The Night VisitorVol. 25 No. 2 | Jan-Fab 2015
A Jewish ruler came secretly one night to learn the way of life from the lowly Teacher of Galilee.
[This story is based on John 3:1–17.]
Nicodemus was a highly educated and honored member of the Jewish national council. He had been stirred by Jesus’ teaching. The lessons that had fallen from the Savior’s lips had greatly impressed him, and he desired to learn more of these wonderful truths.
Nicodemus anxiously studied the prophecies relating to the Messiah; and the more he searched, the stronger was his conviction that this was the promised One. With many others in Israel he had been greatly distressed by the profanation of the temple. He was a witness when Jesus drove out the buyers and the sellers; he beheld the wonderful manifestation of divine power; he saw the Savior receiving the poor and healing the sick; he saw their looks of joy and heard their words of praise; and he could not doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the Sent of God.
He greatly desired an interview with Jesus, but shrank from seeking Him openly. It would be too humiliating for a ruler of the Jews to sympathize with a teacher as yet so little known. And should his visit come to the knowledge of the Sanhedrin, it would draw upon him their scorn and denunciation. Learning by special inquiry of the Savior’s place of retirement in the Mount of Olives, he waited until the city was hushed in slumber, and then sought Him.
A SECRET MEETING
In the presence of Christ, Nicodemus felt a strange timidity, which he endeavored to conceal under an air of composure and dignity. “Rabbi,” he said, “we know that Thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles…except God be with him.” His words were designed to express confidence; but they really expressed unbelief. He did not acknowledge Jesus to be the Messiah, but only a teacher sent from God.
Jesus bent His eyes upon the speaker, as if reading his very soul. In His infinite wisdom He saw before Him a seeker after truth. He knew the object of this visit, and with a desire to deepen the conviction already resting upon His listener’s mind, He came directly to the point, saying solemnly, yet kindly, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3, margin.
The figure of the new birth was not wholly unfamiliar to Nicodemus. Converts to the faith of Israel were often compared to newborn children. But by virtue of his birth as an Israelite he felt that he needed no change and was irritated by this close application to himself. The pride of the Pharisee was struggling against the honest desire of the seeker after truth.
Nicodemus had heard the preaching of John the Baptist concerning repentance and baptism, and of One who should baptize with the Holy Spirit. He himself had felt a lack of spirituality among the Jews, that, to a great degree, they were controlled by bigotry and worldly ambition. He had hoped for a better state of things at the Messiah’s coming. Yet the heart-searching message of the Baptist had failed to work in him conviction of sin. He was a strict Pharisee, widely esteemed for his benevolence and liberality in sustaining the temple service, and he felt secure of the favor of God. He was startled at the thought of a kingdom too pure for him in his present state.
Surprised out of his self-possession, he answered Christ in words full of irony, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Like many others when cutting truth is brought home to the conscience, he revealed the fact that the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God. There is in him nothing that responds to spiritual things; for spiritual things are spiritually discerned.
After his visit, Nicodemus did not openly acknowledge Christ, but he watched His life, and pondered His teachings.
YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN
But the Savior did not meet argument with argument. Raising His hand with solemn, quiet dignity, He pressed the truth home with greater assurance, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knew that Christ here referred to water baptism and the renewing of the heart by the Spirit of God. He was convinced that he was in the presence of the One whom John the Baptist had foretold.
Jesus continued: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” By nature the heart is evil. No human invention can find a remedy for the sinning soul. “The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” Romans 8:7. Nor is there safety for one who has merely a legal religion, a form of godliness. The Christian’s life is not a modification or improvement of the old, but a transformation of nature. There is a death to self and sin, and a new life altogether. This change can be brought about only by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus was still perplexed, and Jesus used the wind to illustrate His meaning: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.”
By an agency as unseen as the wind, Christ is constantly working upon the heart. Little by little, perhaps unconsciously to the receiver, impressions are made that tend to draw the soul to Christ. These may be received through meditating upon Him, through reading the Scriptures, or through hearing the word from the living preacher. Suddenly, as the Spirit comes with more direct appeal, the soul gladly surrenders itself to Jesus. By many this is called sudden conversion; but it is the result of long wooing by the Spirit of God.
It is impossible for finite minds to comprehend the work of redemption. Its mystery exceeds human knowledge; yet he who passes from death to life realizes that it is a divine reality.
While Jesus was speaking, some gleams of truth penetrated the ruler’s mind. The softening, subduing influence of the Holy Spirit impressed his heart. Yet he did not fully understand the Savior’s words. He said wonderingly, “How can these things be?”
“Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” Jesus asked. Yet Christ spoke with such solemn dignity, and both look and tone expressed such earnest love, that Nicodemus was not offended as he realized his humiliating condition.
The Jews whom Jesus had driven from the temple claimed to be children of Abraham, but they fled from the Savior’s presence because they could not endure the glory of God manifested in Him. They were zealous to maintain an appearance of holiness, but they neglected holiness of heart. Their great need was that very change which Christ had been explaining to Nicodemus—a new moral birth, a cleansing from sin, and a renewing of knowledge and holiness.
There was no excuse for the blindness of Israel in regard to the work of regeneration. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David had prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” And through Ezekiel the promise had been given, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes.” Psalm 51:10; Ezekiel 36:26, 27.
Nicodemus had read these scriptures with a clouded mind; but he now began to comprehend their meaning. He saw that the most rigid obedience to the mere letter of the law as applied to the outward life could entitle no man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. In the estimation of men, his life had been just and honorable; but in the presence of Christ he felt that his heart was unclean, and his life unholy.
As Jesus hung from the cross, light from that secret interview illumined Nicodemus’ mind and he believed in Jesus as the world’s Redeemer.
THE SON MUST BE LIFTED UP
Nicodemus was being drawn to Christ. As the Savior explained to him concerning the new birth, he longed to have this change wrought in himself. By what means could it be accomplished? Jesus answered the unspoken question: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Here was ground with which Nicodemus was familiar. The symbol of the uplifted serpent made plain to him the Savior’s mission. Many of the Israelites regarded the sacrificial service as having in itself virtue to set them free from sin. God desired to teach them that it had no more value than that serpent of brass. It was to lead their minds to the Savior. Whether for the healing of their wounds or the pardon of their sins, they could do nothing for themselves but show their faith in the Gift of God. They were to look and live.
In the interview with Nicodemus, Jesus unfolded the plan of salvation and His mission to the world. In none of His subsequent discourses did He explain so fully, step by step, the work necessary to be done in the hearts of all who would inherit the kingdom of Heaven. At the very beginning of His ministry He opened the truth to a member of the Sanhedrin, to the mind that was most receptive, and to an appointed teacher of the people. Nicodemus hid the truth in his heart, and for three years there was little apparent fruit.
But Jesus was acquainted with the soil into which He cast the seed. The words spoken at night to one listener in the lonely mountain were not lost. For a time, Nicodemus did not publicly acknowledge Christ, but he watched His life and pondered His teachings. In the Sanhedrin council he repeatedly thwarted the schemes of the priests to destroy Him. When at last Jesus was lifted up on the cross, Nicodemus remembered the teaching upon Olivet: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” The light from that secret interview illumined the cross upon Calvary, and Nicodemus saw in Jesus the world’s Redeemer.
After the Lord’s ascension, when the disciples were scattered by persecution, Nicodemus came boldly to the front. He employed his wealth in sustaining the infant church that the Jews had expected to be blotted out at the death of Christ. In the time of peril, he who had been so cautious and questioning was firm as a rock, encouraging the faith of the disciples and furnishing means to carry forward the work of the gospel. He was scorned and persecuted by those who had paid him reverence in other days. He became poor in this world’s goods, yet he faltered not in the faith which had its beginning in that night conference with Jesus.
Adapted from The Desire of Ages, “Nicodemus.”
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