A Jewish Rabbi Converts to Christ
The third chapter of John’s Gospel record begins like this:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came unto him [Jesus] by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you are doing, unless God is with him” (John 3:1-2).
This text is a prelude to the well-known conversation between Nicodemus and Christ regarding the necessity and nature of the “new birth.” Frequently this introductory section is passed over rather quickly, as the student rushes toward the more stimulating exchange between the Lord and his new-found pupil. But these two verses contain rich treasures, there for the mining, for him who is patient enough to exercise the discipline necessary for the task.
The verse begins with a seemingly insignificant particle. “Now there was a man. . . ,” is the rendition in most translations. In the Greek text, the term is de, a connecting conjunction (characteristically placed after the verb that leads the sentence). This particle may be employed as a coordinating conjunction, effecting a transition from one theme to another of like kind. Or, it may be adversative, striking a contrast — either strongly or moderately. The context must determine that and the expositor must use his judgment as to the sense in a given passage.
As noted above, de (in this passage) is usually rendered, “now”; however, some suggest that the adversative sense fits equally well. In chapter 2 there is the account of Jesus, during the Passover celebration, clearing the temple of that rabble that trafficked in merchandise. During this timeframe, many started believing on Christ because of the signs he was performing. (One must remember that John’s Gospel is very condensed in terms of the miracles done by Christ — see 21:25.) But the Lord also sensed a developing antagonism; hence, “did not trust himself unto them,” for he very well knew the fickle nature of the human heart (2:24-25). It could be then, that what follows reflects a contrast, “But there was a man,” i.e., another type of man, an inquiring sincere gentleman of a different sort. Such a rendition would be most harmonious in context, and certainly accord with what we subsequently learn about the quality of this Jewish ruler.
A Man of the Pharisees
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, the religiously “straitest” fragment of the Hebrew people (Acts 26:5). This sect had developed in the second century before Christ as a reaction against the influx of Greek influence. The name itself suggests, “the separated ones.”
The Pharisees professed to honor Moses’ law, but they went much too far, binding the traditions of their fathers and being more meticulous in their binding of the law than actually was required by God (Galatians 1:14; Matthew 15:2). They believed divine law could be adjusted to changing cultural conditions. They were, however, more conservative than the Sadducees, who denied the existence of angels, spirits, and the concept of the bodily resurrection (Acts 23:8).
While there were some noble Pharisees (e.g., Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), they generally are cast in a negative light by the New Testament writers. Some of Jesus’ most critical denunciations were for the Pharisees (see Matthew 23). It is out of this background that Nicodemus steps forward — a pleasant surprise from a group generally hostile to the Savior.
“Nicodemus” is a Greek name, signifying “conqueror of the people,” or “victor of the people.” Nothing specific is known of his background, but his Greek name may hint that he was a “Hellenist,” i.e., a Jew born outside of Palestine (cf. Acts 6:1). It is apparent that he was both powerful and wealthy (John 19:39).
Ruler of the Jews
The term “ruler” (archon) is a term generally used for a member of the Jewish council, called the “Sanhedrin.” This was the Jewish high court of the land, under the ultimate authority of the Roman government. Lower courts throughout the countryside handled some matters, but the Sanhedrin was the “Supreme Court” of Jewish civil, criminal, and religious law. It consisted of 70 or 71 members that operated under the control of the Hebrew High Priest. There is little doubt but that Nicodemus was a man of considerable power.
John records that this ruler “came to Jesus by night.” Gallons of ink have been used in futile comment upon this “night” reference. Campbell Morgan once commented that it has become an “expository habit” to thrust the ruler into a negative posture; he was timid, fearful, etc. But there are other reasons why the Lord might have been approached in the evening. Could not this ruler have been occupied with daytime duties? Might he not have wanted more privacy than the crowds around the Teacher would have permitted during the bustling hours of the day? One should never draw conclusions that are not warranted by the evidence. Someone has quaintly said, “He came by night to see the ‘Light of the world’.”
The title Rabbi means “my great one” or “my master.” At times the term is interpreted in the sense of a great “teacher” (John 1:38; 20:16). The use of this title with respect of Christ by this powerful leader is telling indeed. This ruler and teacher had come to One whom he deems to be a greater teacher than he. Only phenomenal credentials (the supernatural signs) could have initiated such respect. This reality is a subtle argument for the divine character of Jesus’ teaching.
It is important to observe that later the Savior forbade his disciples to adopt august titles of distinction within the context of religious instruction, e.g., “Rabbi,” “Master,” “Father,” and one might add, in our modern world, such appellations as “Reverend,” "Doctor, " etc. (Matthew 23:8-10). The very attitude (of self-exaltation) that Jesus condemned, is that in which some wallow.
Note the plural “we.” Nicodemus prefaces the phrase of adulation that he is about to render with a pronoun that embraces others beyond himself. Had the Jewish leaders discussed the amazing teaching of Christ in private (cf. 7:26)? Had Joseph of Arimathea, likewise a member of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50), and Nicodemus talked about Jesus? One thing is clear: the ruler expressed a view that was broader than his own personal conviction.
The term “know” reflects a word in the Greek Testament which deals with a “well-known fact that is generally embraced” (F.W. Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 693), or, as others have described it, a “certain knowledge” (Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991, Vol. 2, p. 494). In his Expanded Translation of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), Kenneth Wuest rendered the expression as, “we positively know.” This confident “faith” will blossom even more richly in the subsequent ministry of the Lord Jesus (see 7:50; 19:39). The remark of Leon Morris that there may be a “trace of condescension” in the ruler’s comment seems quite unjustified (The Gospel According to John — Revised, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995, p. 188).
A Teacher from God
To Nicodemus and his associates, Jesus was not a mere run-of-the-mill instructor. He was special. He had been sent by God. They doubtless did not fathom the full ramifications of that expression; nonetheless, they were enthralled.
The Greek word for “teacher” is didaskalos, found some 59 times in the New Testament. It is used of Jesus 41 times, and in 29 of these instances it occurs in the form of a direct address, rendered either “Master” or “Teacher,” depending upon the translation one is reading. The vocative form (of address), didaskale, is the practical equivalent of the Hebrew expression, “rabbi” (cf. Jn. 1:38; 20:16). It thus is clear that “teacher,” in the New Testament, predominately refers to the greatest Teacher who has graced this planet.
The teaching of Jesus was eminently unique. As a band of temple police once exclaimed, “never man so spoke” (John 7:46). Consider the following factors.
- The teaching of Christ was nothing but truth. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and thus the exclusive way to the Father (John 14:6). If such was not so, he would have told the disciples (cf. 14:2).
- The Lord’s teaching was authoritative; the multitudes were amazed that his instruction was not the hackneyed style of the ordinary scribe (Matthew 7:28-29). Note, for example, the contrasts in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said. . . but I say unto you” (cf. Matthew 5:21ff).
- Christ’s teaching was characterized by an originality that defies natural explanation. While it was inevitable that there would be some parallelism in principle with the best of moral and spiritual thinking that occasionally surfaced in the various cultures of antiquity, Jesus’ teaching exceeded them all. G.W. Stewart’s essay on this matter is a rewarding experience (James Hastings, ed., A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1909, Vol. I, pp. 285-292). Even the liberal scholar, William Barclay, has shown that Christ’s saying, commonly known as the “Golden Rule,” is far superior to any comparable moral maxim of the ancient world; he called it the “Everest of Ethics” (The Gospel of Matthew, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958, Vol. I, pp. 276ff).
- Jesus’ teaching was impartial, even his enemies conceded, as they sought to ensnare him: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (Matthew 22:16 — ESV; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21; cf. John 18:19ff).
- The Savior spoke plainly so that even common folks could understand him. His parables, when presented to honest souls who would seek for additional truth, were models of simplicity. Who can fail to understand the Master’s lessons in connection with the Prodigal Son, or the Good Samaritan — regardless of his level of education? Can any reasonable person possibly imagine Christ saying the following — instead of the clear truth enunciated in Matthew 16:18 — “Upon this esoteric petrographic stratum, I will erect my celestial edifice, and the posterns of the chthonian realm will not supervene contrarily.”?
- Finally, the teaching of God’s Son was compassionate. The sinful woman (most likely a former prostitute) who invaded Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party, thanking him for forgiveness bestowed on a previous occasion (Luke 7:36-50), did not weep at the feet of a man who had openly exposed what a vile wretch she was, brutalizing her into submission. She shed tears of thanksgiving for the healing of a broken heart and life, from a man of incomparable compassion.
Come from God
Nicodemus commended the “Teacher” as one who has “come from God.” He meant that, of course, in the sense that a valid prophet was viewed as one who has come to speak with divine authority (cf. John 1:6). He actually said more than he understood. For Christ had, in the most literal sense, come from God (cf. John 6:48-51). His preexistence prior to the incarnation — both eternally (John 1:1), and in Old Testament manifestations (John 8:56-58) — are amply demonstrated.
The Evidence of the “Signs”
Authenticating the identity of the great Teacher were the “signs” that he continued to perform. Three terms are principally employed to describe the supernatural works of Christ. Dunamis, is a “mighty work” (“miracles” KJV), which emphasizes the fact that the Lord’s miracles were wrought by supernatural power. Teras is a “wonder” which suggests the effect produced upon the observer. And semeion, “sign,” reflects the concept of a directed focus, i.e., it is intended to point to a greater object beyond itself. All three of these terms are found in Acts 2:22; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; and, Hebrews 2:4. Ultimately all the miracles of Christ, and those of the men supernaturally endowed by him, were to establish the case that he was the promised Christ (the Old Testament “Messiah”), the Son of God (see John 20:30-31).
Miracles were supernatural events that could not be explained in any naturalistic way. Depending upon how the count is made, many scholars catalog the miracles of Jesus at about 35. Of these 23 were healings, 3 involved resurrections from the dead, 3 had to do with supplying food or drink in an extraordinary fashion, 2 were large catches of fish, and 4 were of miscellaneous sorts, e.g., withering a fig tree, walking on water, calming a storm, and obtaining temple-tax money from a fish’s mouth. In addition, it must be noted that these were only samples. In language that obviously is hyperbolic, John says there were a great number of other signs that the Lord performed (see John 21:25).
“Signs” such as these had convinced Nicodemus and some of his companions that Jesus had “come from God.” Even those who remained enemies of the Lord could not resist the impact of the signs he and his men performed (see Matthew 27:42; John 11:47; Acts 4:14-16).
There is one final point that we must make as we conclude this discussion. Christ, in a gentle nudge of the ruler, subsequently asked (with reference to the “new birth” information): “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (v. 10). Of special interest here is the expression “the teacher.” Not just “a teacher” — “the teacher.”
Scholars call attention to the Greek article that qualifies the noun. Professor Daniel Wallace classifies it as a “par excellence” article, i.e., that which reflects “the extreme of a particular class.” If so, this would suggest either that Nicodemus was exceptionally well-known, or perhaps “the number one” teacher within the Jewish community (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, pp. 222-223). Merrill Tenney contended that the article indicates that Nicodemus was “regarded as the outstanding teacher in Israel” (John: The Gospel of Belief, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948, pp. 87-88).
If the greatest scholar among the Jews was convinced of the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, what does that say about the power of the evidence?
There are three portraits of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. In chapter three (vv. 1-2), he is the inquiring scholar. In chapter seven (v. 50), he is the fair-minded judge. Finally, in chapter nineteen (v. 39), he is the devoted disciple. Nicodemus represents the perfect illustration of the growth of faith that John’s narrative is designed to generate in each of us.