Seeking wisdom isn’t always quite the same thing as
seeking the truth, which can be a risky business in a culture
of rigid thinking, as the disciples of Jesus discovered.
They were willing to take the risk of following Jesus
because they recognized in him the truth. In addition, they
didn’t have a lot to lose, as people with little property or
But that wasn’t the case with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and
member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court in
Jerusalem). He was powerful and wealthy, yet he dared to
approach Jesus, albeit under the cover of darkness.
Nicodemus had been impressed
by Jesus’ miracles and teachings,
which seemed to him to come from
God. He addresses Jesus as “teacher”
or “rabbi” with respect: “Rabbi, we
know that you are a teacher who
has come from God, for no one can
do these signs that you are doing
unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
What comes next is one of the most
important and dramatic scenes in
the New Testament. It contrasts
the earthbound understanding of
Nicodemus, shared by most people,
with Jesus’ wide perspective on
God and the Spirit. In the eloquent
dialogue, dominated by Jesus, he
gives Nicodemus a marvelous gift: the great truth of salvation.
Jesus was likely impressed by this man’s courage in risking
to come to him without guile. In addition, Jesus wanted
to get the word to other influential Jewish leaders who
viewed him with angry suspicion.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom
of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells his visitor
(John 3:3). Nicodemus is puzzled and asks Jesus how an
old person can be born; how could he go back into the
womb again and be born? Jesus is talking about being born
of the Spirit and chides Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,”
for not knowing this.
Jesus then launches into a monologue of mystery and sublime
truth, which contains the famous lines: “For God so
loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone
who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal
life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn
the world, but that the world might be saved through
him” (John 3:16-17).
John doesn’t record the reaction Nicodemus had to Jesus’
startling teaching. But it obviously had a profound impact:
Later we find Nicodemus sticking his neck out for Jesus, arguing
with the Pharisees that the Law of Moses requires a formal
hearing before condemning someone (John 7:50).
If that weren’t risk enough, we last find Nicodemus at the
crucifixion of Jesus and, with Joseph of Arimathea, providing
an honorable, even lavish, burial for Jesus (John 19:39).
Like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus leaves the stage of
Christian history and enters the
realm of legend. An apocryphal
work under his name—the Gospel
of Nicodemus—was produced at some
point in the medieval era. It is
mostly a reworking of the earlier
Acts of Pilate, which recounts the
harrowing of hell.
So all we really know about
Nicodemus is what we get from the
Evangelist John, although the Jewish
Encyclopedia and many biblical historians
have theorized that he is
identical to Nicodemus Ben-Gurion,
mentioned in the Talmud as a
wealthy and popular holy man
reputed to have miraculous powers.
Christian tradition asserts that
Nicodemus was martyred sometime
in the first century, and he is venerated as a saint by the
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. There
is even a church and hospice in Ramla, Israel, erected by
the Franciscans, named after Nicodemus and Joseph of
What we can learn from the story and experience of
Nicodemus is that truth may be found if sought with an
open mind and generous heart. But it can rarely be found
without some risk. A willingness to take a risk is perhaps the
only authentic preparation to receive the truth. Jesus knew
that, and Nicodemus came to understand it.
Next: This is the final column of this series. Our “Year of
St. Paul” series begins in the January issue.
Christopher Gaul is a semi-retired journalist whose past experience includes being
managing editor of The Catholic Review (Baltimore), White House correspondent
for National Public Television and reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Born in
England, he now lives in Baltimore County with his wife, Pam, and their four show
champion Weimaraner dogs.