“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”
In John 3 we meet a man named Nicodemus. We see him first coming to Jesus by night. In fact, this act alone defined his character throughout his life in Scripture. For example, John 7:50 states, “Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them…” and again in John 19:39, “and Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds.”
As Lazarus was known for the rest of his life by the act of grace Jesus bestowed on him by raising him from the dead (John 12:1, 9), so Nicodemus was known as the one who came to Jesus at night. Under the cover of darkness. In secret.
So who was this Nicodemus and what was his relationship with Jesus?
John 3:1 tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. Nicodemus was a common name in Jesus’ day and means “victor among the people or one who has won distinction among the people.”1 He was a Pharisee, a member of an elite religious party that strictly adhered to the letter of the Law and believed both the written and oral traditions were the same and of equal value. It also states that he was a “ruler of the Jews” which meant he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing council of Israel. Tradition held that the Sanhedrin was limited to 70 members much like our Senate is limited to 100. Thus, Nicodemus was one of the most important religious and, in the time of Jesus, political leaders in Israel.
To further emphasize Nicodemus’ position, Jesus called him “the” teacher of Israel and not “a” teacher (John 3:10) indicating that he was one of just a few who held such a lofty position in the eyes of the people. It would be like Billy Graham, once elected to the Senate, came to Jesus to ask Him a Biblical question as both a Senator and an evangelist.
When we examine the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus we see that, like most of us, Nicodemus saw life in only two dimensions, flat, limited, finite— while Jesus understood not only this life we can taste, touch and feel, but also the life to come. Nicodemus was dealing with the here and now, the black and white, the simple, observable, measurable, while Jesus was living in HD, full color, 1080p, surround-sound.
The exchange between a ruler of Jews and the Ruler of the Universe centered around salvation, regeneration, sacrifice, truth, love, the coming Kingdom, and the crucifixion of the Son of God. Jesus spoke of the things He knew:
“Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:1).
“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
“No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:13-15).
But to Nicodemus, these words where difficult to understand, yet alone, believe.
But believe he did.
At some point in time, and John does not tell us when, Nicodemus came to faith in Christ. How do we know this? We see our first glimpse in John 7:50 where Nicodemus offers a small defense of Jesus to his fellow members of the Sanhedrin who were demanding his death. He says, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” Needless to say, his words were not heeded and we have no record of Nicodemus saying more.
Then, after Jesus’ death, we see Nicodemus and a man named Joseph of Arimathea, coming and preparing Jesus’ body for burial. John 19:38-40 states:
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.
And after this, there is nothing more said about Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the ruler of the Jews, who had risked everything to take care of the body of his dead master. Nothing. It is like his life after this event faded into obscurity. Did you ever wonder why?
Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four Gospels but only in the accounts of Jesus’ burial. He was rich (Matt. 27:57), a prominent member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43), who had not agreed with its decision to condemn Jesus (Luke 23:51). Joseph was a good and righteous man (Luke 23:50), who was waiting for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43). He was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57), although a secret one for fear of the Jews.2 Even though John usually presented “secret disciples of Jesus” in a negative light (John. 12:42-43), he, and the other Gospel writers, seem to commend Joseph’s actions in requesting from Pilate the body of Jesus to bury in his own tomb (Matt. 27:60).
After overcoming the crippling fear of losing his position and prestige as a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph emerged from the shadows into the light and publically proclaimed his loyalty to Jesus. At last, Joseph stood for the Lord.
And after the burial of Jesus, just like Nicodemus, he drifts off into obscurity never to be heard of again.
What happened to these two men? Did they follow Jesus and become part of the upper room 120 who were filled with Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1)? Or did they go back to their jobs and spend their lives debating with other members of the Sanhedrin about “what to do with these Christians?” (Acts 4:16) Logically it would seem their lives had to follow one of these two paths. Either they forsook all and followed the Lord seeking to bring others into His Kingdom or they would withdraw back into their prior lives hoping the story of Jesus would just go away. Maybe they wanted to become “secret disciples” once again even though their “secret” was out and known to all.
We don’t know what happened to these two men. The Scriptures are silent regarding them. If, however, they played a great part in the founding of the church at Jerusalem, like Peter and James, it seems Luke would have recorded that fact in the Acts of the Apostles. But he didn’t.
The sad part of their story is that they could possibly have become like us. Jesus begins His encounter with Nicodemus in John 3. But John 2 ends this way: “But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). Seems that Jesus was warning about casual, non-committed followers or half-hearted disciples. A lukewarm church (Rev. 3:16).
Maybe they became just like us.
Think about it. We have experienced the resurrection of Jesus and the proof that we are now children of God and join-heirs with Him (Romans 8:16-17). We know He is the Lord and He has disarmed both Satan and death by defeating both and leaving an empty tomb as confirmation of His, and our, victory (1 Cor. 15:55-57). Jesus came to destroy the works of Satan (1 John 3:8) and made a public display of His triumph over them (Col. 2:15) and we, by virtue of divine regeneration through salvation, have become the recipient of that great gift of grace (Eph. 2:8).
Yes, we know all this is true and we know we are now seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:6). But has that fact prompted us to a life of reckless abandon to Him? Have we forsaken all and followed Jesus? Has the resurrection of our Lord transformed our love and affection from a two dimensional life in this world into life everlasting with Him?
Paul says of our Lord in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Did you get that? Jesus is able to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.” That means He is willing and able to exceed what we have the faith to ask for or even imagine in our minds. He is, after all, God. And He lives in each of us.
This Easter, commit your life and thoughts and dreams to Him who can do far beyond what we can possibly imagine. Do not, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, fall back and fade into obscurity regarding the moving of God and remain satisfied with the trinkets and toys this world offers and neglect the “riches in heaven” prepared for you, the “abundant life” our Lord promised (John 10:10). Look around you and see the mission field God has place you in and begin today, on Easter, to faithfully serve Him who gave His life for you (Matt. 20:28).
And remember the words of William Carey:
“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”
1. Zodhiates, S. (2000). The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
2. MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (p. 366). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.