Intimate Conversations: Nicodemus and the Character of Jesus

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Keith Leong completed his Master of Studies in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford recently. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral.




4 June 2018

Intimate Conversations: Nicodemus and the Character of Jesus

Intimate conversations litter the scriptures. These conversations allow us to enter the thought worlds of the speakers, follow the logic of their dialogue, and find meaning in the answers offered. The Book of John is known for the many intimate conversations Jesus engages in.

Jesus speaks first with Nicodemus, then with the woman of Samaria, the nobleman of Cana, the paralytic in Jerusalem, the blind man, and, finally, Mary and Martha at Bethany. These intimate conversations are unique to the Book of John. They represent different classes of society, and, in keeping with the explicit purpose of the Book – to help the reader “believe that Jesus is the Christ, and by believing, have life in his name” (Jn 20:31) – each illustrates the nature and consequences of belief.

This two-part article series will explore the first intimate conversation in the Book of John, the one between Nicodemus and Jesus concerning the character of Jesus and the significance of his person at John 3:1-17. Accordingly, we will begin with an introduction to the Book of John before fleshing out three takeaways from the passage.

The Book of John
As we’ve learned in school, all good writing has an audience, purpose, and context. Books of the Bible are no different. The Gospels vary in detail and emphasis from one another. The authors of the Gospels, also known as the Evangelists, each emphasized particular features of Jesus’ life and teaching to suit their needs. The Book of John is no exception (see table below).

The Synoptics John
Coverage of Jesus' ministry around Galilee Coverage of Jesus' ministry around Judea
Emphasis on the Kingdom Emphasis on the person of Jesus
Gospel of the infant Church Gospel of the maturing Church
Earthly stories Heavenly meanings
Little commentary by the Evangelists Much commentary by John

John, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve, is traditionally ascribed as the author of the 4th Gospel. The book was most likely composed in Ephesus, Asia Minor, at the end of the first century, decades after any of the other Gospels. As such, the author had more time to reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus and enable him to refine his gospel presentation. John’s immediate audience was probably the second-generation gentile church living outside Palestine (Judea). They were likely contending with apostasy, doctrinal variation, and conflict with Jewish Christians (hence the disproportionate negative emphasis on “the Jews” in the book, compared with the other Gospels).

The Book is divided in four parts. From chapter 1:1-18, we have the prologue which serves to introduce the incarnate Word, or logos. From chapters 1-12, we have the book of signs narrating the public ministry of Jesus where he discloses his divine nature. This is where we’re at. From chapters 13-20, we have the book of glory, where Jesus is glorified in his crucifixion and gives the Spirit of life to those who accept him. Finally, the rest of the book narrates the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Galilee.


The Intimate Conversation:

(1) The Character of Jesus

The passage we are looking at today follows on from the narrative in chapter 2, which describes Jesus' time at Jerusalem which he came for the Passover. At chapter 2, the final verse, 23, reads:

Many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.

Because Jesus cannot be fooled by false appearances, there must have been something about Nicodemus’ honest searching that Jesus was willing to entrust his precious evening hours to have a conversation with. We continue with chapter 3.

John 3:1-2

1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” ​

On the one hand, Nicodemus might have been afraid of public association with Jesus. Or, he might have wanted the luxury of the evening to have a meaningful conversation without interruptions. We also know from history that it was customary for Rabbis to study and debate long into the night.

On the other hand, John uses the imagery of the dark, including that same word for night, nuktos, to symbolize death and spiritual darkness elsewhere in his Book. Therefore, there is an added element of spiritual darkness that is being suggested about Nicodemus. However, unlike Judas, who leaves the light to go out into the night of Satan (Jn 13:30); Nicodemus, following from this conversation, comes out of the darkness and into the light (Jn 3:19-21). We see evidence of this later in chapter 7:50 where he defends Jesus against the Pharisees and Chief Priests sent to arrest him and in chapter 19:38-40 where he helps bury Jesus according to Jewish burial customs.

Even though Jesus was an itinerant preacher with no formal rabbinic training, Nicodemus, himself a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the court that was responsible for religious decisions, addresses him as Rabbi, showing the utmost respect.

Nicodemus’ use of “we” refers to other members of the Sanhedrin. That there were other Pharisees and Scribes among the ruling Jewish elite who wished to find out more about the person and teaching of Jesus is encouraging, especially since they are portrayed in a negative light elsewhere in the New Testament.

Therefore, it is clear from this passage that Nicodemus has recognized from his signs that Jesus is really someone sent by God and is sincerely seeking to know more about him. Is he a prophet, is he the Messiah, or is he something else? And that is why, unlike the crowds in chapter 2, Jesus was willing to “entrust” himself to him.

This brings us to our first takeaway for reflection: Jesus will not turn away an honest seeker.

If anyone sincerely wishes to know and believe in Jesus, it doesn’t matter what their background or history is. Jesus will let himself be known to them. This may be through prayer, reflecting on the scriptures, worship, or conversing with a believing friend. If you haven’t yet taken the step of placing your faith and trust in Jesus, but sincerely wish to, know that he will not turn you away.

We will pick up the rest of the intimate conversation and the two more takeaways in a following article.

This article is based on a Trinity Sunday talk
delivered on 27 May 2018 by Keith Leong

Read Part Two here.

About the Author

Keith Leong Photo
Keith Leong completed his Master of Studies in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford recently. He is a member of St Andrew’s Cathedral.