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The Pharisee

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The Pharisee

We don’t know much about Nicodemus. The Bible gives us a few things that we can know about him
The Gospel of John, Volume 1 The Man Who Came by Night (John 3:1–6)

(1) Nicodemus must have been wealthy. When Jesus died, Nicodemus brought for his body ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ (John 19:39)—and only a wealthy man could have brought that.

(2) Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In many ways, the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. There were never more than 6,000 of them; they were what was known as a chaburah, or brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.

The Gospel of John, Volume 1 The Man Who Came by Night (John 3:1–6)

The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be defined. ‘The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.’ On the other hand, knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal. Further, ‘a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil’. Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman’s girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.

The Gospel of John, Volume 1 The Man Who Came by Night (John 3:1–6)

Take the case of making a journey on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 says: ‘Each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.’ A Sabbath day’s journey was therefore limited to 2,000 cubits, that is, 1,000 yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go 1,000 yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go 1,000 yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.

Take the case of carrying a burden. Jeremiah 17:21–4 said: ‘For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day.’ So a burden had to be defined. It was defined as ‘food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve’, and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear an artificial leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.

The Gospel of John, Volume 1 The Man Who Came by Night (John 3:1–6)

It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them.

It was the scribes who worked out these regulations, it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them and calling others to keep them as well.
So Nicodemus, this keeper of the law, comes to Jesus and a peculiar and famous story comes out of this meeting.
First we find Nicodemus coming and proclaiming that he sees in Jesus one who has come from God. Nicodemus wants to distinguish himself from the other Pharisees. In , Jesus has already had a run-in with the Jews. Coming to the temple, Jesus sees the state the temple is in: the men selling oxen, sheep and pigeons, money changers sitting out trading for the Temple coin, and he reacts by cleansing the temple.
So Nicodemus comes, probably agreeing with Jesus’ statements and sentiment about the temple, and proclaims him as a man of God. But he’s probably not completely committed yet.
The most natural reading of 3:1–15 is that at this point Nicodemus, though interested, is not particularly open to the truth (after all, Jesus’ signs serve Nicodemus as a conversation starter, not, as in 2:23–25, as a trigger for faith, spurious or otherwise), yet eventually he comes around to side with Jesus (7:45–52) and ultimately to take his place at Calvary (19:38–42).
Nicodemus comes at night. Why? Was he afraid of what the other Pharisees would think of him? Possibly, but probably not. Was he coming because this was a time when rabbis often studies and debated? Probably. But ultimately, he comes at night because the night reflects his own spiritual darkness. Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew (cf. Hengstenberg, 1.157–158; Lightfoot, p. 116).
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 186.
Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew (cf. Hengstenberg, 1.157–158; Lightfoot, p. 116).
Hengstenberg E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2 vols. (ET T. 8z T. Clark, 1865–71).
Lightfoot R. H. Lightfoot, St John’s Gospel: A Commentary (Oxford University Press, 1956).
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 186.
But Jesus immediately gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he always do this. Whether its the thief on the cross, the woman at the well, or this Pharisee, Jesus moves from the outward to the inner man:

You Must be Born Again

Now, for us, this seems to be a simple statement. We’ve heard this language our entire lives. This idea of being born again. Whether a revival preacher or a Sunday school teacher, but lets not miss how this sounds, especially to one who has never heard this before.
Here is Nicodemus, a teacher, a leader of the people of Israel, one who keeps the law diligently, and Jesus says to him:
If you aren’t born again, then you are blind and you cannot see God’s kingdom. To a Jew with the background and convictions of Nicodemus, ‘to see the kingdom of God’ was to participate in the kingdom at the end of the age, to experience eternal, resurrection life.

Predominant religious thought in Jesus’ day affirmed that all Jews would be admitted to that kingdom apart from those guilty of deliberate apostasy or extraordinary wickedness (e.g. Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1). But here was Jesus telling Nicodemus, a respected and conscientious member not only of Israel but of the Sanhedrin, that he cannot enter the kingdom unless he is born again.

To a Jew with the background and convictions of Nicodemus, ‘to see the kingdom of God’ was to participate in the kingdom at the end of the age, to experience eternal, resurrection life
Nicodemus, the teacher, was in darkness. He could not see, his heart was blacked by sin.
Ephesians 5:8–10 ESV
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
What we need is this New Life.
What we need is this New Life.

How Can This Be?

Nicodemus couldn’t understand how this new life could occur.

Doubtless he himself had for years taught others the conditions of entrance to the kingdom of God, conditions cast in terms of obedience to God’s commands, devotion to God, happy submission to his will; but here he is facing a condition he has never heard expressed, the absolute requirement of birth from above.

Nicodemus couldn’t understand how this new life could come.
This is a problem today as well. How does someone come to faith in Christ? If not by the force of our will, if not by our commitment to following the rules, how do we come to Christ? And what does this mean for the Christian?

Believe in Christ

The simple truth that Nicodemus could not get to on this night, and one that we see he does eventually get to is the idea of belief.
John 3:16 ESV
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

The belief is certainly belief in Jesus Christ, including confidence in the truthfulness of his teaching (cf. v. 12). Nicodemus began by saying he recognized that Jesus was a teacher ‘come from God’ (v. 2), but at this point he neither understands him (v. 10) nor believes him (v. 12). But many, probably including Nicodemus, will believe him once he has been ‘lifted up’, the very purpose of which is that those who believe in him might have eternal life, and have it in him.

Here then is the frankest answer to Nicodemus’ question. ‘How can this happen?’ (v. 9). The kingdom of God is seen or entered, new birth is experienced, and eternal life begins, through the saving cross-work of Christ, received by faith.

Salvation is by Faith Alone.

Love the World

The world is so wicked that John elsewhere forbids Christians to love it or anything in it (1 Jn. 2:15–17). There is no contradiction between this prohibition and the fact that God does love it. Christians are not to love the world with the selfish love of participation; God loves the world with the self-less, costly love of redemption.

Walk in the Light

Ephesians 5:8–10 ESV
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
Hengstenberg E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2 vols. (ET T. 8z T. Clark, 1865–71).
Lightfoot R. H. Lightfoot, St John’s Gospel: A Commentary (Oxford University Press, 1956).
D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 186.
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