the Fourth Week of Lent
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
THIS, I feel sure, is not the first time that Jesus of Nazareth and Nicodemus of Jerusalem have met. The sudden and trenchant way in which our Lord receives the cautious old ruler's diplomatic certificates and civilities, and every single word of the whole subsequent conversation, all point unmistakably, as I feel sure, to some previous meeting. The meeting took place in this wise; it must have taken place in some such wise as this:
Nicodemus was one of the oldest and most honoured heads of that overawing deputation which was sent out to Bethabara by the Temple authorities to examine into the Baptist's preaching, and to report to the Temple on that whole movement. "Who art thou?" Nicodemus demanded. "lam not the Christ," the Baptist answered. "Why baptizest thou then?" "I indeed baptize thee with water unto repentance, but, Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world, He will baptize thee, when thou comest to Him, with the Holy Ghost." And, had Nicodemus only been alone that day, there is no saying what he might not have said and done on the spot. Nicodemus was mightily impressed with all that he had seen and heard at the Jordan. But he was not free; he did not feel free and able to act as his conscience told him he ought immediately to act. He was at the head of that Temple embassy of inquisition, and he simply could not extricate himself from the duties, and the responsibilities, and the entanglements of his office. He and his colleagues had, by this time, seen and heard more than they well knew what to say to the Temple about it all. And, accordingly, glad to get away from Bethabara, they took up their carriages and set out for Jerusalem, compiling all the way home their perplexing and unsatisfactory report upon John and, especially upon Jesus of Nazareth.
The third chapter of the Fourth Gospel is in many things an absolutely classical chapter. In his third chapter the fourth Evangelist introduces us into an inquiry-room, as we would call it, in which our Lord is the director and the counsellor of souls, and in which Nicodemus is the inquirer and the convert. Nicodemus had not slept soundly one single night, nor spent one single day without remorse and fear, ever since that scene when he saw Jesus of Nazareth baptized by John, and coming up out of the water. And thus it was that he stole out of the city that night, and determined to see in secret this mysterious man. I cannot put you back into Nicodemus's state of mind as he stumbled out to Bethany in the dark that night. To you, Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, and your Saviour, and Lord, and Master. But to Nicodemus that night Jesus of Nazareth was-Nicodemus staggered and stood still-he was afraid to let himself think Who and What Jesus of Nazareth was, and might turn out to be. "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God." But it took the old ruler's breath away when it was answered him in such a sudden and sword-like way: "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God." To me it is a most extraordinary and impossible hallucination. My whole mind and imagination and heart and conscience would have to be taken down and built up again upon an absolutely other pattern; my whole experience, observation, and study of all these divine things would have to be turned upside down before I could possibly believe in what is called "baptismal regeneration." No! there is no such thing. Believe me, whoever says it, and however long and learnedly and solemnly they have been saying it, there is no such thing. There could not be. And, certainly, there is no such materialistic, mechanical, immoral, and unspiritual doctrine and precept here. But there is in place of it a divine doctrine and a divine precept that goes at one stroke down into Nicodemus's self-deceiving heart, and cuts his self-deceiving heart open to the daylight. If our masters of Israel do not know what our Lord pointed at when he said "water" with such emphasis, Nicodemus could have told them. And had Nicodemus only been brave enough; had he only had brow enough for a good cause; had he only gone down into the waters of Jordan beside Jesus of Nazareth, we would have been counting up today Peter, and James, and John, and Nicodemus, as all apostles of Christ. And we would have had an Epistle of Nicodemus to the Pharisees, and in it such a key to this whole conversation as would have made it impossible for any man to preach regeneration by water out of it. But Nicodemus missed his great opportunity, and both he and the whole Church of Christ have been terrible losers thereby down to this disunited and distracted day. Nicodemus, ruler of Israel just because he was, he was not equal to face such a loss of reputation and of other things as would immediately have descended upon him on the day he was publicly baptized. And as he lay and tossed on his bed every night after Bethabara, he thought he had at last devised a compromise so as to get into sufficient step with this teacher come from God, or whatever else He was, and yet not needlessly break with the Temple and its honours and emoluments. But there is no deceiving of Jesus Christ. For, have we not been told just before Nicodemus knocked at Martha's door, that Jesus knew all men, and knew what was in all men? And thus it was that Nicodemus had scarcely got his lips opened to pay his prepared compliments to our Lord when he was met again with that dreadful "water," which had haunted him like an accusing spirit ever since he had not gone down into it at Bethabara. Nicodemus stood ripe and ready for his regeneration, and for his first entrance into the kingdom of heaven, and he was within one short step of its gate at the Jordan, but that step was far too strait and sore for Nicodemus to take. Nicodemus saw the pearl, and knew something of the value of it, but he could not make up his mind to sell all he possessed so as to pay the price. In our Lord's words, which He was always repeating, Nicodemus had not the strength of mind and heart to take up his cross and be born again. He was not able to be baptized-not into regeneration, there is no such baptism-but into evangelical repentance and the open loss of all things. And thus it was that our Lord, with all His affability, would not enter on any closer intimacy or confidence with Nicodemus till he had gone out to John at the Jordan. There were a thousand things that held Nicodemus back from John's baptism at his age and in his office, and our Lord saw and sympathised with every one of them. But, King of the kingdom of heaven as He was that night in Bethany, even He could not make the door of the kingdom one inch wider, or one atom easier, than it was out at Bethabara. 'No!' our Lord said to Nicodemus, as he lay struggling in the net of his old heart and life all that night-'No! We do not need to talk any more about my mighty works or your new birth. You know your first duty in this whole matter as well as I can tell you. John told you, and you would not do it. And I cannot relieve you of your first duty any more than I can do it for you. And you may go away tonight, again leaving your immediate duty undone, but mark my words, till the day of your death and judgment there will be no other way to a new heart and a new life for you but to go out to the waters of Jordan and be baptized of John before all Judea and Jerusalem, and then come after Me and be My disciple.' Nicodemus, that blind leader of the blind, had always taken it for granted that when the kingdom of God should come to Israel he would be taken up to sit in one of the highest seats ot it. It had never once entered his snow-white head to doubt for one moment but that be would sit on a throne up at the right hand of the Messiah. Imagine, then, what a sudden blow in the face it was to Nicodemus to be told, and that by the very Messiah Himself, that he had neither part nor lot in that kingdom, and could not have, until he had been baptized in Jordan confessing his sins beside the offscourings of the city.
At the same time, Nicodemus that night was in Martha's house beside Jesus Christ, and not out at the Jordan beside John the Baptist. And Jesus Christ did not open the door and dismiss Nicodemus as John the Baptist would certainly have done. The very opposite. Our Lord, with His utmost tenderness for the ensnared and struggling old man, took patience to put all John's best preaching over again to Nicodemus, and added some of His own best preaching to it, and, all the time, in His most attractive and most winning way. John had scoffed at Nicodemus's boasted birth from Abraham; but Jesus contented Himself with simply saying that Nicodemus must be born of water and of the Spirit. John had assailed the Temple representatives as a generation of vipers; and, while Jesus did not withdraw or apologise for one single syllable of His so-outspoken forerunner, He veiled His forerunner's strong language somewhat under the sacramental and evangelical typology of the serpent in the wilderness. And, then, from that He went on to honour and to win Nicodemus with that golden passage that "Even so must the Son of Man be lifted up." And that golden passage was, I feel sure, Nicodemus's salvation that very night, as it has been the salvation of so many sinners ever since. And then, as He shook hands with Nicodemus just as the cock was crowing in Martha's garden, Jesus said to Nicodemus, with a look and with a manner that the old ruler never forgot, "But he that doeth good cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God." John, our evangelist, was present all that night, and he has written this chapter also of his book so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we might have life through His name. And this evangelist, after that ever-memorable day at Bethabara, and that equally memorable midnight and morning at Bethany, never lets Nicodemus out of his sight. And thus it is that we read this in John's seventh chapter: "Then Nicodemus said to the chief priests and to the Pharisees, Doth our law judge any man before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" And then as we read John's nineteenth chapter, we come on this. "And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight."
"Now I saw that there would be no answer to me till I had entire purity of conscience, and no longer regarded any iniquity whatsoever in my heart. I saw that there were some secret affections still left in me, which, though they were not very bad in themselves perhaps, yet in a life of prayer, such as I was then attempting, these remanent affections certainly spoiled all." Just so. Just so in Teresa, and in Nicodemus, and in you, and in me. It was surely not so very bad in itself for Nicodemus to let himself be put at the head of that Temple embassy of inquisition upon the Baptist. It was surely not so very bad in itself for Nicodemus, once having set out, to keep true to his colleagues, even if that was done somewhat at the expense and the injury of John. It was not such a great crime, surely, for Nicodemus to yield to such strong pressure so far as to put his name to the somewhat unfriendly report that his less scrupulous colleagues wrote out for the Temple. And it could only be good, surely, and to Nicodemus's credit, that he went out to Bethany at an hour most convenient for a ruler of the Jews. And it is not so very bad surely in itself in you-everybody does it-to take up a distaste at some man or some movement that you know quite well you have absolutely nothing against. It is surely not enough to cost you in the end the loss of your soul for you to think first of your prospects in life, and how you will continue to stand with this great man and with that, according as you cast in your lot with this party in the state, or with that denomination in the church. Everybody does it. And who but John would denounce so fiercely and so contemptuously such secret affections as these are in you? But then, if John and then Jesus denounce, and despise, and deny you, what will it profit you if you gain the whole of this world? But, happily, there is a second lesson out of Nicodemus, and out of his subsequent history, and it is this: Though you have been a coward and a dark friend to truth and to duty up to this night, if God in His great goodness should give you yet another offer and opportunity, seize it on the spot. Jesus Christ is still among His enemies in many ways. Recognise and acknowledge Jesus Christ, and stand up for Him in your Sanhedrim like Nicodemus. Do you know Him? ask them. Have you ever gone to where He lodges and seen and heard Him for yourselves? Have you read the book you speak against? ask them. Do you love the writer, and do you wish him well? ask them. Do you rejoice in an evil report? demand boldly of them. Or do you rejoice, to your own loss, in the truth? The whole Seventy will turn on you, and will rend you. But what of that? For unless you are rent here for His name's sake, the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when He is suddenly revealed and suddenly descends on you in all His glory.
But for Nicodemus, and another timid friend to truth, the dead body of our Lord might have been taken out of the city and cast into the flames of Tophet, that type of Hell, along with the carcases of the two thieves. All the disciples had forsaken their crucified Master and had fled. But Joseph of Arimathæa and Nicodemus went boldly to Pilate and besought him to let them bury the dead body that all other men hid their faces from that day. And Joseph and Nicodemus took the body of Jesus and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury their dead. It was the same Joseph of Arimathæa who had been a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews; and it was the same Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Nicodemus'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​n/nicodemus.html. 1901.