus, comes on the day Jesus is killed.
Nicodemus, after chapter 7, faded once again into the dark backstage of John’s play about Jesus. And what a play that takes place. Jesus is falsely accused by Nicodemus’s friends. They even pay people to lie about him. They work the crowd to get the conviction they desired, and eventually, in chapter 19, we see Jesus crucified. Nicodemus’s friends were victorious.
Jesus was hung on a cross. He was killed. This moment would have been one of celebration for Nicodemus’s friends. John does not even mention the Pharisees when narrating the crucifixion account. The only people present are those who loved Jesus most: his mother, his aunt, and the apostle John, author of this story. When Jesus died, in all likelihood, the Pharisees were off celebrating their hard earned victory over the rabble rouser, Jesus of Nazareth.
All except one.
At the end of chapter 19, into the spotlight steps Nicodemus. When even Jesus’s own disciples deserted him, when the Pharisees were celebrating, and the crowds were still boiling with anger, Nicodemus, “who had first come to Jesus at night” (19:39), came out of the darkness, both physical and spiritual, to personally oversee the burial process. He slowly progressed from skepticism, to interest, to support of Jesus, the man from Nazareth. His is a story of slow, tentative steps toward faith.
John is the only gospel writer who mentions Nicodemus. He is the only one who noted the scoffing and scared man that was, over a long time, transformed into the caretaker of the Son of God. I think John’s attention to Nicodemus is significant because of the type of man we know the apostle John to have been.
Repeatedly we see hints of the apostle John’s character in his writing as we see him focus on different aspects of Jesus, the church, and the life of individual Christians. He is a deeply spiritual man, as evidenced by his writing. He was deeply loved by Jesus, and he was filled with love for followers of Jesus. He referred to the church as his dear little children. The man was full of compassionate love, seeing himself as a father to all who love Jesus.
I think it takes a man like John to highlight the story of Nicodemus when talking about Jesus. John saw in Nicodemus a man who would never drop his nets and follow Jesus. He saw a man that was comfortable in his authority, and did not want to risk losing it. He saw a man who was never on the front lines in the life of Christ. Nicodemus was no valiant man of great faith. But he was a man of faith – faltering, tentative, fragile faith, but faith nonetheless. When John looked at Nicodemus, he saw growing faith.
As your prototypical entrepreneurial church planter, I frequently worry that I run the risk of missing my role as a pastor as I desperately pursue being a church planter. I worry I won’t give time to those whose faith grows more slowly than I am willing to nurture. I just wonder whether I would take notice of a Nicodemus, dancing in and out of the spotlight on the periphery of my story. I pray that I do. I pray that you do too.
But either way, as I said at the beginning of this post, I am grateful for the way the Bible portrays its heroes. Because I will never be what I wish I was. And that’s okay. Not because my failures are no big deal. It’s okay because my failures drive me to worship the great high priest, the one who does not miss any person’s story, no matter how weak the faith or small the role in the grand scheme. Jesus sees them all and loves them all. Including me. And you.