The Man Who Came by Night

John 3:1-6

There was a man who was one of the Pharisees who was called Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him: 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do the signs which you do unless God is with him.' Jesus answered him: 'This is the truth I tell you—unless a man is reborn from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus said to him: 'How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter into his mother's womb a second time and be born?' Jesus answered: 'This is the truth I tell you—unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born from the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.' For the most part, we see Jesus surrounded by the ordinary people; but here we see him in contact with one of the aristocracy of Jerusalem. There are certain things that we know about Nicodemus.

(1) Nicodemus must have been wealthy. When Jesus died, Nicodemus brought for his body 'a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds' (John 19:39)—and only a wealthy man could have brought that.

(2) Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In many ways, the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. There were never more than 6,000 of them; they were what was known as a chaburah, or brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.

What exactly did that mean? To the Jews, the law was the most sacred thing in all the world. The law was the first five books of the Old Testament. They believed it to be the perfect word of God. To add one word to it or to take one word away from it was a deadly sin. Now if the law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything that anyone needed to know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it. The law as it stood consisted of great, wide, noble principles which people had to work out for themselves. But, for the later Jews, that was not enough. They said: 'The law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore in the law there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible individual.' So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an infinite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life. In other words, they changed the law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.

The best example of what they did is to be seen in the Sabbath law. In the Bible itself, we are simply told that we must remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and that on that day no work must be done, either by a man or by his servants or his animals. Not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what work is and listing the things that may and may not be done on the Sabbath day. The Mishnah is the codified scribal law. The scribes spent their lives working out these rules and regulations. In the Mishnah, the section on the Sabbath extends to no fewer than twenty-four chapters. The Talmud is the explanatory commentary on the Mishnah, and in the Jerusalem Talmud the section explaining the Sabbath law runs to sixty-four and a half columns; and in the Babylonian Talmud it runs to 156 double folio pages. And we are told about a Rabbi who spent two and a half years in studying one of the twenty-four chapters of the Mishnah.

The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be defined. 'The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.' On the other hand, knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal.

Further, 'a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil'. Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman's girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.

Take the case of making a journey on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 says: 'Each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.' A Sabbath day's journey was therefore limited to 2,000 cubits, that is, 1,000 yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go 1,000 yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go 1,000 yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.

Take the case of carrying a burden. Jeremiah 17:21-24 said: 'For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day.' So a burden had to be defined. It was defined as 'food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve', and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear an artificial leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.

It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them. Obviously, however misguided a man might be, he must be desperately in earnest if he proposed to undertake obedience to every one of the thousands of rules. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. The name Pharisee means the separated one; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and it is astonishing that a man who regarded goodness in that light and who had given himself to that kind of life in the conviction that he was pleasing God should wish to talk to Jesus at all.

(3) Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. The word is arch?n. This is to say that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a court of seventy members and was the supreme court of the Jews. Of course under the Romans its powers were more limited than once they had been; but they were still extensive. In particular the Sanhedrin had religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world; and one of its duties was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet. Again it is amazing that Nicodemus should come to Jesus at all.

(4) It may well be that Nicodemus belonged to a distinguished Jewish family. Way back in 63 bc when the Romans and the Jews had been at war, Aristobulus, the Jewish leader, sent a certain Nicodemus as his ambassador to Pompey, the Roman emperor. Much later in the terrible last days of Jerusalem, the man who negotiated the surrender of the garrison was a certain Gorion, who was the son of either Nicomedes or Nicodemus. It may well be that both these men belonged to the same family as our Nicodemus, and that it was one of the most distinguished families in Jerusalem. If that is true, it is amazing that this Jewish aristocrat should come to this homeless prophet who had been the carpenter of Nazareth, that he might talk to him about his soul. It was by night that Nicodemus came to Jesus. There were probably two reasons for that.

(1) It may have been a sign of caution. Nicodemus quite frankly may not have wished to commit himself by coming to Jesus by day. We must not condemn him. The wonder is that with his background, he came to Jesus at all. It was infinitely better to come at night than not at all. It is a miracle of grace that Nicodemus overcame his prejudices and his upbringing and his whole view of life enough to come to Jesus.

(2) But there may be another reason. The Rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when it could be done undisturbed. Throughout the day, Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may well be that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus. Nicodemus was a puzzled man, a man with many honours and yet with something lacking in his life. He came to Jesus for a talk so that somehow in the darkness of the night he might find light.