As modern Christianity spreads across America, many have become more and more familiar with the Bible and its characters.
There are many stories and parables in the Bible, sometimes for the non-Christian it can be hard to know when these stories are literal or symbolic.
This is exactly what happens to Nicodemus, his conversation with Jesus is one about the literal versus the symbolic that is its own lesson about reading the Bible that we too can learn from.
Through our guide we hope that you can learn not just about the story of Nicodemus but also pick up a few tips on how to read scripture in a helpful way.
Nicodemus is a person in the Bible, his story is told in the gospel of John and forms many of the Christian understandings of rebirth as well as a useful lesson about how to read scripture.
The story of Nicodemus is one of the most pertinent to understanding the Christian religion as we know it today.
The story of Nicodemus also includes one of the most cited and quoted lines in the Bible. Read on to learn more about Nicodemus, rebirth, and Bible readings.
Who Was Nicodemus?
Nicodemus was a Pharisee from the New Testament, a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish Court, but ultimately an uncertain individual who comes to Jesus for clarity and wisdom even though he seems to lead the Pharisees.
For all intensive purposes, and without getting into the specifics of Pharisees, Jews and Christians, Nicodemus is a non-believer. He comes to Jesus as a curious skeptic who wants to learn more about Jesus after respecting his behaviour.
He is mentioned only in the Gospel of John but appears a few times in this Gospel. His position as leader of the Pharisee’s is important to understanding his approach to the conversation he was with Jesus.
The Pharisees are a sect within Judaism, their focus was to keep Jewish ritual and temples pure in order to satisfy God, they followed the teachings of the Torah as well as additional oral traditions that dictated the concept of purity.
They were separate from the Sadducees who were a higher priestly sect, while the Pharisees were mainly working class.
To set the scene, Jesus has just travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. While in Jerusalem we see Jesus in one of his most animated moments.
When he enters a temple to find it being used as a bank, Jesus overturns the tables and expels the money changers and merchants suggesting they have turned the temple of God into “a house of trade”. (John 2:13-16)
As Jesus has walked into the heart of Judaism, Jerusalem, and protected what they hold as sacred, especially the Pharisee’s as I’ve just mentioned, he gathered a lot of interest and respect from the various sects of Judaism.
John’s Gospel reads “many believed in his name when they saw the signs of that he was doing.” (John 2:23) Jesus’ actions represent his unyielding faith and prompts Nicodemus to question this faith.
It is exactly this act of respect and bravery by Jesus that prompts Nicodemus, the leader of the Pharisees, to approach Jesus for counsel whom he describes as ‘a teacher who has come from God’.
To which Jesus replies ‘no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again’ (John 3:3) Thus begins a conversation about the concept of rebirth, where Jesus lays out the Christian concept of rebirth against the literal readings of Nicodemus.
Once Jesus mentions the idea of being born again, Nicodemus literally interprets that as literally coming out the womb again. ‘“How can anyone be born after having grown old?
Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’” This is a literal interpretation of how Jesus is using the term ‘rebirth’, which is rooted in how Nicodemus reads the bible as a Pharisee.
This sort of response is typical even in our modern lives, although we should take a lesson from Jesus that while these words seek to undermine our faith, they are actually an invitation to explore their skepticism.
Jesus’ reply clarifies what he means about rebirth, and thus the Christian concept of rebirth, and involves one of the most important quotes from Jesus in the Bible as Jesus fundamentally explains how a Christian enters the afterlife.
We must understand how Nicodemus understands the concept of rebirth in order to understand Jesus’ response.
As Nicodemus is fundamentally a Jew, but especially a Pharisee, he believes that it is his ‘Jewishness’ or essentially his bloodline that makes him a ‘child of God’. The Jewish religion is somewhat based on the concept that the Jewish people as a nation are the ‘children of God’ as designated by their race.
What Jesus is suggesting is that anyone can become a ‘child of God’ and ‘reborn’ as such if they simply believe in God. This is relatively scandalous to suggest to a Sandherin such as Nicodemus, but it seems Nicodemus heeds Jesus words.
Jesus’ reply to him suggests that if someone simply believes in God and the teachings of the Bible then they will be saved, as God sent his only son to save everyone, not just the Jews. Jesus clarifies :
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe in him are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-19)
Jesus makes it pretty clear here, that those who believe in Jesus’ teachings from God are reborn as children of God and will enter Heaven, whereas those who do not believe are condemned.
This presents a non-invasive ultimatum to the non-believer. While Jesus is providing hope that anyone and everyone has the potential to be saved by simply being reborn as a child of God, this also means that all those who don’t believe are condemned from birth no matter what they do.
This may also be somewhat reassuring to a non-believer, that they had been condemned from birth until they repent their sins to Jesus and God, rather than for actions they had committed in their past.
This concept, that one must believe in the only Son of God in order to be reborn a Christian and saved, is fundamental to modern Christianity.
So, it is no surprise that this small monologue from Jesus is so quoted. Specifically, line 16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.’
What Jesus seems to be referring to with ‘eternal life’ is Heaven itself and is describing how one can reach Heaven.
Perhaps most importantly, it is this discussion with Nicodemus that reveals how Christianity is in fact completely different to all other religions. Most religions involve some requirements of their followers in order to reach ‘salvation’.
A figurative checkbox to tick off throughout your life so you can reach their pre ordained state of ‘saved’. Conversely, what Jesus is suggesting in his discussion with Nicodemus places Christianity uniquely outside all other religions. Jesus is suggesting that no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter what, as long as you give your heart to Jesus and are figuratively ‘reborn’ in Christ, then you will be saved no matter what.
Understanding Nicodemus’ Response
Nicodemus’ literal response has also received some attention from biblical scholars and those who wish to understand the Bible better. While some find that his literal reading is a somewhat ironic/sarcastic remark in order to exclude it, Nicodemus is saving face through sarcasm.
While others find that this may be due to his engrained religious attitudes as a Pharisee.
The Pharisee’s main religious notion was of the purity of Jewish rituals and temples, so the fact that Nicodemus, as a member of the Sanhderin, would still entertain Jesus’ comments is pretty surprising.
This is likely why he gives such an ironic response to Jesus’ mention of rebirth. As he took the word ‘rebirth’ literally, as being born again out of your mothers womb.
Some would say this is purposefully sarcastic as the Pharisees generally have trouble with the teachings of Christianity. While others would suggest that it is a move to save face rather than to incite anger.
What is meant by this, is that Nicodemus is bringing up the literal in order to exclude it. Charles Ellicott, a biblical scholar, suggests that ‘after the method of Rabbinic dialogue, [Nicodemus] presses the impossible meaning of the words in order to exclude it, and to draw forth the true meaning.’
What he means by this is that Nicodemus is protecting himself by attempting to undermine Jesus’ words and thus reaffirm himself as a Pharisee, but in reality it seems that Nicodemus mentions the obvious reading of Jesus’ words so that he can invite Jesus to explain what he means without literally asking him which would suggest Nicodemus is questioning his religion.
Jesus’ response is also somewhat ironic and shows that he sees through Nicodemus’ ploy, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’ (John 3:10) and undermines his comment with another comment on the physical and literal: ‘the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes’ (John 3:8)
Essentially, Nicodemus’ literal comment is a way of protecting his religious beliefs, when we know in reality that Nicodemus wants to hear Jesus out after his actions in the temples of Jerusalem. We are reminded of the Psalm: ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him’ (Psalm 2:12).
What happens to Nicodemus?
This section ends pretty soon after Jesus’ monologue, but Nicodemus is next mentioned only once more in the Bible, after the crucifixion of Jesus when he is finally buried.
We can imagine that Nicodemus has heeded Jesus’ words as he brings a mixture of myrrh and aloe to Jesus’ burial.
These are tools of embalming, and embalming is generally against Jewish tradition which suggests that Nicodeums has potentially become a Christian.
The legacy of Nicodemus
As this passage, John chapter 3, is so famous for Jesus’ words, Nicodemus has too gained some recognition for his role in this chapter.
During the struggle between the Protestants and Catholics, the term ‘Nicodemite’ was introduced to describe a person who misrepresents their religious views to the public and conceals their true religious belief.
This is best understood in the modern term ‘two faced’, and refers back to what we just talked about, how Nicodemus is twisting his words in order to represent one thing but ultimately encourage a certain line of questioning.
The term was apparently first used by John Calvin, the harbinger of Calvinism, who opposed the veneration of saints. He specifically seemed to dislike Nicodemus, as outlined in his 1544 text Excuse á messieurs les Nicodemites whereby Calvin argues that Nicodemus’ instamentent as a saint is the perfect example of Catholic exoneration which ignores the ‘duplicity’ of Nicodemus who Calvin believed was in fact a traitor to his religion.
Comparatively, Nicodemus is often seen as a character of skepticism. As he is so guarded with his words, but also genuinely interested to speak to Jesus, he represents many skeptics of Christiantiy.
Thus, this story is often used to show how to ‘deal with’ skeptics who won’t admit their genuine interest.
Moreover, Nicodemus is also a representation and symbol of rebirth for many Christians. Specifically, African Americans after the emancipation of slaves find a lot of solace in the story of Nicodemus.
In this period of post-slavery many were introduced to Christianity during their times as slaves and appreciate this idea of rebirth Nicodemus is model of rebirth for those who want to abandon their previous identity and be born again in Christianity, especialy African Americans who wanted to abandon their identity as slaves and embrace the hope that Jesus words offer them.
In Kansas there is a town named ‘Nicodemus’. Some believe that this was named by the freed slaves who populated the area post-slavery, the town remains largely black even to this day.
What’s more, Martin Luther King Jr. invokes the story of Nicodemus in his 1967 speech ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ as a metaphor to understand that America must be born again in order to address the social oppression of race.
Nicodemus earned the title as the patron saint of curiosity in some chatholic schools of thought. Nicodemus has been depicted throughout history in Art as a symbol of the skeptic and of curiosity.
In the 2017 series ‘The Chosen’, Nicodemus is depicted by Erick Avari in a series that adapts biblical stories into a TV series about the life of Jesus Christ.
In The Chosen they recreate the story of Nicodemus in a scene which takes directly from the gospel of John.
Conclusion: What can we learn from the story of Nicodemus?
The story of Nicodemus is one of redemption, skepticism, and ultimately one that epitomises the Christian notion of ‘rebirth’.
For those who remain skeptical about religion, they can find comfort in the story of Nicodemus and the understanding nature with which Jesus addresses him. He is not shunned for his lack of faith, but is instead embraced by Jesus. Comparatively, as believers we can find a lesson in the behaviour of Jesus.
The way Jesus acts towards Nicodemus is a perfect example of how to approach skepticism as a believer. One can simply explain rather than undermine, as believers we don’t gain anything but resentment from shunning others.
Principally, Jesus gains trust from the skeptic due to his actions in the temple, we should recognise that it is our behaviour and how we treat others that will make skseptics feel comfortable talking to us.
For those who have a past with another religion, or simply a past they want to reject in favor of God, can also find solace in the story of Nicodemus. That it’s okay to be wrong, to be skeptical, and ultimately to question your religion as it can make you stronger spiritually.
The biggest take home from the story of Nicodemus is the notion of Christian rebirth. There is a reason this is one of the most quoted parts of the Bible, as it fundamentally explains one of the biggest tenements of the Christian religion.
In its simplest form, this story is about how Jesus explains to a skeptic why they should be a Christian and outlines the basic idea of Christianity in a short but contextually nuanced story.
For those who enjoy this narrative of redemption and rebirth, this is one of the most potent examples of skeptic to believer.
Frequently Asked Questions
Was Nicodemus a real person?
We’d like to think so, but there may also be some records of Nicodemus potentially being a historical figure. Some speculate he was identical to a historically recorded figure named Nicodemus ben Gurion who was a wealthy Jewish man who lived in Israel around this period.
We know the biblical Nicodemus was wealthy also due to his burial gifts to Jesus which would have been greatly expensive at the time.
Although some suggest the time periods are slightly out of kilter as Nicodemus ben Gurion would have been around 40 years later during the Jewish War.
Was Nicodemus a Jew?
Technically, yes. Nicodemus is more specifically a Pharisee which is a religious sect within Judaism. They follow scripture and Jewish laws to a t.
The Pharisee essentially added thousands of laws to the already large existing rules of Judaism, believing that this would bring them closer to God.
It seems that Nicodemus’ approach to Jesus’ words is ingrained in his literal readings of law as Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, who rule in the Jewish courts.