Nicodemus is not a particularly popular biblical character. He doesn’t have the familiarity of a Joseph (either one), a Mary (pick any of them), or a Peter. He doesn’t have the infamy of an Ahab, a Nebuchadnezzar, or a Pontius Pilate. By and large, parents do not name their sons Nicodemus. The Social Security website shows that Nicodemus was not among the thousand most popular boy names since the year 2000.
As a biblical figure, Nicodemus is not terribly well known, although his initial appearance in the gospel of John prompts the most famous verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16. And judging from this scene alone, there is little about Nicodemus to inspire much confidence.
In John 3, Nicodemus is identified as a leader of the Jewish people known as the Pharisees. This is notable because, even by this early point in John’s gospel, Jesus is torquing the religious leaders, confusing them with his upending of tables and talk about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, apparently as an opponent.
This reality is heightened with John’s use of his light/darkness motif, since Nicodemus “came to Jesus at night” (3:2). This is a clear indication that Nicodemus doesn’t get it and he is shrouded in a lack of understanding.
This is further borne out in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, as they engage in a conversation that may be even more awkward than when I would try to talk to a girl in junior high. Nicodemus asks Jesus about his miraculous signs and Jesus tells him about being born anew (or born from above, depending on your translation). From there, Nicodemus is stuck pondering the biological implications while Jesus speaks at a different level about the theological implications, never once clarifying his statements to the profoundly confused Nicodemus.
After asking, “How are these things possible?” (3:10), Nicodemus fades into the background as Jesus gets on a roll that culminates with John 3:16. There is no further questioning, no rebuttal, no nothing from Nicodemus. It’s almost as though the shroud of darkness fully envelopes him to the point of disappearing.
And if that were all we heard about him, it would make absolute sense why Nicodemus is neither well-regarded nor popular. There is, however, a through line in John’s gospel involving him. It’s not a prominent theme, but it is significant nonetheless.
Nicodemus doesn’t just fade away, but he shows up again in John 7:45-50. Crowds were following Jesus to hear his teachings and see his signs, which was disturbing to the chief priests and Pharisees. With the rest of the assembly ready to discredit Jesus – or worse – Nicodemus speaks a moderating word: “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” (7:51).
All he does is suggest that Jesus should get a fair shake, according to their laws. Instead of joining in with the indignation and fury of his colleagues, he offers a levelheaded assessment of the situation. Here Nicodemus is simply being fair and calm.
John does not pause to offer any insight into Nicodemus’s journey between John 3 and John 7. What we can surmise is that his encounter at night with Jesus did not cause him to stand in strict opposition to this one who so thoroughly confused and confounded him. Nicodemus, here in John 7, is willing – eager, perhaps? – to give Jesus another hearing.
His suggestion is rebuffed and he winds up accused by the other religious leaders and that’s the last we hear of Nicodemus.
Until after the crucifixion.
In John 19:38-42, he shows up alongside Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. Again, John gives us no clues about what happened to Nicodemus in between. This scene, however, gives a clear picture of a follower of Jesus. One who is even willing to publicly go out on a limb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Nicodemus begins confused in the dark and winds up anointing the body of Jesus, showing that he underwent an incredible journey. He fully and finally comes into the light at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, which shows the power and potency of the cross and message of Christ.
Even though we don’t know all the stops and starts and wrong turns he had along the way, Nicodemus was on a path to faith in Jesus Christ. I’m fairly convinced that his path is pretty recognizable and familiar to many of us, even if Nicodemus himself is not.
The Nicodemus path is not a clear, straight shot, but it is a route and a way to come to believe and embody the very words he heard on that first night with Jesus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.”