Nicodemus, the “Almost” Man

Nicodemus has always been one of the Biblical characters that intrigued me. Like several others, we know very little about him. He shows up in the gospel of John and then we never hear anything else about him. We can draw some conclusions about him from those appearances in the gospels, but the burning question- did he ever become a follower of Jesus- is left unanswered.

Nicodemus is first seen in John 3, meeting with Jesus under cover of darkness and indicating more than just an interest in seeking something which the Pharisees could use as an indictment against him. I’ve always wanted to know why. What prompted Nicodemus to seek out Jesus, even clandestinely? Referring back to a well-done television series The Chosen which I mentioned in a previous post, the producers present an interesting interpretation of Nicodemus based on scriptures, which is speculative but consistent with what’s written.

Nicodemus obviously knew Jesus by reputation; being a Pharisee, he would have at least heard the stories of his healing and teaching. But The Chosen sets up a possible scenario; it suggested that Nicodemus had experienced some of those miracles first-hand or very closely second-hand. He knew more about Jesus than just the local gossip and stories. He had seen something that made him want to know more.

There are some things about Nicodemus which are admirable. Although he was a teacher of Israel he was intellectually honest enough to personally investigate whether Jesus was who he said he was. He was seeking the promised Messiah, and was open to studying the Old Testament prophecies about him no matter where they might lead. Nicodemus was willing to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt and trust God to reveal the truth, and in the end demonstrated a respect for him by assisting Joseph of Arimathea with the initial burial preparations after Jesus’ crucifixion, whether or not he actually believed him to be the Messiah.

I have no familiarity with what tradition might say about Nicodemus. I’d like to believe he finally became a follower of Jesus although the Bible never gives any indication he did. In a poignant and heartbreaking scene in The Chosen, Jesus calls on Nicodemus to follow him. As Jesus is gathering his disciples to begin a journey that would lead them through Samaria, it shows the Master waiting and the disciples questioning the delay. A bag full of gold coins appears, and the camera shows a visibly saddened Jesus who tells his followers, “he’s not coming”. The camera pulls back to show a broken hearted Nicodemus sobbing uncontrollably. He was invited to follow Jesus, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

You see, Nicodemus had a problem. He was a Pharisee. More than that, he was a highly respected teacher of the Pharisees. He was expected to uphold not only the law but the traditions. His students hung on his every word. He had status, and with that status came expectations. Expectation that he would vigorously defend the law as interpreted by the man-made addendums known as the tradition of the elders. And those traditions had no room for a Messiah like Jesus. They also had no explanation for his teachings and miracles, but Nicodemus wanted one, needed one. So he began to think outside the box as it were. Which was dangerous, because it challenged conventional thinking  and risked his loss of status and all the perks that accompanied it.

Jesus taught that anyone who wished to follow him must “count the cost”. He continued on further to say, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and the gospel will save it. For what does it benefit someone to gain the whole world and yet lose his life?” (Mark 8:34–36). Nicodemus counted the cost, and in the end decided that status trumped discipleship. He came so close to the truth but missed it, and as the saying goes, ‘a miss is as good as a mile’.

Nicodemus is a cautionary tale. It’s not enough just to be interested in Jesus, or treat him as an intellectual discussion. It’s not enough to follow him on the periphery when it’s convenient or advantageous for us. It’s not even enough to say we’re Christians. The proof is in the heart. When Jesus calls us to follow him, it means we give up everything else and do exactly that. Jesus has the right to claim such exclusive lordship, because he gave everything to purchase our reconciliation: His life, every drop of his blood, his heavenly authority in order to be born as a flesh and blood man. Our giving anything less than complete surrender and obedience is unacceptable, even a disgrace and an insult.

Don’t be an “almost” Christian. Don’t let your commitment to our Lord be halfhearted. Surrender yourself completely to Jesus, give him all of yourself and let him determine his purpose for you. And if you haven’t made the commitment to Christ in the first place, don’t ‘almost’ come to Him and then turn away. It breaks His heart, it breaks ours who care about you, and in the end it will break yours when you hear the words, “Depart from me; I never knew you.